NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER EIGHT (Lesson XXXII)
Swiss theologian Frédéric Godet sees an elevation of our natural groanings that come before God. For him, the Apostle Paul now elevates such natural groanings to become those made by the Holy Spirit Himself. This series of successive changes to a higher level is so evident in what Paul says that it is astonishing how so many commentators could have missed it. However, Godet believes there is a significant difference between the first level of natural groaning and the Spirit’s supernatural groaning. All Paul is saying is that the one can lead to the other. Godet sees no conflict indicated here; for the groaning of the Spirit is in agreement with that of believer’s.1 In other words, the groan of the Spirit is not separate, but in harmony and communal with that of the believer.
John Stott seems to vary somewhat from what others have said about the groanings being unutterable. He says that to be honest, the English translations of this verse are somewhat inaccurate. For the Greek adjective alalētos simply means “wordless” (BAGD).2 The point Paul is making here is not that the groans cannot be expressed with words, but the person groaning chooses rather not to say anything and let the groaning speak for itself. That way, the groans are unexpressed, rather than being expressed. Stott says that in this context, these wordless groans must surely be related to the groans both of God’s creation (v. 22) and of God’s children (v. 23), namely “agonized longings,” as J. B. Phillips puts it in his translation. These longings are for final redemption and the consummation of all things. The key part here is that if they are wordless, then they can be soundless. In other words, the word “groan” is a metaphor for that aching, desperation, longing one feels deep inside for an answer from God to their dilemma.
This brings up the fact that sometimes we simply do not know what to pray for. That may be because we are not certain of exactly what is needed. We’re torn between praying for deliverance from our sufferings, or for strength to endure them.3 Also, we cannot always be sure of the outcome of our circumstances.4 Furthermore, it’s not clear where we stand in the situation and whether we are in a position to make a precise request or not. That’s why the Spirit graciously intercedes for us and does so with unspoken groans.5 Stott goes on to say that these groans can hardly be understood as glossolalia since those “tongues” or “languages” were expressed in words which some might understand and interpret.6 Rather, it can be understood as that unexpressed aching of the heart that is hard to explain to another human being but one knows it is real.
Douglas Moo adds his interpretation to this by saying that our understanding of God’s precise will for our lives falls way short of being perfect. That’s why in many situations we are confused about what answer or solution we should request. Then the Holy Spirit comes to our aid, interceding on our behalf with “groans that words are unable to express.” Moo also notes that a few interpreters think Paul may be referring to speaking in tongues.7 Moo believes that the gift of tongues is given only to some Christians.8 Others suggest Paul is using vivid imagery to refer to the Spirit’s prayer in our hearts to the Lord.9 Still, other commentators think Paul refers to the Christian’s own audible but wordless groanings as he or she struggles before the Lord in prayer. But if that is true, would that not affect someone in a coma who senses what’s going on around them and can consciously cry out to God with feelings instead of words to be left on their own without the Holy Spirit’s assistance?10
Moo goes on to say that deciding between these last two alternatives of the Spirit’s groans being just that or praying in tongues is a difficult task. He notes that “groaning” has been used metaphorically in the context (v. 22), so the Spirit simply groaning is certainly possible. Moreover, the phrase translated “with groans that words that cannot express” in the NIV can mean either “not spoken” (not expressed at all) or “unspoken” (not expressed in words). Whichever it may be, Paul’s main point is clear enough: These groanings of the Spirit are perfectly in accordance with God’s will (verse 27). By this, we know for sure, that God knows our heart. Not only that but that He hears and answers those prayers. Just because we don’t always know how to pray or what to pray for does not hinder God working out His perfect will in our lives. Moo concludes that we may not know what to ask for in any given situation but the Spirit does. His requests are in perfect harmony with getting us to our destiny chosen by God for our lives. Jesus knows how to intercede for us before the Father,11 guaranteeing our salvation. So, in the same way, the Spirit intercedes for us in preparation for that day of salvation.12
Verse 27: God already knows our deepest thoughts. And He understands what the Spirit is saying because the Spirit speaks for His people in the way that agrees with what God wants.
For Paul, the benefit of having the Spirit assist us in prayer is that the Spirit speaks God’s language. Even when we have feelings that are beyond expression, the Spirit from within us can communicate what we feel and need in a language we do not understand. It doesn’t always have to be verbal, it can emanate directly to God from the heart. David instructed Solomon on this subject when he told him: “Solomon, my son, get to know the God of your fathers. Worship and serve Him with a clean heart and a willing mind, for the Lord sees every heart and understands and knows every thought. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him.”13
One reason why it is so important that we recognize God’s omniscience is because it is impossible to fool Him. For instance, in dealing with Kush the Benjaminite, one of Saul’s chief henchmen, David made this part of the song he wrote about the encounter: “You, the righteous God, look deep within the hearts of men and examine all their motives and their thoughts.”14 And the descendants of Korach taught this: “If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, wouldn’t God have discovered this since He knows the secrets of the heart?”15 And Jeremiah depended on God to help him deal with his persecutors since God could clearly see their hearts and motives.16
So when Jesus was teaching His disciples on prayer and how to avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, He told them: “Remember, your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask Him!”17 That’s why when the disciples gathered to choose a successor to Judas Iscariot, they prayed for the right man to be chosen: “O Lord,” they said, “you know every heart; show us which of these men you have chosen as an Apostle to replace Judas Iscariot the traitor.”18 And when Paul and Barnabas came to Jerusalem to meet the council, after the meeting Peter stood up and said: “God, who knows men’s hearts, confirmed the fact that He accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He gave Him to us.”19
Paul had been under scrutiny both by believing Jews and nonbelievers who accused him of customizing the Gospel to fit the needs of his audience, rather than demanding that the Gentiles and Jews change to meet the needs of the Gospel. So Paul told them: “We speak as messengers from God, trusted by Him to tell the truth; we did not change His message one bit to suit the taste of those who hear it; for we serve God alone, who examines our hearts’ deepest thoughts.”20 This same awareness inspired the writer of Hebrews to say about God: “He knows about everyone, everywhere. Everything about us is bare and wide open to the all-seeing eyes of our living God; nothing can be hidden from Him to whom we must explain all that we have done.”21
Therefore, since His Spirit lives within us and helps us communicate with our Heavenly Father, everything we think and feel will be obvious to Him. All too often, believers form an image of God in their minds and speak to Him as though He is a picture on the wall or the figure on the mantelpiece, and forget He is a living God who sees, hears, and knows all things. And why ask a dead human being of the past to intercede with the Father when He sent His Holy Spirit to do that? That’s why David made it clear: “I cried to Him for help with praises ready on my tongue. He would not have listened if I had not confessed my sins. But He listened! He heard my prayer! He paid attention to it!”22 Being open and honest before God are critical factors in whether or not our prayers will be answered.
But Paul didn’t want these Roman believers to forget that access to God and the door to His throne room of grace and mercy cannot be opened by man alone in order to enter. Like any person who comes to a judge to make their case known, there is the need for a counselor. So Paul tells them that the Holy Spirit is the one who intercedes for us. In fact, Paul told the Ephesians: “All of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, may come to God the Father with the Holy Spirit’s help only because of what Christ has done for us.”23 That way, everything presented to the Father will be in harmony with His will.
The prophet Jeremiah found this out to be true when he conversed with God who told him: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. You will find Me when you seek Me if you look for Me in earnest.”24 This prophecy was certainly made real through Christ. In fact, on one occasion, Jesus was explaining to the disciples what He expected of them. So He told them: “In solemn truth I tell you, anyone believing in Me shall do the same miracles I have done, and even greater ones because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask Him for anything, using My name, and I will do it, for this will bring praise to the Father because of what I, the Son, will do for you. Yes, ask anything, using My name, and I will do it!”25
1 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 BAGD is code for the Walter Bauer Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
3 Cf. Philippians 1:19ff; John 12:27
4 1 John 3:2
5 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 See Acts of the Apostles 2:4ff; 1 Corinthians 14:13ff, 26ff
7 E.g. Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, pp. 239– 242; Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, pp. 577– 586
8 1 Corinthians 12:30
9 C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 422
10 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Cf., Romans 8:34
13 1 Chronicles 28:9
14 Psalm 7:9
15 Ibid. 44:20-21 – Complete Jewish Bible (44:21-22)
16 Jeremiah 11:20
17 Matthew 6:8
18 Acts of the Apostles 1:21-26
19 Ibid. 15:8
20 1 Thessalonians 2:4
21 Hebrews 4:13
22 Psalm 66:17-18
23 Ephesians 2:18
24 Jeremiah 29:11-13
25 John 14:12-14