Romans 8:28 is one of those well-known and often-quoted verses which many of us have drawn on when faced with tragedies, challenges or adversity.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV)
Most translations follow the NA28/UBS5 Greek working text which is based on the majority of manuscript readings and is usually translated in English as, “And we know that…all things work together for good to those who love God…” The NIV differs slightly from the translation above in that the Committee on Bible Translation follows a variant reading (ο θεος) supported by four manuscripts (?46 A B 81) that places God as subject of the action (i.e., “And we know that…. God works…) in line with the train of thought in surrounding verses where the Spirit (Rom. 8:26,27) and God (Rom 8:27,29) are the subject of the action. In light of considerations of textual criticism and the internal logic of text and context, one variant is not necessarily superior to another; so, it is reassuring to read in the NIV that “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”. This gives us hope and comfort.
The text, however, does not say that all things that happen are necessarily good, but that God works for our good in “all things”. It is important to understand “all things” in light of the immediate context of the preceding verses, i.e., “our present sufferings”, “bondage to decay”, our “groaning as in the pains of childbirth”, and “our weakness”. This principle of reading the text first of all in its immediate context is also well illustrated elsewhere by the NIV11 translation of πάντα as “all this” in Phil. 4:13, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” The “all this” is an improvement over the NIV84 translation which had the unqualified “everything”, since “all this” anchors the text in its immediate context where Paul refers to being in need or having plenty—having learnt “the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
The text in Romans 8:28 furthermore does not say that we can live any way we choose and expect God to clean up the mess we leave behind. The immediate context actually constrains possible legitimate options open to the interpretation of this verse, because it is very clear in the same verse that the objects of God’s work are “those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The Greek word πρόθεσις which is here translated “purpose” takes our minds to Paul’s words to the Ephesians, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (Eph. 1:11-12)
The first readers would know very well from the history of God’s redemptive plan with the world that the motivation for God’s action is his eternal purpose for his people, starting with Israel, yet extending to all nations. Those who believe in him and love him have the privilege of being among “those God foreknew”, whom “he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” (Rom 8:29). This image-ry takes our minds back to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where we read how the Israelites’ “minds were made dull” through a veil that covered their hearts. “But, whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.… And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:16,18)
In my daily chronological reading of the Bible, I recently read the story of Joseph once again. The narrative is epic on so many levels. Relevant to our reflection here, the principle of God working for the good of all those who love him is very illustrated in the story of Joseph’s life.
At age seventeen, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers and brought a bad report to his father about them. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he was born to him in his old age, and had an ornate robe made for him. Joseph’s brothers hated him for this and for the dreams he had and could not speak a kind word to him. They plotted to kill him and eventually sold him into slavery to Midianite merchants, who sold him to Potiphar one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard. The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered in everything he did, so much so that Potiphar put him in charge of everything in his household and blessed his household because of Joseph. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he resisted and fled, but was unjustly accused and thrown in prison. Again, the Lord was with Joseph and in prison granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden, who put him in charge over all the prisoners. In prison, God gave Joseph the ability to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, but when the cupbearer was restored to his position of honor, he forgot about Joseph, who was left in prison for two full years, until Pharaoh dreamt and began to search for someone who was able to interpret his dreams. “I cannot do it,” Joseph replied to Pharaoh, “but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires.” (Gen. 41:16)
In spite of his circumstances, Joseph placed his trust in God who restored him to a position of honor and placed him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Joseph not only ensured the survival of Egypt, but also the salvation of the people of Israel. God had called Joseph for a purpose and worked through the bad things that happened to him—hate, jealousy, rejection, kidnapping, slavery, false accusations, unjust imprisonment, and famine—for the good of his life and the salvation of the people of Israel. When Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, he said to them, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:4-7)
May each one of us know in a deep way that God works all things for our good, because we love him and have been called according to his purpose, so that ultimately he will be glorified through our life!