Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds (lit., ages) were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear’, Heb. 11. 1-3.
This great chapter of Hebrews 11 has been variously called ‘God’s Honour Roll of Old Testament Saints’ and ‘God’s Hall of Fame of Faith’. In Hebrews chapter 10 verses 22-25, believers are exhorted toward faith, hope, and love, while in chapters 11, 12 and 13 these virtues are enlarged on. Chapter 11 is an expansion of chapter 10 verses 38 and 39. The great danger for these Jewish believers to whom Hebrews was written was the temptation to live by sight, not by faith, cf., 2 Cor. 5. 7. This same great danger faces all true believers today.
Referring to Hebrews chapter 11, Herschel H. Hobbs has written, ‘The author showed how others of God’s people had found faith a source of strength to enable them to fulfil their God-given purpose in their lives. And upon this basis he exhorted his readers to be faithful in their part in God’s plan and purpose’.1
In our study of this brief introduction to this classic chapter, we want to focus on three things regarding faith:
Its Description, v. 1
The Greek verb for faith in Hebrews, pisteuo, is found only in chapter 4 verse 3 and chapter 11 verse 6, but the noun, pistis, is used thirty-two times, twenty-four of them in chapter 11. It is important to remember that faith in Hebrews 11 is not the faith by which one lays hold of salvation, but ‘faith by which to live a full and effective life in the will of God’.
It seems that the writer of this letter is not so much defining faith in his introduction, but describing something of faith’s characteristics and effects. It is the foundation of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen. Faith’s foundation is the word of God. An anonymous writer has rendered the statement of verse 1 as follows, ‘Faith means we are confident of what we hope for, convinced of what we do not see’. In certain papyri unearthed in Egypt many years ago, the Greek word translated ‘substance’ is found in the technical sense of ‘title deed’, the root idea being that they ‘stand under’ the claim to the property to support its validity.
It is readily seen throughout Hebrews chapter 11 that faith is active, not passive, virtually all of the illustrations centring on ‘things hoped for’ or ‘things not seen’.
Hobbs has helpfully pointed out that ‘faith is basic in every area of life. It is the support which stabilizes every element of society. Even scientific research begins with faith that truth not yet known can be discovered. Certainly faith is a vital element in one’s spiritual life. When reason falters, faith can lead one on to great achievements. It can bridge the chasm between what is and what can be. The readers of this epistle, then and now, need this title-deed and conviction’. 2
George Müller said, ‘Difficulties are food for faith to feed on’. Another has anonymously written:
Faith, mighty faith the promise sees,
And looks to God alone;
Laughs at impossibilities
And cries, ‘It shall be done’.
Oswald Sanders stated, ‘Faith enables the believing soul to treat the future as present and the invisible as seen’.
Its Demonstration, v. 2
‘Elders’ in this verse refers to all the Old Testament faithful who had preceded the readers of Hebrews. The term has the sense of ‘fathers’, or forefathers who had gone before and had received God’s approval. The balance of the chapter is an illustration of how God has borne witness to them.
W. H. Griffith Thomas3 asserted that the ‘elders’ of verse 2 are the ‘cloud of witnesses’ in chapter 12 verse 1, some of whom are mentioned in detail in chapter 11 with reference to their faith. Illustrations are like windows – they let in light. Thus, the illustrations of Hebrews chapter 11 instructively flesh out the reality of living faith.
Its Discernment, v. 3.
The world says, ‘Seeing is believing’; God says, ‘Believing is seeing’, John 11. 40. By faith Christians understand that the ‘worlds’, ‘ages’, were created by God. He spoke and by the word of His power matter and the universe came into existence, and this by His Son who holds all things together, cf., Gen. 1. 1-3; John 1. 1-3; Col. 1. 16; Heb. 1. 2. The writer of Hebrews clearly denies the eternity of matter.
The term ‘age’, aion, refers to both the physical creation and the time factor. Of this word Griffith Thomas has stated that, ‘it seems to refer to what may be called time-worlds, the idea being that the various ages or dispensations were planned by God with reference to a goal, toward which all are moving. Perhaps, therefore, the verse suggests both creation and providence, especially as the word “framed” means adjusted. This verse is thought to give the secret of the faith of the elders, v. 2, who did not judge by appearances but understood that the dispensations were prepared by God, and consequently they believed He would overrule everything for the accomplishment of His purposes’. 4
In defining faith, Warren W. Wiersbe has helpfully stated that, ‘According to the Bible, true faith is obeying God in spite of feelings, circumstances, or consequences. All of the men and women whose names are listed in “The Hall of Fame of Faith" had to deal with their emotions (did you ever walk through a sea?), their circumstances (did you ever fight an army?), and the consequences of their decisions (did you ever say no to a powerful ruler?). They did not deny their feelings; they could not change their circumstances; they could not predict the consequences. But they trusted God, and He saw them through’. 5