Commentary on Romans 8:14-17
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit is center stage, rushing as a wind through the early church and inflaming the hearts of Jesus believers. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s Spirit is likewise a powerfully animating force. In this moment of celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, described in today’s gospel reading as the Advocate, Paul writes of the “Spirit of God.”
Paul’s letter to the church at Rome describes God’s Spirit bearing witness with our spirit. The Greek verb summartureo is a compound composed of the words “with” and “to witness.” One possible translation is “bears witness with.” While Paul could have simply written that God’s Spirit witnesses our spirit, the text here emphasizes that God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit. The emphasis is on the relationship between God and God’s people, that God’s Spirit is intimately involved with ours.
To what does God’s Spirit bear witness with our spirit?
God’s Spirit witnesses that we are children of God. As children of God freed and forgiven, God’s Spirit reminds us who we are when we’re fearful. When we’re suffering. When we think we’re “not enough.” God’s Spirit reminds us that God made us in Their image. We’re beloved as God’s children, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Paul presses on that to be children of God is also to be heirs of God. To be heirs is not only to be brought into right relationship with God but to be joint heirs with Christ. To be an heir of God is also to be in relationship with Christ. Jesus is the heir of God, the first within a large extended family. Being adopted into God’s family means that Jesus is our sibling and that we too can cry out to God as a child cries to a parent, to Mom or Dad.
We too become heirs with God when we respond to the call into a cruciform life, a life shaped by the cross of Christ. This cruciform life means shaping oneself to the continuous movement from life to death to new life, to dying to ourselves and rising in love and service to our neighbor—just as the early church in Jerusalem, described in Acts, broke bread together, cared for the needs of the saints, and shared all things in common.
Paul continues, that to be a joint heir with Christ means to suffer with Christ. Here there is another compound verb, sumpascho, made up of the words “with” and “to suffer.” The same thing that happens to one happens to another.
We suffer with Christ so that we might be glorified with Christ. Guess what? There’s yet another compound verb, sundoxazo, “to glorify with.” While it may be easy to go in the direction of glorifying suffering, it must be asked who is suffering and why. Is it people who are already marginalized, already being asked and expected to suffer, who are then to glory in that suffering? Are there other ways of approaching suffering? There is a reminder here, that when we suffer, Christ is present with us in the midst of it.
In these compact verses there is an intense intimacy implied in all this “with-ness.” Just as God is in relationship with Godself: Parent, Child and Spirit, so we are called into relationship with each person of God—into relationship with God as Parent to whom we cry, into relationship with the Anointed One with whom we suffer, and into relationship with God’s Spirit who bears witness to our very spirit.
How does the Spirit of God bear witness to our spirit that we are children of God?
The Spirit empowers the church into the life-long work of dying to the body and the flesh, and being raised again to new life. While it is easy to read this passage as being against our physical bodies, against our human creatureliness, for Paul the “body” and “flesh” are theological categories associated with the law, sin and death.
The text here is not necessarily against our physical bodies, but against the things that separate us from God. These powers can be both within ourselves—our minds, bodies and spirits—and outside ourselves, in other people and in the forces that structure our lives.
In fact, the physical body is not only the place of encounter with God through God’s animating Spirit, but is also the very place where God overcomes the powers of death on the cross. It is a mistake to make an easy equivalence between Paul’s use of “body” and “flesh” and our fearfully and wonderfully made human bodies.
In Romans, dying to the “flesh” and the “body” means dying to a spirit of slavery. It means dying to fear and those forces which hold power over us. To be a child of God is to be an heir, not to be a slave but a member of the household of God, free from fear and free from the power of death.
Who is this Spirit of God?
In the immediate literary context of this passage Paul builds an argument that distinguishes between a series of opposites centered around death and life. On the one hand is the law of sin and death and walking according to the flesh. The mind set on the flesh is death. All these associated ideas lead to slavery. On the other hand is the law of the spirit of life, walking according to the spirit, and a mind set on the spirit which is life and peace. These ideas are associated with freedom.
Jesus undoes these binary oppositions by coming in the flesh and being raised by God from death to life. God’s Spirit is the power that animates this movement from life, through death, into new life. There is no debt, no obligation to live according to the rules of the flesh. Living according to the flesh means death, but life comes through the Spirit overcoming death.
Paul writes to the believers in Rome that if the Spirit of God, this Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, dwells in them, God who raised Christ will also be an animating, life-giving power in our own bodies through God’s Spirit dwelling in us. It is this “with-ness”—this Spirit that is with and for us—that rushes in on Pentecost.