After having shown Christ's glory by demonstrating His superiority over the Jewish religion as its fulfillment, the author of the Hebrew letter goes on to exhort his readers to reflect that glory by being faithful to Him. He encourages them not to fall away as some have done, but because they have a great mediator in Christ, go forward in confidence, despite the obstacles they face. In chapter 11 he gives them a shortened version of their own history highlighting those individuals who, despite difficulty, continued to believe and serve God faithfully. He does this in order to show them two things:
- That faith has always been the key response that God has desired from His people, not perfection, ceremony or eloquence.
- That his readers are recipients of the blessings that all their predecessors were faithfully waiting for, but died before receiving.
1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
The first verse is more a description of faith than a definition. Faith, in Old Testament times, was seen as confidence in God, perseverance and a vision of the unseen. Faith, in the New Testament period, is more amply described and specific in definition. For example, New Testament faith requires that one believe as true the specific claims of Jesus Christ, and make a personal commitment to Him as Lord based on that faith (Mark 16:16). Sincere faith in the Christian era is clearly seen as the believer strives to obey Jesus' teachings (Luke 6:46; John 14:23), and follow Jesus, trusting in Him and His promises (John 14:2-3).
The author of the Hebrew letter says that faith is primarily two things:
- Assurance - The original Greek word translated into the English word "assurance" referred to the substructure or the foundation of a building.
- Conviction - The original Greek word translated into the English word "conviction" was a legal term referring to evidence upon which a case was built.
"Hope for things not seen" refers to the blessings and promises made by God through Christ (forgiveness, resurrection and eternal life). Based on the understanding of these words, the author is saying that faith, what it was in the Old Testament and fully realized in the New Testament, serves as a basis from which people gain the ability to stake their lives on unseen realities. It is the foundation that permits hope. The "yes to belief" that allows us to see the things that exist in the invisible or spiritual realm.
2 For by it the men of old gained approval.
In verse two the author makes one of four comments concerning faith in this passage. He states that it is by faith (confidence of things not seen) that men (their Jewish ancestors) gained approval from God. He reaffirms the point that this has always been the basis by which God approves of men, whether they have faith or not. This is not a new idea. He will go on to give numerous examples of people who were spoken well of by God on account of their faith.
3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
Before going on to specific people to confirm his statement he uses creation, the universal example of faith, as the basis for understanding. He says that we can only grasp the fact of creation by faith since it cannot be proven by scientific evidence or observation (we can deduce, but there are no witnesses). However, if we believe God's Word on the matter, the reason, nature and purpose for creation become clear to us.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks.
The author continues by citing examples and results of faith exhibited by people. He begins with Abel and says that his sacrifice was acceptable because it was offered in faith and, consequently, he was considered righteous (acceptable) by God. Abel's example of faith still speaks (his example continues to be mentioned throughout history and preserved in Scripture). The writer's point is that examples of faith are powerful witnesses that can extend beyond our lifetimes.
5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; AND HE WAS NOT FOUND BECAUSE GOD TOOK HIM UP; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.
Enoch's faith was pleasing to God and, in some way, he was transported into the spiritual dimension without experiencing the conventional dying process. The key here is not the mysterious way he went to heaven but the fact that his faith was something that was pleasing to God. The author begins his examples from earliest history to show that faith was always what God looked for in men. Even His first act in natural history, creation, required faith in order to be observed with understanding.
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.
The author now makes a second comment concerning faith which elaborates on his earlier statement. Not only does faith please God, it is impossible to please Him without it! God rewards those who have it (Enoch). It is the nature of faith to live in hope and to look towards things not seen, and in the next series of verses the author will mention people who demonstrated this vision based on faith. His point will be that people who have faith see something that other people do not.
7 By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
Noah believed God at His word about an unseen and highly unlikely event, and his faith responded in obedience (built the ark). His faith saved him and his household from the catastrophy. The writer adds that Noah preached to others for over a century but they disbelieved, and because of their disbelief (expressed in disobedience) were lost when the flood eventually came.
The author reviews the life of one who truly saw a vision based on faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; 10 for he was looking for the city which has foundations,
Abraham was called to move to an unknown land which God said would eventually be his. He wandered over it as a nomad all of his life never owning any part except the place where he buried his wife. Abraham lived in tents and yet, in faith, waited patiently for the special home promised to him by God.
11 By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised; 12therefore, also, there was born of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants AS THE STARS OF HEAVEN IN NUMBER, AND INNUMERABLE AS THE SAND WHICH IS BY THE SEASHORE.
Abraham was promised many descendants but his wife only bore him a single son long after child bearing years. Despite evidence to the contrary, Abraham never wavered in his belief that God would make good on His promise. In the middle of this discussion about Abraham's faith, the writer makes a third comment about those of which he has just spoken.
13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 15 And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
All these died in faith without receiving the promises. However, having seen them and welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, they made it clear that they were seeking a country of their own. Indeed, if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it was, they desired a better country, a heavenly one! Therefore, God was not ashamed to be called their God for He had prepared a city just for them (the faithful).
The author explains that these people saw, by faith, the things that were promised (spiritual realities), but died before these promises were actually in hand (a better country/a homeland, are other ways of referring to heaven). However, because they saw these through faith, they were willing to bear the difficulties brought about by their vision, and never considered turning back to their original homeland, dying in the foreign lands where they wandered all of their lives.
These patriarchs did so because they believed, and because of this God was not ashamed to be associated with them (God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob - Exodus 3:15). The suggestion for the readers here is very clear: that returning to Judaism would be to abandon the vision. It would be a loss of faith which would cause them to be rejected by God. The idea that Christians are like "pilgrims" who are only passing through, on their way to a better place, is expressed here. Faithful people driven on by their vision of faith.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; 18it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED." 19He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type.
The author refers back to Abraham one last time. He writes that Abraham responded to God's call and promise with belief. Now he will describe how Abraham responded with faith to God's test (asking him to sacrifice his only son). Abraham's faith was such that it obeyed God even beyond understanding. He was in the process of offering up the only son through whom God said his descendants would eventually come. Abraham believed (not that God would prevent him from sacrificing Isaac) that He could and would resurrect Isaac, if necessary, in order to fulfill His promise.
In effect, this is what happened: Isaac was as good as dead because Abraham was fully committed to sacrificing him. Abraham demonstrated the kind of faith that restores one from death so that all of his descendants now have an example of how faith overcomes everything, even death.
At this point, in shorter sequences, the author parades an entire series of Old Testament characters who faced a variety of trials in life but never wavered in their faith.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.
Isaac blessed his sons, confident that God would carry out His purposes in them, despite their weaknesses and conflicts.
21 By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.
Jacob passed on the blessing to his grandsons and refused to be buried in Egypt, giving instructions that his bones be returned to the land he was originally promised by God.
22 By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.
Jacob's son, Joseph, made a similar request concerning his burial, which was carried out when the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 13:19).
23By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king's edict. 24By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; 25choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; 26considering the reproach of Christ greater riches that the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen. 28By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that he who destroyed the first-born might not touch them. 29By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned.
In referring to Moses, the author shows how faith was present from the beginning to the end of his life:
- By faith he was hidden at birth.
- By faith he refused to deny his Jewish heritage.
- By faith he chose to be associated with his people, and suffered for it.
- By faith he led the people out of Egypt despite the danger.
- By faith he kept the Passover which ultimately saved the Jews from the Angel of Death.
- By faith he led his people across the Red Sea.
All these high points are recalled to show that Moses was a man of faith, and that faith enabled him to see God's promises. This vision also enabled him to respond to all of these challenges with courage.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days.
His name isn't mentioned, but Joshua's great faith is alluded to in this incident.
31 By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.
She was the prostitute who risked her life in order to hide the Jewish spies. Again, courage prompted by the vision of faith.
32 And what more shall I say? for time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, 33who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; 36and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated 38(men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.
At this point the author speeds up his procession, giving highlights of stories that he is sure his readers are familiar with. He has no time or space to list all of the things that faith produces in men and women: courage, deliverance from death, victory, ability to persevere in severe trial, as well as rejection and scorn from the world.
39And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 because
God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
In his final comment the author expands on his previous point concerning the common faith of all these people. The main idea is that these people lived, suffered and died never losing faith, but they did not receive the promises (freedom, forgiveness, true relationship with God, eternal life). This was not because God was cruel in denying them the reward.
The author explains that God did not want these people to receive the blessings before we, in the Christian era, did. It was not that Christians would have an easier time in practicing their faith, it was that they would see and possess the fulfillment of the promises that the people in the Old Testament only saw from afar.
- Faith has always been what God sought in men from the very beginning; it has always been what pleased Him.
- Faith was the basis upon which men could see spiritual realities and have the ability to obey God despite the difficulties caused by sin.
- The history of the Jewish nation is a history of faithful men and women in action.
- In the Old Testament people died without receiving the promises, but through faith saw them from afar.
- In the New Testament those promises are here and received by faith in Jesus Christ.
We need to understand that God requires the same thing from Christians today as He did from the Jews thousands of years ago: faith
- Without faith we cannot please Him.
- Without faith we cannot see the promises.
- Without faith we will not have the ability to resist temptation and overcome the trials that each one of us will have to face in order to faithfully finish our lives as Christians.
You may be going along now without much thought to your faith, thinking all is well, but when your day of trial comes - then your faith will be examined. I hope it will be strong at that time.