Commentary on Romans 8:22-27
In exploring our lectionary text, it is helpful to review briefly the argument Paul has made leading up to it.
Having described the conflict we experience as those enslaved to sin and death (Romans 7:14-25), Paul presents our only hope of deliverance. God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” to deal with sin (8:3) and has given us his Spirit to dwell within us, so that we are now led by the Spirit of God (8:9-14).
The Spirit bears witness that we have been adopted as God’s children and have become joint heirs with Christ (8:15-17). Because we are joint heirs with Christ, we can expect to share in both his sufferings and his glory (8:17).
Paul is confident that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18), yet he does not gloss over the present reality of suffering. The suffering to which Paul refers is not limited to persecution for the sake of following Christ. Instead, Paul is speaking in general terms of the suffering we all experience in “this present time,” since we are part of a world in bondage to sin, death, and decay.
Paul speaks of the whole creation experiencing this bondage and “waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (8:19). He says further that “the whole creation has been groaning together (sustenazei) in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan (stenazomen) inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23).
The “groaning” we experience together with creation is not futile or despairing but looks with hope toward the new world being birthed.
Both birthing and adoption imagery are used to describe this reality of living in the now and not yet of salvation. While the creation experiences labor pains, we who have been adopted as God’s children and have received the first fruits of the Spirit (8:15-16) still await the completion of our adoption, “the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).
This redemption will mean life and freedom for all creation. Life in the meantime is characterized by hope and patience — a watchful, expectant waiting that does not give in to despair, even when little evidence of redemption is in sight (8:24-25).
We are not left alone in our waiting and struggle, for “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (8:26). Even though we don’t know how or what to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with “inarticulate groans (stenagmois)” (8:26). The NRSV translation, “with sighs too deep for words,” obscures the parallel between our “groaning” and that of the Spirit. Just as we groan together with the whole creation (8:22-23), the Spirit groans together with and for us, interceding for us according to the will of God (8:27).
Our grasp of God’s will and the future God has in store for creation is limited at best. How can we pray for what we have not seen and have difficulty imagining? The Spirit gives voice to what we cannot articulate but hope and long for in our inmost selves.
Many aspects of this text open up potential paths for preaching. On Pentecost Sunday, the preacher may want to emphasize the work of the Spirit.
Paul is clear that the gift of the Spirit does not mean we have already “arrived” spiritually. Rather, the Spirit is the first fruit of our adoption as God’s children, an adoption that still awaits completion. Life in the meantime is characterized by suffering and struggle. Paul emphasizes the Spirit’s solidarity with us in our weakness and our solidarity with the whole creation in its suffering.
For any who might be tempted to think that life in the Spirit means escape from the world, Paul’s understanding of the Spirit’s work is a healthy corrective.
Too often in our culture we hear preaching suggesting that followers of Jesus can bypass suffering. We hear this, for instance, from “prosperity gospel” preachers who suggest that the right kind of faith and prayer will bring health and prosperity. Yet Paul asserts that the life of faith is not validated by such external signs. Rather, “we hope for what we do not see” (8:25).
Paul also insists that there is no exemption from suffering for believers. Being children of God indwelled by the Spirit does not remove us from the suffering of creation but draws us ever more deeply into solidarity with our suffering world.
As joint heirs with Christ, we can expect to share in his sufferings (8:17) on behalf of a world in bondage. As the Spirit of Christ dwells within us, at odds with the powers of sin and death, we experience conflict and suffering, yet we are not driven to despair. The Spirit groans with us and intercedes for us, giving us hope in the promise of redemption.
Paul’s emphasis on solidarity with creation also offers a strong counterpoint to a type of apocalyptic theology popular in our culture — theology that describes the end as a time when believers will be snatched away to heaven while unbelievers and the rest of creation are left behind to suffer bloodshed and destruction.
In stark contrast to this “left behind” theology, Paul testifies to God’s will of redeeming the whole creation together with the children of God.
Certainly Paul speaks elsewhere of future judgment, but it is judgment for all, including the children of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Our only hope is in God’s deliverance through Christ’s death and resurrection, for “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Our redemption means hope for the whole creation, which “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (8:19).
As children of God and joint heirs with Christ indwelled by his Spirit, we are one with creation in suffering, longing, and hope.