God started a revival with the preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The people came to hear the preacher in the church instead of the preacher of the church having to go to them. They came to the New Park Baptist Church. They came to temporary meeting houses and music halls. They came to the Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle, a facility that was constructed with 5,000 seats and had room for 1,000 standees—6,000 persons. Spurgeon filled it up on Sunday morning and Sunday night for 30 consecutive years. They came. They came to the Surrey Gardens Music Hall on October 19, 1856. Spurgeon would preach there for the first time and 10,000 people filled that place.
James Earl Massey calls preaching the burdensome joy. Gardner Calvin Taylor calls it the sweet torture of Sunday morning. But on that day, there was no joy; there was burden. There was no sweetness; there was torture. For in that crowd of 10,000 people, some mischief makers screamed out, "Fire, fire." A stampede ensued and seven people were left dead and 28 people were injured. This shadowed the life of Spurgeon, plunging him into a pit of depression out of which he would never emerge for the rest of his life, and has served as a symbol for the horror that can befall the very people of God.
On September 11, 2001, I stood up in my classroom to open up our days' work by calling for prayer requests. I was not prepared for what I would hear for I had not watched the news before I left home. I hadn't turned the radio on while I was making my way to school. "Dr. Smith, I think we ought to, in light of the most recent development, pray for our country. In light of the fact that a plane guided by terrorists has flown into one of the Twin Towers." Before that class was over, the second tower was struck. America since that time has been shadowed by this disaster. Plunged into a pit of depression. It has served for us a symbol for how horror can fall upon any nation at any time.
We are here to walk with Charles Haddon Spurgeon—not to copy him but to try to comprehend him, and understand his understanding of preaching. He said, and these are his words, "Preaching is for the glory of God." He said, "Preaching that is done aptly is done to accomplish two purposes: 1) The deification of the saints, 2) The salvation of sinners." He shows us how both of these come together in his sermon, "Songs in the Night," taken from Job 35:10, "Where is God my maker who giveth songs in the night." He opens up the sermon by referring to the Aeolian harp. He says the Aeolian harp renders sweet music when the wind blows through the strings, but the difficulty is when there is no wind. He says a singer can sing as long as there is light to read the notes on the music sheet, but the difficulty comes when there are no rays of light from the sun; then the skillful singer has to reach inside of himself to his living existence and come in contact with the Spirit, and sing from the interior book. He says, "Any fool can sing during the day. It's unnatural to sing in trouble, it's unnatural to sing at night. Therefore, the believer gets his songs from God, for God gives songs during the night." We have not come here to mourn, we have come here to sing. I've come here to sing. I've seen the lightning flashing. I've heard the thunder roar. I've felt sin's breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul, but I heard the voice of Jesus telling me to still fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.
Move from glory to glory
This teaching from Romans 8:18-30, gives to us a movement from glory to glory. Verse 18 says, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth being compared to the glory that shall be revealed." The uninaugurated glory, the unrealized glory, the not yet glory. Paul is saying there's a glory that's going to be ours but it's not yet, it's in the future.
There is something within us since we are made in the image of God that strains for the Son of Righteousness who rises with healing in his wings. There's something there, this world is not my home, I'm just passing through. My hopes and all my treasures are laid up there in the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven's open door, and I can't feel at home in this world any more. There's a straining toward the not yet. That's the way John puts it in 1 John 3:2, "It does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."
Dr. Gardner Taylor astounded me with this remark, but to show what God is doing in our lives, he said that when Jesus appears and the son—smaller S—of God stands next to the Son of God, the angel will look at us and we will look so much like Jesus that the angels will ask, "Who is Jesus?" We will be like him, for we shall see him as he is. It's future glory.
But there's present glory in verse 30. "For since he has predestined us, he also has called, and those whom he has called he has justified, and those he has justified he has also glorified." We have within us the imago dei. We have the image of God. We can never find rest according to Augustine, "Thou has made us for thyself, and our souls cannot find rest until they find rest in thee." But we want more of what we already have. We want more of the glory. We want more of this Christ.
James Earl Massey was preaching at the E.K. Bailey International Conference on Expository Preaching and he lifted up this illustration. He said, "When a baby is disgruntled and upset and crying uncontrollably, the mother will pick up that baby and press that baby against her breasts, and after a while that baby will be comforted and stop crying." He explained it this way, "That baby has become reconnected with the primal tone, the heartbeat of the mother. It goes back to the time when it was in the womb of the mother and heard the heartbeat all the time. But now that it has come out of the womb, it is only when it is pressed against the breast of that mother that it hears the primal tone." We long for the primal tone.
Sunday morning is not enough. We want to be somewhere where the wicked ceases from troubling and weary is at rest, and every day is Sunday and we have uninterrupted worship. I wonder about us sometimes, one hour is too much for us but when we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun. What are you going to do when there is no benediction? What are you going to do when there is no intermission? What are you going to do when there is no interlude, praising the Savior all the day long? We move from glory to glory.
Theology of the Cross and glory
This passage also gives to us a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. It's right there in verse 18. "I consider that our present sufferings"—theology of the Cross—"are not worth being compared to the glory"—theology glory—"that is to come." It is what we are informed by when Luther challenges and criticizes the scholastics. He says that the scholastics have a theology of glory, of attainment, of achievement. They need a theology of the Cross. The Bible never separates a theology of the Cross from a theology of glory. Jesus reminds us in Luke 24:26, when he is talking to these downcast disciples, going from Jerusalem to Emmaus. He says, "Was it not necessary,"—past tense—"For the Christ to first suffer,"—theology of the cross—"and then enter glory?"—theology of glory. There it is in Acts 2:23-24, "God according to the predetermined counsel of God, his set purpose, handed Jesus over to evil men who nailed him to the cross."—theology of the cross. "But the third day he raised him from the dead."—theology of glory.
I listen anew to Charles Spurgeon. He says there will be no crown wearers in heaven who have not first been cross bearers on earth. You say you want to wear a crown, then you're calling for suffering. When I talk about suffering I'm not talking about the fact that you get sick. I'm not talking about the fact that you stub your toe. I'm not talking about the fact that you're unemployed. I'm talking about when you and I suffer because of our stand for Christ, because of our commitment for Christ, because they are scorning us, because we have taken a stand for Jesus Christ. I'm talking about that. Then you will bear on your body the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Trinity at work
There is in this passage both a view of Trinitarian presence and Trinitarian activity. We have for so long been irresponsible in talking about the Trinity. We have fragmented the Trinity, we have splintered the Trinity. We have made the third person of the Trinity the step-child of the Trinity. We need to speak responsibly about the Trinity.
The Trinity has always interacted throughout human history and even in pre-existent eternity, and we must speak responsibly about the Trinity. Jonathan Edwards says in the breadth of his writings that God has forever existed in a sweet and holy society as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here there is Trinitarian activity. There it is in verse 28, "For we know that God"—God the Father, God—"causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and to those who are called according to the purpose of God." Then in verse number 29, "For whom he did foreknow he did predestinate that he might be conformed to the image of his dear son."—God the Son. There it is in verses 26 and 27, "And the Spirit helps our weaknesses, for when we don't know what to pray the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered, sighs too deep for words." The Spirit who has access to our minds since we have access to God, searches the heart of the saints, knows the mind of the Spirit, God only knows God's self. It's like John says in John 1:18, "No one has seen, no one has known God except the one and only God," the generous God, the unique God. His Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him, he has exegeted him, "he has made him known." So there is Trinitarian activity even in this passage.
Glory of the groans
There is a trilogy of wrongs. Verse 22, "Creation groans." In fact, the Greek has it, "Creation groans together." It is unifocal groaning. It is groaning with one voice, all creation groaning. Why? Because when Adam and Eve sinned, when sin came into the world as a result of the disobedience of humanity, it ricocheted off of humanity and affected creation and the penalty that man, that humans were suffering was also inflicted, if you will, on creation. So the creation lost its equilibrium, lost its balance, and now roses had thorns and the lion no longer will lie down with the lamb, and the leopard will no longer lie down with the bear. We had earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes, and ever since that day sin has wreaked havoc on creation. Creation is groaning, desiring for Isaiah 65:17 to be fulfilled. God will make new heavens and a new earth.
The image there in verse 22 is that of a woman in childbirth. She is groaning under the pain. The water has not broken, and everybody who knows anything about childbirth understands that when the water breaks no midwife can keep that baby from coming, no obstetrician can keep that baby from coming when the water breaks. One of these days, the water will break for creation and God will transform this world. In fact, it will be of such that there will be no longer epidemics, no longer famines, no longer dust storms. In fact, nature will be so changed and will undergo such a metamorphosis that we won't get sick. We won't even have to eat the fruit but the leaves of the tree will be good for the healing of the nation, and the beasts of the wild will be led by a child and we'll be changed from the creature that we are. Creation is groaning, waiting for its deliverance.
But not only is creation groaning, verse 23, creatures are groaning. We are groaning. Believers, saints are groaning. Why would we groan? Paul has just told us in chapter eight, verse 15, that we've been placed in his family which severs our former ties, we are in his family now and therefore we can cry out, Abba Father. Why would we groan? Verse 16 tells us that because of this, that the Spirit testifies with our spirit, that we are the children of God. The Spirit testifies with my spirit and says, "You are God's kid." Why would I groan? Verse 17 of Romans 8 says that we are not only heirs but we are joint heirs with Christ Jesus, that what he has, we have. If we have all of that, why would we groan? Because we're waiting for the adoption of sons. Well, Paul, I thought you just got through saying in verses 15-17 of the same chapter that we've already been adopted, that the Spirit has already testified that we are the children of God, that we can cry Abba Father because he is our Father, and that we are heirs and joint heirs of Christ. What do you mean, since you've said we were sons, now you're saying we're waiting for the adoption of sons?
My spirit has been adopted. I don't have a soul, I am a soul. I am redeemed spiritually but my body is not. My body is decaying. If you don't believe your body is decaying, just look in the mirror, you don't look the way you did when you were younger. But keep on living. You're going to discover there's something going on in your body, you are not the same. There's no sense in being married for years and telling your wife, "You know you don't look the same." Have you looked in the mirror lately? You don't either. Something is happening to our bodies, we are breaking down. This body knows that it can't go to heaven this way. It's waiting for full adoption.
So therefore, creatures, saints groan. But God groans. Verse 26, "Likewise, in the same manner, the Spirit helps …" That same word helps is found in Luke 10:40, where Martha says to the Lord, "Tell Mary to help me." The Spirit, helps, becomes the Paraclete for us. Stands alongside of us to assist us and help us. Why? Because we don't know what to pray. Therefore, the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings that cannot be interpreted. Groaning sighs too deep for words. Then the Spirit who searches our hearts, knows the mind of the Spirit, prays for us in accordance to the will of God.
God groans? During the incarnation, God came from God. John 1:14 says, "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." God came from God. The Nicene Creed has it right. God from God. True light from true light. God groans. During the crucifixion, God who came from God during the Incarnation, forsook God. Mark 15:34, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But in this text, during the intercession God talks to God. God groans to God.
I know that this is a battleground for interpretation. Who is groaning? Some say, "Well, the creature, the saint is growing." Why would Paul who has already said in verse 23 that we groan move to verse 26 and say again, we groan. Seems to me that somebody else is being referred to here. Likewise in the same manner, the Spirit does this. Others will say God is doing the groaning. The reason why God has to groan is because he has to make an intercession for us because we don't know what to pray. Since we don't know what to pray then God the Spirit has to pray for us in words that cannot even be uttered. So consequently, maybe it's not either/or, maybe it's both/and. Maybe my groan is swallowed up in his groan. Maybe my groan is transcended by his groan. Maybe when I'm trying to say it and I don't have the words, I can't articulate it, maybe God the Spirit takes my groans, interprets my groans, and tells God what I was trying to say but I wasn't able to say it.
I used to watch my mother and I didn't understand her sometimes. When we had physical needs, lacks, no food sometimes, and she'd walk around and start moaning because black folk used to say, "When you moan the devil doesn't know what you're talking about." She'd say, Mmmm-Hmmm-Mmmm. Tears would be rolling down her eyes, no food. After a while somebody's knocking on the door, here comes some turnip greens, here comes some cornbread. I'm not telling you about what I heard. All she did was moan, and I didn't understand that, I didn't dare ask her because she wasn't moaning to me. Is it possible that when pressure is really on you, when there are losses in your family, when there is unemployment, when there are relational rifts, when disease is in your body and you don't know what to say, I don't care what your gpa is, I don't care what kind of linguist you are, you just can't come up with the words. When you try to form the words they get stuck in your throat and the only thing you can do is groan.
Maybe that's one of the things God does, but maybe the Spirit has to take my groan, my desire, my yearning which is misdirected because I'm praying according to my felt and perceived needs. The Spirit has to take my groans and my prayers, straighten them out and say, "God, this is what he means and this is what he wants but this is sure what he needs." God I want you to give me a hundred thousand dollar salary when I go to my first church, and I want an unlimited expense account, I want to drive a BMW and I want an unlimited library account and all of that.
God says, "I hear what he is saying but let me straighten this out because I've got to pray according to God's will. God, what he needs is humility, I want to move him out in the country where he will preach to 20 people for five years. He will be the chairman of the deacon board because there are no deacons, he will be the superintendent of the Sunday School because he is the most qualified. He will be the chairman of the custodial committee because there are no janitors, and he will be the song leader because the only one there that can lead songs is him." What God will do is, we'll have these prayers that are so narcissistic and so self-centered and God will say that's what he means but I want to tell you what he needs, and God will give us what we need. I'm so glad that God has vetoed so many of our prayers.
Some young women want to get married so bad, they say, "God, give me a man, I want to give you the profile of the man I want. I want him to be tall, dark, and handsome." God says, "I hear you but that's not what you want. You need a man that is short and looks like somebody that you don't want to think about right now because if you marry him, that man will love you. If you marry him, that man will show godliness in the home. If you marry him, he'll be a good father. If you marry him, he'll be faithful to the Lord. You don't need a Denzel Washington, you need a Sammy Davis, Jr., in terms of looks." If we keep on pressing it, God will give you what you want and you won't want what you got. Some of us are trying to un-get what we got. He prays according to the will of God. Aren't you glad that he didn't answer some of your prayers? Just maybe he does that.
Our exegesis has to match our experience. If we're not groaning, what difference does it make? There's going to come a time when you're going to stand in your ministry and the only thing that's going to keep you is not your GPA, the only thing that's going to keep you is not your theological degree or schooling. As important as that is, what will keep you is your spiritual relationship with God, that you have become a person of prayer, and when the world has turned against you and when the bottom of life has dropped out and when you feel like saying to God, "I want to resign." Belief, I tell you, is what you may hold, but conviction holds you. Spurgeon said, "I would rather give up my sermon than give up my prayer." Your experience has to match your exegesis. You can have a 4.0 average and flunk in ministry. You can write excellent papers, and you should, and flunk in ministry. There has to be something more than being a good preacher. There has to be something within that holds the reign, something within that banishes pain. Something within that we cannot explain, all that we know. There is something within.
Glory from groaning
My father in the ministry, Dr. George G. Brown, is suffering Alzheimer's disease. He doesn't even know his wife anymore. But a few years ago, we had him brought down from Cleveland, Ohio, to Cincinnati and we had a celebration program for him. He doesn't talk in an intelligible way, he slurs, he mumbles. At the end of the program after everyone had given their remarks he was on the program to sing "Precious Lord." How's he going to do that? He can't talk, he doesn't know the words anymore. But his wife of 50-some years stood next to him. She's a singer in her own right. She gave him the mike and the organist played and when it was time for him to sing she whispered in his ear, ("Precious Lord.") "Precious Lord." ("Take my hand.") "Take my hand." ("Lead me on.") "Lead me on." She just kept feeding him the words, standing alongside of him and helping him. When he didn't have the words, he took the words she gave him and sung. When he couldn't continue she finished the song. I think that's what happens when we don't have the words. The Spirit will take our mumbling and clarify it and tell God exactly according to the will of God what we meant.
I thank God that there is a verse 28 in this episode. According to most New Testament scholars, Paul wrote Romans from Corinth. Not from Rome but from Corinth, when he wasn't in jail. He was in prison in Rome, not as a political prisoner but as a witness for Christ. It's much easier to write Romans 8:28 when you're not in Rome. "For God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose." But when you're in Rome it's much more difficult to live out Romans 8:28. When I see what God has done, it amazes me. He causes all things to work together for good. All things are not good but he can recycle them and make something good, according to his purpose, come out.
Joseph will tell you, "What you meant unto me for evil, brothers, God meant unto me for good, to save many people's lives." Judah will say that out of Judah will come Jesus. He didn't say that overnight, it took him 20 years to say that. He didn't say that when his brothers sold him into slavery, and he did not say that when Mrs. Potiphar put a phony molestation charge on him. He did not say that when the chief cupbearer forgot about him. But when he looked back over his life, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, "Life has to be lived forward but it can only be understood backward," he could see that God was up to something. Things in themselves may not be good but God can bring a good purpose out of it for those who really love God and to those who are called according to God's purpose.
When I look at the tragedies that have taken place in America, I wonder how God can bring good out of them. They run like lines of credit in movies across the screen in my mind. Columbine, Katrina, Jonesboro. Virginia Tech, where a 76-year-old Jewish professor of engineering stood in front of the door, giving enough time for students to climb to the edge of the window and jump out to safety. He suffered the consequence of this deranged assailant taking his life. How can God bring any good out of that?
Well, as horrible as that is, there was something that is even more horrific, that looked senseless, that looked meaningless. So meaningless that the Jews called it a stumbling block and the Greeks called it foolishness. For the Jews couldn't understand how that could be a blessing when they said, "Cursed be the man that hangs on the tree." It was ridiculous. So ridiculous the way we look at it that God didn't even watch it. The Father turned his back on his Son and earth started protesting. Midday became like midnight. Peter and six disciples went back fishing, and two on the road from Jerusalem went back to Emmaus. It was horrible. Nothing good could come out of that. But you have to hang around long enough because three days later God caused it to work together for good because God had a purpose to bring out of it. Sure enough, on Friday it looked meaningless, it looked ridiculous. On Saturday it looked hopeless. But on Sunday morning God brought treasure out of what seemed to be trash. On Sunday morning he rose from the dead with all power in his hands.
I want to tell you today that God is one who can take a groan and bring glory out of it. God is able to take your life and straighten it out so that you can bless his name for what he has done. Yes. There will be glory, wondrous glory. Glory around the throne of God. Glory, giving him praise. Glory, lifting his name. Glory. He turns our groans into glory, and we will exalt and rejoice in him while we exalt him forevermore.
Robert Smith, Jr. serves as professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.