A Word for Today: Hope (Gk. Elpis)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The writer SAMUEL JOHNSON once said that no place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library. Johnson, however, failed to appreciate that of all texts, the Bible alone carries all the hopes of humanity within its pages. But this hope is not founded on uncertainty or wishful thinking, senses that are often associated with the English word hope. Rather, what the Greek noun elpis emphasizes in the New Testament is a hope that is both steadfast and certain. As PHILLIPS’ simple paraphrase of Hebrews chapter 11 verse 1 paradoxically asserts, ‘being certain of things we cannot see’.1 Doubt never comes into the equation, because certainty in the life to come is guaranteed for the believer, by the love of God in Christ, Rom. 5. 1-5. MOULTON suggests that one definition of the word hope as used in the New Testament is ‘the joyful expectation of good things to come’.2
Our survey of the Greek word elpis will help us to see this more clearly, thus providing us with the assurance that hope brings for the future.
We start with the use of the noun elpis in the Septuagint (LXX) where it is mainly translated by the Hebrew noun tiqwah. This Hebrew noun generally expresses human aspiration. For example, in Ruth chapter 1 verse 12, Naomi hopes for the possibility of a fresh start in life even though she knows that the reality is far different. The psalmist in Psalm 9 verse 18 maintains that the poor always (intuitively) hope for better things. In essence, where there is life there is hope, Eccles. 9. 4, but, sadly, it is no more than wishful thinking!3 Per contra, when the word is used in relationship to God, as in Jeremiah chapter 29 verse 11 and Zechariah chapter 9 verse 12, what is in view is the guarantee by God of deliverance and future blessing for His people.4 In other words, the hope of God’s people is always certain and sure because it is not based on some woolly desire, but wholly reliant on God’s immutable character and promises. Those who place their trust in God can quietly wait upon Him to fulfil His word, Isa. 25. 9; 30. 15.
During the classical Greek period the word hope simply brought comfort in momentary distress, a transient feeling of relief that was always tempered with uncertainty. Hence, Stoicism viewed hope as no more than a subjective projection of the future without any tangible effect on the present. Their experience was paralleled by the Ephesians before their conversion to Christ in that they were without God and without hope in the world, Eph. 2. 12. But when the Ephesians were converted, they were born again into a living hope that was guaranteed by the resurrection of Christ from the dead, 1 Pet. 1. 3.
The literature of the late Second Temple period of Judaism acts as a literary nexus between the Old and New Testaments, and while not inspired, reveals how the eschatological hope in God was sustained for a conquered nation for almost four hundred years of divine silence. When we then move into the New Testament, it should not surprise us to find that hope is again linked to an eschatological framework.
Of the 53 occurrences of elpis in the New Testament, Paul uses the word 37 times, mainly in Romans where it occurs 13 times. It is very much, therefore, a Pauline word, and an indispensable part of his vocabulary. It is included in the triad of great qualities listed in 1 Corinthians chapter 13 verse 13. Whilst it is linked with faith and love, it is a temporal quality that will be discontinued in the next age, cf., Rom. 8. 24; 2 Cor. 5. 7. Often in the New Testament ‘hope’ is almost indistinguishable from ‘faith’, hence Paul’s comments in Romans chapter 4 verse 18 in relationship to Abraham. As SCHREINER points out, ‘To say that Abraham “believed in hope” means that he trusted that God would actualize in the future the promise vouchsafed to him’.5
For Paul, hope of eternal salvation is fixed in the person and work of Christ, Eph. 1. 12, and this thought colours his usage of elpis. It is his principal word when he thinks of the hope that resurrection brings to those who have died, Acts 23. 6. What a contrast with the pagan who had no hope, 1 Thess. 4. 13. Hope is set before us as a motivator, Heb. 6. 18, enabling us to persevere and endure the rigours of this life in the certain knowledge of one day inheriting eternal life, Rom. 5. 3-5; 1 Thess. 1. 3; Tit. 1. 2.
The diagram below shows some of the more general uses of the word. Notice how Christ Himself is our hope. He alone is the nucleus around which every aspiration circulates.
In 1872, JOHN DARBY wrote, perhaps his finest hymn, which he simply entitled ‘The Hope of Day’. In the first line of the first stanza he exclaims ‘And is it so, I shall be like Thy Son?’ What a sanctifying hope this becomes as we daily look for the appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Tit. 2. 13; 1 John 3. 1-3.
For further reading/study
RYKEN LELAND, WILHOIT AND LONGMAN, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
MOULTON, JAMES HOPE and MILLIGAN GEORGE, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament.
1. New Testament in Modern English.
2. The Challenge of the Concordance, p. 240.
3. Paul brings the death knell to this false reasoning in relationship to Christ in his argument on bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verse 19.
4. The Hebrew of Zechariah chapter 9 verse 12 is difficult to translate. The text could be paraphrased as ‘The expectant prisoners shall return’.
5. Romans, p. 237.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.