Thursday, September 15, 2005


The Holy Spirit's Groans

After a while you feel sorry for Bible verses that never seem to be used in their contexts. The Holy Spirit’s intercession in Romans 8:26 fits this description. Sometimes it goes like this: “Whenever we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.” (Implying, I guess, that when we think we know what to pray for He is not praying.) Or, perhaps it is a debate about whether the “groans that words cannot express” are a reference to praying in tongues. Or, maybe a claim to be God’s prayer partner.

Is there a commentary writer or preacher or Bible teacher who notices that this is the third time in the chapter that someone is groaning? Let’s read with our eyes open. If we examine the pattern of the three groans, we can easily see what the Holy Spirit is doing here.

First, creation groans (verses 19-22). Creation groans in frustration because of the bondage imposed on it because of human sin. It groans with impatience, because it is eagerly waiting for a release from the frustration. That release is coming, when the sons of God are revealed in their resurrected and glorious freedom. (Think “New Heaven and New Earth.”) There is hope because a correction is coming, but there is agony in the current state of imperfection.

Second, believers groan (verses 23-25). “We ourselves” live with the tension of knowing what someday will be ours. We know it because we already have the firstfruits of it. Yet, until the redemption of our bodies, we don’t experience the full adoption of sons, so we groan. Like creation, ours is a hopeful groan, but an agonizing one also.

Third is the Holy Spirit’s groan (verses 26-30) as the text says, “in the same way.” He searches our hearts and sees us as we now are. He also knows the mind of the Spirit and the likeness of God’s Son for which we are predestined, called, etc. With far greater clarity than our own awareness, He sees the discrepancy between what now is and what ought to be in our conforming to God’s will. In frustration over our continuing sinfulness, He groans. But it is a groan of hope, too, because someday we will be glorified.

In the meantime, He groans through intercession. It is true that “we do not know what we ought to pray” (not just sometimes but almost always). Listen to us: We pray for the pain to stop, for circumstances to be more to our liking, for other people to change, for God to intervene. He prays for us to be changed into Christlikeness, which is what we ought to be praying first and foremost. The Holy Spirit’s prayers are answered, as God works all things for the good of those who love Him. Not necessarily what we think is good (since we don’t know), but for the real good that is the goal of His groaning.

What do you know? Even Romans 8:28 can be put back into its context. When we read with open eyes.

"After a while you feel sorry for Bible verses that never seem to be used in their contexts."

Great line!

It is fun - in a holy & preverse way - to preach a text that is familiar & widely misunderstood. You can watch people's wheels turning as you speak ... stunned, doubt, disagreement, searching, rethinking, priviate in-the-pew Bible study (mid-sermon), sheepish realization or hostile irritation. Oh to be a preacher!
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