The Lord's Day Morning
July 26, 2009
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now, turn with me to the eighth chapter of Romans. We’re continuing our series, summer series, on the eighth chapter of Romans — a series we've called “The Best Chapter in the Bible.” This morning, we come to verses 26 and 27 of Romans chapter 8. You’ll notice that it begins with the word “likewise”. Paul is drawing a comparison of some kind, and the comparison is probably the reference that he has already made to the Holy Spirit back in verses 16 and 17 - that the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God, enabling us to cry, “Abba, Father.” And now in verses 26 and 27 he's going to address a second thing that the Holy Spirit does. He not only witnesses with our spirits, He also helps us in our weakness. Well, before we read this passage, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we need Your help. We need Your help to read the Bible and to understand the Bible. Holy Spirit, we need light to be shone into our darkened minds and hearts, so that which we read, we might to some degree comprehend. ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it.’ So come, come O Lord. Help us read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's holy, inerrant Word:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Amen. May the Lord add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant Word.
Now, this passage obviously is about prayer — the Spirit helping us in prayer. “Have we trials and temptation, is there trouble anywhere? You should never be discouraged — take it to the Lord in prayer.” We love the means of grace, and we as the children of God, know from our experience what a blessing, what a privilege it is as His children, to come before our heavenly Father in prayer. We talk about the sweet hour of prayer. “Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer, that calls me from a world of care, and bids me at my Father's throne, make all my wants and wishes known. In seasons of distress and grief, my soul has often found relief, and oft escaped the tempter's snare, by Thy return, sweet hour of prayer.”
That's all very well because the truth of the matter is that for many of us indeed, at certain times for all of us, prayer is a difficult thing. There are times when, as Paul refers to it here, we do not know what to pray for as we ought.
I. The struggle of prayer.
And the first thing that Paul is addressing here, let me refer to it as The Struggle of Prayer. The Struggle of Prayer. Donald Bloesch however has written a book called just that, The Struggle of Prayer. Yes, prayer is a privilege. Yes, prayer is a blessing. But prayer is also a problem, and there are difficulties — difficulties for a whole variety of reasons - sometimes because of physical infirmity. You remember the disciples — Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asked the disciples to pray with Him for one hour, and they fell asleep. They were overtaken by bodily infirmity. Here, it's not so much physical infirmity Paul is thinking of. He's thinking of a particular burden, a particular struggle of not knowing what to pray for as we ought — of not being sure and certain how to pray, and how to pray in terms of the will of God.
Well, that's all very well, but again most of us will confess that sometimes prayer is a struggle for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's a struggle because of our physical weakness. Remember Jesus exhorting the disciples in Gethsemane in the hour of His need to watch and pray - to pray with Him for one hour. They were, as you remember, overtaken by sleep. They could not pray for one hour. Physical weakness, physical exhaustion overtook them. Here, in our text, it's not so much physical exhaustion, but the whole idea of not being certain, of not knowing what the will of God for us is. We do not know how to pray as we ought. We don't know what to pray for and we don't know how to pray it. We know that we ought to pray but we don't know what to say. That's the particular burden, that's the particular struggle that Paul is addressing. We don't know what to say in prayer. We don't know whether we should pray for this or whether we should pray for that because we are uncertain as to what the mind of the will of God is. Knowing the will of God is one thing. Submitting to the will of God is another.
Ted Turner, the cable mogul, in 1990 received an award — a humanitarian award. He was awarded it I think in Orlando in Florida and at an interview which he gave at that occasion he reminded his interviewer that he had been brought up in a relatively strict Christian home - he had at one time thought of becoming a missionary. But he had abandoned all that. He had abandoned Christianity, he had abandoned everything that he had been taught as a child, and because he had prayed for his sister who was sick and his sister died — he dismissed Christianity, he dismissed it all because of that. It was not the will of God for her to life. In failing to submit to that, he abandoned the faith. That's a dramatic example, but there are some here this morning, and you’re angry, you’re resentful, because God hasn't answered your prayer in the specific way you thought God should have answered that prayer. All of us to some degree have a struggle with prayer because we're not sure what the will of God is.
That's Job's concern, isn't it? He didn't know what the will of God was. He was a man who was blameless, a man who was upright, a man who shunned evil, a man who feared God. And yet these calamities, these distresses, come upon him and he's out of sorts because he hasn't submitted himself to the will of God. The whole book of Job is ultimately about that — submission — submission to the will of God even though he doesn't know what that will of God is. He doesn't see the overall plan. He doesn't see the big picture. He doesn't see the overall purpose. He must live in the dark. He must walk by faith and not by sight.
You find Elijah struggling, struggling with the will of God, struggling with not knowing what the will of God is. He's running away, you remember, from the threats of Queen Jezebel. He's under a juniper tree and he prays that prayer that God would take away his life. He's caught in a distress, he's caught in a tension, he's caught in difficulty because he doesn't see the big picture. He doesn't see God's overall plan and purpose. He thinks that he sees it but he doesn't.
It's interesting that even the apostle Paul - you remember in that biographical comment that he makes about the thorn in the flesh. Three times he prays that God would remove that thorn in the flesh. It doesn't matter anymore what the nature of that thorn in the flesh was, but whatever it was, he didn't want it. Whatever it was, he wished it to be taken away. He prayed specifically to that end. Three times he prayed that God would remove that thorn in the flesh, but it wasn't the will of God. He's struggling with the will of God and submitting to the will of God. He says the same in the opening chapter, doesn't he, of Philippians? - That he doesn't know whether it's God's will that he be released from prison and come to them again, which is his heart's desire, or whether God will take him home to be with Jesus. And he's struggling. You can almost sense as you read that opening chapter of Philippians the apostle Paul is struggling with the will of God. He doesn't know how to pray as he ought.
Even Jesus, even our Lord Jesus in His incarnate life, in His human nature in the Garden of Gethsemane utters those incredible words, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine be done.” We could spend a year or two just expounding all of the intricate issues involved in that statement of our Lord in regard to His human mind and His divine mind as to what He knew in His human mind and the omniscience that was His divine mind. But He's praying a prayer with His human mind. It's the incarnate Savior and He's saying, “I wish this to go away. I want this situation to pass. Nevertheless, I want to submit to Your will — whatever that will may be.”
Well, here's Paul. He's talking here about the struggle of prayer. We do not know what to pray for as we ought. Maybe that's you this morning. Maybe there's an event in your life, a circumstance in your life, in your children's life, in your teenager's life, in your marriage, in your vocation. Maybe it's in regard to praying for sickness. I often think about that. I have to tell you.
We all experience something like that. On Wednesday nights at our weekly prayer meeting in the bulletin, there will be on any Wednesday evening half a dozen, ten, a dozen, of our brothers and sisters and they’re in hospital — they’re sick. And we pray. We pray almost invariably that God would restore them - that they would be healed, that they would be recovered, that they would be back again in our midst. We love them. They are our sisters. In some cases they are our relatives, they are husbands, wives, children, parents. We want them back. Deep down, of course, we know that that might not be God's will. It may be God's will to take them home — to heal them by taking them home. And we do not know what to pray for as we ought.
You may be in that position this morning. You've come to church on Sunday morning, you've put on your best face, but take away the camouflage of that best face and deep down “you’re in a strait between two,” as Paul would say. You do not know what to pray for. You find yourself in difficulty. You don't know what the best thing is for you or your family, your children, your parents, about health, about vocation, about troubles and distresses of one kind or another. There is this struggle in prayer. We sometimes find ourselves in such a strait and I think that is what Paul is referring to here that we can't even put it into words. We can't even vocalize it. We can't even express what our wishes are — we don't know. We are uncertain.
It may be this morning that you find yourself unemployed in these terrible economic times we're passing through. You grew up here in Jackson, all your friends are here, all your acquaintances are here — this is your life, this is everything to you, this church is everything to you. But you also want a job, and the job is in - well, I'd better choose a different state than the one I used this morning in the first service - so it may be in Washington state. I mean no disrespect to Washington state, but it's not Jackson, Mississippi. This is home. Washington state is not home. You don't want to go there. You don't want to move there. You don't want all the ins and outs and all the repercussions of moving to Washington state, to a different people and a different culture and a difference climate — well, that might be attractive (laughter). You don't know what to pray for as you ought. You’re in a strait between two things and perhaps, as you come to God in prayer, your prayer is confused. You’re saying one thing and then another or perhaps you’re not saying anything at all. It's just a groan. It's just a sigh. The struggle of prayer - I'm convinced this morning there are many of you who know exactly what Paul is talking about right here in Romans 26 and 27 — the struggle of prayer.
II. The help of prayer.
But secondly, Paul is speaking about something much more important than the struggle of prayer. We’re all familiar with the struggle of prayer. He's talking about The Help of Prayer. The Spirit, he tells us, helps us. Now, he uses a word here in the English language that's only five letters, but in the Greek language it's three or four times as long, and it's a bit like what happens in the German language. Paul actually makes up a word. It's not really a word — he has a word and he sticks onto that word two prefixes. It's a bit like what happens in German if you’re familiar with the German language. Some of the words in German can be very, very long because three or four words are just stacked together. I tell my students sometimes my favorite German word is Anknьpfungspunkt, but it doesn't matter what it means now, but I just love saying that word. It's actually several words all joined together. It's a bit like what Paul is doing here. The word itself simply means “to help,” but he adds to that word a prefix which is a prefix meaning “with.” He helps us by praying with us, is the idea. He helps us by being with us, by being a part of us, by including Himself in our action. But then, he uses another prefix and, well it's almost the opposite. In some instances in the New Testament it is the opposite. In some instances it can mean “in the face of.” In some instances it can be the prefix that's often used when we talk about Jesus dying “in our room, in our stead, in our place.” So, this is what Paul is saying. He's saying the Spirit helps us by praying with us and by praying for us. With us, for us — which is it Paul? And the answer is: yes.
I actually preached on this text 18 years ago or maybe 17 years ago, when I was still in Belfast. Jim Baird asked me to come preach here one Sunday morning. I was over speaking for the seminary and I preached on this text. I looked for that sermon this week with immensity and fury, but I could not find it. It was handwritten - it wasn't even on my computer. I know I've got a sermon on this text and I preached it in this building and I could not find it. But, I do actually remember that I used this illustration. It was about moving a piano.
This is an old piano. It was probably 70 or 80 years old and the one word that describes this piano was “heavy”. It was donated to me by a couple, two sisters in the congregation, an elderly couple in the congregation, who wanted me to have this piano. It wasn't really a piano I really wanted. It was full of holes that some creature or another had borne in it and it had been treated, so aesthetically it wasn't such a great piece of furniture to look at. I actually don't play the piano. But, it was given to me by two dear sisters who definitely loved Jesus, in the congregation, but I had to move it from their house to mine and I immediately thought of the means of doing that: deacons. (laughter) Young deacons and strong muscular deacons! In order to get into my house there were four or five steps to get into the front door. There were ten or so of these deacons and myself. Now, if you ask me to tell the tale, I’ll tell you that I moved that piano. I had my hands under it. I made grunting and groaning sounds as we tried to lift that thing through some tight corners and up those steps, but if I'm absolutely Judgment Day honest, (laughter) I wasn't carrying it at all. I thought to myself on many occasion “I don't want to put my back out lifting this piano when I've got these strong deacons doing it for me.” It was me; it was not me.
Paul is saying sometimes prayer is like that. Sometimes you think it's all you, and actually it's all the Holy Spirit through you. He helps you when you’re in the depths of despair, when you’re in the depths of despondency, when all you can do is groan. It's the believer who groans in this passage. It's not the Holy Spirit who's groaning. The Holy Spirit doesn't groan. When the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf, when He presents our prayers before His Father in heaven, to the first person of the Trinity, He speaks with divine eloquence - He doesn't need to groan. It's we who are doing the groaning. And that groaning, Paul is saying, when all you can do is groan or sigh, that groan is of the Holy Spirit. He understands you. He knows what it is that's troubling you. He helps you in vocalizing that, even in the shape and sound of a mere groan.
Carolyn Nystrom, who co-authors a book with Jim Packer called Prayer that many of you have been reading and studying I think in small groups over the last few years — she puts it like this: “The Spirit fixes our prayers on the way up.” Isn't that a beautiful thing? - Prayers that are badly expressed, prayers that are not really expressed at all, prayers that are just longings or aspirations of, or just groans. Some of you have unconverted children, teenagers, young adults. You want them to be saved. You long for them to know and love Jesus. And they find themselves in trouble — what are you going to pray for? Are you going to pray that God would spare them the trouble because deep down, you know that sometimes the way God brings people to Himself is by putting them in trouble, is by bringing them to an end of themselves? What are we going to pray for here? Are you going to pray for your children “Spare them the trouble”? Or are you going to say “Lord, bring trouble upon them”? We don't know what to say. We don't know what to pray for as we ought, and when we think about it, when we get down on our knees, and sometimes when tears well up in our eyes and flow down our face and all we can do is sigh and groan for our children, the Holy Spirit fixes those prayers on the way up and presents those prayers faultless, unblemished, perfect, in the sight of our Father in heaven. He knows, do you see? He knows the mind of God. He knows the will of God. That's our problem, isn't it? Verse 27 — we do not know what to pray for as we ought because we do not know the will of God, but the Spirit knows how to pray in accordance with the will of God because He is God. He knows the mind of God because He is God.
III. The success of prayer.
We not only have the struggle of prayer and the help of prayer, but we have in this text The Success of Prayer — that every prayer that arises in the consciousness of a believer is fixed on the way up and is presented before God as faultless and blameless and perfect - perfect by the blood of Jesus. Do you see what an encouragement that is?
I want to say to you this morning a number of things by way of application. The first thing is: If you find yourself this morning in a situation where you don't know what the will of God is, you’re not sure what the will of God is for you — about vocational things, about things in your home, things in your family, with your children — you’re unclear about what the will of God is…then join the club. It's a club called Christianity. It's what it means to be a child of God. Some of the choicest children of God have been here. My dear friends, our Lord Jesus has been here. Our Lord Jesus has been here — in the Garden of Gethsemane, in His human mind uttering those astonishing words: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless, not My will but Thine be done.” Torn as He seems to be between two avenues, two choices, desires to do the will of God, but at that moment, for whatever reason, clouds of mist seems to descend upon His human consciousness as He utters those words. My dear friends, that's, that's sublime. That “we do not have a High Priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” You find yourself this morning unsure what to pray for? Unsure which way to go? Wanting God's will to be done for sure? Then you’re following in the footsteps, not just of Paul, but you’re following in the footsteps of Jesus.
I want you to see this morning, that in our distress, in our trouble, in our heartache, it isn't just that God is with us. “I’ll be there for you” we say. I said that this week — I'm not sure what I meant when I said it. I thought it was a nice thing to say: “I’ll be there for you.” Give me 20 minutes and I think I can expound to you all the things I meant by saying “I’ll be there for you.” But it's more than that here. It's not just that the Spirit is there in the sense of being present — the Spirit understands you. He knows — oh, listen to this — He knows what you should pray.
It's a bit - somebody said it here in this pulpit a decade ago and I can't remember who it was - It's a bit like going to Wal-Mart.
Do you normally go to Wal-Mart? I was in Wal-Mart yesterday afternoon. I found things I never knew I needed. (laughter) They were just one dollar! They were crying out: “This is what you've needed all along!” That's what the Spirit does in our praying. You don't know what you need but He knows. He’ll show you. He’ll guide you. He’ll direct you. He’ll help you.
Now, there are Christians here this morning just beside themselves, unable to know which way to turn. My dear friends, do you realize we have two intercessors? We have an intercessor at the right hand of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. And we have an intercessor in our hearts. It's like having a good lawyer — the church is full of lawyers. When you’re in trouble, it's good to have a good lawyer — someone who is your advocate, someone who can put the case better than it is, someone who can put the case better than you can put the case, who can plead, who can argue.
My friends, we haven't just got a lawyer here - we've got the third person of the Trinity. We've got God Himself, the Holy Spirit, in our hearts, pleading, interceding, fixing our prayers on the way up. What an encouragement to pray. What an encouragement to simply groan in the presence of God.
May God bless His Word to us.
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