Sermon preached on Hebrews 11:1-3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/14/2018 in Novato, CA.
“Now Faith Is”
There can be different ways to accomplish the same goal. In this book of Hebrews we’ve seen this with regard to faith. We’ve seen God communicating the need for faith, for saving faith that endures and perseveres to the end. We’ve seen this repeatedly taught in Hebrews, but in different ways. Hebrews has commanded this faith. Hebrews has warned of the complete peril for abandoning the faith. Hebrews has encouraged faith by speaking of all the many benefits and rewards that come to those who believe, both in this life and especially in glory. Now, we come to this amazing chapter. Chapter 11, known by many as the hall of faith, again presents to us this need for faith. But it does it a bit differently. Here, it describes faith in positive terms. Here it illustrates this faith by showing the commendable lives of our spiritual forefathers. It paints a beautiful, desirous picture of faith. Philip Ryken said that what 1 Corinthians 13 does for love, Hebrews 11 here does for faith. And so, in a letter so concerned with persevering in the faith unto glory, we are given the glorious picture of faith as described in this chapter. Today, we’ll begin into this beautiful chapter looking at the first three verses to see what they tell us about our faith.
So then, in our first point, I’d like us to go out of order and actually begin with verse 2. Verse 2 is really programmatic for the entire chapter and so I want to start with the idea we see in verse 2 of a faith that commends. Verse 2 says, speaking of faith, “For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.” The word there for “testimony” could also be translated as “commendation” (ESV) or “report” (KJV). The idea is that God bore witness in the sense of a good commendation to the saints of old for their faith. That’s the theme and record of this whole chapter in Hebrews. And we’ll see that this commendation that God gives them for their faith is often in light of certain actions these saints of old did. But this chapter doesn’t commend them for the actions themselves, but for the faith that was behind those actions; that’s an important nuance not to miss.
This theme of faith that commends is implied throughout this chapter, but the language of testimony or commendation is explicitly used five times. It’s used here in verse 2, and again at the end in verse 39 forming bookends to this chapter. That serves to give this as a lens for how we look at this list of Old Testament saints. It tells us to see the commendable nature of their faith as the theme of this chapter. Then we find this same language again in verses 4 and 5. In verse 4 it talks about how God commended Abel as righteous and in accepting his sacrifice, There again we see that the point is that this was all in the context of Abel living “by faith” in the giving of that sacrifice – the commendation was about the faith which was expressed in action, and not the action itself. Similarly, in verse 5, Enoch gets commended as having pleased God, and again this was “by faith.”
And so, we have this whole chapter that describes faith as something commended by God. Let me point out a few aspects to this. First, when it talks of God commending them, we should especially appreciate that here in the sense of God speaking through the Bible. In other words, the idea as translated in the pew Bible here in verse 2 as testimony is that God is giving some witness about them. Obviously, we have that record of God concerning these saints of old in the Old Testament Scripture. Hebrews 11 then reaffirms that testimony again here in the New Testament. God’s testimony or commendation is formally recorded for posterity in the written Word of God. But that makes sense, because God desires to commend such faith.
Second, we should note that God’s commending of humans, ever since the fall, has always been about faith. Or to say it another way, salvation has always been, and always will be, about faith. When Adam and Eve first sinned in the garden, God promised in Genesis 3:15 that he would send a savior. Right from there, those who would look to be saved from their sin would have to believe and trust God in that promised salvation. Down through the ages, God’s people have had to believe in faith that God would save them. The expansive timeframe covered in this chapter only further brings that out. Prior Noah and the flood, God’s people lived by faith. After Noah and the flood, and up through Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant, God’s people had to live by faith. From Abraham to Moses to Joshua to David and beyond with all the prophets, God’s people had to live by faith. Today we still have to live by faith. Salvation has always been about faith. Faith in the God who promises that salvation. Faith that he will indeed save and bless.
Third, this means it has never been about works. It is too easy to mistakenly think that somehow the New Testament people of God are saved by grace through faith and that somehow the Old Testament people of God had to be saved by works and the law. But that is not true. That is not true, whatsoever. Paul actually teaches this explicitly in Romans 9:32 that even under the old covenant it was about faith; and that if any at that time they thought otherwise, that it was about the works of the law, then they were wrong and they had stumbled over a stumbling block. So then, this chapter in Hebrews gloriously demonstrates this with example after example. Faith commends, not the keeping of the law. Of course, faith commends as it looks to God and his work and his salvation and for him to fulfill his promises.
Okay, let’s now in our second point for today go back to verse 1 so we can understand more about this faith that we are talking about. There in verse 1 it gives a description of saving faith. I say “description” because it is describing certain aspects of saving faith and not giving an exhaustive dictionary-style definition of faith. If I wanted to give a definition of saving faith, I might quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism which says, “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (WSC 86). Or, I might quote the Heidelberg Catechism question and answer 21, “What is true faith? True faith is not only a certain knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word; but also a hearty trust, which the Holy Spirit works in me by the Gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Those are both great definitions of saving faith. But verse 1 is not so much a definition but a description of certain aspects of faith. We especially see in verse 1 the idea that faith is what we have in light of promises God has made that have not yet come to pass.
Verse 1 has two complementary halves, echoing what we might find in Hebrew poetry. I must say that at first I had a little bit of a challenge trying to figure out how to best teach on this verse. If you are familiar with the different major English translations you know that there are two words here that have a fairly wide range of translation. In the pew Bibles, it’s the words “substance” and “evidence” in verse 1. For “substance”, many translations instead translate it as something like “assurance”. For “evidence”, many translations instead translate it as something like “conviction”. What you roughly have in these translations is some trying to be more literal to the words where others trying to give you more of the sense of how the words are being used. My struggle at first in thinking about this, is I wanted to be able to point to a specific translation and commend that, but there were elements I did and didn’t appreciate about each. Then I remembered the good advice Dr. Baugh gave us in class at seminary. He said its better to be a preacher than a translator because you can get up and actually spend a little time explaining what a word means instead of having to try to pick as much as possible a single English word as its equivalent. So that’s what I’m going to try to do.
So, let’s think first about the first half of verse 1, ”Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” as the pew Bible translates. This is basically saying that our faith is the thing we have in place of what we don’t have yet. Faith is that thing we have in the present, in place of what we hope to have in the future. See how this relates faith with our hope. This is a biblical hope, of course. What we hope for, in terms of God’s promises, will certainly come to pass. So, we know our hope is a sure and certain hope. But that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t yet have what it is we are hoping for. So, this is saying that our faith is the substance, even the placeholder, for what we are hoping for. In that sense, we can think of faith as the “assurance” of our hope, because that’s the net effect for believers, our faith gives us confidence in what we are hoping. By having faith in place of what we hope, that faith becomes equated with the object of our hope. Thus, that gives us assurance of what we hope for. It’s almost in the sense of like having a coupon for a free ice cream cone. The coupon, as we trust in it, is essentially equal to the ice cream cone, even though it isn’t. But if believe it to be of that value, then we don’t throw away the coupon. No, we keep it until the right opportunity to exchange it for the ice cream cone. So, it’s something along these lines that it is getting at when it says that faith is the substance of things hoped for.
The second half of verse 1 describes faith as “the evidence of things not seen.” The word for “evidence” literally means evidence as in the sense of demonstrating proof for something. This idea pairs well with the language of “things not seen”. That phrase gets used again in verse 7 when it says that Noah was warned of things not seen, referring to the flood. Of course, Noah had to believe God. Outwardly, scientifically, he didn’t have any proof that such a flood would come when he started building that ark. There’s no record that Noah was some expert meteorologist that could discern such a coming flood. No, Noah received a warning from God and that was proof enough for Noah. Faith stood in the place of empirical evidence and became the evidence Noah need to act in light of God’s Word and build an ark. There, faith needed to be exercised in light of God’s promised judgment. Likewise, faith needs to be exercised in light of God’s promised salvation as well. But in either case, faith is needed for all the promises that God has given that have not yet been realized. That’s what it’s talking about here when it talks about “things not seen”. All the things God has said will happen but haven’t yet happened; all his promises of both coming judgment and salvation; all those things that we can’t prove with empirical evidence to have complete rationalistic certainty, we will need to have faith instead. Or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5;6, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” If we do this, of course, then in that sense we have the “conviction” that some translations use to describe this.
So, taking both halves of verse 1 together, we see that the point is that faith is what we have and what we act upon, while we wait for God’s promises to be realized. We don’t yet have what we will have. So, in the meantime we have faith. We can’t yet see what we will see, so in the meantime we have faith. Now at this point, let me offer a clarification here. This might sound like it’s describing a blind faith or a naïve faith; that we are believing beyond all reason or even for no reason.
I could see why verse 1 might sound like that to some, but let me clearly and definitely say that is not what verse 1 intends to convey. The reason why is that verse 1 must be understood in light of how it is illustrated in this chapter. And what you find is that while these saints of old have their faith and act on their faith in spite of not having these promises, it is never a blind faith. It is faith in the Word of God. In other words, they have received these promises from God and they believe him and trust him. Furthermore, as their lives point out, there were often times when they acted on that faith, that he showed they were justified in that. Whenever God vindicated one of these Old Testament saints in their faith, it showed that they were not fools for trusting God. They had every reason to believe God even if there was not the scientific evidence to back up God’s claims. God was vindicated in his words and will continue to be vindicated in his words. When Enoch in faith was taken up into heaven by God, that faith was vindicated, verse 5. When Abraham and Sarah believed God would do the impossible and give them a child after the age of childbearing, they were vindicated in that faith, verses 11-12. Notice in verse 11 it specifically says that the reason for Sarah’s faith is because she judged God as faithful. In other words, her commendable faith was not a blind faith or a foolish faith. She believed because she recognized who it was that made the promise and knew that he both could and would deliver! So then, we will continue to see in this passage that the faith that is commended here is not a blind faith; but rather it is a faith that trusts in the sure and certain promises of the Almighty God who does not lie.
Turning now to our third and final point, we look at verse 3. “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” This is an interesting segue into the heart of this chapter. You’ll notice even in your English translations that there are many repeated references to the words “by faith” in this chapter; 18 times actually. They repeatedly introduce an Old Testament saint and describe their faith working itself out in one of these not-yet-seen promises. Verse 2 already told us that we were going to be told about such heroes of the faith of old. But the first “by faith” reference, doesn’t mention anyone specific, and in fact references us — “we”. And in verse 3, the faith mentioned there is not about something for the future. It’s faith about something in the past. There it also describes God’s Word and things unseen. But it’s in the opposite order. Out of unseen things, God’s Words came and made the things that are in this world. We now see these things. Of course, the faith part comes in to play in that we have come to understand and recognize that the things we see in the creation came about from God. (By the way this is one record of the idea of ex nihilo creation, that God created all things out of nothing, only by the word of his power, but I digress.)
This again reminds us that our faith is not a blind faith in a God who is just all talk and no action. It’s this God who has already worked, already shown his power, in creating all things; that’s the one we are believing and trusting. We can look back in creation and see his work. Now, we Christians can also look back to the incarnation and to the crucifixion and to the resurrection and see his work. His word has always proved faithful. We’ve seen it work in the past. We can trust it for the future. When thinking here of creation, what a difference between our faith and the world’s atheistic faith. They claim proof of naturalistic origins for the earth by claiming a big bang, but there is nothing in their so-called science that could even explain how such a big bang could even happen, or why there was even something instead of nothing, in terms of matter. And none of that can explain how life could spontaneously generate to form living organisms. That sounds like blind faith to me, but I digress again.
And so, in context, it makes sense that the first “by faith” reference here is to creation. This serves the purpose to relate us to all who have gone before us with the common connection of having the one God who created the heavens and the earth. And it serves to bring us back in the Bible all the way to Genesis chapter 1-2. Clearly, he is intentional there, because the very next reference will be to Abel in Genesis 4, and then Enoch in Genesis 5, and then Noah starting in Genesis 6. So, Hebrews 11 begins at the beginning and is marching us through the Bible. If you ever wondered what Jesus might have said on that road to Emmaus where he took the disciples through the Old Testament Scriptures showing them of Christ throughout, maybe some of it looked along these lines as what we have here in Hebrews 11.
Well, brothers and sisters, let me conclude our sermon today with some final application to tie all this together. Today’s verses have begun to show us the beauty and value of such saving faith. I look forward to further exploring this as we continue to work our way through this chapter. And so, my encouragement to all of us today is to indeed stop and appreciate the beauty of our faith. Be awed by such faith. Not in a man-centered way that would make it about how great we are for believing like this. Rather, see the beauty of how God has so ordered things around faith. Especially when we remember that the only reason anyone even has faith in the first place is because of God’s Spirit making us born again in the first place. The existence of faith in any of us is to God’s glory. And the outcome of our faith is surely to God’s glory.
And so then may we see the beauties of such faith and be encouraged in having such faith ourselves. Such faith has not let down our spiritual forefathers, even when they didn’t get the full outcome of their faith in this life. And though we in many ways have already what they could only hope for in their faith, we know there yet remains a promise of good things to come. So then, may we by the grace of God have such faith and live by such faith so as to be commended by God. May the example of these forefathers encourage us in such faith. But may their example also remind us that we too live as an example of faith to others as well. Let us then all press on together in faith until the glory of the unseen is made visible on the amazing day of Christ. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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