The Desire of Nations and the

Earnest Expectation of the Creature


Romans 8:15-30 is a challenging passage of scripture for many students of the Bible. The probable majority recognizes the eschatological context of the passage but, misunderstanding the time of the great consummation, fail to grasp that it has already been fulfilled.   The passage itself is too long for us to reproduce here in full, but a reading shows that Paul, by the Holy Ghost, speaks of Christians having received a “Spirit of adoption” whereby they cried “Abba, Father.” (Rom. 8:15)  Because of this Spirit, Paul says Christians had assurance that they were the children of God and joint heirs with Christ.  (v.16, 17)  Although under persecution, their sufferings were not worthy to be compared with the glory which was about to be (Grk., mellousan) revealed in them. (v. 18)  Concerning that glory, Paul wrote:

“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption unto the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within our selves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”  (vv. 19-23) 

The time of adoption, redemption and manifestation of the sons of God was still in the future when Paul wrote.  “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?  But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”  (vv. 24, 25)  The time of waiting for the adoption and redemption was marked by “groanings which cannot be uttered.”  (v. 25)  However, Christians were not to despair, knowing that God works all things for the good of them that are the called according to his purpose.  (v. 28)  Paul concluded, saying: “For whom he did foreknow he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and who he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”  (vv. 29, 30)

The question becomes: To what is all this referring?  Most commentators interpret this language in reference to some future time when the physical creation will be wondrously regenerated and freed from the effects of sin and death, and of the curse.  Some would add that there is to be a time when the whole of the physical creation will be so reordered  and reconstituted that even the animal kingdom will be made tame, and the  “wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and leopard shall lie down with the kid.”  (Isa. 11:6)  Can this interpretation be sustained?  Is there really a time to come when God will make a “new heavens and earth,” and all his creatures dwell together in peace in harmony? However much such hope might swell the breast of man, we apprehend that he is bound to be sorely disappointed in his expectation.  The images used by the prophets and spoken of by Paul appertain not to things physical, but to things spiritual. The better view is that Paul is here talking about the coming spiritual justification and regeneration in Christ that Jew and Gentile would receive at the time of the consummation in A.D. 70, not the reconstitution of the physical earth at some yet remote time.

 The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption

Several things point to the first century context of this passage.  Among these is the dichotomy between the “spirit of bondage” and the “Spirit of adoption.” “Bondage” refers to man’s condition of servitude under the law; “adoption” refers to the believer’s new status in Christ.  This is spelled out clearly in Galatians: 

“Now this I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.  Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: but when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.  And because ye are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.  Wherefore thou are no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”  (Gal. 4:1-7; cf. Heb. 2:14, 15) 

This passage makes plain that the dichotomy between the “spirit of bondage” and the “Spirit of adoption” correspond to the opposing systems of the Old and New Covenants.  While a child is in its minority it does not enjoy the full rights or privileges of its status as heir to its father’s estate, but is under the oversight of guardians and conservators appointed by law.  Once majority is reached, the child is freed of the restraints imposed by law and enters into the full enjoyment of his inheritance.  Paul analogizes man’s condition of servitude under the old law to a child’s minority; majority and the coming of age he assigns to the Christian dispensation when the church would attain “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:13)  However, whereas the natural man arrives at majority by process of time and the maturation of his faculties, Paul indicates that the church attained majority by adoption.   Thus, ours was not a natural process arrived at in course of time, but a judicial act and decree declaring the elect to be sons.  The token of this adoption and majority Paul says was the spirit of Christ in the Galatians’ heart crying, Abba, Father.  (Gal. 4:6)  The adoption therefore is to the church what the rebirth is to the individual.  That which is flesh is flesh; it can never by process of nature or of time attain to the kingdom of God; it must be born of water and the Spirit (viz., believe, repent, and be baptized).  (Jno. 3:3, 5)  So with national Israel: it could never by natural process attain the adoption as sons; redemption from sin and adoption of sonship came only through an act of divine grace conjoined to obedience to Christ.   The Old Testament was characterized by a spirit of bondage because it was a taskmaster which exacted obedience.  The New Testament is characterized by a spirit of adoption because participation in the covenant community is by adoption, not birth, and believers are motivated more by a spirit of filial love and gratitude than of fear. 

The dichotomy between the “spirit of bondage” and the “Spirit of adoption” ties this passage to the first century because the tension between these opposing systems reflects the peculiar struggle of the early church. One of the dominate themes of Romans is the rejection of national Israel and the adoption of the Gentiles in Christ.   National Israel was broken off, the Gentiles were grafted in.  (Rom. 9-11)  Jewish Christians possessed a strong sense of national identity that they were challenged to cast suddenly aside.  The promise to Abraham that he would inherit the world was not by the law, but by the righteousness of faith.  (Rom. 4:13)  The inheritance the Jews had always assumed was theirs by their physical descent from Abraham was suddenly opened to the Gentiles.  The physical descent in which they prided themselves and trusted was now a thing of nought.  (Phil. 3:1-8)  The servitude that characterized the traditions and customs of the law could not yield eternal life.  Both Jew and Gentile were under the power of sin.  (Rom. 3:9) Both awaited the redemption and adoption in Christ. 

Manifestation of the Sons of God

Another thing that places the instant passage in a first century context is the fact that the adoption and redemption were still in expectation, not possession. Traditional theology has it that the adoption and redemption occurred at the cross, or at Pentecost, or thereabouts.  But this simply cannot be sustained by the scripture.  The law was fulfilled at the cross, but it remained for Christ to bring his blood into the holy of holies and make intercession for man.  (Heb. 9:24-28; cf. Lev. 16)  Until the blood was brought within the veil, the atonement was incomplete as a matter of law.  During the period Christ was accomplishing this, mankind’s redemption was still in expectation, not possession. This is clear from numerous passages of scripture. For example, Christ came to make “redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament.”  (Heb. 9:15)  Yet, the Hebrew writer speaks of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross as imperfectly realized until the consummation at the close of the mosaic age.  In the meanwhile, he referred to Christ as “an high priest of good things to come.”  (Heb. 9:11)  What are the good things to come if not the redemption of the transgressions Christ suffered and died for?  The law was a “shadow of good things to come.”  (Heb. 10:1)  Are the good things to come that were foreshadowed by the law different than the good things to come of Christ’s high priesthood?  If these were fully perfected at the cross, why does the Hebrew writer speak of them as still to come?   In Ephesians, Paul says that the gifts of the Holy Ghost were given in earnest of the inheritance “until the redemption of the purchased possession.”  (Eph. 1:13, 14)  If man’s redemption was fully realized at the cross, how is it that Paul speaks of it as still in expectation? For that matter, if the redemption and adoption occurred at the cross or at Pentecost, why does Paul write the Romans, saying they were waiting for the “adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body?” (Rom. 8:23)  Had not the church already been redeemed?  Clearly, any candid study of the scripture shows it had not.  The price of redemption had been paid at the cross, but until Jesus brought his blood into the holy of holies, the redemption of the purchased possession (the church) was still in expectation, not possession.   

Some may ask, “Why then does Paul speak in Galatians of the adoption as an accomplished fact?”  (Gal. 4:1-7)  The short answer to this is the “already-but-not-yet” character of the transition period between the beginning of the gospel and the close of the mosaic age.  The closeness and certainty of the coming consummation caused New Testament writers to speak of the redemption and adoption as an accomplished fact.  But for every time they speak of it as an accomplished fact, they also speak of it in futuro.  Thus, in Galatians, Paul says “Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”  (Gal. 4:7)  But in Romans he says the adoption was still in anticipation.  (Rom. 8:17, 23)  In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the law as having been abolished in Christ’s flesh.  (Eph. 2:15; cf. Col. 2:14)  But in II Cor. 3:11, 13, 14 Paul speaks of the law as still in existence, saying it was being annulled or done away.[1] 

The Hebrew writer likewise affirms that the mosaic age was not yet removed when he says “now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”  (Heb. 8:13)  Similarly, Stephen said Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs which Moses delivered to the nation, not that he already had changed them.  (Acts 6:14)  If the law instantaneously ceased at the cross, the apostle Peter certainly was not aware of it, for it took a special revelation from God to demonstrate that the Gentiles were acceptable without circumcision.  (Acts 10) Examples could be multiplied.  The point here is that the New Testament did not appear instantaneously at the cross or Pentecost, but was delivered progressively over a period of about 40 years, while the law was gradually withdrawn.   This is not to suggest that God had two systems of faith and practice in place at the same time (at least not for Gentiles, albeit Jews were permitted to keep certain of their customs and traditions; Acts 21:20, 21).  It is to say, however, that as the body came to maturity and the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:13) the stuff of childhood was expected to drop away and ultimately be left entirely behind.  (I Cor. 13:11-13; Heb. 8:1-13) The manifestation of the sons of God refers to the time when the Church would receive the decree of adoption and redemption by the rejection of national Israel and the destruction of the Jewish state at the close of the mosaic age.   The rejection of national Israel would manifest the true sons of God who would then enter upon their inheritance and share in the co-administration of the kingdom (church) as joint-heirs with Christ. 

The Present Sufferings

Yet another point which places this passage in a first century context is the present sufferings the church had to endure before the manifestation of its glory as the adopted sons of God.  Thus Paul says: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  (Rom. 8:18)  These sufferings referred to the persecution of the church, primarily at the hands of its Jewish antagonists.  A brief exegetical survey of Romans will bear this out.  That the present sufferings in fact are the persecutions of the church is shown later in chapter eight where Paul introduces the subject, saying: “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long: we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.  Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”  (Rom. 8:35-37)  After introducing the subject of persecution, Paul immediately follows it up in chapter nine by a discussion of the national election and rejection of Israel, calling them “vessels of wrath.”  (Rom. 9:22)  Chapter ten enlarges upon the theme of Israel’s rejection in its unwillingness to obey the gospel of Christ and submit to God’s system of righteousness.  In chapter eleven, Paul refers to national Israel as an enemy of the gospel (v. 28), but leaves open the door of salvation if they repent and continue not in unbelief.  Chapter twelve returns to the theme of persecution, saying “Recompense no man evil for evil...If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”  (Rom. 12:17-19)  Chapter thirteen indicates the manner by which God will avenge his elect; viz., the sword of civil government in the hand of Rome.  (Rom. 13:1-6)  Verses 11 and 12 indicate that the time of vengeance and the manifestation of the sons of God was shortly to come to pass: “And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.  The night is far spent, the day is at hand...”  In chapter fifteen, Paul asks for prayers that he be delivered from them that do not believe in Judea (Rom. 15:31), and in chapter sixteen he gives assurance that “the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.”  (Rom. 16:20)  The persecution of the church at Rome by the Jews is mentioned in secular history, Suetonius reporting that Claudius banished all Jews from Rome because of their constant rioting at the instigation of “Chrestus” (e.g., Christ).[2]  Luke makes reference to this edict in Acts.  (Acts 18:2)   

The typological nature of the law meant that the national election of the Jews was provisional; their continued favor with God was predicated upon the obedience of faith. Since they had rejected Christ and persecuted his church, God had appointed them to vengeance at the hand of the civil magistrate, God’s minister to execute wrath.  (Rom. 13:4)  “Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour, and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.”  (Rom. 2:9, 10)   The Jews were appointed to tribulation and anguish, the church to glory “if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”  (Rom. 8:17)  That glory was not referring to the believer’s home in heaven, but to the glorification of the church by the adoption of sonship.  The manifestation of the sons of God was a first century event, tied to the rejection of national Israel.  By the destruction of national Israel, the present sufferings of the church would abate and give way to its glorification as the redeemed of the Lord.  In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, and shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.  For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”  (Isa. 60:1-3) 

The Desire of Nations and the Earnest Expectation of the Creature

Another indication that the subject text must be interpreted in a first century context is Paul’s reference to the earnest expectation of the creature:

“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.  For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption unto the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within our selves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”  (vv. 19-23) 

Many commentators see the “creature” as the animate and inanimate creation which they imagine is to be made anew, freed from the curse and the scourge of sin and death at Christ’s second coming.  But, this is plainly is wrong. It is based upon a materialistic interpretation of scripture that sees God’s redemptive purpose culminating in the renewal of the physical creation.  The physical creation is no part of God’s redemptive purpose.  Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.  (I Cor. 15:50)  Having begun in the spirit, we are not made perfect in the flesh.  (Gal. 3:3)  The regeneration, like the rebirth, is about the spirit of man, not about the physical creation.  “Quickening” our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11) refers not to a resurrection of the physical man, but the mortification of the flesh by denial of its affections and lusts.  (Gal. 5:24; cf. Phil. 3:10; I Pet. 4:1)  The new heavens and earth are symbols for the time of reformation (Heb. 9:10) and restitution of all things (Acts 3:21) in Christ by man’s redemption and adoption; not the recreation of the material universe.  The terms translated “creature” and “creation” are used repeatedly in the New Testament in reference God’s rational creation; e.g., mankind.   Thus, Jesus commanded the apostles to carry the message of deliverance to the entire world, saying:  “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”  (Mk. 16:15; cf. Matt. 28:18-20; emphasis added)  Likewise it was to the nations of all the world Paul referred when he said that the gospel had been preached to every “creature” which is under heaven.  (Col. 1:23)  Christ is the firstborn of every creature.  (Col. 1:15)  The man who obeys the gospel is made a “new creature.”  (II Cor. 5:17)  “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.”  (Gal. 6:15; emphasis added)  In each of these passages the “creature” under discussion is not the inanimate material universe or even the irrational animal creation, but men and nations.  By any reasonable interpretation, therefore, the “creature” of Rom. 8:19 refers not to the physical creation, but to the sons of Adam. And truly, soteriologically speaking, the scriptures acknowledge only two creatures: the first that was in bondage to sin and death, which answers to the first Adam, and the second that was being made anew in Christ and answers to the second Adam. (I Cor. 15:45-47)  Identification of the creature with the sons of Adam is confirmed by the book of Ecclesiastes where Solomon wrote of the futility of mortal existence in terms remarkably similar to Rom. 8:19-23:  

“I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it.  He hath made everything beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end...I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.  For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”  (Ecc. 3:10, 11; 18, 19)   

One cannot read Ecclesiastes and Romans 8:19-23 together without the feeling that Paul had these passages in mind when he wrote.  Notice the identity of language between the passages:  Paul speaks of the creature’s travail (Rom. 8:22), Solomon speaks of the travail of the sons of men.  (Eccl. 3:10)  Paul speaks of the creature being made subject to vanity (Rom. 8:20); Solomon speaks of the vanity of life under the sun.  (Eccl. 3:19)  Paul said the creature had been subjected in hope (Rom. 8:19); Solomon said God had put the “world” (Heb., olawm - “eternity”) in the hearts of men.  Solomon contemplated the estate of the sons of men and hoped that God might “manifest them,” that they might see they are but beasts subjected to death and decay (Eccl. 3:18); Paul speaks of the creature waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God and their deliverance from the bondage of sin and corruption. 

The points of contact between these passages are not merely coincidental; both are describing the common plight of the sons of Adam from and after the fall. However, where Solomon speaks to the circumstances of physical existence under the sun; Paul speaks to the circumstances of man’s spiritual condition under bondage of sin and death.  Happily, the note of futility and despair present in Ecclesiastes, owing to the futility of life under the sun, is totally absent in Romans because of the promise of life in Christ.  Paul assures the reader that God did not abandon his creation to a condition of utter futility, but subjected it to vanity “in hope.”  The basis of this hope was the promised “seed.”  (Gen. 3:15; 22:18)  This hope was not through the law, but the righteousness of faith; it was not the peculiar possession of the Jews, but the common hope of all mankind. Haggai refers to this when he wrote of the desire of nations: “For thus saith the Lord of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.”  (Hag. 2:6, 7)    

Haggai’s “desire of all nations” answers to the “earnest expectation of the creature” spoken of by Paul.  Where Paul speaks of “the whole creation,” Haggai uses “all nations.” (Cf. “every creature” of Mk. 16:15, 16 and Col. 1:23.) The whole creature groaned and travailed under the power of sin and death; men of every nation desired redemption and adoption.  But repentance and remission of sins in Christ’s name were preached beginning at Jerusalem.  (Lk. 24:46, 47)  The gospel was first preached to the Jews (Acts 3:26; 13:46) and they “first trusted in Christ.”  (Eph. 1:12)  Thus, the Jews were the “first fruits of his creatures” (Jm. 1:18; emphasis added); they were the “first fruits unto God and the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:4)  Paul refers to the Jews as firstfruits when he says “And not only they [e.g., the Gentiles], but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit [e.g., the Jews], even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”  Use of “we” and “they” in reference to Jews and Gentiles is not unique to this passage; Paul uses it earlier in Romans:  “What then? are we better than they?  No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin.”  (Rom. 3:9)    

From Adam to Moses the creature had been subjected to futility and death. (Rom. 5:17)  Jews labored in futility under the law; Gentiles “in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.”  (Eph. 4:17, 18)  In Christ the creature would be made new.  (II Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:4, 5)  The church is “one new man” (Eph. 2:15); a new creation, consisting of both Jew and Gentile.  All were being reconciled to God in one body by the cross.  Men of every nation groaned together, waiting for the time when all would be delivered from the bondage of corruption (sin and death) into the glorious liberty of the sons of God (Hadean resurrection).  The time of the resurrection was the great consummation at the end of the mosaic age.  This is clear from Haggai, who ties the desire of nations for the much waited redemption and adoption to the shaking of the heavens and earth and the filling God’s spiritual house and kingdom with glory.  We may be sure of this because the Hebrew writer applies Haggai’s language to the removal of national Israel so the spiritual kingdom could remain in its place.  (Heb. 12:18-29)  It is also clear from Daniel 12:2, 7, which join the resurrection to the appearance of the Messiah and destruction of the Jewish state.  National Israel would be rejected and cast out; spiritual Israel, constituted of both Jews and Gentiles, would become joint-heirs with Christ in the resurrection and administration of the kingdom (Matt. 8:11, 12).


Romans 8:15-30 is about the consummation of God’s redemptive purpose by gathering together in one all things in Christ.  (Eph. 1:10)  It is about the redemption and adoption of Jew and Gentile in one collective body.  The “whole creation” groaned and travailed in pain, waiting deliverance from the bondage of corruption unto the liberty of the sons of God.  The sons of men Solomon hoped God would manifest as beasts, subject to death and decay, in the regeneration would be manifested as the sons of God, freed from the bondage of sin and corruption. Together they looked to the great consummation at the rejection of national Israel and the adoption of the church as joint-heirs in the kingdom with Christ where all would be made new. 

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