Bright Hope from Yesterday

How the Old Testament Deepens Faith

A beloved hymn has given us words to cling to in the hardest seasons of life:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

These words are perennially sung, and with such resonance, because in dry and weary lands like ours, hope can often be hard to come by. Have you consistently felt bright hope for tomorrow over the last year?

The pandemic seemed to knock hope out of many, not because there wasn’t an expectation that a vaccine would come and the virus would pass, but because of the way Christians acted toward one another, even within the same local body. Deepening tensions seem to have dashed our hopes of multiethnic gospel communities against the rocks of debates over race and justice. Political idolatry with the smell of both a donkey and an elephant seemed to have overpowered the fragrance of hope that should characterize Christ’s people. Poisonous bogs from the jungles of social media appeared to have suffocated the refreshing air of hope we once shared. We could go on and on — impossible marriages, wayward children, lingering sickness, chronic pain, unexpected loss, disappointments and failures, pain and suffering, and so many more shadows in our stories. Can hope be found here?

As Job said of wisdom, so we might say of hope: “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place” (Job 28:23) — because he is its place. He is the God of hope (Romans 15:13), and as Paul tells us, his word is the wellspring of our encouragement. And the particular word Paul had in mind, at least here, was the Old Testament.

Surprising Source of Hope

The book of Romans drips with hope. We are told to rejoice in hope (Romans 12:12). More specifically, we are to rejoice and boast in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2). Enduring suffering well, we are told, builds godly character, and that character produces hope (Romans 5:3–5). We are saved in the hope of being adopted as sons, and receiving redeemed bodies like our risen and ascended Lord (Romans 8:24). Even creation itself was subjected to futility in hope (Romans 8:20).

“The entire Old Testament shows and instructs us that God will do what he says he will do.”

God, through the apostle Paul, treats the reader to a flurry of hope as the letter nears the end in Romans 15. In the context of difficult relationships, where hope can be especially hard to find, he instructs those who are strong in the faith to humble themselves and love the weak, imitating Christ, who sought the good of his neighbor and did not seek to please himself.

The apostle grounds this love by going back to the Old Testament, saying, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). He says this of the Old Testament. When trials have risen and hope has dwindled, how often have you turned to Genesis or Leviticus, Psalms or Proverbs, Isaiah or Ezekiel?

Notice how Paul, in Romans 15, draws on various parts of the Old Testament to encourage hope. There is no place in the Old Testament where hope cannot be found. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 32 (Romans 15:10) and 2 Samuel 22 (Romans 15:9) and Psalms 18 and 117 (Romans 15:9, 11) and Isaiah 11 (Romans 15:12). The entire Old Testament, from creation to curse to promise, through the founding and fall of Israel, to the rebuilding of the temple — all of it shows and instructs us that God will do what he says he will do. All of it sings over us, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19).

Story after story, prophecy after prophecy, promise after promise, deliverance after deliverance, psalm after psalm, prayer after prayer attests to the God whose faithfulness will never fail. It is only fitting that Paul would end the first half of Romans 15 with these hope-filled words:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Hope from Yesterday for Tomorrow

Last fall, I walked college freshmen through the Old Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary. While all of them had read portions of the Old Testament before, there were some who had never read it straight through from Genesis to Malachi. By the end of the class, the students were asked to summarize the message of each of the 39 books.

Halfway through the semester, some of the students, almost in exasperation, observed that their summaries were starting to sound the same. “How so?” I asked. “Well,” they replied, “the Lord keeps showing himself faithful in the midst of Israel’s faithlessness book after book!” A wonderful moment for any teacher. They were discovering what Paul had tasted — that what was written in former days was written so that we might remember the relentless faithfulness of God. In other words, so that we might have hope.

“The Old Testament points us to the Lord’s faithful yesterdays in order to brighten our hope for tomorrow.”

The faithfulness of God to do what he said he would do, and be who he said he would be, is the great source of deep and durable hope. “I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised,” Romans 15:8–9 says, “to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

The encouragement of the Old Testament points us backward to the Lord’s faithful yesterdays in order to brighten our hope for whatever tomorrow might bring. To neglect the Old Testament is to forsake a well of refreshing and life-giving water while we walk in dry and weary lands. Book after book sings, “Great is thy faithfulness!”

There is no need to look for hope where it will not be found, especially in the days we need it most. Hope is in a Person. The Old Testament tells us so.