HEBREWS: THE DOCTRINE OF FAITH, PART 1

After handling all those snakes, no wonder a healing service followed.

Faith is the essential component of Christianity, yet so many Christians have no clue what Biblical faith is. Faith is not “positive thinking.” It has nothing to do with psychology. To some, faith means believing that you will be able to get a job done on time or that your child’s fever will go down. While there is definite value in positive thinking—Christians should be the most positive people on Earth—this has nothing to do with Biblical faith. The object of real Biblical faith is not one’s need or one’s faith, but God and His Word. We believe in God and we trust in His Word. Of course, this means that a Christian needs to know what the Bible says in order to exercise his faith. With so much Biblical illiteracy in the modern Church, little wonder the nature of faith is so misunderstood.

1. The meaning of faith, 11:1

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (NIV 84)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV)

Now faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see. (J.B. Phillips)

Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we cannot see. (CEV)

Oral Roberts, praying for healing. Is this what Biblical faith looks like? Some people think so.

You can search the Bible from cover to cover but you won’t find a definition of what faith is. However, a number of facts about faith are given. Those facts taken together will lead us to a better understanding of Biblical faith.

This verse in the Greek begins with the verb “is.” Faith, then, is a present, ongoing reality in the life of every believer. Faith is not an on again, off again thing practiced in difficult times. Faith is not some ancient virtue simply to be studied. Christian faith is a living faith; it is a way of life. While the word “faith,” pistis, is translated in various ways: belief, trust, fidelity, firm persuasion and conviction, in the Bible faith is always linked to God. So at the outset, we must understand that Biblical faith is not a belief in self or man but in God.

Going a little further, faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for. The Greek word is interesting; it was commonly used in the sense of a “title deed.” A title deed is the foundational document or contract of some transaction. So then, faith is the “title deed” of things hoped for. Hypostasis is sometimes used subjectively, as the NIV has: we are “sure.” But it can also be used objectively, as in the KJV’s “substance.” The common thought promoted by the KJV has led to what used to be known as “the prosperity Gospel,” which taught that believers will be given what we want if we have enough faith. That’s basically what the KJV says; that the things we want, which at present have so substance, will be made real by faith. The problem with that translation is that it doesn’t line up with what the author has been and will be teaching about faith. Genuine Biblical faith is the absolute conviction that God will do what has said He would do. There are spiritual realities, like the promises of God for example, that have no substance at present, but are made real nonetheless—they will be given “substance”–by faith. Our faith convinces us that God’s Word; God’s promises, are true and that they exist whether we can see them or not.

Now, having faith in the promises of God suggests that we actually know what God has promised He would do. This is why so many modern believers live lives full of disappointment and disillusionment: from their perspective, God has not conformed to their wills; He has not given them the things they had been hoping for. But faith has nothing to do with God bending to our wills; faith takes God at His Word. Faith bends our wills to His will for us.

2. The assurance of faith, 11:2, 3

This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Genuine faith is what “the ancients,” or “the elders” were commended for. The ancestors of the the Hebrews reading this very letter had the right kind of faith. But those present-day Hebrews were struggling; they were getting restless, maybe even impatient with God. As far as they were concerned, God was not solving their problems. For the recipients of this letter, life certainly didn’t seem to be getting any better. A lot of frustrated Christians are just like these ancient Hebrews. It’s way too easy to assume God doesn’t care or God isn’t involved when it seems like our prayers go unanswered. But as verse 1 stated, faith in the invisible things of God is “proof” or “evidence” that we know God knows what He is doing. The “things” themselves are not proof of anything; it’s faith that’s important, not the thing hoped for.

If that sounds a little too metaphysical, verse 2 tells us that such thinking is rooted in faith; it’s historically provable. The Hebrews holding this letter were at the end of a long line of faithful men. As this chapter progresses, the author will use examples of people in Hebrew history who bore witness to genuine faith. The faith Christians have is not some pie-in-the-sky ideal, but historical. An apocryphal book, Ecclesiasticus, has a whole section devoted to looking at the faith of historical figures. It begins like this: “Let us now praise famous men…” Faith is self-evident. Rich or poor; sick or healthy; these things don’t enter into it. Possessing a “thing hoped for” is not evidence of faith. Having faith is evidence of faith. All the people noted in Hebrews 11 would be unknown to us today if they didn’t have faith. The faith they had was what made them “famous.”

Granted, all this is hard to grasp. To help us get our minds wrapped around the nature of faith, the writer gives us an example of the nature of faith: creation. The material universe all around us is understandable only on the basis of faith. Christians are sure God did the work, but we weren’t there to see it happening. Not only that, we are told that everything, including the very ground upon which we are standing, was made out of invisible things. Think about the implication of 3: what seems real to our senses is really only a byproduct of that which our senses tell us unreal. So, Biblical faith is so much bigger than merely hoping that your flu symptoms will go away quickly or that you’ll get that new job you’ve been hoping for. Biblical faith is not denying reality, it is the ability to penetrate this superficial world of what we can see so that we can grab hold of the supernatural and eternal realities that lay behind it. Biblical faith is able to punch a hole through this world into the next, and reaching through, bring back that which God has promised.

Biblical faith transcends time and space; it reaches past the boundaries and barriers of this world of flesh and into the high places where the vistas of eternity can be seen. By faith we hold the title deed to that piece of property. When you understand that, you’ll understand what real faith is.

The Gunsmoke set. It looked real, but just like the material world, it was all just a façade.

This material world is a façade; an illusion. What’s real is what we cannot see. Biblical faith is not child’s play; it’s not something for weak-willed, easily influenced losers who see faith as a short cut to getting what they think they deserve in life. Biblical faith is something only mature, reasoning believers can practice. It is based on God’s Word. If you don’t know what’s written in your Bible, you’ll never understand or appreciate what Biblical faith is. But when you know what God’s Word says and you have confidence in what God has said in it, history becomes filled with meanings, your life will make sense, and you’ll face whatever your future may hold without fear.

Another illusion. The lagoon on Gilligan's Island was actually set, right next to the Hollywood Freeway.

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