Outline of Passage: New Contexts for Suffering
Romans 8:18-39 serves as a Trinitarian introduction to the Pauline theology of suffering and intercession. Through the motifs of suffering, separation, predestination, creation, intercession, and hope, Paul is able to create a holistic worldview within which Christians can thrive. While structural and linguistic elements help to highlight his position, it is through cultural comparison that his argument is made most clear.
Structure of Passage
Prior to discussing the contents of the passage, it is important to note the structural nature. This passage highlights several themes by its structural unity of the passage is enhanced by eight verbs that are compounds with ἀπο-, nine verbs that are συν- compounds, and five words that are προ- compounds.” In using the repetition of these three forms of verbs/nouns, Paul is able to create a necessary sense of unity in his critical argument for hope.
In the context of the larger book of Romans, this chapter follows discussions about sin and the Law of the Old Testament. The faith is established as a lineage from the historic Jewish faith, for those who may not have known, and then the insufficiency of the past is explained. These 7 preceding chapters depict the grace of God for the errant ways of man, and shows that freedom from sin is possible through Christ.
Universal Suffering (Romans 8:18-23)
Paul’s argument in chapter 8 is both reflective on this history, and also looks forward to the future eschatological hope. He is focused on the pain and the anguish of what it means to live within the context of a fallen world. While this is historical in nature, the argument is used to recount how the choices of Adam and Eve had tremendous long-term consequences, which affected humanity’s morality to such a depth that it interfered with the interactions of all of creation.
The interconnected nature of the Paul’s argument also serves to betray his theological position on creation. It is clear that Paul desires to see a restored earth that is given through the same Spirit that is leading humanity in their own restoration process. Humanity’s repentance is creation’s restoration. Paul’s cohesion of the revitalization of the earth and humanity reflects the holistic reasoning of his theology.
Glory from Suffering (Rom. 8:18)
The introductory thesis of Paul’s argument set the tone for the verses that follow. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom.8:18, NRSV). While this single sentence verse seems like a minor addition to the richness of the verses that follow, it initiates the conversations of Paul’s Christological perspective.
In order to understand the fullness of the passage, it is important to first place emphasis on the way that the word for “sufferings” (Rom. 8:18, NRSV). This word, translated from the word πάθημα means most generally, “the capacity and privilege of experiencing strong feeling…deep emotion, like agony, passion (ardent desire), suffering, etc.” This concept of suffering as a deep seated emotion highlights how strenuous this state can become. As a surprising note, this general concept is only seen as a negative state in the occasions that they are experienced divorced from an individual’s faith.
The weight of the suffering that is presented by Paul in this passage is enormous. This introduction is “not a mere opinion but a statement of gravity, an authoritative judgement.” These sufferings reach beyond a human level, and affect the realm of the created order in which we live. However, regardless of the grave nature of the current sufferings, Paul remains hopeful that these sufferings are “not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed” (Rom. 8:18, NRSV).
In terms of this particular verse, scholars tend to specialize the meaning to the religious perspective of Christians. This routinely plural understanding of sufferings was set against the understandings of the world and the religious practices of ancient Rome. Robert Jewett echoes this perception; while the Caesarean view of life was that believers would inherit “a peaceful, magically prosperous golden age, … Paul cuts through this propagandistic nonsense to refer directly to the παθήματα… suffered by the Roman believers.”
While the Roman civic cult called for humanity to live under a war-stained mantle of glory and riches, Paul aimed to see the glory that was due creation from its birth to be restored. This long-term goal was intended to unite believers with Christ and creation through their sufferings as a means of “eschatological solidarity.” In Pauline theology, to be a believer in Christ is to share the burdens of the faith with God and each other.
The burdens of the fallen world affect more than humanity in the perspective that Paul presents in this passage. Through this simple introduction to the argument, Paul infers that all of creation is anticipating the return of those who were given responsibility to care for and over all things. This perspective of suffering is dependent on a view of the created order that is yet to be reestablished in the world.
Creation Eager (Rom. 8:19)
Along with Paul’s description of suffering, it is important to understand his worldview of creation’s role. His personification of creation emphasizes the uniqueness of the Christian world from that of the Roman civic cult. Unlike the pending transformation of humanity to bring creation’s redemption, the civic cult did not boast a “magical transformation of nature.”
The term, κτίσις, is not limited to use within the Scriptures alone. It is important to note that the arguments regarding creation are not related to the format, as creation ex nihilo was promoted from the time of Homer and following. Rather, the arguments surrounding creation allude to the coming revelation of the intended holistic glory of humanity and creation. What is hidden from humanity now, “will be brought to its final stage and made publicly evident.”
Creation was not created through or out of chaos, but because of the sins of man it was brought into chaos. “The curse of God which fell on guilty humanity extended also to the guiltless creation, thus implicating creation in humanity’s fate, though without its guilt.” Unlike the view of the Roman civic cult, humanity’s return to glory was meant to reinstate the glory that was stolen from creation through man and woman’s destructive acts.
Futile Hope & Bondage (Rom. 8:20-21a)
In light of the unity of redemption that Paul has proposed in these first few verses, there are two important implications made. First, humanity are creation are interdependent in God’s created order. Second, humanity is culpable for the destruction of the glory of the creation it was intended to protect.
For Gentile believers, this conversation would have been counterintuitive to the Roman civic cult into which they had been immersed. Humanity was responsible for destroying creation over which they were trying to rule. The cult and Roman system of myth made claims that stood in direct opposition to Paul’s argument. They depicted a ruler or leader that would bring order to the world through his commitment to religiosity and militant conquest.
The destructive nature of the Roman war machine would have been an easy image to conjure in the minds of Jewish believers. This message would have likely invoked strong images of “how imperial ambitions, military conflicts, and economic exploitation had led to the erosion of the natural environment throughout the Mediterranean world, leaving ruined cities, depleted fields, deforested mountains, and polluted streams as evidence of this universal human vanity.” Hope in such dire situations seemed futile to hold onto, but it was the hope of creation and humanity alike.
Freedom Through God’s Children (Rom. 8:21b)
In light of Jewish and Gentile perspectives, Paul describes the nature of salvation as being more than an individual experience. All of creation has need for salvation. The fall of man in Eden brought about a hope that begs humanity to return to their rightful place in creation. This wellspring of hope for creation is intrinsically tied to the exaltation of Christians.
Unity of Creation & Humanity in Labor Pains (Rom. 8:22-23)
As the redemption of creation’s glory rests on the shoulders of humanity, readers confronted by the striking image of the agony of childbirth. While arresting, the image of childbirth as a comparison to the hope for the renewal of creation “is a natural one, for the difficulties and trials of this age are, for Christians and the creation, fraught with the knowledge that they will ultimately issue in victory and joy.” The hope of creation is not futile when it is placed in those who bear “the first fruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:23, NRSV).
Similar childbirth imagery is seen throughout the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament. This image is often used to invoke the understanding that God’s divine judgment is pending. Pauline perspectives of this day reflect those seen in the Old Testament Prophets, wherein God’s faithful remnant find joy in judgement.
This image is also present as far back as the Garden of Eden. In the judgement of humanity in Genesis 3, creation suffered the consequences along with humanity for their actions. In this moments, childbirth imagery is likewise introduced and both humanity and creation begin to long and agonize for their mutual redemption.
Again, there is a presentation of the inevitable unity of humanity with creation. In this passage, neither creation nor humanity wait for God’s redemption in isolation. This important unity is highlighted in the physical redemption of creation and humanity.
Unseen Hope Saves & Empowers (Romans 8:24-30)
Invisibility of Genuine Hope (Rom. 8:24)
Romans 8:24 stands in contrast with 8:20 in order to show the difference between futile hope and hope in Christ. The translation for this passage is “hope pertaining to supernatural beings and supernatural things, spoken of in God’s promises” or “of Christian hope.” As contrasted to the futility of general hope, this is a life-giving hope.
Paul first identifies the problem of evil – the world suffers under the oppression of sin – but he continues his argument by clarifying what it means to hope. This reference to hope is unique from the previous reference in Romans 8:20 because of the nature of the expectation present. “The Christian hope is more than wishful thinking about the future. It is even more than tentative expectancy. It is an overwhelming confidence that God will perform what He promises.” While mundane hope is expectancy, the hope of God is incarnate and expectant hope.
While the Roman civic cult emphasized hope in the visible Caesar, Paul proposed that this hope was ill-founded. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Rom. 8:24, NRSV). The hopes of humanity are found in their tangible resources and the circumstances of their lives; which contrasts sharply the hope that God gives through His Spirit as a gift. While humanity is overwhelmed by the struggles of this world which “sometimes all but erase the image of that glory for us,” Paul encouraged believers to look beyond to the power of the Spirit.
Patience Required (Rom. 8:25)
Despite the immediacy of the sufferings that Paul expresses in this passage, there is a sense of longevity in the waiting for redemption. “But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:25, NRSV). Relating back to Paul’s previous arguments in Romans 5:3-5 about perseverance in persecutions, this verse works to show a necessary “firm ‘character’ that remains hopeful because it is certain of God’s love in the most adverse of circumstances.”
Intercession of the Spirit (Rom. 8:26-27)
Just as creation and God’s people ‘groan’ as they look forward to their redemption, so Paul explains in v.26 that the Spirit intercedes for us with wordless ‘groans.’ The word that translates to “intercede” (ὑπερεντυγχάνω) is only seen in this passage in the whole of the New Testament. Here, the intercession of the Spirit means the work of the Spirit “in every scene of our lives so we can ‘come to live with’ the Lord’s eternal purpose.” The hope of creation in humanity is solely possible through the intercession and indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
God’s Foreknowledge & Will (Rom. 8:28-30)
The discussion of foreknowledge (προέγνω) and predestination (προώρισεν) is an interesting addendum to this conversation. While the New Testament does not focus much on the concept of predestination, “whenever the idea occurs it is anchored to the person of Christ.” This rare discussion does not hinge as much on the fact that God chooses the person, but rather on the method in which creation and humanity are being redeemed. In this way, “Paul highlights the divine initiative in the outworking of God’s purpose.”
Paul’s treatment of the verbs meaning predestination are not in alignment with the modern concept of predestination theology. The biggest area of difference is found in the discrepancy between God’s knowledge of a person’s character and His knowledge of the person. “Paul does not say that God knew anything about us but that he knew us.” God’s divine plan, as expressed in Romans 8:28-30 and initiated from the time of the fall (Gen.3), invites the participation of humanity and creation.
Christ’s Suffering & Love (Romans 8:31-39)
Incredulity of the Cross (Rom.8:31-32)
The previous two sections use unique vocabulary to highlight the importance of Paul’s argument. This section, however, uses ordinary language to show that “the event to which Paul alludes is extraordinary and arresting.”  Out of the mundane comes an argument for the mysterious and wonderful.
The power of the cross is that it stands in opposition to the failures of humanity. God took on that which would separate humanity from him so that separation would no longer exist. In this way, humanity is “brought by grace under God’s favor and protection.” Humanity’s power is insufficient in light of the divine power of the cross; “If God is for us, who is against us” (Rom. 8:31, NRSV).
Justification & Condemnation are God’s Rights (Rom. 8:33-34)
The discussion continues with questions regarding the authoritative rights for condemnation. In reference to the use of the word ἐγκαλέσει, Moo explains that “the future tense of the verb focuses attention on the last judgement: Who will stand and accuse us at that time?” Rather than denoting any particular time of judgement, this is a reference to our final day of judgement as Christians. “Paul’s argument is that no prosecution can succeed, since God our judge has already justified us.”
Separation & Love (Rom. 8:35-39)
Returning to the discussion of separation, Paul chose to incorporate the word χωρίδω. Most generally, this word simply means to separate or divide something or multiple persons. More specifically, this active form of the word has been related to the “severance of personal relationships, as in divorce.” This was not only a divorce between man and God, but also creation from God and man.
Verses 36 to 39 are “something of an interruption in the flow of thought, and one that is typical for Paul.” This interruption of thought is intended to highlight the way in which Christians should come to expect and thrive within sufferings and trials. These three verses also serve to remind believers that no suffering can separate them from the love of God.
Modern Significance & Message of the Passage
Romans 8:18-39 provide a new context for believers to understand the sufferings of the world in which they live. Paul’s message in this passage that that it is easy to have hope in moments of trouble and trials when they are placed within a larger context. By living in the framework of God’s “future redemption of all creation” believers can live boldly. Present difficulties are bearable in light of the confidence that Christians can exhibit in the redemption of the cross.
In the theological framework of Paul, a Christian must “realize that they, along with the subhuman creation, are in the position of waiting and hoping for the culmination of God’s plan and purposes.” Suffering and anguish are the burden of more than humanity alone, but also affect the cosmos around them. For this reason, it is important for Christians to uphold a healthy and holistic theology of creation.
This holistic theology means upholding a balance in both worldview and personal life. An individual’s spiritual life must be set within the context of the community of faith. In doing so, the believer can allow God’s Spirit to meet their needs in areas of failures and inabilities.
As a final application of Romans 8:18-39, it is important to note the similarities between the Roman civic cult and the cultural normalcies of the modern world. Modern Christians must be aware of the perspective of religious leaders in light of the Scripture from which they teach and preach. Many modern Christian leaders and preachers promote gospels of good will and happiness for all persons, regardless of their lifestyles.
For instance, the concept that God wants Christians to experience His best for them in – in an immediate sense of gratification. This particular form of belief goes against that which Paul presents in his theology of sufferings of Romans 8:18-39. Paul teaches Christians that they must endure sufferings as Christ endured the cross for us; modern gratification theologies teach us to act as gods – in line with the ancient Roman civic cult more so that the Scriptures.
Through this skillful use of structure, language, and cultural comparison, Paul presents a holistic theology of hope amidst suffering. In these 21 short verses, Paul addresses the problem of evil, and how suffering, the fall of humanity, and the insufficiency of the achievements of the believer. His solutions are found in the power of the cross, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the love of Father God. This Trinitarian perspective ignites hope in the hearts of believers, and acts as a critical call into faith-based action on behalf of creation and humanity.
Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker. 1979. A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bence, Clarence L. 1996. Romans: A Commentary for Bible Students. Indianapolis, IN; Wesleyan Publishing House.
Bible Hub, 2004-2016. “2937.ktisis,” HELPS. Accessed December 9, 2016. www.biblehub. com/greek/2937.htm.
Bible Hub, 2004-2016. “3804. Pathéma,” HELPS. Accessed December 9, 2016. www.biblehub .com/greek/3804.htm.
Bible Hub, 2004-2016. “5421. huperentugchanó,” HELPS. Accessed December 9, 2016. www.biblehub.com/greek/3804.htm.
Edwards, James R. ed. W. Ward Gasque 1992. Romans, New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA; Hendrickson Publishers.
Jewett, Robert. ed. Eldon Jay Epp, 2007. Romans: Hermenia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, Minneapolis, MN; Fortress Press.
Moo, Douglas J. 1996. The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
. Robert Jewett, Romans: Hermenia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, ed. Eldon Jay Epp, (Minneapolis, MN; Fortress Press, 2007), 506.
. Clarence L. Bence, Romans: A Commentary for Bible Students, (Indianapolis, IN; Wesleyan Publishing House, 1996), 151.
. Ibid., 152.
. Bible Hub, “3804. Pathéma,” HELPS, biblehub.com/greek/3804.htm (accessed December 9, 2016).
. James R. Edwards, “Romans”, in New International Biblical Commentary, ed. W. Ward Gasque, (Peabody, MA; Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 212.
. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), s.v. “πάθημα”.
. Robert Jewett, 509-510.
. Ibid., 510.
. Ibid., 512.
. Bence, 151.
. Jewett, 512.
. Bible Hub, “2937.ktisis,” HELPS, biblehub.com/greek/2937.htm (accessed December 9, 2016).
. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids, MI; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 515.
. Edwards, 213.
. Jewett, 513.
. Moo, 517.
. Ibid., 518.
. Jewett, 517.
. Bence, 152.
. BAGD, s.v. “ελπίς”.
. Bence, 152.
. Edwards, 212.
. Moo, 522.
. Jewett, 521.
. Bible Hub, “5421. huperentugchanó,” HELPS, biblehub.com/greek/3804.htm (accessed December 9, 2016).
. Edwards, 219.
. Moo 533.
. Ibid., 532.
. Jewett, 537.
. Jewett, 536.
. Moo, 541.
. Stott, 255.
. Jewett, 543.
. Moo, 543-544.
. Bence, 154.
. Moo, 510.
. Ibid., 526.
Rev. Olivia Phillips