I wrote this post for New Year’s Day 2011. I’ve revisited it and revised it yet again for clarity because it continues to be read as people search for hope. I’ve left this one up so that if it turns up in a search, the link won’t lead to a page that says error, but I recommend reading the later version that’s in the heading, Anchor of Hope.
As I looked back on the posts I wrote in 2010, I wasn’t surprised to see the general pages: Home Page, About and Welcome, as the top three posts. The next two were a surprise, however; and they told me about the vital topics on people’s hearts in their searches. Of those two, only Anchor of Hope is not found in the banner heading; and of the top ten, there is only one more additional post that’s also not found in a link in the banner—the one I wrote only last week on Christmas Eve: Journey to Bethlehem.
I wrote Anchor of Hope in May of 2010, but because it is still being read, I decided to revisit it and revise it. I also thought that to reconsider our hope is the best way to begin a new year.
This post is long, but I hope you will read it carefully. I know many come to the web to skim and jump to the next topic, but in these uncertain times we need to know our hope is certain. I have several quotes from John Owen’s commentary on the book of Hebrews. During 2010, I quoted John Owen numerous times: in Gratitude, Truth in the Heart, Songs, Perspicuity and Steerage. He lived over three hundred years ago, from 1616–1683, yet his depth of thought is acute and insightful, while his pastor’s heart continues to bring conviction and consolation. Some of his phrases and vocabulary may be unfamiliar and you may have to read slowly, but he is worth the effort; he gives his readers spiritual meat to strengthen their hearts, rather than foam and fluff that may have easy language, but leaves people starving to know God. I know when I am tossed and thrown by circumstances, I need teaching that builds my life on the rock of God’s Word and will strengthen my faith and trust in God. Owen was a man who had been through many storms of life, and he speaks with truth and authenticity. His work on Hebrews, the letter of our anchor of hope, is his great commentary.
Hope holds the idea of something good happening in the future. In the everyday thinking that surrounds us, sometimes people have a reason to hope, while at other times they may have no grounds to hope, but they do so anyway when their need for hope is intense. Because hope looks forward to a good future, it carries strong feelings whether our lives are easy or hard.
The theme of hope runs throughout the Bible, but in contrast to the world’s hope, our hope in God and in His promises is grounded in Him and is a sure and certain thing. In the Old Testament there are Hebrew words that are translated as hope or wait in our English versions depending upon context. This is how one of these Hebrew words is described:
“This yāhal “hope” is not a pacifying wish of the imagination which drowns out troubles, nor is it uncertain (as in the Greek concept), but rather yāhal “hope” is the solid ground of expectation for the righteous. As such it is directed towards God.”
Hope in the New Testament is also marked by confidence. And what is a Christian’s hope? Our hope is named in various ways, but the prevailing theme is Christ Jesus.
When you read Peter’s first letter in the New Testament, it’s evident he was writing to Christians who were suffering. In 1:6, he mentions they have been distressed by various trials. He continues throughout the letter to instruct and strengthen them in their affliction. In 1 Peter 3:15 (see 3:14–16 for the context) he writes:
“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you….
Even in the midst of their suffering, they had hope.
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who had been faithful in their suffering in the past, but had become stunted and were faltering in their Christian life. The author keeps telling them to hold fast. In 6:13-20, he tells them why they have strong encouragement to take hold of their hope: in the character and oath of God Himself. The author tells them their hope is an anchor of the soul, and is sure, steadfast and enters within the veil. (Read chapter 6 through chapter 10 for context and further explanation.).
“For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”
Hebrews 6:13–20 (ESV)
God wants us to know the unchangeableness of His purpose for us. We have strong encouragement to take hold of our hope because He, Himself, guarantees our hope. How we need this strong encouragement! John Owen writes:
“Fallen, sinful man stands in need of the utmost encouragement that divine condescension can extend unto, to prevail with him to receive and lay hold of the promise of grace and mercy by Jesus Christ.
“There is nothing that we are so prone unto, as to distrust the promises of God; nothing that we are with more difficulty won over unto, than to mix them with faith. To evidence this we may consider,
“— 1. That the first entrance of sin into the world was by a disbelief of the truth of God; yea, that very sin formally consisted in an apprehension that God, in his promises and threatenings, had a mind to deceive us, Genesis 3:4-6. And as sin thus laid its foundation by the craft of Satan, so it endeavors to carry on its building. It continually suggests to the hearts and minds of men that they shall certainly be deceived in trusting to God’s promises….”
Of the word, encouragement, he states:
“…But “comfort” or “consolation” is the most usual signification of the word in the New Testament, as I have showed elsewhere; and that sense of the word alone can be here intended. A consolation it is that ariseth from the assurance of faith, and of our interest thereby in the promises of God. This is that which relieves our souls against all fears, doubts, and troubles; for it either obviates and prevents them, or it outbalanceth them, and bears up our souls against them. For comfort is the relief of the mind, whatever it be, against sorrow and trouble.
“And this consolation which God intends and designs for believers is ἰσχυρά, —…“strong,” “powerful,” “prevalent.” Strong so as to be prevalent against opposition, is that which is intended. There are comforts to be taken, or are often taken, from earthly things; but they are weak, languid, and such as fade and die upon the first appearance of a vigorous opposition; but this consolation is strong and prevalent against all creature-oppositions whatever. Strong; that is, such as will abide against all opposition, — a strong tower, an impregnable fortress, a munition of rocks….”
Our hope is a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. What is our hope? Owen writes:
“[1.] Most expositors take “hope” here, by a metonymy of the subject, for the thing hoped for; that is, grace and glory, justification and salvation by Jesus Christ. These things are the subject-matter of the promises, which we desire and hope after. And unto these we may be said to flee for relief or refuge, when in our expectation of them we are supported and comforted. [2.] Some take “hope” subjectively, for the grace of hope itself. And this we are said to “flee unto,” — that is, speedily to betake ourselves unto the exercise of it, as founded in the promises of God, foregoing all other expectations; wherein we shall find assured consolation. [3.] “Hope,” by a metonymy of the effect for the cause, may express the promise itself, which is the cause and means of ingenerating hope in us. And this I take to be the proper meaning of the place, and which is not exclusive of the other senses mentioned.
“The promise being proposed unto us, is the cause and object of our faith, on the account of the faithfulness of God therein. Faith brings forth hope, whose object is the same promise, or the good things thereof, as proposed from the same faithfulness. Thence is itself called “the hope,” as that without which we could have none, there being neither cause of it nor object for it. And this hope is said to be “set before us,” or to be proposed unto us; which it is in the declaration of the promise or the dispensation of the gospel. Therein it is proposed as the object of our faith and hope, as the means of the strong consolation which God is so abundantly willing that we should receive. And this renders the whole metaphor plain and easy: for it is evident how the promise, with all that we hope for thereby, is “set before us” and proposed unto us in the gospel; as also how we “flee” or betake ourselves thereunto in all distresses for relief….
“As for the nature and use of an anchor, it is to hold fast the ship whereunto it doth belong, and to keep it steady. And it is principally of use at two seasons: (1.) In storms and tempests, when the art and skill of the mariners are overcome by the fierceness of the wind and sea so that they cannot steer the ship in its right course, nor preserve it from rocks or shelves. Then is an anchor cast out; which, if it have the properties here mentioned, will hold fast and retain the ship in safety against all outward violence. (2.) When ships are in their harbor, that they may not be tossed up and down at uncertainty…. There are therefore two things supposed in this allusion: (1.) That the souls of believers are sometimes exposed unto storms; and a stress of spiritual dangers, persecutions, afflictions, temptations, fears, sin, death, and the law, do make up these storms that ofttimes beat upon them. And they are compared here unto storms, [1.] Because of their violence. There are degrees in them, and some are far more urgent than others, as storms are of various sorts; but generally all of them have one degree or other of fierceness and violence. [2.] Because of their tendency. They tend in their own nature unto ruin and destruction….So likewise do all the ways and means whereby the state of believers with their interest in the promise is assaulted…In these seasons “hope,” as before described, is the “anchor of the soul.” And as that is let down through the waves and darkness of the ocean by its cable, until it comes to fix itself in the bottom; so our hope, let out as it were by the sure word of God, entereth into that wherein it fasteneth itself, and fixeth the soul.
“…And herein there is a dissimilitude in the comparates. For an anchor is cast downwards, and fixeth itself in the earth at the bottom of the sea; but hope ascendeth upwards, and fixeth itself in heaven….The veil, therefore, here alluded unto, was that which parted the most holy place from the sanctuary or body of the temple. This our apostle calls “the second veil,” Hebrews 9:3; and here “the veil” absolutely. For the body of the temple, whereinto only the priests entered to offer incense, was separated from the people by the first veil, as the most holy place was from that by the second veil. Through the former the ordinary priests passed every day to offer incense; through the latter the high priest passed, and that once a-year. Now that which was denoted hereby, with respect unto Christ and his priesthood, was the aspectable heavens, through which he passed in his ascension into the glorious presence of God.”
Owen is speaking here of the temple in Jerusalem in which the priests served. The writer of Hebrews teaches and explains that Jesus Christ is our high priest forever, who made atonement for sin, once for all time.
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”
This is where our hope is anchored! Owen explains:
“And what is it that is within this veil? Not an ark and a mercy-seat, not tables of stone and cherubim, the work of men’s hands; but the things signified by them; — God himself on a throne of grace, and the Lord Christ, as the high priest of the church, standing at his right hand; God the Father as the author of the promise of grace, Christ as the purchaser of all mercy, the counsel of peace being between them both. Here hope fixeth itself, to hold the soul steadfast in all the storms and tempests that may befall it.”
To ships caught in the midst of dangerous storms at sea, an anchor is hope. It means survival and deliverance from death as it secures a ship. The use of an anchor to symbolize hope dates to the Greek Hellenistic period, and those who received the letter of Hebrews would have recognized the imagery. In ancient Greece,
“Every ship had several anchors; the largest, corresponding to our sheet anchor, was used only in extreme danger, and was hence peculiarly termed ἱερά [sacred] or sacra, whence the proverb sacram anchormen solvere, as flying to the last refuge.”
Hebrews 6:18 states, we who have fled for refuge. I don’t know the date of this Latin proverb, “flying to the last refuge,” but the similarity is remarkable.
You may have heard someone call another person or something their sheet anchor—that which gives them stability. Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1815 edition, writes that in comparison to other anchors, the sheet anchor is:
“…the largest and strongest, being that which the seamen call their last hope, and never to be used but in great extremity.”
Mike MacKenzie describes the sheet anchor:
“This was the anchor of choice when the wind was blowing hard and the seas were heavy and the ship just had to be secure. Lowering the sheet anchor required nearly all the crew at the windlass, and demanded a heavy load of chain to be payed out. Setting this anchor was a big job, but worth the trouble to safely ride out a storm.”
When a sailing vessel’s crew, in mortal peril of being blown by a terrible storm onto a rocky coast, deployed that ‘anchor of hope’, it was all they had left, in earthly terms, to save their lives from certain death. If that anchor did not hold, or if the cable failed, they were dead men. Paul understood. He was shipwrecked. Peter the fisherman knew. Even as the sailors in peril at sea fled for refuge to the anchor that was their hope for survival and life, so we have fled for refuge to Jesus Christ for life eternal, and our hope is the anchor of our soul.
“And He will be the stability of your times,
A wealth of salvation, wisdom and knowledge;
The fear of the LORD is his treasure.”
The graphic at the top is the printers mark of Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot refugee to England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The Latin phrase Anchora Spei means ‘anchor of hope’. Reaching down from heaven is a hand firmly gripping the anchor. All four of his marks had the Anchora Spei.
In the storms of our lives when our ship is swamped, with masts broken and sails torn, you and I both need to know how strong God’s grip is on us.
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Hold fast to our hope, the anchor of our soul. In Christ, we have an anchor who holds.
Thomas Vautrollier’s printers mark: William Roberts, Printers’ Marks, Project Gutenberg.
yāhal: R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1980, vol. 1, p. 373.
(ESV): English Standard Version.
John Owen, Hebrews. John Owen’s works are available in several places online, but the text is not
always easily readable.
History of the Anchor: Wikipedia.
William Burney, ed., Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1815 edition, 2006 reprint edition, p. 15.
Mike MacKenzie, Sea Talk.
William Roberts, Printers’ Marks, Project Gutenberg.
Print, patronage, and the reception of continental reform: 1521-1603.
Further reading on Hebrews from the sermons of John Piper:
What Is Hope? Hebrews 6:1-12
An introduction and overview of biblical hope.
When Does God Swear? Hebrews 6:13-18
On God’s strong encouragement to Christians to take hold of our hope.
Hope Anchored in Heaven Hebrews 6:19-20
An explanation of our hope and an urging to take hold of it.
Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter