“[W]hatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”+
We start with what might seem like a statement of the obvious in this verse from the Epistle. Whatever was written in the Bible was written for our learning, or “instruction” as some translations put it. But, in fact, certain parts of the Bible may not seem particularly instructive: histories which may seem to some dreary and mostly full of human failure and sin, long genealogical lists of ancestors, prophetic predictions about the fate of nations now long gone, laws about ceremonies no longer practised in full even by the strictly observant Jews.
However, even these parts of the Scripture are very instructive indeed, if only we will pay attention. Those histories and genealogies remind us that God is not an abstraction or an idea, irrelevant to our everyday lives, but the living God who has interacted with a long line of real, ordinary, “flesh and blood” people. People who had names, but people whose identity and history would have been long forgotten if it had not been for the choice of God to make a covenant with particular families and nations at particular times, and to never break that covenant from His side, through countless generations. The persistent failure of many of even those chosen people to live up to their part of that covenant is itself a lesson and a warning. “Strive to enter the narrow gate, for wide is the gate leading to destruction” (Matthew 7:13 + Luke 13:24) was the way Jesus put it. Similarly, the lost nations of the past against whom doom was spoken are a lesson because their doom arrived just as God said it would. And the ceremonial law speaks symbolically of the holiness of God and the need for fallen, rebellious humanity to be “put in restraints”, so to speak (Galatians 3:23-24, 4:24-25).
But the Bible does not just reveal God's unique justice and faithfulness, as against our tediously common disloyalty and unrighteousness. For St Paul speaks in the originally quoted verse of the hope to be drawn from the Scriptures. And what is this hope based on? “[P]atience and comfort (i.e., perseverance and encouragement) of the scriptures”. Now, there is a small exegetical question to be asked here. Does the author mean we gain hope through our patience, and also through the encouragement or consolation we gain from the Bible? Or does he mean that both the patience and the consolation are from the Bible? While there may be some ambiguity in the grammar, there seems to be little when the context is taken into account. The verse before includes a quotation from one of those scriptures “written aforetime” (Psalm 69:4) and refers to Christ's selfless persistence in the face of suffering: “Christ pleased not himself … 'the reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.'” Also, the verse following groups the patience and consolation together again as from the same source, God.
So, the “patience and comfort” are obviously intrinsically linked and both able to be learnt from the Bible. How does the Bible do this? It shows us over and over again that “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” as the Prophet Isaiah said (40:31). Not just by saying things like Isaiah did, but by giving us the history of men and women of faith and patience, and how God encourages and strengthens them. We also find that, many times, this came from the Word of God itself, as Psalm 119, the longest chapter of the Bible, makes clear.
What does this patience, this waiting upon the Lord, refer to? At its base it means never giving up, especially on obedient faith towards God. It's amazing how much of the spiritual battle is patience. St Paul in talking of spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 says: “having done all, to stand.” Jesus spoke a number of parables urging this dogged persistence (e.g., Luke 14:28-32, 18:1-8). Never, ever stop praying. Never despair of God's forgiveness, freely offered to the penitence of loving, living faith. Never say to yourself, “I give up, it's not worth the effort” in serving God or neighbour. Never use past failure as an excuse for present passivity. Never observe the small but knowing steps backward from God with careless indifference. Never put the Bible on a shelf merely to gather dust. Never stop going to Church or fulfilling your ministry in the Church. Never allow fear, sorrow or pain of the moment to rob you of the certainty that God loves you and plans eternal joy for you. Neither allow the deceptions of the world, the flesh, or the devil to pull you away from the purity of gospel-truth, nor to pull you towards the easy, indulgent religion of merely and unconditionally “feeling good about one's self”. Never assume your prayer has not been answered just because it has not been answered yet. Multitudinous are the stories of Christians who have experienced God's provision, but at the eleventh hour. Never permit cynicism to undermine your devotion, or anger to steal your love.
But why not? Because on the other side of patience is God's comfort, God's help. For he will never give up on us. He is faithful, as millions of his followers have joyfully discovered in their times of trouble, from Bible-times down to our own. And he will bring us to final victory, as we trust in Him. +