Hope and the Bible

Abstract of a Sermon Preached on April 19, 1998

by Glenn Conjurske

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4).

“Whatsoever things were written aforetime.” This refers to the whole Old Testament—-and to this we may now add the whole New Testament. It was all written for us, and all with this particular purpose, that we might have hope.

What is hope? It is the ability to look forward with the expectation of a better future—-the expectation that things will get better, that our needs will be met, that we will be delivered from our troubles. And I tell you there is no book on earth so calculated to give hope as the Bible. God knows the needs and the propensities of the human heart, and he wrote a book to meet them. Unbelief is natural to the human heart—-at least to the fallen human heart. We have hard thoughts of God. We are quick to blame him for our troubles, and slow to trust him to relieve them. We don’t expect him to act in our behalf.

Therefore he wrote a book, and filled it with examples of his own dealings, all of them calculated to give us hope. The book is full of great and precious promises, of course, but it goes much beyond promises. It is full of examples. It is full of marvellous deliverances and miraculous provisions. “Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.” (Heb. 11:33-35). “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised.” (Luke 7:22). The book is full of such examples, and all of them designed to give us hope. “Whatsoever things were written aforetime.” God put these things in the book to give us hope.

Now the fact is, there is a much higher concentration of such examples in the book than there is in the world. Taking all the history of the world together, miracles are rare. Marvellous provisions and spectacular deliverances are rare. But they aren’t rare in the Bible. The book is full of them. And remember, God is the author of this book. God surveyed the whole history of his people from the beginning of the world, and selected a few things to put in his book, and he purposely selected those things which would give us hope. “Many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land, but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.” (Luke 4:25-26). God saw the struggles and hardships of all of these widows, but we know nothing about them. He chose to tell us of the one widow who received a marvellous and miraculous deliverance. The one example which he chose to put in the book is the example which would give us hope.

Again, “And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:27). God tells us nothing at all about those “many lepers.” They all had hardships and tears and discouragements and depression, but the book tells us not one word of it. God singles out the one example which will give us hope, and relates that at length in detail.

The fact then is this: in the Bible we have a high concentration of such examples. Here we have everything which is encouraging and hopeful, distilled and concentrated. You may think, then, that the Bible does not give us a true picture. You know it is one of the evils of fiction that it paints too rosy a picture, and gives us too much hope—-false and illusionary hope, fantasy and not reality—-and how then is the Bible any different in this respect from fiction?

Observe in the first place that we must take the Bible as a whole, and not single out what pleases us. The Bible itself teaches us that God does not work miracles for everybody. The verses which we just quoted from Luke prove this, if there were no other proof. There are many factors involved in this. Our own faith and our own failures are certainly factors. God does reward faith, and faithfulness also, and God does chasten and scourge his own. It remains also an abiding fact that “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” By our own folly or sin we get ourselves into a trap, and expect God to get us out by a miracle. This is not likely to happen. It is another fact that the whole creation abides under the curse, our own bodies included, and we ourselves, who have the earnest of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves. No amount of faith can remove the curse from the earth, nor the groaning from this life. Therefore much of the hope which the Bible inspires has to do with the resurrection and the life to come, not with this present life on the earth. Certainly not all, however. The Bible contains a great plenty to inspire hope even for this life, and presents it in a distilled and concentrated form. How it is any different, in this respect, from fiction?

I will grant that in this respect the Bible does not everywhere give us a true picture of the world, nor of life in general on the earth. It distills and concentrates everything which is calculated to produce faith. It is not a picture of the life of the world which the Bible gives to us—-we may know that without a Bible—-but an image of the heart of God. It is God’s aim to give us hope, and he therefore selected out of all the history of his people those few examples most calculated to give us that hope.

And to what end? Why does he give us hope? So that he might disappoint us? Most of us have unbelieving hearts, and we think of God as of the wicked wolf in the story of Little Red Riding Hood. We fear that when we say to God, “I have been reading thy book, and what large hopes it has given me!”—-that God will say, “The better to disappoint you with!” But no, it is not God’s end to disappoint us with false hopes, but precisely to inspire us with true hope—-true because it is hope in God—-and then to fulfill our hopes. If God is true, this must be true. In my wrestlings with God I often tell him, “Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope.” (Psalm 119:49). His word has caused me to hope. It is the nature of the book to cause us to hope, and if God is responsible for the book, then it is God who has caused us to hope. And this only that he might disappoint us? It cannot be, or God is not God. The fact that God has given us a book which is calculated to inspire hope is the proof that it is the purpose of God to bless us.

Still, the question remains, if the book of God gives us everything hopeful in a concentrated form, how does it differ from fiction? Passing over the fact that it is the way of fiction to take the thorns and thistles out of life, and put us back in Paradise, it is also the way of fiction to make the fulfillment of our dreams easy and unconditional. The Bible does neither. It is also the way of fiction to give us soon what God gives us late.

Now observe in Romans 15:4 it is “through patience and comfort of the Scriptures” that we have hope. If the most important word in this text is “hope,” the second most important word is “patience.” Fiction inspires hope, but not patience. The Bible teaches hope and patience.

What is hope, anyway? What is hope good for? Hope is not the fulfillment of our desires. Hope is not the meeting of our needs, for “hope that is seen is not hope.” (Rom. 8:24). Hope has no place where our needs are met and our desires realized. Hope belongs precisely to the sphere in which our needs are not met, our desires not realized, our dreams not fulfilled. The young ladies used to keep what they called a “hope chest,” filling it up with the things they would need to keep house when they were married, but the married women kept no hope chest. “Hope that is seen is not hope.” Hope belongs to the time of suffering and need and privation, not to the time of fulfillment and possession and enjoyment.

Observe, then, if it is the purpose of God to give us hope, this proves that it is the purpose of God to bless us, but it also proves that it is the purpose of God to delay to give us the possession of the blessing. Hope has no place after the blessing is received. Hope belongs to the time of want and affliction and longing and suffering. It is hope which buoys up our spirits while we are deprived and denied. It is the expectation of a better time coming. The very existence of hope, then, implies a worse time for the present. The hope that is spoken of in the Bible often has reference to eternal things. It is “the hope of glory,” “the hope of eternal life,” the “heavenly hope,” for those who suffer and die in this present state. But godliness has promise of this life as well as that which is to come, and it is a plain fact that the Bible is well calculated to give us hope for this life. Joseph’s dreams were fulfilled in this life. Hannah received her child in this life. David was delivered from all his troubles in this life. The man born blind was healed in this life. The poor widow was sustained in this life. The Bible, both Testaments, is filled with examples which are designed to give us hope for this life as well as the life to come. Not hope for an earthly paradise, nor for ease and plenty, not hope for deliverance from the curse which rests upon the whole creation, but hope for the desires and dreams and needs of our hearts. We have a promise of that. “Delight thyself also in the Lord, and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” Not immediately, however, and not necessarily soon, but meanwhile he gives abundance of hope, to buoy us up “through patience.”

God turned the captivity of Job in this life, and the book of Job is eminently calculated to inspire hope, yet the New Testament tells us, “Ye have heard of the patience of Job.” Job received his deliverance, his desires, and his vindication, all in this life, but all after long endurance of the contrary.

The woman with the issue of blood was healed in this life, but not till she had suffered many things of many physicians, and spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse—-and all this for twelve years. And you understand that those twelve years passed one day at a time, and one hour at a time, in all of which she felt her suffering and her need.

The blind man in the ninth chapter of John received his sight in this life, but he was of age, and had been blind from his birth.

The lame man in the third chapter of Acts was healed in this life, but he was more than forty years old, and had been lame from his mother’s womb.

The woman who was bowed together, and could not lift herself up, was loosed from her infirmity in this life, but she had been bound eighteen years.

The impotent man in the fifth chapter of John was healed in this life, but he had had his infirmity thirty-eight years.

All of these examples are well calculated to give us hope, but all of them also to teach us patience. This is true wherever we look in the Bible. Joseph received the fulfillment of his God-given dreams in this life, but first he must go to Egypt and be sold as a slave, then be taken from the house of slavery and put in prison. This was of God, as much as his subsequent exaltation. And you need to understand that in the time of our patience the Lord often takes particular pains to make us feel our lot, and to make us feel our need. You know that Joseph interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker, and charged the butler to remember him to Pharaoh when he was restored to his position. By this means a little hope no doubt sprang up in Joseph’s heart, but the days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months, and that little sprig of hope withered and died. Thus God made him to feel his hard lot. Yet Joseph could hope in the God who had given him his dreams, and that God brought him out.

Hannah received her child in this life—-and indeed six of them—-but first she must endure the unfulfilled longings and the undeserved reproach “year by year,” while her adversary “provoked her sore.” The lack of a child she would no doubt have felt deeply enough without an adversary to provoke her, but God often arranges our affairs so as to add as it were insult to injury—-to add reproach to privation—-so to make us feel the more deeply our need, and that “year by year,” and of course day by day and hour by hour. God intends to bless us, but he is never in a hurry. He will first let us feel our need through a long course of patience. Then, when patience has had its perfect work, he gives the blessing, and gives it abundantly. Meanwhile he gives hope, to sustain our sinking spirits through all the privations and hardships and reproach of the long course of “faith and patience.”

Hope and faith are both associated with patience in the Bible. This is their proper sphere—-and really the only sphere of hope. I only know of one case in all the Bible where this order of things is not observed. That case is Eve. She received her existence and the need of her heart at the same time. Not so Adam. He must first feel his need, and walk by faith even in Paradise—-and “faith and patience,” too. God created Adam with a need which was unfulfilled. He was in Paradise, where all that God saw was “very good,” yet Adam’s own condition was “not good.” He was alone, and God said, “It is not good that man should be alone.” God of course intended to remedy that situation, but first he went to work to make Adam feel it. He set Adam to work to name the creatures. The end result of that project was that Adam should deeply feel the fact that “for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.” Among all the creatures that God had made there was none suited to Adam—-none to be the companion of his heart—-none with whom he could share his life and his heart. He saw every creature which God had made with its own companion. He saw “male and female” of every creature on earth, but he was alone. God intended that he should feel that.

And understand, this naming of the creatures was a lengthy process. There are millions of species on the earth, and none of them were extinct in Adam’s day. He named them all. This was not the work of a day, but of months or years. Every day that passed in this work brought before Adam the fact that he was alone, and that he alone of all God’s creatures was alone. Thus he was called to walk by “faith and patience” even in Paradise. He was called to trust in the God who had provided for every creature but himself—-to trust in the God who had put him in a situation which, by God’s own testimony, was “not good.” Adam no doubt did so, for those propensities to unbelief which are so strong in our hearts had not yet sprung up in his.

Meanwhile, God will have Adam to feel his need, and this he accomplishes by placing before Adam those creatures whose need he had met. This is the way of God. He sets the barren woman next to the fruitful one. He sets the single woman next to the married one—-and perhaps even next to one who will reproach her for her need, as Hannah’s adversary did. He sets Lazarus at the gate of the rich man. He sets childless Abraham in a tent in the midst of ungodly men who live in houses full of children. He sets before godly Joseph, with his long-standing unfulfilled dreams, the ungodly butler, whose dream was fulfilled in three days. This is God’s way, and by this means he sharpens our appetite, and makes the blessing sweeter when at last he gives it.

Adam, then, must spend months or years naming all of God’s creatures, beholding all of them “male and female,” while he felt himself to be alone. But may we not say that this long parade of creatures formed a large book in Adam’s Bible? He had all of Paradise to teach him the goodness and the wisdom of God, but in these creatures, which God brought to him, and with which God required him to establish some familiarity, in these creatures he read the lessons of hope. Could God provide for the happiness of these birds and beasts—-these crows and dogs and mice—-and yet leave me forever alone? No, the fact that God has thus provided for the lowest of his creatures teaches me of his purpose to provide for me also. Patience, therefore, and meanwhile, hope!

And so we also, when we have a Bible full of examples of needs met, of dreams fulfilled, of reproaches removed, of righteousness vindicated, of faith rewarded, of hopes realized, it is our business to take courage from all of this, and trust in the same God to do the same for us. “Through patience and comfort of the Scriptures” we have hope—-where “comfort” may be very properly translated “encouragement.” There is nothing that encourages like the Bible. Here is hope, and this book—-”whatsoever things were written aforetime”—-exists to give it to us.

Glenn Conjurske

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