March 29, 2020
Amidst anxiety-provoking chaos and confusion, when no one seems to have the answers we seek, where can we find hope? Whether we face a personal crisis or a worldwide pandemic, God remains our refuge and keeper, the source and object of our hope, teaches Alistair Begg. With faith grounded in God’s covenant promises, believers can radiate peace and joy even in dark and daunting circumstances because of the salvation that is ours in Christ alone.
We’re going to read from the Bible this morning in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, in Romans chapter 15, and I’m going to read from the first verse to the thirteenth verse:
“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. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised 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. As it is written, ‘Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.’ And again it is said, ‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.’ And again, ‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.’ And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.’
“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.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Our gracious God, we thank you that we are able to turn now to the Bible and to feed upon its truth and to be guided by its instruction and to be introduced to the one of whom it speaks—namely, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only ultimate refuge from all that assails us, and the one to whom we look and in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, I’ve taken as our text for this morning the thirteenth verse of the passage that we have just read here in Romans 15. And what I’d like to do is say something—just a little—concerning the context in which this verse comes, and then say something of the context in which we find ourselves in coming to this verse, and then, thirdly and finally and somewhat briefly, try and make sure that we don’t go wrong in understanding what it is the verse is saying.
Well, there it is, the thirteenth verse: “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.”
Now, Paul, in writing to the church at Rome, is writing to a city—a city that actually is vastly different this morning from what it was when he wrote to it in that day, although some of the monuments, some of those temples in some form are still around, dedicated to emperors, dedicated to pagan gods and goddesses. And in writing to these believers in Rome, he has written to speak to them about the one true and living God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. And he says to them at the very outset of his letter, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation [for] everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
And he was writing to a congregation, if you like, or congregations, that were made up of both Jew and gentile. That’s the emphasis here in the passage that we read: that the promises that were made to the patriarchs, that the promise that was made and the covenant that was made with Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, had begun to come to fruition—and there in Rome, that their congregation was a mixture of Jew and gentile. It was a mixture of, if you like, strong believers and weak believers. It combined rich people and poor people, male and female.
And now, as he comes towards the end of his letter, he sounds out a note which was vital in his day and which sounds out down through the corridors of time. And the note that he sounds is the note of hope. When Phillips paraphrases this verse, he actually ends it not as we have it here—“that … you may abound in hope”—but rather he says that “by the power of the Holy Spirit, your whole life and outlook may be radiant with hope.” “Radiant with hope.” Now, that is what Paul is wishing, if you like, is praying for these believers to whom he writes.
And they were living in an environment where many of their friends and their neighbors, facing the vicissitudes of life, its grim realities, were themselves actually without any hope at all. And so Paul knew what a compelling testimony it would be to living faith in the God of Scripture if these believers in Rome were to be seen as living lives that were marked out by a distinct hope.
Now, in this he’s not alone, because Peter actually does the same thing. You will remember, when he writes to the scattered believers of his day in places with almost unpronounceable names that are in what is today modern-day Turkey, in facing severe trials, in facing sufferings and so on, he sounds out this same note. And he says to them, “Be ready at any time to give a quiet and reverent answer to any[one] who wants a reason for the hope that you have within you.” So in other words, the distinguishing feature, or one of the distinguishing features, of the believers, whether it was in Turkey or in Rome or in Ephesus or wherever it was—and, indeed, wherever we are today—is this distinct feature of the reality of hope.
Well, that’s enough concerning that first-century context. What of the twenty-first century context?
Well, here we find ourselves at a moment in history when questions of hope, questions of purpose, questions of meaning are daily on the lips of our leaders and hourly on the minds of all. And the reason for this is absolutely plain: a tiny particle jumped from a bat into a human being somewhere in China, and without warning, in a matter of weeks, the whole world is affected as lives are infected and as many people find themselves in a state of peril. And what is so amazing is that this particular virus is no respecter of race, of creed, of nationhood, of status, of wealth, or of gender. And as I mentioned in my prayer, some 2.3 billion people in a state of lockdown in our world.
Therefore, it is not surprising that when we turn to the media, we find that those who are most able with their pens are giving expression to this genuine sense of fearfulness. For example, Philip Johnston in the Telegraph this past week had an article under which heading it came, “At Times like This, We Realise Just How Powerless Mankind Really Is.” And then he went on in the course of the article to speak about various things, commenting on the Enlightenment perspective, which comes out in everyday conversation when you find that men and women are saying things like, “You know, well, we can always improve things. Natural processes can be fixed by us. We’ll be able to improve them by human effort.” And as long as we view things in that way, then, they say, we will not have to deal with any silly ideas ascribing these events to fate, and certainly not to the wrath of God.
And yet, in the midst of a world that is distinctly scary, it really doesn’t sound very good when people say things like, “‘Everything will be OK because scientists will work something out,’ …. ‘We are about,’” says Douglas Murray, famous for his book The Madness of Crowds, in an article in the Spectator this past week, “We are about to find out whether this kind of optimism is justified.” And he writes under a heading, “In This Strange … World, Where Do We Find Purpose?” And in the course of the article, it becomes clear that he has no satisfying answer, neither for himself nor for any of us who read the article. And in the article by Philip Johnston, he, after meandering around the various possibilities for a cure, says if the optimism that is represented in these kind of statements does not prove to be the case, then perhaps “I might just be heading back to church.” In other words, “I’ll maybe go back to the last resort,” which perhaps should have been the first resort.
Now, in the midst of all of that, a book, the biographical work of Woody Allen, comes out, and in the course of an interview, he refers to the world, unsurprisingly, as this “malignant chaos of a purposeless universe.”
Well, it is in this kind of strange environment that we find ourselves in an age of comparative hopelessness, discovering that the purpose of God for us is not simply that we might keep our chins up, not simply that we might be able to struggle on and get through it, but in order that we might be enabled to hope in the promises of God despite the circumstances. Despite the circumstances.
It is very, very important for us to acknowledge at this time a number of things. One, that the Christian is just as likely to catch the virus as anyone else. Two, that the best of our hearts, the most stalwart of us, are apt to grow concerned, to grow distracted, and to became anxious. It would be strange if we did not have a sense of that, wouldn’t it? Thirdly, that the Christian is a person of hope because he or she believes in God—believes in a God who brought the world into being, who preserves and sustains it all by his power, who governs the course of human history according to the eternal counsel of his will, a will which surpasses our imagination and goes beyond our own intellectual intuition.
I should say as well another warning, and that warning would be about trying to tie suffering to personal or national sin. That is not uncommon. I hear it, but I would warn you against it. Read Luke chapter 13, and consider what Jesus was saying when he asked the question “When the tower fell on these people, did it fall on them because they were more unrighteous than anyone else?” And I would urge you just to a reading of history if you’re tempted to believe that our age is the worst and the darkest and the most evil that has ever been experienced. No, our imagination must bow to the truth of God’s Word. We finally find ourselves saying with Paul, “Who has known the mind of God, and who has been his counselor?”
So, something of the context of the first century, of the twenty-first century, and then, what do we find in this text?
Well, you’ll notice here that what Paul does is express, if you like, a wish or a desire. It is a kind of indirect form of prayer, isn’t it? I wrote a note to somebody just last night, saying, “May you know a special measure of God’s grace and peace.” Well, I was expressing something of a wish that they would know that. Indirectly, I suppose, I’m looking to God to answer that. And it is very much along those lines that Paul writes in this way. You’ll find the same approach back in verse 5, where he says, “May the God of endurance grant you this,” and so on.
Now, God is the God of hope mainly for two reasons. One, because it is God who generates hope in us. It is God who generates the hope in us. Verse 4, which has been a sort of go-to verse for us in our studies in 1 Samuel, shows us how the place of the Bible is written into God’s plan in this respect. Verse 4: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction”—so that we might think, that we might learn—so “that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” And then he goes on in verse 5 to say, “the God of endurance and [the God of] encouragement.” Down in verse 33, he is “the God of peace.” The God of patience. The God of endurance, comfort, encouragement, peace. The God of hope.
All of this is made known to us in the Scriptures themselves. Through the Scriptures, God imparts what he has promised. He imparts to us what he is in himself, so that hope and endurance and encouragement and peace are not known by us as a commodity that is outside of ourselves, that somehow or another we pick off a shelf, but rather that the promises of God—the promises that he makes—in making these promises, he gives himself in the promises. So, for example, the promise of the coming of the Lord Jesus: “And his name will be called Immanuel, which is ‘God with us.’” He gives himself in the promise. By the time you go to the very end of the story in Revelation 21: “And God himself will be with them, and he will wipe the tears from their eyes,” and so on.
So, he is the God of hope because he generates this hope, and he’s also the God of hope inasmuch as he is the object of our hope. He’s the object of our hope. What do we hope for? In whom do we hope? Lamentations: Jeremiah, in the midst of really dreadful circumstances, says to himself, “The Lord is my portion … therefore I will hope in him.” Or in Psalm 73, when the psalmist is confronted by so much that is disheartening to him, that is going on around him and in some senses within him, eventually he says to himself, “Now, let me think about this: Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth I desire but you. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Forever! There are people who say, “Well, how long do you think this will go on? Is it gonna be done by Easter? Or perhaps the end of May? Maybe into June?” Well, listen: if you have God, he is yours forever. “His forever, only his—who the Lord and me shall part?” That’s the question, you see. And that is what is addressed here. To affirm this—that the God whom we meet in Scripture is the God of hope—is to affirm something that is not remotely superficial, nor is it fleeting.
I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that there is a clear distinction between a general notion of hope, whereby people say, “Well, I hope that eventually the flowers will come out,” or “I hope it won’t rain, because tomorrow we’re having a picnic”—that hope is just some kind of general, uncertain expectation of a future good that we would like to have. Whereas when we come to hope as it is given to us here in the Scriptures, hope here is the certainty of a reality not yet fully experienced, so that we believe in hope, that we trust in hope; he is the God of hope. In the same way, peace and joy, you will notice, are tied to a sure and certain hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.” So that it is a hope that is able to stand the test of time. It is a hope that is actually able to deal with the beckoning grave.
“Well,” somebody says, “this is very cheering, and I like this. It is uplifting. And already I’m feeling slightly better that there is a God of hope who fills with joy and peace.” Aye, but notice those two words there in the text that may be before you: he’ll “fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” Or, as the NIV has it, “as you trust in him.” “As you trust in him.” You see, if our trust is in, for example, our significance, then when our significance goes, we’ve got nothing. If my security is money or in my relationships or my status, then when they’re taken away, then it’s actually a disaster.
And so it is of fundamental importance that we understand that what Paul is doing here is not trying to say to people, in the sort of mantras of our day, “Be safe,” “No worries,” “Keep on”—a kind of series of imperatives that are quite cheering and understandable, but they have no solid foundation to them. How am I supposed to be safe? How am I supposed to hope? How am I supposed to have encouragement? Well, you see, what is put before us here is vastly different. Because here, in the face of the current crisis, we actually discover very quickly where our hope is placed.
Because hope is as a result of our engagement, if you like, with the promises of God, so that behind hope is the promise of God. So our faith is placed in the promise of God, and our hope, then, is grounded in the expectation of the fulfillment of that promise. So, for example: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you [to] myself; that where I am, there [you] may be also.” That is a categorical promise on the part of Jesus. It is faith in that promise that gives to us hope of the expectation of the reality of all that he has prepared for us, so that it is not that our hope somehow or another—our ability to engender positive notions in our mind—is going to be safe ground for us, territory for us, whereby we may be secure. No! No. It is personal, believing trust.
Now, Romans is Paul’s probably greatest theological treatise. Second to that is the letter that he wrote to the Ephesians. And when he wrote to the Ephesians, having reminded them in the early part of his letter of the amazing purpose of God in putting together a people for himself, he then says to them, referring to their own personal circumstances, in Ephesians 1:13, “In him”—that is, in Jesus—“you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” So it is “reserved in heaven” for us, as Peter says in his letter; it is “imperishable,” it is “undefiled,” it is “kept in heaven for you.” It is guaranteed on the strength of the promise that is ours in Jesus. “In him”—that is, in Jesus—“when you heard,” you “believed.”
Now that, of course, raises the question of where we are in relationship to that. Because very quickly in his letter, Paul goes on in chapter 2 to describe what their circumstance was prior to their trusting in Jesus. And you remember you have this amazing statement where he says, “And before you came to understand these things, you were separated from Christ, alienated, strangers,” and here’s the phrase: “having no hope and without God in the world.”
Now, you say, “Well, that’s not a very nice thing to say.” It’s what the Bible says, loved ones. And indeed, the wonder of a hope that is grounded in a resurrected Jesus only has significance in relation to the fact that outside of Jesus we are actually without hope.
You see, ultimately, the great fear that sweeps our world is the great fear of everyone in all the world, and that is the fear of death. And the great and underlying question is “Has anyone conquered death, and have they made a way for me to conquer too?” Now, I say to you, scan your newspapers, read your magazines, read social scientists, read contemporary expressions, listen to the words of the pundits—and then go directly to your Bibles and see if these things are actually so.
When Peter describes this amazing transaction, this divine impact, whereby a man or a woman comes to rest in Christ, you remember he says at the very beginning of his letter, he says, “[And you have been] born again to a living hope”—“a living hope”—by “the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” And we’ve said this frequently; I’m glad to remind you of it: as Calvin says in his Institutes, all that Christ has done for us is of no value to us so long as we remain outside of Christ. And he goes on to say, by “the secret energy of the [Holy] Spirit … we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.”
I wonder, can I ask you today: Is this where your hope is found? In Christ alone? Do you realize that our salvation is not made sure by the strength of our belief but by the strength of God? That it is not by our goodness but by the merits of the Lord Jesus? That it is not grounded in our wisdom but in the wisdom of God that is expressed in the cross—which, of course, is foolishness to the world?
You would think, wouldn’t you, that men and women would immediately be not simply heading to church but looking to see whether in the pages of Scripture these facts are actually there for their discovery: that God saves people and fills them with hope, making their whole outlook filled in this way. You see, this joy and peace that is ours in believing flows from and also flows to the experience of hope, so that in the end we are able to abound in hope.
In other words, in quiet ways, but purposefully, we’re able to engage with people in conversation and say to them, “Well, you know, there is hope in the midst of this, and it is found in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ”—that this hope is the fruit, if you like, of God’s kindness and goodness to us despite our sin, that this hope rests on Jesus alone, that it is ours through grace alone, by faith alone.
But you know, again, in the matter of the air travel—of which there is little at the present time—in that fairly routine word of exhortation that precedes takeoff, with the instruction that is given to us about putting on, in an unlikely loss of cabin pressure, the masks that will come and descend from the overhead compartment above us, remember, they always say, “And if you’re traveling with someone who is in need or who is impoverished in some way, then put your own mask on before you seek to help them.” I have a strange feeling that there are some of us who respond to a crisis like this, and we’re saying to ourselves, “You know, I just don’t think I have faith enough.” “Faith enough.” May I be so bold as to say, it may be that you do not have faith at all? Because the faith that is grounded in the covenant promises of God, the faith that is made to us in all of its fulfillment in Jesus, is right here, and is there for us to trust in.
Let me end in this way. I almost brought a crash helmet with me here this morning, and then I thought, “Well, no, don’t do that.” I would like to have had it, but then I would have been tempted to put it on. And if I put it on, it would be a major mistake, and I think people would perhaps use the opportunity to take still photographs from the screen to see me clad in this piece of merchandise. But the reason I was going to bring it was just because of something that Paul says towards the end of 1 Thessalonians 5. He’s giving a series of exhortations to the believer, and he says, “[You know,] since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
Now, I’m no motorbike rider. I have a funny little scooter. You can’t really go fast enough to harm yourself, I don’t think. But I have a friend, and he always says the same thing to me: “You’re not gonna go out on the road without your helmet, are you?” Now, you’re not gonna go out on the road, into life now, without your helmet, are you? “And for a helmet the hope of salvation”—this certainty of a reality that is ours now but that there is yet more to be discovered and into which we will enter by his goodness.
Well, just a prayer together. A prayer. As I had finished my notes, I just wrote this. You may want to make this your own. This may be a prayer that I’ve written just for you, wherever you are out there. Like this:
Dear Lord Jesus, I have known of you for a long time, but I have never come to personally trust in you. I have known your promises of forgiveness and of new life, but I’ve been keeping going on my own. But no more. Today, now, I freely confess my need of you as a Savior, Lord, and Friend. Forgive my sins, and make me all your own. And grant that through hope and the joy and peace which is mine by the Holy Spirit, my life in due course may become radiant with hope. Amen. Amen.
 Romans 1:16 (ESV).
 See Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18.
 1 Peter 3:15 (Phillips).
 Douglas Murray, “In This Strange New World, Where Do We Find Purpose?,” Spectator, March 26, 2020, https://spectator.us/strange-world-find-purpose/.
 Philip Johnston, “At a Time like This, We Realise Just How Powerless Mankind Really Is,” Daily Telegraph, March 18, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/03/17/times-like-realise-just-powerless-mankind-really/.
 Woody Allen, Apropos of Nothing (New York: Arcade, 2020).
 See Luke 13:1–5.
 Romans 11:34 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 1:23 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 21:3–4 (paraphrased).
 Lamentations 3:24 (ESV).
 Psalm 73:25–26 (paraphrased).
 Wade Robinson, “I Am His, and He Is Mine” (1890).
 John 14:2–3 (KJV).
 1 Peter 1:4 (KJV).
 1 Peter 1:4 (ESV).
 Ephesians 2:12 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:12 (ESV).
 1 Peter 1:3 (ESV).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:537.
 1 Thessalonians 5:8 (ESV).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.