Commentary on Romans 8:12-25
Chapters 5-8 of Paul’s epistle to the Romans are practically a self-contained meditation on the operation of grace. Though many other notes are sounded in these four chapters of the letter, the overriding tone is that of grace.
Chapter 8 is itself a pearl of a passage that deals with grace and brings this portion of the letter to an end. In turn, we should notice that this chapter immediately precedes Paul’s difficult, anguished reflection on the fate of Israel in the outworking of God’s grace. Thus, while the verses for this lesson are part of a beautiful conclusion to a positive portion of the letter, they also come before and anticipate the troubled and troubling reflection that Paul presents in Romans 9-11.
Paul addressed the community of believers in Rome in v. 11 as he offered a theological observation in the form of an “if . . . then” statement (“If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [plural], then the One who raised Christ from the dead will make also your [pl.] mortal bodies alive through his Spirit that indwells you [pl.]” [trans. mine]). Having addressed the Romans in this manner, Paul begins the verses of our lesson in v. 12 by building on the declaration of v. 11 with a statement that itself opens with the words “So then” or “Then, therefore. . . .” Thus we see that because of what was already said, Paul continues now with additional remarks.
In essence, 8:1-11 treats the theme of Christian life as being life in the Spirit. Then, vv. 12-17 employ the metaphor of “sonship” (obscured in the NRSV) and “childhood” (preserved and amplified to take in sonship) to reflect on the significance of our relationship to God. And then, vv. 18-25 (actually vv. 18-30) bring a pronounced eschatological cast to Paul’s remarks as he writes of future glory, freedom, and hope.
The language of sonship that is lost in many contemporary translations is not in itself a totem to be revered; yet, its use here is important for particular theological reasons. When Paul tells the Romans–men and women alike–that they will become “sons of God,” he is making a statement about status as it was constructed and understood in the ancient world. In the patriarchal culture of antiquity, normally a son or sons were the heirs to the goods of the father of the family. The oldest son received a double share of the goods, while other sons received lesser portions. Women were “married off” and not normally the focus of inheritance. Thus, when Paul declares that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (literal translation of v. 14 mine), he is talking about becoming related to God in such a manner that “we” have an inheritance from God, which is itself an inheritance with Christ.
Yet, there is another note that is struck in Paul’s reflection on inheritance. He writes that if the “children” of God are to be heirs of God and heirs with Christ, then, it is necessary that they/we suffer with Christ in order that they/we may be glorified with Christ. This emphasis often falls out of sermonic re-presentation of the biblical lesson, primarily because it is so hard for us to know how to think and talk about this matter in our world today. While there are Christians who suffer terribly in some places around the globe, the North American varieties of Christians live in essential freedom to believe and to conduct themselves/ourselves in worship and in life as they/we see fit. Two temptations (at least) face the preacher who wants to work with this aspect of the lesson for today: first, it is tempting and easy to remove the issue of suffering from our midst by focusing on Christians in far places who suffer for their faith (this is not to say that remembering these people in our own worship and lives is inappropriate); second, it is tempting and even easy to trivialize the idea of suffering in this text, so that one equates being embarrassed or mildly mocked with suffering. [Paul writes in this text of freedom and perhaps we should be sure to give thanks for the freedoms that we do enjoy and that mean that in our cultural context we do not have to face severe suffering of the sort that Paul wrote.]
As Paul moves ahead in vv. 18-25, he takes a new angle in his reflection by presenting life in the Spirit as a life of hope. Paul had focused on the particular situation of the Romans up to this point, but here he widens his scope to see the Spirit at work at a cosmic level. These verses are challenging, even difficult because we are not really accustomed to thinking in such universal terms, nor are we practiced at thinking about the need of creation itself for redemption. Yet, that is where Paul goes and where he would take us as we follow his reflections.
Remarkably Paul is persuaded that creation, like humanity, is in a very real bondage to sin; so that Paul sees creation as being at odds with God. Our own tendency is to romanticize “nature” and “creation,” to view them as pure and innocent. But Paul apparently remembered that there were such things as natural disasters and poisonous snakes. He writes 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.” Paul sees the fate of humanity and the fate of creation as being inseparably bound to each other, for he understands that both are creations created by the one creator God. But, God’s good news has been already given in Jesus Christ, so that the outcome is set in such a way that in the present we may live by hope.