Romans 8:22-27 New Revised Standard Version
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
you think of the Holy Spirit, what comes to mind? Do you think about the Spirit who comes as a mighty wind on Pentecost empowering and inspiring a community that had recently lost its leader to carry out a new mission in the world? (Acts 2:1-21). Do you think of John’s Paraclete, who comes alongside us and serves as our advocate (John 14)? What about the Spirit who helps us in our weakness? Might all of these references serve as descriptors of the Holy Spirit, the one whom Jesus promised to send to empower the church in its ministry of proclamation (in word and deed)? (Acts1:1-11). So, who is the Holy Spirit of God?
Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks of the Spirit in cosmic terms. The world is groaning as if in labor pains, ready to give birth to something new. That new thing includes our adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies, but it’s not just individual followers of Jesus, it’s the cosmos itself that is looking forward to the day of its redemption, that begins with the redemption of the children of God. In other words, Paul speaks of looking forward to the dawn of the new heaven and new earth. It is the Holy Spirit who facilitates all of this. Therefore, those who are in Christ are the first fruits of this new creation.
Since this is a Pentecost reading the focus is on the Holy Spirit. Paul isn’t looking back to Pentecost Sunday. Instead, he is looking forward to the moment when God’s cosmic purpose will be revealed through the Spirit. While Paul has an eschatological vision in mind, he knows he’s writing to people who are concerned about their present state of suffering. The new creation might be in the process of breaking into this realm, but it’s not fully present. So, suffering remains part of their reality. It remains part of our reality as seen in the ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. While suffering may be part of our reality, the reading begins in verse 18, with Paul telling the Roman church that he doesn’t consider the present sufferings worth comparing to the glory that is about to be revealed to them. This statement is a reminder that Paul’s theology is eschatologically oriented, so his word of encouragement suggests that the present suffering is temporary, while the glory to come is permanent. That is why our groanings serve as a prelude to our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. All of this is rooted in the work of the Spirit who intercedes on our behalf. In this, there is a similarity to John’s words about the Paraclete, our Advocate. It should be noted that all of this is something to be hoped for. That which is hoped for is not seen yet. Thus, we still endure suffering until that time when we will experience that adoption as children of God and the redemption of our bodies. The good news, however, is that the Holy Spirit is present with us speaking on our behalf.
The Holy Spirit, as Paul suggests here comes alongside us to assist us in our times of weakness. He couches this conversation in a word about the nature of prayer. Although the NRSV suggests that Paul’s audience might not know how to pray, his focus isn’t on the method of prayer (how). Rather it is a question of content. Paul writes that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf “with sighs too deep for words.” For some in the Christian community, this is understood to refer to glossolalia (speaking in tongues). In other words, this would involve a Spirit-inspired prayer language. More likely this is a matter of the Spirit connecting with our inner thoughts and feelings, our groans. Remember that the intercession of the Spirit in verse 26 follows upon Paul’s discussion of creation’s groanings, as well as our own groanings as we await in the Spirit, as the first fruits of the Spirit, our adoption, which is the redemption of our bodies.
So when it comes to praying in the Spirit, the intent is that in times of suffering we may not have the right words to say to God. We may not know how to express our concerns and our needs. All we can do is groan, and the Spirit translates those groans into a word to God. George Montague suggests that this idea that the Spirit serves as an intercessor was new because “the ruah of the Lord in the Old Testament was never sufficiently personalized or personified to be a separately operating entity, and certainly not toward God as in the case here.” Prophets interceded (Ex. 32:11; Amos 7:2) as did angels (Tob. 12:12). In addition, here in Romans 8, “the heavenly intercession is attributed equally to Christ (8:34) and to the Spirit (here)” [Montague, The Holy Spirit, p. 211].
When we read a passage like this, which speaks of the Spirit, many of us, rightly so in my view, read it through a trinitarian lens. In saying this, I also need to note that I don’t believe Paul had a fully developed trinitarian theology. I believe the foundations are there, but it would take a few centuries before theologians, like Basil of Caesarea, began to pay significant attention to the Holy Spirit. The formula is there early on as seen in Matthew 28, but the definition would take time to develop. Nevertheless, if we read it through a trinitarian lens it’s not as if the Spirit is a separate entity acting on its own. Rather the process of intercession and redemption all takes place within God’s being. A trinitarian reading of the passage also suggests that the transcendent God is present within us through the indwelling of the Spirit. It is as the Spirit is present within us that our groans are translated to God’s understanding of the creation.
The message here is that as wait for what is hoped for, redemption and adoption, we know that we are not alone. The Spirit of God is with us and within us. This is part of the Pentecost message. It is this presence that strengthens us for the journey that empowers our witness to the world. So, we pray, Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me” [Daniel Iverson, Chalice Hymnal, 259]
For more on the Holy Spirit and life in the Spirit see my Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013).