New Testament Christianity by J B Phillips
5. GROUND FOR HOPE
The second great quality which New Testament Christianity exhibits seems to me to be Hope. Hope runs high in the inspired pages; it is not a superior form of pious wishful thinking but hope based solidly upon the character and purpose of God Himself. But for us, during the last fifty years particularly, the quality of hope has ebbed away from our common life almost imperceptibly. I say again that we are affected far more than we know, far more than we should be, by the prevailing atmosphere of thought around us. Christians, at any rate as far as western Europe is concerned, do not seem to exhibit much more hope than their non‑Christian contemporaries. There is an unacknowledged and unexpressed fear in the hearts of many people that somehow the world has slipped beyond the control of God. Their reason may tell them that this cannot be so, but the constant assault of world tensions and the ever-present threat of annihilation by nuclear weapons makes people feel that the present set‑up is so radically different that the old rules no longer apply. Without realising it, many of us are beginning to consent in our inmost hearts to the conclusion that we live in a hopeless situation.
It is very interesting to look
back to the bouncing optimism of a period only fifty or sixty years ago. I
have in my possession bound volumes of two of
This safe, comfortable world, with its boundless optimism, was shattered for ever by the 1914‑18 War. I do not think that ever again has that hopeful, almost bumptiously hopeful, atmosphere reappeared in this country. Quickly or slowly, people began to see that Science by itself is not enough, and that trust in human nature by itself is not enough. Mr. H. G. Wells himself died in bitter disillusionment, having just completed a book written out of his frantic disappointment called, Mind at the End of its Tether.
The Second World War put a final end to any easy hopes or shallow optimism, and except in places which are particularly fortunate, or where people do not think or read about what is happening to the world, we do not find today any trace of those shining hopes of the early 1900s. Indeed, that particular kind of hope, so well expressed and illustrated in these old magazines, seems almost incredible to us today. It is not simply that we have become disillusioned about human nature through the evidence of two world wars and the contemporary evidence of atheistic Communism today, but that all of us are far more aware of the world with its tensions and problems than our cheerful forefathers ever could have been. Vastly improved methods of communication and travel have meant the end of a safe, complacent "parochial" outlook. Even if we try to detach ourselves personally from the world's burdens, we are assailed by newspapers, radio, and television, and we can scarcely help feeling something of the world's pains and problems. This, I venture to think, is by no means altogether a bad thing, for it means that for the very first time in human history a great many intelligent men and women are realising how interdependent we are as human beings. Nations, even whole continents, are awakening from the sleep of centuries, and while violent nationalism flares up from time to time, there is a growing sense among responsible people of all nations that we are "all in it together". If we are to have hope amidst all the menaces and threats of today's world, it has got to be a sturdy and well‑founded hope. There can never be a return to the shallow optimism of those whose outlook was both narrow and complacent.
At this point we must distinguish between what is genuine hope and what was called in the Second World War "wishful thhiking". Hope must always be based upon realities, in the end upon God, the great Reality. But wishful thinking, though it often sounds like hope, is nothing more than an expression of what we should like to happen. Of course, in our ordinary speech we all of us say such things as, "I hope so‑and‑so", when all we really mean is that we wish so‑and‑so would happen. This does not matter very much in common parlance as long as we are quite clear in our own minds that there is a definite distinction between expressing a wish and possessing a hope with real grounds for it. For example, a young man may say, "I hope I have got through this exam". If he has worked hard and done a good paper, the hope is perfectly genuine. But if, in fact, he has done little or no work beforehand and answered the paper carelessly, it is not a genuine hope; it is merely an expression of his wishes. Now, being human, we all do this kind of thing from time to time. A man may quite naturally say, "I hope I don't die of some painful disease", or "I hope I don't live to be a burden to my relations". This is perfectly understandable and right, but not a hope - only an expression of what he wishes may happen.
We could, then, fairly say
without being at all cynical that a very great deal of what passes for hope
today is either wishful expectation or the expressed reaction of a mind which
is not prepared to face realities. We shall not find in the New Testament, I
think, a single instance of hope used in any but its genuine sense; that is,
hope rooted in the good Purpose of God. You will remember how James in his New
Testament letter is particularly severe in his condemnation of the "pious
hope" for other people's good which does nothing practical to implement
the wish (James 2:15‑16). He says in effect that if you should see people
cold or hungry or without proper clothes, and you say, "Well, God bless
you ‑ I hope you will soon be all right!" what on earth is the good
of that? This sort of pious hope is still with us. People will say, for
example, 'I do hope they will soon find a cure for cancer", but many of
them would not dream of giving a penny to any anti‑cancer research fund.
Or they will say, 'I do hope something is done for all those thousands and
thousands of poor refugees and homeless people over there in
The inspired writings of the New Testament are neither optimistic nor pessimistic; they are very far from being enthusiastic outpourings of people expressing their ideals and painting rosy pictures of a dream‑world which might one day be true. Nor, on the other hand, do the writers underline the sinfulness and depravity of human nature. We are reading what was written by men at first‑hand grips with realities, and it is both astonishing and heartening to find how hopeful they are. Unless we happen to have studied ancient history, we may not have realised how remarkable are the bright hopes of the early band of Christians. The surrounding pagan world was dark; it was full of fear, cruelty, and superstition. For the most part the old religions had failed. Human life had become cheap, common morality was in many cases very lightly regarded, and belief in a world to come was almost non‑existent. The English poet Swinburne, probably feeling that Victorian piety had taken away the joy and colour from life, wrote these bitter words about Christ:
"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world
has grown grey from Thy breat.."
But if Swinburne had studied
the history of the Church immediately following the death of the "pale
Galilean", he would have found exactly the reverse was true. The
surrounding world was indeed grey, sometimes black with corruption and all
kinds of evil, but in the
All hope in the New Testament, as I have said above, rests upon the Nature and Purpose of God. These men and women are hopeful because, as Jesus Christ told men, "with God all things are possible" (Mark ). Those who had come to believe with complete conviction that God loves the world, that He has visited it in Person and shown His power in transforming the lives of the most unlikely characters, were not readily disposed to lose hope in His ultimate Purpose. But of course that hope was not limited to the present temporary scene that we call life. The centre of gravity of their hope was in the eternal and not in the temporal world. This was the quality which both baffled and infuriated their enemies as fierce persecution began to arise. The pagan world, with its ever‑present horror of death, could scarcely believe the evidences of its senses when it found in the Christian martyrs men and women to whom death was not a disaster at all. To the pagan mind to take a man's life was to take his all, but to attack Christians by sword, torture, or the atrocities of the arena was to invite defeat. Even if you killed them, they slipped through your fingers to be with their Lord for ever!
Now, although New Testament Christians doubtless prayed, as we do, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven", and although they therefore doubtless worked and prayed for the improvement of the world in which they lived, their hope rested upon God, not merely upon what He could do in this world, but upon His high mysterious Purpose. Of comparatively recent years the centre of our faith has become, at any rate in some quarters, more and more earthbound. We are concerned with the Christian attitude to housing, to social problems, to juvenile delinquency, to international relationships, and indeed to every department of human life. This is fine so far as it goes, but sometimes one gets the impression that Christians are "falling over backwards" to disavow their other‑worldliness. Yet to have the soul firmly anchored in Heaven rather than grounded in this little sphere is far more like New Testament Christianity.
In the here‑and‑now
there are many flagrant injustices which remain unjudged, many problems which
remain unsolved, and many loose ends which are never tied up. There are also,
in the transitory life of this planet, serious limitations which God has
imposed upon His own working through the risky gift of what we call "free‑will".
Such factors as sheer ignorance, lack of faith, disobedience, or downright
refusal to obey the truth quite plainly inhibit the operation of the Spirit of
God. We can read how such things inhibited the power of Jesus Christ Himself
and similarly limited the power of the vigorous
Yet, as we look at today's
Christians, is it not true that many of them are earthbound? They have been
affected far more than they know by the Communist gibe about "pie in the
sky" and similar thrusts suggesting that Christianity deals with the
shadowy "spiritual" values, and refers all insoluble "real"
difficulties to an imaginary heaven. The suggestion is that the politician,
the psychiatrist, the social worker, the doctor, the nurse, and a host of
others are left to cope with the tensions and muddles of the here‑and‑now.
Christians have sometimes allowed themselves to be swayed more than they should
be by jeers at their "spiritual" and "other‑worldly"
point of view. In defence they make a determined effort to prove that the
Christian Faith is extremely relevant in every department of human existence.
Consequently, it is not uncommon, at any rate in this country, to have a
positive riot of advertising the Faith under such titles as "Christianity
and the Home", "Christianity and the Family", Christianity and
World Peace", "Christianity and Daily Work", "Christianity
and Local Government", "Christianity and Education",
"Christianity and Sex" etc. Now, all this is fine so far as it goes,
for it is undeniably true that when people owe a heart‑loyalty to Jesus
Christ it will affect the way they behave in all their human relationships. But
Christianity is not a kind of salve which can be applied to a given human situation.
It is and has always been a matter of winning individuals to give their heart‑loyalty
to Christ and to the fellowship of Christians. From such a fellowship Christians
can indeed permeate the society in which they live and work. But to say, for
example, "if only all schoolteachers were practising Christians how
wonderful the world would be" is a waste of time. You cannot apply
Christianity "in the mass" like that. Even in the most vigorous and
flourishing days of the
The Christian who is spiritually linked to the timeless life of God, and is, not by courtesy title but in reality, a son of God, cannot escape a certain painful tension throughout his earthly life. He is only a temporary resident here; his home, his treasure, the final fulfilment of his hope, does not lie in this transitory rife at all. He must resist the temptation to withdraw from this benighted, sin‑infected world, and spend all his spare time in pietistic reflection of the world to which he is bound. He must hold fast to the belief that God is active and contemporary, working wherever He is given opportunity, in the present passing scene. "My Father is busy up to this very moment," said Christ, "and so am I" (John ). The servant is in the same position as his Master. He, too, must be busy as his Father is busy. His love and concern must be to some degree a reflection of the God Who "so loved the world" that He would go to any length to rescue and redeem it. But if the world rejects the truth, if the world wilfully refuses to follow the revealed pattern of living, the Christian need not for one moment think that the Faith to which he is committed has failed, even if to the very end of what we call time upon this planet those who own allegiance to the Unseen King remain a small minority. This does not disprove the truth and validity of the Christian Faith. Seen, so to speak, from the angels' point of view, it is simply the tragedy of one little planet refusing to see and recognise the Light. After what we call death, the Christian will be able to see the significance of the next stage. It would indeed be difficult to find any evidence in the New Testament that the end of this earthly experiment that we call life is the worldwide acceptance of Christ and the universal establishment of His Kingdom. Many excellent Christians seem to regard this as the ultimate goal of Christian teaching, preaching, worshipping, and witnessing. Yet so far as I can discover, apart from cheery hymns usually sung in optimistic periods between world wars, this rosy view belongs entirely to isolated texts of Scripture. One is, "For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk ). I for rather doubtful whether that is meant to be a prophecy of the universal acceptance of Christ. Another comes from that strange book in which John is told in one of his visions that, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation ). But this prophecy if studied in its context is a prophecy not of universal acceptance but of universal judgment. Truth has finally judged error, and that this is no popular event is shown in verse 18 when we read that "the nations were angry".
It is impossible without being dishonest to dismiss the question of New Testament hope without mentioning the Second Coming of Christ. We may freely admit that the early Christians were wrong in thinking that Christ would return in power within their lifetime. It is possible to detect in the writings of Paul, for example, a change of atmosphere in his letters to the Thessalonians (which were probably his earliest), and what is probably his last letter, the letter to Titus. But even in the latter Paul refers to the "looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ" (Titus ). The hope may have become deferred in its fulfilment, but it is still a very real hope. New Testament Christians may well have modified their early views as to the immediacy of Christ's return, yet the fact of His coming again in judgment of the world is always implicit in their thinking and hoping. We need to remember that among the early Christians were quite a number who were actually present when the Son of God ascended back to Heaven ‑ a symbolic action, of course, but historically true. Such men would not readily forget the words of the heavenly messenger who told them quite plainly that "this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).
Now, unhappily for us, the
whole subject of the Second Coming of Christ has been for many years the playground
of cranks and fanatics. This has made us not only shy of dealing with the
question ourselves but reluctant to believe in "the blessed hope" as
a fact at all. Various people, especially within the last sixty years or so,
have manipulated texts of Holy Scripture with little regard to context to prove
that Christ would return on this or that day. For example, in my own experience
I remember a man in 1934 hiring the Queen's Hall in
With all the advancement of human knowledge in a score of different realms, we still have no clue at all as to the "why" of our existence on this planet. We may believe that the planet itself cooled down from a mass of gaseous vapour thrown off by the sun, and in several million years, in an ascending scale of living creatures, a self‑conscious animal whom we call homo sapiens finally appeared. Alternatively, we may believe that creation took place in a series of "leaps", and that the last leap forward corresponds to the time when primitive man emerged from the animal creation. Whichever view we hold, we are not given in the Bible, nor have we discovered elsewhere, very much in the way of explanation of the huge eon‑long experiment that is being conducted on the surface of this planet. Christians believe, as has already been said, that this observable, detectable life is only the physical outcrop of a spiritual drama; that, although much of the life that we see around us in nature, in animals, and in men is physical or at least detectable by physical means, yet ultimately the significance of the whole affair is spiritual. The world is a temporary stage for man's actions, his body the temporary clothes for his life here only; the real meaning of things does not lie in their appearance but in what they signify. That, in passing, may explain why Christians are so disturbed with what they call the materialism of the present age. They are disturbed because the materialist cannot see beyond the material world. He thinks, in his blindness, that those things we at best use and enjoy in passing are somehow realities and to be pursued and enjoyed for their own sake. But the Christian accepts life as a preparation or training for something infinitely fuller and more satisfying that lies beyond the present physical limitations of existence. The Christian knows that this assumption is more than an assumption, for the moment he is aligned with the purpose and life of God through Christ he feels in his bones, if that is not too crude and earthly an expression, that he is now one with the timeless life of the universe. He refuses to give his heart to, or be taken in by, the values and pleasures of this passing world. He does not hesitate to use all that is good and beautiful and true, partly because he knows that his God gives him "richly all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17), and partly because he knows that in all life's impermanent beauties and pleasures, there is the promise of the real and permanent which he is thoroughly convinced will exceed his wildest expectations. But even the Christian, for all this satisfying and hopeful conviction, does not know the meaning of the mystery of life, and if he is wise he does not pretend to. He has enough light to light him on his way, but there are a great many gaps in his knowledge. When he says, "one day we shall understand", he is by no means always uttering a pious platitude. Quite frequently he is voicing a solid conviction, a genuine facet of hope. At present his vision is severely limited, and that is probably just as well if his sanity is to be preserved. But when he is free from the limitations of temporal life, he has every hope of being able to know as surely as he is at present known (see I Corinthians ).
Now, to the Christian by far
the most significant fact of history is the Personal Visit of God to this
planet in the Person of Jesus Christ. He may well stand amazed at the manner of
this quiet slipping into the stream of history. That humble birth in an obscure
country is probably very far from the manner most of us would have chosen for
the personal entry of the Son of God. The Christian simply does not know why
empires rose and fell, why millions of ordinary people lived and loved and died
in dozens of different nations before ever God decided the right moment had
come for His Personal Visit to this planet. There must be a higher wisdom at
work than mere human planning. Strip all the decoration away from the Christmas
story, and we can see the almost incredible humility of that great act of God.
Now, if the claims of Christ were true and we accept them, we do not argue
about God's wisdom in choosing a particular family in a particular country at a
particular time for the birth of Jesus because we know so little of the total
issues involved; we simply accept an action of wisdom far higher than our own.
Yet to the neat and tidy mind of the human planner few things could be more
untidy historically than the entry of God into the world nearly two thousand
years ago. The might of
Planners as we are, if we envisage the Second Coming of Christ at all, we see Him returning in triumph upon a scene already largely perfected. We think it would be a fine thing if the world were neat and tidy, all problems were solved, all tensions were relaxed, understanding and friendship were world‑wide, health and wealth were at their highest peak, when Christ returned, not this time as a helpless babe, but as a King in power and glory. Of one thing we can be quite certain ‑ that this high, unfathomable wisdom of God works on quite a different plane from any human planning. The time of the irruption of eternity into time, the moment for God to call the end to the long experiment that we call life, will not be made in consultation with human planners! Judging from His previous action in human history, God is perfectly capable of choosing an unusual and unlikely moment, as it will appear to human beings. Indeed, if we are to take the words of Jesus seriously, His return to the world or the winding‑up of the time and space set‑up, whichever way we look at it, is to be in the middle of strife, tension, and fear. In the letters of the New Testament it is the same: the coming of Christ is a blessed hope of intervention, not a personal appearance at a Utopian celebration.
Now, if our hopes, whatever we protest, really lie in this world instead of in the eternal order, we shall find it difficult to accept the New Testament teaching of the Second Coming. In our eyes the job is not yet done, and such an action would be, though we would not put it so, an interference. But suppose our hope rests in the purpose of God, then we safely leave the timing of the earthly experiment to Him. Meanwhile we do what we were told to do ‑ to be alert and to work and to pray for the spread of His Kingdom.
In the meantime it is essential that we recapture and hold fast the New Testament idea that God is the "God of hope" (Romans ). In the New Testament writings there is a continual sense not only of the immediacy but of the contemporaneousness of God. They can write realistically of the God of hope because they are very close in point of time to God's act of intervention in what nowadays we call the Incarnation, and because the power of the Young Church is very plainly and demonstrably the power of the living Spirit. Many modem Christians are inclined to put God back into the past. How many times in visiting various churches does one hear of what used to happen in the old days? And, since Christians derive a great deal of their inspiration from reading the Bible, they can all too easily envisage God as thoroughly at home in the sacred pages but somehow no part of the modern picture at all. In a former book ("Your God is too small") I recalled how I tested a group of young people by asking them to give a quick answer to the question, "Do you think God understands radar?" And how the answer was "No", to be followed, of course, by laughter as the absurdity became apparent. But I am still convinced that the unpremeditated answer was highly significant and revealing. Without admitting it in so many words, many Christians today cannot readily conceive of God operating in a world of television, washing‑machines, atomic fission, automation, psychiatry, electronic brains, glossy magazines, modem music, and jet propulsion. The complication and speed of present‑day living makes it extremely difficult for the mind to imagine the Biblical God interpenetrating such a system and operating within its pressures. The very word "God" seems out of key and even bizarre m the modern context.
Two things are necessary if we
are to rediscover the buoyant hope of the New Testament. The first obvious step
is to make certain that our hope is really hope and not either wishful thinking
or merely pious hope. It must be closely allied to our faith, and must
ultimately be rooted in what we know for certain of the Nature and Purpose of
God Himself. We might do well to study afresh the kind of hopes which sustained
and inspired the
On to 6. Love