Wrath Is Way Underrated

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6:9-17

Part 14 (6:1-8)  ΑΩ  Part 16 (7:1-8) →

I love the board game Risk.

If you’re not familiar with the game, it was created by a Frenchman a little over 50 years ago, originally as a game called La Conquête du Monde (“The Conquest of the World”). No doubt the frenchie was a little nostalgic for the glory days of Napoleon and French world dominance. And, to be sure, La Conquête du Monde is infinitely better than “Risk.” Because, after all, the game is entirely about conquering the world. Sure, “risk” is a big part of the strategy of the game, but calling the game that is a bit like calling the game of basketball “Dribble” instead.

There’s really only two ways the game of Risk can end.

First, one player can eradicate the armies of all his (or her) opponents, thus completing his conquest of the world. That’s the most common way for a game to end. The other way it can end is when a player, irate over the decimation of his armies and disgruntled over a broken alliance on which he relied too heavily, that instead turned on him and hastened his demise, kicks over the board in the ultimate act of Risk jihad: “I’m as good as dead and mad as hell, so I’m taking all you jerks and your armies with me.”

It happens. I’ve seen it. After all, it’s La Conquête du Monde. It’s war, and things get messy in war. Especially when there’s also queso dip on the table.

As Revelation 6 continues, things appear to be growing bleak for God and his people. The four horsemen of verses 2-8 are wreaking havoc all over the globe, bringing conquest and tyranny, war, famine, poverty and death—all of the basic ills that continue to plague humanity to this day. Furthermore, we’re told, that it’s not going to end until a certain number of believers have been killed for their faith.

The faithful cry out to God: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?!” (v. 10). God’s perhaps less-than-fully-comforting response is to tell them to “wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, [are] killed just as they had been” (v. 11).

Tumultuous times and earth-shattering events are witnessed as the sixth seal is opened. John chooses the language of earthquakes and the moon turning blood red, stars falling and heaven and earth being rolled up like a scroll. As always, it’s important to remember that John is employing rich, symbolic imagery. As N.T. Wright observes,

“In the Old Testament, language about the sun turning black and the moon becoming like blood, the stars falling from heaven, and so on, was regularly employed as a way of speaking about what we would call ‘earth-shattering events’—not at all meaning actual earthquakes, but rather tumultuous events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the smashing of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001: events for which it is hard to find appropriate language except through vivid symbol and metaphor” (Revelation for Everyone, 66).

Obviously, the sun isn’t really turning black and the heavens aren’t really being rolled up, or this would be the end of the book. There would be no place for the rest of the story to unfold.

The point is that just when you thought the situation on the world stage couldn’t have gotten any messier or grown any more bleak, it does just that. Persecution, martyrdom, famine, war and death reach epidemic levels.

And the people of God cry out, wondering why God hasn’t just gotten up and kicked the board over.

After all, he did it in the days of Noah, right? Game over? Let’s start a new one? Clearly this one is lost. I mean… Look around.

But God is playing the long game. The enemy has made a mess of the board, strewing armies all over the map. But God has Alaska, Argentina and Greenland locked up (translation for non-Risk players: It doesn’t look like he’s winning, but he’s in a position of power). He is waiting for evil to do its worst, to display to the world fully the ugliness and bankruptcy of its self-centeredness and rebellion against its rightful king. Only then will his armies come flooding into the world, bringing God’s wrath to every corner:

“Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their  wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Rev. 6:15-17).

“Wrath?… You mean justice and love and mercy and goodness, right? Wrath is such an ugly word. Would a loving God really be wrathful?”

Wrath is very misunderstood and completely underrated. Wrath is the supreme expression of the love of God in this context. God’s wrath is the eradication of injustice, corruption, of abuse, of poverty, neglect, hate, greed, pride, conquest, war and death. God’s wrath means the end of evil. There couldn’t possibly be a higher expression of God’s love for his people and his creation than wrath in this case.

It isn’t cruel to eradicate cancer cells. It’s loving. It’s good. It’s painful and ugly and never something one would choose—we could wish the body never got cancer to begin with. But it has. And cancer’s eradication is ultimately for the flourishing and renewal and life of the body.

In the same way, God’s coming wrath is not to be feared by his people. It isn’t an occasion in which he sets aside his love for a moment in order to loathingly do what has to be done. God’s wrath is an overwhelmingly benevolenteven violent outpouring of his love. It is to be celebrated and invited as the deeply loving act that will, at last, signal the defeat of evil and the death of death; the dawn of worldwide human flourishing and global joy.

Advertisements

Hitting the Bottom

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6:1-8

Part 13 (5:8-14)  ΑΩ  Part 15 (6:9-17) →

Sometimes the best way to rescue someone is first to let them hit the bottom.

God is always willing to teach us things the easy way. Unfortunately, we’re not always willing to learn them the easy way. But just because we’re not willing to learn them doesn’t mean God is going to stop teaching them. He can’t. He’s too good a father. He loves us too much. And good and loving fathers don’t stop teaching their children when they refuse to listen. They keep teaching it. But they do it with a wooden spoon in hand.

Because I’m not a very good kid, I’ve learned most of the most important lessons of my life the hard way. But as a result of learning them I have a deeper sense of my sonship to the Father than I’ve ever had, and feel recreated, renovated and redeemed.

God is and will do the same thing for his creation.

Revelation 6:1-7 is about God giving his creation over to itself. He’s letting it have its own way. As Paul says, he “gave them over” to their sinful desires (Rom. 1:24). He’s allowing the fallen world to do what it does best: conquest, war, famine and death.

As Revelation 6 opens, the seals of God’s scroll—his battle plan for the defeat of evil and blueprint for the resurrection of the world—begin to be broken. One after another they are broken by the Lion-Lamb—the General/Architect—as he prepares to unfurl the scroll and make war on everything that has marred his world, and then to resurrect and renovate it. The moment the entire creation has been waiting and longing for (cf. Rom 8:22) is arriving, but as it waits, the fallen world is allowed to hit the bottom so that it can learn the hard way what it refused to learn the easy way.

The white horse (v. 2) represents the constant power-lust and greed to which the world has been subject since Cain killed his brother. The Akkaidians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, Rome, the Arabs, the Mongols, Britain, Nazi Germany, the United States… There has never been a time in the history of the world when a dominant power was not attempting to extend its domination through military, economic and/or cultural power. The red horse (v. 4) follows close behind, representing the incessant war that has plagued the globe in every age.

The black horse signifies the economic corruption that is so often found at the root of conquest and war between nations and peoples. A voice shouts,

“Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, but do not damage the oil and the wine!” (v. 6)

In other words, ordinary, necessary goods and services skyrocket in price, while luxury items hold steady, allowing the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor.

Finally, the pale horse and Death, its rider, emerges with Hades, the personification of the abode of the dead, in tow. These are the ultimate threats of every conqueror, every despot, every tyrant. No age has had a shortage of dealers of death, and ours is no exception. In fact it may be the worst. It’s well known, for example, that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined.

For a very long time, God has been teaching humanity the hard way what comes of rebellion, corruption and pride. We are refusing to listen. But God loves his creation too much to stop teaching.

N.T. Wright comments,

“For too long [the church has] healed the wounds of the human race lightly, declaring ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace except at a superficial level. We have been unwilling to look below the surface and see the dark forces at work. But if God’s new creation is to be brought to birth, the deepest ills of the old one must be exposed, allowed to come out, and be dealt with.” (Revelation for Everyone, 62).

The fallen world is still falling. It will hit the bottom. Pride, greed, war and conquest will continue to mar the beautiful face of Creation. And that’s certainly not what we want to hear. We don’t want to wait any longer. We cry, “Maranatha! Come soon!”

And he will.

The seals are being broken. The scroll is opening even now. We have begun to anticipate his coming by living as though the new heaven and new earth have already dawned. We have begun to anticipate it by loving, serving, speaking truth, becoming self-sacrificial, declaring the gospel, binding up broken hearts, working with integrity, healing the hurting, making peace, confronting deception and injustice, and in all ways exemplifying the life of God’s new world until the scroll is unfurled, evil is destroyed forever, and God’s Kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

HEY EVERYBODY: Try To Be Nice

Have you ever noticed that I, Steve Goold the Dos, am listed as a contributing author to this blog? But I stopped contributing a while ago. Isn’t that weird? Boy. So weird.

The situation is thus: I had a series of posts about my year-long Bible reading thing (which I still do) and I got behind on the posts (not the readings, just the posts) and then I felt like I couldn’t post anything else on the blog until I finished the series (and I still haven’t finished it) and now I don’t want to finish the series at all (because I so massively dropped the ball on it).

SOOOOO… Bryan, I am sorry to massively drop the ball. Is it ok if I just post on other topics now instead of finishing the year-long Bible series? I’m not going to wait for you to respond. I’m just gonna start posting about other stuff and I probably won’t finish the year-long series.

What I want to say in this post is simple and basic and easy and not new and doesn’t need a long explanation, so I’ll just post it and that will be that. Easy. (But I like long explanations so things might go that direction.)

Here we go.

There is a way to make a point while also taking a shot at someone, and then there is a way to make a point without taking the shot. There is a way to communicate a truth while also being snide and condescending, and then there’s a way to communicate the same truth without being snide or condescending. One can express a viewpoint or perspective in a demeaning or insulting way, or one can express themselves in a respectful way.

My suggestion: We – the people of God, the followers of Jesus, the messengers of the Kingdom, those who are charged with making disciples of all the nations – we should diligently choose the latter options listed above rather than the former.

That’s it.

The rest of the post is the part where I do the long explanation thing, so bail out now if that’s something you’re not interested in.

At the Goold house we don’t allow Betty (age 8) and Suzy (age 4) to watch the modern Disney shows. This is frustrating to my kids because the shows are funny and fun to watch, but our house rule exists because the nature of the comedy is so disrespectful. All of the characters constantly speak to one another in very sarcastic and mocking ways, and the studio audience laughs and so do I. Being unkind is funny in these sitcoms, and that’s not a concept that I want my kids soaking up.

Because it’s not true. Being unkind is not, in the end, funny. It’s hurtful and unhelpful and unnecessary. At least I have observed this to be the case.

I have also observed, over recent years, that being unkind for comedic purposes has reached an almost epidemic level in our culture. Making a point while simultaneously making a joke at someone’s expense is now the standard currency of discussion/debate, and this seems to be especially the case in the blogging and social networking worlds. I imagine this is so because of the pronounced instinct (that we all feel) to “win” a discussion/debate, combined with the instinct to cheer for our fellow “teammates” when they are “winning” a discussion/debate. Verbally stabbing one’s “opponent” while also getting a laugh from potential onlookers is perceived as a way to gain more points in the discussion/debate “contest.” And then this phenomenon also applies outside of discussions/debates, spilling into situations like under-my-breath comments while waiting in line for an extra slow gas station clerk, a sharp exchange with an airline representative during a disagreement on baggage fees, or lashing out at a traffic officer during a busy rush hour.

I’m as guilty as anyone. There is a particularly pleasing sensation that accompanies delivering a verbal kick-in-the-teeth to my discussion/debate “adversary.” I know this sensation well. When I’m tempted to try this, and then find myself succeeding, it usually makes me want to do it again. And the onlookers cheer and laugh and pat me on the back, which makes me want to do it yet again.

But I don’t think I have biblical permission to do this. (Sidenote: Do I? Is there a biblical precedent one way or the other on this issue? Those aren’t rhetorical questions. Chime in on the comments if you think there’s something in God’s Word to bring to bear here.)

I mean, we are talking about people here. They have feelings. Their Creator loves them. And we, as followers of Jesus, are told to love them too.

Then there’s the angle of effectiveness to consider. A personal attack is the easiest thing to be dismissive toward. I mean, right? Haven’t we all seen it to be true that disrespectful and demeaning tones cause the person I’m talking with to immediately become defensive and argumentative? I want the folks I’m talking with to hear what I have to say. I actually want to make a point. Or… do I? I admit that, for me, sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes I don’t want to love people, and I don’t want to make a point. Instead I just want to “win.”

Let me be clear as to what I’m talking about right now and what I’m NOT talking about. I can and should represent my beliefs and my convictions. I can and should speak what I know to be truth into social situations that are suffering from a lack of moral compass. I can and should disagree with someone who engages me in a conversation about sin or scripture or doctrine (or anything else) and puts forth a perspective that I feel is incorrect or misleading. And… I can and I should do all of these things without the common point-making tools of crassness, personal attacks, mockery, belittling, condescension, or sarcasm. 

Nothing is lost in my argument if I present my argument in a loving way. Nothing is sacrificed in my logic if I lay out my logic in a loving way. Nothing in my point will be missed, nothing in my assertion will be weak, and nothing in my message will be lost. I can and I should handle myself in a loving way, and there is no downside when I do (that I’m aware of).

Some context: This stuff has been on my mind for a while now, but I’m taking the time to write this post today because of some internet articles I just read. Good articles. I’m not going to name names, but these are good articles written by good people who have good things to say. And then they say it with words that cut and stab instead of words that convince and persuade.

Whaaaaaat a bummer.

I mean, Internet articles really are a big thing right now – maybe even the primary platform for the market of ideas. And I want to have my mind affected by the thoughts and messages of these godly and wise bloggers/authors/thinkers! I want to read these articles and benefit from their content, which is I’m sure what the authors also want. But I find more disrespectful joking and jabbing than any Disney show, and I do not want to be influenced by that. I very strongly do not wish to further sharpen my already innate instinct to use low blows as a means of “winning.”

And then the harsh words make me lose respect for the authors. Shoot. I don’t want that to happen! Ummm… let’s quick just all agree to not do that. Don’t lose respect for good people with good things to say just because they choose to use low blows in their speech. “He who is without sin…” right?

Blah blah blah Steve… why don’t you say something about how we can make the situation better instead of just complaining about the articles/authors that you’re not even naming? Ok.

My suggestion: Every time you read a Facebook article or blog post or whatever (including this one or anything else), try to detect any and all harshness or meanness or rudeness or unkindness or lack of love. Then, try to imagine a way to make the same points but without all of that negative stuff. And resist the instinct to lose respect for the authors while you do this.

When I follow my suggestion here a couple cool things happen. The concepts/ideas that I’m reading about tend to solidify in my mind in a more convincing yet less aggressive way, which feels really productive. And this habit also sharpens my ability to detect unnecessary negativity, which is a microscope I can turn back around to myself and my own conversations. So far it’s working pretty well for me, I think. But I suppose I should let others determine that. 🙂

John 13:35, ya’ll. Thanks for reading.

The Center of the Gospel: Cross or Kingdom?

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5:8-14

Part 12 (5:1-7)  ΑΩ  Part 14 (6:1-8) →

Have you seen the musical Wicked? How about Blue Man Group?

I know there are people out there who are fanatical about Wicked. In fact, it seems that most people who see it end up thinking it’s the best thing ever to grace the stage. And it may very well be. But I guess I missed whatever it is that has made it such a sensation.

I actually had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway and… I fell asleep. I couldn’t help it. I recall having slept just fine the night before, and I’m not one that has much of a problem staying awake if I need to. But I was just. so. bored.

And that’s not to say that the musical isn’t great. It probably is great, as far as musicals go. I’m in no position to be an informed critic. I just couldn’t stay awake. I so much prefer situations in which I feel like I’m participating. Which is why I’ve never had more fun as a part of an audience than I did at Blue Man Group, a stage show in which individual audience members—and at times the entire audience—is involved in the show. I won’t wreck the surprise for those of you who haven’t been. For those of you who have: I caught the marshmallow in my mouth. [High-fives all around]

I think this dynamic might explain, in part, why I’ve always had trouble with the traditional evangelical formulation of the gospel. It makes the audience completely passive. They play no role whatsoever. Typically it goes something like this: Jesus came to die for my sins so that I could be forgiven and go to heaven.

Is that statement true? Of course it is. It’s just that it leaves so much out. And to call it “the gospel” is not to condense the gospel into a brief statement that faithfully encapsulates the whole, it is to represent one strand of the gospel as the whole of the gospel. It would almost be like saying that Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi. …Well, yeah, that is a very key thread in the story. But let’s be careful about saying that Star Wars is about that. Star Wars is not easily summarized or condensed, and neither is the gospel.

An intra-evangelical debate has gone on for some time—and intensified in the last few years—about whether the gospel is mostly about Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross, or Jesus inaugurating the Kingdom of God on earth. And while there are exceptions, generally speaking the more conservative evangelicals speak as though the Cross is the core of the gospel, and the Kingdom is an add-on that you mention if you have time (or not at all). The Cross is what you talk about with an unbeliever. The Kingdom is something you can talk about while you’re discipling/mentoring someone if you happen to take them through the books where the Kingdom is a central theme… What are those books called again?… Oh yeah… The Gospels. More progressive evangelicals generally flip that: God’s work to establish his Kingdom on earth—and our participation in that work—is the central message of the gospel, and Christ’s work on the Cross is (at best) something we need to cherish but keep in the background or (at worst) something we need to rethink and possibly further downplay in significance.

It seems to me that Revelation 5 has a useful response to the mistaken tendencies of both conservative and progressive evangelicals.

In Revelation 5, three songs are sung to the Lion-like Lamb that has just been revealed as worthy to open the scroll—God’s battle and renovation plan for the world. The first song goes like this:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

Do you see what I’m seeing? Read it again. What do you notice?

Verse 9 is the “gospel” of the conservatives and verse 10 is the “gospel” of the progressives. I guess I’m wondering why modern evangelicals feel the need to pick one or the other, or even to emphasize or prioritize one piece over the other. The earliest believers clearly didn’t. Verses 9-10 are one sentence in the original. If you’re reading an NIV or NLT translation, they put a period at the end of verse 9, and they’re wrong to do so because it’s a misleading error.

Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed himself so that by his death he could rescue his people, anointing them to act as his vice-regents to rule with him, and his worship leaders to point people to him. That’s the gospel. And all I did was paraphrase verses 9-10.

Jesus did not come to die to make you a passive participant in his salvific work, who receives the gift of his sacrifice and then sits around just waiting to die and go to heaven, like someone watching (or falling asleep at) a play. And Jesus did not come with his Kingdom-inaugurating message, inviting well-intentioned, basically good people to get on board and help him, without a thought as to how it’s possible for people to do any good at all when they are, biblically speaking, enemies of God, filled with darkness and enslaved to sin under the rule of the Evil One.

The gospel is not either about the Cross or the Kingdom of God. We don’t need to emphasize one over the other. One does not need to be prior to the other. We don’t need to decide whether we’re going to be “Kingdom” people or “Cross” people. And anyone telling you in a sermon or a book or a blog post that one is more central or more important is distorting the gospel.

We don’t need to argue about which blade is more important in a pair of scissors. We don’t need to debate whether the front or back wheel of a bicycle is more necessary. No one needs to write a book about whether your right or left foot is more vital to finishing a marathon.

And you don’t need to choose only one sentence with which to express the gospel. But if you really feel compelled to do so, let me strongly suggest the use of some commas:

Jesus gave himself up to be killed in our place, bearing our sin, so that we could be forgiven, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and sent out into the world as his pastors and ambassadors, who work to make their small corner of the world look like God’s kingdom—his new world—and who call the people around them to recognize and embrace their king and savior.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 2)

Originally written as a Christmas message, delivered on 12/19/10. Listen to the original audio recording here.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25)

In part 1 of this post we looked at Zephaniah chapter 3 and saw how the people of God during the time of Zephaniah were waiting and anticipating and longing. Because of their disobedience and rebellion, God had removed them from the Promised Land, sent them into exile in Babylon, and sent the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and the temple at the heart of Jerusalem.

And to the people of God all of this wasn’t just a major inconvenience; wasn’t a merely geographical problem; it was an epic spiritual crisis. Their sin was unforgiven, they had been removed from the land God had promised them, which made them wonder if God had completely and finally forsaken them, and the destruction of the temple was God’s signal that he was leaving—that he would no longer dwell with his people; that he would no longer be “God with us.”

And so they longed for the end of exile—for God to be their only true King and master. They longed for mercy—for God to find a way to forgive their sins, numerous and grievous as they were. And they longed for God to come and dwell among them once again as Immanuel—“God with us.”

We also saw in Part 1 that, in fact, all these things came to pass in the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, who came to be Immanuel—the God who is with his people, who came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and reign as the only true Lord of his people, and to die in the place of his people to purchase the forgiveness of their sin finally and completely. So that brings us to where we are today. And the question I want to pose today is:

Why isn’t the story over? 

Why isn’t Christmas the end of the story? I might have given the impression in Part 1 that the coming of Christ was the end of the story—exile over, Jesus present and ruling, sin forgiven…  And yet… I think we all still have the sense that… there has to be more.

We look at the world around us and we see earthquakes and tsunamis. We see AIDS and cancer. We see abuse and divorce. We see destitution and poverty. We see hunger and famine. We see tensions between nations, tensions between political parties, tensions between races, tensions between generations.

We look around and we see so much lingering wreckage from sin and the fall, and we say, “This… still can’t be right. There’s gotta be something more, doesn’t there? Remember the old men in the book of Ezra? The old men who had seen the first temple before it was destroyed before the exile, and when they saw the new temple being built they wept (Ezra 3:12) because of how much it paled in comparison to the first temple. They wept and said, “This can’t be right. God—is there more? Is there more than this?

In many ways, we are in a similar place. We pray, “Let your Kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—knowing full well that we’re praying that because clearly the Kingdom hasn’t fully come. God’s will is not done on earth as it is in heaven, yet. And so we wait. We anticipate. We long.

And Christmas reminds us what we’re longing for. In many ways we’re longing for the same thing that our spiritual forefathers longed for. We’re longing for the end of exile—not exile in Babylon. Exile in a place where there is a “God of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who is not our God. We’re longing for God to deal with sin and evil—not just to forgive them, but to destroy them forever. And we’re longing for Immanuel—“God with us”—to come. Not to be among us for a time, but to reign and well dwell among us fully and finally forever.

And these are the very things Paul is anticipating in this text from Romans 8. In verse 18 he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (some translations say “revealed to us.”  Some say “revealed in us.” The Greek is a little ambiguous, but I think Paul means “revealed in us.” We’ll get to that in a moment). Verse 18 is the key to the rest of the paragraph. The rest of the paragraph explains verse 18, so it’s important to understand what Paul means here. And the two difficulties in understanding it are, first, what are the “sufferings of this present time” that he’s talking about? And second, what is the “glory that is to be revealed.”

Let’s take those in turn. First, what are these “sufferings”? In many of the letters of the New Testament, there is evidence of believers who are already suffering because of persecution. 1 Peter, for example, is mainly written to encourage followers of Jesus who are being persecuted for their faith. They’re being hassled, pressured, beaten, even killed for following Jesus.

But the Christians in Rome weren’t being persecuted yet. Rome, for all its moral depravity, was a very cosmopolitan city at the time Paul wrote this letter. It was very accepting. Christians didn’t really begin to be persecuted there until years later. And Paul was writing to Rome from Corinth, which was even more accepting of religious diversity than Rome. So, as far as we know, there wasn’t any persecution of Christians either in the place Paul is writing from, nor the place he’s writing to at this point.

So, Paul isn’t talking, in verse 18, about suffering as a result of persecution. What’s he talking about then? He’s talking about suffering that is a result merely of living here. Living where?  Rome? Corinth? No… living here in the groaning creation. We live, as Paul did, as Jesus did, as Abraham did in a world that is beautiful, but badly broken. A world, Paul says in verse 20, that was subjected to futility”—that word means brokenness or emptiness or valuelessness.  “The creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness; emptiness—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it.”

Who is that? Who subjected the creation to futility? 

The initial suspect might be Adam or Eve, since they’re the ones who rebelled and caused the Fall. But that’s not how the Fall narrative reads, is it?  “And to Adam [God] said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life’” (Genesis 3:17).

Adam sinned, but it was God who cursed the ground.  He cursed—not just human beings, but the world­—the very natural order—in which they live, and as a result the world fell into the sort of place where tectonic plates don’t always glide again each other.  They slip sometimes and earthquakes happen. Where human greed and weather patterns cause famine to happen. Where cells stop working right and cancer happens. Where bodies lose the ability to fix themselves and death happens.

But that’s not Paul’s point in verse 18, is it? His point is to say that all of this: All this death, all this sickness, all this brokenness, all this pain, all this frustration, all this tension, all this struggle we experience as a part of living in this place—all of it is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (v. 18).  Now again (I’ll spare you the nuances of the Greek dative case) I don’t think Paul is saying that this glory is to be reveled to us. It’s going to be revealed in us. It’s not going to be some spectacular thing out there that we’re going to observe. It’s going be a spectacular thing in here that we will experience.

So what is it?

What’s this glory that will be revealed in us that will be so breathtaking that any suffering we could experience here will not even be worth comparing to it?  What is this that’s going to happen in us that will make us say then, “I can’t believe I EVER grumbled about my circumstances! I can’t believe I EVER complained about my pain. I can’t believe I EVER looked at God in doubt and discontent in view of this splendor?” What is it? Paul calls it “glory” in verse 18.

Glory is a notoriously difficult word to define. We use it a lot in our churches, of course, but it seems to be one of those words that everyone can use in a sentence, but most people can’t define.  Right? I mean, Define “glory.” …  Does it mean “goodness”? Well, sure, but that’s not all. Does it mean “beauty?” Sort of. But when we say God is glorious, we’re saying more than just, “God is beautiful,” aren’t we? The core of the meaning of word really has to do with “brightness” and “splendor” and “luminosity.” But, floodlights are bright and luminous. Are floodlights glorious?

To explain glory you really need to use more words. You have to say something like, “Glory is a state of radiant beauty and splendor that flows from a magnificent and praiseworthy nature.” God is the most glorious being because he is the most magnificent and praiseworthy being that exists, and therefore his magnificence and praiseworthiness show forth in incomparable and unfathomable beauty and splendor.

Man, on the other hand…

J.M. Boice wrote,

“Man was once a beautiful physical specimen. The man Adam and the woman Eve were the glory of creation. They excelled the rest of the created order in every respect. But when they sinned, physical decay, sickness, suffering, and eventually physical death came upon them. God said, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19b). They were not originally destined to die, but die they did.  Man was also beautiful in soul, the most beautiful of all the creatures. He had a nobility that transcends our ability to fathom.  But once Adam and Eve sinned, that beautiful soul was tarnished.  Now they began to lie and cheat and shift the blame from their own failings to those of others.  Most significant was the ruination of their spirits.  The spirit was that part of Adam and Eve that had communion with God.  They had walked and talked with God in the garden. But once they fell, they no longer sought God out.  They hid from him, and the encounter that eventually came was a judgment. We enjoyed glory once, which is why we long for it so much.  But it is gone…. What a marvelous thing it is then, when we turn to the Bible, to find that the end of our salvation in Christ is not merely deliverance from sin and evil and their consequences, but glorification. God is restoring to us all that our first parents lost.” (Romans, 864)

That’s what Paul’s saying in verse 18. He’s saying that part of the gospel is that God himself will restore our glory—in ways even beyond what was lost. He will resurrect believers long dead, he will transform believers living, and will reform us all into beings whose magnificence and praiseworthiness radiate in beauty and splendor—who, as Jesus said, “shine like the sun” in the Kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43).

And the beauty and wonder of this transformation in us will be so vastly disproportionate to the consequences of the Fall that any pain or hurt or suffering here will seem in retrospect to have been as nothing.

But here’s the part of the gospel that I think so often gets left out.  We tend to individualize the gospel. We tend to think only of what the gospel has to say about my situation. What’s it gonna do for me? How do I get saved? But the gospel is bigger than that. The gospel is global. It has cosmic implications. Let’s keep reading.  Verse 19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” That is, all creation, in a manner of speaking, waits with “eager longing” for this transformation to happen in us believers—for this glory; this radiance to be revealed in us. Why? Why is creation longing for that. Keep reading…

Verse 20: “For the creation was subjected to futility”—to brokenness—“not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope…”  In what hope? What was God’s hope for his creation when he subjected it to the curse of the Fall? “…In hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage”—its slavery—“to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

What Paul is saying here is that there is a parallel between what God will do in us and what he will do in all his creation. Just as there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for us, there is a glorious resurrection and transformation coming for the whole cosmos.

As N.T. Wright says,

“[The earliest Christians] believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter.  …What has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…is by no means limited to its effects on those human beings who believe the gospel and thereby find new life here and hereafter.  It resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.” (Surprised By Hope, 93, 97)

The earth as we know it will not be destroyed in favor of a foggy, cloud land where we all float around as disembodied spirits.  Rather the earth itself will be resurrected and remade—set free from the curse that has marred and broken it. It will, in a word, be glorified. God will drench it with himself and will fill it—he will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28), and he will be Immanuel once again—God dwelling with his people.

In the meantime, we wait. We wait with a taste in our mouths of what is to come. A taste that makes us anticipate and long for more. Paul calls this “taste” we’ve been given, in verse 23, the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” or “the firstfruits from the Spirit.”  He writes, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

The question you should ask yourself when you read what Paul says there is, “Wait. Wait. Don’t we already have these things?  Aren’t we already adopted as sons (and daughters)? Don’t we already have redemption in Christ? Aren’t we already saved?”  Why is Paul talking like we’re still waiting for these things? Why does he say that we “wait eagerly” for adoption, for redemption, for salvation?

The answer is that Paul views our situation here and now as a parallel, in some ways—an echo—of the situation of the people of God who returned to the Promised Land in the time of Ezra, that we talked about two weeks ago. Was there an end to the exile at that time?  Well, yes.  …But no. They were back in the Promised Land, but they were still waiting for God to come and end their slavery and reign over them as their only king. Had God forgiven their sin? Well, yes. He had returned them to their land.  …But no—they still were suffering judgment for their sins. Had God returned to dwell among them? Well, yes. There was a functioning temple. …But no. It was a shack of a building and God really still seemed far off.

Have we been adopted as sons and daughters of the King through Christ? Yes. But we are not yet the sons and daughters we will be when all sin and evil in us is destroyed by the benevolent power of God, and we are glorified and transformed, becoming like God’s Son, Jesus, when we see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

Have we been redeemed? Have we been ransomed—freed—from the dominion of sin so that we are no longer enslaved to sin; so that sin and death are no longer our master? Yes. Sin is no longer our master. …But sin still masters us… because we let it. And one day God will eradicate sin completely, and the war will be over. And obedience and the pleasure of holiness will fill completely every part of us.

Have we been saved through faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross? Yes. But we still wait for an even greater saving, ready to be revealed in the last day (1 Peter 1:5), a saving that will make us not merely citizens of heaven dwelling in a dark world—as we are now—but citizens of the new heavens and new earth, living in God’s new world.

What we enjoy here and now because of Christ’s death for us—forgiveness, reconciliation, adoption, redemption, power, glory, joy, hope, peace, rest… all of these things are only tastes.  They are only faint tastes of the salvation that is coming. They are only the firstfruits.

These present realities that we sing about, that we talk about in church, that we write books about, write songs about… all of them—wonderful as they are—are only the firstfruits of what is to come.

Let me close this way: Here’s how this all connected to Christmas.  Jesus’ first advent—his first coming, which we remember this week—is itself only the firstfruits of what is still to come. The first advent anticipates the second advent and is the promise that it will surely come. The coming of Immanuel that we celebrate at Christmas is the firstfruits of the coming of Immanuel that we will celebrate together with him forever.

The song of our spiritual fathers was, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel; that mourns in lonely exile here; until the Son of God appear.” Our song is, “O come Thou Dayspring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night; And death’s dark shadows put to flight.”

Because the curse of the Fall persists, the shadow of decay and death still lingers over us and this groaning creation. But when the “Dayspring” comes (Dayspring means “dawn”, “sunrise,” “the rising of light into the darkness”). When the Dayspring comes, he will disperse the shadows of death and night forever.

So as we look back, on Christmas, to the coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us, let us also let Christmas point us forward to the last coming of Immanuel to dwell with us and save us.

Thoughts on God and Life from Two Guys Who Love Both