Hope and hopes (part 1)

When was the last time you experienced joy? I suspect that for many of us, joy has been in short supply, particularly in these last few years of pandemic anxiety, senseless violence, economic instability, and political turmoil. But as we’ve seen in recent posts, the apostle Paul was able to experience joy even in captivity, even when he knew there were other people wanting to hurt him. He rejoiced because he was able to see how the cause of the gospel was spreading in spite of his chains.

Paul’s joy, in other words, was fueled by hope, by his ability to see a problematic present in terms of a promised future. But that future isn’t just one point on a timeline. Against the background of all he had endured for the sake of the gospel, he looked forward to good things in both the near and distant future. Here again is the passage from Philippians:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my salvation. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. (Phil 1:18b-20, NRSVUE)

The phrase “this will turn out for my salvation” may be an intentional echo of the Greek translation (the Septuagint) of Job 13:16. There, Job’s so-called friends have been pressuring him to confess sins he did not commit; they are unable to imagine any other reason for his immense suffering. In response, Job insists that he wants his day in court before God. He knows he’s taking his life into his own hands by demanding this, but believes that if God were to try his case he would be vindicated.

That seems to be Paul’s meaning here: he is confident that he will be vindicated before the emperor. And history suggests that he was right, though he would later face imprisonment again and be executed.

But that’s not the end of the story, for Paul sees much further down the road. Ultimately, the question isn’t whether he lives or dies, but whether “Christ will be exalted,” whatever else may happen.

We’ll see this theme again in chapter 2, when Paul quotes what many regard as an early hymn about the humility and exaltation of Christ. In 2:9, Paul says that after Jesus subjected himself to the cross, “God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name.”

The two words that are both translated “exalted” are not the same. In chapter 1, when Paul speaks of Christ being exalted in him — in what happens to him physically, whether life or death — he uses a Greek word (megaluo) that could be rendered as “magnified” or “made great.” But in chapter 2, when he speaks of the exaltation of Christ by God, he uses another word (huperupsoo), which literally means “to elevate beyond” or “make exceedingly high.”

Paul, in other words, sees his own life and suffering in service of the gospel as following in the footsteps of his Lord. The goal is not his own personal exaltation, but the exaltation of Jesus and the gospel in him and through his witness. And though he could have used the same word in both chapters, I suspect that he humbly and meticulously chose, if you will, a more exalted word for exaltation when referring to Jesus than when referring to himself!

Even his use of the word “salvation” is imbued with a sense of both the near and distant future simultaneously. Yes, he expects to be vindicated sometime soon. But that vindication is against the background of eternal salvation, which is simultaneously more important and more sure. It’s as if to say, “If I’m wrong about vindication and get a death sentence instead, that’s fine. Jesus will still be honored in me, and my eternal destiny can’t be taken away.”

Paul’s joy depends on his ability to see the hand of God even in the midst of his suffering; it strengthens his confidence in the sovereign purposes of God. He knows himself to be living inside a story that ends with resurrection and an eternity with God. That is the substance of his Hope, with a capital H. He has small-h hopes for the near future, but these are always held loosely in view of his eternal Hope, which is secure.

This, I think, has important implications for how we understand and experience hope as believers. We’ll explore that in the next post.