The Prisoner of Hope
[“Turn again to the stronghold, prisoner of hope!”, (Zech. 9: 12)]
There are two leading principles in the soul of the Christian which make God the special object, namely faith and hope. There is a marked distinction, and yet an intimate connection, between these two principles. Faith takes what God has given; hope expects what He has promised. Faith rests on God’s statements about the past, hope goes forth in active longing after the future. Faith is a recipient; hope an expectant. Now it will be found that in proportion to the vigour of faith, will be the vigour of hope. If we are not “fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do”, (Rom. 4: 21), we shall not know much of the power or energy of hope. If faith be wavering, hope will be flickering. On the contrary, if faith is strong, hope will be strong as well, for faith, while it nourishes and strengthens the persuasion, also imparts strength and intensity to the expectation. The Christian is to be like a climbing plant which, striking its roots downward into the soil, sends forth its tendrils along the nearest wall or tree. Thus the soul finds its root in the eternal record of God, while it sends forth the tendrils of an imperishable hope to grasp tenaciously the faithful promise of God; and we may say, the deeper the root, the stronger the tendril.
The verse which stands at the head of this paper presents the believer in the happy exercise of both faith and hope—as one safely lodged by faith in a “stronghold”, but yet, as a “prisoner of hope”—as one living in the blessed hope of better things. He is like the Israelite within the blessed circle of peace into which redemption had brought him, feeding on the Lamb whose blood had secured his peace, with girded loins, waiting for the first beams of the morning, to leave the land of death and darkness to proceed on his way toward the land of Christ. So the Christian, resting in the redemptive efficacy of the blood of Christ, is privileged to look forward to the “morning without clouds”, (2 Sam. 23: 4). We look for the Saviour from heaven, “who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory, according to the working of [the] power which he has even to subdue all things to himself”, (Phil. 3: 21). The believer then, is a prisoner of hope. His faith reposes on the cross, his hope feeds on the rich pastures of God’s prophetic record. His spirit travels over a course of which the cross is the starting point, and the glory the goal.
Christian reader, you who have, through grace, found rest for your wearied spirit in the stronghold of faith, do you seek to know more of what is involved in that title “a prisoner of hope”? For what then do we hope? For what is the Christian looking for?
The Lord Jesus after speaking of the many abodes in His Father’s house, and of going there to prepare a place for His own, said “and if I go and shall prepare you a place, I am coming again and shall receive you to myself, that where I am ye also may be”, (John 14: 3). He who was going away promised to come again. Nor are we to understand by His words “I am coming again” that He meant the end of the world, or the destruction of Jerusalem, or that He referred to the time of the believer’s death. If it was a real, personal departure of the Lord Jesus, it was to be as real and personal a return. He is to come again to take every one of His own to His place, that He and they might be together. This then, is the hope of the Church, that for which the prisoner of hope longs.
Very many Christians err in their thoughts on this subject. They think that death is the release for which the Christian hopes, that the moment the spirit escapes from its “earthly tabernacle house”, (2 Cor. 5: 1), it enters into perfect bliss. Scripture, however, teaches otherwise.
Of course, let none deprecate the blessed portion of those absent from the body and present with the Lord. To the dying thief, who asked the Lord to remember him when He should come in His kingdom, He said “Verily I say to thee, To–day shalt thou be with me in paradise”, (Luke 23: 43), that is, He proffers something beyond and better than was asked for, something which, to the renewed mind, is more prized than any outward governmental display, however glorious—the joy of being with Christ Himself, (and that very day too, without waiting for His coming in His kingdom). No conferred honour, no recompense however bright, can ever approach the joy of being with the Lord.
Death cannot separate the saints “who have fallen asleep through Jesus”, (1 Thess. 4: 14), from “the love of God, which [is] in Christ Jesus our Lord, (Rom. 8: 39). Thus, Stephen dying, calls and says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”, (Acts 7: 59), and Paul could say “For for me to live [is] Christ, and to die gain....But I am pressed by both, having the desire for departure and being with Christ, [for] [it is] very much better”, (Phil. 1: 21, 23). The release, then, that death brings is indeed very blessed. As the apostle says, to pass into the presence of the Lord is very much better than being here. It is not, however, the best thing. The prisoner of hope, hopes not for the release of falling asleep in Jesus, sweet as that is, but looks for the Saviour from heaven, who instead of giving to our spirits simply the joy of being with Him, shall change our bodies of humiliation so that they may be fashioned like unto His body of glory, (Phil. 3: 21). That, and not the departure to be with Christ at death, (blessed as that is), is the proper hope of the Christian.
Nothing can fill up the measure of the believer’s joy, but his being clothed with his house (or body) which is from heaven; for until then, whether he be imprisoned in the tomb, or in a body of sin and death, death and mortality bear sway so far as the body is concerned. Some hold that death for the Christian ushers in perfect bliss, but to speak of perfect bliss while the spirit is unclothed and the body mingled with the dust is a contradiction. Perfect bliss will be when he appears in his resurrection garments of glory and beauty, when death shall have been swallowed up in victory, and mortality by life, (see 1 Cor. 15: 54; 2 Cor. 5: 4).
The prisoner of hope is a prisoner because of his body: He is imprisoned in a body of humiliation, (Phil. 3: 21), He feels the sorrow and trial of his present position, the irksomeness and roughness of the journey, and the pain of being caged in a body of sin and death. And like all prisoners, he longs for release. And so it should be with us. How we ought to sigh and groan for deliverance: “For indeed in this we groan, ardently desiring....we also ourselves groan in ourselves”, (2 Cor. 5: 2; Rom. 8: 23). But whilst “we who are in the tabernacle groan”, (2 Cor 5: 4), the putting off of the earthly tabernacle would not remedy the case; for to be unclothed as to our spirits would not make us perfectly happy. “We groan in ourselves” not for the release of death, but “awaiting adoption, [that is] the redemption of our body”, (Rom 8: 23). This is what makes us prisoners of hope, for “we have been saved in hope”, (Rom. 8: 24). Again in 2 Cor 5, “we who are in the tabernacle groan, being burdened; while yet we do not wish to be unclothed”, (that is death and the separate state), “but clothed, that [what is] mortal may be swallowed up by life”, (v4). Our ardent desire is “to have put on our house which [is] from heaven” (v2). Happy it is, no doubt, to be rid of this clog and burden, this body of sin and death, happy it is to fall asleep through Jesus, but led of the Spirit we long for His coming and resurrection, that which speaks of His triumph. Our death and consequent separate state, though to us, through grace, “very much better”, is not His triumph, but rather the last effect of the power of the Adversary. No! It is “when this corruptible shall have put on incorruptibility, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the word written: Death has been swallowed up in victory, (1 Cor. 15: 54).
True it is, that when being asleep through Jesus is contrasted with our present painful and trying condition, the apostle says it is “very much better”. Yes, truly, it is “very much better” to be at rest from our labours than toiling here—far better to be away from a scene of strife and turmoil where everything tends to draw out the vileness of nature. But all this would not constitute the summit of blessedness. How very differently the Holy Spirit speaks of the resurrection state! It would be out of the question to think of citing, or even referring to, the various passages in which this glorious subject is treated of. The New Testament abounds with them. Nor is there any mystery or vagueness in the manner in which it is put before us. No; we are clearly, explicitly, and simply taught that the resurrection, and the glories connected with it, will constitute the very consummation of the believer’s joy and blessedness; and moreover, that, until then he is a prisoner of hope. The patriarchs—the prophets—the apostles—the noble army of martyrs—all our beloved brethren who have gone before us—yes, and the Master Himself—all wait for the morning of resurrection. “these all, having obtained witness through faith, did not receive the promise, God having foreseen some better thing for us, that they should not be made perfect without us”, (Heb. 11: 39, 40). God must gather His family together—the grave must let go from its grasp every redeemed one—every scattered member of the flock of Christ must be gathered into the heavenly fold, before the festivities of the kingdom can commence.
Thus we see the vast importance of being rightly instructed as to the nature of our hope. When we know what we are hoping for, we are able to give an answer; yes, our lives answer. A man’s life is always influenced by his genuine hopes. If a man is an heir to an estate, his life is influenced by the hope of inheriting it. And if we knew more of the power of the Spirit as “[the] earnest of our inheritance”, (Eph. 1: 14), instead of disputing about the time or manner of our Master’s arrival, we should, as “prisoners of hope”, be anxiously looking forth from our prison windows and saying, “How long”? (Rev. 6: 10).
Oh! that all who have found a stronghold in the cross of Jesus may say more earnestly “Come, Lord Jesus, (Rev. 22: 20).