I don’t doubt that you would agree that life, at times, can be very difficult. Life can hurt. In fact—and I say this deliberately—life can hurt like hell. I don’t say that to be provocative, but because hell is the only place in the universe that is absolutely hopeless.
Sometimes, as life get hard and hurts, we lose hope. Because we lose hope, we lose interest and motivation. The result is a hopeless existence, dominated by despair. Because some people lose hope in their marriages, divorce occurs. Because some lose hope in their ministry, pastors quit. Because people become hopeless as they face life, they become depressed and lethargic. People can grow hopeless about relationships. Church members can become hopeless and give up. Suicide is one major evidence of hopelessness.
We need biblical hope. The economic situation in which we presently live cries for hope. The political horizon—both local and international—can tempt us toward hopelessness, as can the moral climate. The spiritual landscape often looks bleak and cries for hope.
To bring it to a more personal level, marriages can often appear hopeless. For some, the prospect of marriage may seem hopeless, and singleness may appear to be their lot. We can grow hopeless when our lost loved ones seem to be spiritually unresponsive. Unemployment can seem unshakeable, and spiritual failure can often appear to be the norm. At times, unanswered prayer seems to be normal.
And so the question must be asked, ought we to be hopeful? The biblical answer is a resounding yes. We are called to be hopeful—at least, if we have been called by God to salvation. After all, those whom God saves serve “the God of hope” (Romans 15:13).
When we experience biblical hope, we are in a position, as George Herbert said, to “dance without music.” In commenting on Hebrews 3:6 (“rejoicing of the hope”), William Gurnall wrote, “Hope fills the afflicted soul with such inward joy and consolation, that it can laugh while tears are in the eye, sigh and sing all in a breath.” May you experience such hope today.
What is Hope?
The Bible is a hopeful book, making mention of the word some 129 times. Paul was a hopeful author, who spoke of hope some 45 times. Romans is a hopeful book, focusing on the subject at least fifteen times. (What else would you expect from a book about the gospel?) It can therefore be reasonably expected that God’s people should be hopeful. In fact, Paul listed hope, along with faith and love, as three great Christian virtues in 1 Corinthians 13:13.
But what precisely is hope? When my eldest daughter was a little girl, she expressed her hope that I would buy her a Porsche when she turned 18. Clearly, there is a radical difference between biblical hope and wishful thinking. (She received a five-year-old Opel Corsa when she started university.)
The Bible uses the term in three distinct ways.
First, it is used of a general hope or optimism that God may do something because He can do so.
For example, Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law, expressed a vague “hope” of having a husband and children (Ruth 1:12). She felt that she was “too old to have a husband,” but knew that there was “hope” of it because God could do the impossible.
The psalmist expressed a similar, vague hope when he wrote, “Let your mercy, O LORD, be upon us, just as we hope in You” (Psalm 33:22). The psalmist knew what God could do, but he knew what God could do.
In Romans 15:24 Paul expressed “hope” that God would allow him to visit the Romans. He didn’t know for sure that God would allow him to visit Rome, but he knew that God could take him there.
Sometimes we have hope because we know that God can do something, even if we have no promise that He will do so. For example, many pray and hope for a marriage partner, believing that this is God’s good intention for most people and knowing that He can provide, but not knowing for sure that He will do so. Often, we pray for healing for those who are sick, knowing that God can heal, and hoping that He will do so, but not knowing for sure that He will.
Second, “hope” is used in the Bible in the sense of a firm hope that, no matter what, God is in control—and that is enough. Solomon wrote, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). We don’t always know where God will direct our paths, but knowing that He will do so is enough.
This concept of hope is expressed by David in Psalm 31:24, when he writes, “Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” We can have solid hope because, even though we don’t know what will happen in our future, we know that God is in control.
Jeremiah echoed David’s conviction when he wrote, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is in the Lord. . . . Do not be a terror to me; You are my hope in the day of doom” (Jeremiah 17:7, 17). He did not know how everything would work out, but He knew that God was in control and could therefore live in hope.
Paul wrote to the Romans, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). We cannot see the future, but we know that God is in control, and therefore we can live in hope.
A young lady who attends our church returned home from a run recently to find some men breaking into her house. They tied her up and proceeded to rob her house. God kindly kept them from hurting her, but she told me of the great peace that she had during the ordeal, knowing that God was in control and that nothing could happen to her outside of His providence.
Third, there is biblical hope in the sense of a firm conviction that a promise of God will be fulfilled.
When Jeremiah wrote of the Babylonian captivity and the promise that God would return the Jews to their land, he wrote, “There is hope in your future, says the LORD, that your children shall come back to their own border” (Jeremiah 31:17). Jeremiah was here clinging to a promise that God had revealed to him, and so his hope was certain.
Jesus went gladly and hopefully to the cross, believing the promise of God in Psalm 16:9: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest in hope.” Peter quoted this verse (Acts 2:26) to argue that Jesus believed the firm promise of God that He would come back from the dead.
God made a promise to Abraham that he would have a son, and Paul records in Romans 4:18 that Abraham, “contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Romans 4:18). Abraham had hope because he believed the revealed promise of God.
Titus 2:13 speaks of the promised return of Christ as “the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ.” We have hope that Christ will return because He promised that He would do so.
One final example can be lifted from John’s first epistle.
Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
(1 John 3:1-3)
We have “hope” that we will one day be completely Christlike—glorified—because God has promised us this. Our hope rests firmly in the promise of God.
And so we have hope, because of the promises of God, that He will supply our needs. We have hope in the promises of God to save the children of covenant-believing and covenant-keeping parents. There is the promise of ultimate success for the advance of Christ’s kingdom. And, as we have seen, there is the ultimate promise—highlighted in the very chapter we are considering—of the ultimate glorification of God’s children.
Hope and Faith
We should take some time at this point to consider the relationship between hope and faith. The two concepts are similar, but there is an important distinction to be made between them. Calvin said, “The word ‘hope’ I take for faith; and indeed hope is nothing else but the constancy of faith.” However, while there are similarities, there is also a difference.
We should note, first, that both faith and hope are temporary. When Paul lists the three great Christian virtues—faith, hope and love—in 1 Corinthians 13:13 he notes that the “greatest” of the three is love. The reason that love is the greatest is because it is the only one of the three that is permanent. There is coming a day when we will have no faith, because our faith will be fully realised when we see God as He is (cf. 1 John 3:1-3). Similarly, there will be no hope in heaven, because “hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24). Love, however, will last for eternity.
Second, both faith and hope involve some form of expectation. The concept of expectation is replete in our text (vv. 19, 23, 25).
But there is also a subtle difference between faith and hope. Faith acts in the present, while hope expects a future. Faith, therefore, anchors hope. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is a now thing, while hope always looks to the future.
We can say, then, that faith is a declaration of trust, while hope is a disposition of trust. Faith is the root, and hope is the fruit. Faith says, “God is sovereign,” and hope concludes, “Therefore I will be okay.” Faith says, “God is God,” and hope concludes, “Therefore things can change.” Faith says, “My present is secure,” and hope concludes, “Therefore my future is secure.” Faith says, “God’s Word says such-and-such,” and hope concludes, “It will therefore come to pass.” Faith is a conviction; hope is the resulting disposition.
Hope is inseparable from God’s Word. It is inseparable from His promises. This is what makes hope certain rather than mere wishful thinking. Psalm 119—the longest chapter in the Bible and the chapter with a greater focus than any other on God’s Word—emphasises the hope that results from the Word:
- Psalm 119:49—“Remember the word to Your servant, upon which You have caused me to hope.”
- Psalm 119:81—“My soul faints for Your salvation, but I hope in Your word.”
- Psalm 119:114—“You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in Your word.”
- Psalm 119:116—“Uphold me according to Your word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope.”
What Are You Hoping For?
The question, then, is what are you hoping for? Is your hope a biblical one? Is it certain? Is your hope large enough? Is it merely immediate or ultimate? Romans 8 tells us what to hope for.
Simply put, we must hope for glory (vv. 18, 21, 23, 28-30). At the consummation of history, a glorified people will inhabit a glorified creation to the glory of God. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Revelation 21:5, Christ says, “I make all things new,” meaning new in character or renewed. This is a both “now” and “not yet” promise. It has begun, but will one day be consummated.
Paul says in v. 24 that “we were saved in this hope.” The moment you are justified by faith alone, you are brought into the sphere of hope. The act of being justified is at the same time of a promise of sanctification and ultimate glorification. In the words of Augustus Toplady, we are “saved to sin no more.”
Paul knew that his readers were suffering, but he assured them that, in the light of the glory that was to be revealed, their suffering was inconsequential (v. 18). He urged them, therefore, to be hopeful.
The apostle begins this section, “I consider.” The word expresses strong assurance and no doubt; that is, unshakeable faith. And his unshakeable faith related to “the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Notice that the glory is already present “in us,” though it is yet to be “revealed.” We will not be made glorious as much as the glory already in us will be revealed. In the present, we can experience glimpses of this glory as we overcome temptation, as we experience a loving impulse toward others, as we are willing to forgive and reconcile, as we display a hatred toward sin, as we long for the Word and worship and as we feel a delightful dissatisfaction with the way things are. This is our “hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).
In vv. 19-22 Paul shows that all creation is hopeful for our glory, for its hope is tied to ours.
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now.
God barred fallen man from Eden because man was no longer glorious enough to live there. But, as glorious as Eden was, it was also subject to the curse when man sinned. God had told Adam that the ground would be cursed because of his sin (Genesis 3:17-19), and we learn from our present text (and from the whole testimony of Scripture) that that curse extended beyond the ground to all of creation. “The entire creation, as it were, sends up a grand symphony of sighs,” writes Phillips. But as Morris observes, “The cosmic fall is not the last word; the last word is with hope.” And so, although creation experiences pangs, those pangs, says Calvin, are not “death pangs but birth pangs.” This is meaningful pain, like that of childbirth.
When you suffer at the hands of creation—think tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.—be hopeful. Sigh and sing at the same time, for those pangs point to a glorious future.
Paul moves in vv. 23-25 from speaking of the pangs of creation to speaking of the new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). God’s new creation is hopeful for this glory.
Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance.
Justification is, as it were, a down payment—the initial taste of glory—that assures us of more to come. As noted briefly above, saving faith has ushered us into the sphere of hope; specifically, into the pervasive sphere of hope for glory. We groan for glory, and since it is promised, we hope for it.
What are you hoping for? Is your hope big enough? Is it an ultimate thing or merely an immediate thing?
Are you, for example, hoping for a marriage partner? This is, of course, a good thing to hope for, but if you don’t receive it, don’t lose hop! God may well know that, for you, singleness is His best means to your glory.
Are you perhaps praying for comfortable living, solid employment or physical healing? Once again, these are good hopes, but they are not ultimate. As I write these words I am in the process of making plans for a midyear trip to the United States to visit my father, who is suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It is my hope to take my eldest daughter and my granddaughter with me, so that my father can meet his great granddaughter before he has deteriorated too much to enjoy her at all. I have not prayed to God to heal my father, and he has not prayed the same for himself. We both realise that God can completely heal him if He chooses to, but such healing is not where our hope lies. My father is happy to know that he will (soon?) die and go to be with his Lord.
So let me ask—really—what are you waiting for? Are you really, eagerly anticipating the glory to be revealed?
Believers are to be marked by hopefulness—hopefulness that what God began He will complete. Is this your confident hope?
What Difference Does it Make?
Biblical hope makes all the difference in the world. During our recent World Outreach Celebration, our choir sang a Matt Redman song titled “We Could Change the World.” One line of the song reads, “Jesus, in Your name we could change the world.” We can only change the world if we live with biblical hope.
Note briefly two things that biblical hope produces.
First, biblical hope produces patience. By “patience” I mean perseverance not passivity. It produces an active endurance, motivating us to stick our neck out rather than retreat. Paul says something about this patience in his second letter to the Corinthians:
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
(2 Corinthians 5:1-8)
Biblical hope does not produce an escapist mentality, whereby we simply cling on passively until the end. Paul is not suggesting that we “groan” by complaining and just wishing for the end. Instead, hope drives us to actively endure in the world with confidence that we will ultimately be changed.
I recently ran a race in which, for only the second time in my life, I had “DNF”—“did not finish”—penned next to my entry. As I was running, I felt a twinge of pain in my hip. At first, I tried to ignore it, but eventually I gave in and asked a marshal to drive me to the finish line. As he was driving me, I found myself ducking so that the other runners would not see me and think that I was just giving up where they were persevering.
If I am honest I will admit that it felt really good to stop. About an hour later, I thought to myself that it didn’t feel as bad as it had. The next day, someone asked me how I felt and I honestly said that I was feeling fine. I began to wonder if I had perhaps given up just a little too early. If I had just persevered through the pain, could I have made it?
The truth is, the Christian life is very much like that. It’s hard. It hurts. There are places along the course where you will be tempted to catch a ride to the finish line. The fact of the matter is, we should not seek escape. We, with Paul, should instead focus on the great joy it will be when we cross the line (see Philippians 3:8-14). We must exert the necessary effort to reach the finish, not look for escape.
Second, biblical hope produces perspective. That is, our goal in life is not necessarily that things get better but that we get better. This was at the heart of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
This brings us to our last question.
What Are You Praying For?
We have yet to consider the closing verses of our text, but it is to these verses that we come now. Paul writes,
Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
These verses focus on prayer, and they teach us three things about what should characterise our prayers.
Trials and suffering can tempt us to obsess with the immediate: healing, marriage, children, broken relationships, hurt feelings, finances, etc. We can be tempted to lose hope (and concern) for the ultimate. In fact, we may be tempted to care less. And this may well show up in our prayers.
Do your prayers manifest an unhealthy obsession with the now? Are you confused in your weakness? Paul wants his readers to manifest hopefulness in prayer.
Help in Prayer
Sometimes, we do not know what to pray, but the Holy Spirit, according to vv. 26-27, rescues us from our prayers. We sometimes jokingly caution people, “Be careful what you pray for.” In reality, God loves us far too much to let us ruin ourselves.
Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
The Spirit groans with us when we pray, but His groanings are more than a sigh; they are a request. He edits, as it were, our prayers. He intercepts them and reissues the correct requests. He assures us that, when our prayers reach the Father’s ears, they are according toHis will and purpose—which in this context is our revealed glory. The Spirit’s prayers may contradict your immediate wishes (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-11), but they never contradict the Father’s ultimate will.
Holiness and Prayer
We can rest in the way in which the Father answers the Spirit’s prayers, because we have a hopeful promise:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Even though God’s answer to our prayers may be different than we anticipated, His answer is always designed for our good. And our good, as defined in this particular text, is our glorification.
Again, this means that God may not necessarily heal you, or heal a loved one, or give you a spouse. If He determines that that is not the best for your ultimate glorification, then you have no grounds to claim His promise in that regard. As you lift your prayers to God, the Spirit may well offer a better prayer. So, as you pray for a spouse, the Spirit might intercede and pray for you to remain single, knowing that that is God’s best for your revealed glory. As Joni Eareckson Tada has said,
The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon.
When things don’t go your way, be assured that they are always going God’s way. He has rescued you from a puny hope to give you a larger hope.
What a privilege it is to have such hope. Do you have this hope? Will you embrace it? Plead with God that He would give you such a hope by giving you such a Saviour.