Christian Hope (1)
Hope lies at the foundation of all human life. It drives the wooer in his courtship, the athlete in pounding the roads at unearthly hours in the morning, and the student in burning the midnight oil. It sustained Winston Churchill in the darkest days of the War, the PoWs who longed for liberation, and hostages like Terry Waite in the long years of solitary confinement.
Today, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, hope unites governments and their peoples behind the policy of social isolation, drives the quest for a safe and effective vaccination, and gives patience to the grannies who long to hug their grandchildren and to those more earthy creatures who need the whiff of a garden-centre.
When hope dies, life dies.
It is hardly surprising, then, that Christianity is above all else a religion of hope, and perhaps the most remarkable instance of this is the Apostle Peter. The ministry of Jesus had filled his heart with unbounded hope, but the Crucifixion had extinguished it, completely and utterly; and the pain was exacerbated by the knowledge that he himself had deserted and denied his Master. All he could do was weep bitter tears of remorse and despair.
But then, suddenly, God gave him back his hope. It had been dead, dead beyond any human hope of recovery, but then God had brought it to life again by raising Jesus from the dead. Of the fact itself, he had no doubt. He had seen the risen Lord with his own eyes, conversed with him, been entertained to breakfast by him, and watched as he was taken up into heaven.
All that lay in the past, but it was a past that shed a brilliant light on the future. One day he would see his beloved Master again. In the meantime, he loved him with a joy ‘unspeakable and full of glory.’
Defending the hope
It was this hope that Peter preached, and it is to this hope, above all, that he urges Christians to bear witness: ‘Always be ready,’ he writes, ‘to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Pet. 3.15). The word here translated ‘defence’ is apologia, familiar to us in in its English form, ‘apologetics,’ but whereas our natural usage is to speak of the defence of the faith, Peter sees apologetics as the task of defending ‘the hope.’
This is not to say that our traditional usage is wrong. It is sanctioned by the Apostle Paul, who speaks of keeping ‘the faith’ (2 Tim. 4.7) and by the Apostle Jude who refers to ‘the faith’ delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3). Peter, on the other hand, never uses the phrase, ‘the faith,’ and it is striking that when he urges us to engage in personal apologetics and to give an explanation (logos) for the gospel, what he highlights is ‘hope;’ and while the language of the other apostles may not have been coloured, like Peter’s, by a dramatic recovery from despair, they too regarded hope as central to the gospel. Paul, the great preacher of justification by faith, can nevertheless declare, ‘We were saved by hope’ (Rom. 8.24); he can tell the Ephesian Christians that what distinguishes them from the unbelievers around them is that the latter ‘have no hope’ (Eph. 2.11); and he makes the same point to the Thessalonians when he tells them that when they mourn the passing of departed friends they must not grieve ‘like the rest, who have no hope.’ (1 Thess. 4.13) The Apostle John strikes the same note when he speaks of the hope of seeing Christ as a defining characteristic of God’s children (1 Jn. 3.3).
Hope based on faith
Does this mean that the traditional Protestant emphasis on faith was wrong, and that we must replace it with a new emphasis on hope. Absolutely not! There may, indeed, be a need for some adjustment in order to correct the balance, but the apostles would have seen no tension between describing the Christian message as ‘the faith’ and describing it as ‘the hope.’ The two are inseparable. All hope is based on faith, and faith leads to hope. This is already clear in the experience of Peter. His hope rested entirely on the belief that Christ had risen, and the same was true of the Apostle Paul, whose life and hopes had been turned right round by the experience of seeing the risen Christ on the Damascus Road.
The Writer to the Hebrews underlines this close connection between hope and faith when he defines faith as ‘assurance with regard to things hoped for, conviction with regard to things unseen’ (Hebrews 11.1). The core idea here is that faith is certainty, and it is certain about two things:
First, faith is certain about the ‘unseen’: that invisible order, with the Invisible One at its heart, which was there from all eternity and which alone can explain why our visible world exists at all (Heb. 11.3).
Secondly, faith is certain about ‘things hoped for.’ It is sure about the future, and it is on this assurance of faith that hope builds.
What is the link between the two? The promises of God! Noah had a strong hope that the ark would save him and his family because God had given him a promise. Abraham set out on a perilous trek into the unknown because God had promised him a land. And Moses led a whole nation into the Red Sea because he believed it was the way to that Promised Land. Indeed, faith is so sure of God’s promises that believers can even be described as already ‘seeing’ them, albeit from a distance (Heb. 11.13). The promises already have ‘substance’ (Heb. 11.1) or ‘weight’ (2 Cor. 4.17); and because we believe them, we are sure they will be fulfilled, and wait expectantly even though the rest of the world greets them only with mockery (Acts 17.32)
Christian hope and the present life
We instinctively think of the Christian Hope as referring to the future life and to the sort of questions posed by Questions 37 and 38 of the Shorter Catechism: What happens to believers when they die? and what will happen to believers when Christ returns to raise the dead? These are momentous questions: perhaps the most momentous we can ask. But hope also has another horizon, because many of God’s promises refer not to the world to come, but to this present life.
One of the most outstanding of these promises occurs in St Paul’s letter to the saints at Philippi: ‘My God will supply every need of yours, according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 4.19). Every word here needs to be weighed carefully, not least the description of God as ‘my God.’ Here, for one thing, is assurance and certainty. He is not contrasting ‘my’ God with other gods. His God is the only God there is; and this, the only living and true God, is his God. This is the God he serves, the God he preaches, the God to whom he has committed his life.
But, more fundamentally, this is the God who is committed to him: so committed that he hadn’t spared his own Son, but had given him to die ‘for us all;’ and having made such a sacrifice, he would surely keep nothing back. He would freely give us all we needed (Rom. 8.32).
And this was the God whose faithfulness Paul had proved amid all the vicissitudes of his ministry; and here the promise becomes a testimony: ‘my God has supplied all my needs.’ Sometimes it was his need for comfort (2 Cor. 1.4); sometimes his need for strength (2 Cor. 12.9 – 10); sometimes his need for words (1 Cor. 2.13); sometimes his need for boldness (Eph. 6:19); sometimes his need for deliverance from the mouths of the lions, real or metaphorical (2 Tim. 4.18); sometimes his need for a friend to stand by him when everyone else deserted him (2 Tim. 4.17); and sometimes his need for books (2 Tim. 4.13).
And when the time came for him to die, God met that need, too, and blessed him with a serenity which was already a foretaste of heaven: ‘The time has come for me to slip my moorings. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. Now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness: a crown which the righteous judge himself will give me on that Day.’ (2 Tim. 4.6 – 8)
Paul’s needs clearly assumed all sorts of shapes and forms, some arising from his personal temperament, some from the state of his physical health, some from the machinations of his enemies, some from the direct action of Satan, some from the demands of his ministry, some from the faithlessness of friends, some from the disappointing news that came from so many of the churches, and some from the horrors of repeated imprisonment, torture and flogging.
But God had met every need. Sometimes he had done so miraculously, sometimes through an angel, but often it had come through the human support and encouragement provided by such men as Timothy, Epaphroditus and John Mark; and by women such as Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia (Rom. 16.7). One way or another, in his own time, but always at the right time, God had provided all that Paul needed in order to perform his duty, endure pain and overcome temptation.
And his experience had taught him important lessons. It had taught him not to be anxious about anything (Phil. 4.6), but instead to lay all his requests before God, and not to be ashamed either of being specific or of praying with urgent and persistent importunity.
It had taught him, too, the value of the prayers of others. Great apostle though he was, he still wanted to be remembered in the prayers of the young converts in Ephesus (Eph. 6.19). But even so, conscious as he was of his own weakness, he had also learned a lesson at the other end of the scale: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ (Phil. 4.13); and the weaker he was, the stronger God made him (2 Cor. 12.10).
What applied to Paul applies to all believers. He had needs that we don’t have, and we have needs that he didn’t have, but the promise is that God will meet every need of ours, and not only meet them, but meet them up to his own extravagant standards. He will provide according to his own abundance (his ‘riches in glory’); he will provide according to what Christ secured on our behalf; he will provide far above what we can ask or even imagine (Eph. 3.20).
Let’s ask extravagantly, especially if we are crying from the depths, because his answers will always fill our hearts with wonder, love and praise:
Weeping may for a night endure,
at morn doth joy arise.
But if the promises of God give hope not only for the future life, but also for the present one, do they also give us hope for the world and for Planet Earth as well as for the church and the faithful?
Yes, but that needs another page. In the meantime, ponder this: ‘To plant a garden is to believe in the future.’