We just celebrated Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified) and Easter (the Day of Resurrection), not only the two most important days in the history of Christ’s Church but in all of human history. These events changed the world forever and gave birth to Christianity, which was destined to become the largest and most influential religion in the world. It turned the stream of human history into new channels, became the religion of the Roman Empire, spread across Europe, and ultimately provided the founding principles for the nation now known as the United States of America. Easter reminds us of the HOPE which the Apostle Peter wrote about in his first letter to the Early Church:
“We have been born anew to a LIVING HOPE through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:1)
During these days when the dangerous and deadly pandemic known as COVID 19 (i.e. the coronavirus) continues to spread nationally and globally, there is nothing we need more than HOPE, not just a hope to die by, but a hope to live by — something worth living for (but also something worth dying for if necessary, as all Christian martyrs through the ages would gladly testify). Sadly, so many people who have thus far survived this pandemic themselves, but in many places have lost loved ones and friends to this invisible enemy, are not only feeling helpless but also hopeless. This includes a large number of sad and suffering believers who have been wondering where God is at this time and in the whole scheme of things. People today may feel as the Apostle Paul knew many followers of Jesus were feeling during the days of the Early Church, a time of intense persecution and suffering, when he wrote these words of encouragement in his Letter to the Romans:
“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…Therefore, we boast in our hope... we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:2-5)
Notice that Paul speaks here of “peace with God”, and at other times in his correspondence with the young churches he speaks of the “peace of God”, which only believers experience because they are at “peace with God.” Consider also these words from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice… the Lord is near (also translated “at hand”, i.e. right here with us — He is also for us, not against us). Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:4-7)
Is there anything we need more at this particular time than the assurance that God is guarding our hearts and our minds, so we can experience his peace in these turbulent and troubling times and know the hope that is available to all of us in Christ Jesus, a hope that will never leave us disappointed?
In this post, I want us to look more closely at another passage in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 8, verses 18-25, where the master interpreter of the Gospel explains God’s purpose at all times and in all things, including times of suffering and the crisis times of life, especially critical and calamitous times. It is not only God’s plan for all humankind, in all human history, but for the whole of creation, what God’s primary purpose has been from “the beginning”, the dawn of creation (Genesis 1), to “the end”, which will actually be a new beginning, including a “new creation” (Revelation). The Bible does not give us an answer to all of our questions, but God’s written word (i.e. God’s “revealed” will) does tell us what God’s perfect plan and purpose in the whole scheme of things has always been, in the whole story of human history, which is really HIS-STORY.
Without the “good news” of God’s incarnation, His atoning death on the cross and His victorious resurrection (Romans 5:6-8 and 8:14-25), without this gracious visitation and intervention of God into human history and human experience, we would have no real hope (Romans 8:22-25), no “living hope” in the here-and-now or for the hereafter (1 Peter 1:3-9, Romans 5:2). Without the hope that is ours in Christ crucified, risen, ascended, glorified, and coming again in power and glory to establish His kingdom, without the hope of a “new creation,” a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13, Revelation 21:1), history would be little more than a vast and vain show, without any real meaning or lasting significance and purpose.
In his epistles, the Apostle Paul wanted his readers to understand that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not only a gospel of pardon (i.e. for the forgiveness of sins, a gospel of salvation) but a gospel of purpose — not just for us personally, but for the whole of creation for the whole scheme of history (Romans 8:18-25; Ephesians 1:3-10). When Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans, he was writing to encourage his brothers and sisters in Rome during a time of intense persecution. He wanted them to know that their suffering was not without purpose. God was not afflicting them. God was not punishing them. God was working His purpose out at all times and in all circumstances, working “in all things for good” in the lives of those who were seeking to fit into His plan for His chosen ones (Romans 8:28). He was writing to share the hope of the Gospel with them, to help them to see everything that was happening to them through the bifocals of faith. He wanted to be sure they knew, as members of Christ’s Church in its infancy, during a time of tribulation and testing, that their suffering would be used by God to prepare them for the time when they would be restored to their true destiny as God’s adopted children.
He also wanted them to know that they were a part of something much larger than themselves, that God has a plan for all of creation and all of human history. This mighty pageant of the ages is not just a colorful stage for the rise and fall of nations, empires, and civilizations, but rather the womb from which the sons and daughters of God are born. The sufferings believers experience in this broken world are simply the “labor pains” or birth pangs of the children of God. Listen to Paul’s words with this understanding:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation itself waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the One who subjected it, in hope 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. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved (not saved “by” hope, for we are saved “by grace alone through faith” – see Ephesians 2, but we were saved “in” hope)… Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:18-25).
God’s primary purpose in all His mighty acts and interventions has always been and continues to be the development of lives that respond to Him as sons and daughters to a loving heavenly Father in “faith, hope, and love…these three, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
This is the key to history! Civilizations rise as they develop lives that respond to God in trust, obedience, and loving service. When any society or civilization succeeds in contributing to this divine purpose, it stands! It survives! When it fails, it eventually falls. This is the lesson of history that we need to learn at this particular time in our own nation’s history. Compared to countless older nations, the United States of America is still in its infancy. However, this is a perilous time, a time for the putting up of storm signals. These aren’t just difficult or critical times – these are dangerous and calamitous times. Thankfully, we are reminded by scripture that such times are often used by God, the “God the nations,” to bring forth His sons and daughters to help usher in a new beginning, another “Great Awakening.”
Such times as these are filled with much trouble and tribulation, conflict and confusion, division and derision as the result of petty party politics and the abuse of power, and people falling powerless and hopeless. But those of us who are followers of Jesus are supposed to be people of hope, for we know that with God there is always hope. As long as there is life there is hope, and as long as there is hope there is life. Yet there is neither life nor hope without trust in God, who is “our help in ages past and our hope for years to come.” Those who know and believe the scriptures, which write history even before it occurs, have overwhelming confidence in the only true and living God, the God of creation, the God of history, the sovereign God whose purpose will not be thwarted by those who “…love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19). In fact, the God who is Almighty, whose power is unlimited, who can transform suffering into grace, can even use crises, calamities, and catastrophes for bringing forth his sons and daughters more easily than He can use comfortable and complacent times.
Those who believe the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament are authoritative for interpreting historical events, as well as moral and ethical conditions that exist nationally and internationally, do not despair when corruption seems so prevalent. This is the faith Christ’s Church has sung through the ages:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,
Our helper, He amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
Did we in our own strength confide, the battle would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He… and He must win the battle.
As the Apostle Paul says, Christ IS our hope, and “…hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:5). So, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering…do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11-12). The corrupt moral conditions that exist in our own nation, such as the lack of honesty and integrity, lies and more lies, calling evil good and good evil, cannot and will not go on endlessly. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever is sown we will also reap…So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (i.e. if we do not lose heart; if we do not lose hope).” (Galatians 6:7-10)
This is a moral world in which evil sows the seeds of its own destruction. Rebellion against God will not go unchecked. There will come a day of retribution, a time of cleansing, when God’s kingdom will come and Christ will judge the nations. Evil will be vanquished and Christ will reign supreme as God’s will is done on earth even as it is in heaven. This the “living hope” to which we have been born anew as children of God, by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us “…into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Kept in heaven for all who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this we rejoice, even if now for a little while we have to suffer various trials” (1 Peter 1:13-6).
J.B. Phillips, in his wonderful translation of the New Testament, gives us this rendering of Paul’s words in Romans 8:22: “The whole creation is on tiptoe, waiting to see the wonderful sight of the children of God coming into their own full inheritance” (i.e. when our salvation is complete). Paul goes on to say in the same passage that the day is coming when the whole created order will be “…set free from its bondage to decay and death” (i.e. freed from corruption, from the terrible consequences of man’s disobedience to God), and will share in “…the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
This refers not only to planet Earth, but to the whole of creation, every galaxy and planetary system in the universe (scientists are even telling us now that there are undoubtedly other universes), celebrating together, with the sons and daughters of God, the glorious experience of final redemption and restoration (i.e. when our spiritual inheritance that was forfeited because of humankind’s disobedience to God is restored), and there will be a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13, and Revelation 21:1).
There will be no more sin, no more suffering, no more pain, no more separation, no more loss, no more sorrow, no more death, no more tears, for “…all things will be made new” (Revelation 21:3-5). However, as the Apostle Paul explains, and as we well know, the whole of creation is currently “in travail.” But the suffering is not without purpose. It will prove to be the “labor pains” for the birthing of the sons and daughters of God, and carries with it the sure and certain hope of a “new creation.”
In the meantime, Paul reminds us that we ourselves are “inwardly groaning” as we “wait patiently” for this fulfillment of God’s purpose in the whole scheme of things, in all of human history since the Garden of Eden. In this hope we rejoice, for through Jesus Christ, our risen and reigning Lord…
“…we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand (to “stand” is always the symbol of victory in the New Testament), and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5)