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Few concepts are more important to Christianity than the concept of “faith.” Yet, in our times, “faith” has become something of a loaded word; pre-filled with the meaning that a secular culture wants it to have. In these circumstances, if we are to achieve an understanding of “faith” that is truly Christian, it is necessary to shut-out some of the noise and focus upon what Scripture tells us.
Those familiar with the New Testament will agree that the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is as famous for its discussion of faith as I Corinthians 13 is famous for its discussion of love. Written to Jews who needed a better understanding of Christian faith, the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a logical starting point for Christians wanting a firmer grasp of the Christian concept of faith.
The chapter divisions in our Bibles today were added after the original text was written. They are an aid to the study of Scripture rather than part of Scripture itself. An initial investigation leads us to conclude that chapter 11 is part of a discussion of faith that begins at about verse 10:32 and ends with verse 12:2; so that will be the scope of our immediate study.
In the comparison chart provided below for the study of Hebrews 11:1, portions that pertain to the original Greek text are presented in colored areas and two English translations are provided against the white background. The verse itself is divided into two phrases:
As we proceed to consider Hebrews 11:1 certain words draw our attention. These correspond to the words shown translatable by alternate words in the New American Standard Bible (see NASB margin or our comparison chart above). For instance, the NASB shows that “hoped for” may be translated “expected” instead. While there are shades of meaning here, the difference is not a great one and does not affect the basic meaning of this passage in a significant way.1
Not so with the other alternate words the NASB suggests: “substance” may be substituted for “assurance” and “evidence” may be substituted for “conviction.” Here we may have a very real difference of meaning depending upon which word we choose in each case. This is not just an issue of translation into English, it is an issue in understanding the original Greek text itself. So the issue is not resolved by simply choosing a specific English translation.
In the choice of “substance” vs. “assurance” the waters are further muddied by the fact that the Greek word we are seeking to understand, hupostasis, is a term used by Greek philosophers. In addition, translators and interpreters agree that this word is used differently in the two other places in Hebrews in which it appears: 1:3 (clearly “representation” or “substance”) and 3:14 (clearly “assurance” or “confidence”). So on the basis of the words of this passage alone, there are questions that cannot be answered unless we examine the context. When we do, we find that the author has provided enough information to clarify his meaning in verse 11:1.
But, all is not lost in our initial inspection of verse 11:1. There is something important to be learned even if we have not determined the exact meaning of some of the words. The author very clearly speaks of two aspects of faith, one that concerns the future (“things hoped for”), and one that concerns the present (“things not seen”).
Because there is only one verb at the beginning of this passage, “is,” we know that we are speaking of two aspects of the same thing, not two distinct things that “faith” may be. True faith involves both the present and the future. That having been said, we might question why that aspect of faith that looks to the future is mentioned first in verse 11:1.
The answer may be found in Hebrews 10, where the author quotes Habakkuk 2:4; a verse that is also quoted in two other New Testament epistles that discuss the meaning of Christian faith (Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11).2 Those who take the time to read through the three-chapter book of Habakkuk (sounds like “Haba-cook” or “Ha-bacook”) will be rewarded for doing so. The author of Hebrews expected that his readers would be familiar with this writing, weaving it into his discussion in chapter 10.
Habakkuk lived about six hundred years before Christ. The military power of the Babylonian empire was growing. The prophet Jeremiah, author of the book of Jeremiah, was a contemporary. The Assyrians destroyed the nation of Israel about a hundred years before. It was becoming obvious to men like Habakkuk that the Babylonians would destroy Judah as well. This led to many questions about what God was doing and why.
As with Job, God did not provide a detailed explanation of His actions. Instead, God reminded Habakkuk of His promises and told Habakkuk to look past present circumstances to the time when, in the future, God would fulfill all of His wonderful promises to His people. Habakkuk responded with great faith. He believed in God’s triumph over evil in spite of the spiritual darkness all around him. For this reason, Claude Ries wrote in his commentary on the book of Habakkuk, “Habakkuk was the prophet who sang in the night!” 3
Like Habakkuk, the author of Hebrews points out to his readers that the reward God has for His people “is yet for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal and will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3). By the time we reach the discussion of Hebrews 10, the author has already made and reinforced the concept of reward at the bodily return of Christ. Jesus is seen to be a “Judge” in the Old Testament sense of the word, not only punishing evildoers, but rewarding those of His own who have been faithful. The punishment of those who do not walk in obedience to the Gospel is introduced in Hebrews 2:2,3. In 6:1,2 the resurrection of the dead and eternal punishment for the wicked are called “elementary teachings” -- teachings of the Christian faith of which all should be aware and which are so basic that they are in the background of all else that is taught. In 6:12 and 9:27-28, he speaks unambiguously about the reward to be brought to those who have been faithful to Christ. The author then goes on to reinforce this teaching in chapter 11.
Chapter 11 contains a distinguished list of Old Testament saints who, like Habakkuk, exemplify a forward-looking faith. Some, like Noah and Moses, prepared for judgment in response to the Word of the Lord (the flood and the killing of the firstborn during the first Passover). Others, such as Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, believed God for blessings (a great posterity, the bearing of a son in advanced years, God’s blessing upon sons).
The supreme example, given in 12:2, is Jesus Christ Himself. The relationship between 12:2 and 11:24-26, in which it is pointed out that Moses chose to endure ill treatment with his people rather than the privilege of membership in Egyptian royalty, seems to be established in Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19, where it is said that a prophet would come who would be like Moses (Hebrews 12:25, Acts 3:22-23).
Just as Moses was able to endure ill treatment because of the reward, Jesus was able to endure the shame of the cross because He looked ahead to the reward. In view of Jesus’ consciousness that the people of God would share that reward -- something the author has stressed throughout the book -- we are justified in seeing this as an invitation for us, too, to look forward to the same reward. For it was not simply His personal exaltation that Jesus was looking forward to, but the blessing of His people as well (11:39-40 4 ). In the relationship of 12:2 to Deuteronomy 18 (referenced in 12:25), it is important to notice that the people were to pay close attention to the words of the coming “prophet”- identified as Jesus in the New Testament. Certainly, in 12:2 the author is asking us to give the same sense of importance to the example of Jesus.
Indeed, we are reminded that all of the people the author mentions are looking for something that will not exist before Christ’s bodily return, “. . . the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11:10, cf. 11:13-16, 13:14). The emphasis upon God as the Creator of this new city follows upon the emphasis upon God as Creator in 11:3 (cf. 1:2) and is very close in view to John’s statement regarding spiritual rebirth in John 1:12-13; the re-creation exists by the will of the Creator.
The author of Hebrews points out that all of those given as examples died without receiving the reward they sought (11:13, 39-40, 12:2). However, in taking a stand of faith in the light of the reward to come, they lived their lives in a manner that was pleasing to God; and thus gave meaning to everything they did.
Peter’s exhortation to “fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:13) corresponds well to this section of Hebrews. So do John’s words encouraging his readers to look to the appearing of Christ because, “everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (I John 3:3); by which John indicates that those who hope in the reward brought by Christ will not be drawn into the evil of this age, and so will remain pure (I John 2:15-17). Certainly this will help Christians endure hardship as faithfully as did Habakkuk, the Hebrews commended in Hebrews 10:32-34, and the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11:1-12:2.
As important as is faith’s forward look, there is a second aspect of faith the author wants us to consider. In addition to mentioning these two aspects, the future and the present, in 11:1, we see them in 11:6, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” 5 We are able to look forward to a future reward if and only if we believe that God exists now.
Those who read Habakkuk cannot fail to be impressed by his faith in God. Even when filled with questions about what is happening around him, and before God answers, Habakkuk says, “Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord, my God, My Holy One? We will not die . . . Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil . . .” (1:12, 13). Later he writes, “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him” (2:20). Habakkuk combines strong faith in God with frank but reverent questions that is so typical in the psalms (Psalm 119, for example).
The author of Hebrews says of Moses, “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (11:27). The awareness that spiritual truths are not wishful thinking but realities is at the very heart of true faith. This translates into faith in God Himself and, thus, in His Word (Mark 11:22, cf. Psalm 73). Hebrews begins with the Word of the Lord spoken through Jesus Christ (1:1-2), emphasizes the reliability of the Gospel (2:1-4), reveals the truths about God and His work through Christ’s that are not apparent to those who look upon the world without faith, emphasizes the superiority of spiritual realities in 12:18-29, and exhorts us to live according to these realities in chapter 13. The message here is well summarized in Paul’s words in II Corinthians 4:18, “. . . we look not at 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.”
This is not a “leap of faith” into the irrational, but is based upon the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ and His chosen witnesses, the apostles; as confirmed by the witness of the Old Testament.6
With this understanding of the context, I believe that we can return to Hebrews 11:1 and paraphrase it accurately in this manner:
Faith is treating the things we hope for-SMD
as if they already exist;
convinced of the certainty
of eternal realities we are unable to see.
1 Except, of course, that “expected” seems to indicate a stronger confidence than, perhaps, “hoped for.” However, this shade of meaning, while of interest, does not greatly change the meaning here because we are discussing Christian hope as defined in the New Testament. And Christian hope is firmly grounded in Christ (Hebrews 6:17-20, I Peter 1:3-9); which raises Christian hope from the level of “strong desire” to the level of “confident expectation.“
2 Habakkuk 2:4 and its relationship to the teaching of the New Testament is also discussed in "The Christian Walk of Faith."
3 Claude A. Ries, “Habakkuk,” The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, Charles W. Carter gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 712. Dr. Ries’s observation underscores that Habakkuk represents well the point of view of The American Night Watch.
4 The “perfection” spoken of in Hebrews 11:40 is the completion of God’s redemptive work in His people, described elsewhere as “the redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23, cf. II Corinthians 5:1-5); which is the bodily resurrection and glorification of those who love the Lord. In these passages, inner spiritual work is seen in a secondary (though no less important) position to the bodily redemption already provided in Christ (Hebrews 9:28). A finishing of any inner spiritual work that remains to be completed in God’s people may not happen immediately at Christ’s return. A deepening of Christ-likeness over time may occur; unhindered by the evil of this present age or human, physical weakness (II Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 2:7).
5 Italics here are a part of the NASB translation and indicate that these words are implied but do not actually exist in the original text.
6 See "Understanding the Apostolic Foundation” and “Striving to be Apostolic;” parts 2 and 3 in our series “Charting a Course for the Church."
The American Night Watch Mid-Watch Report is an occasional publication of The American Night Watch Christian ministry in support of Scriptural Christianity and Scriptural holiness.
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This page was last updated August 12, 2001.