Faith is the substance of things hoped for… Hebrews 11:1-4 (Part 1)

The writer of Hebrews has an aim. It was to urge Hebrew Christians NOT to bow to the pressure to reject Christ by returning to the temple and its services. Hebrew Christians were being persecuted in a number of ways: treated violently, made fun of, and had their emotions worked on—tradition, loyalty, life-long practices. The book urges Christians not to look at what is visible, but, by faith, to hold on to the invisible things revealed in God’s word, the Bible. The letter starts with a discussion of God’s speaking to the fathers of old (meaning the believers we come across in the OT) and finally God speaks to us, in these last days, by a Son.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The Bible uses the word ‘faith’ in at least two ways.

The first way of using the word faith indicates that it has the meaning of ‘what is to be believed’, that body of knowledge about Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done, and what the means for us.

Jude, in his letter, speaks about [contending for] the faith which was once (and for all) delivered to the saints (Jude 3); an unchanging body of truth.  ‘The faith’ is the great gift of God to a sinful world. The Faith is God’s revealed will regarding our salvation through the life, the death and the rising again of Jesus Christ. This Faith comes to us in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.

So the letter to the Hebrew Christian is very concerned about the Faith. For instance:

Chapter one–the word reveals the divine nature of the Son,

Chapter two–the word reveals the incarnation of the Son

Chapter three–hear the word, trust the word; do not harden your hearts

Chapter four–the word is a two edged sword, revealing the Son as our only hope, our rest.

Chapters five to nine–the word reveals the Son as both priest and sacrifice.  God, who cannot lie, has sworn by himself as to the truthfulness of the message,

Chapter 10–the Son is presented as the new and living way.

The second way the word ‘faith’ is used in the Bible, shows that it means ‘the appropriate response to that body of truth’. We are to trust ourselves to the Saviour of whom God has told us about in the word.

This faith is the gift of God; he gives this faith to his children.  This faith is not just that a person can repeat the things that God has revealed, but it is our relying on what God as revealed as our only hope in this life and in the life that is to come.  Again, the letter to the Hebrew Christians deals at length with the vital necessity of this faith:

Chapter 2: How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?

Chapter 3: Today, if you will hear his voice, do not harden your heart.

Chapter 4: The promise [God’s revealed will for our salvation] did not benefit some, since it was not received by faith

Chapter 6: Warns against rejecting the word which we have heard.

Chapter 10:  Warns against rejecting the Son as he is revealed in the word.

Which of these two meanings of the word ‘faith’ is Hebrews 11 dealing with particularly? Both of them.

Faith is the assurance (foundation, substance) of things hoped for,

This clause comprehends both the facts that are presented to us to trust and our trusting of them.  The assurance (foundation) are the things God has assured us of in the word. They are the statements – objective truth — of the God who cannot lie.

Things hoped for refers to our trust in these statements. We put our trust – base our hope — in these statements from God.

The second clause of the first verse does a similar thing; it also refers to the message(s) and the trusting of the message(s):

(Faith is) the evidence (something proved or tested) of things (deeds done/actions/promises) not seen (but reported to us in God’s word, the Bible).

The idea is that true things — things past, present or future, which we have not seen, but have had reported to us by God in his word — are the appropriate object of faith, our trust. Because God is both the giver of the message and the faith to receive that message, faith is evidence. It produces conviction in us regarding unseen things:

  • God is not seen—He is a spirit, invisible, eternal and unchangeable. Revealed equally to all in nature (Rom 1), but without saving faith, the truth is rejected.
  • Jesus Christ, and all his deeds (life, death, resurrection)—we have not seen him or his doings, although others have seen and have told us of him. (1 peter, you love him whom you have not seen—2 peter, gives us eyewitness testimnoy of his glory.)
  • God’s unchanging favour toward his people, in the midst of changing circumstances. In this sin blighted world, Christians suffer the same troubles as those who do not trust God.  God’s favour is certainly on His people whereas His anger remains on those who reject His offered mercy.
  • all the promises Christians have in Christ: the resurrection; that we are priest and kings unto God.
  • judgment to come, and new heavens and earth.

2Co 4:18  While we look not to the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

The Christian martyr, Polycarp, was certain that the One whom he had trusted for 86 years would not prove false in the final trial.  The Roman proconsul urged him, and saying, “Swear, and I will set you free. Reproach Christ!” Polycarp is said to have answered, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”.

For the Christian, faith is not a vague wishing for something that is uncertain—like wishing on a star. No, the faith to which we trust ourselves has been revealed to us in an objective word. God has spoken repeatedly and consistently to the world in the scriptures over hundreds of years about the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Continued in part 2.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for… Hebrews 11:1-4 (Part 2)

Continued from part 1.

For by this faith our the elders received divine testimony.

The point of this verse is that our creator, who has given to the world good news, will be faithful and do what he has said. He promised to send a saviour, Christ the Lord, who would save his people from their sins. This testimony (or good report) was first given to the first two people who ever lived, Adam and Eve, just after their rebellion (Gen. 3:15). God had told them that if they ate the fruit that God had forbidden them, they would die. They disobeyed and brought the sentence of death upon themselves and all their children (us). But God gave them the great message of hope, and this message (Good News) was repeated to many others. We read of this in the OT and in this eleventh chapter of Hebrews. Here we are told that these elders received the message, that good testimony of what God would do to put right what Adam had made wrong.

Now, when the elders (Old Testament Christians) received this message about Christ by faith, they were justified–their trusting God’s promise of life in Christ was credited to them as righteousness. In this sense they were commended by God. They received a good report—God declared these sinful people to be Not Guilty simply on the basis of their trust in Christ. They received God’s testimony, God’s solemn promise that He will act to save them from the consequences of their sin. They received this good message of salvation by faith (eg. Gen 3:15, Gen 12:1-3 etc).  Each of the examples given in this passage points to their being justified by faith [Abel’s sacrifice approved by faith, Enoch receive testimony that he pleased God, Noah found grace, Abraham justified by faith…]

While it is true that the justified (those sinners whom God declares not guilty) will live by faith, nevertheless, their faith was not a good work which they did in order to be saved. They did not merit God’s favour by working up faith in themselves. Their justification came from God’s free gift—the living, dying and rising of Jesus Christ in their place—and the faith by which they trusted this salvation was also a free gift.

by faith we know that the present worlds were framed by the spoken word of God, so that the things that are seen did not come about from things that appear.

First example of something UNSEEN that the writer gives us is the truth of creation.

We human beings did not witness God’s creative acts in the beginning, when God spoke the worlds into existence. But He was there, and the one who did the creating has told us in His word what He did. We have God’s testimony that once there was nothing but the eternal God himself, and then He out of nothing (or into nothing) created everything that is not God. People, and the things which we experience now, once had no existence–matter, time and space have not always existed, but are things that God has made. We understand all this by faith.

Hebrews 11:3 is making an obvious reference back to Genesis 1.

And God said … let there be … let us make … “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the spoken word of God”

  • We are not products of chance; we have come from somewhere (some One) and we are certainly going somewhere—on one of two paths.
  • We are not autonomous (our own boss). We are responsible and must give an account of our actions to our Creator. God is always faithful to His word, both in His promise of mercy in Christ, and in His judgment of those who reject Christ. The best account, the only account that matters, is that Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead to rescue me from sin and death—He is my only hope.

Which brings us to the next verse:

by faith, Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, by which it was testified of him that he is righteous, God bearing witness to his gifts, and by it (faith or the sacrifice?) even though he is dead, he yet speaks.

Immediately we are confronted with human sinfulness. Two sinners–Cain and Abel–are represented to us as making offerings to God, sacrifices. The whole idea and practice of sacrifice dates from Adam’s sin and God’s promise to deal with his sin mercifully. God told Adam and Eve that one born of a woman will come and suffer, and through that one’s suffering, the works of the devil will be destroyed (Gen 3:15, as read in light of rest of Bible). And it seems, as a token of this promise, God covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve with animal skins–death of an innocent to cover the sin of the guilty. (Before their sin, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed–no sin, no guilt–but, after they disobeyed God, their ‘nakedness’ became a symbol of their spiritual bankruptcy. Their guilt was a dreadful reality.

Taught by Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel grew up with the dual message of human sinfulness and the promise of God’s mercy through the death of a sinless substitute– that one who would suffer in their place to take away the effect, power and presence of sin. They were taught to bring sacrifices to God as testimony of their trust in him and his promise.

Abel, we are told, believed the promise and his sacrifice was accepted– “by which it was testified of him that he was righteous”. Abel was justified by faith. He was declared not guilty in trusting God’s message of mercy. Cain went through the motions, he brought a sacrifice, but was rejected since he did not believe the promise. He did not believe God’s testimony regarding the reality of his sin nor of his need for a Saviour.

There might be significance in the fact that Cain brought grain offerings instead of animal offering, in that the Bible teaches us that, without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. It might be that Cain ought to have br0ught and killed a lamb or a calf as his offering, but even if Cain had done that, if it were not mixed with faith, he would still have been rejected.

The story of Cain and Abel is the first example given to us of the division that the Good News of Jesus Christ has brought to humanity. Once all were equally lost and under God’s eternal judgement. But by God’s promise to save a people from out of a lost and spiritually dead humanity, God has made war between those who continue in their rebellion and those whom he has saved. Abel trusted God. He believed God’s account. Cain did not trust God or His promises and remained in his sinful hatred of God and his people—so he murdered his brother.

By faith Abel looked forward to things not yet seen–the life, death and resurrection of Christ–Cain did not. Cain knew the message as well as his brother, but he did not believe it, nor did he trust himself to God’s mercy. Cain relied upon his own performance, and he was offended when God did not accept him.

Even though he is dead, Abel, still speaks of real confession of sin and trust in the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was promised to him. Abel, in a real sense, is the first Christian martyr. His faith in Christ condemned the sin of his brother’s unbelief.

The blood of Christ speaks of better things than that of Abel. The first condemns sin, the second removes it.

That Bible gives us the faith, the facts about Jesus Christ: who he is, what he has done, and what that means for people like us. May God give us faith to trust ourselves to this great God and saviour, Jesus Christ.