Pauline Understanding of Hope
Pr. Shiju M. George
Paul used the concept of hope in the light of different situations of the churches to which he wrote the epistles. The believers of the churches had to go through persecution because they had come to the new faith; some had physical problems, mental struggles, and they had genuine questions about life after death because of their beloved ones who died in Christ. Since believers lived in the midst of pagan religion, Paul gives accurate description of pagans who had no hope (Eph. 2:12; cf. 1 Thes.4:13) and according to Paul they were 'without God'. This he writes to highlight the uniqueness of Christian hope.
In such a context, Paul used the concept ‘hope’ not just as a psychological necessity without reason, but in the biblical sense of belief in the living God, who acts and intervenes in human life and who can be trusted to implement his promises. Moreover, this hope is based on Christ's resurrection as the in - breaking of the Kingdom and Jesus' Second Coming as it's fulfillment which is far beyond the transitory and illusionary hope of this world. Let us see how Paul exposes different aspects of Christian hope.
1. Tension in Hope: Now and Not Yet.
Paul speaks in his letters that the believers experience hope here and now. At the same time his letters contains the description of hope in the future. This tension is seen in numerous places in his letters. Believers live in the time between the resurrection of Christ and the ultimate realization of the Kingdom of God. They are members of the community determined by the reality of a future that has already begun, but still awaiting its final consummation. For example, Hope of redemption is in one sense something Paul and his readers already "have" but in another sense they still await redemption, "redemption of the body". Hence, the believers live in hope even if God's promise in Christ so often stand in contradiction to the reality around them.
2. Different Aspects of Hope
Christian hope has important fundamental aspects in it. The reality of Hope is based on three things: faith in God, the reality of God's victory over evil in the death and resurrection of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The attempt here is to discuss about them.
i) Key of Hope: Faith
Hope, the basic biblical concept, is inseparable from faith in God. Paul's vision extends as deeply into the past as it does into the future which God has reserved for the world in Christ. The heroes of faith, for example, in Hebrews 11 are beacons of hope. As Paul gazes into salvific history, he focuses on Abraham, his father in faith, whom he characterizes as "hoping against hope". Abraham had faith in God. There was nothing found in Abraham to destroy his hope that Sarah would give birth to a son, but because he believed in God, he could 'in hope' believe 'against hope' (Rom 4:18) which is hope in God against all human evidence or odds. For Paul, Abraham's hope, as his own, was in the God "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom 4:17). Due to what God has done in the past, particularly in preparing for the coming of Christ, and because of what God has done and is now doing through Christ, the believers dares to expect future blessings at present (2 Cor 1:10).
ii) Ground of Hope - Jesus Christ
The ones who put faith in God through Jesus Christ can have this hope. Pauline understanding of hope is grounded in God's act of salvation in Christ. Christ's death and resurrection was the beginning of his salvific work and its completion take place in his Parousia. In Romans 5: 1-5 Paul reminds the Roman church that in Christ they have already been justified by faith, have obtained access to the grace of God and can rejoice in their hope of sharing the glory of God. Christ in a believer is the hope of future glory. A believer's salvation rests on such hope (Rom 8:24); and this hope of salvation is a ‘helmet’, an essential part of his defensive armor in the struggle against evil (1 Thes. 5:8). Hope in Christ, to be sure, 'a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul', penetrating deep into the invisible eternal world. Because of faith in Christ, the believers have an assurance that the things he hopes for are real; and his hope never disappoints him (Rom 5:5) because of the gift of the Spirit.
iii) Agent of Hope - Holy Spirit
Holy Spirit is the inseparable agent of Christian hope. He as God’s gift provides an experiential basis for hope in the present. He enables the believers to live in His power and to move towards the full realization of the purpose of God. The Holy Spirit assures believers that they are fellow heirs with Christ because the giving of Spirit is a sign that Christ has already entered into his inheritance, it is a guarantee that the expectation of those who still wait will be fulfilled.
The suffering that believers undergo is also a part of this guarantee. Those who are joint heirs with Christ must suffer with him before they are to be glorified with him. But the glory is as sure as the suffering, and the Holy Spirit is a pledge that the suffering is not in vain. The activity of the Spirit is proof that a new age has dawned and that the consummation of the age cannot be long delayed. The suffering that is characteristic of this age is the result of being faithful to Christ in a world that is hostile to him.
The image of groaning and travailing in Romans 8 shows that creation’s present condition will result in a glorious occasion, which includes redemption of the cosmos. Believers in this travail possess the first fruits of the Spirit and can anticipate their future salvation, their adoption and the redemption of their bodies. The glory will be revealed is already present in the gift of the Spirit who intercedes for the believers according to the will of God. The Spirit helps Christians in their weakness by giving them assurance that their hope of glory is not vain. Romans 8:28-30 assures believers that nothing can destroy their ultimate glory, God will triumph in the face of adverse circumstances.
3. Hope in the Present
Presence of the Spirit is an anchor of hope for the believers to live in today’s world of despair, sorrows and difficulties. Holy Spirit helps believers to have hope and enable them to live according to the will of God on this earth exhibiting certain virtues to possess the promises of God. Hope in the present is explained in the Pauline letters with three virtues.
First, Be joyful. The indicator to know a believer’s hope at present depends on how a believer responds to debilitating and lethal situations in life. Paul in his writings encouraged the churches to be joyful amid suffering. Even though it is difficult to rejoice in the midst of reality of suffering, believers can rejoice even in their suffering since their experience is illuminated by the reality of future hope of glory.
Second, Have Endurance. Paul constantly asked the believers to have endurance amid sufferings. This virtue, 'endurance' is vastly different from Stoic endurance, precisely because it is bound up with a hope unknown. Believers in Christ need to completely trust in God and move forward. If Christians hold on to this hope in the midst of suffering, their hope will grow and they will not be put to shame.
Third, Love. Living a life in the Spirit by exercising the gifts in love will provide believers with an overwhelming assurance of their inclusion in a new age that has already dawn. Christian hope inspired by the Spirit frees a believer from all selfishness and enable the believer to love one another. The believer does not hope for the blessing of himself which he does not desire others to share. When he loves his fellow-human he hopes that they be recipients of the good things that he knows God longs to give them. Paul gave evidence of his hope just as much as his love and his faith when he returned the runaway slave Onesimus to his master Philemon.
4. Hope for the Future
Hope is not defined by present realities but by God's purpose for the future. But when Paul writes about this future, it never becomes detached from the present experience of life in Christ (Col 1:27).The future believers anticipate is a consummation of activity that began in Christ's death and resurrection and continue in the present experience of the Spirit. The object of Christian hope is the coming manifestation of Christ. That is explicitly mentioned in Titus 2:13 as " the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus. Closely connected to the manifestation of glory is eternal life (Titus 1:2; 3:7) and the resurrection of the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15). Christ's resurrection is the first fruit which guarantees the coming resurrection of all who are in Christ. At the same time, God's final purpose will be fulfilled and the kingdom will come in all its glory. This final resurrection is so certain that to deny resurrection is to deny the God who promised this glorious future.
The death and resurrection of Christ and the sufferings undergone by believers led Paul to describe the object of Christian hope as a sharing in the glory of God (2 Cor 4:16-18), which marks the state of risen Christ. In 2 Corinthians and elsewhere, when Paul describes his experience of tribulation, he uses the concept of "trust" or "confidence" in God to describe the hope that wells up in him (2 Cor 3:4,12 cf . Philemon ). Later, Paul describes all Christians as groaning in their anticipation of being clothed with the glory of the resurrection body (2 Cor 5). When in Philippians, Paul contemplates the possibility of his own death, he describes his hope as one of going to be with Christ in that divine glory into which Jesus has already entered (Phil 1:23; cf.3: 20-21).
For Paul, believers hope only finds meaning as a foretaste of something greater and more glorious. It sets out from the present reality of God's activity in raising Christ from the dead and giving the Spirit to believers, and proclaims the future of that reality. Hope is an encouragement to believers in the midst of suffering, but it also prevents believers from being content with the present circumstances. It insists that believers rejoice, patiently wait, and love one another amid suffering with eager longing for the great day when all of God's promises are fulfilled.