Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
I have sometimes referred to Hebrews as a good slogan book.
Its cultic mysteries keep it at arm’s length for many a preacher, but its rhetorical eloquence makes it eminently quotable. Hebrews 11:1 may take the prize for “faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen,” as it rolls off the tongue with lyrical profundity. Without question this author writes well, but his poetry is not for show. With these words, he teaches a deep lesson about the steadfast nature of faith.
By the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the author is rounding third base in his sermon. He has displayed Christ as Son of God (1) and Son of Man (2), warned of the dangers inherent in unbelief (3-4), and explored the power of Christ’s priesthood (5-10). After this chapter on faith, only the rhetorical culmination (12) and closing matters (13) remain.
Right before this encomium — this praise — of faith — begins, the author issued one of his chilling warnings. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31 — another great if terrifying quote), but his listeners have endured well (10:32-39). They have not turned away from God, but have been faithful (10:39). If they are going to continue in this state, it would benefit them to know precisely what faith is.
Hebrews 11:1 makes two statements about faith. First, faith is upostasis; etymologically, this term indicates a standing (stasis) under (upo). Thankfully, this word appears two more times in Hebrews, shedding light on its meaning for this author. In Hebrews 3:14, he and his readers have become sharers of Christ, a relationship that will endure as they hold fast the beginning of upostasis firm until the end. The notion of a foundation of belief or a confidence of belief makes sense here. This foundational meaning fits also in the other occurrence in Hebrews 1:3. Shifting to a Christological application, the author states that Jesus is the imprint of God’s upostasis. He is the picture of the foundation or bedrock of God’s identity — hence many translations have “being” here. The two other instances of the word in the New Testament also carry the idea of confidence (2 Corinthians 9:4; 11:17). If upostasis is something basic, something solid, something firm, then it provides a place to stand from which one can hope.
Second, faith is elegchos. Here, the author of Hebrews has stretched our vocabulary skills because this word appears only here in all the New Testament. It is not uncommon in the Septuagint where it appears over thirty times, primarily in the wisdom literature. In almost every instance the connotation of the word is quite negative. It is translated as “reproof,” “rebuke,” or “conviction.” Elegchos is evidence brought forth that the person doesn’t usually want to hear. Only twice does Job use the term more generally as “proof” (Job 16:21; 23:4). That sense of proof or usually translated as “evidence” is not wrong here, but I can’t help but wonder if the disciplinary connotation doesn’t have a place as well. For an author who will reflect on the loving discipline of God in the following chapter (Hebrews 12:5-11), he might be foreshadowing that discussion here. Faith presents that proof, even that rebuke, of things that you have difficulty seeing. If this community is beginning to struggle with doubt about God’s good character, they may need this jolt. You can stand firmly upon faith, and you will not want to deny or reject the evidence it presents.
Sound impossible to be that faithful? He counters that possible sense of inadequacy with several human examples of real, intense, life-changing faith. This kind of solid unquestionable trust is possible, he proclaims, because people in your own history have had it. The elders were attested to have this. In some instances, others around them, in others the record of Israel’s Scriptures, and for a few even God himself proclaimed that they had this kind of faith.
But before the author begins to tell those stories, he asserts the same kind of faith resides in himself and in his readers. We know, he says, that the ages (his word for all of creation, cf. Hebrews 1:2) have been fashioned by the word of God (cf. Hebrews 1:3). We know that the things we can see have come from the things we cannot see. This is quite a powerful rhetorical move. Before he speaks about the amazing faith of generations past, he reminds his audience that simply by affirming God as creator they have the foundation of faith he is extolling.
He then tells the story of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, before he arrives at the example par excellence, Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. In Hebrews 1:8-12, he focuses upon two vignettes from the life of Abraham. First, Abraham demonstrated his faith by going to the place God called him sight unseen. But this great obedience never really paid off during Abraham’s life. He never possessed that land of promise. Instead, he dwelt there as a foreigner, living in tents (Hebrews 11:9). Moreover, and even more powerfully unsatisfying is the fact that Abraham waited his whole life for the real dwelling place, the real inheritance, the city built by God himself, but never did attain it.
The second promise was a bit more satisfying. God also asked for faith when he promised a child to the elderly — in his rather crass terms as good as dead (Hebrews 11:12) — Abraham and Sarah. Exegetes debate whether Sarah or Abraham is the primary referent here, but in some sense they both display faith that God is faithful to his promise. Their innumerable descendants issued forth from this one child, but even in that joy lies a lack of fulfillment. Abraham and Sarah lived to see their son, but not the great multitude.
Consequently, the author concludes that all of these died still in the state of faith, not fully receiving God’s promises. Instead they had to keep looking forward to them. He returns to the promise of the land as the prime example of their continued waiting. Because they kept their eyes on the heavenly city, and not their present land nor the country of their origin, God was proud to remain in relationship with them.
In their state of anticipation, the family of Abraham provides a precise example to the audience. They have seen demonstrations of God’s faithfulness, a land, a son, creation, but they still have much more to possess. Faith gives them that sure, unassailable foundation to hold onto their confession until the end.