Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Hebrews 11:1-3
I have always heard that this was the famous 'faith” chapter of the Bible, but I never really understood why, mostly because I could make neither heads nor tails of verse one. Besides, the author only spends one verse giving us a definition of faith, and then goes off and spends 39 verses telling us about people who exercised faith. One verse of definition, 39 of description. Is there something we can learn from this?
Is it perhaps that faith is best defined by the people who live it?
Could it be that faith is not so much a possession to admire as much as it is a gift to be used? In fact, faith is such a word of action that we can learn 39 times more about it by exercising it than we can by defining it. Faith is best described by looking into the lives of people who placed their entire hope, trust and yes, faith, in a God they could not see, touch, or comprehend. They were the righteous ones who lived by faith, and even though they never actually saw the end result of their belief, they lived for God anyway. No matter how long God delayed in His final consummation of their salvation, they were determined to live wholly and completely for Him. With this understanding, we could look at chapter 11 of this epistle as the sermon for which 10:38 is the text: 'But my righteous one shall live by faith.”
So, I finally learned that the 'faith” chapter acquired that name not because of its perfect and comprehensive definition of faith, but because of the long list of individuals who, by example, paint a picture of faith for us. In the first three verses we are going to see how the author points out some significant aspects of faith, and then he will move on to show us how these particular aspects of faith were worked out in practice by the saints of the Old Testament.
As is the case with love and hope, faith is an action word, which was the point James was trying to make when he said, 'I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). Faith is known by what you do, not by what you profess. If you say you have faith but never put it into practice in your daily life, then it's not faith you possess, but wishful thinking.
Since the author of Hebrews gives us a brief definition of faith, that is a good place for us to start.
Faith is being sure; it is substance and confidence—whether in the flesh or the spirit—in the truthfulness, trustworthiness, and testimony of a person, a thing, or even an idea, which does not need proof or evidence to support its belief. Faith is being absolutely convinced and convicted of those things that we cannot see. Faith is the organ by which we see the unseen. It is so intense, so overwhelmingly satisfying, so compelling in its conviction, that it dictates to the faithful all that they must do. It is faith that directs your steps towards God in every waking moment and comforts you in your spirit as you sleep. Faith enables you to live in this hope and die in this hope and in between it guides you like a beacon to the throne of God.
Still, those who live by it are best qualified to define faith, and those who do all believe, as James Moffat says, in three things: They believe in God over the world, in the Spirit over their senses, and in the future over the present. By putting our belief in God above the standards of the world we will never win a popularity contest and will certainly know the pain of rejection, but it is eternally more beneficial to put one's faith in God than it is to prosper with the world as a partner.
In Daniel 3, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah all faced the choice of obeying the decree of King Nebuchadnezzar and receiving his reward, or obeying God and seeing His reward. They had to choose between the word of God and the word of a king. Needless to say they would never have encountered God in the flames if they had not first been willing to go through the fire of worldly wrath. The righteous know that it is better to stake everything upon God than to trust in the wealth and comforts of the world.
Also, the Christian puts his hope in the Spirit against his senses. The world tells us, 'If it looks good buy it; if it feels good do it; if it sounds good listen.” Even Christians are caught up in the temptation to gain instant gratification for the things they want. If we see something we desire at the store but don't have the money, then we put it on credit. If someone else has a truck or a computer or home furnishings better than ours, we may feel compelled to upgrade our stuff so that we will at least feel even. If you meet a new person who seems to 'make you happy” in a way that your current spouse does not, the world tells you it is acceptable to move on to the next body. If our church is not 'feeding us” then we move on to the next place that seems to meet this week's appetite. But the discerning eye knows that all these things are temporary, that all these things can becomes gods on their own, and that there is something far better than the approval the world has to offer, remembering that 'we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Finally, the Christian puts his hope in the future against the present. Around the third century B.C., Epicurus said that the chief end of life was pleasure. But contrary to today's belief, what he meant was we must take the long view of that pleasure. There are things we must put off for today in order to gain in the future. Some of us put away a little money today so that we may have money when we retire. Others spend every dime they have and then some because they want it NOW. But the truth is that one day we will no longer be able to work, and what will we do then? Worrying about it then will not help the situation when it arrives. There is a need to put off today's pleasure in order to store up treasures for tomorrow (Matthew 6:20).
Furthermore, the verdict of the future may very well reverse the verdict of the present.
It was thought by many that the Y2K computer problem would create chaos. It did not. It was thought by many that the death of Christ would eliminate His followers. It did not. It has been said that Nero once condemned Paul, 'but the years have passed on and the time has come when men call their sons Paul and their dogs Nero” (Barclay). Many wonder why they should put off the immediate pleasure when the future is so uncertain. The answer is that it is the future that is certain and the present that is ever changing. Faith knows that God has a place prepared for us, and that the pleasures—and the pains—of this world are only for a moment.
Now we may see the author's definition of faith in a little different light. The faith of people is known by the way they express the surety of their hope and the certainty of what they cannot see. Because of their belief in God, His Spirit, and His promises regarding their future, the heroes of the faith listed in chapter 11 find themselves all approved by God. They were all far from perfect, with many stories available to point out their glaring sins. But in their weakness they showed God strong and graceful, and in their greatest moments put Him first above all else—certain of the God they could not see, sure that their hope was secure.
Be sure to grasp hold of what verse 2 is telling us.
It was through their living faith that God commended the Old Testament saints. It was not through their friendliness, sincerity, popularity, earnestness, talent, ecclesiastical position, education, resume, or any other natural or exercised virtue, but it was by faith that the ancients found themselves commended by God. Faith has always been the substance by which we have hope in the future. The faith of Abel (v. 4) was looking to Christ just as our faith does. God's only way of salvation has always been by grace, through faith, not of our own workings (Ephesians 2:8-9). Their longing is our longing, not in an earthly reward, but in a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16). The Old Testament saints were never made sacred by keeping the Law, but were saved by God's grace through the faith He gave them to exercise, and use it they did. Chapter 11 rejoices in the lives of men and women who were faithful to God, and God declared them righteous, commending them for their faith.
There is a further lesson here for us. Let us esteem and value in people what God values in people. Not charm, talent, physical beauty or social acceptance, but faith evidenced by an obedient walk in God's ways. Perhaps if we were to stop complimenting one another on the things we see—nice hair, cute dress, great car, fancy tie—and begin looking at that which God perceives, that is, the heart, our relationships in our church family might just grow deeper, our concern for the true needs of our neighbor might just grow wider, and our love for God might just become more real. We may even find ourselves loving what God loves, seeing what God sees, putting value in what God values, and, by looking to the needs of others above our own (Philippians 2:3), find ourselves capable of sacrificing our best so that others may know the love of God.