“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever.” (Hebrews 6:19-20)
Hope for the Right Things!
I think we spend a lot of time hoping for silly and shallow things. We hope that our team will win or that we’ll win the lottery. We hope for a promotion, a second date, cool new toys for Christmas, etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, but they are, at best, extraordinarily transitory. Plus, that kind of “hope” isn’t really what the Bible is talking about. Hoping your team will win essentially equates “I hope” with “I wish”, “I desire”, “it would be really great if…”. That’s not biblical hope.
What if we “upgrade” our hope to bigger, more lasting things than lotteries and promotions … to really important things like marriage or kids or careers or church or true friendship? Again, these are all great things, but that’s still pretty risky business. Certainly marriage is bigger than the 2nd date and lastly friendship is greater than getting a cool new widget for Christmas, but they still might not last. They still depend on human beings or physical stuff to hold up their end of the bargain, and experience tells us that life doesn’t always play out that way. Plus, again, we’re still not talking about biblical hope. This “upgraded” kind of hope is really to name something that’s important to you, to invest in it heavily, and to expect it to continue to make you happy for a long time. Here, instead of “I hope for X”, we could say “I’m banking on X to fulfill or sustain me.” If we’re really honest, we could even add “… indefinitely.” This too is a worldly hope — not what the Bible is talking about.
What is “Biblical Hope”?
To have “Biblical hope” is to look forward to something with certainty — to unequivocally know (have absolute certainty) that what you’re looking forward to will come to pass. And when we live out that hope in action, it becomes what the bible calls “faith”. So I suppose if you knew with absolute certainty that your team would win or that you’d get a raise, then you would have biblical hope in it. And if you lived accordingly — bet your life savings on the team or spent the raise before you got it — then you’re demonstrating your faith.
But how could that be possible? Absolute certainty in a team winning or a raise coming through? Really? At the risk of sounding harsh, to have absolute certainty (true hope) in those kinds of things wouldn’t be “faith”, it would be “foolish”, because the agents who are required to bring these about are of this world, and therefore fallible.
What you’re hoping in can only be certain if you’re hoping in God’s character and commitments. God is the only unchanging constant, the only one who cannot fail … the only place where certain hope can be found, so the only legitimate ground for your hope (and therefore your faith). People, stuff, even the laws of nature (do you believe in miracles?) cannot be absolutely relied upon to be an unshifting foundation on which to build — what Jesus called a “solid rock”.
Jesus said that everyone who hears His words and does them is like a wise man who builds his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). In other words, the only truly wise ground on which to place our hope is in God’s promises. If we want “life in all its fullness”… if we want to be able to rest assured … then our hope must be in God’s promises to us.
The Poster Children for Biblical Hope
In the biblical account of Jesus’ birth, we find two people in particular who demonstrate the unshakable certainty of biblical hope. Their names are Simeon and Anna.
After Mary had given birth to Jesus, she and Joseph were warned by an angel that Herod (the local Roman petty king) desired to kill the child, so they had fled to Egypt. When the danger had passed, they returned home to Nazareth in Galilee. And at the appointed time, as was the custom of the Jews (by God’s law), they took the boy Jesus to the temple to be circumcised.
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2:25-26)
While Mary and Joseph were there, Simeon “came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, [Simeon] took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.'” (Luke 2:27-32)
“And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38)
Simeon and Anna remembered what so many others had forgotten – that God had repeatedly promised to redeem His people, and they had spent their entire lives waiting for God to come. Simeon wasn’t just a devout man; he had heard specifically from God that he would see God’s Messiah with his own eyes. And Anna had literally lived in the temple her entire life trusting the Lord, waiting for His Messiah. The certain hope of God’s work among them carried them through their entire lives, though there had not been a prophet in Israel for over 400 years. They had never known anything but poverty and oppression, and could easily have given up on God’s promise. Instead, the worshipped God in exemplary hope!
I want that kind of hope!
I want to be like Simeon and Anna. I want the kind of hope that is absolutely certain … in the kinds of things I can be absolutely certain about. I want to know God’s promises, and then believe them with my whole heart. And I want to live like God’s promises are true.
Simeon knew that God would deliver His people. We have no evidence that he burned calories worrying about how that would happen or building elaborate schemes to lead rebellions in order to help God pry Israel loose from the grip of the Roman empire. By all accounts, he was a quiet man of devoted prayer and expectant waiting, a man who rested in God’s sovereign control, and lived a “righteous and devout” life. God rewarded Simeon’s faithfulness with His presence (“the Holy Spirit was upon him”; v25) and by sharing with him special (even unique?) insights into God’s plan of salvation (“it had been revealed to him… ” that he would see the Messiah and what kind of Messiah Jesus would be; vv26, 34-35). The Bible is clear that God takes the godly into His confidence (see Ps 25:14, John 15:15, 1 Corinthians 2:10, etc). That’s the kind of man I want to be — righteous and devout, one in whom God confides.
Anna trusted God with her entire life. Having lost her husband at a young age, she could have wallowed in self-pity (bad plan!) or built a new life with another husband (nothing at all wrong with that plan!), but instead she literally moved into the temple and spent decades seeking the Lord. I have no intention of joining a monastery or moving into my church’s basement, and I’m not recommending that you should either. But how amazing would it be to have that kind of confidence in who God is … to so love and trust and hope in God that He would become literally everything to me? How many promises has God made about taking care of His people if they would simply put Him in His rightful place on the throne of their lives?! (see Psalm 34:10, Luke 12:24, and Philippians 4:19 just to get started). I want the kind of hope that leads to that kind of radical faith.
Our Ultimate Hope
There’s a difference between what we hope in and what we hope for. We’ve discussed already that the ultimate ground of our hope is in God’s unchanging character and promises. But if that’s the basis for our hope, then what is it’s object? When Simeon and Anna hoped in God’s deliverance, what were they really hoping for?
Simeon and Anna lived among a people deeply invested (at least the ones who still believed God’s promises) in a conquering, political, earthly Messiah. Without an extremely blunt word from God to change their mental picture, it’s unlikely anyone at the time had categories to understand the concept of a Messiah would who both be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and the conquering king of Isaiah 9. Certainly, the apostles didn’t even after spending 3 years with Jesus. It took the cross and the resurrection for them to get it. Living as they were under Roman oppression, most everyone who believed the prophecy at all was pretty fixated on the conquering king part of the picture. We know Simeon had a little more info than that, but I doubt that his or anyone else’s picture could have matched ours today, looking back on the cross, the resurrection, and the completed New Testament.
My point is that, in reality, they were actually hoping for even more than they realized.
For us, we hope for all kinds of things. Even when it’s genuine biblical hope, grounded in God’s promises, the object of our hope can be all over the place. If you’re like me and many people I’ve met, then it’s really easy for your hope in God to ultimately be about earthly existence. Often the things we’re hoping for boil down to having a better next Tuesday — even when the specifics are wrapped up in good and godly things like improved character, greater love, broken patterns of sin, deeper prayer, etc.
God has promised these things to us — the Bible makes clear that we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17) — just as He promised deliverance to Israel. But also in the same way, what God meant by that promise is more complicated than we (or Simeon or Anna) often think it is. God’s perspective is eternal. He’s very rarely focused on next Tuesday. Sometimes God delivers His people by marching them out of Egypt through a parted sea. But sometimes He doesn’t. In the same way, sometimes the godly character we want doesn’t happen by next week, or because we were struck by a spiritual thunderbolt, or without the incredible pain that in often required to change the human heart. Sometimes not even in this life.
So, what is our ultimate hope? Our ultimate hope is heaven. More specifically, bodily resurrection unto eternal life in the immediate presence of God. It’s not bad to want to be more godly or to claim any of God’s myriad promises in this life. In fact, I encourage it. We should train in godliness. We should rest in God’s promises. We should step out confidently in the power of the Holy Spirit. We should expect fruit to be borne in our lives. But if God doesn’t zap us into whatever it is we want to be by whenever we want to be zapped into it based on whatever way we’ve interpreted His promises, that doesn’t make God slow or absent or untrustworthy. And it doesn’t mean our hope is misplaced. But it might mean that, like Simeon and Anna, we are going to see God’s promise fulfilled only partially in this life — that there is both an “already” and a “not yet” to what God is doing. God may deliver you from a sinful pattern now, but your heart will not be pure and spotless and free of temptation until you stand before God in heaven. God may make you more loving now, but there’s no getting away from selfish tendencies, occasional lapses, and mixed motives this side of eternity. God may give you power in the Spirit to do large, medium, or even small things now, but none of that compares to what you’ll be like when Jesus appears and you are found in Him.
Don’t look at God’s work in your heart as binary — nothing until Thursday night, then 100% different on Friday morning. Don’t look at it like paying your dues — it’s been X years, so surely Y should have happened or I should be on level Z by now. A gourmet meal is neither prepared nor cooked instantly. It takes a ton of work, and the final product makes progress for a long time before slowly arriving at “done”. Looking at yourself in the mirror and stressing over not being perfect yet is like calling Thanksgiving dinner a bust because you pulled the turkey out of the oven an hour into baking it and rightly observed that it isn’t ready to eat.
None of that is right-headed hope. In addition to grounding our hope in God’s promises, we need to be more patient while He works — like Simeon and Anna were. Instead of obsessing over timing and details and measuring progress, thank God for what you do see, and know with certainty that the rest is coming; you just have to be willing to wait for it. Spend your days hoping in God’s character and promises and hoping for eternity, knowing that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). In an ultimate sense, from God’s perspective, what He’s cooking for dinner is already finished. And it is … you are … absolutely perfect.
Todd Agnew’s lyrical account of meeting Simeon in the temple