Proper 14 • Hebrews 11:1–16 • August 11, 2013
By Jeffrey Kloha
Just as 1 Corinthians 13 is often called the “love” chapter, Hebrews 11 is typically labeled the “faith” chapter. What must be kept in mind in both places however, is that neither chapter provides exhaustive definitions of either term (indeed, can any definition of love or faith be entirely exhaustive?). Hebrews 11 in particular is typically undertaught; the “definition” of 11:1–2 is adopted, and the teacher/preacher then fills in his own understanding of faith. However, Hebrews 11 is a tightly constructed encomium, or “discourse in praise of” faith and its results in the daily living of God’s people in light of the last day. The faith which is praised in Hebrews 11 has two aspects: First, it trusts in a reality which is not readily perceived (creation ex nihilo, v. 3 and God’s existence, v. 6). This is the aspect of faith which is highlighted in 11:1. Second, it acts upon that trust with obedient faithfulness (Abel, v. 4; Enoch v. 5). This is the aspect of faith which is highlighted in 11:6. So any definition of faith which stops at 11:1–2 is incomplete.
Trusting in a reality which is not readily perceived is the focus of vv. 1–2, where a purely cognitive dimension of faith is discussed (“assurance,” “conviction”). However, v. 6 focuses on the acting upon that trust in faithful obedience, which enables one to “please him” and “draw near to God.” Preachers may be tempted to select only one aspect of Hebrew’s use of faith— either the cognitive/trust aspect or the obedience aspect. Discussing one without the other can lead hearers to wrongly conclude that they do not need to “do” anything, so long as they “trust” “fully” or “in their heart.” The teaching will then unhelpfully focus on “having more faith” or “having authentic faith.” But this chapter is not encouraging more faith (as if one can trust more), but trust (any amount) that leads to action. This is similar to the way that Jesus talks about faith in Matthew 17:14–20—any faith will move mountains, even faith the size of a mustard seed. So the encouragement is not to get more faith, but to allow that faith, given by God, to shape our lives as God’s righteous people.
Both aspects of faith, the trust in God’s reality and the righteous response, are described as evident together in Noah (v. 7) and Abraham and Sarah (vv. 8–12). Noah trusted God’s warning and then acted upon it by building the ark. Abraham and Sarah trusted God’s promises, and went out from their homeland to a new land. Though the pericope ends at 11:16, the chapter continues with numerous examples of faithful obedience. Verse 11:16 does anticipate, however, the final conclusion of the chapter, that there is a “city” that has been “prepared” (11:16), something “promised” and “better” (11:40).
This future prepared city—the eschatological Day of the Lord, when he brings all things to completion—is that which is “unseen” to us, who live by faith today. Though this chapter discusses faith as trust in an unseen reality and not explicitly saving faith in Christ, this faith is presumed. His work of life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension were “unseen” by us, but seen by the apostles and eyewitnesses. Likewise, the restoration of all things is “unseen” work, his work which remains unseen to us, for it is still in the future. But faith clings to that yet unseen event, and just as the faithful of old endured and lived righteous lives because of faith, so we, the faithful in our day, live in anticipation of that city.
What does such a life look like? Here the teacher/preacher will have opportunity to encourage his people directly. Some of God’s people might feel that the “city” will never come, for Jesus’s delay seems too long. Others may have suffered great loss, and have lost the eyes to see the reality of Christ’s kingdom in the midst of suffering. Others may be tempted away to other promises—promises of wealth, or fame, or fleeting happiness in passions and desires. To them, the call is to have the eyes of faith, to look to the One who was, who is, and who is to come, and receive the life that he alone can give.