Friday, June 27, 2014

Reading Revelation

The folks in the Sunday School class I teach have asked to study the book of Revelation starting in the fall. I doubt I'll be posting as regularly as I did with Romans but I at least wanted to jot down a few of my basic assumption in how I approach this very unusual piece of Scripture.

So here are a few things I find helpful to keep in mind as you read the last book of the Bible.

1. Revelation is a prophetic book but that doesn't mean its primary purpose is to make predictions about the future. Think about the prophetic books in the Old Testament. They have predictive elements to them. But those elements are more like the "If...then..." predictions I make with my children when they are misbehaving. As in "If you can't listen and follow directions, then there will be consequences." While there is a kind of prediction and future-telling in that statement, we certainly wouldn't see that as being the emphasis of such a statement. Instead, the clear purpose of a statement like that one is to reveal to or remind my children of a certain aspect of my character as their father and the nature of our household.

Most of the prophecies in the Old Testament follow this same pattern. "If you don't stop worshiping other gods and practicing injustice, Babylon will come to destroy you." Again, there is a predictive element involved but the real emphasis of these statements is to reveal something about God, the nature of God's relationship with Israel, and how God is working in the world.

John very much stands in this prophetic tradition. In fact, he eats, sleeps, and breathes it. It seems John can hardly write a line of Revelation without echoing the Old Testament in one way or another. So we should expect then that his prophecy will be very much like the prophecy we find in the Old Testament; that's its purpose would be the same.

John tells us as much with the opening phrase of his work: "the revelation of Jesus Christ." That is, the purpose of this book is to reveal Jesus. The primary purpose of prophecy is to reveal God so it makes sense that the only piece of explicitly Christian prophecy we have in our Scriptures would have as its goal to reveal Jesus; who he is, the nature of our relationship with him, and how he is at work in our world. You can read Revelation as a blueprint for the future, a cataloging of church history since Christ, or a prediction of the end-times if you like. Many Christians have read the book in those ways over the centuries. But to do so is to ignore the nature of Biblical prophecy and what John himself tells us about his writing. Like the rest of Scripture, the purpose of Revelation is to reveal Jesus to us.

2. Revelation is a letter addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. It is not a letter written to 21st century American Christians. Yes, it was written for us. At least, that is the faith claim we make when we regard it as Scripture. But it was not written to us. And that should make a difference in how we read it. It was written to people who lived under Roman rule and proclaimed that a Jew crucified by the Romans was the one true ruler of the world. It was written to real people who lived in the real cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. As such, it had to make sense to them in some way. It had to speak to their situation. It had to reveal Christ to them, in their world, in their going to the market, in their decision making, in their family life and the life of their city. If we want this book to make sense to us, we must first learn all that we can about their world and how it made sense to them. If we want it to reveal Jesus to us, then we must first make every effort to understand how it revealed Jesus to them.

3. Revelation is an apocalypse. In fact, the Greek word translated as "revelation" is apokalupsis (Ἀποκάλυψις). In our culture today, when we here the word "apocalypse" or "apocalyptic", we probably begin to envision the latest science fiction blockbuster movie. For us, apocalypse usually means robots or a killer virus or nuclear war wiping out most of humanity. Individuals trying to survive in a "post-apocalyptic" scenario has become a whole movie genre unto itself. The very name of the book of Revelation has become synonymous with the kind of terrible, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenarios it portrays. 

As I mentioned above, the actual meaning of the word "apokalupsis" has little to do with these scenarios. It means an uncovering, a revealing, a disclosure, making fully known. John's purpose in writing Revelation is to pull back the curtain and show us that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than we might normally observe in our everyday reality. 

However, the way in which John goes about pulling back that curtain is what is known as apocalyptic literature. That is, John has chosen a particular way of communicating this disclosure of truth to us and it is not one that he simply created. He is borrowing one of the literary techniques of his time. John's writing seems strange and unique to us because there is nothing like it in the New Testament and for the most part only Daniel and parts of Ezekiel resemble it in the Old Testament. But there were many other apocalypses written in the centuries immediately before and after Christ and as a rule they are highly symbolic writings full of other worldly images like those we find in Revelation.

This is significant because understanding how someone intends to communicate to us deeply impacts how we understand what they are communicating to us. Think of how you might read poetry as compared to a legal document or fiction as compared to a science text book or satire as compared to a newspaper article. Each of these categories of writing can communicate truth but they are each suited to deliver a certain kind of truth. There are different rules for the ways we read and write each of these forms of literature. Most of the time we pick up on those rules intuitively without thinking about them. But when we encounter a form of literature with which we are unfamiliar, say for example the apocalyptic literature like we find in the book of Revelation, it is easy to make a category mistake. As a result, it is important to recognize that extreme, other worldly, life or death images packed with symbolic meaning are the usual tools of the apocalyptic writer in the same way that irony and a dead-pan delivery are the tools of a satirical writer.

Revelation is prophecy. Revelation is a letter. Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Three important things to keep in mind as you read Revelation.

Oh, and one more thing. You'll notice there is no s at the end of that word. And that is not theologically insignificant. John does not see his Revelation of Jesus Christ as one among many possible revelations. It is the definitive revelation - no s - of who Jesus is and how he is at work in our world.

May the Spirit reveal Christ to us as we read the prophecy, the letter, the apocalypse that is Revelation.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

God Has Been Faithful

Paul begins Romans 11 with this question: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” It sure seems that way. Paul finished chapter 9 talking about how Israel has stumbled because they pursued the law incorrectly. He expanded on that idea further in chapter 10 and concluded by echoing Isaiah’s words that they are a disobedient and contrary people. So surely Israel’s time has come to an end, right? They will be replaced by God’s new people, a mostly Gentile people, since his old people have failed to respond to his Messiah, won’t they?


Paul’s answer is a resounding “No!”. We’ve noted many times throughout Romans how central Paul’s own experience - the experience of persecuting the Church out of obedience to the law only to have Christ directly intervene and call him to true obedience and faithfulness - has been to his understanding of all that God is doing through Christ with both Jews and Gentiles. We find he is doing the same thing here as he puts himself on display as exhibit A in his own people’s defense. He is himself an Israelite and God has not rejected him even though God had every reason to do so. Paul had not only rejected Christ but was actively persecuting his followers, entirely “ignorant of the righteousness of God” (10:3). But God in Christ intervened on the road to Damascus to show Paul the way. This is what Paul means when he says it is by grace and not by works. It had nothing to do with what Paul was doing. It had everything to do with Christ stepping in.


And Paul says that the same thing has happened for many other Jews just like him. Perhaps their stories were not all as dramatic as his but it could be no less a matter of God revealing God’s own righteousness to them through Christ. Just as God had reserved 7000 in Israel who had not bowed to Baal in the days of Elijah, likewise God was now preserving a remnant in Paul’s own day even when it looked like all of Israel was rejecting God’s work in Christ.


But neither is this remnant the end of God’s work with Israel. In v. 25, Paul finally spells out for us what he has been hinting at and building up to for a couple chapters now. He says “ Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Despite all that Paul has said in these chapters about his fellows Jews and their failure to perceive God’s purpose or to pursue the law properly, he still believes that God is not done with them. God has only hardened his countrymen to give the Gentiles a chance to respond. This response by the Gentiles along with the remnant of Israel that is responding to God’s Messiah will in turn provoke his fellow Jews to jealousy. This, Paul believes, will ultimately cause them to come to Christ as well. God has not abandoned his people.


Somewhere along the way, however, we begin to realize that this is not merely about Israel, as vastly important as that is to Paul. This runs much deeper than just a concern for Israel. It is a concern about the very character of God. It is a concern with whether or not God has kept his promises. So many hundreds of years before, God had made a promise to Abraham. God renewed that promise with Isaac and with Jacob and with the slaves freed from Egypt. Generation after generation of people, of families, of a whole nation depended upon those promises. Their faithfulness was founded on the idea that God would be faithful to them and the promises God had made to their fathers. Paul has told us repeatedly in Romans, from the first echo of Habakkuk but especially in chapters 9-11, that even though God has done something radically, cosmically new and unexpected in Christ, that newness has not negated the old promises. It has fulfilled them. God kept his promises to Israel and that is a point that bears repeating because it means that God will keep his promises to us. It means that God is faithful.


That single idea, the faithfulness of God, is like a character who has been hovering in the background almost unnoticeable through all of act one only to be revealed as the main character here in act two. Without having realized it at first, now that our character has come front and center we realize that he is the one who has been driving the plot all along. Paul hinted at it in his reference to Habakkuk in 1:17. He highlighted the need for faithfulness in light of human unfaithfulness. He told us a new righteousness had been revealed through the faithfulness of Christ. He told us that God had been faithful to deliver from us our exile in sin. Paul told us God had been faithful to deliver him in spite of all he had done. He told us that nothing could separate us from the faithfulness of Christ. Now that Paul has specifically brought to the forefront of our minds that God is faithful to keep his promises, we realize that is exactly what Paul has been saying one way or another throughout Romans. Despite the strangeness of the almighty God working through a crucified Messiah, despite the distressing lack of response by Paul’s fellow Jews, despite it being in a way no one would have ever expected, God has been faithful to keep his promises through Messiah Jesus.


It is fitting then that this unit of Romans 9-11 and the intense theological reflection of chapters 1-11 conclude with a poetic reflection on the mysterious ways of God.


 “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things.


God promises a nation of descendants to an elderly and childless couple. Then when they finally have a child, God asks for the child’s life. God promises to cleanse his people but decides to do it by a pagan and godless horde of vicious Babylonians. God promises deliverance through a Messiah only to see that Messiah executed like a shameful criminal. God chooses a people only to have those people reject God while others find God. Over and over again, it seems there can be no way forward with the promises of God. Surely this is the moment when the present circumstances will force God’s promise to bend to the breaking point. Then impossible conception happens. Then resurrection happens. Then revelation on the road to Damascus happens. And God’s promises move forward in ways that we never could have imagined were possible. Unsearchable and inscrutable, indeed. But it is out of this faithfulness that the righteous will live. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Kindergarten Student Claims School System Is Failing Her

After having to cancel six days of school because of snow already this winter, some New England school districts are considering the implementation of what they are calling the Alternate Transportation Plan. The ATP involves retrofitting current school buses with certain modifications that will allow them to travel safely in any weather conditions. These modifications include upgrading the vehicles' tires to 8 feet in size and fixing flame throwers to the front of every bus so that the drivers can melt any snow in their path. Due to the appearance of the retrofitted buses, some residents are referring to them as the "Monster-truck buses." Commenting on the plan, one school district superintendent says "Of course, we are concerned for the safety of our students but even more so we are concerned with maintaining our snow superiority over the rest of the country. We have a reputation to uphold."

Local residents agree with the superintendent's assessment of the situation. While they recognize the bus modifications will be paid for by their tax dollars, they believe it is the proper price tag for continuing to practice their snow snobbery. One mother with school age children stated: "We've all posted that meme on our facebook walls about Southerns closing everything down for 1/4 inch of snow while Northerners go to work with three feet of snow on top of their cars. I can't keep posting stuff like that if we are canceling school along with the rest of the country! Something has to be done!"

A Taxachussetts resident commented "My sister in Atlanta is already calling to say that her kids have missed fewer school days for snow than my kids. I've already started a petition showing support for a raise in taxes if that is what it takes to pay for these new buses."

When kindergarten student Hannah Young was asked what she thought about missing another day of school because of snow, she said "But we were supposed to have our Valentine's party today!" fighting back tears. Clearly, this school system is failing its students.

Other New England news outlets are reporting that the whole idea of "school buses" may have been a long term conspiracy by certain groups in the South to humiliate the North after the War of Northern Aggression (sometimes referred to as the Civil War). This comes as the most recent piece of evidence that the deepest divides in our country truly have centuries of history behind them. All Things New will not keep you posted on developments in this story as this is not an actual news website.
 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Word Is Near You

In my last post, I argued that Paul was not setting up “faith” as an alternative to keeping the law. Neither is “faith” the opposite of works in the sense of trying to earn one’s own salvation, since no first century Jew had in mind to attempt that. Instead, Paul was arguing that faith(fulness) was actually the way to maintain and uphold the law all along because the law’s goal was always the faithfulness of Christ as opposed to the law being an end in itself.


Paul continues this train of thought throughout the rest of Romans 10. We see it almost immediately in v.6 when he writes “the righteousness based on faith says….” and he goes on to quote the law. It wouldn’t really make much sense to be quoting from Deuteronomy, itself a part of the law, if everything written in it were contrary to the faith Paul has been talking about. But since Paul has been arguing that faith(fulness) is actually the right way to pursue the law, it is perfectly logical to think that we might be able to find that idea somewhere in the Torah itself. So Paul quotes words from Deuteronomy that speak to the nearness of this law. It is so near in fact that “It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.”


“That is the word of faith” - the one that is so near that it is actually in your mouth and heart rather than something that is external to you - “that we proclaim.” For so many chapters Paul has been talking about this righteousness that comes out of faithfulness and often he has only hinted at what that means, what that looks like in everyday life. It is submitting ourselves to righteousness, in chapter 6, walking by the Spirit in chapter 8. He will give us many more details in that regard starting in chapter 12. But here is another important hint - this “law of faith” is not something external to us but rooted deeply within our very being. Although Paul does not quote it here, one easily thinks of the words of Jeremiah 31 which are so often quoted in the New Testament where God promises to put his law within his people and write it on their hearts. This, I think, is why Paul can say “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” It is not because a few words passing through your lips once is all God wants. It is because the law of faithfulness is not something outside of us. It is something that is imprinted on our innermost being leading us to confess our allegiance to Jesus as Lord.


All this, however, only seems to make Israel’s rejection of Jesus all the more troubling for Paul. He acknowledges that perhaps not all have heard the message about the Messiah preached specifically to them but he says it is not as though haven’t heard at all. Psalm 19, which Paul quotes in v. 18, says that all of creation declares the glory of God. In Romans 1, Paul said this was the same reason that Gentiles were without excuse. Surely, his fellow Jews can not get off any easier. Neither is the problem that they haven’t understood. Isaiah describes his very own people as “disobedient and contrary”. As a result, God is using others who do not know God and have not sought God to incite his own people to jealousy. It is this idea on which Paul will expand in Romans 11.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The End of the Law

In the preceding verses, Paul has retold Israel’s story so as to show that God has always been making and remaking Israel, forming a remnant from Abraham descendants with the result that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Now in 9:30 Paul pauses as he often does to ask a rhetorical question.

            “What shall we say then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it; that is, a righteousness that is by faith(fulness); but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law?”

The implied answer here is “Yes, that is exactly what we should say!”. In fact, it is what Paul has been saying through most of Romans 1-8. And it is that argument in Romans 1-8 we must remember if we are to understand what Paul is saying here. He is not merely advocating for faith over works as those of us raised in the Protestant tradition might expect at first glance. Instead, he is saying that Israel has done the same thing that Paul described himself as having done in Romans 7. Even as Paul “followed” the law by persecuting the Church, that pursuing of the law actually led Paul away from where God really wanted him to be. Likewise, Paul is saying here,  Israel sought righteousness through the law but even in keeping the law Israel did not succeed in really reaching the law’s goal (more on that in a moment).


In the next verse (32), Paul says that the reason Israel failed to reach the law’s goal is because they didn’t pursue it by faith(fulness) but as if it were by works. Once again, it is important to remember how Paul has used this language throughout his letter and not simply impose our own meaning on these words. When Paul has talked about “works” in Romans, he has had in mind specifically the works of the Jewish law; things like circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance, things that marked Israel off as Israel. So when he says that Israel pursued the law by works he is not admonishing his fellow Jews for trying to earn their salvation.  Instead, he is saying they’ve missed what it means to really fulfill the law; that truly reaching God’s law is not about ethnic identity markers. Similarly, when Paul has talked about faith(fulness) in Romans he has been referring to God’s faithfulness through Christ (often followed closely by faithful human response). Likewise, here Paul would be saying the law’s real goal is found not in maintaining Jewish ethnicity but in the faithfulness of God. And it is no coincidence that this is the same thing Paul has just been saying in the preceding verses (whereas arguing that righteousness comes by faith as trust or belief rather than works would have very little to do with anything Paul said in 9:1-29). Paul has just spent the whole chapter claiming that being Israel is not about ethnicity but about God’s faithfulness to his promises.


By pursuing the law as if its goal was maintaining the purity of Israel, Israel has stumbled over the stumbling block of God’s faithfulness in Christ. They failed to see that Christ was actually the law’s goal. That is what Paul means in 10:4 when he says “Christ is the end of the law.” Like its English counterpart, the Greek word telos does not always refer to the termination or cessation of something. It can also mean “end” in the sense of a goal or purpose and that is Paul’s meaning here. Christ is the point to which the law has been leading all along. Jesus is the summit of Israel’s story that Paul has been telling for the last 37 verses. Faith in Christ and the faithfulness of Christ are not the antithesis of the law. Paul is not arguing that Israel should give up the law and just “have faith” instead. He is saying that the way to really fulfill the law is through faith in and the faithfulness of the Messiah. He said as much all the way back in 3:31: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith(fulness)? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law!”.


Once again, we hear the echoes of that old friend who has always been close by as we’ve journeyed through the pages of Romans; the prophet Habakkuk. We are reminded of his assessment of Israel in his own day to which Paul alludes at the opening of his epistle. “The law is paralyzed; justice goes forth perverted” Habakkuk claims but “the righteous out of faith(fulness) will live.” In these verses of Romans 9 and 10, Paul has claimed that the law has essentially been paralyzed for Israel because they haven’t pursued it properly. The law was always meant to be fulfilled by living out of faith(fulness). In the remaining verses of Romans 10, Paul will enlist some of the passages of Scripture most central to Israel’s identity in the first century in order to argue further for this very point.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Anguish for Israel

Romans 8 closed with the exalted themes of new creation and the inability of this world’s suffering to separate us from Christ. Immediately in the opening verses of Romans 9 we get the sense that we have left those exalted heights behind for a much more somber matter. Paul does not indicate to us at first what the topic of these next chapters will be but he does indicate to us immediately that the topic will be serious. He begins with not one, not two, but three assertions of the truthfulness of what he is about to say - “(1) I am speaking the truth in Christ, (2) I am not lying, (3) my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit.” And the thing about which Paul asserts in triplicate that he is telling the truth is that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish”. It is only in v.3 that we even begin to get an idea of what Paul is so upset about and even there he doesn’t spell it out exactly. We only know that Paul is concerned about Israel, his kinsmen. We learn over the next three chapters that Paul is deeply and personally troubled by the fact that so few of his own countrymen have come to see Jesus as their Messiah.


Despite much of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, Paul claims “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” After 2000 years of mostly Gentile Christianity, one might wonder what Israel’s rejection of Jesus has to do with the failure or success of God’s word. But if we are to understand Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, we must see that they have everything to do with each other. That is because the word of God to which Paul is referring is the promises God made to Israel - promises that they would be God’s people and the heirs of God’s kingdom. If those very same people who are now rejecting the Messiah who came to fulfill those promises while Gentiles are simultaneously accepting that same Messiah and thereby inheriting the promises originally meant for Israel, we might ask “Has God abandoned Israel? Has God simply taken what he promised to Israel and arbitrarily given it to others?” Paul’s emphatic answer throughout these three chapters will be “Absolutely not!”


That answer begins in the second half of verse six and the first half of verse seven. God’s word has not failed because “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” It is that idea for which Paul will argue over the next 22 verses and he will do it by recounting the story of Israel.


If you are going to recount the story of Israel, Abraham would be a natural place to begin and that is what Paul does. Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 which God spoke to Abraham; “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” In other words, Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s only son. Ishmael was just as much the flesh and blood of Abraham as Isaac so if bloodlines were what mattered then Ishmael’s descendants would have been Israel as much as Isaac’s. Paul is arguing that “Israel” was never defined by physical descendancy. It was always about those to whom God made his promises. The same is true, Paul declares, with Isaac and Rebekah’s sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was just as much Isaac’s son as Jacob. In fact, Esau was the firstborn with every right to his father’s inheritance and blessing. Additionally, Jacob was no saint but a liar and deceiver. In spite of all that, God chose to enact his promises through Jacob who would later be renamed Israel. Once again, being Israel was never about simply being of the lineage of Abraham. It was about God fulfilling his promises to Abraham through whomever he chose.


This emphasis on God’s choice leads to a natural question. Is God unjust? If it is all about God’s choice apart from any human standard of worthiness, does that make God arbitrary and unfair? Not surprisingly, Pauls says no, and he turns to the next scene in Israel’s story, also God’s greatest act of justice in Israel’s story, to make the point. Paul claims along with Exodus 9:16 that God actively hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not repent. But God did this for the express purpose of showing mercy to the Israelite slaves. To be sure, God made a choice but it was a choice for the salvation of a people. It was the choice that made Israel.


Paul says the same is true in the final movement of Israel’s history prior to the Messiah: the exile. When Paul starts talking about some vessels prepared for destruction and others for glory in v.22-23, many assume that those “vessels” are a metaphor for individuals, some of whom are predestined for hell while others are predestined for heaven from before birth. While I won’t deny that Paul had a very strong sense of the sovereignty of God - I would guess nearly every first century Jew did and that even most Gentiles took for granted some notion of fate or divine providence - I don’t think a Calvinist doctrine of double individual predestination is exactly what he has in mind here. This is because, once again, Paul is not telling the story of individuals. He is telling the story of Israel and when he uses the language of a potter and clay anyone who knows Israel’s story will know that he is echoing the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 18, God tells Jeremiah that Israel is like clay in God’s hands and that God can make or remake Israel as God pleases. This is precisely what Paul has been arguing all along: God is (and really has always been) remaking Israel, even to the point of calling those who were not God’s people “my people” as Hosea says.


More specifically, God is remaking Israel into a remnant of Israel. Paul believes that much as Isaiah claimed that God reduced Israel to just a remnant of Israel in the time of exile so also was God currently reducing Israel to a remnant in Paul’s day. But we will see later in chapter 11, that Paul does not expect this to be Israel’s permanent condition. Instead, this remnant of Israel will eventually lead to the full salvation of Israel. Much like the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart led to the redemption of an entire people, so the current hardening of Israel is meant for salvific purposes as well.


Paul’s claim in this chapter has been that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Paul demonstrated this through Israel’s story. Starting with Abraham, then Isaac, Jacob and on through the Exodus and the Exile, God has always been making and remaking Israel. Israel has never really been all the physical descendants of Abraham because from the moment God chose Isaac rather than Ishmael, a remnant within Abraham’s descendants was being formed. Paul believes that this is what is happening is his own day; a remnant is being formed around Jesus out of Jews and Gentiles that will eventually be the salvation of his kinsmen, Israel

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Suffering New Creation Into Existence

The final verses of Romans 8 decidedly bring to a close a large section of Paul’s argument in Romans. Throughout these 8 chapters, Paul has been laying out rather systematically his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He identified the problem of the human condition; that no one is righteous because we are all, Jew and Gentile alike, powerless before the overwhelming force of sin. But God has acted decisively in the person of Jesus Christ, revealing a righteousness apart from the Law. This righteousness is possible because the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new age, an entirely new epoch in history. We are able to participate in this new reality by means of baptism and our own willingness to walk according to the Spirit. Due to the presence of the Spirit in this completely new age, we are able to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law in a way that was not a possibility prior to Christ. Furthermore, this possibility of holiness is a sign of what God intends to do for all of creation; remaking it and setting things right so that all of creation is transformed and God’s righteousness and peace reign in the world.

Of course, Paul knows that remaking has not been completed yet. It has only just begun in the communities of Christ followers springing up around the Roman Empire; little colonies of new creation taking root in the midst of the old. But that old creation with all of its ways of destruction and sin, injustice and unrighteousness is still quite prevalent. It is so prevalent, in fact, that more often than not, one might find it difficult to see the presence of the new creation at all. It might be easy to begin to wonder if such a hope for things to be made new is only a fool’s dream. In the midst of so much tragedy, so much hunger, pain, grief, and injustice, can we really say that God is doing a work of new creation among us? Paul’s answer is not only a resounding yes but also an assurance that the very things we might imagine are signs of our separation from Christ are actually opportunities to be conformed to his image. This, I think, is the heart of what Paul intends to communicate in the final verses of Romans 8.

Most telling in this regard is the quotation in v. 36. It follows the central question of this passage in v. 35.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”

Surely, this list of dangers combined with the image of helpless sheep is not a comforting thought. Paul first cites all the marks of the old creation in our world, all the things that might cause us to wonder if the Spirit of Christ is really doing this work of new creation among us or not. Paul follows this question with a quotation from Psalm 44 which lists some of the very same concerns before God. The Psalmist says that God has forgotten and rejected his people, leaving them to the affliction of their enemies and selling them for a low price. In fact, in the verses immediately after what Paul has quoted, the Psalmist calls upon God to wake up! In times of suffering, it is easy for the faithful to wonder if God has gone off and taken a nap. Otherwise, why wouldn’t God be here doing something about our plight?

But Paul understands suffering differently. Rather than seeing suffering as something that represents our separation from Christ, he claims it is actually something that brings us closer to and makes us more like the Christ who suffered himself. Contrary to Psalm 44, Paul says “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” Paul ironically claims that it is by our suffering that we actually conquer because it is in those losses that we become more like the Christ who conquered sin and death by his suffering.

Once again, context is exceedingly important at this point. Without it, we may very well misunderstand and dismiss Paul in a number of ways: as a naive optimist who utters platitudes about a suffering he has never himself experienced, as a determinist who thinks everything comes pre-planned with no choice left for us, or as a masochist who sees suffering as inherently good. But what we know of Paul won’t bear out any of those caricatures. Paul was a man who knew suffering in all its ugliness but came to see it differently in light of Christ.

We must also remember that Paul was speaking into a culture in which all these things... tribulation, persecution, famine, etc... are sure signs of abandonment by one’s god(s). Almost certainly, Jesus’ own suffering was one of the reasons why Paul initially rejected Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had really been the Messiah, he would not have succumbed to such a humiliating death. But when Paul accepted the one who suffered as the Christ, he recognized that meant also accepting that the way of the Christ was the way of suffering. Contrary to the popular belief of Paul’s day, Paul had come to see in Christ that suffering was not an obstacle somehow contrary to God’s nature but that it was essential to truly knowing the heart of God. In repeated and various ways, Paul reminds us throughout his writings that if we are to know Christ we must share in the fellowship of his sufferings.

So when Paul says that “for those who love God all things work together for good,” he isn’t saying everything will be always be peachy or your suffering isn’t really that bad or that you should look a little harder for the silver lining that explains how this seemingly bad thing is really a good thing. He is saying that your suffering isn’t for nothing. He’s saying that your suffering isn’t a sign that you are doing life wrong. He’s saying that if the one faithful Jew, the one who got it right it, the one who was the very presence of God in the world suffered too then maybe when you suffer you are closer to the heart of God than you realize.

And when Paul says that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” I don’t think he is saying that God chose a few individuals from before the foundation of the world that would be saved while the rest of us are damned. I think he is saying that the God who has known you from before you were born is the same God that has called you to this fellowship with Christ and that same God will see that fellowship through to its completion.

It is fitting that Paul ends the first half of this magnificent epistle in this way; re-imagining suffering in light of God’s love. In 1:16 Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel...”; a bold claim for a message with something as shameful as a crucified Messiah as its protagonist. But for the last 8 chapters Paul has been explaining to us why it is not a shameful message; namely, because in it the righteousness and love of God are revealed. The love of God revealed in the cross of Christ has turned the meaning of shame and suffering upside down. Shame and suffering have been filled with new meaning as they have been filled with God’s own self, becoming God’s own instruments of righteousness and restoration in our world. The cross, once a symbol of torture and God abandonment, has become the very sign of God’s presence for those who call Jesus “Lord.”

And in that same act of re-purposing shame and suffering, God in Christ has also reworked what it means to be holy and righteous. To put it another way, these verses about suffering are not a mere addendum tacked on to the preceding verses about holiness and new creation. Christ’s suffering gives shape to what Paul means by holiness and new creation. To be holy is to lower one’s own status for the sake of another as Christ did for us. To lean into the new creation is to subvert the power structures of the old creation by seeking the well being of those “below” us rather than the favor of those “above” us. Reaching back earlier in Paul's letter, this is what it means for the righteous to live out if faith(fullness). This is the righteousness apart from the law for which Paul has been arguing.


To live life in such a way, will surely be costly to us but, Paul argues, if all these things.... the cross, death, sin.... have not kept us from the love of Christ then indeed “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” If this is the length to which God goes to be with us then indeed “Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?” In our suffering, our weakness, our vulnerabilities, even in death, we are not defeated, abandoned, or put to shame. We are more than conquerors because the Messiah, the Son of God has suffered these things for us and suffers them with us still. When we suffer for and with others, we are ushering God's new creation into existence.