Romans 8:23-25 “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Paul is admired for packing a number of magnificent truths into a few sentences, and these verses before us illustrate that fact perfectly. My task is to unpack them and show them to you one by one so that you’ll understand and appreciate what the Spirit of God inspired him to write. That in turn will make you a better Christian, with greater thankfulness to God and more love for men and women. There are ten occasions in these verses where the pronouns ‘we’ or ‘our’ are found. So Paul is focusing on us Christians and he is describing for us what we are to understand and how we are to live as a result of what Jesus Christ has done for us.
- WE LIVE CONFIDENTLY.
Some of you are very near to the kingdom of God, but what is keeping you back from entrusting yourselves into the welcoming arms of the Lord Jesus is this. You feel afraid that you won’t be able to keep going on and on, year after year, following the Saviour. You fear that temptation will prove too strong and that you’ll fall away. You might have known of others who started out but couldn’t keep it up. You know your own heart how fickle you can be, at times you do feel that you’re a real Christian and then there are other times you don’t feel like that. “Oh this doubting heart of mine,” you say.
I want you to see what Paul says here, “we ourselves . . . have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (v.23). You see the apostle Paul stands in solidarity with the entire Christian congregation in Rome. He doesn’t address them with the pronoun ‘you.’ ‘We ourselves’ he says, . . . ‘us.’ He knows of a group of elderly Roman Christians, blind and deaf, some had been beggars; all have lived a hard life . . . ‘us’ he says speaking in solidarity with them. He looks at the children, new in the faith, all their lifetimes stretching before them, ‘us’ he says to them. He looks at the soldiers and the members of Caesar’s palace and the millionaires and the church elders and he says ‘us.’ He stands with them all and he says, “me too . . . we believers in Jesus Christ have the firstfruits of the Spirit.” All of us, not just the elders or the super Christians, but every single believer has the Spirit.
Paul has already told them in verse 9, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” In other words the Bible insists that everyone who belongs to Jesus Christ has the Spirit of Christ dwelling in him. That is why we live confidently, because of God in us. Each mere Christian has illimitable access to the Spirit of God; he has the Spirit to quicken him, the Spirit to illuminate his mind, the Spirit to sanctify him and make him a purer man, the Spirit to strengthen him, the Spirit to lead him. That is the privilege of every Christian without exception. In our text Paul says, “we have the firstfruits of the Spirit.”
The picture of the first-fruits would be very familiar to them. You don’t pick the first fruits of a crop if the grapes, for example, are still as hard as ball-bearings, small and bitter. You don’t pick the first apples if they are green and sour. You don’t pick the firstfruits from the orange tree while the fruit is still green. The first fruits are only cut when they are absolutely ripe and delicious. If you were an Old Testament Christian you would take the first fruits to the Temple as a thanksgiving offering to God for another harvest safely gathered in. You would present the best to God, the finest, ripest, sweetest fruit and dedicate it joyfully to him. That is what we have here. We Christians possess the firstfruits of the Holy Spirit growing in our lives, not something inferior in any way. The first fruits in the fields are the perfect, ripe, delicious fruit from the corn, the vine or the olive tree. And the first fruits of the Spirit are also perfect, ripe, delicious spiritual fruit. But it’s not that we have dedicated the firstfruits of the Spirit to God, but that he has dedicated the Spirit’s fruitfulness to us.
What are they? They are first of all the Spirit himself. He comes to us and he regenerates us giving us spiritual birth and spiritual life. He comes and he convicts of sin and righteousness and judgment showing us our great need of salvation. He comes and he illuminates us giving us understanding of our plight and God’s great answer in Jesus Christ. He comes and he gives us fruitfulness, “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control.” He comes and he gives us gifts of service, speaking, hospitality, discernment, exhortation and so on. He comes and he seals us confirming that we are now God’s for ever and ever. He comes and he leads us into the way of holiness and truth and righteousness. What fruit are ours! Into whom does he come? Which Christians does he choose to indwell? Paul’s unmistakable answer is ‘us.’ All of us believers. Every one of us disciples. All who are born again and justified and indwelt by Christ and adopted into God’s family. The mere Christian has the first fruits of the Spirit, this little Christian girl, the newest lamb in the flock of the good Shepherd has these firstfruits.
Why does he call the presence of the Spirit in us “firstfruits”? It is because he is united us to what we shall be in heaven, when the work of our salvation is complete, and we will be transformed by the Spirit into likeness to Jesus Christ. He is joining what we are now to the great harvest that will be safely gathered into God’s garner for evermore. That will be the consummation of our salvation. The first fruits here and the full harvest in heaven are all part of the same harvest. Say you grew up in a happy home in the USA, but you came to live in Aberystwyth, and your parents before you left gave you a cutting from a bush in their garden that you loved, and you have planted it and it is growin here in Aberystwyth. It is part of home; it reminds you of home and their love. We have the first fruits of our heavenly home. The Spirit is going to bring you into the presence of God. Until that time we have God the Spirit in his perfection and power and glory at the very heart and centre of our lives, but God will not change one single Christian into the complete image of Christ until the last day. Now the first fruits, and then, with all the ransomed church of God, will be the full harvest.
When the Old Testament believer brought the first fruits into the Temple as an offering to God the worshipper was saying, “These are yours. They have come from you. They are your faithful pledge to me that your promise of a land flowing with milk and honey has come to my family and home, and I am full of thanks and praise to you. I give you what is ours.” So we say to God, “You have begun a good work in me by the Holy Spirit, and you will complete it also, so that one day I shall be fully sanctified in body, soul and spirit. You won’t do half a job in me or any of the elect. When you start something you end it too. You have given me God the Holy Spirit as the firstfruits and the end will be complete Christ-likeness.”
That is why the Christian is not afraid to begin the Christian life and go on in following the Saviour. It is because he is not trusting his own mind to understand, or his own physical energy to endure, or his own heart to love, or his own resistance to temptation to remain faithful. He is trusting what God has done in giving him the down-payment of the Spirit as the earnest of the complete work finished in glory. God will certainly do it or he would not give us the Spirit in the first place. We live the Christian life confidently because our confidence is earthed in the pledge of the indwelling Spirit of God. So I am asking you today not to put off becoming a follower of Jesus Christ because you fear you will fall away. You will certainly fall into hell one day if you refuse to come, but if you do come he has promised you the Holy Spirit to be in you, this gentle, lowly, holy guest to strengthen and keep you and help you live a new life and give you trust that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness. Receive the Spirit of God!
- WE GROAN INWARDLY.
You might think that as a result of this confidence that we have God in us that we would be strutting our religious stuff before the watching world with a hideous, ugly, proud certainty – “Look at us! We are the children of God. We have the Holy Spirit in our lives. See!” There is nothing like that. We have the first fruits of the Spirit and . . . we groan! You see how he says it, “Not only so, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly” (v23). Of course this does not mean that we meet and we groan amongst ourselves, that at 6 p.m. on a Sunday night there is a ‘symphony of sighs’ in Alfred Place. No. The N.I.V. makes it plain that the groaning is inward. I am groaning inwardly at this present moment but none of you would suspect this at all. The Pharisees groaned outwardly in order that everyone hearing them might think, “There goes a hyper-spiritual man. Listen to his groaning.” They did everything outwardly so that people might think they were full of the Spirit. Every true Christian groans inwardly. I can give you four reasons for our groaning:
i] We groan because salvation is incomplete. Yes we are perfectly justified, perfectly adopted into the family of God, perfectly joined to Jesus Christ, delivered from the lordship of sin, clothed in the righteousness of Christ and all our sins are forgiven. That is the perfect status of every single Christian, and so in all of that we can rejoice always. Our Saviour having begun the good work in us will complete it in the day of Christ and until then he saves us to the uttermost always praying for us. That is our great privilege, but our salvation will be incomplete until Christ appears, when our bodies will be raised from the grave and transformed, made like Christ’s resurrection body. That salvation is nearer than when we first believed, but we haven’t attained it yet and so we groan at the imperfection.
ii] We groan because we share this incompleteness with all creation. All the visible world around us is groaning, the earth and the seas and the atmosphere and the animal world and the vegetable world. It is all groaning because it lies under the curse that has come upon it since the rebellion of our father Adam. It is in bondage to decay. It bears all the marks of mortality. We cannot see the destruction of this world by storms and rats and deserts and viruses and not groan at the pain of the multitudes. You see a home destroyed by a flood, or engulfed in a fire and you groan. We are not unfeeling stoics. If the sight of death made Jesus weep then there is much every single day that will make the true believer weep.
iii] We groan because of remaining sin, that is the flesh that will be a part of us until we see the Saviour. It spoils everything we do and makes it imperfect. We seem to have made such little progress in spiritual growth. We are impatient, and we retaliate. We are loudmouths and smart alecs. We can suddenly have the most disgusting imaginations. The good that we would do we don’t do, and the evil that we wouldn’t do, we do. We cry, “O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this death?” Then we thank God for Jesus Christ who will deliver us when he appears. Until then there is much failure and many a groan.
iv] We groan because of the glory that we know about that is not yet revealed. We are like a man in prison who knows that some day in the future he is going to be released. He is going to experience his liberty. But the days of incarceration are long and wearying, and he longs for his freedom and groans that it has not come to him yet. That is the picture of the groaning Christian, knowing that a new heavens and a new earth lie before him, and there is no curse there. “When shall this be mine?” Think of the longings of a number of hymns.
Jerusalem, my happy home, my soul still pants for thee!
When shall my labours have an end when I thy glories see?
We speak of its freedom from sin, From sorrow, temptation and care;
From trials without and within – But what must it like to be there?
Elizabeth Mills, 1805-1829
Certainly Elizabeth Mills, dying at 24, soon discovered what it was like to be there. The Christian groans while he is not home. Some preachers grin too much and groan too little.
- WE WAIT EAGERLY.
Paul describes another aspect of Christian experience; “We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies&
rdquo; (v.23). Where did the Cardiganshire sea captains build their homes? On hills above the harbours overlooking Cardigan Bay so that their wives longing for the day when their husbands returned home would see from their windows the sails of the schooners rising above the horizon returning from the long voyage away, and they would go down to the harbours to greet them. What eager waiting for the sight of a loved one again; what eager anticipation for school leaving, for the results of our exams, for our first job to start, for our wedding day, for the birth of our child, for the big game, for retirement! Doesn’t our life consist of the anticipation of many future events? And shouldn’t we who know God and know that one day we shall see God in Christ and experience the blessing of a complete salvation, shouldn’t we wait eagerly for that day? What does Paul particularly think of? Two things:
i] Our adoption as sons. The word ‘adoption’ is used in two ways. It is used of our present privileges as adopted sons of God. Paul tells the whole congregation in Galatia, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gals.3:26). The most backsliding man and the newest Christian to join the church – every Christian is a son of God. The apostle John says, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (I Jn. 3:1). Every Christian can pray to our glorious Creator and can address him thus; “Our Father who is in heaven.” But the fullest realization of being a child of God, with all the status of such a title and all the privileges that that rank brings, will not be experienced until we are in God’s heaven.
High is the rank we now possess, but higher we shall rise;
Though what we shall hereafter be is hid from mortal eyes.
Think of it, in heaven I shall be a son of the God whose glory and power fills all the new heavens and earth – and he is my father. Angels shall serve me; my inheritance there will be the inheritance of God’s son. I shall be a joint heir with Christ. What he receives there I shall also be receiving. The uttermost parts of the universe will be our possession. But most gloriously of all I can turn to God and speak familiarly and reverently with him, as Adam did in the Garden in the cool of the day. That will be part of the adoption before me and I am waiting eagerly for it.
ii] The redemption of our bodies. The word ‘redemption’ is also used in two ways. It is used of the present status of every Christian. Peter tells all the scattered disciples who lived in what we call today ‘Turkey’ “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (I Pet.1:18&19). “You have been redeemed” he tells them. Past tense. The word ‘redemption’ means deliverance from the domination of evil by the payment of a price. We once would do just what sin told us to do, rejecting Christ and his salvation, because sin was our master, but the Son of God came and he destroyed the power of sin. Jesus paid an infinite redemption price for our deliverance, so that though sin still tells us, “Reject him. He is a cruel Master who has forgotten about you,” we tell him, “We love our Saviour who has redeemed us from being your slave. We are now free men and women. Freely we serve him and take what he gives us, whatever it is, bad or good.”
We are redeemed now, of course, by the blood of the Lamb, but we are looking forward to full redemption, the redemption of our bodies from remaining sin, from the mortality that lies over us – “it is appointed unto men once to die.” One day death will have no dominion over us. Our bodies will be redeemed from the power of the grave and we will taunt our former mortality, “Where O death is your victory now?” We shall rise from the dead and this mortal will put on immortality. That is the consummation of the redemptive process. This body of our humiliation prone to its own sins and weaknesses, will be conformed to the likeness of the body of Christ’s glory, and we are waiting eagerly for that. Do you have some eager expectation about the future? If you have rejected Christ and his resurrection then all you are facing is death and annihilation. Soon you will cease to be. You have no other hope than that. Who eagerly anticipates such horror? No hope for the unbeliever. All he expects is to be snuffed out. Little wonder in the light of such expectation the nation is in despair and needs narcotics and tranquilizers by the ton. People without God are people without hope.
- WE HOPE SAVINGLY.
Now there’s a hope which is just wistful and sad. You attempt to cheer up a person but you know you’ve failed when they say with a weak voice, “I hope so . . .” But there is by contrast the Christian hope that is strong and saving. Christ is the hope of glory and he is also the glory of our hope. Our hope as Christians is not in the man we put in 10 Downing Street two years ago but in the man we put on the cross and in the tomb 2000 years ago, whom God then raised from the dead and put on the throne of the universe. The world is vaguely hoping for the best, but Jesus Christ offers the world the best and only hope. That is what Paul is talking about here when he says, “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But . . . we hope for what we do not yet have” (vv.24&25).
Let’s remember the three tenses of salvation. The past tense; we have been saved by Christ’s manger, and his cross, and the empty tomb. By his coming and holy life and atoning death he has obtained salvation for us. He has saved us all from the guilt and shame and condemnation of our sins by being made sin for us as our substitute – the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world. From his death 1900 years ago flows all our hope.
Then there is the present tense; we are being saved from the domination of sin and its constant attacks on us by our Shepherd King and great High Priest. Jesus ever lives to save us to the utmost. He is praying now for us because he loves us deeply, and though we are tempted constantly and often fall he is determined that we won’t despair. We’ll keep going; we keep repenting; we keep fighting and resisting the devil. He is saving us from the influence of sin today.
Then there is the future tense of salvation, and that is what Paul is speaking of here, the hope that is focused on our future glory. We are going to be saved from the very presence of sin. Even the very possibility of our sinning will be ove
r. If it weren’t for that hope our hearts would break. Men would be literally nothing, just extinction and annihilation. You know those familiar words of Isaac Watts about his hope as he considers the heaven that lies before him and every single Christian:
Sin, my worst enemy before, shall vex my eyes and ears no more;
My inward foes shall all be slain, nor Satan break my peace again.
Then shall I see, and hear, and know, all I desired or wished below;
And every power find sweet employ in that eternal world of joy.
That is the Christian hope, looking forward to our meeting with Christ beyond this world, the resurrection and glorification of our bodies, and the joy of being with our Saviour in glory forever. New Testament devotion is consistently oriented to this hope; Christ is "our hope" (1 Tim. 1:1) and we serve "the God of hope who fills us with joy and peace in believing so that we overflow in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 15:13). Faith itself is defined as "being sure of what we hope for" (Heb. 11:1), and Christian commitment is defined as having "fled to take hold of . . . this hope as an anchor for the soul" (Heb. 6:18-19). A man of hope – what a friend for any congregation to have. What a presence, what a ministry he will have. He will be a man of action and inspiration. Jesus directed his disciples to lay up treasure in heaven, because "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21). He was saying in effect, as Peter was later to say, "set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (I Pet. 1:13).
I know a Christian man whose testimony has been ruined by his melancholy. For him the glass was always half empty. How infrequently he would join in singing the hymns with the rest of the congregation. He was an utter Christian pessimist. How grievous! Either the pessimism is going to destroy the hope or the hope will triumph over the melancholy. Hope is vitally important. When you stop hoping you are in the vestibule of hell and there’s no hope there. How different from that man was the missionary to Burma, Adorinam Judson. For seven years he laboured there without one person becoming a Christian and yet he kept going, and one day he said this to an inquirer, “My future is as bright as the promises of God.”
Hope is an affection that encourages purity: everyone who has the hope of being like Jesus when he appears does something about it. What does he do? “He purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). In other words I know that I am going to be like the Saviour one day. It is as unavoidable as night following day, and so I make preparation for it – like men training to be astronauts prepare in the oddest way, they float about in the cargo holds of steadily diving planes learning to live with weightlessness. The hope of deliverance from sin creates in the Christian a spirit of preparedness: we wean ourselves from the love of the world. We’re increasingly getting ready to leave this world for that happy, endless, holy relationship with Christ our Lord. We shall see him as he is – think of it! Seeing the Lord Jesus face to face, and we should be ready for the great change at any time, because we don’t know when the summons will come, so we must always be ready for it. We hope savingly, in other words our hope encourages and promotes our great salvation.
- WE PERSEVERE PATIENTLY.
Paul asks, “Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (vv. 24&25). Those words are the end of any claims to perfection in this life. I am not perfect; I am waiting for perfection. If I had perfection I would not be hoping for it because I’d have got it already. But I am waiting for it. Just like the farmer who has sown the seed and now he is waiting for the sprouting and the growth. The appearance of the first fruits mean that the full harvest is here. Our bondage will be followed by liberty. Our decay will be followed by incorruption. Our labour pains will be followed by the birth of the new creation. You teach the little girl not to dig up the seed she had sown last week. She has to learn to be patient. The expectant mother must be patient and pray that she might go the full term.
Sometimes we think of patience as passivity. It is not. Patience is concentrated strength. Adorinam Judson was patient. William Carey was patient. Charles Simeon was patient. Not all ministries are like Spurgeon’s in Park Street, London or Lloyd-Jones in Aberavon, but every minister has to be patient. Here is the great picture, that we are heading for the coming of Christ in power and glory and the beginning of the eternal state. When that will be we do not know, but for 2000 years most of the church has been patient. That patience is rooted in trust in God that says that everything is under God’s control. The church has prayed, “Thy kingdom come.” That is its longing, but then it has gone on to pray, “and thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” It has submitted to this long delay, and maybe there will be a long time before us again. That patient waiting is often the highest way of doing God’s will. There is much for us to do during our lifetimes. We are to be always abounding in the work of the Lord.
The great need we have is not of grim, stoical patience, gritting our teeth, but a cheerful patience which we learn from God. Think of our Saviour living for thirty years in Nazareth making posts and fences – he who had made the Milky Way, the atom and man! If he could be patient in a carpenter’s shop then you can be patient where God has put you today.
Horatius Bonar lived until he was 80 years of age. He had a long final illness, and the verse that was up on the wall of his bedroom was from the Song of Solomon; “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away” (Song 2:17). He looked at it often in his weakness and pain. He knew that this illness would last only for the time God decreed, until the day broke and those shadows that sin and death cast on our lives vanished away. There was a fine Christian businessman in Australia named Horace Young and as he lay dying his wife was with him. She held his hand until he slipped away in death. She stayed there for ages and then she went out on the hospital verandah. It was facing east and as she looked up she saw the first sign of dawn beginning to lighten up the sky. The night had gone. A new day had begun to breathe, and that same verse came to her then. Her separation from her lifetime companion and husband was only “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away.” Jesus himself is the dayspring from on high. He is the bright and morning star and we’ve been born again to a living hope by his resurrection. Hope stands on tip-toe waiting “until the day dawn,
and the day star arise” (2 Peter 1:19).
Live confidently! Groan inwardly! Wait eagerly! Hope savingly! Persevere patiently! That is how we live the Christian life.
24th June 2012 GEOFF THOMAS