10. Let Us Believe: The Nature of Faith (Hebrews 11:1-6, 11)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (22:00)

James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), God Appears to Noah
James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), "God Appears to Noah," The Jewish Museum, New York.
The world doesn't really understand faith. In the movie "Keeping the Faith" (2000) with Ben Stiller and Edward Norton, Norton as Father Finn tells his Catholic congregation, "Faith is a feeling. Faith is a hunch, a hunch that there is something bigger connecting us all together." Fortunately, faith is far more satisfying and real than a hunch.

The Nature of Faith (11:1-2)

Hollywood faith may be a "hunch," it is neither good Catholic doctrine nor the kind of faith that our spiritual ancestors1 were commended2 for. That's the kind of faith we want to get a hold of and measure ourselves by! The best way to understand this definition is to examine the words that make it up.

The author of Hebrews gives us a sort of definition. I'm sure it's not intended to be a formal, comprehensive definition, but it certainly spells out the kind of faith that believers have had down through the ages.

Unfortunately, exactly how to render the important keywords has been a matter of controversy since at least Luther's time as evidenced by differing translations. We'll spend a little time on this because it's so important to fully grasp what faith really is.

Key Greek word

NIV

NRSV

KJV

pistis

Now faith is

Now faith is

Now faith is

hupostasis

being sure of what we hope for

the assurance of things hoped for,

the substance of things hoped for,

elenchos

and certain of what we do not see.

the conviction of things not seen.

the evidence of things not seen.

Everybody pretty much agrees on the definition of "faith." It is the English translation of the Greek noun pistis, the "state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted, 'trust, confidence, faith.'" It can also carry the ideas of "faith, firm commitment ... confidence, assurance."3 But after that translations seem to diverge a bit. Verse 1 consists of two parallel statements, which amplify one another to describe faith.

The first clauses uses the word hupostasis, translated substantia in Latin. The root meaning of the word is hypo, "under" + stasis, "stand," or "that which stands under."

The word has been used twice before in Hebrews, in two different senses:

Objective

"Substance, real essence"

"The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being..." (1:3)

Subjective

"Confidence, assurance, conviction."

"We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first." (3:14)

Objective translations: "substance" (KJV, NKJV, Douay-Rheims Bible), "Faith gives substance to our hopes" (New English Bible).

The objective meaning (clearly intended in Hebrews 1:3) has a long history in Greek philosophy, "the essential or basic structure or nature of an entity, substantial nature, essence, actual being, reality," or perhaps "realization" of something,4 that which "stands under" appearances, "the underlying reality behind something."5 This is the sense in which the word was used by the Church Fathers in formulating the Nicene Creed, "being of one substance (hupostasis) with the Father...."

Subjective translations: "being sure of" (NIV), "assurance" (NASB, RSV, NRSV), "confident assurance" (Weymouth), "guarantee" (New Jerusalem Bible), "realization" (New American Bible), "to be sure of" (TEV)

The subjective meaning (clearly intended in Hebrews 3:14) draws on the word's use reflected in the Greek papyri as a commercial technical term for lease, the basis or guarantee of transactions,6 "expectation of rent due, guarantee of ownership, entitlement, title deed."7 Melanchthon influenced Luther to adopt this understanding, which influenced Protestant interpretation ever since. Most modern English translations, including recent Catholic translations, follow this approach.

As I've considered both views, here's where I come out. Faith, in fact, is not the substance, the reality, the essential nature itself, but faith allows us to see, comprehend, grasp that essential reality. So the subjective translation "confident assurance" makes the most sense here to me. Through faith we possess the "title deed," the document that assures our ownership of the promises of God, in the same way that the Holy Spirit is our "guarantee," "down payment," or "earnest money" (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14) of the fullness of God which we'll experience in heaven.

What promises, what realities does faith help us grasp with confidence? The things we "hope for." In our language we use "hope so" in a kind of indefinite, maybe-it-will-happen-and-maybe-not kind of way. But this verb, elpizō, means "to look forward to something, with implication of confidence about something coming to past, hope, hope for."8 It is a word that describes confident expectancy, not idle dreams. "Hope" in the Bible refers to the sure things that we look forward to, anchored by the promises and character of God himself.

"Certain" (NIV), "conviction" (NRSV), "evidence" (KJV) is elenchos, "the act of presenting evidence for the truth of something, proof, proving."9 One way of expressing this is might be that faith "grasps evidence for (the reality of) what one does not see." It can also mean "conviction, the state of being convinced."10

So faith is more than a "hunch." It is an inner assurance, a conviction about the things that can't be seen with the human eye.11 The natural man says, "Show me and then I'll believe!" But it works the other way around. The spiritual man says, "I believe, and now I can see!"

The natural man doesn't have the spiritual tools to comprehend:

"Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." (1 Corinthians 2:14)

Faith, then, is a gift that God gives us to lay hold of the unseen but very real spiritual realities of the Kingdom of God.

Faith that Brings Understanding of God (11:3)

"By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible." (11:3)

 Here's a basic element of faith: the belief that in the beginning only God existed. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," and that before the universe12 existed, there was no matter. That everything came about by God's creation,13 something from nothing (ex nihilo). By faith we understand (noeō), that is we "grasp or comprehend something on the basis of careful thought, 'perceive, apprehend, understand, gain an insight into.'"

It's common to think of faith as some kind of leap, an abandoning of reason. I don't think that's accurate. Faith is a reasoned decision to hold certain assumptions about God and his world. They may be different assumptions than the everyday man, but they are not somehow unreasonable. Edward J. Carnell used to call it, "a resting of the mind in the sufficiency of the evidences."15 We're considering different evidence than the world does, granted, but it is evidence all the same that leads us to a conclusion.

Q1. Using Hebrews 11:1-3 as your source, how would you put in your own words what faith is and does?
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Faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah (11:4-7)

Tissot, Building the Ark
James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902, Building the Ark (c. 1896-1902), gouache on board, 21.5x28.8 cm, The Jewish Museum, New York.

Now our author begins to cite examples of faith.

"4By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. 5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
7By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith." (11:4-7)

It would be a wonderful excursion to delve into the stories of the great men and women of God mentioned in this chapter, but we'll have to restrain ourselves for time's sake.

Faith that Pleases God (11:6)

Rather, let's consider one more key verse describing faith. It isn't a comprehensive definition of faith, but describes what faith does at a minimum:

"And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (11:6)

The first assertion is that faith is absolutely necessary16 in order to please17 God. Here's an assumption -- that pleasing God is a goal of importance. Most secular people really don't think in terms of pleasing God, which is a constant goal of the devout person.

The second assertion involves the basic requirements of "coming to" God. "Come to" (NIV, KJV) or "approach" (NRSV) is proserchomai, which has the basic idea of "to move towards." Here it carries the idea of "approach to or entry into a deity's presence." Here again, most secular people have no real desire to "come to" or "approach" God. They are centered on themselves, not God. Approaching God would require them to "get real" about God's demands; they would rather ignore God. Now the requirements:

  1. Believe that he exists.19 This in itself is not faith, but a precursor to faith. James says, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that -- and shudder" (James 2:19). Nevertheless, it is a first step.
  2. Believe that he rewards those who seek after him. That is, he will reward or recompense20 people who seek him out.

But what does it mean to seek someone out? "Earnestly seek" (NIV) "diligently seek" (KJV), or "seek" (NRSV) is ekzēteō, "to exert effort to find out or learn something, seek out, search for," here and in 12:17.21 Though this compound word begins with the preposition ek, "out," as in "search out," There just isn't much difference between this and the basic verb zēteō, "seek."22 All the words in this group mean a careful, diligent search. Our author uses a synonym epizēteō in verse 14. Jesus talked about searching:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek (zēteō) and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 7:7-8)
"But seek (zēteō) first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33)
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of (zēteō) fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it." (Matthew 13:45-46, NRSV)23

Searching after God is a characteristic of citizens of the Kingdom of God. They are not satisfied to know God only at a distance. They seek him out with diligence and persistence. If seeking God is part of faith, I wonder, how diligently do I really seek after God? Do I seek with the passion of the Apostle Paul?

"I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ -- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:8-11)

Lord, increase my hunger after you!

Q2. (Hebrews 11:6) The first element of faith is belief in God's existence. Why is the second element just as essential to true faith? What does it mean to "seek" God? What difference does it make whether or not you believe God will reward seekers?
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Q3. Every religion has its own kind of faith. What is the content of the Judeo-Christian type of faith that sets it apart from any other? What is the basis of Noah's faith (11:7)? What is the basis of our faith? How does faith grow (see Romans 10:17)?
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Considering God Faithful (11:11)

Let's conclude this lesson with one of our author's observations about Abraham's faith, though we'll consider the example of Abraham's faith more in the next lesson.

By faith Abraham ... was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise." (11:11)

What is faith? An assumption that God's promises are to be believed because God is considered24 faithful (pistos), "worthy of belief or trust, trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust or faith."25 Ultimately our faith rises and falls on what we think of God. Do we believe he is trustworthy? Do we believe he rewards seekers, or is indifferent to their quest? Upon these things hinge our faith.

So how does trust in God's promise-keeping ability grow? One way is by reading and hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). The more we expose ourselves to God as revealed in the Bible, the more confidence we have in him to do what he says he will do. We will increasingly "consider him faithful who had made the promise."

Q4. (Hebrews 11:11). Which part of faith is related to (1) the depth of Abraham's confidence in God? Which part of faith is related to (2) the real existence and power of such a God? How would you describe a faith that lacks either element? Based on verse 11 (not on verses 1-2), formulate in your own words a definition of faith.
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Hebrews: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson (paperback and e-book formats)
Lessons are also available in e-book and paperback formats.

To sum it up, what is faith? It is:

  • Being certain of what we look forward to (11:1).
  • Being able to visualize the promises that God has made so that their fulfillment is quite visible to us, while it is yet invisible and even silly to those who do not possess faith.
  • Living our lives based on the premise that God is pleased and will reward those who earnestly seek him (11:6).
  • Considering God trustworthy who makes promises to us (11:11).
  • Walking in the present world in conformity with a firm conviction of how things will be in the world to come.

Prayer

Lord, I want to have the kind of faith that Abraham had. Teach me what faith is, what it does. But more than speaking to my intellect, Lord, grow real faith in me as your precious gift to me. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1)

"And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6)

"By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going." (Hebrews 11:8)

References

  1. "The ancients" (NIV), "our ancestors" (NRSV), "the elders" (KJV) is presbuteros, "old, older." Here it refers to "the men of old, our ancestors." We get our word "Presbyterian" from this word (BDAG 862-863).
  2. "Commended" (NIV), "received approval" (NRSV), "obtained a good report" (KJV) is martureō, "bear witness, testify," here is used in a positive sense, "to affirm in a supportive manner, testify favorably, speak well (of), approve" (BDAG 617-618). This verb is used in verses 2, 4, 5, and 39.
  3. Pistis, BDAG 818-820, 2.a. and d.β.
  4. Hupostasis, BDAG 1040-1041, 1.b.
  5. Helmut Köster says, "In a formulation of incomparable boldness, Hebrews 11:1 identifies pistis with this transcendent reality: Faith is the reality of what is hoped for in exactly the sense in which Jesus is called the charaktēr of the reality of the transcendent God in 1:3" (hupostasis, TDNT 8:572-589).
  6. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, in loc.; Helmut Köster, hupostasis, TDNT 8:579-580, A.5.b. However, Köster says that the subject view of hupostasis in Hebrews 11:1 is "untenable" (TDNT 8:585-588).
  7. Hupostasis, BDAG 1040-1041, 4.
  8. Elpizō, BDAG 319, 1.a., present passive participle.
  9. Elenchos, BDAG 315. Friedrich Büchsel, elenchō, ktl., TDNT 2:473-476 sees the meaning as "persuasion." "Faith does not do the convincing, but God, for the whole point in Hebrews is that faith stands on the revelation, word, and promise of God. Faith is the divinely given conviction of things unseen and is thus the assurance of what is hoped for."
  10. Ellingworth (Hebrews, p. 565-566) discusses the various possibilities.
  11. "Seen" is the present passive participle of blepō, "to perceive with the eye, see," also in verse 3 (BDAG 178-179).
  12. "Universe" (NIV) or "worlds" (KJV, NRSV) is aiōn. It can refer to "the past" or and "age." Here it refers to "the world as a spatial concept" (BDAG 32-33).
  13. "Formed" (NIV), "prepared" (NRSV), "framed" (KJV) is katartizō, "to prepare for a purpose, prepare, make, create, outfit" (BDAG 526).
  14. Noeō, BDAG 674-675, 1.c.
  15. Edward J. Carnell, Christian Commitment: An Apologetic (Macmillan, 1957), p. 267.
  16. "Must" is dei, "to be under necessity of happening, it is necessary, one must, one has to, denoting compulsion of any kind" (BDAG 213-214).
  17. "Please" in verses 5 and 6 is euaresteō, "to do something or act in a manner that is pleasing or satisfactory, please, be pleasing" (BDAG 403, 1.).
  18. Proserchomai is used several times in Hebrews, here and at 4:16; 7:25; 10:1, 22 (BDAG 878, 1.b.).
  19. "He exists" or "he is" is eimi, "be, exist, be on hand" (BDAG 282-284, 1.).
  20. Misthapodotēs, "rewarder," from misthos, "remuneration, pay, wages, recompense" (BDAG 653).
  21. Ekzēteō, BDAG 302, 1.
  22. Heinrich Greeven (zēteō, ktl., TDNT 2:892-896) asserts that both ekzēteō and epizēteō mean the same as the simple form.
  23. Other uses of "seek" are found in 1 Peter 1:10 (ekzēteō), Colossians 3:1 (zēteō), and in Hebrews 11:14 and 13:14 (epizēteō).
  24. "Considered" (NIV, NRSV) or "judged" (KJV) is hēgeomai, "to engage in an intellectual process, think, consider, regard," found in Hebrews 10:29, 11:11, 26 (BDAG 434, 2.). Our faith helps us see and believe unseen realities that non-Christians just don't see and comprehend.
  25. Pistos, BDAG 820-821.

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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