Commentary on Romans 8:12-25
In Greek, even more than in English, the word for “flesh” (sarx) points to something different from that to which the word for “body” (soma) points.1
This is certainly true as the apostle Paul uses the two words. Paul’s gospel is not about fleeing life in the body in favor of existence on a spiritual plane. When Romans 8 is read in worship, it may help to make this point, lest hearers dismiss Paul as an ancient prude or embrace him as a Gnostic guru.
In Paul’s writings, “flesh” almost always signifies a power, along with sin, that resists the Spirit of God and that must be vanquished if human beings–body and all–are to be free from what Paul calls “the bondage of decay” and obtain “the glorious freedom of God’s children” (Romans 8:21, NET). That glorious freedom is not freedom from the material world, but freedom within a restored creation. It is the freedom of an embodied life that reflects, as it had at the first, the image and glory of God (cf. Genesis 1:27). In Romans 8:12-25, Paul points to that freedom and describes what it is like to hope for such a thing here and now.
A cluster of words from the realm of family helps Paul describe the freedom that believers have in Christ and the relationships in which they now find themselves: sons, Abba, Father, children, adoption, heirs, joint heirs. The vocabulary describes relationships within a family and a household. Such language is not particularly common in Romans. Two times in the opening verses of the letter, Paul reminded his hearers of Jesus’ identity as a child of God. He defined God’s good news as “the gospel concerning his Son, who was … declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4, NRSV). He refers to Jesus once more as Son in Romans 5:10.
Then, in Romans 8 Paul uses the words for “son” and “child” to refer not to Jesus, but to his siblings who are led by the Spirit. As “flesh” had referred to a power that enslaves humans and keeps them from participating in God’s glory, the Spirit is the power that frees and enlivens humans for a new identity as children of God.
To describe what it means to be children of God, Paul employs a series of compound verbs built on the preposition syn-. We are joint heirs with Christ, suffering with him, and being glorified with him. Readers should not fret over the conditional syntax in verse 17. It is a simple condition in which “since” could be used as well as “if” (cf. the translation of the same Greek word at Romans 8:9). The idea is not that anyone (including Christ) earns glory by suffering; rather, as Paul seeks to describe what it means to be a joint heir with Christ, he notes that the joint heir’s life is characterized by the same pattern that shaped Christ’s life. To be connected to Christ is to know humiliation and exaltation. To be a joint heir with Christ is share in Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
In the remaining verses of the reading, Paul talks as forthrightly as possible about the suffering of humanity and creation as together we await the revealing of what we are in Christ, that is, children of God. As syn- compounds had described our connection to Christ, now they describe the mutual suffering of all creation: the whole creation, Paul says, groans together and suffers together, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23). James Dunn names the solidarity among Christ, humans, and the rest of creation well when he observes, “Believers are being saved not from creation but with creation…. The sonship they are privileged to share in some sense with Christ, they in turn share in some sense with creation.”
The “eager expectation” Paul refers to in 8:19 is literally the act of craning the neck to get a better look at what is coming down the road. It is the upturned face of the farmer watching the sky before starting up the combine for harvest. It is the leaning forward of a woman on a train platform as she awaits a loved one’s arrival. Paul describes what we are expecting with phrases like “the revealing of the sons [and daughters] of God” (8:19), “the glorious freedom of God’s children” (8:21), “adoption,” and “the redemption of our bodies” (8:23). As we live between hoping for these things and actually seeing them, the tension between the two experiences becomes acute. Dunn again: “The gift of the Spirit reclaims the believer for God and begins or heightens the tension between human belonging to God and human entrancement with the world of human control and success, the warfare between Spirit and flesh” (87).
One of the causes of suffering for those who have received the Spirit of adoption (8:15) is that the Spirit has given us reason to hope for more than we can see. The definition of suffering will be broadened in verses 35-39 to include anything that threatens to separate us from God’s love. For now, the suffering Paul speaks of is suffering that comes from knowing what the world could be, even as we live in the world as it is. To borrow an image from the gospel reading for the day, the field was planted with good seed. It was going to be so beautiful as it grew to maturity, but an enemy sowed weeds among the wheat, and even as the crop matured, the field was a mess; the crop was threatened, and the workers nearly made things worse by trying to take control of the situation. At the owner’s insistence, the field hands endure the wait between weeds appearing and a crop maturing. “Redemption” in the parable of the weeds and wheat comes when the harvest results not only in grain but a batch of kindling besides. “He has both his wheat safe and some free kindling as well,” Dominic Crossan writes. “His enemy is doubly outwitted.”
The details of redemption for humanity and the rest of creation will probably be as surprising to us as the dual harvest of wheat and kindling was to the field hands. And certainly the wait often passes with excruciating slowness. Even so, with a mixture of eagerness and sheer endurance, we hope for what we do not see.
- Commentary first published on this site on July 17, 2011.
July 19, 2020