April 30, 2011
As I thought and prayed recently about writing this month’s posting, I assumed I would be developing the same theme as last month: the world. I felt that I barely scratched the surface in “Ways of the World.” Today, however, God seemed to shift my focus to the topic of hope. My wife spoke to me this morning about hope and her words struck a resonant chord within me. Also this morning, while reading in the truly remarkable Gospel of John (I have been reading and meditating in it for months), I was continually made aware of the powerful gift of hope from God to his people.
As I pondered which direction to go, I felt that I should combine these themes while using the Gospel of John as my guide. But in John, the word hope is used only once, referring to those who set their hopes in Moses (5:45). However, the word world (Greek, cosmos or kosmos) is used 78 times in John’s gospel. Where, then, do I find hope in this Bible book?
In my posting of October 30, 2010 (“Is There any Hope?”), I defined the word hope. As a noun, hope can mean, in part, “a feeling of expectation and desire combined,” or “what one hopes for.” As a verb it can mean “to feel hope, to expect and desire, feel fairly confident.” The word itself is not needed in John’s gospel to convey a strong sense of hope. The book, read as a whole, can engender great expectations and desires in the one reading it with a mind and heart listening for God.
In the New Testament cosmos is used in several ways, referring, for example, to the earth, the universe, and the human race. Most of the time in the New Testament, however, and almost always in the Gospel of John, it refers to the world of people. Yet cosmos does not connote individuals as merely inhabitants of planet earth, but has a much more sinister side to it. When understood as the world of men and women, cosmos
"constitutes a uniform subject which opposes God in enmity, resists the redeeming work of the Son, does not believe in him, and indeed hates him (7:7; 15; 18ff.). It is ruled by the prince of this cosmos (12:31; 16:11), i.e. the Evil One (1Jn. 5:18). Nonetheless, the Son remains the victor over the world (16:33). This does not lead to the extinction of the cosmos but to the redeemer of the world creating [human beings] who are not born “from out of the cosmos” (15:19; 17:14, 16) but of God (1:12f.) and the Holy Spirit (3:5). They endure much anguish in the world, but are removed from its domination (16:33)” (J. Guhrt, in “The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology”).
If Jesus and the Gospel of John refer repeatedly to the world in such severely negative terms, doesn’t a reading of this book lead more to despair than to hope? While it is certain that John’s gospel gives no comfort to those who are living according to the patterns and cravings of this world, it is also certain that those who trust in Jesus and, through his power, resist the seductive and pervasive pull of the world, are the most peaceful, joyful and hopeful of all inhabitants of the world. A brief overview of some statements concerning the world in John’s gospel engenders the hope we all need so mightily.
One of the most striking teachings of Jesus concerning this world, mentioned above, is that it is governed by a prince (archon, meaning ruler). This personal being, identified as Satan elsewhere in scripture (Mt. 12:24-28) does not have absolute authority, but is permitted by God to preside over the cosmos as a manipulator, deceiver and destroyer of souls (1 John 5:18-19). Three times Jesus refers to this prince in John’s gospel, and speaks of him in relation to his judgment on Christ’s cross. “The prince of this world is coming, [but] he has no hold on me” (14:30). “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (12:31). “The prince of this world now stands condemned” (16:11). Even though Satan still wanders over this cosmos as the prince of darkness, he has been fatally wounded and officially dethroned by the Lord of all (see also Col. 2:13-15).
While the book of John heartens us by assuring us of the judgment of the evil one on the cross, we are emboldened and given even greater hope from further comments about the world. “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (1:9). “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). “For God so loved the world.” He “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:16-17). “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (4:42). “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33). “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:25, NRSV). “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (12:46).
On the night before he died Jesus prayed a remarkable prayer. With all that he had on his heart, he prayed extensively about the relationship of his children to the world, both for our protection from the world and for Christian unity as a powerful witness to the world (17:6-23). He gives us his peace, of which he says, “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (14:27). “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (16:33).
One of my favorite songs is “It’s a Wonderful World,” sung by Louis Armstrong. The melody and the sentiment are truly beautiful. But in the sense in which Jesus and the New Testament writers speak of the world, it is not wonderful at all. I still sing the song for its uplifting quality, but I also keep in mind the cosmos. (I can’t help it; I’m a theologian!) When I look over a big city at night from a high vantage point, and I see the bright lights, the graceful bridges, the tall, elegant buildings with their thousands of glass panels, and perhaps a river winding through the city, I also can’t help but think of the angry prince of darkness who rules over this world and this city.
I think of the rats. Someone said there are eight million rats in New York City—one for each of the eight million residents. I think of the drug houses and the drug deals. I think of the prostitution, the corrupt big-money deals, the poverty, the malnutrition, the overeating, overdrinking and overindulging in every imaginable way. I think of the deep sorrow in the hearts of the victimized children and adults. This is not the world that the creators of “It’s a Wonderful World” or “This is my Father’s World” had in mind. Yet it is the world God so loved.
It is the world Jesus entered, not to condemn it but to save it. It is the world Christ’s followers are not removed from just because the world hates them, (John 17:14-23). Rather, we are left here, showing the world by our love and unity, that there is great hope today, tomorrow and every day to come. Our Lord has overcome the world, and this victory in which we share here and now is ours to experience by faith and obedience, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Have hope, dear friends, for whatever your concerns are today. Your hope is not in vain.