For this fourth Sunday of Easter, we will be examining Hebrews 11 during the sermon. Our goal is to make sense of the way Hebrews 11:1 defines faith, and how our faith helps us embrace the pattern of death and resurrection that takes place in the Christian life.
When I was growing up, I was raised with the King James Version of the Bible, and Hebrews 11:1 read this way in that translation: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I remember never really understanding the meaning of this passage, even though it was an important passage on faith. What does substance mean??
I think the Holman Christian Standard Bible is one of the closest translations to what the writer of Hebrews is trying to convey, and the KJV was actually very close to this meaning.
"Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen."
The meaning of the passage depends on the words in bold, and I believe these translations are correct (see the end of this post for a short explanation and brief word study). So let's break the verse down. Both sections of the verse speak of something "hoped for" and "not seen." So faith is connecting us to things we hope for and cannot see, such as Heaven, Jesus, God, and all the promises of the gospel. So let's translate that as Heavenly world since the rest of Hebrews 11 speaks of it this way.
"Now faith is the reality of the Heavenly world, the proof of the Heavenly world."
Faith then is connecting us to the reality of Heaven. Faith is a proof or evidence of this Heavenly world. In other words, it witnesses to this Heavenly world. Now, let's take this and pull it together. I would put it like this: faith witnesses to (is proof of/evidence of) the reality of the Heavenly unseen world.
Hebrews 11:1 is saying your faith is a witness to the reality of Heaven. How does that work? Just consider forgiveness. You have faith that God has forgiven you based on the work of the cross. But is there any evidence right now? Not really. You have faith that God has promised this, and although it is true, you must wait for the day when he openly declares it. So your faith in the forgiving grace of God is a witness to the coming reality.
We can do this with any aspect of the Christian life connected to faith. I believe in God, the creator of Heaven and Earth; I believe in Jesus Christ; I believe in the Holy Spirit; I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. All of these truths, these doctrines, are bound up in the reality of our Heavenly hope, and our faith witnesses to that reality.
In the sermon this morning, we will look at this in the life of Noah, Abraham, and Sarah. All these saints, according to Hebrews 11, are living by faith and witnessing to another reality.
Noah - by faith he built an ark that was a picture of salvation. Why did he do this? He was "warned by God concerning events as yet unseen." Noah's faith was a witness to the coming unseen judgment.
Abraham - by faith he obeyed God when he was called to leave his homeland. He left "not knowing where he was going." His faith was driving him toward what was unseen. When he gets to the land of promise, he lived in tents. Why? By faith "he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." Abraham's faith witnessed to the reality of a city built by God, a city not of this world.
Sarah - by faith she received power to conceive and have a son, even though she was past the age. Her faith witnessed to the power of God because "she considered him faithful who had promised." From her and Abraham, who is "as good as dead" by that point, "were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."
Each person of faith was witnessing to an unseen reality. And this becomes clear in Hebrews 11:13-16, which reads:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamedto be called their God, forhe has prepared for them a city.
This is the kind of faith the writer of Hebrews is encouraging us to have. It is the only way we can truly navigate the multitude of deaths that we go through in the course of life, mocking, ridicule, suffering, pain, anguish...we must believe that God does not allow these deaths to have the last word. There is coming a resurrection.
WORD STUDY SUMMARY
This is simply a brief word study of Hebrews 11:1 for those interested in the translation. Our understanding of this passage depends on two words: "assurance" (hypostasis) and "conviction" (elenchos). Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, I put the Greek words in parenthesis in order to highlight that these are two different words in Greek. It is important to understand that the writer of Hebrews is conveying two things here.
First, the word "assurance" (hypostasis). If we were to do an exhaustive word study on this, we would find it has several meanings in Scripture, such as "confidence, trust, being, essence." But for the sake of brevity, notice how it is translated in Hebrews 1:3 as the writer is describing Jesus - "He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (hypostasis)." In this passage, the word is being used to describe the nature of the reality of Christ. In other words, Christ is the reality of God. My conclusion is the writer of Hebrews is using it the same was in Hebrews 11:1 - faith is the reality of things hoped for.
Second, the word "conviction" (elenchos). This word means certainty or proof. In fact, one writer says it can mean a trial in order to prove. I think that is very helpful. Faith will go through a trial in order to prove or witness to the reality of things not seen, the reality of the Heavenly world. This is precisely what Hebrews 11 is showing with these Old Testament saints.
In bringing this together, I would suggest we see faith as a witness to the reality of God's Heavenly world, and in the processor witnessing to this reality, faith goes through the trial of death and resurrection in order to "prove" or demonstrate this reality. That is what the "ancients" were commended for: they witnessed to the reality of the heavenly world in their own death and resurrection patterns.
As best I can tell, and this is honestly something that we must wrestle with and not give easy answers, I think that this pattern of death and resurrection is necessary because it is constantly pressing us to reorder our loves. In other words, we love the wrong things, or we love the right things in the wrong way. As C. S. Lewis once wrote: "When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now…. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased." This pattern of death and resurrection is the work of the Spirit in our life to put first things first.