In 1812, Henry Martyn died in Asia Minor aged just thirty-one. By then he had accomplished significant work as a pioneer Bible translator in both India and Persia (now Iran). When a Muslim leader asked him why Christianity was so weak in the world, Martin responded confidently that God’s purposes had not yet been fulfilled. The helpers in his translation work, he said were making provision for future Persian saints. He believed that prayers would be answered and the work honoured in God’s time.15 Fast forward two hundred years. Today we hear of widespread and remarkable gospel blessing in Iran, amid the fiercest of opposition.
In 1661, Elizabeth Heywood, a godly wife and mother from Lancashire, lay dying, aged just twenty-seven.1 Her last prayers were for the Church of God, for the Jews to be converted, and for the gospel to reach to all nations.2 Her vision extended far beyond her own situation, her own family and church and nation. She wanted God to be glorified in all the earth, and by all people, and she was confident that he would bring this to pass.
A now-classic book by Iain Murray entitled The Puritan Hope describes how this confidence inspired God’s people to persevere through times of fierce persecution, and how it energised the pioneers of the modern mission movement. The Puritan Hope was first published in 1971, nearly fifty years ago. I have read this book many times, most recently during lock-down. It is a powerful tonic for times of discouragement, a reminder that while many forces may engage against gospel truth, there is One seated in the heavens who scoffs at their futile schemes (Psalm 2:4).
The Biblical Hope
This book offers a beautifully balanced depiction of the ‘prophetic perspective’. As the prophets looked forward, the future could be compared to a mighty range of mountains. The successive mountain peaks of Christ’s first coming, the gospel age, and the second coming could appear to fold into one. The Old Testament promises, then, often have multiple levels of fulfilment. This book is full of encouragement from both Scripture and church history not to diminish the extent to which promises of gospel blessing can be applied to the current gospel age, while also joyfully looking forward to our ‘best’ hope — that is the coming of the Lord in glory, the final judgement when all enemies will be cast down, and the ushering in of the new heavens and the new earth.3 We long for that time, but in the meantime we pray and we work for his glory on this earth.
But is it really biblical to expect to see great gospel blessing before the coming of the Lord? Iain Murray was converted in 1949. He recalls listening to his father praying fervently for the triumph of the gospel in all the earth, and mentally dismissing those prayers as ‘unbiblical’.4 Why? The prevailing liberalism in mainstream churches meant that many evangelicals had reacted by associating optimism with liberalism. Pessimism about the prospects for God’s people in this present age and a strong focus on the imminence of the return of Christ, fostered a mindset where engagement with society or planning for future generations were regarded as dangerous distractions from the urgency of soul-winning. Many believers today have inherited something of that pessimism, especially as we see so many challenges to biblical truth. But we can be encouraged by reminding ourselves of how many believers in the past, in equally challenging situations to ours, have rested their hope on the promises of Scripture and the Kingship of Christ.
The Basis for Hope: The Mediatorial Reign of Christ
The Father has appointed Christ as King, to ‘rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth’ (Ps. 72:7-8). He is so to rule as to smite the whole earth with its iron and brazen strength, with its gold and silver brilliance, shattering it with the rod of his mouth as an earthen vessel, just as the prophets have prophesied concerning the magnificence of his reign (Dan. 2:33-54; Isa. 11:4; Psalm 2:9).5