Faith is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1-3)

This chapter is well-known and well-beloved by Christians. It has been called the “Faith Hall of Fame,” for it is filled with example after example of those who lived “by faith.” In fact, the word faith occurs 24 times in this one chapter alone. Now the question is: how does this fit into the overall narrative? Why spend so much time on these examples of faith and faithfulness?

To understand the significance and function of this chapter in the book of Hebrews, let us begin by remembering where we are at in the development of the argument of the epistle. We have argued that in 1:1-10:18, the author is developing the main theme of the epistle, that Christ is better: better than the angels, Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and the Old Covenant along with the entire Levitical sacrificial system. He is doing this because his audience had been tempted to go back to a Christless Judaism. His argument is essentially this: you are going back to the shadows, going back to the types, and which all pointed to Christ. By abandoning Jesus, you are actually in a worse position than the OT saints, who by their faith in the Promised One had what essentially was a gospel faith. By consciously rejecting the reality to which the shadows pointed, these folks wouldn’t even have that.

And along the way he is warning them that this change would not be a slight tweak in their theology, but one which demonstrated that they were not saved to begin with. This is a serious thing, not a mere difference in theological perspective. There is no salvation for those who reject the salvation which is in Christ alone.

But now that he has finished the burden of his argument for the supremacy of Christ’s person (as the only begotten Son of God) and the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work (as the only true high priest who brings us into God’s presence), he is now urging them to apply these realities to their lives. This is what he begins to do in 10:19, with the words, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus.” And he continues to press the application up to the end of this epistle in chapter 13.

However, here’s the problem: doctrine is never applied in a vacuum. We are not called to believe merely on an intellectual level. A faith that does not make its way into the particularities of our lives is not a real faith. A faith that just says, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful for the body; what doth it profit?” (Jam. 2:16). Indeed, it does not; it is a devil’s faith and no more (Jam. 2:19). But the faith we are called to exercise is faith in a world that does not share our faith (2 Thess. 3:2). It is a world that will use persecution or pleasure to woo the Christian away from Christ. It is a world that is fallen and where things do not always work out the way we would like them to. It is a world in which we are exposed to a million things that can stretch and weaken and threaten our faith: cancer and viruses and depression and loneliness and rejection and wayward children and chronic pain and loss and abandonment and joblessness and financial woes and many other things too numerous to list. The question is, how do you live by faith in those kinds of situations? How do you live by faith when it’s not easy to live by faith?

As we noted last time, these Hebrew Christians were not living in the best of circumstances. They had been persecuted for their faith. They had endured the loss of property, reputation, and freedom. And apparently things were still hard because they were thinking about abandoning the Christian faith, most likely because identifying with Christ brought with it all kinds of problems.

So how do you motivate people in this condition to stay true to the faith? Well, we’ve noted several methods the author has used to do this up to his point, including warning them of the danger of apostasy on the one hand, and holding up the promises of God before them on the other. But another way to do this is by helping them to see that they are not alone. They needed to see that what can seem like the long and lonely life of faith to which they were called is something to which God’s people have been called in every age. And they needed to see that they weren’t the first to have to go through hard times in living out their faith in Christ. In other words, they needed a “great cloud of witnesses” to help cheer them on (Heb. 12:1), and that’s exactly what he gives them in this chapter.

We too need this. Here we come to the importance, and indeed the necessity of, Biblical history. That’s what this chapter is: it is an inventory of people and events in Biblical history. And I think it is important before going further to consider how important this is for us. And not just Biblical history, but the history of God’s people in every age. In writing this chapter, our author also demonstrates the importance of the history of God’s people in every age, including that of the church since the book of Acts. In particular, I want us to consider three things. First, I want to look at the importance of church history for the people of God. Second, the importance of people in the plan of God. Third, the importance of faith in the pursuit of God.

The importance of church history for the people of God

The history of the church is so important for many reasons. Let me give you four reasons, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. First of all, it helps us to keep things in perspective. It helps us to see that we’re not the first to have gone through hard times, and that in fact others have been through much worse than we have. It keeps us from the tyranny of the present. It keeps us from believing that the church has never been worse than it is right now. In fact it has, and the reality is that God has brought the church through many, many times that were far more serious (both in terms of doctrinal error as well as persecution) than anything we have seen. And the church still lives and thrives.

Church history also helps us to stay balanced in terms of doctrine and practice. One of the things you will notice is that modern heretics are almost always resurrecting an ancient heresy, although usually in a way more acceptable to their modern audience. C. S. Lewis once said that for every present-day author you read, you should read three other authors from an older generation. And his reason was that if we only read from our generation, we will never get past the blind spots of our times. Older generations can help you think from a different point of view; they didn’t share our blind spots, even though they certainly had their own. However, the point is that it is usually easier to spot their blind spots than it is ours, and they can help us to see ours.

There is another advantage to reading the history of the church, especially when you read broadly. And that is, it will help you keep from becoming a theological or a denominational snob. It will help you to see how God has worked through believers in different traditions and places and times. It will widen your understanding of the church in healthy ways. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be careful and circumspect in our definition of what constitutes faithfulness to Christ and his word and worship. But sometimes I think we draw the circle around ourselves too tightly, and like Elijah are wont to think we are the only ones left in this world, when in reality God has seven thousand knees (previously unknown to us) who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. The history of the church – that is, of the whole church – can help to correct this misperception and help us to see those seven thousand knees that have not bowed the knee to the false gods of ours or past ages.

But perhaps the most important reason that we should read church history is that it is flat out enjoyable and courage-building and hope-inspiring. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say that when he felt spiritually dull, he would go to the eighteenth century. By that he meant the history of the great revivals in America and England during that time. He found them to be refreshing and invigorating, and he said that apart from theology, church history was the important important thing a preacher should read. But don’t think that this just applies to preachers: we can all benefit in this way from the reading of the history of the church.

Biographies of godly men and women can help us to realize that we have settled for much less than what is possible for those who put their faith in Christ. Recently, Sarah and I read the biography of Amy Carmichael by Iain Murray. I haven’t been more convicted and inspired in a long time. But there are so many, and like the author of Hebrews we have to say, “And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me” to speak of all the men and women of faith who have made a definite mark upon my own heart and soul for good. I remember when I got to the end of Arnold Dalimore’s biography on George Whitefield, I wept. It created in me such a hunger and a thirst for the outpouring of the Spirit as he experienced in his own ministry and life. I am so thankful for the impact of the biographies of John Calvin and Martin Luther and Martyn Lloyd-Jones and William Carey and Charles Spurgeon and many others have had upon my life.

So can I encourage you to take up a good biography or a good history of the church, and read? If you need recommendations, I am ready to help! Of course, the very first place to start is simply to know Biblical history and the history of the men and women of the Bible. Read your Bibles! Know its history. There is a reason why the Bible is not just a series of doctrinal books. It is full of the history of God’s acts through his people, both Old and New Testament. We are meant to know the doctrines, yes; but we are also meant to know its history, too. In some ways, doctrine is nothing more or less than God’s interpretation of Biblical history. So read it! And of course, one of the best places to start is with this chapter, Hebrews 11.

The importance of people in the plan of God

There is another very important thing that chapters like this can teach us, and that is the role that individuals play in God’s plan for the church. People are important to God. He doesn’t do his work on earth apart from us; he does it through us. Not that he needs us, but because he wants to bless us in allowing us to be “laborers together with God,” as Paul put it to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:9). So when we look through the verses of this chapter as it unfolds, what we see is a list of people. God does not work out his plan for the church in history apart from real people who live in real places and do real things. What this means is that as God’s people, our lives are never insignificant. Now that doesn’t mean the world will recognize you. You probably won’t get a movie made about you, or books written to celebrate your life. You probably won’t be given any rewards by the important people in our culture. But that doesn’t matter. Noah was mocked by his generation, but they perished and Noah’s name endures. My friends, let’s not go for the praise of this world, but let us live for the kingdom of God, let us seek first his kingdom, for in this way we really make our lives matter.

Another thing to notice about the people who are listed is the fact that while some of the names are unsurprising, others are very surprising. I think this may be like a preview of heaven: we may not be surprised at some folks who are there, very surprised that others are there, and maybe the most surprised about some who aren’t. Here in Hebrews 11, Samson is listed, along with Rahab (the harlot) and Gideon and Barak, none of whom were exceptionally great role models, to say the least. All of them made tragic choices in their lives, and yet here they are, listed alongside the great examples of men of God like Abraham and Moses and David. It tells us that they are not listed because they had the best record or because they made the fewest mistakes.

Nor again are they listed for the relative impact they made. Enoch, for example, has very little written about him in the Biblical record. Neither does Abel; the only two things we really know about him is that his sacrifice to God was accepted and that he was killed by Cain his brother. All this begs the question: why put them here, then? What kind of individual is the author of Hebrews wanting to set before us? And here we get to what’s at the heart of this chapter.

The importance of faith for the pursuit of God

The thing that all these people here in Hebrews 11 have in common is faith. God does his work through people of faith. But more than that, the reason that these folks are on display is not only because they had faith, but because of what faith is and does. The author of Hebrews wants his readers (and us) to see what kind of life faith inspires because he is calling us to that kind of life. He wants us to endure, he doesn’t want us to be among those who fall away to perdition, but to be among those who believe to the saving of the soul (10:38-39). So how do you endure? You endure by faith.

And it’s important for us to see how faith does this. In other words, we not only need to see that the Bible says that faith is necessary, but also how the Bible says that faith works. That is what Hebrews 11 is all about. It’s about how faith enabled generations of godly men and women through hard times and trials. Sometimes you will hear the phrase “perseverance in the faith.” Well, we might as well say, “perseverance through the faith,” because it is by faith that we endure to the end.

But how does this work? To answer that question, let’s turn directly now to the first three verses of Hebrews 11. In these verses, which function as an introduction to the rest of the chapter, we see three things. We see that faith looks to the promises of God (1), that faith looks to the approval of God (2), and that faith looks to the power of God (3).

Faith looks to the promises of God

In verse 1, we read, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Though this is not meant to give an exhaustive definition of faith, it does say something very important about it. In this verse, the author of Hebrews is really saying the same thing twice. “Substance” is parallel to “evidence” and “things hoped for” is parallel to “things not seen.”

Let’s start with “things hoped for” and “things not seen.” These two phrases point to the fact that faith is future focused. The apostle Paul makes a similar point about hope in his letter to the Romans. There, he says that “hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we will patience wait for it” (Rom. 8:24-25). Hope is centered on the unseen, but not unseen in the sense of fairy tale or something that just doesn’t exist. Rather, the unseen is something that you must wait for – it is real, but it is future. That’s also the point of Heb. 11:1. The faith that God is calling us to looks to that for which you must wait.

In other words, faith is centered on the promises of God. The promises of God point us to the future fulfillment of his redemptive promises. Now, a big point here in Hebrews 11 is that the people here were not even in as good a position as we are. They all lived before the first coming of Christ. They had not yet seen the fulfillment of God’s promise in terms of the one who would come and bruise the serpent’s head by his death upon a cross. They were not in the position of knowing that Christ had not only come but also had risen from the dead. Think about Abraham, for example. He lived over four hundred years before the Exodus. Most of the miracles in the Bible occurred long after he lived. And yet when God made a promise to Abraham, he believed it. The things God promised to him were all unseen. It is well for us to consider that many of the things God promised to Abraham we have seen. Yes, there are still unfulfilled promises. We await the resurrection. We await the Final Judgment. We await the New Heavens and New Earth. And yet we are on the other side of the fulfillment of so many of God’s promises. Should we not also have faith? Do we not have even more reason to believe?

Then consider the words “substance” and “evidence.” What is communicated by these words? Well, they tell us how faith connects us to the promises of God. One false idea we need to dispel here at the outset is that faith is what makes God’s promises real. We must not say that because faith does not create spiritual reality. It is not what gives “substance” to the promises of God in the sense of bringing them into being.

Rather, the meanings of these words point us to the confidence that we have in the promises of God. The point is not that faith brings the promises of God into being, but that faith rests upon the faithfulness of God in bringing his promises to pass. In fact, the word “substance” is used several times in the New Testament for confidence and assurance. In 2 Cor. 9:4, it is used to translate the phrase “confident boasting.” In 2 Cor. 11:17, it is the word “confidence” alongside another word for “boasting.” In Heb. 3:14, it again translates the words “confidence.” So you see that is most likely the meaning here. Many other translations use the word “assurance,” which really comes to the same thing.

The word for “evidence” has a similar meaning. In the NT, it is used only here. The ESV translates this word as “conviction.” Faith looks at God’s word, at God’s promises, and is utterly convinced that God will bring his word to its appointed fulfillment. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes writes that this “is not a static emotion of complacency but something lively and active, not just a state of immovable dogmatism but a vital certainty which impels the believer to stretch out his hand, as it were, and lay hold of those realities on which his hope is fixed and which, though unseen, are already his in Christ.”i

Faith, in other words, means taking God at his word, and in particular his promises. It means banking on the faithfulness of God for our future. And it is an evidence of the new birth which gives us this faith that we do so. For the apostle John writes, “They [the false prophets] are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:5-6).

It is important for us to see that the reason why people do not believe God’s word is not because there aren’t good reasons to do so. The reason why they don’t is because they don’t want to relinquish control of their own lives. To put your future into the hands of God, which is what faith does, means giving up control over your future. And in our sinfulness, we don’t want to do that. We want to say, at the end of the day, that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. And that is what is antithetical to faith. I want you to see that: it is not that people don’t believe because they have higher standards for the evidence required to believe. It’s that they will refuse any evidence that points in the direction of God’s right to rule over our lives. Faith, on the other hand, is willing to let God be God, and to put our souls and our futures entirely into his good and wise and holy and sovereign hands. Faith is the assurance that God will bring his hoped for promises to pass; it is the conviction that his yet-unfulfilled and yet- unseen promises will one day be completely fulfilled and truly seen.

Faith looks to the approval of God.

In the next verse, the author points us to this very important dimension of faith: “For by it the elders obtained a good report” (2). This is an example of what has been called a divine passive. In other words, it is understood that the one who gives the “good report” is God. The one who witnessed with favor the deeds of the elders is God. That is the point here, and it is taken up several times in the following verses. It is in this sense that Abel “obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts” (4), that Enoch “had this testimony, that he pleased God” (5), and of all the people of faith mentioned in this chapter, who “obtained a good report through faith” (39).

Faith has a certain focus. It is not focused only on the present, but on the future, which is the point of verse 1. But it is also focused on God and his approval instead of men and their approval, which is the point of this verse. In fact, our Lord himself put it this way to the Pharisees of his day: “How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only?” (Jn. 5:44). You can either seek man’s approval or God’s approval, but you cannot seek both. As the apostle Paul put it, “if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).

This is important because the life that faith calls us to is not popular with the world. We noted last time that these Hebrew believers had become a “gazingstock,” held up to mockery and reproach (Heb. 10:33). Christians have all along had to wrestle with misunderstandings from a hostile culture, even in times when our religion was more acceptable. For when the Christian religion was more acceptable, it was always a more formal version of it, rather than the living faith that God calls us to live out. Believers in Christ do not therefore look to this world for acceptance, but from God who promises to reward those who trust in him with everlasting life.

How much better it is to do this anyway, for how fickle is the opinion of men! They will often only grant you their approval so long as it is in their benefit to do so. But God is not like that. He does not turn his back on his people. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35). His own Son died for us when we were his enemies (Rom. 5:9-10), so we can be sure that, having reconciled us to himself, he will never stop loving and caring for his people.

Faith looks to the power of God (3).

Finally, in verse 3, we read, “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” We should connect this back to verse 1 and to the “things unseen” mentioned there. But we should also connect this to Romans 1:20, which says that “the invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

So note that the connection between faith and the creation of the world is not meant to communicate a sort of blind faith, for that is the very opposite conclusion that Romans 1:20 is meant to lead to. In Romans, the apostle Paul is saying that there is plenty of evidence from the physical world pointing to God’s existence and power, so that people are without excuse when they reject it. Hence, we are not meant to take Heb. 11:3 as if it were saying, “Believe that God created the world, no matter what the evidence (scientific or otherwise) says.” Rather, it is pointing to the fact that the power which created the world is a power we can’t see with our physical eyes. (Also there is the obvious fact that no one was around when the world was created, and being a one-time event lies outside the realm of testable science.) God’s word is not a physical, material thing, but it is the reality which lies behind all physical and material things. “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6), a reality testified to by the first chapter of Genesis and the repeated phrase, “And God said” (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 29).

We therefore take this on faith because God’s word is not a visible thing. Faith is that by which we see the unseen (Heb.11:1). But that is not the same thing as saying that faith is unreasonable. Faith in the power of God’s word is the most reasonable response to the fact of the universe. The fact that our universe is clearly not self-existent, that it had a definite beginning, and that the life that is here can only be properly explained by an intelligent designer, point us to the fact that someone outside our universe must be responsible for its existence and its continuance.

But note the principle here: it is the unseen that explains the seen, and it is by faith that we lay hold on this explanation. It is the unseen word of God that is the explanation for the created world of God. Just as God’s future promises are yet unseen, and by faith we lay hold of them and give them a sort of present substance, even so the word of God is invisible to us and yet by faith we are led to understand that what we see is explained by this unseen word of God.

In other words, it is by faith that we recognize that there is more to this world than the physical and material creation. We shouldn’t try to explain everything in terms of what we can see and touch. Rather, by faith we understand that there is a greater reality that gives us a better explanation to everything else, namely, the word of God. By faith we look to the unseen word of God to explain what we see. Hence in verse 3 we are given a parallel between faith and the word of God which created the world, and faith and the promise of God which defines the life to which we are called. By faith, we are not closing our minds to evidence, but opening our minds to the most satisfying and encompassing explanation to the facts of this world and our existence.

In all of this, faith lays hold of the word of God and the power of God. It is the power of God that framed the world. And it is the power of God that will bring about the fulfillment of God’s promises. Just as God’s word acted upon a world that was “without form and void” (Gen. 1:2), making it into a paradise, even so God word and power continue to act upon this fallen world, twisted and corrupted as it is now by human sin, so that one day it will once again be a paradise and a place where we will again enjoy uninterrupted and eternal fellowship with God.

How then does faith help embattled saints to persevere? It helps us because faith is focused on the promises of God. Those who believe God’s word of promise are precisely those who are assured and convicted that they are true. Faith gives present substance to the future promise of God. It reminds us that our present trials are not the final or ultimate reality. Our present sufferings will not have the final word: God will. We persevere because we believe that on the other side of affliction is the eternal kingdom of God.

Faith also helps us to persevere because faith is focused, not on man’s approval but on God’s. We aren’t living to make a splash in this world, but to please our Heavenly Father. By faith we are like Enoch and walk with God and before God. It is by faith that we live a God-centered life. Surely many of our problems are the result of living man-centered and self-centered lives. Faith turns our attention from ourselves to the only one who matters, and the only one in whom we are truly blessed, God.

Finally, faith helps us to persevere because faith focuses us upon the reality of God’s word and God’s power. It reminds us that what is seen is not the ultimate reality. The chaos that is this world will one day through the providence and salvation of our God lead to a new and eternal paradise. No matter how bad things get, nothing is outside the power of God to change.

And so we hope. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. Our hope is not in ourselves, our wisdom or power or goodness, but in the wisdom and goodness and power of God. Those who have this hope endure. They do not draw back to perdition but believe to the saving of the soul (Heb. 10:39). Let us then be men and women of faith. And let us not be characterized as “little faiths” but as those with great faith, not in ourselves, but in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 440-441.



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