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We live in a world in which we have so many technological advances—so many things at our disposal to make our lives easier—from microwaves and dishwashers to cell phones and Siri. Yet, in the midst of all these things that exist to make our lives easier and more simplified, it still seems that our lives are overwhelmingly complicated. Many people are stressed out, confused, and full of anxiety. Counseling centers have become as prolific as coffee shops, and most pastors would acknowledge that there are more people in church who need counseling than there are resources to adequately care for them. We live in a world that abounds with anxiety. But as Christians, we can turn to the Bible for God’s solution to anxiety: focusing on Christ and the hope we have in Him. And here, we read Romans 8:18–30 as the primary text for our encouragement.
The trials and challenges we endure are in many ways not new. “There is nothing new under the sun”—including anxiety (Eccl. 1:9). The first-century church, in many ways, was a church under extreme duress. The political powers of the day were anything but friendly to Christianity. Emperor Nero is infamous for his violent disdain of the church. His persecution of Christians was extreme, as he seized their property and tortured their bodies. His debased “garden parties” in which he used Christians as human torches to entertain his pagan guests are well known. Christians in Rome lived under the daily threat of death and experienced social alienation unlike anything most of us have ever known. If anxiety is the mind’s natural reaction to stress, the church in Rome had many reasons to be anxious.
Paul wrote the book of Romans to comfort and encourage a church under attack, that they might embody grace under pressure. The church at Rome was understandably perplexed. They had entrusted themselves to Jesus—the King of kings and Lord of lords. Yet their allegiance to Jesus had brought them anything but earthly peace and tranquility. In many respects, their social status and material advantage had been better before they identified with Jesus and His church. Now, they were strangers and aliens in their own homeland, visibly witnessing the full brunt of Satan’s hostility toward the church. Nero was but a puppet on a satanic string, bringing violence and destruction on the church. Christians felt the sting of Nero’s serpentine bite and were tempted to anxiety and despair. Where were Jesus and His kingdom? Where was the peace for which they had hoped? What might become of their homes, their jobs, their families?
It is hard to paint this picture without seeing at least some similarity between our day and that of first-century Rome. We may not experience the full brunt of persecution the way the church did in that day, but we are not sheltered from the realities of evil either. We know that identifying with Christ can be costly. We know social opposition and estrangement. We know that the splinters of the cross can be painful, even if they pale in comparison to the weight of our Savior’s cross. We also know the temptation to anxiety and despair. We see storms brewing in the world around us and the willingness of many in the church to compromise its voice rather than stand for the truth. Wolves circle the flock—and the sheep are silent.
It is into this pastoral climate that Paul spoke a heartening word of encouragement. What the Roman Christians needed to hear was not pious platitudes or empty promises of “your best life now.” What they needed was to have their anxious eyes taken off the things of this world and its false gods and to have their eyes fixed on Christ and the sure hope of heaven that belongs to those who belong to Him. This is exactly what Paul does in Romans 8:18–30. He begins by showing the church that the trials and tribulations that we endure are endemic to this present evil age. They began right after creation when the very good things that God had created were immediately subjected to futility and frustration as a result of sin. From the moment that Adam sinned against God, a dark and foreboding cloud began to cast its shadow over all creation. Not only humanity but creation itself was marred by sin’s entrance into the world. Creation began to long for that day when the curse would be reversed and the scars of sin would finally be removed, when death would become a thing of the past and life would be marked by beauty, purity, and peace. Creation, according to Paul in Romans 8, longs for the eschatological day of the new creation, when once and for all things will be as beautiful and peaceful on earth as they are in heaven.
Sadly, most Christians think of eschatology (if they think of it at all) in overly sensationalized ways. We fixate on questions such as what exactly will happen just before the end, who the Antichrist might be, and whether there will be a secret rapture of the church. Such issues have proven to be a distraction from the Bible’s real eschatological interest, which is the “already and not yet” presence of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus is already King, and His kingdom has come as a result of His life, death, and resurrection. The Spirit, according to Paul, is a down payment of what is ours in Christ. The firstfruits of God’s kingdom are already present, though the fullness of that kingdom is yet to come.
But it is the tension of the “already and not yet” nature of Christ’s kingdom that creates so much difficulty for us. We expect what is “not yet” now—we expect heaven on earth—and when we are forced to live by patience and perseverance, we often worry and fret instead. We expect the crown of glory now and are too easily derailed in our faith when God places on us the cross of suffering instead. As Martin Luther said, we have spent far more time cultivating our theologies of glory than our theology of the cross. This was not a uniquely first-century problem. Our modern conveniences have trained us to expect immediate results in almost a blink of an eye. Thus, learning to live patiently between the “already” of Christ’s kingdom and the “not yet” of its eschatological consummation may be difficult. Paul helpfully directs the church’s attention back to creation (which has been waiting patiently for quite some time), but he also points our eyes forward toward the new creation as he says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). What we endure now so pales in comparison to what will be revealed in us later that Paul says the former is not even worthy to be compared with the latter.
Christians are a chronological paradox. We live on earth but belong in heaven. Our lives are lived in this age but are ultimately defined by the age to come. Our King is both with us and yet coming to us. God is not simply our travel partner; He is also our destination. We are already in Christ but not yet what we will fully be in Him when we are with Him in heaven. These truths may not be easily understood, but they are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian—to be in Christ—and to have Christ in us.
This leads us to Romans 8:28–30, which in many ways is Paul’s comfort crescendo. Many things could be said about this section, but we will focus on only one: conformity to Christ’s image. Paul ends this uplifting section by directing the church’s attention to the great “good” that God is continuing to do, even in this present evil age, which is to conform those whom He loves (the church) to the image of Christ. The sufferings that we endure in this present evil age are a tool that God uses to mold us to the image of Christ. They are not outside His providential care; nor are they capricious. Rather, even the hard things that we endure have a good goal—they conform us to the image of Christ.
Who we are in Christ informs our response to trials and adversity. Rather than leading us to anxiety or despair, trials should remind us that heaven will be better, that Christ is sufficient, and that these momentary, light afflictions that we endure now are incomparable to the eternal weight of glory that awaits us with Christ in heaven. Thus, we do not worry; we do not fear; we have no need to be anxious. As the hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God reminds us: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”