“Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For by this our ancestors were approved.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of my favorite songs from the 80s is George Michael’s song, Faith. I liked it pretty much entirely for the music. I never could understand the lyrics beyond the chorus. I looked them up before writing this and it’s probably good I never understood them. They’re incredibly shallow and make a mockery of real, Biblical faith, but at least the music was good (good enough for the song to make him a lot of money over the years). As we get into the next chapter of our journey through Hebrews this morning, we find ourselves in the famous Hall of Faith. This is one of the greatest reflections on faith anywhere in the Scriptures. It starts out here by defining terms for us. Let’s talk this morning about what faith is. Then, over the next few weeks, Lord willing, we’ll get a bunch of examples of what it looks like. Dive in with me.
Before we go too far, I should note that this chapter doesn’t come out of nowhere. Remember what we were talking about at the end of last week. After offering another unnerving warning against falling away from the faith, the author closed the chapter by expressing his confidence that they would indeed press on in their faith in Christ. Anticipating someone’s in his audience responding to that with the question of what exactly the faith is, he begins here to tell them.
This is perhaps the simplest definition of faith you will find anywhere in the Scriptures. Just because it is simple, though, doesn’t mean it is easy to understand. All I want to do with you this morning is to see if we can get our hearts and minds wrapped around this. The author here describes faith as “the reality of what is hoped for.” The relevant Greek words here lend themselves to a few different possible English translations. In particular, the word the CSB translates as “reality” is also translated elsewhere as “confidence” (NIV), “assurance” (ESV), “substance” (KJV), “certainty” (NASB), and The Message puts it like this: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.”
Honestly, I think I like The Message the best out of those in terms of giving a bit more clarity to the definition by sheer volume of words, but I hope this range of words gives you a bit better sense of what the author is trying to help us see here. Let me see if I can get at it like this. Faith is fundamentally oriented toward things we cannot currently take in with our five senses. If we can test and approve it with the senses God has given us, we don’t have to have any faith in it. For example, I don’t have to have in faith in the matter of whether or not my desk chair will hold me when I sit it right now because I’m sitting in it as I type…and it’s holding me. Now, whether or not it will still be holding me by the time I finish writing this is another matter. That is something in which I have faith. I will be able to ascertain the worthwhileness of my faith in a few minutes when I finish writing and the chair is still holding me, but until then, it is a faith proposition. Now, I happen to be of the opinion that my faith is entirely justified given that I’ve been sitting in this same chair without its ever having failed me for five years, but whether or not it will still be holding me in five minutes is nonetheless a matter of faith.
That idea of a justified faith is actually an important one when it comes to distinguishing Biblical faith from any other kind. The world often presents faith as a kind of blind leap into the unknown. The scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when he has to take a blind step from the platform and only then does the invisible bridge appear to get him to the next part of his journey is a great example of this. This sort of faith is entirely rooted in feelings and emotions. In fact, if it is rooted in facts, it isn’t really faith at all.
Biblical faith, on the other hand, is almost nothing like that. Biblical faith is rooted deeply in reason and evidence and an overwhelming folio of facts. Perhaps even more than that, though, Biblical faith is closely linked to the concept of hope. In this sense, faith isn’t just oriented toward things which cannot currently be taken in with our five senses. It is primarily oriented toward the future which is always the direction that hope focuses our attention. In this sense, faith gives substance to our hope. That’s what the word that seems to be translated in a different way by every different translation means.
The actual Greek word is hypostatis. The “hy” there is pronounced like the word “who,” which wouldn’t require that explanation if they used the letter “u” instead of “y,” but for reasons that I have never understood, the standard convention in transliterating Greek words into English is to use “y” for the Greek letter upsilon. Go figure. Hypostatis refers to the foundation on which something is built. It isn’t talking about some weak foundation either, but a strong foundation that gives support and strength to the entire structure. It can also convey a sense of something is indisputably real. In the C.S. Lewis classic, The Great Divorce, when the author arrives in Heaven on the bus from Hell, the grass and flowers cut his feet to walk on them because they are so much more real than he is. It is like an airplane going through a bank of clouds. The clouds have a substance to them, yes, but the plane has more so. Another example that requires a bit more speculation is that it is like Jesus’ resurrection body. When He entered the locked room with the disciples without opening the door, it seems that He walked straight through the walls of the room. He was perhaps able to do that because the substance of His resurrection body was greater than the substance of the door or the walls of the room.
The author’s point seems to be that faith provides the foundation on which our hope rests. It gives substance to our hope such that it can persist through the various trials and tribulations that threaten its very existence between here and its fulfillment in the future. In this sense, there’s nothing ethereal about faith at all. If there is, then our hope is weak and will ultimately be swished away like smoke when reality gets hard enough.
And yet, if faith gives such reality to our hope, what is the basis of this reality? What is it that gives structure and strength to this foundation such that it can lend those things to our hope? The simplest answer to that question is God’s character. God’s character, promises (which are rooted in that character), and His actions in the past on our part, give us the confidence that He will act in those same ways in the future. That confidence is expressed as faith. This faith is given form when we make decisions today based on our hope that He will act in the future in ways consistent with His character and promises.
Let me pour a bit more concrete on that. God has consistently demonstrated Himself faithful to the promises He has made. We see the evidence of that all over the Scriptures. Again and again in the record of His interactions with the children of Abraham, we see God declaring He will do this or that and then following through by doing this or that. This gives us confidence that He will keep His word. More specifically, we have confidence because of these consistently fulfilled promises in the past that when He promises future blessings for those who are willing to trust in Him and demonstrate that trust by living their lives in obedience to His commands, that these promises will also be fulfilled, and so we live our lives in obedience to His commands. In this way, faith is not some irrational, emotionally-driven, evidence-free exhortation to some mostly meaningless action. It is the entirely rational actions we take on a daily basis which proclaim to the world around us where the locus of our hope happens to be. And we do this because of our confidence in God’s character. In other words, faith is first and foremost a question of our assessment of God’s character. It is our enacted answer to the question of whether we believe God is who He says He is in the Scriptures.
The author goes on to argue that our faith is the proof of what is not seen. Let me see if I can explain how that works. God has declared through Christ Jesus that His kingdom is coming. Jesus followers place their hope in this promise and give substance to that hope by faithfully keeping the commands of Christ. When Jesus followers thus actively give substance to their hope in His coming kingdom (that is, when they have faith), His kingdom is actually made manifest in part in those actions. God’s kingdom is not a physical place, but a broader state of affairs in which God’s rule and reign are recognized and enacted. While there is a day coming when His kingdom will once again be the presiding state of affairs for the whole of creation, in the interim between now and then, His kingdom is present anywhere someone is giving substance to His rule and reign by behaving like He is their chief authority.
Well, what does it look like for someone to behave as if He is their chief authority? It looks like love lived out. It is the presence of kindness and gentleness and compassion in our interactions with one another. It is the least, last, and lost being cared for and protected from injustice. It is justice being achieved. It is an overflowing of patience and joy and peace. It is an embrace of self-control. These are pretty indisputably good things. And in a world that is none of those things on its own, pockets where God’s kingdom is being manifest because of the enacted hope (that is, the faith) of Jesus followers are pointers to a time in the future when God’s kingdom will be made manifest universally. That is, there is another kingdom coming that is not like the kingdom of this world. We can’t see that time yet, but these moments of enacted hope, of faith, prove they are on the way.
This willingness to trust in God’s character in such a meaningful, consequential way, has always been the way to a right relationship with Him. That is, when people have been willing to obey His word because of their confidence in His character, they have always won His approval. When you are willing to commit your life in obedience to His word because of your confidence in His character (expressed most clearly and powerfully in the death and resurrection of Jesus), you will always win His approval in your own life. As for what this all looks like in practice, that’s where the author begins to go next. You won’t want to miss a single one of these powerful examples in the days ahead of us.
One last thing. Sound off on this one. This is tough stuff. I know that. I very well may not have explained faith in a way that makes is clear to you. In this short time, I certainly haven’t addressed the topic in anything remotely resembling an exhaustive fashion. Ask questions in the comments, and we’ll wrestle through them together. I look forward to being back with you tomorrow.