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What is Faith? | Hebrews 11

We have arrived at a hallmark chapter in the New Testament. Hebrews chapter eleven is one of the most cherished chapters in the whole Bible. It’s frequently called the Hall of Faith. The author cites no less than eight patriarchs and matriarchs of our faith as examples of men and women whose faith pleased the LORD. The author meant to inspire, encourage, and remind his readers/listeners of what it meant to be a person of pleasing faith.

Take note. I’m going to depart from a more traditional use of the phrase great faith. Instead, I’ll be using the phrase pleasing faith, first because of Hebrews 12:6. I know there’s nothing wrong with saying great faith. Jesus used that phrase on a few occasions. However, I’m shying away from it because our minds draw different conclusions between the words great and pleasing. I contend that pleasing faith is indeed great, but greatness isn’t something to be sought in God’s kingdom. When the disciples asked about kingdom greatness, Jesus brought them low and told them the greatest among us would be a servant (Mark 9:33-35). It is better to seek to please God than to be great in His kingdom. In doing so, one will take care of the other. So, pleasing faith it is.

Also, the pedigree of faith isn’t necessarily judged by the size of the logical leap. We’re going to find out that giant leaps in logic aren’t necessarily what makes faith pleasing to God. Do logical leaps mean anything with faith? Yes. At the end of the day, faith is faith because we’re trusting something that can’t be proven by natural means and, therefore, isn’t apparent to everyone. But within the body of Christ, we shouldn’t engage in a greatness test by measuring the size of the departure from apparent reality.

Define Faith

So, with all that said, we should define faith. The author has dropped the word faith so much in this letter/sermon that I think it’s surprising that he waited this late to define it.

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the people of old received their commendation.
– Hebrews 11:1-2 (ESV)

Before I go any further, let me remind you that we did a deeper dive into the word assurance in this article. If you didn’t read it, please do because I won’t re-explain it in this article. Here, the author said faith is the assurance of things hoped for. In chapter ten he described assurance as something that faith produces. If you have questions about that, please read what I wrote a couple of articles ago.

I must confess that the ESV is not my favorite translation of this verse. I prefer the Lexham English Bible’s (LEB) translation as it seems to capture the meaning better.

1 Now faith is the realization of what is hoped for, the proof of things not seen.
– Hebrews 11:1 (LEB)

The difference is that the ESV’s words, assurance and conviction, are replaced with realization and proof. Based on what I’ve studied, allow me to rerender this verse to communicate how I now understand this definition.

Now faith is the realization of the concrete reality of what we expect, the proof of those things that we can’t see.

In this verse, assurance is related to the concrete reality of a thing. It’s the Greek word hypostasis, and the author used it in chapter one to describe Christ’s nature.

3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (hypostasis),
– Hebrews 1:3a (ESV, emphasis added)

Next, the word hoped has nothing to do with wishful thinking or the possibility of not getting what we’re hoping for. New Testament hope is based on concrete reality. It is the same fact-based realization that we have about sunrises and sunsets. They happen, and we give no serious thought to the possibility that they won’t. So when the author said the assurance (realization) of things hoped for (expected), he had the same kind of concrete expectation in mind that we have about sunsets. It will happen.

However, that’s not the end of the definition. He finished it with the conviction of things not seen. Again, I have an issue with the ESV rendering here. Other English translations use less ambiguous and perhaps more accurate words, evidence, and proof. People have sincere convictions that are sincerely wrong. Conviction seems too mushy of a word for what the author was teaching. What appears to be a better rendering is evidence or proof of things not seen.

This would make better sense with the first half of the definition. Is faith the realization of what we expect, based on our conviction or proof of things not seen? The author finished this chapter with examples that leaned more toward an evidence-based faith than a faith based on mere conviction.

So, moving forward, the working definition we’ll employ is more along the lines of the LEB’s translation than the ESV’s.

Now faith is the realization of what is hoped for, the proof of things not seen.

Examples of Pleasing Faith

6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
– Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)

I mention 11:6 first because it’s helpful. Each person listed lived a faithful life like this. Also, this is one of those chapters where a preacher could preach for a month. But I can’t. So, I’m going to deal with all these examples in a single survey. (I hope we can still be friends.) I would love nothing more than to devote special time to each person the author referenced, but that’s not what I think is best for the author’s point. Even he did not dive deep into each example but in order, gave brief summaries. So, let’s look at the primary examples, applying the definition of faith as we go.

#1 – Creation

3 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 11:3 (ESV)

This one might seem counterintuitive to 21st-century Western ears. We’re almost entirely in the opposite paradigm. We’ve been educated that the universe, indeed, did create itself. But, by faith – the realized expectation – we understand the universe was created by God, not made from what can be seen. In other words, it is self-evident that the universe didn’t create and organize itself, so based on what is clearly understood, we know that God created everything we see. The LORD designed creation to clearly show that He created it. The Apostle Paul echoed this sentiment in his opening remarks in Romans.

20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
– Romans 1:20 (ESV)

By Paul’s teaching, we know that those who ignore what God made evident will be without excuse before Him. But those who, by faith, embrace what is plain to see, they please the LORD.

#2 Abel

4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.
– Hebrews 11:4 (ESV)

We don’t know much about Abel except for the episode between him and Cain in Genesis 4. We know that God regarded his sacrifice and not Cain’s, which provoked Cain to murder. That’s about it. So, what I’m about to say can be applied to every person given as an example in Hebrews 11. They were faithful to what God had revealed about Himself up to that moment. Abel didn’t know as much about God as Abraham, and Abraham didn’t know as much as Moses, etc. But each one was faithful to what they did know, and that is how they were rewarded.

What did Abel know? He knew what his parents told him. They likely shared, ad nauseam, everything that happened to them in the Garden and the aftermath of their rebellious decision. Abel knew that the LORD killed an animal to clothe his parents, and they continued that pattern, killing animals to cover their nakedness. I’ll bet (because this is my speculation) that Abel understood that his nakedness needed covering before the LORD, and blood had to be spilled. By faith, he took informed action, and God commended him. He made a leap based on everything he knew. Neither was it blind nor uninformed. It was the logical step to take even though the LORD had given no instructions about that next step.

#3 Enoch

5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.
– Hebrews 11:5 (ESV)

Similar to Abel, we don’t know much about Enoch. Outside of genealogies, his only mentions are here in Hebrews and in the book of Jude. But what we can learn here, based on our definition of faith, is that Enoch lived a life informed by what he knew about the LORD. He made his decisions based on what He knew was true because it was evident. He pursued the LORD continually until he was taken up, which seemed to be his reward for a life of pleasing faith. If we can draw anything from Enoch, he saw what was evident about God, lived accordingly with a faith informed by what he knew, and it pleased God, resulting in his commendation and eventual taking.

#4 Noah

7 By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
– Hebrews 11:7

Noah gets way more press than Enoch, and I’ll bet at times he wished he received Enoch’s treatment. Noah’s story is the first one where we get a closer glimpse of long-suffering, enduring faith. The LORD warned him that a flood was coming. He warned him at least 120 years in advance (Genesis 6:3). We can deduce that Noah first believed God because he obeyed and built the ark. At the risk of being pedantic, he believed God would do something no one had ever seen because of what he already knew about God. What the LORD had revealed about Himself was evident; Noah believed it and reasoned that what God said he would do in the future was as good as done. Thus, in faith, he built an ark for a flood that the likes had never been seen before or since. But, his reward is that he became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith, which is the same righteousness we receive in Christ when we believe.

#5 Abraham

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
– Hebrews 11:8-10, 17 (ESV)

Something is going on with Abraham’s call that doesn’t always make it into our sermons and Sunday school lessons. And I must admit, what I’m about to say means I’ve probably taught this incorrectly in the past. Broadly speaking, we (I) have taught that God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans. In one respect, that is true. It’s Abraham’s birthplace. But in our generalizations, we forget or pass over the fact that Abraham did not begin the journey to Canaan. His father, Terah, uprooted their family from Ur, and began moving to Canaan, but they didn’t quite make it.

31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.
– Genesis 11:31 (ESV)

It seems that Terah, Abraham’s father, was told to move first. Did God tell him? Did he get a job offer? The Bible doesn’t say, but Terah felt compelled to move his family to Canaan one way or another. In the past, I’ve taught that until God called him, Abraham worshiped other gods. Maybe I was wrong. What if Abraham was next in line of Shem’s descendants who remained faithful to the LORD? What if the LORD told Terah to start the journey to Canaan, and his son, Abraham, finished it? These are my speculations because we don’t get this much detail from Scripture, but it explains Abraham’s faith. It wasn’t an uneducated, blind faith. He decided to obey the LORD because he had seen His faithfulness in generations of his family. I may not be able to die for that statement, but I believe it’s consistent with what we’ve been learning about faith.

Now, look at verse seventeen. By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. How? How can any father do such a thing? This was the son of promise, who came to them long after their fruitfulness had faded. Why would God give him and then take him away like this? What was going through Abraham’s mind?

19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
– Hebrews 11:19

This verse is crucial to our understanding of faith. Abraham wasn’t blindly obeying the LORD. The word considered means to calculate. Abraham did exactly what we’ve been saying at this high-cost, high-stress moment. He remembered what God had done in the past and, in faith, made an informed leap of logic that God would raise his son from the dead. God had kept every promise. He’ll also keep this one. This is gritty, real-time, in-the-moment, pleasing faith.

#6 Sarah

11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.
– Hebrews 11:11 (ESV)

Sarah gets a bad rap for finding the LORD’s promise about Isaac humorous. In Genesis 18:12, Sarah couldn’t believe what she heard and laughed. She was an older woman, post-menopausal, long past her child-bearing years, and she knew it. Yet, she got over her disbelief and believed the word of the LORD. She had seen His work in their family and chose to believe even the most ridiculous-sounding promise she’d ever heard. She considered Him faithful, so she believed.

#7 Isaac

20 By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.
– Hebrews 11:20

This one is a little sticky. If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll remember that Jacob deceived Isaac. The blessing that Isaac spoke over Jacob was intended for Esau. But the sibling rivalry isn’t what the author has in mind here. He zooms in on Issac’s faith. Although he was literally blind at this point, Isaac wasn’t blind to the rivalry between his sons. He also knew the prophetic word that the older will serve the younger. Despite all that conflict, he knew that God was faithful and, in faith, spoke blessings. He trusted that the LORD’s word would prevail and the promise that began with him would continue.

#8 Jacob

21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.
-Hebrews 11:21 (ESV)

The blessing of Joseph’s sons came at the end of a long saga. Jacob believed Joseph to be dead, but the LORD brought things full circle. This blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh was done in faith that, in a manner of speaking, saw the LORD bring his son back from the dead. Jacob worshiped and blessed his grandsons in a faith that was renewed in the goodness of God’s hand on his family.

#9 Moses

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
– Hebrews 11:24-26 (ESV)

Like he did with Abraham, the author dwelled on Moses a little longer than the rest. I only want to highlight these verses. Moses didn’t grow up ignorant of his heritage. By providence, Pharaoh’s daughter hired his birth mother, Jochebed, to ween him (Exodus 2:1-10). It’s hard to say how long that was, but it could’ve been three to four years. And after that, who knows? Perhaps she remained in Pharaoh’s employ as a nanny of some kind, but the Bible doesn’t say. However, we do know that Moses grew up knowing he was Hebrew. He knew his heritage and, most importantly, about the God of his fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Knowing what he knew, with informed faith, he chose reproach instead of status, mistreatment instead of pleasure.

Looking Ahead!

Then, the author drops verse twenty-six. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt. This is how I want to close this very long article about faith. I skipped some crucial verses to hold them for the end. Let’s look at them.

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
– Hebrews 11:13-16 (ESV)

How do generations upon generations of God’s people die without seeing the fulfillment of the promise yet continue believing generation after generation? There’s only one answer. The LORD’s faithfulness is either remembered or renewed, or both, in every generation. Let’s be clear about something. The Bible doesn’t record that every generation of God’s people witnessed some sign or wonder that renewed their faith. Some did, but not all. So, either they witnessed His faithfulness or they recalled it. And through this cycle of the LORD speaking and preserving His Word, Israel kept believing. Was their belief perfect? No. Did they ever stray into disbelief? Constantly. But the LORD kept faithful men and women, even if they were few, and He used them to keep faith alive in His people.

They looked forward to Christ. They may not have known Him by His name, Jesus, but they knew He would come. They looked forward to a kingdom and a city that had not yet been built. So do we. And with them, we know that we are strangers and exiles on the earth. Our country and citizenship is a heavenly one. But the key to pleasing faith that endures is found in verse fifteen. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.

Keep your mind fixed on Jesus.

6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
– Romans 8:6-8 (ESV)

If you constantly think about where you came from, you’ll return to it. If you constantly think about where you’re heading, you’ll endure to it. Paul’s admonition helps me understand how these men and women persevered without receiving the promise. They kept looking ahead. What happened to that generation of Israelites in the wilderness who constantly complained and longed to return to Egypt? They died and did not enter His rest (Hebrews 3:19).

You and I have received the promise. How much more should we be expected to keep our eyes fixed on that city He is preparing for us? How much more should our faith be informed with the fullness of God’s plan revealed to us in Christ Jesus? And what will be the consequence of unbelief when we have seen His glory and received His Spirit? That’s more than Abraham ever saw. How can our faith please Him if we, who have been shown so much, cannot keep our eyes fixed on what is unseen?

17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
– 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

This is pleasing faith. It is informed, full of hope, remains fixed on the unseen, and makes leaps based on what has been revealed. Is that how you believe?

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Last modified: December 29, 2023