The following sermon was preached at FBC Benbrook on Sunday morning, January 31, 2010
Hebrews 11.1-3 NIV
1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By 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.
Hebrews 11.1-3 NKJV
1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. 3By 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.
One of the passages that we read so often in weddings is from 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter.” After describing love with powerful poetry, Paul concludes with these famous words, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13.13). Faith, hope, and love from a foundational triad that was not only important to the apostle Paul, but also to the apostle who wrote the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 10, the author of this book that we have been studying for the last few months used this tried of faith, hope, and love to encourage the Christians in Rome to draw near to God with the full assurance of faith, to hold unswervingly to the hope they profess, and to consider how to spur one another on towards love and good deeds (Hebrews 10.22-24).
Faith, hope, and love are the basic building blocks of the Christian faith, and it would appear that they are so simple and foundational that their meaning is clear. But we live in a culture that has radically altered the meaning of these basic biblical words. “Love” has become little more than doing what feels good to me instead of something that “is not self seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs…delights in the truth instead of evil…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13.5-7). Hope has become little more than wishful thinking rather than the biblical idea of “confident expectation.” And faith, what is faith?
When we turn to the great thinkers and writers, they give us quite a wide and various definition of faith. For instance, Patrick Overton said, “When you have come to the edge of all light that you know and are about to drop off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen: there will be something solid to stand on or you will be taught to fly.” Is that faith? Is faith a step from the light into the darkness? CS Lewis said, “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has conce accepted in spite of your changing moods.” Is faith acting on that which we know to be true even though we don’t feel like it? George Seaton said, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” Is that faith? Is faith irrational and illogical? Frederick Nietzsche said, “Faith means not wanting to know what is true.” Is that faith? Is faith just sticking your head in the ground and avoiding the truths that we don’t want to be true? Thomas Aquinas said, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” Benjamin Franklin said, “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly,” and again, “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Obvously, there is a fairly wide bandwidth in the attempt to give a definition or description of faith. What is faith, and what does it look like when you are a “person of faith”? Does that mean I believe some things to be true? What does it mean to be a person of faith?
When we come to Hebrews 11, we come to what is perhaps the most descriptive statement of faith in the entire Bible. It is not so much a definition as it is a description. And this great statement is then followed almost forty verses of example after example of what it looks like to be a person of faith. The apostle points us to the great stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the children of Israel, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel and others that the author does “not have time to tell about” (Hebrews 11.32). And what the author is doing here is trying to convince the Jewish Christians to not be of those who shrink back and are destroyed but to be of those who believe and are saved (Hebrews 10.39). And he wants them to know that the people of God have always lived by faith. Faith is not a new fangled “Christian” concept. In fact, “the ancients were commended for” faith (Hebrews 11.2). And that is the phrase that brackets the stories of faith in verse 2 and verse 39, “these were all commended for their faith” (Hebrews 11.39).
But for today, I want our focus to be on the profound description of faith that the writer offers before he lays out the examples of faith. It is not so much a definition of faith as it is a description of faith. The word “faith” is really a complex word. Faith has many nuances. In the New Testament, the same word can designate faithfulness (1 Peter 1.7), trust (Romans 4.3), and loyalty (Revelation 12.10). Faith can represent the mode of belief (Romans 3.23) or its content (Romans 10.8). To believe can range in meaning from the act of bare intellectual assent (James 2.19) to personal commitment (John 1.12). Faith can be used generally to signify Christianity (Galatians 6.10) or it can stand for the body of Christian doctrine which forms the deposit of faith (Jude 3).
What we do have in Hebrews 11.1 is not the once for all definition of faith, but a description of faith in light of the stories he is about to tell. He is trying to encourage the readers to persevere and do the will of God (see Hebrews 10.36) and to be people of faith. And he describes faith in a very specific way when he writes,
1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. 3By 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. (Hebrews 11.1-3 NIV)
The more I have read and meditated upon this verse this week, the more profound it has become to me. And I really want us this morning to work to understand what the author is saying in this very important verse.
In Hebrews 11.1, the author uses two extremely important words to describe faith. The first word is ύπόστασις and the second word is έλεγχος. Faith is the ύπόστασις of what we hope for and the έλεγχος of what we cannot see. Now I know that very few of you have come to church this morning to get a vocabulary course in the Greek language. But I do know that as followers of Christ, you do have a desire to know the Word of God, and this is essential to what it means to be a follower of Christ. This is what faith is, and it is all wrapped up in these two words. It is imperative that we try to understand what these words mean. If we divorce the meaning of “faith” from what the Scriptures tell us faith is, then we might as well just turn to Overton, Seaton, or Nietzsche or to some bumper sticker at the Christian bookstore to tell us what it means to be a person of faith. And I am looking for a faith that is more grounded than that, and I know that you are, too. So, let us look at these words.
The first word, ύπόστασις, is the combination of two Greek words and literally means “to set under.” It carries with it the idea of a foundation or substructure, and by extension, it speaks of the very essence of something. It’s a word that when we try to get it into English, it is very hard to capture it in one concise word. The author of Hebrews has already used the word in Hebrews 1.3, where he wrote, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (ύπόστασις)” (Hebrews 1.3). Jesus is the exact representation of the essence of God.
The big question to answer when trying to understand ύπόστασις is whether or not the author is using the word in the objective sense or in the subjective sense. Not that you came this morning to get a lesson in grammar, but this is important to understanding the text. This word can either be used in the objective sense or in the subjective sense. The dictionary defines “objective” as “of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers, having a reality independent of the mind.” Since it is of the sensible experience, I can discern an objective truth through the five senses. Or, if you like, objective truths can be scientifically proven and verified. The word “objective” deals with facts or conditions without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations. An objective truth is something that is true regardless of what I think, feel, or even how I perceive it to be or want it to be. It just is.
On the contrary, when we think of something as “subjective,” we are talking about something “characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind.” Something is subjective if it can be “affected by personal views, experience, or background” or arises “from conditions within the brain or sense organs and not directly caused by external stimuli” or arises out of one’s perception. In the subjective sense, how I perceive something determines reality to me.
To give a current example, President Obama delivered the State of the Union Address on Wednesday of this week. That is an objective truth; he delivered a speech. Many people were eyewitnesses to the speech. Millions watched the speech live on television. Millions more have seen video clips on the internet. You can read the transcript of the speech. It was a historical event, an objective truth. It doesn’t matter if you are Republican or Democrat, Obama delivered the speech. It doesn’t matter if you like him or not, the speech itself is an objective truth.
But what you think about the speech is whole other matter. Over the last few days, everyone has been giving their “opinion” of the speech. The Republicans gave their official response on live TV just a few moments after Obama finished talking. MSNBC and FOX News have been talking non-stop about it ever since. What you perceive that he meant by the speech is subjective. Whether or not you believed what he said is subjective. How the speech made you feel is subjective. Whether or not it was a “good” speech is subjective. That fact that he gave the speech is an objective truth; my perception of the speech is subjective.
Now, let’s get back to this phrase in Hebrews 11.1. These two words, ύπόστασις and έλεγχος, are used in tandem. By the way, έλεγχος is a word that means “proof, that by which a thing is proved or tested.” Faith is the essence of what we hope for and the proof of what we do not see. Grammatically, they are in apposition to each other. Apposition, not opposition, is a grammatical construction where two nouns are used in a phrase in such a way that they are equivalent to each other. Or to put it another way, they repeat the thought. Faith is the ύπόστασις of what we hope for and the έλεγχος of what we cannot see. ύπόστασις and έλεγχος are in apposition, meaning, they mean the same thing, they repeat the same idea, they help us understand each other. So if ύπόστασις is used in the objective sense, so is έλεγχος. Faith is the essence or foundation of what we hope for and the proof of what we cannot see.
Now if your translation of choice is the NIV, or the NRSV, or the ESV, or the NASB, then your translation of Hebrews 11.1 takes ύπόστασις and έλεγχος in the subjective sense. The NIV says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The NRSV and the NASB both read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In these translations, faith is a subjective quality of a believer. It is something within us that makes us sure of what we hope for. Faith is how we perceive reality, it is our perception.
On the other hand, if you are reading from the KJV, or the HCSB, or even the Message, those translations take ύπόστασις and έλεγχος in the objective sense. So the NKJV reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The HCSB reads very similarly, “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” And you can see the difference very clearly. In the NIV, faith is subjective, it is our perception of reality. But in the KJV, faith is objective, it is the objective evidence of things not seen. Those two translations are very different.
Let me see if I can make it more clear to myself. If you are selling a used car for $2000, and I come to your house to buy it. When I present a check to you for $2000, I say to you, “I can assure you that this check is good.” And you ask me, “How can I assure you that this check is good?” Will it make you feel better if I give you a subjective answer to that question? What if I say something along the lines of, “I know this check is good because I can feel it in my bones, it just feels good. I am just convinced it is good.” Probably not. You are probably looking for an objective assurance. You would rather me say, “I can assure you this check is good by allowing you to call the bank to see if there are enough funds in the bank to cover the check.” After calling the bank and getting the evidence from the bank as to whether or not there are sufficient funds to cover the check, then you will feel assured. That is objective assurance.
Or to apply this to a future event. If I were to present to you evidence to assure you that I am going to a conference next month, what kind of evidence would you be looking for? Would you like the subjective evidence of how much I want to go, of how it will make me feel? Or would you rather have the objective evidence like airplane tickets, reservations at a hotel, receipt for the conference fees. The latter is objective evidence; here is the evidence that I am going to attend a conference next month.
Back to Hebrews 11.1. The question is whether faith is a subjective quality of a believer, “being sure of what I hope for,” or is faith something objective, “the evidence of things not seen.” When we turn our attention away from English translations and look to the Greek, according to the Greek scholars, the overwhelming evidence from the Greek manuscripts is that both of these words are used in the objective sense. A look at the meaning of ύπόστασις as used by other writers at the time Hebrews was written demonstrates that it denoted a tangible reality in contrast to mere appearance. Among the early church fathers, this word was used in an objective sense, particularly when they were writing about Hebrews 11.1. The early church fathers understood Hebrews 11.1 in the objective sense. This was the primary way to interpret Hebrews 11.1 until the time of Martin Luther, who was urged by his benefactor, Melanchthon, to use the words “sure confidence,” and this interpretation has governed Protestant exposition of Hebrews 11.1 every since.
But, according to most scholars, this classical Protestant understanding is untenable. So, translations like “confidence” or “assurance” are untenable because they give ύπόστασις a subjective value that it just does not possess. Although it is difficult to convey the range of nuances in ύπόστασις with a single English word, it is imperative that the objective sense of the term be represented in translation. For example, “objective guarantee,” “certainty,” “title deed,” “reality,” realization,” “actualization.” In short, it is hard to improve upon the KJV: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Or, as Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker translate it: “In faith things hoped for become realized.”
What this means is that as the writer of Hebrews is urging his readers to be among those who believe and are saved (10.39) and to hold on to their confidence” and to persevere and to keep doing the will of God (10.35), he is urging them to be people of faith. And it is quite clear by reading chapter 11, that when the writer of Hebrews speaks of faith, he is not talking about a collection of beliefs. Faith is obedience in action in the face of great difficulty. “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear, built an ark” (Hebrews 11.7). Why did Noah, who lived before rain was even a part of creation, obey God’s instructions to build a huge boat and collect a personal zoo? It took him 120 years! “By faith.” Faith was the proof that what he did not see would become a reality. Why would Abraham leave his homeland, his relatives, and all of his wealth to go “where he did not know where he was going?” (Hebrews 11.8). “By faith.” Faith was the evidence of what he could not see. Why did David stand toe to toe with a trained and ruthless warrior armed with nothing more than a slingshot? “By faith.” The proof of what they could not see, the proof that it would indeed rain, the proof that there was a city with foundations whose architect and builder was God, the proof that God would defeat Goliath, the proof was faith.
When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist faith, preached on this verse in 1788 in a sermon called, “On the Discoveries of Faith.” He observes that all of our knowledge of the world around us comes from our five senses. And while our five senses have given us the ability to have great knowledge of the physical world that we can see, they are practically useless to gain understanding of the world we cannot see, which has left mankind in quite a predicament. Wesley writes,
But the wise and gracious Governor of the worlds, both visible and invisible, has prepared a remedy for this defect. He hath appointed faith to supply the defect of sense; to take us up where sense sets us down, and help us over the great gulf. Its office begins where that of sense ends. Sense is an evidence of things that are seen; of the visible, the material world, and the several parts of it. Faith, on the other hand, is the “evidence of things not seen;” of the invisible world; of all those invisible things which are revealed in the oracles of God.
It is by faith, says Wesley, that we have come to understand about angels, future judgment, and the hope of heaven, among many other things.
The evidence, the proof that we need, to obey the Word of God in the face of difficult situations is not our five senses but the gift of faith.
You noticed, I am sure, that before the author gets to the great stories of Noah or Abraham, he puts forth a simple application of the evidence of faith. He writes,
3By 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. (Hebrews 11.3)
The first application of faith, the evidence of what we cannot see, is our conviction that the universe was formed at God’s command. We were not there to witness that creative moment with our five senses, but it is our faith that gives us proof of this simple truth, that God created what is seen out of what was not visible. By faith, we know that God made something out of nothing, and the evidence of creation gives us the conviction to obey the Word of God in the face of difficult situations. God can bring a flood in the dessert, so get busy building the ark. God can give you a land that you have not seen or that does not even exist, so pack your bags. God can defeat the enemy so you better run to the battle field. God is the God who routinely brings forth things that are out of situations that are not. Faith is the evidence of what we cannot see.
John MacArthur, from Grace to You Ministries, in his sermon on Hebrews 11.1, makes a very important point. When we talk about faith, we are tempted to think about faith in the subjective sense alone. There is, of course, a subjective element to faith. Faith does impact how I perceive my reality. And the Bible does encourage me to walk in faith and to live by faith and to build up my faith. But it is possible to twist faith into something that is not the faith of Hebrews 11. In some branches of Christianity, people talk about faith and the power of faith as if it were a personal power that we possess to create our own future. To them, faith is a personal power that we possess to create our own reality, to change the world, to literally define and manufacture our own future. To them, faith is the power that we can use so that we can write our own history. Through faith, to them, we can bring things into being. We can create a healing through faith. We can change our economic situation through faith. We can go from poverty to prosperity through faith.
But MacArthur states very clearly, that this understanding of faith is lie, a deception, He writes,
Faith is not a power which you possess to create your own future. Faith is a God-given ability to trust the future that God has promised you. Huge difference…huge difference. I don’t want to write my own future, do you? I really don’t want to be responsible for laying out my future. I don’t want to be responsible for determining what my future is going to be, I’m more than happy to leave that in the hands of One who loves me perfectly and has ordained for me a future that is purposeful, fulfilling, satisfying, God-glorifying and eternally blessed. We’re talking about faith, not the false kind of faith that supposedly can create your own future, but the true kind of faith that can produce in you confident trust in the future that God has promised you.
Faith is a God given ability, faith is God’s gift to me to be the evidence in my life that I need to obey Him and believe upon His promises in the face of dire circumstances.
The faith that Hebrews 11 is talking about is not the kind of faith that we manipulate so that we can have a more pleasant life. The faith of Hebrews 11 is the God given ability to trust the promises of God. The heroes of Hebrews 11,
…were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11.35-38)
Why in the world would you live like that? Because by faith they had evidence of things not seen. By faith, they knew the essence of what they were hoping for. By faith, they had proof in the promises of God.
There is an unfathomable partnership between God’s grace and our obedience that is too great for me to know. Faith is presented in Scripture as both a gift from God and something that I need to build up within myself. I am commanded to work out my salvation because it is God who is at work in me. We are commanded to plant and water but it is God who causes the growth. We are told to hold on tight to God but to rest in the fact that God is holding on tight to us. We are told to endure to the end so that we can be saved but that no one can snatch us out of His hands.
When God speaks a word of direction or a word of hope or a word of promise into your life, what evidence do you have that it will come to pass? How can you know that if you spend 120 years building an ark and gathering animals from all over creation that will actually rain and flood the earth? How can you know that if you leave everything behind in the land of Ur that God will give you a home in the land of promise? How can you know that if you walk up to a season warrior armed with nothing more than a slingshot that God will give you the victory? What is the evidence, what is the proof? “Faith is the evidence of what you cannot see.” God has given you a gift, a way to “sense” truth in the world of the unseen, and that is a the gift of faith.
Do not despise the gift of faith. Don’t let the world tell you that if you cannot see it with your eyes, or touch it with your hands, or taste it with your tongue, or hear it with your ears, or smell it with your nose that it cannot be real. Everything that is “real,” everything that scientists spend their lifetime learning about, everything that is seen was created out of nothing. With all of their great theories of Darwinian Evolution to explain the origin of the species, they still cannot answer the question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” “Where did the basic elements first come from?” If all of this came from the big bang, where did the stuff come from that banged? If we all came from the primordial ooze, where did the ooze come from? By faith we have evidence that everything that is seen was created by the One who is unseen and by things that were unseen. Which is the greater reality, the created things or the Creator?
But God has given to us the eyes of faith, and we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command. By faith, we have evidence that God is a creative God. By faith, we have evidence that God can cause all things to work together for good. By faith, we understand that He gives peace that passes understanding. By faith, we have evidence that He can supply all of our needs according to His riches in glory. By faith, we have evidence that He will never leave us nor forsake us. By faith, we have evidence that love covers a multitude of sins. By faith, we have evidence that mercy triumphs over judgment. By faith, we have evidence that God will bring to a completion His good work in my life. By faith, we have evidence that we have been created for good works that God has already created in advance for me to do. By faith, we have evidence He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.
The stories of Hebrews 11 are stories of men and women who translated this faith into action. God had given to them the gift of faith as proof of what they hoped for and of what they could not see. And they translated that faith into action and obedience in spite of all the difficulties. Has God given to you the evidence of what you cannot see so that you will take action?