Commentary on Acts 2:1-4; Romans 8:14-39
Some interpreters observe that Romans 8 is the pinnacle of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Indeed, Romans 8:18-39 sounds climactic, anticipating future glory “about to be revealed to us” (8:18-30), and declaring the unfailing love of God toward those in Christ (8:31-39). According to Paul’s vision in Romans 8:18-39, we will be participating in glory alongside creation, and that is why this passage is so significant.
Romans 8:18-39 focuses on the connection between human beings and creation, both in suffering and redemption. Paul reminds the audience of the present condition of creation (its being “subjected to futility,” 8:20) as if it is already well known: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (8:22). This echoes the Genesis story about the negative impact of human corruption on earth (Genesis 3), as well as the pattern of universal depravity and redemption in apocalyptic tradition (for example, 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch). With his apocalyptic hope modified by his Christological convictions, Paul foretells “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).
In this process, the Holy Spirit plays an essential role. Throughout Romans, the Greek word pneuma (either God’s Spirit or human spirit) appears 34 times, and 20 out of the 34 occurrences are in Romans 8. First, Paul presents the Spirit as the solution to the lamentable status of the “I” in Romans 7: “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has sent you free from the law of sin and of death” (8:1-2). Then Paul tells his audience to have “the mindset of the Spirit” (8:5-6), and this Spirit of God guarantees even a change of their “mortal bodies” (8:11). Simply speaking, the Holy Spirit has already freed believers from their former status and is transforming both their mind and body in the world.
The Spirit also functions as divine intercessor and helper (see also Christ the intercessor in verse 34), which reinforces the connection between creation and human beings, as well as the divine. “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).1 The Greek word translated here as “sighs” (stenagmoi) can be rendered as “groanings.” Then, the Spirit’s groaning resonates both with our inward groaning (8:23) and with the groaning of the whole creation (8:22). According to some Christian theology, God never suffers (the doctrine of God’s impassibility). Nevertheless, Paul, who is not a systematic theologian, boldly connects God’s Spirit, human beings, and all creation in their “co-groaning” until the end comes and glory is fully revealed. Through the Spirit, God in Christ sympathizes with the entirety of creation.
Does this grand discourse actually help me personally? What does our congregation make of this? These are the questions that Paul himself rhetorically asks in Romans 8:31-39. “What then are to say about these things?” (8:31). Paul fires off questions and answers, one after another, to convince his audience of the love of God from which nothing can separate them (8:35, 39). Yet, Paul’s enumeration of all the possible risks—“hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword” (8:35); “death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, anything else in all creation (8:38-39)”—confirms that Paul thinks comprehensively. As Beverly Gaventa puts it, this is Paul’s “trash talk.”2 Harsh circumstances in an individual believer’s life, social realities in the first century Roman world, and even cosmic catastrophe, will never overcome God’s beloved: “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37).
With no explicitly idolatrous Roman emperor or immediate persecution/death because of one’s faith present, some affluent Christians in North America or developed countries might be tempted to interiorize and privatize Romans 8:18-39. Indeed, the power of this passage lies in providing peace of mind during the storms of life. Then, 8:28 could be a mantra: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
However, that is not the best reading of the Greek sentence in Romans 8:28. It is better to read the verse this way: “In all things, [it] works with those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, toward [producing] good.”3 In this case, the implied subject “it” refers to the subject of the preceding sentence, the Spirit (8:27). The Spirit works with believers in all these things.
As Paul eagerly looks forward to, when God’s ultimate triumph is finally revealed to the whole cosmos, believers in Christ will participate in the celebration and reign of God. Until then, Romans 8:18-39, especially 28, urges us to work and walk with the Spirit of God, the Spirit of life, toward the completion of God’s plan for the whole of creation. Despite the distance between Paul’s world and ours, we also see “apocalyptic” signs today. Creation is literally groaning and decaying due to socio-economic disparity, human rights violations, racial and ethnic conflicts, and above all, the global environmental crises. “What then are we to say about these things?” (8:31).
- Some commentators interpret “sighs too deep for words” in relation to glossolalia or “speaking in tongues” (for example, 1 Corinthians 12, 14). Those who read Romans 8:18-39 along with Acts 2:1-4 can benefit from this possible understanding of Romans 8:26 as an allusion to speaking in tongues. Acts 2 depicts apostles speaking in foreign languages that they have never learned (xenolalia). First Corinthians 12 and 14 refer to unintelligible languages being uttered.
- Beverly Roberts Gaventa, When in Romans: An Invitation to Linger with the Gospel according to Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 40.
- The verse includes the Greek verb synergeō (“work together with/for”). For some, the translation I suggest might sound uncomfortable due to its possible resonance with synergism. Yet, Paul lived long before the Pelagian controversy came into being. Paul calls himself and his team God’s “co-workers” (synergoi, 1 Cor 3:9).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Great Spirit, you have lit upon each of us a flame to serve you in all that we do. Ignite your flame, and help us to burn brightly for you. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Like the murmur of the dove’s song ELW 403, H82 513, UMH 544, NCH 270
Blest be the tie that binds ELW 656
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus ELW 392, H82 460, 461, NCH 257
O day full of grace, F. Melius Christiansen
May 28, 2023