Let’s take a closer look at this passage in the New American Standard Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The context of Hebrews 11:1, following Hebrews 10, is essential in understanding what the writer of Hebrews is referring to in this passage concerning faith. In Chapter 10, the author ends the section encouraging his readers to continue in their faith and to “endure” (verse 36) in spite of “reproaches” and “tribulations” they may have experienced or observed. He finishes by saying, “…we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” In the very next line (the passage we are considering at 11:1) the author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
So what is it here that is connected to “faith” and is also “unseen”? Is it “evidence”? Is the author saying, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, when the evidence is unseen?” No, he’s saying just the opposite. When considering chapter 10 prior to interpreting verse 11:1, it’s clear that the author is encouraging his readers to endure those times when God seems absent; those times when trials and tribulations cause us to question God’s existence. Where is God in these difficult situations? Why can’t we see Him? Why can’t we see His activity in our lives? In verse 11:1, the author of Hebrews says that we can trust that God’s salvation, protection and provision are still there for us, even though they may appear to be “things not seen.” In spite of their apparent absence, we are told to trust that they exist. Why? On what basis? On the basis of what we can see.
Over and over again the Old Testament saints, when questioning God’s goodness, provision or protection, were encouraged by a leader or prophet to remember what God did for them in Egypt. God’s rescue efforts in Egypt were provided as a piece of evidence, demonstrating that He was capable of rescuing His children again. God has given us visible assurance that He exists, and the writer of Hebrews is simply asking us to trust this assurance when God and His mercies seem like they are “things not seen.” Even the writer of Hebrews understood the conviction and assurance that resulted from evidence: the evidence of God’s Old Testament activities and the evidence of Jesus’ New Testament miracles.
—J. Warner Wallace
This word “substance” in Hebrews 11:1 was “hupostasis” in Greek. At the time of King James when this translation was made, the scholars did not know exactly what that word meant. They chose a good word, “substance,” because they could tell by the way it was used that it meant something very definite, concrete, very sure. So they agreed on using the word “substance” because it obviously brought out what the verse meant.
But they had not been able to find it anywhere. They scoured Greek literature, they scoured the classics, and this word was nowhere to be found. They were mystified about what in the world it could mean, and didn’t find out until the British had Palestine and began to do archaeological work there to try to uncover old villages and towns. They dug up a village in northern Israel and there in the ruins of an old burned inn where apparently this wealthy Roman woman had been staying, they found her little casket of precious jewels and papers, a metal casket that had lasted through the years.
When they opened it, they found some of these papers still intact and decipherable. There was a whole series of documents, and at the top of each document it said “hupostasis.” It turned out they were the title deeds to her properties.
She had come from Rome to Israel to inspect these properties she had bought. She was obviously a rich land speculator, and after the Romans conquered Palestine, they were probably able to buy up land pretty cheap. So she had come with her title deeds to see her properties. She knew they were hers because she had the title deeds—which guaranteed that the properties were hers.
With that in mind, now read the verse:
“Now faith is the title deed of things hoped for.” In other words, if you’ve got the faith, it’s just like you’ve got the title deed in your hand. Here was a lady who apparently had never seen the properties before, because she’d bought the title deeds in Rome. She might have heard a description of them—because I’m sure they didn’t take any Polaroid pictures—and she was coming to see them for the first time. But she knew they were hers because she already had the title deeds in her hand.
So faith is like having the title deed. Somebody gave me a car once, a dear old Kaiser. They don’t make them anymore, but it was a nice car then and way ahead of its time. It was streamlined and brand-new, and through the mail they sent me the title to the car. I’d never ever seen one before. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the car looked like.
There was the title deed; they’d signed my name on it, and I had a car. I knew I had a car. I didn’t necessarily know what kind of car, but I had a car; though I’d never seen it, I had the title deed. So “faith is the substance of things hoped for,” the title deed to things hoped for, “the evidence of things not seen.”
—David Brandt Berg
The Bible defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Thus, in biblical vernacular, faith is a channel of living trust—an assurance—that stretches from man to God. In other words, it is the object of faith that renders faith faithful. Furthermore, faith is the assurance that God’s promises will never fail, even if sometimes we do not experience their fulfillment in our mortal existence.
Hebrews 11 underscores the fact that we trust God to fulfill His promises for the future (the unseen) based on what He has already fulfilled in the past. Thus, our faith is not blind, but based squarely on God’s proven faithfulness. Biblical faith is based on knowledge, not wishing or blind leaps. Knowledge builds confidence and confidence leads to trust. The kind of faith God is interested in is not wishing. It is trust based on knowing, a sure confidence grounded in evidence.
So what is the right definition of faith? “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” writes the author of Hebrews. A few verses later faith is similarly defined as knowing that God exists and that God rewards those who earnestly seek Him. Perhaps the best word we can use to translate the Greek word “pistis” (usually translated faith) is the word “trust” or “trustworthy.”
Suppose you tell a friend that you have faith in her. What does that mean? It means two things. First, you are sure the person you are talking to actually exists. And second, you are convinced she is trustworthy; you can believe what she says and trust in her character. It is in this way that the writer of Hebrews talks about faith in God.
Faith is knowing that God is real and that you can trust in God’s promises. You cannot trust someone who isn’t there, nor can you rely on someone whose promises are not reliable. This is why faith is talked about as the substance of things hoped for and as the evidence of things not seen. Both words carry with them a sense of reality. Our hope is not wishful thinking. Faith does not make God real. On the contrary, faith is the response to a real God who wants to be known to us.
Faith is believing there is another dimension to life other than those which can be touched, tasted, seen, or felt. There is more to life than that. There is also the realm of the Spirit, the invisible spiritual kingdom of God. All the ultimate answers of life lie in that kingdom.
Faith believes that God, in His grace, has stepped over the boundary into human history and told us some great and very valuable facts.
Faith believes them and adjusts its life to those facts and walks on that basis.
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