Jesus and the R Factor
JESUS AND THE ‘R’ FACTOR
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:18-25 ESV).
Our Easter break in Dartmouth was an early casualty of the current lockdown. Next to nothing, of course, compared to the victims of the virus. Millions flock to Dartmouth as a classic estuary beauty spot and for the yachting. What fewer notice is that the Flavel Arts Centre in town is named after one of its most illustrious citizens, John Flavel, the famous Puritan preacher.
Flavel was a fearless contender for the faith and a faithful pastor in the parish between 1656-1691, interrupted only by periodic persecution and banishment! Flavel himself was sorely afflicted, losing his parents to the plague, and suffering the bereavement of three of his four wives, one in childbirth! All of which qualifies him in my mind as the author of his classic work: ‘The Mystery of Providence’.
He writes of those ‘marvellous coincidences’ of God’s providential working in every aspect of a believer’s life – pleasant or not – in order to bring about the good that God desires for his people.
Flavel had taken to heart, as we must, the confidence of the apostle Paul that present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glorious future God has in store for us (8:18).
Beyond the darkness of what is happening to him and to the Roman Christians, Paul catches a glimpse of a providential purpose that has ‘glory’ stamped all over it (see 8:17, 21, 30).
We who are ‘in Christ’ are not immune from the shameful sufferings that plague God’s beautiful yet broken world. But by that astonishing Easter perspective we are enabled to fix our eyes on a radiant future that eclipses them – a future God intends for us and for the whole of his creation (8:21).
Thankfully there are balmy days – like the warm May day on which I write these notes – when the Spring flowers and stirring birdsong make it hard to believe anything is amiss with our world. But we know differently. Things are not the way they are meant to be.
With prophetic ears, Paul is tuned in not only to the sweet melodies of nature but to the anguished groaning of the created order (8:21).
With prophetic ears, Paul hears both the birdsong of creation’s blessedness and its cries of lament and protest over its subjugation to futility. He senses that somehow this is all within God’s providential purpose; that as our sin dragged creation down so our salvation will mysteriously draw creation up.
Like the underlying moaning of the sea, the cries of the oppressed and suffering echo creation’s sense of frustration in a language only the Spirit of God can understand.
Through prophetic revelation, the apostle is able to translate the groanings as the eager longing of all created things to enter into the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God. In turn, the Spirit causes deep groans and longings to stir in the hearts of believers, so helping us to interpret the pain as the birth-pangs of a better world coming. The church’s intercession answers this cry.
What creation is ‘on tiptoe to see’, drives us to our knees in the heartfelt plea for God’s kingdom to come and put everything right.
Who doesn’t long for that world to come which is even better than this one?
Which is where God’s ‘R’ factor comes in: Resurrection for Jesus and for us (8:11), the final Revealing of the children of God (8:19) – in short, in my favourite biblical term for it all: ‘Redemption’ (8:23).
‘Freedom’ is the keynote of redemption: freedom from slavery on payment of a price. All created things long to be set free from the tyranny of change and decay which all around us we see (8:21). We long to be set free from the tyranny of disease and death, from viruses and diabetes, and infirmity. No more cancers, no more still-births, no more… no more reason for tears!
The prospect Paul celebrates is not merely that of ‘going to heaven when we die’ but the full-blown biblical prospect of a new heavens and new earth, ‘landscaped with righteousness’. Christ’s people will reign with him in a stunning new environment for which we will need brand-new earth-suits – a resurrection body (8:23) - a ‘body once sown in dishonour now raised in glory’ (1 Cor.15:43).
This is God’s great ‘R’ factor - redemption for us and for all created things!
Redemption, as the old preacher said, is ‘truly to come into the fullness of your intended value’.
But… but… of course we do not yet see all this – as the language of longing and eager waiting reminds us. We do not even know how to pray (Rom.8:26).
What of the painful tension of living in the here and now?
Is there a meaningful response we can make to the long ‘meanwhile’?
24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Note Paul’s realism: we hope for what do not yet see.
When the glorious future will come and exactly how it will come we do not know.
And we have to learn to live in uncertain times.
I recently unearthed a dog-eared booklet by one of my heroes, Oswald Chambers, entitled The Graciousness of Uncertainty! I was gripped by it.
We assume, says Chambers, that uncertainty is always and only a bad thing.
We are fixed, he says, on common sense. But alongside common sense we need also uncommon sense. “Certainty is the mark of the common sense life; gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life and they must go together.”
Why is uncertainty gracious?
(i) Because it reminds us that God is in control – sovereignly and providentially in control! We are relieved of the intolerable burden of thinking that we are in charge of the world’s future. Not, it is not in our control. Forget those well-meaning but overblown, Church mission-statements about ‘changing the world’. Those Christians who have in fact ‘changed their world’ are precisely those who,
like William Wilberforce, were passionate about seeking first the kingdom of God. We cannot make history come out ‘our way’. Only God can do this, His way. It follows that the pressure is lifted from us of thinking we have to have all the answers. We do not. We bear witness to what we know and have been told (Deut. 29:29; Acts 4:20). We trust and we obey – and leave the consequences to the Lord.
(ii) Uncertainty is gracious because it teaches us to live in hope and be open to the surprises of God.
Oswald Chambers encourages us to believe that hope keeps us open to the unexpected moves of God. ‘Revivals”, Chambers asserts, “start entirely by the sheer surprise of the life of God”. The Spirit, like the wind, ‘blows where he wills’.
“We are gloriously uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God. Immediately we abandon to God and do the duty that lies nearest, he packs our lives with surprises all the time!”
(iii) Gracious uncertainty trains us in trusting the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the subject of all the verbs here: he leads (v14,) he helps us cry ‘Abba’ (8:15), he bears witness to our sonship (v16), he groans with us (v23),
he helps us when we don’t know what to pray for (8:26), he searches our hearts
and he intercedes for us according to the will of God (8:27).
On balance, it is likely that the Spirit is the subject of the next verse too: it is the Spirit who works in all things for the good God intends for his people! (v28)
Certain of nothing, except God and his good and loving providence in Christ,
we can be confident that nothing in the world as it is, or as it may become,
can separate us from his love.
Meanwhile gracious uncertainty helps us to ‘wait with patience’ - as Paul puts it.
Patience was not one of the classical virtues. It is a fruit of the Gospel.
The Early Church father, Tertullian wrote a treatise on it in which he said:
“The singular mark of patience is not endurance, but hope. Patience is grounded in the Resurrection… when God’s Spirit descends, patience is always at his side.”
“However contrary the winds and tides of providence at any time seem to us,
yet nothing is more certain than that they all conspire to hasten sanctified souls to God and fit them for glory!” (John Flavel)
Let us remember the words of the Master: ‘Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble’. So, dear friends, go on being filled with the Spirit who is the ‘crowning gift of the Risen and Ascended Christ’ and the ‘seal of our redemption’. With the Spirit’s help, stay hopeful, stay prayerful, stay watchful; keep trusting, waiting patiently with eager expectation for God’s next move… stay blessed for ‘your redemption draws near’.
As always in the Saviour’s name,