by James Montgomery Boice
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. – Romans 15:4
A number of years ago a German theologian named Juergen Moltmann wrote a book entitled The Theology of Hope. His point, which meant a great deal to Bible scholars at the time, was that eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) should not be an appendix to Christian theology—something tacked on at the end and perhaps even dispensable to Christian thought—but should be the starting point of everything. He said that it is confidence in what God is going to do in the future that must determine how we think and act now.
I am not sure that is entirely right. I would call the cross of Christ, not eschatology, the center, arguing that we must take our ideas even of the future from the cross. But Moltmann was correct in stressing that hope is important for living well now. To have hope is to look at the future optimistically. So to some extent a person must have hope to live. The Latin word for hope is spes, from which the French derived the noun espoir and the Spanish, esperanza. But put the particle de in front of those words, and the resulting word is despair, literally “without hope.” People who despair do not go on. When John Milton wanted to depict the maximum depth to which Satan fell when he was cast out of heaven, he has him say to the other fallen spirits in hell, “Our final hope is flat despair.”
How can any sane person have hope in the midst of the desperate world in which we live? The frivolous can, because they do not think about the future at all. Thinking people find the future grim. Winston Churchill, one of the most brilliant and influential people of his age, died despairing. His last words were, “There is no hope.”
Our text says that a Christian can have hope and that the way to that sound and steadfast hope is through the Bible.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends—the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion—make their way down a yellow brick road to find their future. Our text likewise gives us a road to hope. That road leads first through teaching, second through patient endurance, and third through encouragement. The text says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
The Teaching of the Scriptures
The first and most important stop along this important road leading to hope is teaching, because it is through the teaching of the Scriptures that the other elements, endurance and encouragement, come. Christianity is a teaching religion, and our text is the Bible. It is true that those whose minds have been enlightened by the Bible often go on to learn in other areas too. Some of the greatest scholars in the world have been Christians, and many have traced their love of learning to their Christian roots. Moreover, wherever the gospel has gone throughout the world, schools and colleges and other institutions of higher learning have gone with it. Still, Christians maintain that however much a person may come to know in other areas, if he or she does not know what God has revealed about himself and the way of salvation in the Bible, that person is ignorant and remains a great fool.
Paul said of the Gentile Christians at Ephesus, among whom there must have been many learned persons, that before they had been taught about Jesus and had received him as their Savior, they were “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). They may have been educated, but they were ignorant of the things that matter most. After they had been taught and came to faith in Christ, however, they had hope of “the riches of [God’s] glorious inheritance in the saints,” which was future, and “his incomparably great power for us who believe,” which was present (Eph. 1:18–19).
Our text in Romans is about the teaching of the Scriptures and tells us at least three important things about the Bible:
(1) The Bible is from God. When Paul says that everything written in the past “was written to teach us,” he is not saying that when Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, he did so intending that the church in future ages might be blessed by his writings, or that David wrote the psalms so that we might profit by them. His point is that God caused the human writers of the Bible to write as they did, because what he had in mind was the edification and encouragement of his people through the ages, whether or not the human writers understood this.
This also flows from the context. We remember that Paul has just quoted Psalm 69:9, applying it to Jesus Christ, whom he brought forward as an example for our right conduct. Some may object, “How can you imagine that David was writing about Jesus Christ, who was born so many hundred of years after his own age, or that this has anything to do with us?” Paul is answering, in effect, as F. Godet suggests, “If I thus apply this saying of the psalmist to Christ and ourselves, it is because, in general, all Scripture was written to instruct and strengthen us.”
Of course, many other verses say the same thing. Peter wrote, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21).
Similarly, Paul told Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The reason the Scriptures are so valuable is that they are unlike other books written by mere human beings. They are from God; therefore they have the authority and power of God within them. Besides, God has promised to bless them to the ends for which they have been given (Isa. 55:10–11).
(2) Everything in the Bible is for our good and is profitable. The second important teaching about the Scriptures in Romans 15:4 is that all Scripture is for our good and is profitable. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful.…” In our text he uses the words “everything that was written,” but he means the same thing in both passages.
This is not an endorsement of every piece of ancient literature, as if the words “everything that was written in the past” refer to the writings of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans. Paul is not writing about secular literature, but about the writings that are “God-breathed.” Other books may instruct and even charm us wonderfully, but only the Bible gives us a sure ground for hope, since only it speaks with full authority and trustworthiness about what God did to save us from sin and give us eternal life.
Paul’s statement is, however, an endorsement of all of the Bible. That is, he is informing us that “all Scripture … is profitable” and “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us.”
Some critics of the Bible have found things in it that they do not like and have therefore argued either that the Bible is from men only, not from God, or that it is a mixture of the two—some parts being from God and some from man. The parts that are from God are then regarded as authoritative, but the parts said to be from human beings only are discarded as error-prone and nonauthoritative. This is a convenient way of pretending to submit to the Bible’s authority while at the same time avoiding anything in the Bible that is convicting or contrary to the critic’s thought. This is not the Bible’s teaching. It is not historic Christianity. The Bible teaches that everything in it is the true Word of God and that it is binding upon the minds and consciences of all persons. Therefore, if we are being led by God’s Holy Spirit, we will conform our thoughts and actions to whatever we find in his Word.
(3) Nothing in the Bible is without value. Paul’s third point is that not only is everything in the Bible for our good and profitable, but nothing that is in the Bible is without value.
John Calvin was strong in this conviction: “This notable passage shows us that the oracles of God contain nothing vain or unprofitable.… It would be an insult to the Holy Spirit to imagine that he had taught us anything which it is of no advantage to know. Let us also know that all that we learn from Scripture is conducive to the advancement of godliness. Although Paul is speaking of the Old Testament, we are to hold the same view of the writings of the apostles. If the Spirit of Christ is everywhere the same, it is quite certain that he has accommodated his teaching to the edification of his people at the present time by the apostles, as he formerly did by the prophets.”
The second checkpoint we must pass along the road to hope is endurance, which some versions of the Scriptures translate patience (King James Version), perseverance (New American Standard Bible) or even patient endurance, since the word involves both passively accepting what we cannot change and actively pressing on in faithful obedience and discipleship. This word (hypomonê) occurs thirty-two times in the New Testament, sixteen times in Paul’s writings, six of which are in Romans.
Is Paul saying that endurance comes from the Bible—that is, from knowing the Bible? I raise that question because a detail of the Greek text provokes it. Paul uses the word for through (dia) twice, once before the word endurance and once before the word encouragement (the New International Version omits it the second time). According to the strictest rules of Greek grammar, that should mean that endurance is separated from encouragement with the result that the words “of the Scriptures” should be attached to encouragement only. In other words, Paul would be saying that it is through our own personal enduring as well as through the encouragement that we have in studying the Bible that we find hope.
Leon Morris is a fine Greek scholar, and he is led to this position by his grammatical sensitivity. “[Paul’s] construction seems to show that only encouragement is here said to derive from the Bible,” he says.
In my judgment this is a place where it may be wrong to read too much into a fine point of grammar. Grammatically Morris is right. But in terms of the flow of thought it is hard to suppose that Paul is not thinking of the role the Scriptures have in producing endurance too. For one thing, he links the two ideas together in verse 5, saying, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement.… ” Again, in verse 4 both terms follow Paul’s opening words about the use of the Scriptures for teaching: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that…” Or again, even apart from what Paul is saying, elsewhere we are taught that endurance comes from reading how God has kept and preserved other believers even in terrible circumstances.
James wrote, “Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:10–11). He is saying that we learn to endure by reading about the way God helped others before us.
Although they recognize the grammatical issue, a large number of other writers nevertheless see the matter as I have outlined it here. Among these are John Murray, Charles Hodge and F. Godet.
The third checkpoint along the road to hope is encouragement, which also comes to us through Scripture. Encouragement (paraklêsis) is found twenty times in Paul’s writings out of twenty-nine occurrences in the whole New Testament. It occurs three times in Romans.
The interesting thing about this word is that it is virtually the same one Jesus used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit among believers, saying, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7; see 14:26; 15:26), and that the apostle John used to describe the work of Jesus himself: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). The word Counselor and the phrase “one who speaks … in our defense” translate the same Greek word paraklêtos, which is also sometimes translated advocate. The literal meaning is “one who comes alongside of another person to help him or her,” to back the person up or defend him. So together the passages teach that Jesus himself does this for us, the Holy Spirit does it, and the Scriptures do it too. Indeed, it is through the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit chiefly does his work.
The end result of this is hope. In our text the article is present before the word hope (“the hope”), meaning the Christian hope. This is not just optimism that Paul is writing about, not a hope founded on something the world thinks possible. Also, the verb have is in the present tense, meaning that hope is a present possession. As Calvin says, “The particular service of the Scriptures is to raise those who are prepared by patience and strengthened by consolation to the hope of eternal life, and to keep their thoughts fixed upon it.”
An Example from History
But enough analysis! If we are to travel the road of endurance and encouragement to hope by learning from the Scriptures, we should study how it actually works.
There are hundreds of examples of this in the Bible, of course, but let’s examine the familiar story of Joseph. Joseph was the next-to-youngest son of Jacob, and he was favored by his father because he was born of his much-beloved wife Rachel and also perhaps because he was an extraordinary young man. His brothers hated him for his virtue so they threw him into a cistern and then sold him to Midianite traders who were on their way to Egypt. Joseph was just seventeen years old. In Egypt he became a slave of a rich man named Potiphar. Joseph served the man well, and he was placed in charge of his entire household. Then Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph and tried to seduce him. When Joseph refused to sleep with her, the proud, angry woman denounced him falsely to her husband, and Joseph was thrown into prison.
Joseph languished in prison for two years. Once when he had correctly and favorably interpreted the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, predicting that he would be taken from the prison where he too had been confined and restored to his previous position, Joseph asked the man to remember him when he was released and speak a good word to Pharaoh to get him out of prison. But the cupbearer forgot.
The years dragged on. One day God gave a dream to Pharaoh. No one in the palace could interpret it, but the cupbearer remembered Joseph and his ability to interpret dreams and told the king about him. Pharaoh sent for the young man, and Joseph interpreted the dream, predicting seven years of prosperity to be followed by seven years of severe famine. He recommended that the king appoint a wise man to save grain during the good years so that the people would not starve when the years of scarceness came.
You know the story. Pharaoh appointed Joseph to the task. Joseph served well. The land was saved, and in time, when the famine drove Joseph’s wicked brothers to Egypt to buy grain, God used Joseph to bring the brothers to repentance. The family was reconciled, and Jacob moved all of them to Egypt, where the people stayed and prospered for many years.
The climax of this great story comes in the final chapter of Genesis, when Jacob dies and the brothers come to plead with Joseph not to take revenge on them. They had completely misunderstood him. He had no intention of doing any of them any harm. “Don’t be afraid,” he exclaimed. “Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19–20). The story teaches that God is sovereign even in such terrible circumstances as those that overtook Joseph. And from it we learn to trust God’s sovereignty, endure in hardship, be encouraged, and so grow strong in hope.
I have picked this particular story because of Psalm 105, which refers to it. It may have been written by King David, but whoever the writer was, he was a man who needed encouragement. He found it in Joseph’s story:
Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done.…
He [God] called down famine on the land and destroyed all their supplies of food;
and he sent a man before them—Joseph, sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons,
till what he foretold came to pass, till the word of the Lord proved him true.
The king sent and released him, the ruler of peoples set him free.
He made him master of his household, ruler over all he possessed,
to instruct his princes as he pleased and teach his elders wisdom. - Psalm 105:1, 16–22
This writer clearly knew that “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Do you know that? If you do, you will study what God has spoken and move ahead boldly for him and with hope.
Excerpt from James M. Boice. Romans, vol. 4. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991, 1803-1809.