Wednesday, July 13

By Faith the People of Old

This is the first post in a series on Hebrews 11. Mostly, these posts are study notes expanded a little.

The pattern Jesus gives us of faithful endurance in difficult times described in Hebrews 12 is not the only help for making it through tough times that we find in Hebrews. In the previous chapter--chapter 11--we're also given a good description of the kind of faith that will sustain us through trials, and examples of people who've had that kind of faith.

Verses 1-3 are a sort of introduction to the rest of the chapter.
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. For by it the people of old received God’s commendation. By faith we understand that the worlds were set in order at God’s command, so that the visible has its origin in the invisible. (NET)
Sometimes you'll hear people quote verse 1 as if it's a complete definition of faith, as if it gives the whole answer to the question, "What is faith?" It does give us some of the answer, of course, but we should probably understand it more as a statement about a particular characteristic (or characteristics) of faith than as a true definition.

  • Faith is being sure of what we hope for. Literally, faith stands under what we hope for. It undergirds our hopes, so that even though the things we hope for are not currently here with us, they are not pie in the sky, either. Rather, we are certain of them, because the things we hope for are undergirded with faith. Faith makes us sure of the rock solidness of what we hope for.

  • Being convinced of what we do not see. This could be taken in either of two ways--that faith is the "proof" of the things that aren't visable to us, or it is the "test" of things that aren't visable to us. Both are legitimate ways to translate the text, and depending on the word meaning choice, the sense of the phrase would be different. If the word means "proof" (as the NET takes it), then this phrase is simply saying the same thing as the first one in a slightly different way: Faith makes us certain of the things we hope for even though they are not yet reality.

    However, if it means "test", then the idea would be that faith tests the things that can't be tested by our five senses. If something can't be sensed by ordinary means, and thus known to be true through our physical senses, we have yet another way to test it--the test of faith. Faith tests to find out what is real in the unseen world in the same way that our senses test what is real in the physical world.

  • For by it the people of old received God’s commendation. These "people of old" are the Old Testament saints, some of whom we find listed in the rest of this chapter. These people received the approval of God by faith. When God revealed things to them, they believed him, and because they believed him, they lived as if what he told them was certain. Because they believed God, they were "not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls (10:39)." God's commendation comes to those who have this sort of faith.

  • By faith we understand that the worlds were set in order at God’s command. Before moving on the the examples of the expression of faith in the lives of the O.T. saints, the writer of Hebrews gives us an example of the expression of faith within himself--and in us, too. Do you know that God created the world? If you do, then you understand that by faith. You did not reason your way entirely from the physical evidence to that conclusion.* This is not something you came to know through your five senses, but something you became sure of through your "eyes of faith."

  • So that the visible has its origin in the invisible. Knowing that the universe cannot be explained by itself is something we know by faith. What we see came into being ex nihilo by fiat--somethingness from the nothingness simply because God commanded. And if you believe that, you believe it because you have faith.

    *On further reflection, and in response to Catez's comment, which I agree with, I'd like to explain that I think it is possible to reason one's way to the conclusion that all current explanations for the origins of the material world are inadequate. Taking the leap from there to "God created the world out of nothing by command" requires faith.
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