Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Introduction: One writer has said concerning faith: “faith is not about everything turning out o.k; rather faith is about being o.k no matter how things turn out.” When we scan the scriptures, and particularly Hebrews 11 about the nature and essence of faith, we discover that its proper origin derives from God’s said word, the scriptures; it proves what God has said, it persuades a person to trust what God has said, it produces a testimony about what God has said. Without question Hebrews 11 stands as the clearest statement there is in the Bible regarding the subject of Biblical faith.
Years ago F.W Farrar wrote this insightful comment in “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, with notes and introduction: “It would had been fatal to the peace of mind of a Jewish convert to feel that there was a chasm between his Christian faith and the faith of his past life. The writer wishes to show there is no painful discontinuity in the religious convictions of the Hebrew converts.” Farrar later notes: “There faith was identical, though transcendently more blessed than that which sustained the patriarchs, Prophets, and Martyrs of their nation in all previous ages.” Today’s post will aim to unpack Hebrews 11:1-2 to discover what faith is in the Bible’s clearest statement on faith.
What faith is: Proof, Persuasion & Personal testimony Hebrews 11:1-2
Hebrews 11:1-2 can be broken down in three parts that correspond to showing us what faith is: proof, persuasion and power.
FAITH IS PROOF. The first phrase: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for” in this verse tells the reader that faith “proves”. The careful student may notice that the term “things” is in italicized print, meaning that the translators included that word for sake of good English, even though the term is not in the original. The Greek reads: Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις (Estin de pistis elpizomenon hupostasis) which literally rendered would be: “Faith is the bonafide assurance behind ongoing anticipation”. The present participle ἐλπιζομένων (elpizomenoan) can be translated “ongoing anticipation” or “things hoped for” (NASB). It points back to all that the writer mentions his readers going through in Hebrews 10:32-39. What drives the child of God to persevere and endure? Faith. What proof is being supplied by the Divine gifting of faith that becomes possessed and used by the child of God in this passage? The reality of what is stated in the words of scripture, by God, to the Christian. Thus the scriptures, the words of God, the doctrines supplied by them and God’s very character shining through them comprises the proof of faith.
A child and an wrapped present pictures how the “proof” of faith works To a child, wrapped presents would be the “ongoing anticipation” of a coming birthday. When that little child rattles and shakes the presents, the noise within those gift boxes is the bonafide assurance that their ongoing anticipation is well-founded. Though the child cannot peer inside the package, the unseen object verifies their anticipation of what lies in their future. So faith supplies proof. However as the Divine gifting given by the Holy Spirit of God, we also discover a second quality of what faith is in Hebrews 11:1, namely that by it, He persuades the believer that that God, Christ and truths revealed in scripture are compelling and worthy of commitment.
FAITH IS PERSUASION. Notice also that faith is persuasion. The next phrase in Hebrews 11:1 reads: “the conviction of things not yet seen”. The word translated “conviction” is rendered in other ways by various English translations: NIV (assurance), ESV (conviction), HCSB (proof), NET Bible (being convinced), Weymouth (conviction about the reality). Various Greek dictionaries bring out the idea of this word having to do with evidence, conviction about the reality thereof or persuasion.
The word “faith” has inherent within its meaning the idea of “firm persuasion”. Thus when we consider that the writer is including this word in his opening statement, the evidence brought forth by faith includes the faith itself. Proof is one one thing, and persuasion about the proof is something that can only occur by the Spirit’s work in conjunction with His Word. 2 Timothy 1:12 reminds us: “For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.”
The closing phrase of Hebrews 11:1 reads: “of things not seen.” Only the Power of the Holy Spirit working through the scriptures and in the heart of a man can make more certain what is unseen than what is seen. Faith is a Divine gifting from God that turns into a decision of the will once implanted in the heart of a man. (Ephesians 2:8-9) The little phrase “of things not seen” is two words in the original: οὐ βλεπομένων (ou blepomenoan). The idea is that nothing right now is appearing on the horizon, nothing at this current moment is being beheld by the senses. Nevertheless, faith confirms the reality of the thing, even though it cannot be apprehended. 1 Peter 1:8 notes: “and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.”
Illustrating faith’s persuasion by the scent of freshly baked bread So how is it that we can be persuaded by proof and power that something which we cannot see is worth our time and commitment? I can remember as a boy growing up that when getting home from school, I could tell when my father was baking bread. Before I had even departed off the bus, the scent of that fresh bread found its way to me. No one had to persuade me to quicken my pace nor prove to me by formulas and logic that what awaited on the inside was going to be pleasing to my pallet. Like on those old cartoons, the scent of that freshly baked bread had the power to wisk me off my feet and carry me into the house. Faith from God is deposited in the believer who then grasps the One by such faith Who is proven persuasively and powerful to be worthy of time and commitment. So faith is proof. Faith is persuasion. However there is necessary fruit that must yield from true faith – namely a personal testimony.
FAITH IS PERSONAL TESTIMONY In Hebrews 10:32-39 the writer is concerned about demonstrating the distinguishing mark of true faith to be that of endurance. In Hebrews 11:2 we discover the closely related trait of personal testimony: “For by it the men of old gained approval.” (NASB) That phrase “by it” refers to the means by which the men of old (the elders) gained approval. In the original language we could just as easily translate the phase “in this”, as so done by Young’s Literal Translation and English Revised Version. Faith operates in some scriptures as a gifting by God, whereas in other texts it functions as a vehicle for the Christian to travel from one truth or insight of Christianity to another.
Think about what all is involved in the formation of a testimony. The text tells us that they “gained approval”, which can also be rendered “obtained a testimony” or “affirmed what was made known”. It has been often said that in every testimony there is a “test” and in every message there is a “mess”. In the 1787 hymn “How Firm a Foundation” we read the following lyrics of the fourth stanza:
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
As one reads down the remainder of Hebrews 11, some seventeen different saints of God from five periods of redemptive history, stretching over four millennia are listed. Faith is not an abstract, but also a concrete reality. That is the whole point of Hebrews 11:1-2. It is proof, that the Spirit uses to persuade to produce a testimony in the life of the child of God.