As a child, I eagerly looked forward to Christmas and birthdays. Mostly, I confess, for the anticipated gifts
One Christmas remains fixed in memory. As the magical day approached and gifts began to collect under the tree, I kept watching for a uniquely shaped package—one that might possibly conceal a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.
I believe that we human beings have been hardwired by our Creator with a sense of anticipation. We look forward to special days, special achievements, and reaching long-desired goals. A person with nothing to anticipate, nothing to look forward to and nothing to strive for, is in a very bad place.
Remember counting the days until your 16th birthday and a driver’s license? I certainly do. Other milestones follow: graduations, marriage, parenthood and career advancements. Life is filled with pleasant and difficult episodes linked by the hope that things will turn out well.
That’s also the storyline in the Bible. After the fall and subsequent judgments, God promised to send a deliverer who would defeat the evil invader and lift the curse that had fallen over the entire creation. Anticipation of that promise—like a flaming torch—was passed from generation to generation throughout the Old Testament.
The New Testament opens with breaking news delivered by angels. Their message? The promised deliverer had at last been born. The four gospels record Jesus’ teaching and miracles—and the simmering hostility that would boil over into His arrest and violent death. The serpent appeared to have dealt a deathblow at the cross. But all of those dashed hopes were restored on that incomparable Sunday morning when Jesus walked out the tomb under His own power.
I love the way Luke 24 quotes two of Christ’s followers, who had witnessed their Lord’s crucifixion: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They had given up hope, trudging back to the village of Emmaus, kicking stones along the way, feeling as empty as they had ever felt in their lives. But the story wasn’t over, was it? And what was it about that Stranger who seemed to join them out of nowhere on the long walk home? Listening to the resurrected Jesus—hidden for a moment from their recognition—share that the Old Testament prophets had predicted His death and resurrection re-ignited the smoldering flame of hope.
The rest of the New Testament is awash with hope.
The book of Acts opens with a promise that Jesus will return. As His disciples stand with gaping mouths watching Jesus ascend into heaven, an angel said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10, 11 esv). What would it have been like—watching Jesus defy the law of gravity and rise up into the clear blue sky? I really can’t imagine. But the promise that He will someday visibly return ought to motivate everything that I do.
Anticipation of Jesus’ return to earth sustained and motivated followers of Jesus throughout the New Testament. From Paul’s magnum opus to the Romans through Jude’s brief letter the promise of Christ’s return is offered as hope to early Christians. That same hope, that anticipation of Christ’s return at any moment, ought to encourage us today.
Hope in Christ’s return provides encouragement to endure suffering. Paul reminded believers in Rome that, no matter how severe their hardships and heartbreaks became, they were insignificant compared to the glory yet to come—glory not only for people like Paul, but also for all creation that had also been suffering under the curse. Five times, in just three short sentences, Paul offers the word hope to encourage his readers in hard times (Romans 8:24, 25).
Peter encouraged Christians that were suffering harsh persecution to “set your hope on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation (return) of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
Anticipation of Jesus’ return motivates us to live godly lives. In his letter to Titus, Paul writes that Jesus’ promised return should motivate us to live godly lives: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11–14, ESV)
John also encourages his readers to live holy lives in anticipation of Jesus’ return: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 2:28–3:3, ESV)
Hope in Christ’s return comforts believers in times of loss and death. Grief is a normal, even healthy, response when a loved one has died. However, we do not need to bgrieve like those without hope because we can anticipate Christ’s return. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, ESV)
Hope in Jesus’ return provides confidence and stamina to finish strongly. The author of Hebrews encouraged Christians that were experiencing pressure to abandon their faith. He offers a list of Old Testament characters that endured hardship through hope; he points to Jesus as the ultimate model for enduring hardship through hope: Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
The resurrection Christ and the promise of his return provided motivation for Christians in Corinth to finish well: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, ESV) No trial is insurmountable, and no task is insignificant if we truly believe Jesus will return to judge and to reward.
I believe that hope is like a thread that binds the New Testament letters and their readers together. This hope is more than a doctrinal truth to claim or to debate; it is a promise to anticipate in good times and bad.
Paul began a letter to the church at Thessalonica with a prayer of thanks, remembering their “steadfastness of hope” in Jesus, and how they turned to God from idols to serve Him and to wait for His Son from heaven.
I close with Paul’s prayer of blessing on his friends in Thessalonica: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16).
Christ’s return is the promise that we can cling to and the hope that sustains through thick or thin.
No matter where we are in life—in the strength and beauty of youth or in our final days in a nursing home—we have something to look forward to that is better than a thousand Christmases. More precious than any present you could dream or imagine, wrapped and under the tree.
On the day that we close our eyes on earth and open them in heaven, we will experience, face to face, what we have known in our hearts all along. Hope has a Name.