We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For 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.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
There’s a parallel between this message and the one from last time. That one addressed the role of prayer in the fight for joy, and this one addresses the role of the Bible in the fight for joy. The reason we are talking about the fight for joy is Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” And we have seen that this pursuit is in the service of love, which is the main theme of the paragraph.
So, building on Romans 12:12 and the rest of the New Testament together, the Christian life works like this: Affliction is normal in this fallen world (1 Peter 4:12; Romans 8:23). Christ has come and carried our sin and sorrows to the cross and into the grave, and left them there, and he rose so that now we have unshakable hope in (not instead of) suffering, and this hope gives rise to joy. That’s why verse 12 says, “Rejoice in hope.” This joy sustains patient endurance, which is why verse 12 says, “Be patient in tribulation,” and why Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” And so we see that endurance sustains us in the sacrifices of love, since the cross was the most loving act that was ever done. Blood-bought, Christ-exalting hope yields indomitable joy, which enables patient endurance in affliction, which sustains the sacrifices of love.
What Produces and Sustains Our Hope? Prayer!
So the question rose: If hope is that foundational to joy and endurance and love, what sustains our hope? What keeps us hoping in Christ? The question is not, “What’s the basis of hope?” That’s Christ! His death in our place, his resurrection, his sovereign reign over the world. That is the unshakable basis. It never changes. But we change. We are vulnerable and fragile and fickle and emotionally unstable. So the question is what keeps our hearts fixed on Christ, our hope? What produces and sustains our experience of hope?
Our answer last time was prayer. We based this response on Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:18–19, where he prayed for three specifics: “[I ask] 1) that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, 2) what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and 3) what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” — to keep you for the hope laid up for you in heaven (1 Peter 1:4–5).
One of the functions of prayer is to enable us to see and savor Christ as our hope so that he is more precious to us than anything else. Without praying this aim for ourselves and our children and our church regularly, we should not be surprised if our hearts drift away and start feeling that our hope is in money and work and family and a hundred things that compete with Christ as our treasure.
What Produces and Sustains Hope? God’s Word!
Now today we ask again, What produces and sustains hope? Since hope sustains joy and joy sustains endurance and endurance sustains love, and love is the aim of all Paul’s instruction (1 Timothy 1:5), the great battle for the Christian is to sustain joyful hope in Christ. We must see our future with him as more precious and satisfying than any other treasure. That is what “rejoicing in hope” is: being satisfied with all that God is, and will be, for us in Christ.
So the second answer we give to this question (How do we awaken and sustain this joyful hope?) is that we read and meditate on and memorize the Scriptures. God has appointed these two means above all others for awakening and sustaining hope: Prayer and musing on God’s word. If you neglect prayer, your hope in Christ will diminish. And now we will see just as clearly that if we neglect the word of God, our hope will diminish.
Paul’s Implicit Demonstration That Scripture Awakens and Sustains Hope
How does Paul make this plain? He does so implicitly and explicitly. He shows the immense importance of the word of God first by the fact that he writes as an apostle of Christ, creating Scripture for us, and in his writing Scripture he quotes the Old Testament Scriptures that are already written. Take Romans 12:19 as just one example. In calling us to love again, he says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” “As it is written”! Then he quotes Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:35). And what he quotes is a promise: God will settle your accounts! God is just, and God will sweep no evil under the rug of the universe. All accounts will be settled. That is Scripture. That is something we learn when we read the Bible.
And what is its effect? It lifts the burden of vengeance. We don’t need to carry this weight. God will. He promises that no wrong against us will be overlooked. It will be avenged on the cross, if our abuser repents and believes. Or it will be avenged in hell. You don’t need to carry the load of being God. You can hope in him. You can count on future justice. And in that hope you can rejoice and endure and love — even those who abuse you (Luke 6:28).
So Paul illustrates implicitly by his own uses of Scripture how we are to use Scripture. Read it, meditate on it, memorize it, and then get hope and joy and endurance and love from it. If we don’t do so, we will be conformed to the world. But if we give ourselves daily to reading and thinking and memorizing and praying over the word, we will be transformed in the renewing of our minds and we will have our hope made strong and our joy unshakable — even in suffering.
That’s Paul’s implicit demonstration of how crucial the Scriptures are to giving us hope and joy and love, and freeing us, in this case, from vengeance. Now let’s go to Romans 15 to see Paul’s straightforward, explicit statement that this end is what the Scriptures — the Bible — are for; namely, to waken and sustain hope.
Paul’s Explicit Demonstration That Scripture Awakens and Sustains Hope
Look at verses 2–4, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” In other words, he is telling us again to love each other. That is what love does. Now he does something that to me is simply astonishing. What’s not astonishing is that at this point Paul would use Jesus as an example: Christ, of course, chose pain that we might be blessed. So you act that way, too. If you have two good legs, don’t park in the church lot. Please let the elderly and the visitors do so. Park farther away. And so on. It’s not astonishing that Paul would use Jesus’s self-sacrifice as an example of calling us to please our neighbor before ourselves.
But what is astonishing is where he goes to get an illustration of Jesus’s self-sacrifice. He could have illustrated from a dozen events in Jesus’s life where he was sacrificial in his love. But what does Paul do? He quotes Scripture written a thousand years before Christ came. Verse 3: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written [then he quotes David’s Psalm 69:9], ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” I think that is amazing.
He is saying: Now treat each other with self-denying love. Then he supports this exhortation with the life of Jesus. But instead of telling an instance from Jesus’s life, when he acted this way (say, the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13:1–5), Paul describes Jesus’s life by quoting Scripture (verse 3). “As it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’” Jesus accepted reproaches which belonged to us. The penalty that was ours became his.
Now that’s very hope-giving — to learn that Jesus bore our reproaches. The gospel of Christ suffering in our place is the great ground of our hope. And this hope fills us with joy and joy sustains self-denying behaviors of love: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” But here’s the amazing thing that catapults Scripture so high in the fight for joyful hope: Paul does not tell a story about Jesus’s love, he quotes Old Testament Scripture about Jesus.
Now you might ask — I would — how do you know Paul is really making a point about the importance of Scripture in the fight for joyful hope? The answer is something else astonishing in this text. Paul interrupts the flow of his exhortation about how the strong should love the weak, and comments on the role of Scripture in the Christian life. Think about this. You are going along in chapters 14 and 15 trying to help believers who have strong differences about what to eat and what to drink and what do on Sunday, and you reach for your heaviest gun; namely, the substitutionary death of Jesus, as a motivation. But instead of telling a story from Jesus’s life, you quote Psalm 69:9, and then, on top of that, you pause in the flow of the exhortation and comment on why you did that.
That’s verse 4, and it’s one of the most important verses in the Bible about the role of the Bible in your life. He says, in effect, “All right, I have quoted Scripture to illustrate the love of Christ. You think that strange? Well, I can tell you do! So I will pause here, in the middle of my exhortation about what love looks like between the weak and the strong, and tell you why I argue like this. I will tell you why I saturate my Scripture with Scripture. Here it is.” That is Paul’s explicit statement that the Scriptures are for awakening and sustaining hope which sustains joy which sustains endurance which sustains love.
He says, “For [that word “for” signals that he is giving the basis for why he just quoted the Scriptures] 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” (v. 4). Now this reality is even more astonishing than the fact that Paul quoted Scripture to illustrate the love of Christ. Here it says something so sweeping about the Old Testament that it should set you to reading your Bible vigilantly all year long. He says, all of it — all of it — is written to waken and sustain your hope.
Read it again and think about it: “For whatever was written in former days [all of it — the whole Old Testament] was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” All of it was written to waken and sustain your hope.
The Word of God and Prayer
So last time we saw that prayer is God’s appointed means to waken and sustain your hope. And today we see that the Scriptures are God’s appointed means to awaken and sustain your hope. If we are going to obey Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation,” we must read and meditate on and memorize the Scriptures. They are God’s way of wakening and sustaining our hope.
When we pray, “O Lord, enlighten the eyes of my heart to know the hope of my calling, and the riches of the glory of your inheritance” (Ephesians 1:18), God says, “Mingle this praying with reading and meditating and memorizing, and I will waken and sustain your hope. I will open your eyes to see wonders in the Word of God. And these wonders will cause hope to rise in your soul.”
So my plea, as one of your shepherds who cares about your soul and who cares whether you live in hope and joy and endurance and love in affliction, is that you join us in the two initiatives this year: the fighter verse memory program (or more) and the through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan which was handed out last time and which are available from the church or online.
Think of God’s initiative on behalf of your hope! *Everything* written in the Bible is written to waken and sustain your hope. “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.”
This habit is especially needed at times of great pleasure when you are tempted to hope in this world, and times of great suffering when you are tempted to think that God’s sovereignty is not believable, and therefore the ground of your hope is gone. Reading your Bible has great hope-preserving power at times like these.
Our Double Grief in These Days
Our grief in these days since the Tsunami struck (December 26, 2004) has been doubled — first there is the untold suffering and death. One entire church on the coast of Tamil Nadu, India was wiped out while they were worshiping. Only one survivor from the whole church. Story after story breaks your heart.
Then there is a second grief: The religious people around the world, including some Christians, who say so many God-belittle things. One article in the Wall Street Journal said, “No Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends” (David B. Hart, “Tremors of Doubt,” WSJ, December 31, 2004). Such talk compounds this calamity with greater and greater evil.
Biblical hope and love in this calamity are sustained in many different ways by the Bible. The central one is that Christ came into our suffering and conquered it so that it does not have the last word. But O, how much more the Bible has to say so that we are not carried away by calamities from our hope in the sovereign wisdom and power and goodness of God. How could a person say what this man said, if he read and believed his Bible? He writes as a Christian theologian!
Shall we not believe in the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah? Genesis 19:24 says, “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” Likewise, Genesis 13:10 says, “The Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Shall we not believe and worship the God of Exodus 13:15? In the final plague on Egypt it says, “The Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt.”
The people of God in those days knew far better than we do what Moses would write later in Deuteronomy 32:39. Thus says the Lord: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”
Shall we not trust and reverence the God of Joshua 10:11? The Amorites gathered against Israel, but it says, “The Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.”
Shall we not fear and worship before the God of David in 2 Samuel 12:15? When David committed adultery and made Bathsheba pregnant, it says, “The Lord afflicted the child . . . and he became sick” and he died. God owns all life. He gives and he takes according to his own wisdom which mingles justice and mercy in perfect proportion. He does not owe any human any life (Job 1:21).
Over and over in the Scriptures we have descriptions of God’s judgment on the nations and on his own people. For example, consider Amos 4:10 where God reminds Israel what he had done: “‘I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,’ declares the Lord.”
Likewise, Isaiah 37:36 describes what God did to Sennacherib and the Assyrians when they came against his people: “The angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.”
And this is what the book of Revelation says will happen in the last days of God’s wrath on the world. For example, Revelation 16:9 describes one stroke against the earth: “They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.” O, let us not be among that number.
Paradoxically, stories like this from the Old and New Testament keep us from being knocked utterly off balance by the calamities of our own day. They keep the solid foundation of God’s sovereignty under our hope. They sustain hope. The heart-rending calamities of our time are not new — and they are not over. We don’t know all that God is doing in them. But to say that God cannot be in them, and that his “inscrutable counsels” are not at work, and that this suffering does not “mysteriously serve God’s good ends” — to say that shows (to use the words of Jesus) “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29).
O, how I pray that God will incline your heart to his word this year. May you read the entire Bible — all of it written to sustain your hope in global and personal calamities. And may you meditate on it day and night. And may you join us in memorizing week in and week out. And may God sustain your hope, and your hope sustain your joy and your joy sustain your endurance and your endurance sustain your sacrifices of love as you weep with those who weep and give of yourself and your money to relieve their suffering.