Faith is essential to salvation. For a world headed to destruction, our own efforts can’t save us from that horrible end. It is only God’s grace through faith that we are redeemed. In Hebrews 11, the writer declares that “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
That truth might be new to some, but many have been around Christianity enough to have heard it before. But do we, as Christians, understand the simple yet powerful gift of faith?
The writer of Hebrews gives us definitive statements about faith. But he (or she?) doesn’t simply give us a definition. He provides examples from the Old Testament.
The rule for fiction writers is “show don’t tell.” The thematic truth of the story is weakened if we simply tell the reader what to think. If we show those truths through narrative, we make the message personal and real. It goes from the universal truth (e.g. “all you need is love”) to the specific (“all I need is love”). This is why we love stories.
From Genesis to Revelation, God is telling a story of redemption. Jesus also told stories to give examples of the truth he taught.
The writer of Hebrews, therefore, tells us what faith is and shows us through narratives what faith looks like.
What Is the Context of Hebrews 11?
The writer of Hebrews is a mystery. Any credit for authorship isn’t given in the text. Tradition attributed the authorship to Paul the Apostle, and parts of the book read like his letters. However, other passages are different enough to cause doubt.
Being as the letter is written to Jews and details much of Hebrew Temple worship, I always found Barnabas to be a fascinating theory. He was Paul’s mentor (Acts 11:25-26) and would have influenced much of what Paul thought. And Barnabas was a Levite (the Hebrew priest class; Acts 4:36)—his knowledge and revelation of the Temple system and its symbolism of Christ make sense.
Interesting, perhaps, but we’ll never know for sure. It is unique for a New Testament book to be included in the canon without clear knowledge of the author. But Hebrews is consistent with the apostolic doctrine found in the rest of scripture, encouraging and inspiring disciples since the first century.
Hebrews argues for the superiority of Christ over the Old Covenant law and Temple worship. Many of the early Christians were Jews, like Jesus and the twelve apostles, and as Christianity grew, those Jewish Christians were increasingly persecuted for their faith. In order to keep those Jews from returning the Old Law and away from Jesus, the writer pens the letter of Hebrews.
It begins with a declaration that Jesus was the Son of God and God’s last and final message of truth to the world. In subsequent chapters, Hebrews compares Christ and His reality to the Temple system—in every way, Christ is greater. Transcendent. The “new thing” God has done in Christ is so glorious, it’s as if the Old Covenant doesn’t even exist anymore (Hebrews 8:13).
Jesus is greater than the angels (Hebrews 1). He became one of us to save us, a personal relationship (Hebrews 2). Christ is superior to Moses (Hebrews 3). The rest we find in Christ is constant, permanent, and greater than the Old Testament Sabbath (Hebrews 4). Christ is a far better High Priest (Hebrews 4-5). Jesus brought us better promises (Hebrews 6). The New Covenant outshines the Old (Hebrews 8). Our ministry in Christ is greater because it is of Heaven, not of Earth (Hebrews 9). Jesus’ sacrifice happened once and never needs to be repeated (Hebrews 10).
In Hebrews 12, through Christ, we are citizens of a Kingdom that can’t be shaken.
Every aspect of the Temple system is proven to be lacking when compared to the Son of God.
It is in the midst of this phenomenal argument that the writer returns us to the core of following God—faith. This is the one thing that hasn’t changed. Despite the great transition from the Old to the New Covenant, faith is where we begin.
What Is the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11?
The Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 is a collection of famous heroes from the Old Testament, giving those examples of what it means to live by faith. The writer also gives us some context and commentary on their activity.
The collection begins with Abel, the victim of the first murder by Cain, continues through Enoch and takes some time with Abraham, the “Father of Faith” (Romans 4:16). After Abraham, we read about the other Patriarchs like Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The writer explores the faith of Moses, the one who received the Old Covenant from God, and then Rahab.
In Hebrews 11:32 we get a lump of Old Testament figures that are mentioned quickly, the writer explaining we can’t comment on every character in the OT but lists Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.
For a Jew reading this collection, each name would have brought a narrative to mind that included miracles and supernatural deeds, from the obscure Jephthah to the famous Abraham.
This chapter was crucial for the argument of Hebrews. While the writer elevates the New Covenant and the person of Christ through the book (as he should!), he didn’t want to dismiss the Old Testament. Remember, when this letter was written, there was no New Testament. It was in the middle of being written, both the Gospels and other letters from Paul, Peter, and James. The apostles and the first-century church used the OT to teach the New Covenant. Jesus, Paul, Peter, every teacher in the New Testament quoted from the Old to teach about the New that God had brought through Christ.
The New Covenant and the person of Jesus were expressed but a mystery in the Old Testament and needed new revelation in Christ to be fully understood. In other words, the OT couldn’t be understood apart from Jesus.
Therefore, the writer of Hebrews connects faith in Christ as the natural progression of the faith of the heroes of the Old Testament. This dignifies and confirms the truth that God was working in the past while teaching that God is working in new and superior ways now in Christ.
The Hall of Faith also includes other nameless examples, men and women who gave their lives for the faith as Jesus gave His for us (Hebrews 11:35-38).
What Does Hebrews 11 Say about Faith?
My mentor Larry Trammell gave me a great definition of faith many years ago—“Faith is the perception and the pursuit of the unseen realm.” This simple statement has helped me not only understand faith but Scripture in general.
The first definition Hebrews gives is that “faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1) We are then told that people in ancient days lived a good testimony through faith.
Hebrews 11:3 tells us that “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.”
From these verses, faith reveals to us that there is another reality, an eternal, heavenly realm that we can’t see with our physical eyes. That unseen realm is more powerful than what we see, however, because what was unseen created what we see. The only way to interact with that unseen realm is through faith. Back to v1, faith isn’t wishful thinking. By seeing that Heavenly realm, we now hope in what is real. Heaven is more real than what we see because Heaven is eternal. What we see is temporary.
What a gift (Ephesians 2:8)! Nothing in this life can give us hope. Nothing in this world is secure. It is only through God’s gift of faith that we have any inkling of another option, a better way. The eternal perspective motivates and inspires us, empowers us to live a life of love and generosity in this world.
Hebrews 11:6 connects faith with the character of God. “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to Him must believe that God exists and that He rewards those who sincerely seek Him.”
God is a God of Love (1 John 4:7-8). We must have faith to interact with Him. What is the condition we must meet to come to God? There are two—that He exists and that He is a rewarder of people who sincerely (other translations say diligently) seek Him.
In other words, the ONE characteristic of God we must believe in order to know and please Him is that He wants to reward us. The all-powerful God who can’t lie (Numbers 23:19) has promised that He will reward those who act by faith, those who seek God with sincerity and diligence.
The writer of Hebrews further underscores the supernatural, Heavenly nature of faith with the commentary. Enoch was taken directly into Heaven without dying (Hebrews 11:5). Abraham looked forward to an eternal city designed and built by God (Hebrews 11:10). Sarah believed God’s promise that He would do the impossible (Hebrews 11:11). These people saw a better country from a distance, better than this temporary one, so they lived as foreigners here (Hebrews 11:13-16). Abraham believed God would resurrect Isaac (v.19). Moses suffered for the sake of Christ (Hebrews 11:26) and kept his eyes on the invisible God (Hebrews 11:27).
How Does Hebrews 11 Show us this kind of faith?
Every person in chapter 11 did something different. Their individual lives looked different based on what God was calling them to do. Each person has a unique purpose and mission in the universal story of God’s redemptive plan. I can’t copy the specifics of another person’s journey. That wouldn’t be faith because I wouldn’t be following what God told me to do.
Every person in chapter 11 had one thing in common—they heard from God and they did what He said. Whether it was to leave the city of Ur (Abraham) or stand before Pharaoh (Moses), they heard and followed. They perceived and pursued. As James says in his letter, we reveal our faith through our obedience (James 2:14).
There is more amazing news in this chapter for each of us, too. Hebrews lists these people as heroes in the faith, but they were flawed individuals. Sarah laughed at God’s promise. Abraham lied to kings. Moses’ first attempt at delivering Israel was to murder an Egyptian. They each had their issues.
Our issues don’t disqualify us, either. It is our faith that leads us to an amazing testimony. Perceiving and pursuing God.
Rahab is an important entry in this collection. She was a prostitute and a foreigner, a citizen of the city of Jericho that was the enemy of God’s people, set to be destroyed. Oh, and a woman.
The writer of Hebrews counts her as a hero of faith. Despite her past and position, she acted based on truth. Now she is listed in the same chapter as Abraham, the Father of Faith (also in James 2:25).
Great or small, no matter our past, race, gender, or education level, it doesn’t matter. Faith is the determining factor. Any person—anyone!—can be a hero through faith.
We become heroes of faith by diligently and sincerely seeking a God of love, perceiving the Heavenly reality, pursuing it through obedience to God, and having confidence that no matter what happens, it all works together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). He is a rewarder.
That is good news indeed.
Photo credit: ©Sparrowstock
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.
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