My occupation for almost fifty years was teaching—talking for a living. It is not genuine work. So I have lived by words and in the next few posts I want to reflect on some important Christian words we find in the Bible.
Of course, words do not have meaning by themselves and most words have many meanings. What counts is context. Getting the full meaning of a word becomes even more difficult when it is translated into a second language—from Greek to English, for instance. But contexts are not unlimited, and there are fundamental cores of meaning to the words we use.
I want to start with a word that has great importance in the Bible but generally involves a meaning not carried through in English translations. In I Thessalonians Paul is trying to comfort Christians who are worried because some members of their group have died before the Lord has returned. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16 he admonishes them, “do not grieve like others who have no hope” [ἐλπίς]. Today some who hear this message might feel more indicted than comforted, because they think that having real hope is a faith challenge—“Do I have enough hope in God?” they ask themselves.
When I taught college occasionally a student trying to impress me with their genuine need to bolster their GPA would say, “I hope to make an ‘A’ in this class.” My answer would be, “Do you mean you hope to, or you wish to?” They thought hoping and wishing were the same thing.
In Acts 27 there is a well-known story of Paul’s sea voyage to Rome, when the ship ran into a violent storm. The experienced sailors took desperate measures trying to save the ship, but finally threw the cargo and the ship’s tackle overboard. It says, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved” (Acts 27:20).
This simple story helps us understand what “hope” means in the Bible. It does not mean “wish,” for those in the ship certainly did not give up wishing to be saved, but “expectation.”
“Expectation” has a different meaning than the word “hope” as we commonly use it in English. Like my students, we tend to mean “wish” when we say things like, “I hope to come see you,” at the end of a phone conversation with distant friends. But neither we nor our hearers think we are already buying plane tickets when we say that. Both they and we understand it is a wish, not a plan.
Appreciating what the Bible means by the word “hope” really makes a difference in how we understand being told not to grieve “like those who have no hope.” It is not that non-Christians—then or now—have no desire (or wish) to pass through death to a greater life, but they have no expectation of doing so.
Romans 8 tells us how to face the challenges of life as Christians. The writer Paul explains that the whole created order knows itself as imperfect and wants to be freed from bondage to decay. But by having the Spirit of God, Christians already have a line to the coming new world. Christians are the “first fruits of the Spirit.” Yet we still live in the flesh, we “groan inwardly,” awaiting the redemption of our bodies, the resurrection (Romans 8:18–30). We have been saved—in hope! We don’t see our resurrection, but we expect it, we have hope. Of course, to hope is not the same as to hold. “Who hopes for what they already have?” Paul asks (Romans 8:24). But if we hope for it, we wait patiently.
I have talked with Christians nearing the end of life, who said they wanted to go home to God. They were dying in “hope,” with “expectation,” as Paul urged the Thessalonians!