The Overwhelming Imminence in Romans 8:18f: The Birth Pangs of Messiah
In the first installment demonstrating the overwhelming imminence found in Romans 8:16f, we examined the idea of “the sufferings of Christ.” Those “sufferings of Christ” were the first century persecution being experienced in Rome, in Galatia, in Macedonia, in Thessalonica, in the churches of Asia, etc.. That persecution sprang from the Jews and Judea (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16) – not Rome! Not only that, the measure of sin, on the part of the persecutors and the measure of suffering on the part of the followers of Jesus, would be filled up in that generation, and judgment would fall on Jerusalem (Matthew 23:29-37).
The undeniable and ubiquitous presence of this motif throughout the NT absolutely must be taken into consideration in any study of eschatology since in passage after passage, that present suffering and martyrdom was coupled with the promise of imminent vindication and relief, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” (2 Thessalonians 1:7f). Be sure to get a copy of my book, In Flaming Fire, an exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 1 to appreciate the power of this subject.
Closely– inextricably – related to the motif of the sufferings of Christ is the concept of the Messianic Woes, the Birth Pangs of Messiah. Be sure to view my YouTube series on this motif, beginning here. Paul referred directly to this motif in Romans 8 when he said:
For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.
Paul’s reference to the “birth pains” also demands that Paul expected the eschatological consummation very soon. The “birth pains” is reference to the Messianic Woes, a tenet that was prominent in the OT and rabbinic thought, as part of the end times drama that would lead directly to the Day of the Lord.
For Paul to say they were in the “birth pains” was to say the resurrection was near. See Jesus’ referent to the birth pangs in Matthew 24:8. N. T. Wright realized this, even if he does not accept the logical consequences of his own words. Commenting on Jesus’ reference to the birth pangs, he says this:
Completely consistent with his whole approach to the events that were about to take place, he is predicting that the ‘Messianic Woes’ the birth pangs of the age to come, are about to occur in full force. This is how Israel is to be reborn.” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1996), 346).
Emile Schurer, a well recognized and respected authority on the ancient Jewish beliefs, had this to say about the “birth pangs of Messiah”:
“Reference to the last things is almost always accompanied by the notion, recurring in various forms, that a period of special distress and affliction must precede the dawn of salvation…In Rabbinic teaching, the doctrine therefore developed of the birth pangs of Messiah which must precede His appearance (the expression is from Hosea 13:13; cf. Matthew 24:8).” (Emile Schurer, History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol. II, (London; T and T Clark, 1979), 514).
Jesus tied the earthquakes, famine, pestilence etc. together with the persecution of the saints, as part of the birth pangs. And that is precisely what was happening on the pages of Paul’s epistle. This can only mean that the “age to come,” the kingdom and the resurrection was near, at hand and coming soon.
Sadly, Longenecker and many other commentators seek to mitigate this connection saying that Paul used the language of the birth pangs “until now” as a reference to “mundane, non-theological” time, not eschatological time.” (Richard Longenecker, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Romans, (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 2016), 725).
Gentry agrees with Longenecker’s view. He claims that Paul’s reference to the suffering of the “now time” had nothing to do with Paul’s eschatological expectations. He says the suffering that Paul refers to is actually referent to the, “internal struggle of the Christian against indwelling sin, not the public buffeting of the Christian against external persecution” (Kenneth Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, 2009, 472, his emphasis). Hendrickson also agrees, “The apostle is thinking of suffering in general; therefore, pain, (physical as well as mental), sickness, disappointment, unemployment, poverty, frustration, etc..” (William Hendrickson, New Testament Commentary, Romans, (Grand Rapids; Baker Academic, 2002), 265). This is all rather stunning, to be honest. These claims are not supported by the text or context. Romans 8 is intensely eschatological; the birth pangs were the precursor to the redemption of the body!
Those commentators who deny the eschatological context of the “suffering of the now time” (and the labor pains motif) must ignore the words for suffering and groaning that Paul uses. Those are words that do not refer to “internal anxiety” caused by having to live in a world of sin. They are words that denote external persecution. They are not the words used for the normal “human experience.” How Gentry and the other commentators – not to mention Conley – can overlook this and even suggest that Romans 8 is a discussion of the futility of material creation is disturbing. A closer look at Paul’s language to describe the suffering- “the labor pains” – confirms this.
Paul uses the word thlipsis in Romans (2:9; 5:3; 8:35; 12:12) to speak of the “tribulation” that the Romans were enduring. This suffering is the same as in Romans 8:16f. Thlipsis is used some 45 times in the NT, and with very few exceptions speaks of the pressure of persecution for the name of Christ (cf. Thlipsis is used in Matthew 24:9f as part of the birth pangs!/ 2 Thessalonians 1). So, the thlipsis being endured by the Romans was “the sufferings of Christ” in Romans 8:16f.
But, in Romans 8 Paul also employs the words stenazo and pathemata.
As Perriman says, “The language of ‘groaning’ in Romans 8:23 (stenazo, stenagmos), strongly suggests the experience of those who are oppressed by the enemies of God” (Andrew Perriman, The Coming of the Son of Man, (London; Paternoster, 2006), 110).”
This is not the common plight of all humans. Paul was discussing the “sufferings of the now time.” He was discussing the Messianic birth pangs that would lead to the “redemption” i.e. the resurrection, in perfect harmony with the OT correlation of the Birth Pains and the resurrection. If that suffering was the normal human experience, then he could have– perhaps should have – said that non-Christians were experiencing the same things and would be delivered into the glorious liberty of the sons of God! Is that not universalism? If not, why not? No, Paul is, as noted, focused on the Messianic Birth Pains that were part of the warp and woof of the end times drama foretold by the OT prophets and by Jesus himself.
Paul also utilized the word pathemata, which Balz-Schneider tell us means: “the sufferings to which Christians and especially the apostles are subject in this world and which would result primarily from persecution (thus, 2 Corinthians 1:16-17; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 3:11; 1 Peter 5:9; Hebrews 10:32; cf. the more precise definition in 10:33.).” (Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 3, (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1993), 1). See also Thayers (p. 472) and the other Lexicons who all agree.
Pathemata is used some 16 times in the NT, and with very few exceptions, it refers to the suffering of persecution. While it “can” (very rarely) refer to inward conflict, only context can determine that, and there is not one thing in the context of Romans 8 to support the idea of inward conflict. It should be more than obvious that “the suffering of this present time” was not a reference to the “Christian experience” i.e. the common lot of Christians as human beings, throughout all time.
This is confirmed by Paul’s victory statement in Romans 8:33f. His references to suffering, to persecution, to sword and peril, cannot be viewed as expressions of the plight of the normal human experience. Paul and his contemporary brethren were being persecuted for their faith. Those persecutions were “the sufferings of the now time” and should not be ignored in any exegesis of Romans 8:18f- as Conley did, and admitted that he did.
Keener has some excellent discussion of the birth pangs, the tribulation and eschatology. Commenting on Acts 14:22, where Paul said, “we must, through much tribulation enter the kingdom,” Keener offers this:
“Many scholars suggest that the passage uses the image of the final eschatological tribulation that was to precede Messiah’s coming (Lohse, Colossians, Mattill, “Way of Tribulation” article). (The idea of suffering immediately preceding the end is frequent in early Jewish literature; sometimes even call birth pangs). This would fit Luke’s eschatology borrowed from the Jesus tradition (Luke 17:31-18:8; 21:12-24). Some claims in the Pauline corpus also present the eschatological tribulation as preceding the kingdom (1 Thessalonians 3:3; 2 Thess. 1:5-7; cf. Revelation 6:9-11), even describing the suffering as part of Messiah’s suffering, and as prerequisite for the end (Colossians 1:24;; cf. Rev. 6:9-11). For Paul, however, the eschatological suffering is already present (Romans 8:22; 2 Thes. 1:4; cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 3:1-6), as with other’ portrayal of the tribulation (Matthew 24:6-8; Rev. 1:9; 12:1-6) and the last days (Hebrews 1:2; 2 Peter 3:3); see comments on Acts 2:17). (Luke also applies the term for ‘tribulation’ here to the Jerusalem believers’ persecution in Acts 11:19 and to Paul’s own experiences in20:23).” (Craig Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids; Baker Academic, 2013), 2182).
Keener expresses what we are communicating: in Scripture, the birth pangs of Messiah, which Jesus said would be in his generation and which Paul said were present 2000 years ago, would occur immediately before the coming of Messiah, the judgment and the kingdom.
Those birth pangs were not, and should never be identified as, part and parcel of the “human experience. As already noted, Paul’s reference to the “sufferings of Christ” refutes the idea that the “suffering of the present time” – “the now time” – are generic, normal human experience difficulties. All of humanity – and most assuredly non-sentient “creation” is not experiencing the sufferings of Christ! Is that not self-evident, prima facie so? How could that even be suggested? Paul’s referent to the sufferings of Christ in v. 16 is the controlling subject of v. 18f, and is not some parenthetical, irrelevant, unrelated subject. The “sufferings of the now time” are in fact, for Paul’s audience, “the sufferings of Christ” which were being filled up in the first century and were, even as most commentators agree, to give “birth” to the New Creation.
Thus, the entire motif of “the sufferings of Christ” and their connection to the birth pangs of Messiah in Romans 8:16f absolutely delimits all interpretation of the text to the first century unless we are willing to simply ignore this language, as Conley did. But, the language and the themes are undeniable.
So, at the risk of redundancy, here is what we have in Romans 8:16f- keeping in mind that Mr. Conley totally ignored all of this evidence:
✔ Reference to the “sufferings of Christ.” This motif alone demands a first century fulfillment which cannot be “moralized” away to refer to the normal human experience.
✔ As we have seen, Paul spoke numerous times in Romans of the thlipsis (tribulation) being endured by the Roman saints. And again, this is not – normally- referent to the “human experience, but to persecution for the name of Christ.
✔ Likewise, the stenazo, as Perriman says, was allusion to: “The thorough-going eschatological character of the argument is brought out in the second half of Romans 8. In the first place, the sufferings of the present time are contrasted with the glory that is about to be (mellousan) revealed in the ‘sons of God at the redemption of their bodies (8:18).’” (Andrew Perriman, The Future of the People of God, (Eugene, Ore; Wipf and Stock, Cascade Books, 2010), 117).
✔ Then, Paul referred to the pathemata to refer to their sufferings – the sufferings of Christ. This word is used 16 times in the NT, and like thlipsis and stenazo, with perhaps one or two exceptions (Romans 7:5 / Galatians 5) always refers to “the sufferings of Christ.” See for instance, 2 Corinthians 1:5-9:
For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.
Note the reference to “the sufferings of Christ,” just as in Romans 8. And, just like in Romans 8, Paul uses the word pathemata (v. 5). He also uses a form of thlipsis in v. 6, along with a cognate of pasxo, another common word for persecution. He used thlipsis in v. 8. The contexts are undeniably the same– “the sufferings of Christ.” Thus, for Paul, “the sufferings of Christ,” had nothing to do with the normal human experience. It was persecution, with Christ and for Christ – “being made conformable to his death” (Philippians 3:8f). And that suffering was part of the “birth pangs” that would bring in the resurrection, just as Paul said in 2 Corinthians. God “had delivered” them from death and “would deliver” them from death! (Here is a classic, powerful example of the “already-but-not-yet” of resurrection!)
With these thoughts concerning the birth pangs before us, realizing that the birth pangs of Messiah would “give birth” to the New Creation, the kingdom, the resurrection, the parousia of the Lord in judgment, take a look at one of the key OT prophecies of the birth pangs, Isaiah 66:
So will I choose their delusions, And bring their fears on them; Because, when I called, no one answered, When I spoke they did not hear; But they did evil before My eyes, And chose that in which I do not delight.”Hear the word of the Lord, You who tremble at His word: “Your brethren who hated you, Who cast you out for My name’s sake, said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, That we may see your joy.’ But they shall be ashamed.” The sound of noise from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the Lord, Who fully repays His enemies! “Before she was in labor, she gave birth; Before her pain came, She delivered a male child. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, She gave birth to her children. Shall I bring to the time of birth, and not cause delivery?” says the Lord. “Shall I who cause delivery shut up the womb?” says your God. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, And be glad with her, all you who love her; Rejoice for joy with her, all you who mourn for her; That you may feed and be satisfied With the consolation of her bosom, That you may drink deeply and be delighted With the abundance of her glory.” (Isaiah 66:4-11).
Notice in v. 15f we have the coming of the Lord in flaming fire (cited by Paul in 2 Thessalonians 1!) followed by the New Heaven and Earth (meaning the resurrection).
So, we have the motif of the labor pains giving birth to the New Creation. This time of redemption is when: “For as soon as Zion was in labor, She gave birth to her children”– this is the redemption of Zion that is found throughout the Tanakh. And the redemption of Zion is the key to Hebrews 12:21f where the writer said that his audience had arrived at Zion, the New Zion, i.e. the New Creation. This can only mean that the time for the resurrection had arrived.
It should be carefully noted that this time of birth is the time of the judgment of Jerusalem and Israel: “But they shall be ashamed.” The sound of noise from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the Lord, Who fully repays His enemies!” It would be when YHVH would judge Israel / Jerusalem: “So will I choose their delusions, And bring their fears on them; Because, when I called, no one answered, When I spoke they did not hear; But they did evil before My eyes, And chose that in which I do not delight.”
We cannot fail to notice that this would come because Israel refused to heed the call of repentance and obedience. In Romans 10:20f Paul quotes this verse, along with chapter 65:1-2, as part of the justification for his Gentile mission. For Isaiah, Israel’s refusal to heed the call of the Lord would lead directly to judgment – and the New Creation. Did it mean something different when Paul quoted these verses? No, rejecting the call of the Gospel, God would bring judgment on them (see Acts 3:21-24). Yet, again, that judgment would usher in the New Creation, the birth of the New Creation.
And now, look carefully at the Lord’s challenging words:
Before she was in labor, she gave birth; Before her pain came, She delivered a male child. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, She gave birth to her children. Shall I bring to the time of birth, and not cause delivery?” says the Lord. “Shall I who cause delivery shut up the womb?” says your God.
Do you catch the power of YHVH’s rhetorical question / point?: “Shall I bring to the time of birth, and not cause delivery?” says the Lord. “Shall I who cause delivery shut up the womb?”
The Lord’s rhetorical question demands a resounding “NO!” response. He would NOT bring to the time of birth and not deliver the birth. He would NOT bring them to the time of delivery and not produce the birth! In other words, when the birth pangs began, the Lord gave His solemn oath that the birth would be accomplished at that time. Look now at the power of this in Matthew 24:8f and in Romans 8. Be sure to read my series of articles on Isaiah 66, beginning here.
So, Jesus said that the birth pangs, which included persecution for his name, were the birth pangs. And he said that all of those things would be fulfilled in his generation.
Paul said that creation was groaning- in the persecution for the name of Christ – in the birth pangs “until now.”
The time for the birth had arrived! And God’s faithfulness had sworn that when that time of birth arrived, He would deliver! It is ludicrous to suggest that the birth pangs of the New Creation had begun 2000 years ago, but, the birth of the New Creation (which, remember was to rise from the destruction of Jerusalem!) has not yet happened! That would be the longest time of birth pangs in the history of the world! But you see, it gets worse for futurists. Here is why.
Futurists, such as Conley, Frost, Jeff Cunningham, Ken Palmer– former preterists– claim that “creation” in Romans 8 is the material creation that groans in the labor pangs, and has groaned in those birth pangs of Messiah since the fall from the Garden! So, in that paradigm, the labor pains have been going on since the entrance of sin into the world! Talk about long labor pains! To say that this violates the language of both Jesus and Paul is an understatement.
When Jesus discussed the famines, war, earthquakes and persecution, he said “these are the beginning of the birth pains.” Do you catch that? He did not say they were the continuation, and he did not say they were the increase of the birth pains. He said they were the “beginning of birth pains.” But, in Mr. Conley’s paradigm, the birth pangs had been going on for centuries, for millennia! That is a direct violation of Jesus’ words.
So, when we look carefully at Romans 8:16f we find extremely powerful expressions of the imminence of fulfillment. It is simply a violation of the language of the text, and a denial of the motifs and themes that are discussed, to extrapolate fulfillment into a future two millennia and more removed (so far) from Paul’s day, as all futurists do.
More to come, so stay tuned as we continue our discussion of the overwhelming imminence of the redemption of creation in Romans 8.