Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Here in verse 12 is a description of the Christian life: rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, constant in prayer. And, of course, in the wider context of Romans we know that this joy is in Jesus, and this hope is for Jesus, and this patience is from Jesus, and this tribulation is with Jesus, and this constant prayer is through Jesus to God the Father. So it is not hard to weave this passage together with the Christmas events of Jesus’ birth—and the aim of that birth and his life and death and resurrection and reign today at God’s right hand in heaven.
Verse 12: All This for Love!
Before I talk about tribulation and hope and joy and endurance and prayer let me connect all this with the main focus of verses 9-11. Verse 9 focuses on love: “Let love be genuine.” And we saw how abhorring evil and holding fast to what is good is essential to love. Then verse 10 intensifies that call to love with the strong words of family affection—“Love one another with brotherly affection”—and shows how loving to give honor rather than get honor is part of that love. Verse 11 we will come back to on another day. But it draws out the zeal and fervency of our love and how it is a service to the Lord.
So when we get to verse 12 we have the dominant theme of love ringing in our hears. That is the essence of the will of God back in verse 2. That is why we must be transformed in the renewing of our minds—to know in each situation what love looks like (which is not easy since there is always more than one person to be loved, and what one person needs from us will usually keep us from giving what another needs). Oh, how much deep transformation we need to find and follow the way of love!
This chapter is all written to help us do that. So verse 12 has a banner flying over it: All this for love! All this for love! “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer”—all for the sake of loving each other and loving our enemies as we ought. In this way Christ—the ground and goal of it all—becomes more visible and more real and more convincing in the world.
So how do all these things relate to each other: love, joy, hope, endurance (or patience), tribulation, and constancy in prayer?
Let’s start with tribulation. Tribulation is unique in this list. Love, joy, hope, patient endurance are all things we experience or do. But tribulation is something that is done to us, or happens to us. Love, joy, hope, patience are all virtues—they rise in the soul by God’s grace as something morally good. Tribulation is not a virtue. It’s not in the category as a moral act of the soul. So tribulation is different.
We start with this because this is the environment where all the virtues happen. Tribulation is the normal experience of believers in this life. Some tribulation we share with unbelievers (like sickness and calamity and death) and some is unique to believers (like persecution for Christ’s sake). But my main point here is that tribulation is normal and to be expected in this world. It’s the setting for all our love and joy and hope and patience and prayer. Affliction is where we live. If you don’t live there now, you will. Learning that this is normal will be a great help to you when it comes.
Jesus was the best man who ever lived. None of us has any right to experience less affliction than he did. If we experience less, it is mercy. We don’t deserve the peaceful lives we have. They are merciful gifts. For Jesus it was affliction from the beginning. His birth was scandalous (conceived before marriage). It was in an animal feeding trough. It was threatened and hated by the political powers (Herod). He barely escaped death as a child and had to become a refugee in Egypt. And so it went until he was accused of sedition against Caesar and crucified.
That is the way Christianity began. Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malignthose of his household” (Matthew 10:25). Paul taught all the young churches he established, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Peter taught the churches, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). It isn’t strange. It’s normal. It comes with the fallen, sinful, futile world. “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
The affliction of our lives extends from cancer to calamity to conflict to death. These are all normal and they are part of what we must live with on our way to heaven. That is why Paul says here in verse 12, “Be patient in tribulation.” Let’s be biblically balanced in our celebration of Christmas. It is good news of great joy (Luke 2:10). A Savior has been born, Christ the Lord! But it is also a call to suffer with Christ. The baby Jesus grew up and said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36).
So the “great joy” announced by the angels is a very embattled joy. It is a joy to be fought for and a joy always under attack. Always threatened by tribulation. And the call of Romans 12:12 is not to rejoice without tribulation, but to rejoice in spite of, and even because of, tribulation.
The three are woven together for us not only here but in Romans 5:1-6 (hope, joy, tribulation—and endurance). Let’s read these crucial verses that Paul is calling to mind again here in Romans 12:12:
Since we have been justified by faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faithinto this grace in which we stand, and werejoicein hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings (=afflictions), knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:1-6)
Here it is plain that Christian joy and hope and patient endurance are not in freedom from tribulation but in spite of and even because of tribulation. Verse 3: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance. . . .” Paul doesn’t just tolerate tribulation, he makes it serve the Christian. He turns it from master to slave. What Satan means for our destruction, God means for our good. In the very act of trying to destroy our joy, Satan is made to drive the root of it deeper into God.
Our Joy Is Rooted in Our Hope
Let’s get a good look at this root of joy. We see it when we distinguish joy and hope and see how they are related. Romans 12:12 says, “Rejoice in hope.” It looks like hope is the soil or the rock in which joy is rooted—the ground where joy grows. Notice the similar phrase here in Romans 5:2, “Through him [Christ] we have also obtained access by faithinto this grace in which we stand, and werejoicein hope of the glory of God.” Our joy is rooted in our hope. That is so crucial to see! What does it mean?
It means that for the Christian things may go really bad right now and yet not rob him of his joy. The joy is the joy of hope. Christians set their hearts on how good it will be in the age to come and in the presence of Christ after death. This is why Christians can rejoice in tribulation and not just in health and peace and security. Tribulation drives the roots of joy down into hope. The future joy streams back into the presence and lightens every load.
The Ground and Goal of Christian Hope
What is the ground and goal of Christian hope that makes joy in tribulation possible? Do you know what I mean by “ground and goal”? If we were part of the Union cause in the Civil War we might say, “Ulysses Grant is our hope for victory.” In that sentence Ulysses Grant is the ground of our hope, and victory is the goal of our hope. That’s what I mean. So what is the ground and goal of Christian hope?
The Ground of Christian Hope: The Righteousness of Christ in Justification
Romans 5:1-2 give the clear answer: “Since we have been justified by faith, wehave peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” That is the ground of our hope. God declares us righteous (justification) on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness. Verse 6: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” That’s the ground of our hope.
How are you going to face God someday? What will you plead? Your conscience whispers now what it will scream in that day: I am not good enough! There is only one basis of acceptance with God. There is only one way to be accepted with God, only one way to the hope of eternal life—namely, justification by faith alone on the basis of Christ alone. That is the point of Romans 5:1 and 6. That is the basis of our hope.
The Goal of Christian Hope: The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ
The goal or the object of our hope is at the end of verse 2: “Werejoicein hope of the glory of God.” The ultimate hope of the human heart is not forgiveness or justification or heaven or freedom from disease. The ultimate hope of every heart is the glory of God. You were made to see and savor the glory of God. Christmas happened, Good Friday happened, Easter happened so that sinners might not be incinerated by the beauty of God but might see it and savor it with ever-increasing joy. Romans 12:12 says, “Rejoice in hope.” Romans 5:2 completes the thought, “Rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
This is the ultimate experience that will wipe away every tear. This will rectify every wrong. This will make you say that it was all worth it, no matter what you suffered. Listen to the way Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “This slight momentary affliction [=all this life’s afflictions] is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” This was the hope that sustained Paul’s joy in affliction. He preached to himself (and we must): this affliction is not meaningless, it is not absurd, it is not cruel, it is not pointless. No, it is working for me an experience of the glory of God that will outweigh every moment and every degree of suffering in this life.
That is our hope. Its ground is the blood and righteousness of Christ by which we are justified through faith. Its goal or object is the glory of God that one day we will experience in the face of Jesus Christ.
Rejoice in Hope
Then Paul says in Romans 12:12 and 5:2, “Rejoice in hope.” Christian joy flows from this hope. Or you could say, Christian joy is directed toward this hope. You might think: This is too limiting. Shouldn’t we rejoice in some good things now? Is all our joy a rejoicing in hope? I think there are two ways to answer that question. A shepherd way and a wise man way. The Shepherds had little or nothing. The wise men had gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is a way to rejoice in hope when you have nothing. There is a way to rejoice in hope when you have much.
The shepherd way is this: if tribulation is normal, then Paul needs to stress that joy will flow from hope not present good times. The present is hard. And again I say, if you don’t think this is true, you will someday. And if life is hard, we can either give up on joy or we can get it from hope. Paul would not give up on joy. He commanded it over and over. “Rejoice in the Lord and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Rejoice in hope echoes Paul’s conviction that life is hard. Tribulations are normal. But a glory is coming that will make it all worth it.
The other way to explain this phrase—“Rejoice in hope”—the wise man way, is to say that even in those seasons when pleasures abound, they all point to the Creator and goal of pleasure, Christ himself. Christ will be experienced most fully in the future. We enjoy his fellowship now in measure. But then face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). All future joy will be found in Christ. And all present joy points to that future of fullness in Christ. If it doesn’t, it is an idol. So I say with the apostle Paul, whether in pain or in pleasure “Rejoice in hope”—the hope of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
Now finally link the last three elements: patient endurance, love, and prayer to each other and to rejoicing in hope. Romans 12:12 says, “Be patient [have endurance] in tribulation.” Hebrews 12:2 shows how this relates to hope and joy and love. “[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy [there’s the joy!] that was set before him [there’s the hope] endured the cross [there’s the love]. The greatest act of love that ever was—the death of Jesus for sinners like us—was endured by future-sustained joy, that is, by rejoicing in hope. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross.”
So I would sum up all of the elements of Romans 12:12 like this: Tribulation—trouble, calamity, conflict, cancer, death—these are all the normal conditions of life in this fallen world. But Christ has come at Christmas. He has broken into our tribulation and taken it on himself. He carried our sin, and bore our curse, and absorbed God’s wrath, and became our righteousness, and conquered death and hell and Satan, and opened the door of paradise for all who trust him. He made his glory the center of that paradise so that we would have the highest pleasures possible (John 17:24). In this hope we rejoice with joy unutterable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8), now, in spite of and even because of our tribulation which drives our joy down into the roots of hope. And in this joy we endure with Jesus in all the sacrifices of love.
The Present and the Future
So don’t make the mistake of thinking that future-oriented, future-sustained joy limits present usefulness. It doesn’t limit it. It liberates it. If your future is glorious and sure (which it is in Christ!), you don’t live for money or power or fame. You don’t have to grasp and snatch and chase pleasures that are slipping through your aging fingers. You are free to live for others now. You are free to be another kind of person than the kind that lives for this world. If your hope is glorious and sure, you will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these other basic things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). Your love will be genuine. It will be radical, risk-taking, sacrificial because of the joy set before you.
And what of prayer? Romans 12:12 ends, “Be constant in prayer.” Well, next Sunday is the beginning of our annual prayer week. So I leave the answer till then. Suffice it to say: by prayer we will see and savor the greatness and preciousness of our hope (Ephesians 1:18). So as you gather for Christmas, pray for yourselves and for your loved ones and for the world, that God would reveal to you and to them “what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” That will feed your joy. Joy will sustain your endurance. Endurance will carry your love. And the glory of Christ will shine this Christmas.