The Use of "Hope" in Hebrews

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1. Usage of "Hope"

The word "hope" (elpis) occurs in Hebrews in five places:

  • 3:6 Christ was faithful as a son over his house, whose house we are if we hold fast the confidence (parresian) and boast of hope (kauchema tes elpidos).
  • 6:11-12 We desire each of you to show the same eagerness unto the full assurance (plerophorian) of hope (tes elpidos) to the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
  • 6:18-20 …that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong encouragement, having fled (to him) for refuge, to seize the hope laid before us, which we have as an anchor of the soul, both secure and firm and which enters into the innermost part behind the curtain (of the heavenly tabernacle where God is), where a forerunner entered on our behalf, Jesus having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
  • 7:18-19 For on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment on account of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect), but on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.
  • 10:23 Let us hold fast the confession of hope without wavering, for the one who promised is faithful.

2. Remarks

2.1 The clearest usage of these five is the one in 6:18, "seize the hope laid before us." This is clearly not a subjective experience but an objective future reality, namely an anchor that can be seized. This seizing is the subjective experience of "hoping for," but the word “hope” does not refer to that here. Note that the surety and firmness of this hope is stressed. When a thing is sure it can still be a hope if it is future and is desirable.

I think this shows that, here at least, the word “hope” differs in meaning from the way we use it. If we say, "Your hope is to win the game; now seize that hope," we imply uncertainty. Winning is only a hope not a sure thing. But Hebrews says our hope is an anchor that is "both secure and firm." Therefore the word “hope” in 6:18 refers to an objective future reality that is desirable and sure for all who seize it.

2.2 The word “hope” in 7:19 (“bringing in of a better hope through which we draw near to God") is used with a different meaning. Here it is the means to and guarantee of the future desirable object (being near God). The next verses confirm this: the former priests are contrasted with Jesus in 7:20-22 just as 7:18-19 contrast the law and the new hope. Jesus in v. 22 is "the guarantee of a better covenant." I am not sure whether the writer thinks of Jesus as the "better hope" (v. 19) through which we draw near to God or whether he thinks of the "better covenant" as the "better hope" through which we draw near to God. In either case, hope is seen as the means and probably the guarantee of attaining the future desired goal.

We use "hope" similarly. We say of the Olympics: "The track team is our only hope." We mean, only the track team can bring us to the point of victory over the U.S.S.R. and East Germany. But there is a difference. Hebrews is arguing that since Christ has come and died for us we have a "better hope". I think it is better in the sense that it is clearly a guarantee (egguos v. 22). The track team is our only chance to have victory. Christ (or the new covenant in his blood) is our only hope (i.e. guarantee) of victory. So again, as in 6:18, hope is not a subjective experience of confidence or of wishing but is the objective means and guarantee of reaching the desirable future goal.

2.3 The command, "Hold fast the confession of hope," probably fits in with this objective meaning of hope. Hope here probably refers to that which we acknowledge to be true about the future of those who share in Christ. As in 6:18 it is the objective, desirable reality set before us. Our confession (3:1; 4:14) is our hearty agreement that this future is in fact true for us. To hold fast to our confession means to maintain this confident agreement and not to let our sure
acknowledgment of the coming glory weaken through neglect.

But note that what we are confessing in the confession of hope is not that our future would be nice but that we have no certainty of it. The confession of hope is the confident acknowledgment that our hope (i.e. the thing hoped for) is sure. For it would contradict the teaching of the book elsewhere if this were a call to confess unwaveringly a wavering hope.

2.4 In view of these three uses of hope, perhaps the two remaining uses should be construed objectively as well. This would mean that in the command, "Hold fast the confidence and boast of hope" (3:6), hope refers to the objective future reality which we desire. "Boast of hope" would mean: “boast in the surety and glory of our coming salvation." Hope is the future, objective, desired reality.

2.5 Similarly, "Seek the full assurance of hope" (6:11), could fit this objective pattern: "assurance" would be the subjective experience of confidence and the word "hope" would signify the thing in which we are to have confidence, as in 6:18, "the hope set before us."

But it is more probable that "hope" in these last two uses (6:11; 3:6) refers to the subjective experience of hoping. If so, I think 3:6 especially ("boast of hope") would suggest that for the writer "hope" is not an uncertain wish, for why would one boast or exult in that? The understanding of "hoping" as a confident desire for a sure future salvation would be more in tune with the objective uses of hope in Hebrews which refer to a sure and certain reality.

That the author precedes "hope" with "full assurance of" in 6:11 does not prove that hope involves no assurance. In fact there is good reason to construe "full assurance" in 6:11 as a necessary aspect of hope. First the word pl?rophoria means according to Bauer "full assurance, certainty" (or just "fullness" in which case hope would clearly be the same as confidence). Now if we substitute "certainty" for "full assurance" we get the phrase "certainty of hope." This would clearly mean that hope should involve certainty. Therefore "full assurance of hope" likewise probably means "hope characterized by full assurance." The second reason for construing hope as involving full assurance is the parallel between 6:11 and 10:22. These are the only two places where pl?rophoria occurs in Hebrews. In 10:22 we are summoned to have "full assurance of hope." It is certain from 11:1 that faith involves assurance. So we might think it redundant that the writer can speak of "full assurance of faith." But this is not strange at all. The "genitive of apposition" is a common construction in Greek and English (for another example see John 2:21 "temple of his body"). "Full assurance" and "faith" are simply taken as appositives in 10:22. If this is so then there is no reason for construing the almost identical phrase in 6:11 differently. "Full assurance" and "hope" are simply appositives.

2.6 One final text is pertinent. The verb "hope" occurs once, in 11:1, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

Here it has been suggested this verse forces us to distinguish between faith on the one hand which is the assurance of things hoped for, and hope on the other, which is the desire for a happy future but which is not necessarily assured. The argument is that if hoping involves assurance why would the writer bother to speak of the assurance of things hoped for? Is that not redundant?

My answer is that it is not redundant. If we have been on the right track till now, hoping does indeed involve confidence and assurance. Now the author wants to define faith. He does so simply by saying: one necessary aspect of faith is this very assurance we have in our hope. The assurance of things hoped for is the experience of hope. And therefore one dimension of faith is hope. Faith is more than hope because faith involves believing faithful witnesses about past events too (like the divine creation of the world, 11:3). Hoping is the exercise of faith with reference to our future.

2.7 In any case 3:6 makes it clear and 3:14 confirms that confidence that our future is gloriously secure (cf. 2:10,17; 1:14) is the condition of being in Christ's household. We will not be saved unless we maintain assurance that we will be saved!