We use the word “hope” far too casually. Most often, we use “hope” as a synonym for “wishful thinking,” the verbal equivalent of crossing our fingers. “I hope this recipe turns out ok,” we might say, or “I hope my team can maintain a strong defense in the last quarter.” While these might be a way of looking forward to future events, we usually grant them no more than a week’s worth of significance—if that.
Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco uses “hope” as his way of defining “culture.” A culture, Delbanco would say, is a group of people who share the same hope, or at least the same vision for the future. For Americans, this means that we grow up bombarded with the “gospel” message of the American dream: get ahead; get rich; get what you want. And, as we pointed out yesterday, we’ve allowed this message to strip away any true hope for the future for the tyrannical demands of Now.
When the early Christian writers used the word “hope,” they did so very carefully and very precisely. For early Christians, the word “hope” was never rooted in some abstract fantasy, but rather in the certainty of God’s activity in human history.
In Peter’s letter, his first true lesson for the “chosen strangers” living in the hostile city of Rome was one of hope:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
Do you see the beauty of Peter’s language? We can see phrases like “great mercy,” “born again,” “living hope.” This was a hope anchored in the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus. For early Christians, hope was certain: the physical resurrection of Jesus promised them that they, too, would one day be changed and would live again.
This was, at least in part, the “inheritance” that Peter speaks of. In the Old Testament, the word “inheritance” was often used to speak of Israel receiving the Promised Land (Numbers 32:19; Deuteronomy 2:12; Joshua 11:23). In the New Testament, this sort of language testifies to our share in God’s Kingdom (Galatians 3:18; Ephesians 1:14).
Why does this matter? Because hope replaces fear. Look at Peter’s letter. How does it describe this future inheritance? It is imperishable, undefiled, unfading. If you lived in a place like Rome—which Peter had pointed out had become the social equivalent of Babylon (1 Peter 5:13)—you were displaced from all sense of safety and comfort. Your hostile social setting left you feeling like the ground was constantly moving beneath your feet. What does Peter say? He says that believers like you and I “are being guarded through faith for a salvation to be revealed.” If my hope rests in the American dream—if my hope is in money, success, comfort, a relationship, politics, etc., then I have placed my hope in something that is “perishable,” “defiled,” “fading.” I live in constant fear of losing that source of satisfaction and security. I worry that the next political leader will “take my guns away,” or limit my capacity for religious expression. True, there may be many things that would grieve us—and perhaps rightly. But if my hope lies in my salvation, in the city of God and not the fading city of man, then that changes everything. This new hope prompts me to find joy and satisfaction not in my present, but in God’s future—and to find joy in the knowledge that this promise can never be tarnished or stolen.