Life in the Spirit: The Spirit Intercedes

Sermon by David Strain on July 12

Romans 8:26-27

Well do keep your Bibles in hand and turn this time to the New Testament scriptures.We have been – I’ve been on vacation for a few weeks – and prior to that we were working our way through the magnificent eighth chapter of the letter of Paul to the Romans. So if you take your Bibles you can turn to Romans chapter 8. And we’ve seen that Romans 8 is the great “Holy Spirit chapter” in the New Testament. In the book of Romans up to this point, the Spirit is mentioned only once. And then suddenly in chapter 8, He’s mentioned twenty-two times over. If you want to know about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, this is a great place to turn to see it. He’s mentioned in verses 2 through 8 as the one who enables us to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law in our daily lives. In 9 through 11, the Spirit enables us to subdue the flesh and to put it to death. In 14 through 17, the Spirit assures us that we are children of God, adopted into His family; heirs of God and fellow heirs together with Christ. And then when we last we were in Romans 8 together, in 18 through 25, as Paul talks about our present sufferings he reminds us that the Spirit is the firstfruits, the foretaste and guarantee of a greater glory still to come. So this is a Holy Spirit chapter.

And today, we are directing our attention to verses 26 and 27, to one of the most precious, practical, and intimately personal aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of a Christian. And also, I have to say as I’ve talked to some of you, as I’ve reflected on my own experience during these strange and difficult days of isolation and social distancing and masks and COVID-19 and all the rest of it, as we think about racial tensions across the country, as we think about all the issues, political divisions, we need to be people of prayer. Don’t we? This ought, among other things, to drive us to our knees and to plead with God for His help and His grace and His mercy upon us, upon His Church, upon our land, upon our world. And to do that well and faithfully we need all the help we can get. And these two verses talk to us about the Spirit’s help in prayer. We’re going to think about the teaching of verses 26 and 27 under two simple headings. You can see them lifted directly from the text. First, in the first part of verse 26, “The Spirit our Helper.” “The Spirit our Helper.” And then in 26 and 27, in the second place, “The Holy Spirit our Intercessor.” So first, “The Holy Spirit our Helper,” and then more particularly, as we think about how He helps, “The Holy Spirit our Intercessor.”

Before we read the passage, we’re going to pray once again and ask for God to help us. Let’s pray.

O Lord, we’ve already read from the Old Testament scriptures, we’re about to read now from the New, and we want not just to hear Your voice but to respond in humble, repentant, believing, trusting obedience to the truth. We want to hear the voice of Christ summoning us to godliness, assuring us of grace, strengthening us in new obedience. Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. By Your Word, send the light of the Spirit who inspired it to shine the truth into our consciousness and strengthen our hands and feet and hearts and wills that we may walk in new obedience for Your honor and glory. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

Let’s back up please and read from verse 18 just to give us some context, if you have your Bibles in hand, so that we can see the flow of Paul’s thought. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and authoritative Word.

The Holy Spirit our Helper

A few months ago I saw a video posted on Facebook of a father with his very young son on the basketball court together. The son couldn’t have been more than three of four. He was teeny. And there really was no way he could throw – the ball was almost as big as he was, you know – there was no way he could throw that ball into that hoop. And when his daddy gave him the ball, he turned around with his back to the goal and he threw the ball up over his head, and quick as lightning, as soon as the ball left his son’s hands, his father caught it in midair and threw it on toward the basket. And you can guess, I suspect, what happened next. While the ball was still in the air, the little boy turned around just in time to see the ball he had thrown swish through the basket perfectly. And he stood there just thunderstruck at the shot he’d made! You know, overhead, blind like that! And his hands went up in the air in celebration! It was a beautiful moment and his father beamed at him in pride.

Romans 8:26 says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Here is the Spirit our helper. “Help” is a little word in English, only four letters, but the Greek word that Paul uses is a long compound word, “sunantilambanomi; sunantilambanomi.” “Sun,” the prefix “sun” means “with.” “Anti” means “for” or maybe “on behalf of.” And “lambano” means “to take hold of something.” “Sunantilambanomi” means “to take hold of something” or “to carry something, to bear something alongside someone and for their sake,” or “on their behalf.” Actually it’s a lovely, graphic picture of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives. It’s the picture of a burden shared, a helper carrying much of the load for us and with us.

It made me think about that father on the basketball court. His little boy lobbed that ball overhead as hard as he could; it was a puny throw, pathetic really. But then dad added his strength to the throw and pushed the ball through the air into the basket. We are weak, Paul says. We do not have the strength that we need. For us, it’s an impossible shot. That’s what he’s saying. But the Spirit helps in our weakness. He carries the weight with us and for us when it would otherwise crush us. He puts strength into our throw. He lends power to our effort. He makes effectual what, because of the remaining liabilities of our sinful natures, would otherwise always fail. What a precious promise, then. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

To really see the depths of our precious it is, we need to understand, I think, a little more of what Paul means when he talks about weakness. And the first word of verse 26 in English helps us – “likewise.” It connects us to what Paul has been saying in the earlier part of this chapter contemplating our present sufferings from verse 18 through verse 25. The present sufferings, creation groaning, subjected to futility, we ourselves longing for creation to be made new and for our own glorious resurrection renewal when it comes at last; when all of this, all of this will be over. We’re longing for it. We feel, don’t we, our weakness – socially distant masks, a little bug can lay us low. We’re weak. We feel our weakness. And Paul has all of that weighing on him, conscious of how exhausting it is, and of our remaining sin that seems to undermine our best efforts for good so that, as Paul puts it at the end of chapter 7, “The good that I want to do I do not do. Who can save me from this body of death? Wretched man that I am!” I’m weak. I’m weak.

So what a beautiful promise to know that the Spirit helps us, is not repelled by, but draws near to us in all of these weaknesses. We’re not left to ourselves. Think about it now. We’ve been born again by the Holy Spirit, given a new life, set free from sin’s dominion and tyranny and mastery by the Holy Spirit so that now we can live for God more and more, enabled by the Spirit to put sin to death, assured that we are adopted sons and daughters of the King by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit never deserts us, never leaves us to ourselves, never backs off, never quits. He is radically committed to you, all your weakness notwithstanding. What good news! He knows our liabilities. He knows your sin and mine. He knows our ignorance, our wicked habits, our destructive choices, our enabling relationships, and He dwells in our hearts so that while we often lie to ourselves about our motives and our behavior, we can never deceive Him. And still, though we grieve Him and quench His working, even still, He bears with us patiently in love to help us in our weaknesses.

You might be ready to give up. Tired, confused, defeated, ashamed, angry. You might wonder how you can carry on with the Christian life since you seem so routinely, so consistently to fail. “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” That’s our heart cry, our confession. “Wretched man that I am! Who can save me?” Well here’s a word of hope. Here’s a word of hope for you and me. Help, when we’re weary of the journey, here’s some help. Fuel to propel a few more steps down the road. The Spirit helps in our weakness. That’s the promise of God. He won’t forsake you. He will finish the work begun in you. He does not make you a Christian and then stand back and say, “Well now, let’s see what she makes of this. Let’s see if she can rise to the occasion. Let’s see if he will keep My commandments and live My way.” Not at all. No, no. “Now that I have made him My child, now that she is born again, my adopted daughter, my adopted son, I will never abandon them to their own meager resources. Never. I’ll never stop helping her, helping him.” He will never stop helping you! He will never let up loving you, lending His strength to your feeble efforts.

That’s what the text is saying. The Spirit helps in our weakness. What a precious promise. Have you forgotten it? Have your weaknesses come so to fill your horizon that you’ve forgotten you’re not alone and the measure of your hope is not your feeble strength and limited resources and flagging stamina but rather the help of God, the Holy Spirit Himself?

And if you look again at verse 26 you’ll see that Paul has one specific area of weakness particularly in mind. Doesn’t he? Verse 26, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought.” All the weakness we’ve been describing comes to an acute expression and focus the minute you sit down and try to pray, doesn’t it? Paul knows that central to our progress, our maturing, our growth in the Christian life, an essential weapon in our spiritual warfare with sin is the duty and ministry of Christian prayer. We must pray. James Montgomery’s hymn famously put it, “Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, the Christian’s native air.” It’s oxygen. You can’t live without it. Basic, natural, fundamental, necessary. Every Christian prays, every Christian must pray, and yet don’t we have to confess, every single Christian struggles to pray and struggles in prayer. It’s hard, isn’t it?

I was listening to a sermon by Jeff Thomas and he said, “If you want to embarrass a minister, ask him about his prayer life.” That’s true. Please don’t ask me about mine after the service. If you want to see me blush, that’s a sure way to accomplish it. “If you want to embarrass a minister, ask him about his prayer life.” We all struggle to pray. So you sit down to pray – what happens? Your mind wanders, doesn’t it, hither and yon, all over the place. You set out to bring some worrisome problem that’s been weighing on you and you want to bring it to the Lord and you start out praying well enough, and then a few minutes in you realize you’re not praying at all anymore; now you’re just back to worrying over the problem and thinking about it and troubling yourself about it. And so you have to get back to coming to God and asking Him for grace. And then in those rare moments where we are able to discipline ourselves to focus and give ourselves to prayer, we wonder, “Okay, now that I’m at it, what should I pray for exactly? That sick brother – do we pray for healing? Or maybe we should pray for comfort and courage to face whatever may come. Or do we whimper merely, ‘Lord, Your will be done’? I don’t know. I don’t know. Your will be done!” We tell people all the time, don’t we, “I’ll pray for you.” And we mean it, we’re sincere, and yet we forget.

When it’s time for corporate prayer, congregational prayer – Billy was reminding us – we can’t get twenty people to gather on a Wednesday night to pray. We ourselves, we won’t pray out loud in public. Our minds go blank, our palms start to sweat, our hearts beat in our throats, our tongues are tied, and when we do manage to pray all we can think to mention is a long litany of sick people with their broken body parts prefaced with a “Dear Lord, bless Mrs. Smith who has angina. Bless Mr. Jones as he goes to get that test tomorrow.” And we know, we know when we pray like that it’s not much. It feels weak, doesn’t it? When we can hear ourselves pray like that and we know it’s weak. But it’s all we can muster sometimes. It’s all we’ve got. “We don’t know what to pray for as we ought.” Hasn’t that been your experience? It’s been my experience.

And let’s be careful as we look at the text to notice Paul doesn’t let us off the hook. Just because this is a universal struggle for Christians doesn’t mean it’s okay. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought.” We should know. We can do better. We can grow in this. Paul doesn’t mean, just to be clear, that we should be able to probe into the secret, hidden will of God that He has not revealed to us. I think he simply means to say, “Look, the secret things belong to the Lord but what has been revealed belongs to us and to our children.” If you would store up the Scriptures in your mind and heart and know them and learn them, you would find much to guide your prayers and inform your prayers. You would understand the kind of things that God wants you to pray for and the way that He wants you to pray for them much better. We ought to know what to pray for, but so often we don’t. Paul includes himself in it – “We” – notice that. “We don’t know.” Even the mighty apostle struggles with this.

So we have room to grow. We have a strategy that will help us grow. But even those among us who know the Bible best, who are most eloquent in prayer, still have to confess that we don’t always understand the experience of those who invite us to pray for them. We fail to grasp the right outcome to seek God’s face for in some circumstances. We still run out of words. There are sudden, wounding circumstances that overwhelm us, that strip us of our ability to find anything to say sometimes. We’re weak, never more so than in this whole matter of prayer.

The Holy Spirit our Intercessor

And it’s just here in this area of weakness in prayer, Paul says, the Holy Spirit has particular help for us. Now how does that work exactly? How does the Spirit help us? That’s the second thing to see in our text. “The Spirit our Helper.” Now, “The Spirit our Intercessor.” Look at the second half of verse 26 and verse 27. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Holy Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” You may have noticed this before in your reading of Romans 8, but there are two intercessors and three groans in this chapter. Aren’t there? Two intercessors and three groans in the passage.

Think about the two intercessors first of all. There’s the intercessory ministry of the Holy Spirit in the theater of our hearts here in verse 26. But then if you look down to verse 34 you will see that at the right hand of God the Father in heaven there’s another intercessor. The Spirit intercedes for us in the theater of our hearts while the Lord Jesus Christ Himself intercedes for us at the throne of glory. Now just think about that for a moment. It’s wonderful what a high privilege we have been given as Christians that God the Father should appoint His own Son to pray for us and that the Father and the Son should send the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and intercede for us in the filthy sinkhole of our rebellious hearts. Do you see how invested God is in helping us pray, in hearing our concerns, in responding to our burdens, in answering our needs with His grace? His Son is constantly interceding in heaven. His Spirit constantly interceding in our hearts. And these two intercessors agree; their mind is one, their burden the same. There’s no conflict between them in the design of their petitions on our behalf. The Spirit’s intercessory work in us – prompting us to pray, giving voice to our cries, sanctifying our sin-stained requests – makes our feeble prayers and Christ’s mighty prayers compatible where once they would have been utterly opposed. The Spirit takes our wholly inadequate requests – “We don’t know what to pray for as we ought,” remember – and He so sanctifies them that they are heard in heaven as the exact echo of the cries of Jesus Christ, our heavenly intercessor, before God’s throne.

We tend to think prayer is incidental to our Christian lives, but God clearly doesn’t agree. God thinks prayer is essential and has invested Himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – in the generation and sanctification and presentation of our prayers before His throne. And if He is so committed to the prayers of His people, might it not be time – I say this to myself – might it not be time that we repented of our all too casual flippant attitude to the place of prayer in our private lives, in our family lives, and in the life of the church?

And isn’t there such a great encouragement here to take up with new zeal this ministry of Christian prayer, privately and together? We’re often discouraged in praying because we feel our prayers are no good. We listen to brother so-and-so and his prayers are powerful and profound and full of Scripture and eloquent and moving and we think, “I could never do that.” If only we grasped the teaching of these two verses better we would know that the feeblest – listen now – the feeblest cries of the weakest Christian are made both beautiful and mighty by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If we understood that, we would pray on, we would pray with new boldness, we would pray with expectation, not because our prayers are special, but because we know we have the help of the Holy Spirit our intercessor. Two intercessors praying for us – Christ and the Holy Spirit.

We also said there are three groans in this passage, didn’t we? Back in verse 22, “creation groans together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Creation is groaning for the day of deliverance from its bondage to corruption. Then verse 23, not only creation but “we ourselves groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” So the cosmos is groaning for the end of the curse and then we are groaning for the day when all things will be made new. And now in our text – to me, this is quite amazing – our text says God the Holy Spirit Himself is groaning. He joins creation, and in particular He joins us, Christians trusting in Jesus, in that groaning. Now there’s mystery in that, isn’t there? What can it mean to say “God the Holy Spirit groans”? He’s not stumped by our circumstances. He has no sense of frustration. He’s not robbed of words ever. He’s not unsure what to say. In fact, in the text, the text says these groans are “too deep for words.” That’s a nice translation, a paraphrase really. What it actually says – “The Spirit groans without words.” There are no words in the Spirit’s groaning.

What does Paul mean? Some people have wondered if he’s alluding to speaking in tongues or something like that. Let me simply say that in the New Testament scriptures the gift of tongues was the gift of language that could be interpreted. It was the gift explicitly of words. But here, the groanings are without words. There are no words. Let me tell you what I think Paul is really saying. Sometimes in our weakness we don’t know what to pray for. Our words fail us. We find ourselves sitting in a posture of mute helplessness before God, longing for His will to be done, but unsure what that’s going to look like, what it could mean. “What is Your will in this situation? I don’t know.”

Have you had that experience? You want God’s will to be done, but you’re not really sure what that means. Mute, helplessness before God. In those moments, we mustn’t think we have failed, that our cries and our sighs and our groans and our tears are unnoticed and do not reach the throne of God. That’s not what we must think. No, instead, understand the intercessory ministry of the Spirit in us takes those sighs and groans and tears and makes them eloquent in the ears of God. He breathes powerful petitions in every believing cry for grace. He takes our inarticulate mumbles as we wait on God, when all you’ve got is, “Help! Help me!” and we don’t even know what that help should look like; just, “I need help. I don’t know which way to go. I don’t know which way is up right now.” In those moments, the Spirit makes our feeblest panting after God compelling and powerful and articulate and eloquent in His ears.

Brothers and sisters, there is no groan of yours, no tear you can shed, no sigh of longing for God in His grace that does not resound with mighty, compelling arguments in the courtroom of heaven. You are heard. You are heard.

Now very quickly as we close, do notice the enormous encouragement of verse 27. God is the searcher of hearts. He knows what we are like. He knows how puny we are, how our words run out, how our understanding fails. He knows we do not grasp things the way we should. He’s the searcher of hearts, Paul says. And He knows the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit’s intercession is always according to the will of God. In other words – grasp this now – God sees us and hears Him. He sees us and hears Him. And what He hears from the Spirit interceding for us is precisely what the Father has always intended to give us in the first place. He intercedes for us “according to the will of God.”

Look, sometimes my prayers are wrong; they’re just wrong. We ask and do not receive because we ask amiss that we might spend it on our pleasures, James says. Sometimes our prayers are immature and selfish and inaccurate and undisciplined and incorrect, but the Spirit’s prayers are never uttered in error. God sees all my mess, He knows all my garbage, all my baggage, He fathoms the depths of my sin, He searches the heart, and still hears the voice of the Spirit interceding for me, interceding for you, and He is always pleased to answer Him. He is always pleased to answer Him because He prays according to God’s will.

Now look, this doesn’t mean you can just sit back. “Well, the Spirit is interceding, Jesus is interceding, I don’t need to intercede.” This is not a disincentive to pray; this is an incentive to pray. The intercession of the Spirit is in fact the guarantee that our prayers, however feeble, are heard in the throneroom of God. The ministry of the Spirit makes prayer mighty. You have no strength left in your arm. You feel you have no great gifts to offer. You have no public contribution you think you can make. You feel so unimportant in the grand sweep of things. But do you see the message of our text clothes the smallest, weakest believer in Jesus in power because it says even your mumbling sighs for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, even they echo in the courtroom of glory an eloquent petition that cannot be denied. Not because of you, but because of the two intercessors, because of the blood and righteousness of Christ at God’s right hand and the sanctifying ministry of the Spirit in your heart.

So believer in Jesus, maybe you’re right; maybe you can’t do much. Age or experience or gifts or opportunity – they may well limit you in all sorts of ways, for sure. But you can pray. You can pray. And God has ordained your prayer, even your weakest prayers to be instrumental in accomplishing His eternal purpose, His holy will. He has appointed His Son and given His Spirit to make your prayers effective. You’re that little four year old on the basketball court. You have no strength, but the Spirit lends His strength to you so that what you could never do, never, is done by His mighty power and wonderful grace. May God forgive our neglect of prayer, my neglect of prayer. May He make us determined to pray on till His kingdom comes and indeed His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Let’s pray together.

Our Father, how we praise You that You have ordained Your Son to be our intercessor at Your right hand and Your Spirit to be our intercessor in our hearts. Help us to see, to feel the weight and wonder of these truths, to believe and cling to the promise of the Spirit’s help in our weakness when we don’t know how to pray as we should. And then instead of running from prayer, neglecting it, devaluing it, help us, even if all we have is a groan and a cry for help, help us with courage to persevere, knowing that our feeblest prayers are eloquent in your ears. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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