The first of a series of six w e e k l y w o r d s expounding the biblical grounds and goals of our hope.
A.I The grounds of our hope – THE REVELATION OF THE FATHER
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.
1 Peter 3:15 NIV
Hope is not a universally self-evident concept. When we venture outside of cultures influenced by the Judaic-Christian tradition, we find that the concept of hope is largely unknown.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism teach the suppression of individual desire and longing. The soul, Atman, must be submersed into the universal, the impersonal ultimate reality, Brahman. Reincarnation offers little prospect of hope as it is a potentially endless process of recycled existences as humans or animals. Belief in Karma interprets everything that happens to a person as the result of actions in previous incarnations. Suffering should not be alleviated therefore, as it is a just reward for past wrong deeds. If cut short in this present life, it will be visited upon the person in future incarnations.
Islam fatalistically accepts everything that happens as being the will of Allah – Insha Allah. Hope for the Moslem is an uncertain affair. Only death in a jihad guarantees the faithful access to paradise. During the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of teenage soldiers were sent to their deaths on the frontlines with plastic keys around their necks to remind them that martyrdom was the key to the after-life. Suffering poses a problem for the Moslem, as, if Allah wills everything that happens, who should dare alleviate suffering?
Animist cultures – including Europe’s pre-Christian beliefs – are dominated by the fear of unseen spirits which control events and circumstances. Hope is supplanted by fear. Before Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, the worldview of the Celtic Druids demanded that children be sacrificed at the end of each year to appease the gods and bring the sun back, making the days longer again. And of course, each year the sacrifices seemed to have their effect! But Patrick’s revolutionary message of the Son who had already been sacrificed brought new hope and life to the Irish Celts.
We westerners often take the concept of hope for granted, largely unaware of how much we owe to biblical revelation. Few realise, for example, that the idea of progress on which modern Europe has been built is a secularised version of the biblical revelation that history has a goal, that time has linear direction. Humanism, including Marxism, is in a sense a bastard offspring from the Judaic-Christian tradition. But if we humans are merely ‘slime plus time’ – the highly improbable result of a cosmic accident – there is no basis for hope. Optimism is merely wishful thinking.
So when Swiss theologian Emil Brunner claims that ‘mankind was taught to hope by Christianity, that is, to look to the future for the realisation of the true meaning of life’, he is not exaggerating!
Threefold grounds of hope
Biblical hope is not mere wishful thinking. It is not a cross-your-fingers or touch-wood superstition. We may hope that it will not rain today, but this is not the deepest sense in which the Bible uses the word. The writer of Hebrews describes biblical hope as ‘an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’. The ground in which this anchor is firmly secured is the revelation of the Triune God.
Hope begins and ends with the revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If God had chosen never to reveal something of his true nature and identity, we would never have had any reason for hope. We would have been left guessing about who we were, where we had come from, why we were here on planet earth, where we were headed, and the values by which we should live our lives each day of the week.
Your guess would then be as good as mine as to how we should build the new Europe. We would have nothing more than pluralistic relativism – in which the blind lead the blind. Worse yet, if God was dead, as the German philosopher Nietzsche posited, then only might was right. The survival of the fittest would be the rule of life, as generations have now been taught in biology classes. And if that is good for biology, why not also for politics? Why intervene in conflicts like Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo and Rwanda, instead of letting might prevail??
Yet rooted in the revelation of God himself are the answers to each of these fundamental questions of life. Our identity, our origins, our purpose in life, our destiny and our values all stem from God’s self-revelation. When we deny God’s revelation – when we Europeans leave God out of the picture – we are left without fundamental answers.
And without hope.
THE REVELATION OF THE FATHER: The gods the nations around Israel worshipped were often a mean bunch! The Canaanite god Molech demanded baby sacrifice. Priests of Baal slashed themselves in orgiastic frenzy. Osiris, the god of the underworld, was slain by his own brother and yet was the hope of Egyptians for life after death. Many of these gods and goddesses were brutal and bloodthirsty, vengeful and arbitrary, in constant conflict or unbridled sexual relationships with each other. They did not intervene in earthly affairs for human good but to satisfy their own selfish whims. They were indifferent to any suffering caused. Religious ceremonies often became degraded celebrations of the bestial side of human nature. Such gods were often the projections of fallen humanness writ large.
So when God began to reveal himself to Abraham and his offspring, he began a radical revolution in understanding reality. As Yahweh unfolded the truth about his own person, his purposes, and his promises in the Old Testament, revolutionary prospects of the future opened up. Hope emerged. The Children of Israel were to become the People of Hope, radically different from the pagan peoples because they represented the God of Hope, a personal living God who was radically different from the pagan gods. Israel’s very raison d’√™tre was to channel hope back into a hopeless world!
His Person: Moses waited in the awed anticipation as he sheltered in a cleft on the rock-face of Mt Sinai. He was about to see something no human had ever seen before. God had agreed to a private revelation of some of his glory. Then as the Glorious Presence began to pass by, Moses heard a heavenly proclamation:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,
maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
The narration accompanying the revelation of God’s glory spoke of his character, his person. And how radically different indeed was this Person from other gods! A God of love and mercy! A compassionate and forgiving God! He was the only true God. His character was faultless. He was transcendent, above and separate from his creation. Yet he was present everywhere, all-powerful and all-knowing.
The books that Moses wrote have underpinned the development of western civilisation. They have significantly helped to make Europe Europe. Their famous opening words, “In the beginning, God…” reveal the ground of all hope, the pre-existence of God the Creator. In the same opening chapter, Moses introduces us directly to the concept of human dignity when he writes under inspiration that God created humans, male and female, in his own image. Each human being bears something of the image of God.
Now, let’s be clear about this. The image of God in each person is the only basis for human dignity. Evolution offers no grounds for the sanctity of human life. Pantheism offers no grounds for the uniqueness of the individual person. When we reject the God of the Bible, we reject the basis for personal esteem and dignity.
So revelation about God leads directly to revelation about human identity and origin. Humans are not accidental cosmic freaks! They are the product of loving design
. God’s own character shows
what values humans should live by. There is an intelligent purpose to humankind’s existence, which in turn reveals the divine destiny for each individual.
If such a God really does exist, there is indeed hope for individuals, and hope for the human race! Hope for true love! Hope for meaning! Hope for dignity! Hope for forgiveness!
The person of God the Father is the ground of our hope!
His Purposes: God began to unfold his loving purposes, not only for Israel but for all peoples of the human race. Not only was he the hope of Israel, he was the hope of all nations. He explained to Israel through Moses that he was giving them the special task of being priests to the world, mediators between God and the nations. They had the responsibility both to intercede for the nations, and to proclaim God’s glory to the nations. They were his rescue plan made necessary by the entrance of sin and rebellion, in order to restore the nations to God’s original purpose of unbroken relationship with him, and of being agents of his rule on planet earth. Although things had gone wrong with God’s plan, there was yet hope! God still had loving purposes for all the peoples of the earth. He wanted all of them to come into the blessing of knowing him. He swore under oath that history would not end until all peoples on earth had been blessed through Abraham’s offspring.
Israel was to be God’s ‘show and tell’ to the nations, demonstrating how life should be lived. At times this plan was spectacularly successful. King David became so famous that ‘the Lord made all the nations fear him’. In Solomon’s day, even the Queen of Sheba came to see for herself the sort of society produced by living according to God’s principles. Yet, Israel too often forgot why they had been chosen, and in accordance with stern warnings given earlier by Moses, when Israel became unfaithful and did not live up their calling God allowed invading powers to carry them away into captivity.
Yet even in exile, there was hope. Jeremiah, often called the weeping prophet, had much to weep about. His people had rejected their God and his truth. The religious leaders and prophets were offering false hope. He foresaw the impending judgement and destruction of Jerusalem. But in the long run, Jeremiah was no pessimist. He was an optimist! He even bought a field outside the beseiged city as a concrete sign of hope for the future (ch.32). Later, standing amidst the razed city’s ruins, he testified to the Lord’s goodness: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…; the Lord is good to those who hope in him.” (Lam. 3:22-25.) Jeremiah trusted God’s sovereignty. He knew God’s person and his purposes. He foresaw not only destruction and exile. He also foretold the restoration of God’s people and his purposes. He passed on God’s word of hope to them: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Ch. 29:11).
In the light of God’s hopeful purposes, Jeremiah urged the exiles to take the long view, to seek the welfare of their city of exile (29:7). They were not to be distracted by the prophets of wishful thinking who promised imminent deliverance (ch.28). They were to settle and be a blessing in Babylon, as People of Hope among pagans. Even in exile, God’s people were called to demonstrate life under God’s rule, life ‘in his kingdom’. Daniel’s faithful witness, for example, brought hope to Babylon’s ruling classes.
God’s purposes, however, extended far beyond the restoration of Israel. They embraced the whole human race, every people group and every individual. It was never God’s purpose that any person should perish.
Yet God’s purposes go even further than that. They include the restoration of all things in the cosmos to their God-ordained purpose. Paul describes the whole of creation as waiting in the hope of liberation from the bondage to decay that resulted from the Fall.
The purposes of God the Father are the grounds of our hope!
His Promises: Tightly interwoven with the purposes of God are the divine promises as to what he will yet do on planet earth. History does have a goal. God has sworn to fulfil his purposes, and that he would bless all peoples through Abraham’s offspring. Unlike eastern or animist religions, where life is seen as an endless procession of cycles, God has declared that there would be a climax to history, and that his kingdom, his rule, his reign, would eventually be established on planet earth. Just as a river eventually finds its way to the sea, no matter how much it meanders en route, so too history would eventually climax in the fulfilment of God’s purposes.
Habakkuk the prophet had some very human doubts about where history was headed. If God was truly lord of history, why were corrupt, ungodly tyrants – the Saddam Husseins and the Radavan Karadzics of his day – allowed to prosper? A fair question. God’s answer was a promise. He told Habakkuk to write the vision of the future down, because however long it took to come, it would surely one day happen: ‘The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (2:14)
Scripture is full of other promises of what God will yet do in history to fulfil his purposes. The central theme of these promises is the coming of the Kingdom, the Rule of God on earth. The Psalmist says that all the nations will eventually come and worship God. Isaiah promised the birth of a child on whose shoulders the government would be placed, and that of the increase of his government and peace there would be no end. In other words, the Kingdom would be ever expanding. Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue that was smashed by a stone, which then grew to become a huge mountain filling the earth, is a prophecy of the triumph of the Kingdom of God in world history. Joel promised that God’s Spirit would be poured out on all peoples, a prophecy only partially fulfilled at present, but being fulfilled in greater measure today than ever before in history. Zechariah foretells the day when the Lord will be king over all the earth.
Jesus promised the growth of the Kingdom would be like yeast spreading throughout the dough, or like a small mustard seed that grows into the largest of all plants. John in the book of Revelation conveys God’s promise of the success of the missionary effort of the Church through the ages despite all opposition, and that all nations, languages, tribes and peoples would be represented before the Throne. John also reports loud voices from heaven declaring that ‘the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever’.
Under arrest at Caesarea, Paul told King Agrippa that it was “because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today”. Later, on arrival in Rome, he tells the leaders of the Jewish community, “It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.”
The promises of God the Father are the grounds of our hope!
His Power: Hope requires faith in the ability of God to make good on his promises. We have the added advantage of looking back over two thousand years of the expansion of the Kingdom to see how accurately the promises of God the Father through Jesus and the prophets have been fulfilled so far. That in itself builds our faith in God’s ability or power to fulfil his promises completely.
Isaiah assures us, after prophesying there would be no end to the Child-Ruler’s Kingdom, that ‘the zeal of the Lord will accomplish this’. Zechariah reminds us that God’s purposes are being worked out not by mere physical might or power but by his Spirit. God’s Spirit is the Spirit of power, as Samson – and the Philistines – discovered. Jesus promised that when the Spirit came upon the early disciples waiting in Jerusalem, they would receive power. Paul links hope and po
wer when he prays for his Ephesian readers to know the hope to which they had been called, and God’s incomparably great power for us who believe.
The power of God the Father is the ground of our hope!
Next week: The grounds of our hope – THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON.