We've learnt that hope is inseparable from salvation, and talked about waiting with both eagerness (expectantly) and patience for the return of Christ. This particular section of Romans 8 started with Paul comparing the present sufferings with future glory in verse 18. Today's verses pick up and continue to develop this theme, this time focussing on the very present work of the Spirit. We will also look at the words of Jesus in John 16:4-15, where He taught the disciples about the Spirit.
(A) The Spirit comes to help us who are weak in sinful flesh (Romans 8:26a, John 16:4-7)
Romans 8:26 begins with the word "likewise", and it probably refers to the point in the previous verses that Christians always have hope. Rom 8:23-25 pointed to the hope to help us through present sufferings, and in verse 26, we are introduced to another point that helps us as we groan and wait for the fulfillment of our hope -- the work of the Spirit. Paul wanted to help us see that we are able to endure present sufferings not only because we have a future hope, but that now, we also have the Spirit.
Romans 8:26 also ascribes a quality to the Christian. Paul draws attention to the weakness of believers (and it was last mentioned all the way in Rom 8:3). If you have been a Christian long enough, you know exactly what Paul is speaking about here. It is not a mere problem with our resolve, but it goes deeper than that. Paul speaks of our weakened flesh, and we have absolutely no way of ever fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law on our own. There is no way of escaping this weakness, because it is our condition, and we must rely on the righteousness of another. Paul is honest about our condition, and introduces the truth of the work of the Spirit right here. What does weakness (sin) look like in your life and mine? We know it better than we'd like to admit sometimes. It looks like the days we have no desires for what God desires (where we hope in things seen!), when we cannot control our anger, when we forget our God all the day long, when we look down on others, when we think we have things all sorted: reading the bible, going to church, having community, praying consistently, etc. These are all different forms of the same thing. Since it is part of our nature, even if we did everything we ought to, we'd still be in this weakness.
Why is this important? Do you see how Paul knows how we will all struggle with waiting for the future hope? Paul knew that the believer will feel helpless and weak, and introduces this truth about the Spirit. It is in this weakness, and to the helpless disciples that Jesus speaks about the Holy Spirit. In John 16, John used the description "these things" to refer to Jesus' repeated mentions of His coming suffering, and the persecution of His disciples. It is in the context of this very bad and startling news that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit. The disciples have just heard some very bad news. Jesus encourages them after telling them about suffering, that it is better that He leaves, because they will receive a Helper when He goes away (John 16:7). Does this sound strange? Jesus is encouraging the disciples with the truth that though He departs, He will not leave the disciples alone! They will receive the Holy Spirit who can minister to all.
What is the role of this Spirit? We are told in multiple places in John 16 that the Spirit is here to help. The word translated “help” here connotes “to lay hold along with”, “to take hold with another”, “to take hold of opposite” This is not the Spirit who is like a personal trainer at the gym helping you by standing beside you giving you words of encouragement, neither is this a picture of a butler helping you by running that errand for you. This is a picture of one who carries a heavy table with you, taking hold of the opposite end of the table with you. The Greek word in John for “Helper” is “Paraclete”, “an intercessor, consoler, comforter, advocate”. This is the Spirit that journeys with you. He does not accomplish it for you, and neither does He stand far off.
What does this mean? That means, in your personal walk with God, when your faith is thin, you can love Jesus more easily with the Spirit dwelling in you, than if you had Jesus still on this earth preaching somewhere. How does that work out? We are certainly not left alone by God, and this way that we have is “to our advantage”. With the Spirit, Christians are never left alone, because God’s presence is in their hearts.
(B) The Spirit groans with us, and convicts us concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (the Gospel) (Romans 8:26b, John 16:8-11)
Romans 8:26b tells us why we need the Spirit's help. We need help because we do not know what to pray for as we ought. Notice that we do not know what to pray for. It is not about “how to pray”, not praying enough, etc. It is not about us praying more consistently. Neither does it speak of the posture of our prayers. It really speaks about the content of our prayers, and we do not know it. The phrase “as we ought” also indicates that there is content that should be prayed for, and hence, we cannot presume to always get the content of our prayers right. After all, we are weak! Does this describe you, struggling to pray? Are we also humble enough to pray with “if it is according to your will”, and we don’t say this lightly because so many times, even I myself say this with a tinge of “please please please God, let that happen”. But when we use such a clause, we lay our desires before God to work out His will. We are surrendering our hearts and desires to His will. If it is not according to His will, we are willing to give it up and not want it.
The help of the Spirit is described for us in verse 26b too. He is interceding for us with groaning/sighing that is “unspeakable”, “cannot be uttered”. It speaks of state when you feel at a loss of words, and the Spirit goes into that place, and is able to express that feeling. This could mean a ministry of the heart as verse 27 would later suggest, but by all means, somehow even as creation and the Christian is groaning, the Spirit himself is groaning too. The Spirit is our great sympathizer and He also helps us express our frustrations and pains and dependence upon God. This Spirit who is with us, is also groaning with us and running and journeying with us.
In John 16:8-11, we also learn that the Spirit has a specific work -- to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.
The Spirit comes to convict sinners that they are sinners “(because they do not believe in me”). The only reason why sinners will believe that they are sinful is because of the Spirit’s work. If you are a believer today, you must humbly remember how you were once a sinner, hostile to God. If you are not a believer today, will you pray that the Spirit convicts you of your sin? (not that believers are exempt)
After Jesus leaves, there will be no one to teach the disciples on righteousness ("because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer”). Hence the Spirit carries on teaching about righteousness. And we know, there is only one who was without sin, and that is our saviour Jesus Christ.
Satan is judged, this is written in the present tense, where it seems this judgment is being carried out continually and presently (because the ruler of this world is judged”). Friends, Satan has been judged, and if you follow him, you will be judged, God’s judgment is real.
Do you see how the Spirit’s actions revolve around what we know as the gospel. In the gospel, we are convicted of our sin, another’s righteousness, and about our need of saving from God’s real judgment. This is exactly what the Spirit does, which is to point the world to the gospel. We should take a lot of comfort in this. This means that there will be those who are currently hostile to God who will be convinced. If you know someone you love who does not accept the gospel, this should comfort you. What do you say to fellow believers who have family members they love who are non-Christians, who have great friends who refuse to believe, etc?
These verses in John remind us that the Spirit is at work in this world, and as Christians, every conversion should bring us joy, for we know we are not celebrating our success as great evangelists, but we celebrate God’s faithful work through His Spirit. Now, how can any conversion be ever dull? Take time to thank God for your conversion, and that of those around you today!
(C) The Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God (Romans 8:27, John 16:12-15)
Jesus describes the Spirit as a "Spirit of truth” (c.f. John 16:12-13), who guides the disciples into all the truth. This Spirit is spreading and leading people to truth (as opposed to Satan who is described as the father of lies c.f. John 8:44). For the apostles (since Jesus is speaking specifically to this group of disciples in John 16), this is fulfilled through the writing of the New Testament which we understand to be Spirit-inspired (2 Peter 1:21). We have the NT because the Spirit led them to write it down. Of course, this work of the Holy Spirit does not end with the disciples, but continues to us today, and we too are led by the Spirit as we have read how the Spirit dwells in us. Do you believe that every time you open your bible, it is the Spirit working to lead you to truth? Do you believe that it is not me teaching you from this book, but the Holy Spirit? God promises us His Spirit to lead us to truth against the lies Satan.
Romans 8:27 also establishes a relationship between the Spirit who intercedes and God the Father. “He who searches hearts”, that is God the Father (c.f. 1 Chronicles 28:9) knows the intentions of the Spirit. The Spirit, in turn, intercedes for saints/Christians (on our behalf), according to God’s will. There is perfect harmony between the Spirit’s Intercession for us and God’s will. There is no disconnect between the Spirit’s intercession for us and God’s will. This means that the Spirit does not merely affirm and channels our prayers to God. John 16:13-15 tells us more: The Spirit does not speak on his own authority, whatever he hears he will speak, declare future things, glorify Jesus (as we saw before in his convictions). It is completely different. He prays as we ought to, if we know what the Father's will is. The Spirit does not intervene on our behalf on our own terms. It is never works like this: you pray for something you want, the Spirit adds some “power”, and your wish magically comes true. We remember that the Spirit is one of the three persons of the Trinity. This is not a Spirit under our control! Never should we think that we are commanding the Spirit to do this and that, but rather only God’s will will be accomplished.
These 2 verses in Romans 8 are extremely comforting as we think through the amazing ministry of the Holy Spirit. This ministry is surely to our advantage as we have one who carries burdens with us, who teaches us about the gospel, pushing our weak flesh to love our saviour Jesus Christ. And of course, this Spirit intercedes for us according to God’s will. This is really good news for you and I, for God knows our weak and sinful condition, and his solution is not for us to try harder to pray “better”, but he provides us with the Spirit. We need not worry that as sinners, our prayers are flawed and hence void, but we are assured with the Spirit’s intercession for us in accord with God’s perfect will. This is not the God who gives us the gospel and leaves us alone, but He gives us His Spirit.