Heb. 11:1-3 Defining Faith (Ch.37) March 2, 2013

37.    Defining faith

Please read Hebrews 11:1-3

Every mountaineer, or even serious hill-walker, has had the experience. You surmount what you thought was the high-point, only to find that further and higher peaks lie before you. Hebrews is a little like that. In 8:7-13 we reached the pinnacle of the Writer’s theological argument, the unveiling of the new covenant. But a further peak appeared as we considered the outcome of that covenant — the believer has been ‘perfected for ever’ (10:12-18). We then discovered yet another high-point in 10:19-25, which sets out the implications of the covenant in terms of our approach to God, our eternal hope, and our relationship to our fellow-believers. Can there be further heights to scale?

The answer is ‘yes’, and Hebrews 11 is just such — a spiritual massive indeed. But what has this greatly-loved passage on faith to do with the new covenant? Does the Writer set off on a new tangent in Hebrews 11?

The answer is ‘no’, for faith has everything to do with the new covenant. Although this covenant receives no explicit mention in Hebrews 11, the antecedent covenant of promise features strongly in the chapter — especially in relation to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. If further proof is required, we need only look ahead to 12:24, where believers are told that they ‘have come … to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant’. How do we come to Jesus? By faith, of course.

Faith and the new covenant (11:1)

Although there is no explicit mention of faith in 8:7-13, where Jeremiah’s  prophecy of the new covenant is presented, there can be no doubt that faith is integral to the enjoyment of this covenant. On God’s part, we enter the new covenant through election, effectual calling and regeneration. But on our part we enter through God’s gift of faith. It is by faith in Christ, says Paul, that ‘we have access into this grace in which we stand and rejoice in hope of the glory of God’ (Rom. 5:1-2). As must be evident, ‘grace’ and ‘hope of the glory of God’ are a fair summary of the present and future benefits of the new covenant. Faith, then, is the door of the covenant.

This emerges clearly in the opening verse of chapter 11, where we read: ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (11:1). These words are normally seen as a definition of what faith is, and we shall consider them in this way presently. But before doing so, notice how the Writer here links faith to two essential aspects of the new covenant — hope and invisibility! In fact, of course, these two aspects are themselves related, for Paul tells us that ‘we are saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?’ (Romans 8:24).

Unlike the old covenant, with its manifest glory and public ceremonies, the new covenant is invisible. As Paul declares: ‘we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). Gone is the visible earthly tabernacle — replaced by a heavenly sanctuary which is ‘not of this creation’ (9:11). Gone are the animal sacrifices, with their annual (and indeed daily) reminder of sin and atonement. They are replaced by a once-for-all satisfaction  that occurred historically two millennia ago (10:3, 12). Gone is an all-too-human high priest, richly arrayed, esteemed by men, conducting endless and complex rituals in the sight of all the people. The great high priest of the new covenant is invisible, for he has passed through the heavens into the presence of the unseen God (4:14).

It was, perhaps, the loss of this visible element in religion that troubled the Hebrews and tempted them to return to their former ways. The same is often true today. People seek reassurance in what is tangible, visible and ritualistic. Many churches pander to this desire, adorning their so-called priests in special robes, elevating them above the laity, and glorying in their priestly powers. Their church buildings are ornate, a celebration of human artistry — earthly tabernacles that delight the sensibilities of man but are irrelevant to the worship of God in Spirit and in truth.

Even in evangelical churches there is often a tendency to dress-up; to create ‘atmospheres’; to provide spectacle of one sort or another; to capture the eye and focus the mind on visible religion. But our hearts and minds ought rather to be set on the invisible Christ who ministers in the heavenly sanctuary. And for that, we need faith!

Similarly, just as we cannot ‘see’ the invisible entities of the new covenant without faith, neither can we entertain hope concerning them. Men may have vague and tentative ‘hopes’ about such matters as righteousness and heaven, but without faith such hopes are groundless. A person suffering from a terminal disease may still ‘hope’ to be cured, but this may be no more than wishful thinking.

But the hope that believers have in Christ is altogether different, because  ‘faith is the substance [foundation] of things hoped for’ (11:1). When we hope our hopes in faith, we do so with assurance — for they are grounded in certainty.

Defining faith (11:1-2)

So our verse demonstrates the essential link between faith and new-covenant hope. But it also tells us something about the nature of faith itself. This is important, for there is much confusion over this matter. ‘Now faith’, avers the Writer, ‘is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ (11:1).

Some commentators do not see the verse as a definition of faith. For example, Hywel Jones, in his excellent Let’s study Hebrews, argues that 11:1 is deficient as a definition because Christ is not mentioned as the object of faith [1]. But this is a little unfair, since the Writer has spent the first ten chapters of the epistle establishing this very point and returns to the subject in 12:1-2, where he bids us  look to ‘Jesus, the author and finisher of faith’.

Others, like Kistemaker [2], prefer to read the verse subjectively — ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ — rather than as an objective definition of faith (though he does not rule out the latter). Bruce also favours the subjective sense but helpfully adds: ‘Physical eyesight produces conviction or evidence of visible things; faith is the organ which enables people … to see the invisible order’ [3].

However, Lane [4] insists that ‘key to the interpretation of these complementary clauses is recognition of the objective character of the decisive terms [substance and evidence]’. He continues: ‘faith is something objective that bestows upon the objects of hope … a substantial reality’ [5].

Who is right? Perhaps an illustration will help us understand what the Writer is telling us here about the nature of faith. If I ask you to define the word ‘bicycle’ you could reply that a bicycle is a machine consisting of a frame, two wheels, pedals, steering-means, and so on. You would have defined the bicycle objectively, that is, as an object.

Alternatively, if you are a keen cyclist, you might simply say that a bicycle is something you enjoy riding. This tells me nothing about a bicycle as such but only about your subjective experience of it. It is a fully subjective definition.

However, there is a third possibility. You could define the bicycle as ‘a man-powered means of transport’. This would be neither an objective nor a subjective definition, but a functional definition. Hebrews 11:1 is best understood in this way — as a functional definition of faith.

On this view, the verse means: ‘faith gives substance to things hoped for and provides conviction or evidence concerning things not seen’. In other words, the verse tells us what faith does for us. In harmony with this view, Owen comments: ‘[things] hoped for … have a present subsistence given unto them; as they are unseen they are to be made evident: both which are done by faith’ [6]. And again: ‘[faith] is the cause and means giving them a subsistence’ [7].

Although, therefore, this verse does not amount to a fully objective definition of faith, it necessarily implies that faith is an objective reality — a faculty by which believers apprehend the unseen realities of God. In short, faith is spiritual ‘eyesight’ or discernment (1 Cor. 2:14). It was ‘by faith’ that Moses ‘endured as seeing him who is invisible’ (11:27; emphasis added).

Because faith enables us to discern spiritual realities, it also allows us to trust in them. Because by faith we behold Christ’s glory, ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14), we are able to receive the grace and believe the truth that reside in him. Because we discern by faith the efficacy of the blood of Christ to cleanse our consciences from sin, we are enabled to trust savingly in the atoning work he has performed. As William Cowper wrote;

E’er since by faith I saw the stream

Thy flowing wounds supply,

Redeeming love has been my theme,

And shall be till I die.

This element of trust is vital. Spiritual discernment alone is not saving faith. The devils are fully cognisant of spiritual truth, but their knowledge of that truth does not save them — they ‘believe and tremble’ (Jas. 2:19). When someone is ‘born again’ by the work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:3-8) they not only receive the gift of spiritual sight but by it are caused to love and know ‘the only true God and Jesus Christ whom [he has] sent’ (Rom. 5:5; Jn. 17:3). As a result, the faith-endowed soul is ‘not disobedient to the heavenly vision’ (Ac. 26:19). It trusts its Saviour and worships its Lord. But without the faculty of faith it could do neither.

This is why the Writer can continue: ‘For by [faith] the elders obtained a good testimony’ (11:2). More literally, they ‘had witness borne to them’, that is, they ‘received the divine commendation’ [8]. God could hardly commend them for the faith he had provided as a gift — but he could do so for the way they used it to demonstrate their trust and confidence in his wondrous person and divine purpose.

The ‘elders’ here are not leaders of synagogues or churches as is usual in the New Testament writings, but simply those who believed and trusted God ‘of old’. They were elders, not on account of age or eminence (some of this chapter’s heroes were young and obscure), but because they were mature in faith.

Faith and understanding (11:3)

So far we have learned three things. Firstly, we need a new faculty, faith, to apprehend the invisible spiritual realities of the new covenant. We need it because ‘the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14).

Secondly, this discernment or ‘spiritual sight’ is imparted to the soul during regeneration, for ‘unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (Jn. 3:3; emphasis added). Faith is thus the gift of God. It is not a natural faculty that resides in human nature and can be awakened by appropriate means, as Arminianism teaches. Paul reminds the Ephesians: ‘by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God’ (Eph. 2:8). The whole of salvation, including the faith that saves, is God’s gift.

Thirdly, we have seen that faith involves not only a knowledge of spiritual things but trust in, and obedience to, the things revealed — specifically, obedience to the gospel of Christ (1 Pet. 1:2).

But this by no means exhausts the meaning of faith, for we are next told that ‘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’ (11:3). The assertion that ‘by faith we understand …’ is most important.

Commonly, faith is considered to be the antithesis of reason or understanding. Even Isaac Watts wrote: ‘Where reason fails with all her powers, there faith prevails and love adores’. While we understand what Watts is saying, he does give the impression that faith is somehow contrary to or independent of rational thought.

Many Christians hold erroneous views of faith as something irrational. But if this were so, we could not ‘understand’ anything by faith! The problem here is a confusion of categories — faith and reason are not alternative routes to knowledge, any more that physical sight and reason are alternatives.

Sight provides information — ‘sense-data’ if you like. Then reason operates on these data to provide an understanding or interpretation of the things observed. There is no conflict between sight and understanding — they are complementary. Indeed, without sight (or other senses, of course) there would be nothing to understand, for we would remain ignorant of the world around us.

This analogy with physical sight helps to clarify the way in which faith facilitates understanding. Faith, as spiritual sight, reveals unseen spiritual realities. These are the data on which reason then operates to reach an understanding of spiritual truth. We all know this from experience, if we are believers. Our minds are active as we read the Scriptures — as we hear them expounded or meditate upon them. The idea that we can receive valid spiritual impressions without the involvement of the mind is cultic and dangerous. It lies at the root of Charismatic excesses, mysticism and many other errors. Genuine Christian experience involves the whole person, including the emotions and the will —but it never bypasses the mind and understanding.

This is well demonstrated by a single example. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul makes the transition from his doctrinal treatise to the application of the doctrines. In the light of ‘the mercies of God’, he calls on his readers to ‘present [their] bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’. Why should they do that? Because, says the apostle, it is their ‘reasonable service’.

The word ‘reasonable’ is the Greek logikos, meaning rational or logical. He is, in effect, asking them to consider the great salvation that is theirs in Christ and to work out, logically, what response is appropriate on their part. There can be only one answer, of course, as he tells them. But it is a rational response that he seeks, through the ‘renewing of your mind’ (Rom. 12:2), rather than one that is merely emotional or volitional.

Understanding creation (11:3 cont.)

To illustrate how faith leads to understanding, the Writer chooses the largest topic imaginable — the creation of the universe! ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God’ (11:3). The word translated ‘worlds’ is literally ‘ages’, that is, all things that exist in space and, particularly, time. ‘Framed’ means established or created, and the agency of this creation is identified as ‘the word of God’. Although creation is unambiguously attributed to Christ in 1:2 — as well as in other places such as John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 — the Writer nowhere describes Christ as ‘the Word’, nor is the Greek word logos used here. His reference is, rather, to God’s spoken word in Genesis 1 — ‘God said let there be … and there was …’ (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11 etc). This reminds us that faith feeds upon God’s self-revelation in the Bible. When Scripture says God formed the worlds by his word, faith believes it and understands it to be so.

What exactly is it that we understand concerning creation? ‘That the things which are seen [the visible universe] were not made of things which are visible’ (11:3). The Writer may here be correcting the theory, advanced by Plato, that God’s ‘all-powerful hand created the world out of formless matter’ [9]. On the contrary, asserts the Writer, the universe was made without material (visible) precursors. This is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo —  creation from nothing.

Careful commentators point out that the Writer simply states a negative — the universe was not made from visible precursors. With the hindsight of modern science, for example, we might see this as an inspired insight into the fact that all matter is composed of invisible entities such as atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons, quarks and so on. However, this is a little too ingenious. The most obvious interpretation is the simplest, namely, that the verse teaches a straightforward ex-nihilo creation by divine fiat. God spoke, and space, time, matter and energy sprang into being at his command. This is wholly consistent with the Writer’s assertion in 1:3 that Christ is, even now, ‘upholding all things by the word of his power’.

This has implications for the modern debate on origins. Those who believe the plain meaning of Scripture find themselves at loggerheads with others who promote the doctrine of evolution. It is sometimes tempting for creationists to seek ‘proofs’ of creation by appeal to scientific observations — such as evidences for a young earth or against the random evolution of complex biological systems. Such arguments are important as a means of refuting the claims of evolutionists, but they can never amount to a proof of ‘special (i.e. miraculous) creation’. Why not? Because our understanding of God’s work of creation derives ultimately from faith, not from scientific exploration or theorising. If it were possible to ‘prove’ special creation by scientific tests or philosophical arguments, the Writer could never have made the statement he does in 11:3.


1. Jones p.122

2. Kistemaker pp. 309-311

3. Bruce p.279

4. Lane 2 p.328

5. Lane 2 p.329

6. Owen 7 p.7

7. Owen 7 p.8

8. Bruce p.279

9. Lane 2 p. 332