The New Testament teaching about God as a trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is remarkable. A specific role of the Son and the Holy Spirit, perhaps even more amazing, is their work of intercession on behalf of believers.
Paul tells us in Romans 8:27 that the Holy Spirit “intercedes (entungchanei) for the saints according to the will of God”. A few verses later (vs.34) he tells us that the Messiah Jesus, risen and at the right hand of God, “indeed intercedes (entungchanei) for us.” The author of Hebrews (7:25) similarly rejoices that Jesus, who is able to save people completely, “always lives to make intercession (entungchanein) for them.”
This verb only occurs in two other places in the New Testament. When Festus brings Paul’s case before King Agrippa (Acts 25:24) he says that “the whole Jewish community petitioned (enetuchon) me” concerning this man, shouting that he ought not to live any longer.” This is a common usage of this verb, denoting a person or group making a request to a person in authority to address a specific need. In this case, they petitioned Festus to execute Paul. Festus asked King Agrippa to adjudicate this case and to tell him how he should respond to this petition. We find many examples of such petitions in the papyri that come from the first century. This was the usual process that people used in the Roman world to seek the help of officials in solving their problems or dealing with injustice.
Paul also uses this verb (Romans 11:2-3) to describe Elijah’s desperate plea to God (1 Kings 19:10,14) after his victory at Mt. Carmel to rescue him from Israelites who were seeking to kill him. “He pleads (entungchanei) with God against Israel.” He makes a petition to God to intervene and save him from his enemies.
The primary sense of this verb relates to meeting, appearing before someone. When such an interview has to do with a third party, usually to complain, it has the connotation of accuse. For example, when Daniel’s enemies discover him praying in a manner contrary to Darius’ decree, they accuse him before the king. “Then these men petitioned (enetuchon) the king and said, ‘King Darius, …Daniel, who is from the sons of the Judean captivity has not obeyed your decree….’” (Daniel 6:12,13 Greek translation). But often the reason why a person seeks an audience with another person is to make a request and so the verb comes to mean pray, ask, make a request. In many cases it is the petition of a person to a king or individual with considerable authority to act decisively.
When Paul then encourages Christians by telling them that both the Holy Spirit and the Messiah Jesus “makes petitions for them” to God the Father, what does he imply? In both cases (Romans 8:27,34) he uses a present tense, indicating that the petitioning is continuous in some fashion. In the case of Messiah Jesus Paul emphasizes his presence at “God’s right hand”, the place of favour and power and it is in this position that Jesus continuously petitions the Father on our behalf. Since Paul’s statement is a response to the question “who is the one who condemns?”, presumably the petitioning activity of Jesus is aimed at preserving our good relationship with the Father and influencing Him to act justly and mercifully towards us. Instead of these accusations moving God the Father to act against us, He ignores them because Jesus is making petition on our behalf because we are in the right, justified by God through the sacrifice of His Son. Hebrews 7:25 underscores the ability of Jesus to petition successfully in his role as our permanent high priest.
Paul’s reference to the Holy Spirit as petitioner (Romans 8:27) has some interesting dimensions to it as well. Confounded by our human condition, we do not discern clearly what the will of God may be. The indwelling Spirit comes to our aid and translates our inarticulate dependence upon God into the very language God understands. God Himself reaches out, searching our hearts where His own Spirit dwells, and discerns our deepest desire to obey Him, because His Spirit is continuously petitioning Him on our behalf. Our agonized and humble acknowledgement before God of our weakness and fundamental need for His grace becomes bound up with the Spirit’s powerful petition on our behalf. While human weakness prevents the Law from being the means of salvation, the Holy Spirit sustains us in our human weakness lest that very weakness interfere with our salvation in Christ.
The intense nature of the Spirit’s petitioning work is emphasized by Paul in Romans 8:26 where he coins the compound verb hyperentungchanw. I am not aware of another occurrence of this verbal form prior to Paul’s usage in Romans. The Spirit intercedes for us with ‘ineffable groanings’ that we as human beings cannot comprehend. Again Paul uses the present tense to emphasize the continuous nature of the Spirit’s petitioning actions.
So we have God’s Spirit at home in our hearts constantly interceding with the Father on our behalf, helping us express to the Father our deep desires, our frustrations with our human condition, and our dependence upon Him. As well, we have the Son of God at “God’s right hand” in heaven continuously petitioning the Father on our behalf so that no accusations by Satan against us will be heard. This is the amazing work of the divine Trinity on our behalf. It goes on moment by moment, sustaining our very life. Truly this is the reason why “everything works together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). God is ‘for us’!
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today
- thank Him as the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit – for His wonderful provision and constant, gracious care exercised for our good;
- reflect upon this wonder – that right now and for every moment of your life from this time on the Holy Spirit is interceding, the Son of God is petitioning, the Father on your behalf;
- if this is our situation as believers, how does this transform our perception of our lives, our circumstances, our current challenges and the resources God provides to help us?