Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Hebrews 11 is rightfully known as the “hall of fame of faith.” The chapter is an intricate, carefully structured, and sustained reflection on the nature and function of faith, highlighting exemplars of faith from Israel’s history.
The first three verses introduce the topic of faith. These verses introduce faith as the quality by which “our ancestors received approval.” The passive voice of the verb, emartyrēthēsan, can be understood as a divine passive, which would imply that the ancestors received approval from God (see also 11:4, 5, 6, 16). As the rest of the chapter will make clear, however, those included in the list of faith are both approved by God and celebrated by subsequent generations.
We are told that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). The Greek word translated as “assurance” (hypostasis) has a wide range of meanings, and its significance in verse one is disputed. The word denotes something real, tangible, or objective, in contrast to something illusory or intangible. In this sense, hypostasis provides the basis or actualization of hope.
The second phrase in verse one, “the conviction of things not seen,” stands in apposition to the first and functionally repeats or expands it. Here the Greek word elegchos (“conviction”) has the sense of presenting or proving as true that which cannot be seen. English translations struggle to bring out the emphatic position of the main verb (estin) in verse 1, which calls for something stronger than the “to be” verb. Given the syntax of verse 1 and the examples provided in the verses that follow, we might offer a more dynamic translation: Faith rests in or taps into the really real of hoped-for things; it leads to conviction and action in the visible world, even though it is rooted in things that cannot be seen.
The reference to “what is seen” being made “from things that are not visible” connects verse 3 with the earlier verses. Here, though, a new element is added: the word of God. God’s powerful and creative word brings into existence things that previously were not visible. Despite the plural “worlds” (see the plural form in Hebrews 1:2 as well), this seems to be a clear allusion to the Genesis creation narratives. The Greek word translated as “prepared” in 11:3 can have the sense of restoration or repair (see Matthew 4:21, Mark 1:19, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Galatians 6:1, 1 Thessalonians 3:10, 1 Peter 5:10). The author’s choice of this word here may support the idea of God’s creation, not as a one-time act at the beginning of time, but as God’s ongoing effort to uphold and even restore the world.
The lectionary reading moves from the introduction to faith in verses 1–3 to the example of Abraham, skipping over earlier figures like Abel (11:4), Enoch (11:5–6), and Noah (11:7). Abraham’s example highlights the active or dynamic nature of faith. Faith is an orientation that leads to decisive action, even and especially when there is no tangible or visible support for that action. Verses 8–10 allude to Abraham’s migration from Ur, the familiar land of his ancestors to an unknown land, the land of God’s promise. Even though he did not know where he was going (verse 8), he went out. His active response made him into a foreigner or sojourner, a fate shared by Isaac and Jacob as well (verse 9).
The author modifies the biblical tradition in a small but important way. Rather than seeking the promised land, Hebrews 11:10 says that Abraham was looking forward to or expecting a promised city. While a city with divinely-built foundations can be understood as a reference to the earthly Jerusalem (Psalm 87:1), the remaining chapters in Hebrews make this sense unlikely here. Instead, the city that Abraham seeks is the same as the homeland mentioned in 11:14 and the “better country” mentioned in 11:16: it is a heavenly one. The author identifies God as the architect (technitēs) and builder (dēmiourgos) of this city.
In verses 11–12, Abraham and Sarah’s acceptance of God’s promise of an heir is an additional example of faith. People familiar with the story in Genesis and its interpretation in early Christian literature can understand the point the author is trying to make: despite all evidence to the contrary—the fact that Sarah was barren and beyond the normal age for childbearing (verse 11) and the fact that Abraham was “as good as dead” (verse 12)—they trusted God’s promise. Their faith rested in a reality that existed beyond their infertility and old age.
The way the story is presented in Hebrews 11, though, is complicated by certain grammatical and theological problems. The latter are more concerning. The account in Hebrews focuses almost entirely on Abraham. Beyond the mention of her barrenness, Sarah is regarded as little more than a vessel for the promise of God and the miraculous virality of Abraham. In fact, the text claims that it is “from one person,” namely Abraham, that innumerable descendants are born. The preacher must make hard decisions about how to engage the androcentric nature of this text and the near elimination of Sarah’s experience and her agency in the story.
In verses 13–16, the author draws a conclusion from the examples surveyed in the earlier verses. We might expect a “…and they lived happily ever after” sort of conclusion. Instead, the author insists that, although the models demonstrated faith, all of them died without receiving what was promised. Of course, this is not fully true of the biblical traditions. Many of the exemplars did receive what was promised, at least in part. This tension highlights the author’s theological, rather than historical or literal, treatment of earlier traditions. What should be clear is that their deaths didn’t threaten or invalidate God’s promise.
Next, we learn that the heroes of faith experienced estrangement as a result of their faithful response (verse 13). This estrangement, however, only proved that they were seeking a heavenly homeland (verse 14) and the city that God had prepared for them (verse 16). Here the author offers a perspective that will continue to the end of the writing: there is an anti-social, dislocating nature to faith. Those who faithfully respond to God’s call and who seek the city that God prepares make themselves alien to the world around them. This is part of the author’s pastoral response to those who had experienced discord and even violence because of their connection with the gathered community (see 10:19–39). Their faithful response led to social, cultural, and religious estrangement. But the author insists this was true of the heroes of faith as well.
For those reading and preaching on this text in the American context, the author’s words in verses 13–16 offer a poignant counterargument to the rise of Christian nationalism in parts of our country. At the very least, it should neutralize any notions of American exceptionalism or any attempt to equate God’s promised city with the machinations of either political party. In addition, these final verses invite reflection and contemporary illustrations of how Christian faith today may demand estrangement from American ideals and values, as it caused estrangement from the pax Romana and the imperial cult in the first century.