The Christian and Creation, Chapter 5: Paul’s New World

In our series thus far, we have discussed one particular aspect of eschatology (the study of last things): the role material creation will play in the final events. Of course, this doesn’t address the entire spectrum on this subject; the return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, all play a significant role. While we can’t discuss each of these in detail, we will expand our horizons in this article as we evaluate the eschatology of the apostle Paul.

Paul’s writings offer us some of the greatest literature ever written. He was articulate, intelligent, and filled with the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:40). His epistles are substantive, yet simple enough for the local congregation to read and understand (Eph. 3:4). Yet this doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficult passages to interpret (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Therefore, we must come to Paul’s writings with a great measure of humility, allowing the text to guide our understanding of his vision of God’s future.

The New World of Romans

The Roman epistle is Paul’s masterpiece. It is here that we witness the Spirit utilizing all of the apostle’s various strengths to weave together a grand tapestry of theology which displays the majesty of God in the gospel. In Romans, Paul puts the gospel under a microscope, dissecting the purpose of this grand redemption on an atomic level.

Part of his purpose in the letter is to show how Gentiles—and ultimately all people—can be righteous apart from the law by the atoning death of Jesus (Rom. 3:9-20; 4:1-12). Yet, he isn’t only concerned with justification, but inheritance as well:

“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13).

Within the context of Romans 4, Paul is explaining how the Abrahamic promises extended far beyond what was previously imagined. The promise of future offspring wasn’t limited to Abraham’s physical lineage, but to those who “walk in the footsteps of the faith” (v. 12). This laid the foundation for the Gentile inclusion into the promises of God (Eph. 2:11-ff). God’s promise to Abraham was worldwide in scope—in more ways than one.

Not only was the extent of the offspring promise grander than we assumed, but so was the land promise. It wasn’t simply that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, but that they would inherit the new world itself. Notice in v. 13 that the promise God made to Abraham’s descendants was that “he would be heir of the world.” This coincides with the Hebrews writer to tells us that Abraham was seeking a “heavenly country” (Heb. 11:13-16); that is, they understood that what they witnessed in this present life wasn’t the full extent of God’s promises. This world would perish, but they knew their future homeland wouldn’t (we will discuss the meaning of this language in Hebrews in a future article). There was a future world coming (Heb. 2:5). This language of “inheriting the world” reminds us of Jesus words in Matthew 5:5: The meek shall inherit the earth.

Cottrell notes in his commentary on Romans:

“The full scope of God’s promises to Abraham was laid out…He was promised possession of the land, numberless offspring, and the role of being a source of blessing for all nations. The OT text does not use the exact terminology used here—that Abraham “would be the heir of the world.” This is probably a summary of the three main promises as they are now understood in light of NT revelation. “The world” is first of all Abraham’s innumerable family of spiritual children, drawn from “all peoples of the earth.” It probably also includes the new earth inherited by them, of which the gift of Canaan (later Israel) was a symbolic type. To say that “he” (Abraham) would be the heir of the world means that he would inherit this spiritual family, and through them would inherit the new world itself.”[1]

The Redemption of Creation

We now come to one of the central passages in this discussion: Romans 8:18-23. If you have read the previous articles, I believe our interpretation will fit quite nicely into this framework. Paul’s teaching about the creation’s hope and ultimate redemption display a perspective which coincides with what we have developed so far:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 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 corruption 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.

Notice that Paul says that there is a glory that will be revealed “to us.” Understanding who the “us” is throughout the context is important for our interpretation. In v. 15-17 the “us” is defined:

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

He begins v. 18 with “For,” that is, “Based on who/what I was speaking of previously…” Who was Paul speaking of previously? Who was the group that would be glorified with Jesus and have glory revealed to them? The sons of God (v. 14). Therefore, the main focus of the immediate context—the “us” in this passage—is Christians. Keeping that in mind, notice that Paul goes on to discuss the part that creation will play in the final events. What, in this context, does creation mean?

Some might say Christians. Is this feasible? The text seems to reject this interpretation when it declares that creation is longing to share in the glorification of the sons of God (v. 19). It also makes a point of contrast in v. 23 when he says “And not only creation, but we ourselves…” Therefore, the creation isn’t speaking of Christians, but of something that will share in the same experience of Christians when they are glorified at the return of Jesus. I don’t mean to disparage the work of other good brethren in this area who take this position. I simply don’t see how, contextually, the creation can be in reference to Christians due to this point.

Another possibility is that he is speaking of the non-believing world. Yet, again, we run into an issue with this interpretation because Paul teaches that the creation will share in the glory of God’s children (v. 21). The unrighteous have no part or lot in the inheritance of the sons of light but will be cast out of the kingdom (Matt. 13:42). Therefore, unless we are going to take a position of universalism (which this author believes is unbiblical) then we must admit that creation cannot be in reference to the lost.

The most natural reading of Paul’s words is that creation refers to the material universe. Paul uses it in this way in Romans 1:20. If this is the case, then what is Paul’s point in discussing creation? In many ways it’s what we have already laid out in previous articles:

  • Creation was subjected to “futility” or “vanity.” That is, creation was subjected against its will (it did not deserve/participate in its subjection) to corruption. Similar to its use in Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 1:2-3), vanity doesn’t imply pointlessness, but rather without lasting meaning/purpose. Moses Lard says it “denotes weakness or inability to produce as formerly, also a tendency to premature decay or shortness of life.”[2] This was the inevitable result of the curse of creation (Gen. 3:17-19) in which the natural world fought against, rather than with, man in his attempt to profit from it.
  • Yet, this subjection by God wasn’t forever; it was subjected “in hope” (v. 20). Hope looks forward to something better, not worse. Some interpret “creation” in this text to mean the natural world, yet believe its hope is to be annihilated (to be put out of its misery, as I heard someone once say). Yet, what does the text say is the hope of creation?
  • The hope of creation is twofold: 1) That it will be freed from its “bondage to corruption” (v. 21, i.e. its vanity) 2) That it will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. This is why creation is longing for the revealing of God’s sons (v. 19): It will experience/share in the same freedom and glory that the children of God are given. The next natural question is, “What glory will be revealed in and to the children of God?”
  • We discover the answer to this question in v. 23: the redemption of our bodies. We groan in our present tent as we await future transformation (Phil. 3:21) and immortal clothing (2 Cor. 5:4) of our tangible bodies. This doesn’t imply immaterial existence (as we will see in just a moment) but redeemed/reconstituted materiality, as witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, since the hope of creation is to share in our glory, then the present universe is waiting for its own redemption: a redeemed/reconstituted cosmos (Acts 3:20-21).

A friend of mine offered this comparison to help us see Paul’s point in creation’s relationship to our future glorification:

  • Both have been subjected to corruption (decay)
    • Christian (21, implied by “also”)
    • Creation (21)
  • Both have the hope of being set free from that corruption
    • Christian (18, 19, 21)
    • Creation (21)
  • Both are destined for glory
    • Christian (18)
    • Creation (21)
  • Both are waiting eagerly for that glory
    • Christian (23, 25)
    • Creation (19)
  • Both groan/suffer as they wait
    • Christian (23)
    • Creation (22)

Before we finish this section, I would like to note that referring to this passage as “metaphorical” or “personification” and then quickly dismissing it, does not do this text justice. Certainly, there is use of personification in order to show creation’s longing, but to what end? Metaphor isn’t a stamp we can apply to scriptures simply because we believe they are difficult or inconsequential. As students of the word, we should demand more of ourselves.

If this interpretation is valid (and I believe that it is) then it must be one of the determining text in our discussions about creation’s role in the final events. We cannot disregard this section of scripture because it doesn’t fit into our normal framework. Paul is writing in an epistle, and the nature of his writing is doctrinal. It is meant to be understood and believed by the church.

Our final note on this text comes from brother Moses Lard’s notes on these passages from his commentary on Romans:

“Into this freedom creation is to be translated. The burden of the curse will be lifted from it, especially from the earth, and possibly from more; and it will be advanced to a degree of beauty and glory, of which perhaps the most fertile imagination can at present form but a poor conception. God originally intended this earth for man; and he will never be defeated in his purpose. It is still to be his inheritance forever; but it will be remolded and adapted to him and made worthy of him in his highest exaltation.”[3]

The Resurrection Body

Since Paul contends that creation will share in the same glory that we experience (i.e. the redemption of our bodies) then we must take a moment to briefly examine Paul’s teaching on the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15.

In this grand chapter, Paul is addressing the Grecian denial of a bodily resurrection (v. 12). The Greeks believed that the body was a prison for the spirit and that, at death, it would finally be released to return to the spiritual realm. Yet, Paul contends in 1 Corinthians 15 that this is not the same hope that Christians possess. Instead, we long for our bodies to be resurrected, just as Jesus was (v. 21). Jesus is the blueprint (the “firstfruits”, v. 20) of our own resurrection. He was the first of more to come.

What do we see witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus? Was he simply a spirit? A temporary form that would later be changed back into spirit? Certainly not, for this wouldn’t be considered a resurrection. From Jesus own words he was flesh and bone (Luke 24:39). This wasn’t a temporary form, but rather his new, spiritual body. Paul discusses this in v. 42-44:

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

Notice what is the “it” that is sown? The body. What is the “it” that is raised? The same body—except it is radically different. It is transformed to be like Jesus’ body (Phil. 3:20-21). Yet, this transformation isn’t from material to spirit, but from “natural to spiritual”—the same language that Paul used previously to refer to the natural and spiritual person in 1 Corinthians 2:15-16. In this previous instance he wasn’t implying that the spiritual person was “made of spirit” but rather that they were governed by the Spirit of God and spiritually minded. So too, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is not attempting to say that we will have bodies “made of spirit” (of course, this doesn’t make sense, for body and spirit are two distinct things) but that we will have a body empowered and transformed by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:11).

There is both a continuation with the past body and a radical discontinuation (as Paul uses the image of the seed and the subsequent plant that comes from it, v. 36-37). We witness this in Paul’s assertion that “flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 50). This doesn’t reject the bodily resurrection, but is explained by his very next statement, “nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” This perishable, present body must be transformed in order to inherit the kingdom of God. It will not be the same material/flesh, but will be changed into something other–heavenly glorified and eternal.

This is what we experience in the resurrection of Jesus: his newly resurrected, spiritual body. Paul says there are only two types of bodies: natural and spiritual. One is fitted for the present, perishable realm and the other for the eternal age. If this is the case, then Jesus either had a natural body or a spiritual body after he resurrected—which is it? The answer, I think, is obvious from Paul’s teaching. It was a body, which like ours one day will be, “raised imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:52-53). For the sake of brevity, please visit this link to hear a more thorough discussion of the resurrection body.

There are some who contend that Jesus body was changed at his ascension and that his physical body, post-resurrection, was simply a temporary form for evidentiary purposes. While presently I don’t agree with this, I do believe it is a possible interpretation (based on, for example, 1 John 3:2). I know good, intelligent brethren who teach such and I respect their perspective on this.

This then lays the groundwork for Paul’s teaching in Romans 8: just as Jesus body was redeemed in the resurrection, so too will ours be (Rom. 8:23). We will share in Jesus’ resurrection of an incorruptible, powerful, and glorious nature—and creation will join in to share that glory as well.

1 & 2 Thessalonians and the Return of Jesus

 We can’t really discuss the return of Jesus, and Paul’s view of this event, without evaluating 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Throughout this epistle, one of Paul’s major focuses is the return of Jesus (1 Thess. 1:10; 2:1, 17-19; 3:13; 4:14-18; 5:2, 10, 23; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2:1-2, 8). Not only that, but 1 Thessalonians offers one of the most oft used passages to refute a belief in the redeemed creation:

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”—1 Thess. 4:14-18

It is argued that Paul’s teaching that we will “meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” implicitly denies any participation of the present universe in the future events (other than annihilation). Yet, is this true?

In answering this critique, we first must look at the full scope of Paul’s teaching in these epistles about the return of Jesus. Throughout, there are three major themes which arise:

  1. The coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23). This word (Parousia) is an interesting one. It means “the sacred expression for the coming of a hidden deity…the official term for a visit of a person of high rank, especially of kings and emperors visiting a province” (BDAG). Vines notes that it “denotes both an ‘arrival’ and a consequent ‘presence with.’” Within the context of the epistle we are given insight into Paul’s usage in 2:1: “For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain.” Here Paul’s usage of the word doesn’t imply that he came to the Thessalonians to subsequently take them away from their home, but to reside and be present with them.
  2. The meeting of Jesus (1 Thess. 4:17). The word used for “meet” implies more than we might realize. For example, Vines notes, “It is used in the papyri of a newly arriving magistrate. It seems that the special idea of the word was the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary.” The same word is used in Matthew 25:1, 6 when the virgins go outside of the city to welcome the bridegroom and then return with him into the city. In this picture the bridegroom comes (as Jesus will) and the women go out to meet him and welcome him in. The same word is used of Paul in Acts 28:15 when the people come to meet him before he arrives in Rome. In each of these instances, the delegates who met the bridegroom and Paul weren’t taken away to be with them but escorted back into the place from which they came.
  3. The ingathering of God’s people (2 Thess. 2:1-2). As we saw in our prior article, the ingathering of God’s people from the nations is a common theme in the judgment scene; it is no different here. When Jesus returns, he will gather all of his saints into his presence, while casting the wicked out of his kingdom.

So, when we allow the text to speak for itself, what picture is painted for us? We see that King Jesus will come again to dwell with his people, we will meet him in the air to escort him back and will be gathered together with him forever. Of course, what we will escort him back to will not be this present world, but the new one (2 Pet. 3:13). This fits well with the picture we have seen so far: Jesus returning to gather his people and redeem creation as a fitting place for us to be with God for eternity.

As we conclude, I would like to note that I realize this is a lot for us to take in. I ask that you read over it, pray about it, and seek wisdom from trusted sources. While this may be a paradigm shift for many of us, as we have witnessed throughout, this was a view held by many in the Restoration movement. Sound, solid brethren have interpreted scripture from this framework in the past. In and of itself this doesn’t make our case, but it does show—I believe—that this isn’t a new or aberrant doctrine, but one which has been upheld and affirmed throughout Christian history. In our following, final article we will wrap our study as we dive into the book of Hebrews and 2 Peter in which we will discuss the destruction of the present world.

With that in mind, we will conclude with a statement from our brother G.C. Brewer:

“The New Testament references describe a condition that will come after the destruction of the present heaven and earth. That this earth—this existing order of things, including the material earth—is to be destroyed, Peter tells us in terms we cannot misunderstand. That this earth was cursed because of sin and that thorns and briars and noxious weeds came as a result of the curse seems plain also. (Gen. 3:17-19.) …… And that the earth itself is to be redeemed from the curse seems to be the teaching of the Bible—seems to be the promise of God. (Rom. 8:20-22; 2 Peter 3:13; Daniel 7:14-22.) Man was given dominion over the earth, but transferred his allegiance to Satan, and the curse came, bringing suffering, sorrow, and death. But Christ came to remove the curse and to bring “joy to the earth.” When the earth is redeemed, it will first be renovated by fire. Then there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Then the meek shall inherit the earth.” Gospel Advocate, 4 April 1946, 314.

 

 

[1] Jack Cottrell, Romans, in “The College Press NIV Commentary,” Joplin: College Press, 2005: 167.

[2] Moses Lard, A Commentary on Romans, Delight, Ar: Gospel Light Publishing Company: 271.

[3] Lard, Romans, 273.

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