Updated: Nov 9, 2018
What does the Bible mean when it says that hope in Christ is an “anchor for the soul” (Hebrews 6:19)?
This article is a summary of several chapters of my Masters theology dissertation. I hope it will be of interest to those who wish to study in depth a particular biblical metaphor.
In his book, The Life God Blesses (1) Gordon MacDonald tells the true and tragic story of Michael Plant. In the autumn of 1992, this popular American yachtsman set sail from the east of the USA to attempt a solo crossing of the north Atlantic. Despite being an experienced sailor, Plant was lost at sea 11 days into the voyage, his state-of-the-art vessel, The Coyote, found floating upside down 450 miles from the Azores.
At the inquest it was revealed that, on that fateful day, something caused the 8,000lb counterweight on the bottom of the hull to be torn from the underside of the boat. There was much speculation at that time that the accident might have been caused by a collision with a submarine but, however it occurred, once that weight had been torn away from the hull, the balance of the whole boat was compromised, and a subsequent wave caused the yacht to turn over so fast that Michael Plant had no time to send a distress signal or save himself.
Gordon Macdonald sees a parable in that true story. The story teaches that what keeps us safe through the storms of life is not normally the highly visible aspects of our lives, but instead the hidden and unseen aspects, like our character, our inner convictions, our faith. Michael Plant’s safety at sea lay ultimately, not in the high-tech computers on-board, not in the aqua-dynamic hull, but in the unseen weight below the waterline.
There are questions posed by such a story: what is the spiritual weight below the waterline in our life? Is there any substance to our character, convictions and faith? These searching questions have led me on a “journey below the waterline” in my own life, through which attitudes have been challenged, convictions forged and faith refined.
A significant part of this personal journey has involved reflecting on the significance of a biblical metaphor closely allied to the “weight below the waterline” theme. This is the metaphor of the “anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). The anchor in nautical terms is a weight below the waterline and yet the writer to the Hebrews uses it to convey spiritual truth. What exactly did the writer mean?
My reflections on this subject have led Hebrews 6:19 to become my all-time favourite Bible verse. But because this single verse is hidden in the not-well-travelled landscape of the Epistle to the Hebrews, most Christians are unaware of this description of hope as an anchor. Yet this ignorance of the anchor symbol was not the case in the earliest days of Christianity.
The anchor was used as a symbol for the Christian faith, even before the cross became the symbol of Christianity. Examples of the anchor can be seen etched on the walls of the Catacombs beneath the city of Rome where some of the earliest Christians buried their dead. Gertz reports how epitaphs on believer’s tombs dating back to the end of the first century display anchors alongside messages of hope. He records how one cemetery uncovered by archaeologists had about 70 examples of this kind of message. (2) Overall, no less than 35 types of anchor designs are identifiable within the catacomb excavations. (3)
Why should the early Christians have used the anchor symbol? Gertz offers two possible explanations:
The anchor was the royal emblem of Seleucus the First, king of the Seleucid Dynasty. The king reputedly chose the symbol because he had a birthmark in the shape of an anchor. The Jews living under the Seleucid Empire adopted the symbol on their coinage, though this was phased out around 100BC.
In church history, the fourth Pope, Clement, is believed to have been martyred by being tied to an iron anchor and drowned around 100AD. According to tradition, the sea receded three miles to reveal Clement’s body buried by angels in a marble tomb. Despite the dubious historicity of this account, it does show how Clement’s martyrdom was an inspiration to the early persecuted Church (4).
How could a symbol used so powerfully in the earliest days of the Church have become so sidelined? Why is it that I can only find one commentator who expresses surprise that no other New Testament writer, other than the author of Hebrews, uses the anchor metaphor? (5) Archaeological evidence shows that the anchor disappeared after 300AD. This may be because of the Christian faith becoming sponsored at that time by the Roman Empire under Constantine. The symbol which had so encouraged Christians under persecution was no longer needed.
Kennedy cites the puzzling silence of the Church Fathers on the subject of the anchor. (6) He and other scholars believe that the use of the anchor was actually a word play in Greek (ankura standing for en kurio “in the Lord”). The anchor was therefore seen as a seal on the person’s grave that they had died “in Christ”. (7) If this word play is correct, then the symbol fell into disuse when Christians chose Latin as their main language rather than Greek.
Even though there may have been particular reasons why the anchor symbol died out of common usage, nevertheless the writer to the Hebrews used the anchor metaphor to convey an important theological point and it is sad that this has been neglected. What did the writer mean by teaching that hope in Christ is the anchor of the soul?
There is a reasonable scholarly consensus that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians in Rome. One of the commonly repeating themes through the letter is a call to have hope (eg. 3:6, 6:18-20, 10:23-25. 11:1). It appears that the recipients were a community facing a faltering of hope. A number of commentators propose that this theme addressed in the letter points to a date around the time of Emperor Nero’s persecutions of Christians in AD64. Here was a group of Christians who had experienced various sufferings in the past, yet now were very fearful that a more brutal persecution would affect them. Hebrews, therefore, was “addressed to a local gathering of men and women who discovered that they could be penetrated by adverse circumstances over which they exercised no control.” (8)
Here, then, is the proposed historical backdrop for the anchor metaphor. It is used in relation to a group of fearful believers, experiencing a crisis of faith and who were perhaps neglecting the bonds of fellowship with other Christians in Rome (implied by Hebrews 10:25). With a heart of deep pastoral concern for these Christians, the author writes to them of the anchor of the soul, seeking to offer a message of hope.
The anchor of the soul metaphor is found within a section of chapter 6 of Hebrews which focuses on the certainty of God’s promises, illustrated particularly with regard to the promises made to Abraham. The passage introduces the concept of the “divine oath”, which is developed much further in chapter seven. A number of commentators view this passage with great importance. Altridge sees Hebrews 6:13-20 as the bridge between all earlier chapters of the epistle and the central expository section which follows. (9) Lane summarises this passage as “an exposition of the reliability of the divine promise extended to Christians through the high priestly ministry of Jesus.” (10) And Ellingworth sees this passage expressing “as strongly as possible the unchanging faithfulness of God.” (11)
Viewing the wider context of Hebrews 6:13-20, Lane draws attention to the “remarkable concentration of forensic language” (12) within this passage. There are various Greek phrases which are linked with the guaranteeing of oaths. Other words convey juridical solemnity. For instance, the Greek word antilogias (translated in verse 16 as “argument”) is a term for a legal dispute. The word bebaiōsin (translated in verse 16 for “confirmation”) is also a legal term. Lane sees the author as wishing to provide a cast-iron argument for presenting hope to his readers. Just as the hope he presents is firm and secure, so the author wants to ensure that the argument in favour of it is also dependable.
Let us follow the argument of the writer in verses 13-20, as the anchor metaphor is introduced. In verse 13, the writer begins his argument about hope by citing the example of God’s promise to Abraham, quoted from Genesis 22:17. Here the concept of confirming a promise with an oath is introduced. In the ancient world, promises were guaranteed by the person swearing by a divine name. (13) The person would have effectively been saying, “If I am not telling the truth, then may the gods strike me down.” The closest modern equivalent we have would be, “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
The writer uses this idea of swearing by a higher authority to underline the confidence we can have in God. The writer says that “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised” (v17). Who are the heirs of the promise to Abraham? In Romans 4:16, the Apostle Paul affirms that those who have faith in Christ are Abraham’s heirs. Thus the writer to the Hebrews stresses that God wanted to assure all his people of his dependability. The word chosen for “wanted” in verse 17 is a strong Greek word (boulomenos) and, when combined with the adverb perissoteron (= very clearly), shows the depth of God’s desire that his people know assurance in his trustworthiness. Guthrie sees this as God’s “gracious understanding of man’s need for evidence that cannot be refuted.” (14)
What did God do to make confidence in him absolutely clear? He confirmed his word with an oath. And, because there is no one higher than God, when he gave his promise to Abraham, “he swore by himself” (v13). So now there can be a double confidence in God’s promises. Not only do we have the promise itself, but we have it confirmed by oath. “God’s promise and oath provide strong encouragement to hold firmly to the objective content of Christian hope.” (15)
What should God’s people do in response to this “repeated evidence of God’s continuing purpose”? (16) We are urged to “take hold of the hope offered to us [so that we] may be greatly encouraged” (v18). But God’s people are described as “those who have fled to take hold of the hope” (v18). It is an interesting way to describe the intended audience for the letter: fugitives (hoi kataphugontes). The only other biblical reference of this word is in Acts 14:6 where it is used to describe Paul’s flight from Iconium. Guthrie believes the use of this term was meant to urge the recipients of the letter to decisively turn away from a state of discouragement and apathy in order to embrace hope. (17) Altridge sees in this term the sense of God’s people on a journey, where hope is the object of the quest. (18) Lane concurs with this idea: “The qualification of hope as something placed in front of the community . . . defines hope as the objective gift that God extends to his people in Christ.” (19)
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf” (v19-20). Altridge remarks that there is no biblical Hebrew word for anchor, but that there is evidence in ancient Greek literature of this metaphor being used, particularly Philo, who utilised elaborate nautical metaphors for the human plight. (20)
Both Lane (21) and Barclay (22) quote further Greek examples to demonstrate that the anchor had widespread ancient use as a symbol of hope. In order to understand the use of the anchor in this verse, we need to examine the three descriptions used. It is “firm”, “secure” and it “enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain”.
The word “firm” (asphalē) means “safe”. It is also used in Philippians 3:1, where it is translated “safeguard”. I find it intriguing that the Greek word is very close to asphallō (a=without, sphallō=to make stumble), from which we get the word asphalt, which is used to secure road surfaces. Thus one of the characteristics of the anchor hope of Christians is that it keeps us safe from falling in our faith journey.
The word “steadfast” (bebaian) means “not to be moved”. It is used on four other occasions in Hebrews in 2:2, 3:6, 3:14 and 9:17. Altridge sees the hope as steadfast because it has received God’s confirmation. (23) Here an interesting question arises: do these two adjectives, firm and secure, describe the anchor as it is in itself, or do they express how hope is experienced by the Christian believer? Ellingworth certainly believes the former, as he believes the writer has portrayed the anchor itself as the image of security. (24) I consider this to be an accurate assessment, because the whole “legal style” argument of this section of Hebrews suggests that the writer is wanting to set forth something tangible and objective in which his audience can place their hope. Thus he uses the terms “firm” and “secure” for the anchor hope itself. This is not to say, of course, that the believer’s experience of hope is unimportant. Far from it.
What does the writer mean when he now tells us that the anchor hope “enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain”? Here, as Guthrie points out (25), the writer switches thought from the sea to the Tabernacle to explain why Christian hope should be so firm and secure. The inner sanctuary was the most holiest place in the Jewish Tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant resided. The sanctuary was protected by a curtain (Exodus 40:3) and was the place where God’s presence dwelt among his people.
Thus, through this Old Testament image, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Christian hope is anchored in the safe harbour of the heavenly realm, right in the very presence of God himself. Earlier in Hebrews, the writer has already told us that Jesus, in his role as the great high priest, has “gone through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14). So there is a close link between the ministry of Jesus as high priest in bringing us into God’s presence and the anchor hope metaphor which has entered “behind the curtain”. Certainly Altridge believes there to be an intentional link in the writer’s mind between Jesus and the anchor metaphor. (26)
Ellingworth believes it is significant that the writer uses a present participle to tell us that the anchor hope is “entering” the inner sanctuary. He argues that this implies an action still in progress so that the way into God’s presence is always open to those who place their trust in Christ. (27) Thus it is by hope that we may draw near to God (Hebrews 7:19).
“The present time is the time of sure and steadfast hope precisely because through his sacrificial death Jesus has entered the presence of God on behalf of his people and has made it possible for them to approach God.” (28)
Thomas Long explains the anchor metaphor by means of a diagram, in which he pictures hope like a cord. (29)
Long sees the writer to the Hebrews as wanting his readers to imagine Jesus taking the anchor with him into heaven where it has been firmly secured to the throne of God. The anchor has a cord attached to it, which extends from heaven to earth, so that God’s faithful people can grasp it. The cord holds firm because it is attached to the steadfast commitment of God, who keeps his promises. But Long goes on to see the anchor’s cord spanning the distance between creation and the ultimate fulfilment of all God’s purposes in Christ. So Long sees the cord attached to heaven at each end, yet hanging down through human earthly history.
Of course, there is no metaphorical cord mentioned in the Hebrews passage, but it is in keeping with the tenor of the anchor metaphor to envisage there being a cord. After all, an anchor is no use at all if it is not fastened to a ship by something! Also, the case for including a cord as part of the metaphor is strengthened when the Hebrews writer has already urged his readers twice to “hold firmly” onto their confidence (Hebrews 3:6 and 3:14). If the anchor hope is secured in heaven, then it cannot itself be grasped by those on earth, so there is a right sense in which there should be a “cord” extending down to earth from the anchor.
Should we see this cord as extending back as well to the beginning of creation? There is a right sense in which our hope rests in the complete work of Christ, rather than just a few specific aspects of it. So Long’s diagram is an appropriate way to view the “big picture” of Christian hope.
What we therefore see in the anchor metaphor is that hope for the Christian is something experienced on earth, precisely because the object of our hope is firmly secured in heaven. It is important to recognise that our “living hope” is “kept in heaven” (1 Peter 1:3-4). God does not grant stability to Christians by anchoring them to something in this present world. We are not secure in this world because of anything in this world. Christians are secure in their present life, because they hold on to something that is part of God’s ultimate future purposes: a new heaven and a new earth.
This, then, is the way the writer to the Hebrews pictures Christian hope, the kind of hope he believes his readers should take hold of, in order that they may be encouraged as they face possible persecution. This hope is not just a nice idea which has no experiential application. As Guthrie says: “Hope is of such a character that it needs tenacity to retain it. It does not simply happen. It is both set out as an objective reality to be seized and also a subjective reality to be personally experienced.” (30)
We are called to a place of deeper faith in the One who gave His life for us, yet was raised triumphant to inaugurate God’s new era of hope for the whole of His creation. Our lives are to be anchored, not to an undependable source, but to a trustworthy Saviour, who faced humanity’s greatest storm – death itself – and broke its power forever, rising victorious, yet still bearing the scars of the storm.
It is our hope in that unshakeable Saviour that will enable us to weather all that life may throw at us. We, too, like the Saviour who has gone ahead, may emerge from each storm a little more scarred than before, yet this hope which is ours, will bear us through even that very last tempest which everyone must face, beyond into paradise and then, at the last, into the realm of God’s final renewed earth and heaven, where storms are stilled for all eternity.
1. G MacDonald, The Life God Blesses, p1-4
2. S Gertz, “What is the origin of the anchor as a Christian symbol and why do we no longer use it?” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/sep13.html
3. C Kennedy, “Early Christians and the Anchor”, in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol 38, 1975, p117
4. S Gertz, Op. Cit.
5. D Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p153
6. C Kennedy, Op. Cit., p116
7. S Gertz, Op. Cit.
8. Ibid., p. xlvii
9. H Altridge, Hebrews: Hermeneia – a critical and historical commentary on the Bible, p178
10. W Lane, Op. Cit., p148
11. P Ellingworth, Op Cit., p334
12. W Lane, Op Cit., p149
13. T Long, Hebrews: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p76-77
14. D Guthrie, Op. Cit., p151-152
15. W Lane, Op. Cit., p149
16. P Ellingworth, Op Cit., p335
17. D Guthrie, Op. Cit., p152
18. H Altridge, Op. Cit., p182
19. W Lane, Op. Cit., p153
20. H Altridge, Op. Cit., p183
21. W Lane, Op. Cit., p153
22. W Barclay, Op. Cit., p74
23. H Altridge, Op. Cit., p183
24. P Ellingworth, Op. Cit., p346
25. D Guthrie, Op. Cit., p153
26. H Altridge, Op. Cit., p183-184
27. P Ellingworth, Op. Cit., p347
28. W Lane, Op. Cit., p156
29. T Long, Interpretation: Hebrews, p79
30. D Guthrie, Op. Cit., p153