A Commentary by John Stott
This expectation that nature itself will be renewed is integral to the Old Testament prophetic vision of the messianic age, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah. Vivid images are used to express Israel’s faith that the earth and heavens will be changed like clothing (Ps. 102:25ff.); that God ‘will create new heavens and a new earth’, including a new Jerusalem (Is. 65:17ff.; cf. 66:22); that the desert will blossom like the crocus, and so display the glory of Yahweh (Is. 35:1ff.; cf. 32:15ff.); that wild and domestic animals will co-exist in peace and that even the most ferocious and poisonous creatures ‘will neither harm nor destroy’ throughout God’s new world (Is.11:6ff.; cf.65:25).
The New Testament writers do not take up the details of this poetic imagery. But Jesus himself spoke of the ‘new birth’ (*palingenesia*) of the world at his coming (Mt. 19:28, ‘the renewal of all things’, NIV); Peter of the ‘restoration’ (*apokatastasis*) of all things (Acts 3:19, 21); Paul here of the liberation, and elsewhere of the reconciliation, of all things (Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20); and John of the new heaven and earth, in which God will dwell with his people, and from which all separation, sorrow, pain and death will have been eliminated (Rev. 21:22; cf. 2 Pet.3:13; Heb.12;26f.) It would not be wise for us to speculate, let alone dogmatize, how the biblical and scientific accounts of reality correspond or harmonize, either in the present or in the future. The general promise of the renovation and transformation of nature is plain, including the eradication of all harmful elements and their replacement by righteousness, peace, harmony, joy and security. But we should be cautious in pressing the details. The future glory is beyond our imagination. What we do know is that God’s material creation will be redeemed and glorified, because God’s children will be redeemed and glorified. This is how Charles Cranfield has expressed it:
And if the question is asked, ‘What sense can there be in saying that the sub-human creation – the Jungfrau, for example, or the Matterhorn, or the planet Venus – suffers frustration by being prevented from properly fulfilling the purpose of its existence?’, the answer must surely be that the whole magnificent theatre of the universe, together with all its splendid properties and all the varied chorus of sun-human life, created for God’s glory, is cheated of its true fulfilment so long as man, the chief actor in the great drama of God’s praise, fails to contribute his rational part.
Thirdly, *the whole creation has been groaning…right up to the present time* (22). So far the apostle has told us that the creation ‘was subjected to frustration’ in the past (20) and ‘will be liberated’ in the future (21). Now he adds that meanwhile, in the present, even while it is eagerly awaiting the final revelation (19), the creation is *groaning* in pain. Its groans are not meaningless, however, or symptoms of despair. On the contrary they are like *the pains of childbirth*, for they provide assurance of the coming emergence of a new order. In Jewish apocalyptic literature Israel’s current sufferings were frequently called ‘the woes of the Messiah’ or ‘the birthpangs of the messianic age’. That is, they were seen as the painful prelude to, indeed the herald of, the victorious arrival of the Messiah. Jesus himself used the same expression in his own apocalyptic discourse. He spoke of false teachers, wars, famines and earthquakes as ‘the beginnings of birth-pains’ (NIV) or ‘the first birth-pangs of the new age’ (REB), that is, preliminary signs of his coming (Mt. 24:8; Mk. 13:8; cf. Jn.16:20ff.).
Verse 22 actually brings together the past, present and future. For not only is the creation groaning now, but it is groaning ‘until now’, which makes the NIV *has been groaning* legitimate. And since its groans are labour pains, they look forward to the coming new order. Although we must be careful not to impose modern scientific categories on Paul, we must hold on to his combination of present sufferings and future glory. Each verse expresses it. The creation’s subjection to frustration was *in hope* (20). The bondage to decay will give place to the freedom of glory (21). The pains of labour will be followed by the joys of birth (22). There is therefore going to be both continuity and discontinuity in the regeneration of the world, as in the resurrection of the body. The universe is not going to be destroyed, but rather liberated, transformed and suffused with the glory of God.