The phrase “provided we suffer with him” in Romans 8:17 can be easy to skim right over, but it’s a huge statement. Paul tells us that we’re heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, “provided we suffer with him.” For a woman named Blandina,1 who lived and faithfully obeyed her Lord in the early centuries of the church, it meant a horrific martyrdom. The church historian, Eusebius, tells of her being brought into the arena, beaten until her wounds were gaping open, then hanged on a pole to be exposed as food for the wild beasts because she would not renounce her confession of and commitment to Christ. Eventually, she was taken down2 and imprisoned until a later date when she was once more brought out into the arena where she was whipped until the soldiers were exhausted, placed on a griddle that was heated up and began to cook her, and then thrown into a basket where a bull tossed her about until she finally went to be with the Lord. For Blandina, that’s what the phrase “provided we suffer with him” meant.
And she’s not alone. The author of Hebrews tells us of individuals who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves” (Heb 11:36-38). And we know that this listed could be multiplied.
For some of you here this morning, following Christ has meant being mocked and ostracized in some measure by your family, being excluded by your friends, or persevering in a marriage relationship where your spouse seems to have stopped caring for you in some measure. “Provided we suffer with him” is no phrase to skim over, is it?
It’s a weighty phrase. And it can have the effect of demoralizing us right in the midst of this glorious news we’ve seen in Romans 8. I mean, think about everything that’s been told to us in this chapter. We’re free from condemnation. We have the Spirit of God indwelling and empower us. We’re children of God. We have the Spirit moving us to cry out to God and testify that we’re his children. We heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. We’re going to have glorified bodies one day. It’s amazing. And then, right in the midst of that we read the phrase “provided we suffer with him.” If nothing else, it can cause us to stop in our tracks and say, “Wait a second. How can we press on and find encouragement to continue in faithfulness in the midst of suffering that could be intense or prolonged?”
I think Romans 8:18-30 is written, in part, to answer that question. That is, Paul launches into truth after truth that he wants the Roman believers (and us) to know as we consider our lives in this age, suffering with Christ, as we await the day when we will be with him.
Therefore, what I want to do this morning is highlight for us in our text three truths that are greatly encouraging and that will strengthen us for perseverance in the midst of our suffering in this age. And I’ll say one more thing about that. It is probably true that Paul has in mind our suffering for the sake of following Christ in verse 17, but by the time he gets to verses 18 and following, he’s expanded it to talk about suffering that merely comes with living in this world that has been subject to decay ever since Genesis 3. So, these truths are meant to encourage us as we walk in obedience to Christ in the midst of persecution and attacks, disease and distress, struggle and hardship. And Paul begins by pointing us beyond this age that is riddled with sin and death altogether, and he first notes that:
The coming glory of eternity is beyond our comprehension
Paul begins our section, writing, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (v. 18). Now, note what Paul is not doing with this verse. He’s not making light of suffering. Paul isn’t saying here, “You’re suffering really isn’t as deep and painful and agonizing as you think it is.” This text doesn’t help us as much as it should if we see Paul dismissing the weight of suffering. I mean, this is a guy who didn’t need an education on how deep suffering could be. He’d been imprisoned multiple times, suffering “countless beatings,” often near death, had been stoned, shipwrecked, adrift at sea, consistently in danger, suffered toil and hardship, suffered hunger and thirst, and had the weight of caring for churches that were often going adrift. He knew suffering. He’s not downplaying suffering.
But what he is saying is that the glory of eternity that awaits us is so amazing that our suffering, as deep and weighty as it is, isn’t even worth comparing to that coming glory. It doesn’t even deserve to occupy the same set of scales. This is the same sort of dynamic Paul is pointing to when he says to the Corinthians that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). It’s not that he underestimates being abused by the very one who should love you or your body breaking down because of Parkinson’s. He’s saying that the glory to come is beyond comparing to this present suffering, but if you press him, then the comparison makes this present affliction appear light and momentary, not really even registering on the scales. That’s how great and glorious eternity will be.
He then points us to a picture to illustrate the greatness of the glory of eternity by noting that the whole created order itself is groaning, as if suffering the pains of childbirth, waiting for that day when the Lord returns, Satan, sin, death, and the curse will be gone, we will be raised from the dead in our glorified bodies, and we will know the glorious new creation of a new heavens and new earth.
In fact, Paul tells us that the glory to come is so great that all of creation is yearning, and aching, and groaning for it. We read in verses 19-23, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 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.”
What does verse 19 mean – “the revealing of the sons of God.” After all, this is what creation is groaning and longing for. Well, Paul answers in verse 23 as he parallels the phrases “adoption as sons” and “the redemption of our bodies.” But isn’t it true that we’re already God’s adopted sons? Why is creation waiting? Well, remember how I mentioned two weeks ago about standing in court on November 23, 2010 and hearing the judge read, “His name will be Nicholas Daniel Tankersley”? At that moment, he was my legally adopted son. But it wasn’t until December 12, 2010, nearly three weeks later, that we had “gotcha day,” when we were able to go get him, hold him without having to take him back to an orphanage, and show everyone in an open way that this is our son.
In the same way, we’re already God’s adopted sons. But there’s coming a day when our Lord is going to come get us and reveal to everyone and everything in an open way that we’re his sons, and that will happen at the resurrection. That’s our gotcha day. And that’s what creation is longing for. Creation is longing for the day of the resurrection.
The reason creation is groaning and eagerly longing is because it was subjected to futility when Adam sinned. When Adam was put on earth, he was placed in the garden to rule over all of creation. He was given dominion over everything. He was creation’s ruler. Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, so all of creation was cursed. The reason that there are thorns and thistles, hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and droughts is because of man’s sin. Adam’s sin brought a curse on the earth. God subjected it to futility on the day that Adam sinned, and we see the effects of that every day. But God did it in hope; that’s what we see in verses 20-21.
Paul writes, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him [i.e., God] who subjected it, in hope 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.” In Genesis 3, when God cursed the earth, subjecting it to futility, he did it so that he might redeem the very creation. Just as our bodies were subjected to the death and decay that reigned over the world after Adam’s sin but will one day be freed from that decay at the resurrection, so the created order itself, at that very moment (our resurrection), will be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” That’s why creation is groaning and longing for our resurrection. It knows what is coming.
Every time there’s a tornado, or hurricane, or earthquake, in the midst of the devastation there is a reminder that creation is groaning, yearning and longing because it knows there is something glorious to come. It’s as if every time the earth quakes you can hear creation crying out, “Come on, resurrection!”
But creation isn’t the only thing that groans, is it? We groan. That’s what Paul tells us in verse 23. We groan for the day when there will be no more sin, no more pain, no more tears, no more death. We groan for the day that cancer seizes the body of one we love for the last time. We long for the day that death snatches our child away from us for the last time. We long for the day when your mom who loved and cared for you looks at your for the last time with confusion, not knowing who you are, for the last time. We groan for that day, and that day is coming.
But we don’t have it yet, do we? That’s what verses 24-25 remind us of. We hope for it, but we don’t yet see it. So we wait, with patience. But remember that when the Bible speaks of a believer’s hope, he is speaking of something that is sure. We hope and wait for a glorious day that is so far beyond comparison to all the suffering in this age that they can’t even occupy the same set of scales. That’s our future if our faith is in Christ. And this is weapon number one in our fight to endure and find encouragement and hope in the midst of suffering, a truth to hold on to and remember again and again—the coming glory of eternity is beyond our comprehension.
The second weapon we have is the assurance that until that day, the Spirit of God is interceding for us as we pray.
Until then the Spirit of God is interceding for us as we pray
Paul writes in verses 26-27, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Another way we can endure sufferings in this life is by knowing that the Spirit of God is interceding for us.
One of our weaknesses in the midst of our suffering, as if to compound it, is that we do not know what to pray for as we ought. It adds to our suffering to feel that we don’t even know how we should pray. And yes, we should educate ourselves on what to pray. It’s helpful, for example, to study Paul’s prayers, Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6 that we looked at about a year and a half ago, and the psalms (among other texts) so that we might educate ourselves in how to pray.
However, the Lord knows that sometimes, in our weakness, we just don’t know what in the world to pray. We’ve come to the end of ourselves. Perhaps the suffering is just so weighty, we can’t get our mind to work right. A few years back as I was preparing to preach a funeral of a dear brother, my mind was so distraught, my pain so deep, that I spent a good part of the day just trying to get my mind to focus. I couldn’t think of what I should be praying for. And I believe that’s common when we go to pray in moments of deep distress.
But Paul says that in those moments, as we are praying, but, in our weakness do not know what to pray, the Holy Spirit begins to intercede for us with groanings too deep for words. Now, I don’t think this means that Paul is telling us that the Spirit gives us words to pray. He specifically mentions that the groanings are too deep for words. I think he means that the Spirit himself begins interceding on our behalf, praying in perfect accord with the will of God. That’s why Paul notes in verse 27 that the Father knows the mind of the Spirit and that the Spirit intercedes “according to the will of God.” He wants us to know that in our greatest times of mental inability, the Spirit is praying through us, on our behalf, prayers that are perfectly in line with God’s will for us.
Do you hear the beauty of that? Our God, who loved us to the point of sending his Son to live, die, and be raised for us, sent his Spirit into our hearts so that we might know and feel that we belong to him as his children. And then, as we suffer and our weakness grows so deep that we don’t even know what to pray, the Spirit begins interceding for us according to the will of God for you.
In other words, Paul not only points us to the glorious future to find strength to endure and hold fast during times of great suffering, but he points us to the present as well. Today, when you go to pray and in your weakness don’t know what to pray, you can trust that while you pray your prayers that feel so weak and uninformed, the Spirit is praying through you and for you in accordance with God’s will. Doesn’t that encourage you to pray more? What a blessing Paul shows us in these verses.
But Paul doesn’t just point us to the future or the present, he points us to a truth that is rooted in eternity past, namely, God’s love for us. He verses 28-30 he shows us that:
Our hope is sure because of God’s love for us
Paul wants us to know that the sovereign God who loves us, sent his Son for us, and gave his Spirit to us will work everything in our lives together for our good. He’ll work everything in our life to the end of conforming us to the image of Christ. He writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For 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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (vv. 28-30).
We are told in verse 28 that God is working all things together for our good. In verse 29 we find out that the good is that we are continually being conformed to the image of Christ. But then we are shown something even more glorious—that God’s commitment to work for our good is rooted in his love for us that stretches back to before the world itself was created. Let’s look at how that idea is laid out in these verses.
Paul notes that God will work all things together for good, “For those whom he foreknew.” That is to say, the reason Paul is confident that God will work all things together for our good is because as God’s children, we belong in a treasured and precious category before our God. We are those whom he foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. And when we consider each of these terms and note that they’re only fitting descriptive terms for believers, it’s clear that Paul is saying something about us—those who are trusting in the crucified and risen Lord for our salvation. But what in the world is he wanting us to understand?
Well, it’s worth pondering that for a moment. What exactly does Paul mean when he speaks of a group of people [i.e., “those,” whom we’re identified as you and me, believers] whom God “foreknew”? When the Bible tells us that God knows us, it means more than that he has cognitive awareness of us. So, when Paul tells the Galatians in Galatians 4:9 for example that they “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” he doesn’t mean that God became aware of them, like you or I might become aware of a new neighbor that just moved in down the street whom we had never met. By reminding the Galatian believers that they are “known by God,” he’s saying to them that they are the object of God’s commitment, affection, and love.
In Amos 3:2 the Lord tells Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Now, that doesn’t mean that the Lord was somehow unaware of any other peoples on the planet. It’s not as if Abraham could have come to the Lord in prayer one day saying, “Phillip the Hittite is giving me all kinds of trouble,” and the Lord would have responded, “Hold on. Give me one second. Phillip? I’m really sorry, Abraham, I’m drawing a blank. Which one is Phillip again?” Of course not. What he was telling Israel was that they alone were the people on which the Lord had set his affection and love and commitment. They were special to him.
So, when Paul tells us that we were foreknown by God, he’s reminding us that we are special to God, loved by God, the objects of God’s affection. That’s why Paul ultimately goes on to ask in verse 31 “If God is for us, who can be against us” It’s why he says in verse 32 through the end of the chapter that nothing in all of creation—whether tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword, or death, or life, or angels or rulers, or anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God for us in Christ Jesus.
And by saying we were foreknown by God, he’s reminding us that God’s love for us, affection for us, and commitment to us existed before the world was founded (i.e. “fore” means before creation). That’s why nothing’s going to separate us from God’s love for us. His commitment to us and love for us isn’t some kind of late-arriving reality. It existed before anything we see around us existed. It existed before we existed! So, nothing will stop him from taking those of us whom he’s justified and making us like his Son so that he’ll bring us to a point of glory—even if it involves working everything in our lives to that good end. That’s why Paul speaks of our glorification in verse 30 as if it’s a done deal.
And that’s what Paul wants us to settle in our hearts. Not only is the coming glory beyond comparing to anything in the present. Not only does God’s Spirit intercede for us when we go to pray but don’t know what to pray. But all of his good work for us and in us is rooted in his love and affection which extends back before creation itself. And I’ve found little if anything that helps me think about how secure I am in Christ than to remember that the reason God predestined me to be conformed to the image of his Son, called me to himself when I was nine years old, justified me the second I responded to that call in repentance and faith, and will most certainly glorify me at the resurrection is because he set his love on me and committed his affection toward me before I ever existed. Paul knew it, it’s why he could speak of Christ’s redeeming work of living, dying, and being raised for us by saying, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). It’s why John in Revelation 1:5 describes Jesus as the one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” What a glorious truth to hold to as we endure during this present age filled with all kinds of suffering.
So, as we suffer with our Lord today and in the days to come, let us hold fast, holding to these encouraging truths as we groan with all of creation for that glorious day when our Lord who has loved us from before we were born comes and gets us so that we may be with him forever. Until then, let’s remember what he has done for us as we come to the table. Amen.
1) http://pages.swcp.com/~vogs/eusebius.html (accessed on December 26, 2017).
2) Interestingly, Eusebius notes that the soldiers took her down from hanging on the post because, by hanging there, she reminded many onlookers of what Christ had suffered by hanging on the cross, and because of her example and prayers from that post, many believers were being encouraged to persevere in holding fast to their confession.