18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?
(Romans 8:18-24 NRSV)
Is all creation groaning? (It is)
Is a new creation coming? (It is)
. . . The Lion of Judah, who conquered the grave.
He is David’s root and the Lamb
who died to ransom the slave
. . . He is Worthy, He is
During the last few weeks, as our nation and world have been reeling from the spread of COVID-19, I’ve found myself drawn to these verses of scripture from Romans 8:18-24 and to these words from Andrew Peterson’s wonderful, inspiring worship song, “Is He Worthy?“
I believe they both speak profoundly to what we are currently experiencing (all creation groaning), what we hope for (new creation coming), and why Easter matters so much (The Lion of Judah, who conquered the grave…He is worthy, He is). So, let me reflect with you on each phrase of the song.
Is all creation groaning? (It is).
These plaintive words echo what the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:18-24, as he considers “the sufferings of this present time.” Not only do we humans suffer, he emphasizes, but all creation is groaning. COVID-19, the coronavirus—the fact that we are fighting not against a human enemy, but a natural one—forcefully reminds us of that. Scientists are still trying to figure out where exactly it came from and how it was transmitted to humans. But ultimately, according to Paul, COVID-19 reflects the brokenness and the fallenness of the natural world which stemmed from Adam’s sin. For not only did sin bring death to humanity (Rom. 5:12); it also brought devastating effects to all of creation. The creation, Paul says, was “subjected to futility.” Hence it is in “bondage to decay” and “groaning in labor pains” (Rom 8:20-22).
Remember that the Lord God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you” (Gen. 3:19). As a result, according to theologian, Anthony Hoeksema, “Undesirable types of plants will now begin to spring up, and weeds will multiply . . . other types of results must also be included such as natural disasters—floods, earthquakes, and the like—and disease germs, viruses, and disease spreading insects” (Created in God’s Image, p. 137).
COVID-19 is one of those resulting viruses. This virus, along with all the unsettling, disruptive steps we are all taking to mitigate against it, is a vivid, inescapable reminder that all creation is groaning.
Is a new creation coming? (It is)
But Paul also makes it clear that our present suffering—COVID-19, creation’s groaning and our groaning too—does not have the final word. Here and now, even as we suffer and groan inwardly, new creation has begun. We know that because the Holy Spirit has been poured out. We have tasted “the first fruits of the Spirit” (Rom 8:23) and experience life in the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:1-17).
But the best is yet to come! Throughout these verses Paul uses various images of the fullness of new creation still to come such as “the glory about to be revealed,” “the revealing of the children of God,” “the freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and “the redemption of our bodies.”
And he is emphatic that this will involve, all of creation, not just humanity. So even as creation groans, it “waits with eager longing,” (“on tiptoe” in the J.B. Phillips’ translation) for that day. When it arrives, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8: 21).
Is a new creation coming? It is. That is what we hope for, says Paul, and patiently wait (Rom 8:24).
The Lion of Judah, Who Conquered the Grave
But what is our hope of the fullness of new creation rooted in? This is why the message of Easter is so important. He is the Lion of Judah, who conquered the grave. He is risen! Risen indeed! Our hope, our confidence and certainty of new creation is rooted in the fact that Jesus has been raised and the tomb is empty.
Unfortunately, most North American Christians haven’t heard many Easter sermons that associate the resurrection of Jesus with new creation. They often hear sermons about Easter and the certainty of life after death. “Easter means you’ll go to heaven when you die,” they’ve been told.
However, in the minds of the earliest disciples, who all were Jews, it actually had little to do with that. They did, in fact, believe in life after death, but they didn’t associate that belief with resurrection from the dead. In their minds, resurrection was associated with the Last Day, new creation and the final restoration of all things. So, when Jesus assured Martha that her brother, Lazarus will rise again, her response reflected the typical Jewish view: “Yes . . . he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day” (John 11:24 NLB).
What then was so stunning to the early Christians about the resurrection of Jesus was not that God could or would raise the dead. What stunned them and sent them reeling was the timing of it. In the case of Jesus, the general resurrection (when all rise), which was supposed to happen on the last day, had moved forward from the end into the present. “He is risen!” meant that the Last Day had happened on the third day. Tomorrow, in effect, had happened today!
God’s new world, the new heavens and new earth, had therefore come into being through the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. More than simply the final guarantee of life after death, Easter was the decisive start of the general resurrection and has set in motion the final redemption and transformation of all creation. According to N.T. Wright, “That is the first and perhaps the most important thing to know about the meaning of Easter” (Simply Jesus, p. 191).
In the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus is significant and foundational for many other reasons we could talk about. But I wonder, could it be that COVID-19 might help us rediscover what the early Christians considered the first and foremost meaning of Easter? Easter means that’s that new creation has begun and is coming! As Easter people, let us therefore lean toward the future and long with all of creation for its ultimate redemption. And in the meantime, even in the midst of COVID-19, let’s prepare ourselves, our churches, our communities, our environments, our nations—indeed, the whole creation for its destined future.
The Lion of Judah has conquered the grave . . . He is worthy, he is!