Realizing the Faith (Hebrews 10:19–11:40)
Following Jesus is hard work, and only faith in the eventual fulfillment of his promises can keep us going. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). We need faith that the promises God made are true, however unlikely that might seem in the present circumstances. A more precise translation of this verse helps us see the practical importance of faith. “Now faith is the realization of things hoped for, the proving of things not seen.” “Realization” is particularly appropriate here, because the double sense it has in English perfectly captures the nuances of the examples of faith given in Hebrews 11. When we at last see things clearly, that is one form of realization. We finally understand. But the second form of realization is seeing things made real, when what we hoped for has finally come true. The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 realize things in both ways. Taking up the second half of the verse, they are so convinced of what God has said that they prove it by what they do.
Hebrews gives us the practical examples of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and others from the Old Testament. They were all looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise for something better than their present experience. Noah had faith in the righteous world beyond the flood, and he realized that faith meant building an ark to save his household (Heb. 11:7). Abraham had faith in the coming kingdom (or “city”) of God (Heb. 11:10), and he realized that faith meant setting out on a journey to the land God promised him, even though he did not know where he was going (Heb. 11:8–12). Moses had faith in a life in Christ far surpassing the pleasures he could have claimed as a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and he realized that faith meant “choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:25–26). These hopes and promises were not completely fulfilled in their lifetimes, yet they lived every day as if already experiencing God’s power to fulfill them.
Faith like this is not wishful thinking. It is taking seriously God’s self-revelation in Scripture (Heb. 8:10–11), combined with a “repentance from dead works” (Heb. 6:1), perseverance in “love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24), and an ability to see the hand of God at work in the world (Heb. 11:3), despite the evil and brokenness around us. Ultimately, faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:4), for we could never hold on to such faith by our own force of will.
This was a crucial message for the audience of Hebrews, who were tempted to throw away their hope in Christ in exchange for a more comfortable life in the here and now. Their eyes were fixed not on future glory, but on present deprivation. The book’s word of exhortation is that the promises of God are more enduring, more glorious, and indeed more real than fleeting pleasures in the here and now.
If we are to realize the faith God has given us, we have to work in the midst of the tension between God’s promise for the future and the realities of today. On the one hand, we should fully recognize the provisional, finite nature of all that we do. We will not be surprised when things don’t work out as we had hoped. “All these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39). Situations arise in which our best efforts to do good work are thwarted not only by circumstance, but also by the deliberate misdeeds of human beings. This may cause us grief, but it will not lead us to despair, because we have our eyes fixed on God’s city to come.
Sometimes our work is thwarted by our own weakness. We fall short of the mark. Consider the list of names in Hebrews 11:32. When we read their stories we see clearly their own failures, sometimes significant failures. If we read about Barak’s timidity as a general (Judg. 4:8–9) through human eyes, we likely would see no faith at all. Yet God sees their faith through God’s eyes and credits their work by his grace, not their accomplishment. We can take heart in this when we also have stumbled. We may have spoken harshly to a co-worker, been impatient with a student, ignored our responsibility to our family, and done our work poorly. But we have faith that God is able to bring about his intent for the world even in the midst of our weakness and failure.
On the other hand, precisely because we have our eyes on God’s city to come, we seek to live according to the ways of that city to the greatest possible extent in every aspect of daily life and work. The heroes of the faith in Hebrews realized their faith in all kinds of workplaces. They were people “who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb. 11:33–34).
Imagine a building contractor, which is a fitting illustration for a book concerned with God’s cosmic house building. The contractor has a clear vision of life in God’s coming kingdom. She knows it will be characterized by justice, harmonious relationships, and enduring beauty. As a person of faith, she seeks to realize this vision in the present. She stewards the earth’s raw materials in the construction of the home, creating a home of beauty but not wasteful opulence. She treats her workers with the concern and respect that will be characteristic of God’s future city. She shows heavenly love to her clients by listening to their hopes for their earthly homes, trying to realize those hopes within the constraints of money and materials. She perseveres through troubles, when the antique radiator is two inches too long for the bathroom, or when a carpenter cuts an expensive joist two inches too short. She accepts that an earthquake or hurricane could destroy all her labors in minutes, yet she puts her whole self into her work. Amid both the joys and the frustrations, she wants to live out the values of God’s city by showing consistent love to others in the quality of her personal relationships and in the quality of the houses she builds. And she trusts that every building, frail and imperfect as it is, is a witness day by day to the great city to come, “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), under pistos. The King James Version is closer to the Greek than some of the modern translations: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”