This passage was surely chosen for Pentecost because of its strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit. The word Spirit occurs over and over throughout the chapter.
However, the central emphasis of the chapter isn’t the Spirit, but the assurance that Christians possess:
• The first verse of the chapter establishes that theme. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (8:1; see also 8:5).
• What the law couldn’t do, God did (8:3).
• “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:16).
• “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us” (8:18).
• The whole creation is looking for—yearning for—the great day when “the children of God (will be) revealed” (8:19). On that great day, not only will believers experience a great deliverance, but “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).
ROMANS 8:22-25. THE WHOLE CREATION—GROANING IN LABOR PAINS
22For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. 23Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. 24For we were saved (Greek: esothemen—from sozo) in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? 25But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.
“For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now“ (v. 22). In verse 19, Paul said, “the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Now he tells us that the “revealing” will be a birth. Creation’s discomfort is not the result of death pangs, as some people would have us believe, but birth pangs. Its’ longing and groaning are hopeful signs—not reasons for despair.
“Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body“ (v. 23). We share in creation’s discomfort, even though we enjoy “the first fruits of the Spirit.”
The phrase, “first fruits,” would be familiar to Jewish readers and, presumably, to Roman Christians, even though many of them are Gentiles. Leviticus 23:10-11 requires Israelites to bring the first fruits of the harvest as an offering to the Lord. As any gardener knows, the first fruits are the most desirable part of the harvest, because we have waited so long for the first tomato or the first strawberries of the season. God always required the most desirable animals or produce as offerings.
But Paul is not talking here about the first fruits that we give to God but the first fruits that God gives to us—”the first fruits of the Spirit”. Like the first fruits of an agricultural harvest, the first fruits of the Spirit constitute only a small part of the harvest, but point to a greater bounty yet to be received. Our groaning is occasioned by the fact that we have experienced the beginning of our “adoption” or “redemption,” and long for the time when we will experience their full realization.
“For we were saved (esothemen—from sozo) in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees?” (v. 24). Paul says, “we were saved.” Esothemen is aorist, denoting an action that has taken place rather than an ongoing action. However, Paul qualifies that by saying, “we were saved in hope.” Then he goes on to remind us, “hope that is seen is not hope.”
The idea here is that we have been saved—that is not in doubt—but we have not yet experienced the full force of that salvation. We are like the homeowner who has been told that her house is worth ten times what she paid for it. She knows that she has, at least on paper, entered the ranks of the affluent, but she does not yet feel affluent. She cannot take her equity to the store to make purchases unless she sells or mortgages her house, and she is not ready to do either of those things. Nevertheless, she enjoys knowing that her future has brightened because of the appreciation of her house, even if she cannot cash in on it quite yet. In like manner, we have been saved, even if we will experience the full force of that salvation only in the future—in eternity.
“But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience” (Greek: hypomone) (v. 25). The Greek word hupomons is related to the word for perseverance. It is the kind of patience that “keeps on keeping on” in the face of difficult circumstances.
ROMANS 8:26-27. THE SPIRIT HELPS
26In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. 27He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God.
“In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses” (v. 26a). The words “In the same way” links this verse to those that preceded it. In verse 18, Paul spoke of “the sufferings of this present time,” and went on to speak of creation waiting “with eager expectation” (v. 19) to “be delivered from the bondage of decay” (v. 21). He said that all creation groans in pain (v. 22), as do we “who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body” (v. 23). He spoke of our “hope for that which we don’t see,” telling us that “we wait for it with patience” (v. 25). It is in the midst of this suffering, groaning, and waiting that the Spirit intercedes for us (v. 26).
“for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered” (v. 26b). Sometimes when we pray, we know exactly what we want to say and what we want God to do. Such prayers easily degenerate into a “to do” list for God. At other times, we find ourselves so overwhelmed that we can pray only “God, help me” or “God, forgive me.” At times, we try to pray but fall asleep or find ourselves distracted by other concerns. The good news is that, just as God has the grace to provide access to salvation that we don’t deserve, he also has the grace to hear prayers that we don’t know how to pray.
“groanings which can’t be uttered” (v. 26b). While some have chosen to interpret this phrase to mean glossolalia—speaking in tongues—there is little to commend that opinion.
“He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God” (v. 27). Instead of translating our “to do” list into a special language reserved for communication with the Father, the Spirit adapts our prayers to fit the will of God. That is a blessing, because it allows us to pray from the heart freely without fear of making a mess by asking wrongly. Indeed, if God answered every person’s prayers as asked, the result would be chaos. By running our prayers through the Spirit-filter, God spares us that.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Bartow, Charles L., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Lockyer, Herbert, Sr., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
Morris, Leon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan