Standing on the promise

If you grew up in church and sang out of a hymnal you may have read the above title as Standing on the Promises (plural). Remember that old gospel song? However, the singular word “promise” is not a typo.

There are many, many promises in the Bible. Not every promise is ours to claim, but some are meant for everybody.

I have chosen the very first promise in the Bible as the focus behind the title of my revised blogsite. (Standing on The Promise was also the working title of another book that I had begun to write a few years ago.)

Bible scholars have attempted to isolate the biblical concept or truth that unites the Bible. Some have suggested the word “covenant”. The Bible contains covenants that God made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David as well as the New Covenant introduced in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and shared by Jesus with His disciples in the Upper Room. The New Covenant is also referred to by Paul and the author of Hebrews. So, an argument can be made that covenant is the unifying truth in the Bible.

Other scholars have suggested that “redemption” unites the Bible. Redemption by blood, beginning in the Garden of Eden, flows like a scarlet stream throughout the Bible.

“Promise” has also been offered as a theme that unites the Bible. The promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 12 is repeated and expanded in chapters 15, 17 and 22. God’s promise to Abraham provides the framework for almost every major promise that follows in the Old Testament. In fact, God’s promises to Moses and David are anchored in His promise to make Abraham a great nation and to bless all nations through him.

However, I believe the promise recorded in Genesis 3:15 provides both the foundation and the focus behind every story recorded in the Old and New Testaments. I like to describe this promise as the thread that stitches every book in the Bible into one grand story—one holy book.

Let’s consider “promise” as one side of a coin that contains what is being promised. Flipping the coin over, there is a subjective response to the promise that has been made. If the promise has been made by someone who is trustworthy and also has the ability to keep their promise, the natural response is to experience hope and expectation. Biblical hope is not wishing on a star. Biblical hope is confidence that the God who has made the promise WILL keep His promise. That’s the kind of faith defined in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Such confidence in God’s promises and His character is illustrated throughout Hebrews 11 by Old Testament people who chose to claim God’s promises.

As support for hope serving as the thread that stitches all the Bible stories into one, consider Romans 15:4. “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.”

Now, let’s consider the promise God made to Adam and Eve because it is still relevant today. It is one of those universal promises.

The first three chapters in Genesis set the stage for everything that follows. The Bible begins with a simple statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That one sentence refutes atheism, polytheism and naturalism.

Genesis 1 and 2 answer the big questions like “Is there anybody out there? Does God really exist? What is God like? Can we know God? Who am I? Why am I here? Is there anything after this brief experience we call life?” In these chapters in Genesis we also discover that our first parents lived in paradise. Life was good. The most anticipated moment each day was the evening visit with their Creator- the protagonist throughout the biblical narrative.

That sets the stage for meeting the antagonist—Satan, the great serpent and enemy of God. His misquotations of God’s words seduced Eve to doubt God’s goodness and to disobey God’s command to not eat of the forbidden fruit. That decision changed everything and still does. Everything was broken. Ruined. Paradise was no more. New words entered their vocabulary. Words like guilt, shame, mistrust, alienation and death. Life was dark and hopeless. They were escorted out of Eden and forbidden to attempt to return. But God graciously gave them new words like grace, reconciliation and especially the word hope. God pronounced judgment upon the man, his wife and the serpent. Within these curses God also added a promise: The seed of the woman would ultimately crush the serpents head and the serpent would only bruise the seed of the woman.

That seed of the woman is Jesus Christ. His life capsulized by this description, “He went about doing good.” However, His cruel death on the cross and the burial of his lifeless body in a tomb seemed to be a deathblow. All hope seemed lost. Everything would remain forever broken.

But the best was yet to come. Jesus burst out of the tomb. No longer bound by grave clothes. The same Jesus, but in a new kind of body not bound by time or space. Death had been conquered forever! Evidence there truly is life after death.

Jesus’ promise that He would rise again was true after all. Hope bloomed anew.

Prior to returning to heaven, Jesus added another promise: “I will come again!” That is our blessed hope today. We wait with anticipation because He, who has made the promise is trustworthy and has proven Himself to be competent. He is the great promise keeper.

In the meantime, our world is filled with injustice, pain and inevitable death. Throughout history people of faith, who have clung to the promise that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent, have survived hardships, endured persecution and even faced martyrdom because they had hope. Today, the promise of Jesus’ return to rule with justice provides hope to sustain us through life’s hard times.

That is why the title, “Standing on The Promise.”

Passing on the Promise

Hope is like an unbreakable thread that weaves all the Bible stories into one great story.

Hope can make the difference between life and death. Survivors of Nazi death camps and prisoners of war often claim they survived, while others died, because they clung to the hope of rescue.

So what is this powerful, invisible force called hope?

Right off the top, hope is not wishful thinking. In the old Disney cartoons, Jiminy Cricket used to sing, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

That’s not hope at all. Real, biblical hope is an overwhelming conviction that things will improve. It is the iron-clad certainty that we will get through this crisis—any crisis, including impending death—because we have confidence in something. Or Somebody.

Hope is more than an emotion; it is more like an action word, requiring an object. Biblical hope is anchored in God’s character and promises. That sounds a lot like the word “faith” or “trust,” doesn’t it? In fact, hope and faith are used almost synonymously in Scripture. Like two sides of the same coin.

This is how the writer of Hebrews expresses it:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. (Hebrews 11:1–2, esv)

Note how faith is described as the assurance (confidence or deep-seated conviction) that something we “hope for” is as good as done. I recently read a definition of hope as declaring something will be done and has already been done. We can take it to the bank because God promised it. Without hope (or faith) it is almost impossible to hang in there when tragedies and difficult times sweep over us in wave after heartbreaking wave.

Consider Job, who in the midst of severe and relentless suffering almost lost hope. At least that’s how he described himself in this lament.: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle and come to their end without hope” (Job 7:6, esv).

Job didn’t understand why he was suffering. He didn’t realize that he was like a pawn in a cosmic chess match. All he knew was that his life had turned completely upside down for no apparent reason, and that heaven had gone totally silent. Hope may have been flickering like a candle in the wind, but Job somehow kept his grip of faith on God. And that faith sustained him in the darkest of nights. Listen to these declarations:

Though he (God) slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face. This will be my salvation, that the godless shall not come before him.” (Job 13:15–16, esv)

All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me. My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. … Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me! (Job 19:19- 20, 23–27, esv)

 Job may have felt he was on his last legs, but he continued to cling to the hope that God would rescue and vindicate him. The thread of hope may have been frayed, but it didn’t break.

So why do I offer the word hope as the thread that binds the Bible stories together? Because the Bible makes that claim for itself: “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” (Romans 15:4, esv).

Did you catch that? The stories in the Old Testament were recorded to encourage people like us, and to give hope in the midst of trials. So let’s revisit a few of those stories about people who overcome severe adversity through hope. That shouldn’t be difficult, because the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a short list of men and women who endured severe trials through confidence in the promised seed.

The story began with the creation of the universe. The focus is upon two persons flourishing in paradise, and the most anticipated moment of every perfect day was a personal visit from their Creator. That changed, however, after a brief encounter with the lying serpent. On the heels of that rebellion, every relationship was now fractured by fear, guilt and shame. The consequences of our first parents’ disobedience were harsh, but God also introduced a new word—hope. Hope in the promised seed of the woman that would one day destroy the serpent and restore paradise on earth.

The rest of the Bible contains the history of the struggle between two divergent family groups that descend from Adam and Eve—two distinct cultures with two diametrically opposing visions for establishing a kingdom on earth. One family group anticipates the promised seed of the woman; their stories are recorded in Hebrews 11.

The author of Hebrews introduces Cain and Abel, two sons of Adam and Eve. Abel’s offering from the flock was motivated by faith (perhaps faith in the promised seed). Abel’s offering was accepted, while Cain’s offering from the fruit of the ground was rejected. In the hours that followed, Cain ignored God’s offer of mercy, and in jealous anger killed his brother. Cain became a fugitive “from the presence of the Lord,” and the father of the rebels seeking to build a kingdom on earth apart from God. Lamech, seventh generation from Cain, became the first recorded bigamist and a boastful murderer (Genesis 4:16-24).

Seth, Adam’s third son, isn’t mentioned in Hebrews, but the book of Genesis introduces him after the story of Lamech. Juxtaposing Lamech with Seth, even though separated by seven generations, presents a stark contrast between these two family lines.

Seth is presented in Genesis as the replacement son for godly Abel, and the contrast between these two families is so apparent when the second generation from Seth, Enosh, is described as “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26, esv). The contrast is even more obvious when Enoch, seventh generation from Seth, was a righteous man who “walked with God” and was taken to heaven without dying (Genesis 4:18; Hebrews 11:5,6). Hope in the promised seed bound Enoch’s heart with God’s.

The next hero of faith in Hebrews 11:7 is Noah, who “being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” I like to imagine it this way: Hope in the promise motivated Noah to build a ship. Hope sent the dove on a reconnaissance mission. Hope built the altar upon departing the ark.

Abraham is the next person introduced in the list. If ever a man lived by faith in God’s promises, it was Abraham. With no title dded in hand—only God’s promise—and not knowing where he was going, he left homeland and kindred to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:4–10, esv).

In hope he surveyed the land from Dan to Beersheba. In hope he built altars and dug wells and planted trees. As Abraham’s relationship with God became more intimate, his confidence in God’s promises grew deeply until he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac—the seed bearer—believing God would raise him from the dead. Paul described it this way: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18, niv).

Abraham passed this same hope on to Jacob, who in turn passed it on to his sons. Joseph, the next to the youngest, became an Egyptian prince, but continued to claim the promise, and in hope requested that he be buried in the land promised to Abraham.

The next great man of faith listed in Hebrews was raised as an Egyptian prince but never forgot that he was a Hebrew—a son of Adam and Noah and Abraham. “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them (Hebrews 11:23-28, esv). Facing hardship after hardship and forty years in the desert, Moses never lost hope.

Moses passed this hope on to Joshua, who although not listed by name in Hebrews, led the Israelites in the conquest of the Promised Land.Here we meet a Canaanite woman, Rahab the prostitute. Why would a Canaanite prostitute enter the story of the promised seed? Rumors about the exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea and the conquest of Moab and Edom had reached the Canaanites. They could see the Israelites camped across the Jordan preparing to invade and conquer. Most of the Canaanites disregarded the imminent danger or prepared for battle. Rahab, in hope, hid the Hebrew spies because she chose to believe in the promise of the God of Israel. She, a prostitute destined for destruction, became the great, great grandmother of King David.

The author of Hebrews summarizes several generations of keepers of the promise: “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment” (Hebrews 11:32–40, esv).

That’s the power of hope that enables people to withstand imprisonment in Nazi death camps. Hope sustains Christian hostages facing torture or death at the hands of Muslim extremists today.

Next week we will consider how that hope was passed on from Old Testament believers to the people we meet in the New Testament.

The Bible, like all great literature, is a story of the struggle between good and evil. Sometimes the evil villains appear to be winning, and everything seems hopeless. But in the end, the good hero is victorious. Let’s revisit a few of these conflicts in the big story of the Bible.

In paradise the evil villain, the lying serpent and chief rebel against the Creator King, perverts God’s words and entices Eve to cross the line into rebellion. Cain, joins the rebellion. Behind the scenes I see the serpent trying to stamp out the line of the promised seed. Seth is introduced as the leader of those who remain loyal to God. Cain’s descendants seek to build cities and disregard God’s moral laws. The two distinct family groups intermingle and evil, like leaven, infiltrates everything until it appears the righteous line—carriers—of the promised seed—will be overwhelmed, but God intervenes with a universal flood to protect the human race from destroying itself.

The tower of Babel is another example of human efforts to build the kingdom without God.

So who motivated Sarai to circumvent God’s plan by encouraging Abraham to raise up seed through Hagar? Who motivated Pharaoh to attempt genocide against the Hebrews by decreeing the death of all male Hebrew babies?

Who motivated Saul to pursue innocent David, the bearer of the promised seed?

Perhaps those are enough examples of the struggle between good and evil in the older testament to convince us there is a cosmic battle that rages on to this very day and hour. There is an enemy who seeks to prevent the promise in Genesis 3:15 from coming to pass. Even the Christmas story in the gospels has a dark side, as Satan uses the despotic, paranoid King Herod to kill all male children age two years and younger living in Bethlehem.

Here is my prayer for you today; it’s really Paul’s prayer of blessing upon the believers in Rome: “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 (Romans 15:12–13, esv).