Romans 8:35 No Separation

23 Aug

Here is a manuscript of a recent Sunday night Bible study from Romans chapter 8.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

Last week as we continued with this last section of Romans 8 we said that verses 31-39 were like an “argument of praise.” Paul is worshiping God through these last verses but he is also re-affirming the case he has been making about the truth of what God has done which he has been discussing in the first 8 chapters of the book.

What we have found in chapter 8 has been a focus on the glory of salvation and on the reality of suffering. Paul has told us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We have the Spirit, we are adopted into God’s family. We are His heirs. We have a glorious hope and the gracious Holy Spirit to minister to us and the sovereign plan of God to see us through. So there is much about the glory and goodness of all God has done in Romans 8. But then there is also the theme of suffering that runs through this chapter. We live in a fallen, broken world, in bondage to decay. There are all sorts of trials and doubts and difficulties. The challenge of life in a fallen world tests us all. But in the end, through the work of Christ, God’s goodness and power triumphs over the sin and brokenness of the world. Paul never shies away from talking about suffering, but he always puts suffering in the right place: under the sovereignty of God as something that we will ultimately triumph over as God’s children.

The problem is that suffering sometimes feels more real to us than the truths we are looking at in Romans 8. Most of us would have to admit that there are times when suffering feels overwhelming. Paul felt this way at times. For all his triumph here in Romans 8 when we turn to 2 Corinthians chapter 1 we find him saying that the challenges of ministry caused him to despair. Even Jesus in the garden says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” So this is no little thing we’re dealing with when we are dealing with the issue of suffering. Paul won’t minimize it and he won’t give some kind of flippant, quick answer. He means to deal with it in a comprehensive way and that is what he has been doing in chapter 8 all the way from verse 18 through the end of the chapter. And that is one reason why we have lingered so long on these verses. The issue of dealing with the brokenness of the world and the suffering of our lives is just too important to gloss over with a Sunday School answer. We have already seen Paul give us three ways to deal with the suffering we face: meditate on future glory, rest in the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit and trust in the sovereign hand of God as He works out His plan for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. I think verses 18-30 are meant to give us what we need to fight this battle against suffering mentally and spiritually. On the other hand, I think verses 31-39 are intended to give us what we need to fight this battle against suffering emotionally. In other words, Paul’s argument of praise is intended to lift our hearts while his words in verses 18-30 are intended to strengthen our minds. We need both. We need right thinking and we need right belief and we also need heart encouragement to stay the course in a world gone mad. That heart encouragement is what Paul has been providing over the last few verses and will continue to give through the end of the chapter. So let’s focus tonight on the encouragement he gives in verses 35.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

I think we have here the number one challenge we face when we suffer. We may be tempted to wonder whether God loves us. Intellectually, we know God loves us, but when we are facing a severe trial, it may appear to us that God does not love us. And it may also appear to others that God does not love us. The ancient world was similar to our own world in that we tend to think that those who have money or power or outward success are blessed while those who have disease or financial struggle or other problems must be in the shape they’re in because of sin.

So I want to look at what is going on in this verse overall and then take a look at some of the details. Paul’s point in verse 35 is that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. This is really what he will be driving home in this closing section of Romans 8, from verses 35-39. He opened the chapter with the powerful word that there is no condemnation and he will close it with the great word that there is no separation. The rest of verse 35 is just a listing of the kind of things we might be tempted to think could separate us from Christ’s love but in fact cannot.

So the main idea of verse 35 is that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love. Here it is stated in question form but the expected answer is “no,” and that answer will come in its fullness in verses 37-39 where Paul will plainly state, “nothing can separate us from the love of God that it is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Verse 35 also connects to the beginning of the argument of praise, especially Romans 8:32. “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” So Paul has told already told us that God has shown us the full extent of His love for us by giving us Jesus. In giving Jesus, God could not have given more deeply. If anything would have held back God’s love toward us, it would have been the prospect of having to give up His Son. But since God didn’t hold back His Son from us we know nothing else will cause Him to hold back His love or separate Himself from us. The sense of verse 35 when taken along with this whole closing section was summed up well by the great old commentator Matthew Henry, who wrote, “Since God in His love gave up His Son for us without hesitation, can we imagine that any thing else should divert or dissolve that love?” So that is the main point of verse 35. Now let’s look at the details.

First, this word “Who.” I found this strange because all the things Paul lists at the end of verse 35 are things, not people. My expectation would be that this would read, “What shall separate us from the love of God?” Tribulation or despair or whatever. But the verse says “who.” I believe one reason this is so is because Paul believes that what drives suffering in the world is not impersonal forces but people, God and Satan. Think about the spiritual warfare language Paul uses in places like Ephesians 6. Think about how Paul speaks about the sovereign hand of God even here in Romans 8. In behind the tribulation and distress and danger are personal forces and spiritual forces at work. Paul doesn’t believe in a random world so he personalizes his question.

“Who shall separate us?” This word “separate” is the Greek word choridzw. Jesus uses it when talking about God’s plan for marriage when He says, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” It is used three times in Acts all with the idea of leaving or departing a place. Paul picks it up and uses it four times in his discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians chapter 7. And the book of Hebrews in chapter 7 uses it in speaking of how Jesus was separate from sinners, how He was perfect while they were not. The marriage example is the strongest Scriptural use of this Word and it is a fitting example for us to think about, for God puts His relationship with the church in terms of marriage. We are the bride of Christ and nothing will get in the way of His love for us. The “us” obviously then is referring to believers. Romans 8 makes clear all the way through that it is those who are “in Christ Jesus” who receive the blessings of this chapter.
When we think about the next phrase, “from the love of Christ,” we see something more of Paul’s view of God. Paul transitions so easily between the love of Christ here and the love of God in verse 39 that it is clear that He sees the Father and the Son as equals. Then when you throw in all that chapter 8 says about the Spirit, you begin to see that this chapter has a thoroughly Trinitarian shape. And this is not just the case in Romans 8. Sometimes we here that the word trinity is never used in Scripture and that is true. But if you are alert as you read Scripture, you begin to see the trinity everywhere as a solid and sure biblical truth.

We also see something of Paul’s view of love. In saying here in verses 35-39 that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ Paul is pointing to God’s love for believers as ever-present and all-encompassing. I think about Psalm 139, where the psalmist talks about going nowhere where God is not present and feeling at all times that God is with him and is guiding him. I also think about the first few verses of Romans 5, which say, Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

This agape love, the self-giving love of God is something from which nothing can separate us if we are in Christ Jesus.
But when we face affliction, the most common thing most people do is question God. When we are going through hardship, people pity us and point to our sufferings as proof that God’s love is not with us, or even that God is not real.
Jesus faced this in his ministry. Do you remember John chapter 9, the man born blind? The disciples say, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” You see the worldly thinking of the disciples? Yet what did Jesus say? Neither this man nor His parents sinned, but he was born blind that the works of God might be displayed in his life. This man in John 9 is a picture of so many things but one of the big things he shows us is the reality of Romans 8:28-30. Jesus also saw this attitude in His disciples when the storm came up on the sea. Jesus was sleeping and they woke Him up and said, “Don’t you care that we are about to drown?” You see that, they didn’t question His power, they questioned His love.
Jesus also faced this kind of thinking when He was on the cross. The religious leaders said, “He trusted in God, let him deliver him now, if he will have him; for he said, I am the Son of God.”

And I have to say, if I am one of those disciples on the boat, I am not probably not really feeling Jesus’ love while He is sleeping as the waves crash over the boat. When hardship comes, it does not feel like love. It feels like abandonment or punishment. Paul knows this and that’s why he spends so much of this chapter talking to us about how to deal with suffering. In the end, if we are to get through the hard times faithfully, we have to be constantly reminding ourselves of these truths. That is why I have encouraged you just to live in Romans 8. Just keep praying through these promises daily and looking to these truths.

The words “of Christ” can be taken in one of two ways. It could mean (1) Christ’s love for believers or (2) believers love for Christ. In this case, it is clear that it is talking about Christ’s love for believers. The language of being separated from this love points to the idea that it is Christ’s love flowing toward us rather than our love flowing toward Him. Also, our love for Christ ebbs and flows, whereas His love for us is steady and consistent. The old theologian Charles Hodge sealed my understanding of this with these words, “It is no ground of confidence to assert, or even to feel, that we will never forsake Christ; but it is the strongest ground of assurance to be convinced that His love will never change.” Paul in trying to assure us never points us back to ourselves but always to God as the one who is at work for His glory and our joy.
So as Paul assures us of Christ’s love for us, he points to seven categories of things which might threaten to separate us from Christ’s love. I say categories because each of these words is general and could refer to anything from daily annoyances to life-threatening dangers. I do believe there is a progression or growing intensity in the list which I will point out as we go but in general this list would cover all the major threats in our lives which may cause us to question God’s love.

So here’s the list . . . Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
Now some of you might be saying, “Pastor, how can you say the list gets more intense as you go? I mean tribulation is the first word on the list. Haven’t you ever heard of the great tribulation?” But the thing is, this Greek word hardly ever refers in the Bible to the Great tribulation. It is a very general word, Thlipsis, which just means “affliction.” It is a very common word, used 45 times in the NT and it is a word for general suffering or affliction or tribulation.

The next word, “distress,” is used more rarely, just four times in the NT, all by Paul. It is twice translated “distress” and twice translated “calamities.” Again, it is a very general word that refers to hardship. I did find one interesting truth, though, in studying this word. There is a link here to Romans chapter 2. Look at Romans 2:9, There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. Do you see that tribulation and distress in verse 9? Same Greek words as those used here in Romans 8. Now we’ve already talked about Romans 2 and have said that it is true that there is trouble for those who do evil but blessing for those who do good. And we have noted that since, as chapter 3 states, no one does good, there has to be justification by faith in Christ for any good to come of our lives. But notice how Romans 8:35 rounds out the story of Romans 2:9-10. There will be tribulation and distress for evildoers. But there will also be tribulation and distress for believers, along with many blessings in this life. The difference is that the evildoer in the end will eternally live under that eternal tribulation and distress while the believer will be held steadfast even in the midst of tribulation and distress.

The third word, persecution, is fairly straightforward. It is used 10 times in the NT and simply points to the hardship others bring on Christians because of their faith in Christ.

The fourth word, famine, is used 12 times in the NT and is used by Christ in His predictions about the great tribulation and by Paul to talk about His own sufferings. This word, along with the fifth word, “nakedness” refers to physical poverty and hardship. And when we begin to put this all together, it appears that this list is straight out of Paul’s own experience. He knew tribulation and distress of all sorts. He knew well the sting of persecution. Philippians 4 tells us he knew what it was to be in hunger and that he knew what it was to be in need. The book of 2 Corinthians details Paul’s sufferings in a list in chapter 11 that goes like this, Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

The sixth word, dangers, is a fairly rare Greek word, kindunos, which is found in only two places in the NT, Romans 8:35 and 2 Corinthians 11:26, which we just read. The word speaks to various kinds of physical threats. So we can see this progression from troubling circumstances to outright persecution to severe poverty to physical threats and finally, to the last word, “sword.” This Greek word, machaira, is a common Greek word, used 29 times in the NT. Of course, many of these times it is used of a physical sword. In the gospels as well as the book of Acts it is almost always used in this physical, literal way. But when we get to Paul’s letters, we see that the word carries several symbolic meanings as well. In both Ephesians and Hebrews the Word of God is referred to as a sword. It is interesting as a side note to see that the Word as a sword is actually used in Ephesians as an offensive weapon to fight the battle of sin but in Hebrews it is doing its work on us as it cuts into our spirits and reveals the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. So the Spirit uses the same word both to build us up in God and to reveal our own sinfulness. This two-fold use of the Word is critical for our spiritual health. We need both uses of the sword to be healthy believers.

The other symbolic meaning of the sword is when Paul refers to the government in Romans 13. That he uses the same word here in Romans 8 may mean that he is thinking of official government persecution here. But the word sword may also be a reference simply to death. I think this is most likely, if we believe there is a progression here in the severity of the threats Paul is talking about.

Now do you see all the parallels in this list to the life of Paul? The one who is writing all these hopeful words about the love of God, has already walked down the path of suffering and found the love of Christ sufficient. Now he says to his readers, it is real. The love of God really is greater than all my troubles.

It is interesting that an early Jewish source, the book of Sirach, says the following words, “To all creatures, human and animal, but to sinners seven times more, 9come death and bloodshed and strife and sword, calamities and famine and ruin and plague. 10 All these were created for the wicked, and on their account the flood came. 11 All that is of earth returns to earth, and what is from above returns above.”

Sirach was written by a Jewish rabbi from Jerusalem in about 175BC. So we have a good idea through this of conventional wisdom in Paul’s day and there is a sense here that this list of seven hardships are the punishments of God toward ungodly people. But here is where it gets deep. Christians are not being punished for wrongdoing and yet they are not delivered from all hardship. This is where Christians part ways with false teachers that say faith always leads to a good result in this life. Believers still face hardship. But God does deliver us. God doesn’t deliver us from these hardships, He delivers us through these hardships. That is what Paul is saying in verse 35. Evil will not prevail, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

But if we look at the outward appearance, we may see little difference between the circumstances of believers and the circumstances of unbelievers. Being a believer doesn’t keep you cancer free and you get a lot of hardship added like persecution. So many people would look at a suffering believer and wonder about what sin they committed to be so punished.
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Well, that’s where we have to stop tonight. This truth is so wonderful, especially when we pair it with verse 1 . . . NO CONDEMNATION and NO SEPARATION.

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