22 Oct 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 8:31-39. Five unanswerable questions – Question 5.
*Question 5: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?* (35a). ‘We are climbing a grand staircase here,’ and this fifth question is the top step. As we stand on it, Paul himself now does what we have been trying to do with his other questions. He first asks who will separate us from Christ’s love and then looks round for an answer. He brings forward a sample list of adversities and adversaries that might be thought of as coming between us and Christ’s love. He mentions seven possibilities (35b). He begins with *trouble (thlipsis), hardship (stenochoria)* and *persecution (diogmos)*, which together seem to denote the pressures and distresses caused by an ungodly and hostile world. He goes on to *famine or nakedness*, the lack of adequate food and clothing. Since in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus promised these to the heavenly Father’s children (Mt.6:25f.), would not their absence suggest that after all he does not care?
Paul concludes his list with *danger or sword*, meaning perhaps the risk of death on the one hand and the experience of it on the other, whether ‘the sword’ be ‘the final sword thrust of bandit or enemy soldier or executioner’. A willingness for martyrdom is certainly the final test of Christian faith and faithfulness. In order to enforce this, the apostle quotes from a psalm, which depicts the persecution of Israel by the nations. They were not suffering because they had forgotten Yahweh or turned to a foreign god. Instead, they were suffering for Yahweh’s sake, because of their very loyalty to him:
*’For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ (cf. Ps. 44:22,LXX).
So what about these seven afflictions – and others too, since the list could be considerably lengthened? They are real sufferings all right – unpleasant, demeaning, painful, hard to bear and challenging to faith. And Paul knew what he was talking about, because he had himself experienced them all, and worse (E.g. 2 Cor.11:23ff.). Perhaps the Roman Christians were also having to endure similar trials. Indeed, some of them did a few years later, when they were burned as living torches for the sadistic entertainment of the Emperor Nero. Those of us who have never had to suffer physically for Christ should perhaps read verses 35-39 alongside verses 35-39 of Hebrews 11, which list unnamed people of faith who were tortured, jeered at, flogged, chained, stoned, and even sawn in half. Faced with such heroism, there is no place for glibness or complacency.
Nevertheless, can pain, misery and loss separate Christ’s people from his love? *No!* On the contrary, far from alienating us from him, *in all these things* (even while we are enduring them) Paul dares to claim that *we are more than conquerors (hypernikomen)*. For we not only bear them with fortitude but triumph over them, and so ‘ are winning a most glorious victory’ (BAGD) *through him who loved us* (37). This second reference to Christ’s love is significant, and the aorist tense shows that it alludes to the cross. Paul seems to be saying that, since Christ proved his love for us by *his* sufferings, so *our* sufferings cannot possibly separate us from it. In the context, which began with a reference to our sharing Christ’s sufferings (17), they ‘should be seen as evidence of union with the crucified one, not a cause for doubting his love’.