This passage occurs as a New Testament Lesson in the RCL "Pentecost"/"Ordinary"/"Proper" Season, Year A, most recently July 2017. A portion of it (Romans 8:12-17) occurs on Holy Trinity Sunday in Year B, most recently May 2018.
Summary: Paul describes in some beautiful and novel ways our relationship to God through the work of the Holy Spirit. First, Paul uses the word adoption (υιοθεσια); he, alone among NT writers, uses this concept to talk about our relationship to God. Second, Paul uses a string of "συν" verbs to talk about our togetherness with God: We have inheritance, suffering and glorification WITH Christ. Lastly, Paul says we have the first-fruit of the Spirit. EVERY time before this, first-fruits went to God to appease him. Now, God is offering us the first-fruit (απαρχη) of the Spirit. I am still pondering the interpretation of verse 23, but it is clear that Paul is pushing the dimensions of the God-humanity relationship in new (and strange) directions, made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit through Christ.
υιοθεσια ("adoption"; 8:15, 23) Paul employs the imagery of adoption to describe our relationship with God. Rather profound, not only because of the metaphor itself, but because Paul had no Biblical antecedents. Paul claims that our adoption comes with rights, including inheritance and glorification. (oh, yes, and suffering too).
ει ("if"; 13, 25) This word is often translated as "if" but it can also mean "since." For example, in verse 25, it would be a much more natural reading in English: "Since we hope for what we have not seen, we wait in patience." I've written about this word before in my grammar review, but in this passage, it does have an impact on translation, especially in verse 13. [Basic review: "ει" with subjunctive verb means "if"; with an indicative verb it can range from "if" to "since under the condition of X." The verbs in vs. 13 are indicative, so we have some flexibility.] If you read verse 13 with "if" it reads like a moral imperative: sin and die or put to death the body and live. But if you read it with "since" it makes a much more Lutheran reading: "Since you are sinning, you will die; since you, by the Spirit, putting the deads of the body to death, you will live." In otherwords, Paul may simply be describing a situation rather than prescribing a situation.
ματαιοτης ("futility" or "vanity" 8:20) This is the main word of the book of Eccles. in the OT. I think keeping it as "vanity" might be a better translation. This is life before Christ: not simply dark or evil, but vain and rather pointless.
απαρχη ("first-fruit"; 8:23) Paul employs this word in a striking way. Normally this word refers to the choice part of the sacrifice offered to God. God explicitly commands this part; the rest can be used for secular (ie our) use. Paul says that we now have the first-fruit of the Spirit. There a number of ways to read this passage (I assume) but one that strikes me is this: We have Christ, the first fruit sacrifice of God. This means the age of sacrifice is over. We no longer have to live in fear of appeasing God, but we can live as his children, assured of his mercy and grace. Another way to think of it is this. The Spirit is the first-fruit, in the sense of the Spirit is the downpayment, the promise, the sealed legal papers, of our future glory with God. This word remains an enigma to me, but it is clear that Paul is pushing beyond the bounds of its normal cultic and OT usage.
σαρξ: (Note: This is a much longer entry)
Paul uses σαρξ three times in this passage (8:12 (twice); 8:13). It seems to have a variety of meanings concretely and abstractly related to “flesh.” Although Paul uses the word in various ways, in Romans he tends to offer a negative view of σαρξ, presenting it as hostile to the purposes of God.
BDAG suggests a variety of meanings for σαρξ ranging from purely physical to more abstract. Although BDAG suggests that Paul uses σαρξ to signify a variety of these possible meanings, it also indicates that
“in Paul’s thought especially, all parts of the body constitute a totality known as sa.rx or flesh, which is dominated by sin to such a degree that whatever flesh is, all forms of sin are likewise present, and no good thing can live in the σαρξ.”
The Theological Lexicon of the New Testament offers a similar assessment: “Paul treats the flesh – the inferior part of the person – as the locus of the passions and covetousness.”
In the beginning of the book, Paul seems more neutral on flesh. His argument against flesh grows! For example, although Jesus is the descendant of David according to the flesh, he is designated son of God in power according to the Spirit (1:4). Indeed, faith, not our fleshly ancestry in Abraham, provides us with justification (Romans 4:24; Paul reiterates this point in chapter 9). Paul even writes that the inward – real – circumcision is not in the flesh, but in the heart by the Spirit (2:28-29). It is clear that even when Paul uses σαρξ in a more neutral manner, he views it as incomplete, if not incompatible, with God’s purposes and the work of the Spirit.
Although Paul uses σαρξ throughout Romans, it overwhelmingly appears in the middle of his letter. Here Paul explicitly describes σαρξ as hostile to purposes of the God. He writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (7:18).” Most of chapter 8 negatively contrasts the flesh against the Spirit. For example, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace (8:6).”
In conclusion, Paul uses this word generally and also specifically in chapter 8 of Romans to describe something in our human nature opposed to God and the work of the Spirit. Paul seems more concerned with what it does (causes us to sin) than what it is (some entity in us). The Spirit will not work to improve the flesh, but the flesh and its works must be put to death.
Translation/Grammar Review: συν verbs
Greek can easily make new verbs by combining prefixes to existing verbs. In English, we could do this too, but perhaps not as easiliy: "Co-suffering" would make sense, but it would be bad English. But in Greek writers will often add suffixes freely to verbs to slightly modify their meaning. Paul does this a number of times in this passage, see, for example, verses 16, 17 and 22. Here Paul adds the prefix συν, which means "with" to a number of verbs. Some words in English still have this prefix, for example: "synergy" or "syntax." But mostly in English we have words with the Latin "con" or "co" as their prefix (which also means "with").
At first, you might not notice the verbs because you don't see συν. Don't worry! The problem is "n" is a weak sound, so it often gets dropped -- in every language. For example, it is not "con"operation, but cooperation. It is not "con"munication, but communication. The "n" is dropped or moved to another sound. (In Hebrew this makes certain verbs very difficult to detect after they have been conjugated).
This happens in verse 17: συγκληρονομοι, συμπασχομεν, συνδοξασθωμεν. The point for translation is that you have to try to capture, in both 16-17 and 22 the great amount of "co"working that is happening:
We are "co" witnesses (16); "co" inheritors"; "co" sufferes and "co" glorifieders (spelling intentional).