Paul reminds the believers living in Rome that the inheritance they will yet have is the creation. By creation, he probably means the earth although he could mean the entire universe. In the beginning God gave the earth to Adam as his inheritance, but he lost it by his sin. Part of the work of Jesus is to recover that inheritance for his people.
Maybe we are surprised by Paul’s words here about the creation groaning. Every day we see the beauty of the earth, the splendour of the heavens, the magnificence of the mountains, the amazing intricacy of the flowers, and the majesty of the sea. Yet we should not be surprised at his description because we also know that the creation has many ugly aspects. We are aware of the cruelty of the animal world. And we read daily of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tornadoes and famines. In the created order there exists a great contradiction between what is good and what is evil. Clearly, this is not the world over which God pronounced, at the beginning, that all was very good (Gen. 1:31).
So what does Paul say about the creation? First, he says that the creation wants to see the revealing of the sons of God. Literally, the creation is stretching out its neck. Paul is personalising the creation here. At present, the creation cannot see the glory of the sons of God because they are suffering. But one day, when the sons of God are revealed in glory the creation’s longing will be realised.
Second, Paul says that the creation is currently experiencing futility because of the curse God has placed on it because of the sin of Adam (which was also our sin). In other words, all the inherent resources within creation never fully achieve what could have been done.
Third, Paul says that the creation in some sense is enslaved to its current condition. Whatever else may be said about slavery it is obvious that it is unpleasant and demeaning. The creation is not what it was intended to be when God first made it.
Fourth, Paul says that the creation is groaning. Yet it is an optimistic groaning because it is likened to the groans connected to childbirth. This optimism is based on how God enslaved it at the beginning. It was an enslavement designed to end when the heirs, to whom it will be given, will be ready to receive it. They will be ready at the resurrection when they will be glorified in body as well as in soul.
We can summarise Paul’s description by saying that the groaning of creation is comprehensive (all of it is affected), continuous (it has never stopped since the calamity in Eden), combined (Paul says that it is all groaning together, much like a concert of musicians, except that this concert is all performed in a very minor key), but it will have a conclusion (when the sons of God are revealed).