Message: The Nature and Glory of Faith | Scripture: Hebrews 11:1-3 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: Behold Our God; Here Is Love; O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer; By Faith.
Allow me for a second to ask you a question that is meant to hit a nerve, or at least send you in to a bit of self-reflection. When things don’t go your way, or when someone does something to trigger some kind of pain from the past, how do you normally react? I have to confess to you, as your pastor, that something this past week didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, and what many of you don’t know about me is that when things don’t go my way, or when I think I know better, my natural, old man inclination is to lash out and get defensive. And when I get defensive, I don’t do the bare minimum of trying to protect my own “rightness,” but I get defensive to the point where my goal is to show you, in totality, why you’re wrong.
This week, in the situation that didn’t go my way, I let my old, natural man get the better of me, and if it were not for a friend who God placed in my life to show me a greater wisdom than my own, you would have seen it on full display this morning from this pulpit. I am grateful for this friend. I am grateful to my God who preserves me even when I do not know I need to be preserved. And yet, I do need to take this opportunity, as I stand before you to apologize and seek your forgiveness, even if you don’t know what it is that I’m asking forgiveness for. I ask this of you because whether I was right or wrong in this situation, my approach to it was self-centered and not God-glorifying. I ask this of you because I am a pastor called to be above reproach, and I would be unable to continue as your pastor if I am someone who you think cannot be entrusted with this office. Lastly, I ask this of you because I’m human, and I need your accountability as my church. Forgive me in my stubbornness. Forgive me in my self-righteousness. Point me back to Christ so that I might continue to do the same for you.
It’s in the hope that you’ve forgiven me that I’m going to go back to the question, how do you react when things don’t go your way? Do you throw tantrums and tear others down? Do you make excuses? Do you react in apathy and arrogance, pretending that this thing has not phased you? Do you respond in sorrow and languishing? However it is that you react, ask yourself now if your common reaction displays an attitude of faith in God? And for 99% of us, it’s likely that we would have to say it doesn’t. In fact, the likely reason for why we act the way we do is because, in our secret, sinful minds and hearts, God has not measured up to the standards or parameters that we’ve set for him.
And as I reflected on my own situation this week, especially after talking with my friend, I realized that Hebrews 11:1-3 could not be more important to my life right now, and it’s likely that it’s just as important to some, if not all, of your lives too. See, Hebrews 11:1-3 is the passage in the Bible on faith, but a lot of us read it without really considering what it means to possess faith. What does it mean to believe in a God who does not act the way we expect him to? How do we react when we get our way? And how does this compare to how the author of Hebrews says we ought to react when we don’t get our way? These are the questions that I want to turn our minds to this morning, so let’s now look at our passage in Hebrews 11:1-3. This is the Word of the Lord.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. May God bless the reading of his Word.
Our proposition this morning is this: faith in the past is faith for the future. I want to provide us with the right thinking about what proper faith is—a faith that perseveres until the end. A faith that perseveres especially when we’re frustrated with life. Proper faith is a belief and knowledge that our God has acted in a certain way in the past, and that such acting is our assurance in his future good activity for us. No matter what our circumstance is, if we are a people of faith, then we are also a people of immeasurable confidence that, at the end of the day, God’s desire to glorify himself and to do what is good for us shall prevail. So, let’s look at what it means for us to have a proper faith now in our first point:
1) Faith is Directing
Proper faith is faith that directs us, and I get this directly from verse 1: “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” What’s happening in this verse? Well, the first words of chapter 11 are, “Now, faith is…” The word “now” is often a sign for us as readers that the author wants to explain what he’s just said, and the verses that directly precede Hebrews 11 are verses about the righteous people of God.
A brief note about the intended audience of this letter—it’s a letter to the Hebrews right around 70 A.D. before the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. In other words, it’s a letter to those who were formally Jewish and now call themselves Christians, and these aren’t just any Christians, but they are likely some of the first generation Christians—those who stood with the apostles, who had heard their teaching, and some of them are likely those who heard Christ himself and his promises to return.
Now, they’re old and fading quickly, not only because of their age, but also because they’re being tempted both by other practicing Jews and by governmental threats of persecution if they do not revert back to the accepted Jewish cult. And they’re wondering, “when will Christ return? When will we see the truth of his promises revealed and fulfilled?” These are Christian brothers and sisters who can literally feel the life leaving their bones, and it seems like the best way to assure their salvation is not to wait on Christ to return—since it seems like he’s forgotten them—but to go back to Judaism and earn their favour with God.
It’s this attitude of the Hebrew congregation that the author of Hebrews writes this letter. And he says in chapter 10 that in order for someone to belong to God, they must be righteous—that is, they must obey God. But he wants to be very clear. While everyone who belongs to heaven includes only those who pursue righteousness, that pursuit is not based on the idea that righteousness is what saves. No, the pursuit of true righteousness is born from a posture of faith, and this is what chapter 11 seeks to unpack for us—it tells us what it means to have a faith that produces righteousness.
So, the question bears repeating, “what does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to be obedient or righteous based on faith?” And the author of Hebrews gives us the answer here in verse 1 with two words: faith leading to righteousness is an assurance [of things hoped for], and a conviction or evidence [of things not seen]. This leads us to a follow-up question: what does it mean to have assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen? Ultimately, there are three answers to this question:
First, the author uses the same word for assurance earlier in Hebrews 1:3, which reads, “He [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” The word “nature” here in 1:3 is the same word for “assurance” in 11:1, but the use of this word in chapter 1 is meant to direct us to the substance or the being of Christ. In other words, Hebrews 1:3 is telling us that Jesus is the exact same in his being as God—he is the exact same substance—he is the same stuff. His divinity is God’s divinity. God and Christ are one in nature—they are one in substance—they are one in being.
This is important for us because, now in Hebrews 11:1, we can read faith is the substance of things that are being hoped for. Faith is the thing that we hold onto in those moments of doubt. It is something real and solid, even though we cannot see it. It is something that we can identify now as a shadow or a sample for what is still to come. In this sense, it’s very similar to the second word that the author uses to describe faith, namely that faith is conviction or evidence of things not seen. We know that God is trustworthy, that he shall fulfill his promises, because we have tasted in-part his goodness to us as our evidence. In other words, faith is not grasping at air. There is something really there when we reach out in desperation—when all seems to be lost and God seems distant, faith reminds us substantively and evidentially that he has and will always draw near to us. There is something there for us to hold as we wade through the difficulties of life.
Secondly, the word for assurance appears again in Hebrews in 3:14, which reads, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold fast to our original confidence firmly to the end.” In other words, faith is a confidence, or a guarantee, of things hoped for. Confidence, guarantee, and assurance are very similar words, and all three carry within them an idea of action. Faith isn’t stagnant. It’s not just something that we hold onto, but as we hold onto it, it is confiding to us, it is assuring us, it is guaranteeing for us truths that God wants us to know with absolute certainty. He wants to give us an unyielding hope, even when our eyes cannot perceive it, so that when things are at their bleakest, when Satan seems to be relentless in his strikes of temptation against us, our faith, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, testifies to us, brings us back into our confidence, and satisfies us in the truth—a truth that is steadfast and unmoving in the midst of our doubt.
Lastly, the word for assurance is itself a compound word in the Greek: hypo-stasis. The first part of the word means under and the second part means to stand. Thus, faith is something that stands under the things being hoped for; it is the foundation upon which everything that is coming rests. As Augustine put it: “Faith is the beginning which contains the certainty of the end.” Faith grounds us so that we can look forward to what is still unseen.
What then is proper faith? It is something substantive and evidential that we grasp onto when we cannot yet see the full picture. It is something that actively assures us, confides in us, and guarantees for us the hope of God’s power to do what is still coming to pass. It undergirds us, lifting us up to see above the brokenness and hopelessness that surrounds us. In other words, and in every circumstance, true, proper faith points our eyes not inward at our circumstances but outward to the object of our faith—not to ourselves but to our God who is infinitely and undoubtedly faithful. Faith orients our attitude in our circumstances from making much about ourselves and from trying to save ourselves towards making much about the God who alone can secure our salvation. So, let faith do its work. Let it prune your worry, self-pity, and works-righteousness. Let God bring you back to himself and remind you that he has never failed you, and he shall never fail you so long as you direct your faith to him.
2) Faith is Approving
Proper faith is faith that approves or commends. Look with me at verse 2, “For by it the people of old received their commendation.” We’ve just spent the last few minutes talking about a faith that directs our gaze off of ourselves and onto God and his promises, which remain unseen. But how can we know that our gaze has been directed in the proper direction? The author of Hebrews gives us the answer that we know our faith is properly directed when it is in alignment with the faith of those who have preceded us. This is what our text says: the people of old were commended—approved—because they lived by faith.
And what is it that our predecessors did that was so commendable to us and by God? Well, the author from verse 4 until verse 38 is about to talk about men and women who were approved for lives that demonstrated for us what proper faith looks like. But perhaps we ought to take a closer look at who makes up this list. If we think quickly about who these people are, they’re likely not who you’d expect. Some of the most notable individuals include murderers, liars, fornicators, prostitutes, idol worshipers, self-justifiers, boasters, disobeyers, covenant-breakers, gossipers, betrayers, testers of God, cowards, and more.
All of them are sinners, and this is important for us to regularly acknowledge because we are all sinners—worse than those who came before—those who are deeply flawed, wretched, corrupt, and inherently unworthy of saving. This, alone, ought to sober us and remind us that even in our worst suffering and affliction, none of it could amount to what we truly deserve. We all deserve an eternal hell. We have all fallen short in our faithfulness to God.
And yet, despite what we deserve—despite the sinfulness of our forefathers—what else do we along with all the people in Hebrews 11 have in common? We are all children of promise. They, like us, were imperfect, yes, but their commendation from God was not based upon their works. No, their commendation was grounded in the fact that they fixed their eyes upon God’s invincible promise.
So, what then is faith? It is not a life of perfection. To be the righteous of God does not mean that we are the perfect ones of God. No, faith is clinging and striving after, as John Calvin said, the “hidden things” of God as the power and motivation to overcome the things that stand against God. God enables our obedience in the very moment that we determine by faith to obey. Faith is seeking after the power of God to pursue the things of God in the hope that God will sustain us and do as he’s promised. To put it in the context of our verses this morning, faith is the assurance of the promised Word of God, confidence in what God says will be—an assurance and confidence that is sufficient for any of life’s circumstances and especially those that do not meet our expectations. Why? Because, as our predecessors testified to, God’s faithfulness is far greater and works itself out in ways far superior than what our little faith could ever expect.
Those who are commended here in verse 2 are those who lived their lives in utter desperation and faith upon the Word of God given to them, even if that Word would not become visible to them in their own lives—even if belief in that Word would cost them their lives. They did not shrink back in the face of adversity, frustration, suffering, and death. In the same way, as children of promise, we are called to walk seeking after the commendation of God, fixing our eyes on what is to come, knowing that our expectations may be frustrated. Yet, we are, at all times, to be those who look forward to the vision of our faith, whenever it comes, and the reason why we can do this perpetually and unwaveringly is not because we’ve been brainwashed or because we lack the backbone to bring things into being ourselves, as so many in this world accuse us of. No, we can persevere and look forward because of what’s already been done for us. This is exactly what our forefathers did. We can be approved and commended, like them, for our forward-looking faith because we’ve beheld the greatness of our God in the past.
3) Faith is Beholding
I’ve talked at length now about what proper faith does in verse 1, and I’ve explained why this kind of faith is proper and commendable in verse 2, but I have not talked to you at all about what the content or object of our faith is. How do we know that God is someone who can be trusted if our faith remains unfulfilled in this life? How is it that our faith can be perpetually forward-looking? We’ve talked about how faith is substantial, well what is its substance?
As we’re asking these questions, we come to verse 3, which reads, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” Since we are in the question asking mood, let me add one more to the mix: “why is this verse here? What in the world does a text on creation have to do with faith?”
What I believe the author of Hebrews is doing in verse 3 is attempting to explain to us what he means in verse 2. He says those who have gone before us lived by faith in a way that is commendable to us and commended by God. They lived with an assurance for things hoped for. They displayed a conviction of things not seen. Yet, in what ways, specifically, did their lives reflect this assurance and conviction? And so, anticipating the question, he starts to develop his argument, and he does this with one word in Greek—two words in English: By Faith. From Abel to the prophets of the Old Testament, he goes through each of these incredible, biblical characters, crescendo-ing in his tone about the faithfulness of each of them as he builds us to a climatic finale—think Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” But instead of starting directly with Abel, where does he start us in verse 3? What is his first “By Faith”? His first “By Faith” is a statement about the origin of the universe.
And we need to be asking ourselves, “why does he do this?” He does this because he’s attempting to convey that faith is something fundamental to the fabric and character of every created, dependent being. When we observe the universe, we see there are things completely outside of our control. All of it seems inexplicable. And yet, the author is telling us that it’s not only explainable, but it makes perfect sense to those of us who have faith.
Just look at the language that the author uses. He says, “By faith, WE understand.” Before going to examples of impersonal, historical figures, the author makes it personal—he’s speaking to Christians in hard and desperate times, facing persecution, and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. He’s appealing to the extraordinary impulse that comes to the spiritually seeing man—the faith possessing man. And what is it that a spiritual man can understand that the natural man cannot? We can understand that, despite the world’s insistence that suffering is arbitrary, and the devil’s lies that God has forsaken us, none of it is arbitrary, and God has not forsaken us because everything we see—all of creation—is evidence that God has ordained it all, and that he has stamped his personality in all of it.
Do you see? The author of Hebrews starts here with a statement about the origin of the universe because he must start not with the character of man but with the character of God. He must start with who God is and what God, alone, can do. Does everything seem out of control in your life? Well, good! The reason why the faith of all of these historical people is commendable is because their first assurance and conviction wasn’t in what God had done to make their lives perfect, or in the things he’d given them to alleviate their suffering, but because they beheld in their own midst the true God of true God.
In other words, they comprehended who God was, and they knew that if God had spoken—if God was the one who gave the promise—then there could be no doubt that God would do as he said he would do. Just as he had spoken the world into creation, his spoken promise would undoubtedly also come into existence. Why? BECAUSE GOD SPOKE IT. The object and substance of faith is not in created things, it is in the Creator God himself, and the author of Hebrews is telling us that this is where we must begin if we are to persevere in faith until the end. Would the same God who puts so much emphasis on using his Word, making all that we see with his Word, and upholding it by his Word, also waste his breath on us and speak to us things that he has no intention of fulfilling? The universe stands as a seal that his spoken word is, in fact, his manifested word. What we see is evidence of him who we do not see.
But notice, this is not where the author of Hebrews stops. Remember, I told you that he is building his argument like a crescendo towards a climatic finale. Throughout chapter 11, we’re told that faith is the assurance of something hoped for, not something that is seen (v. 1). Faith is invisible (v. 3). Our forefathers did not see the promise (v. 13). The promise was not provided in fullness, so they looked forward to its fruition (vv. 10-16). They looked to the reward (v. 26). None, though commended through their faith, received what was promised (v. 39).
But then, look with me at Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, [the very Word of God, as the apostle John tells us], the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
For all that waiting, for all that hoping, for all that not seeing—all of it was so that in the fullness of time, the glory of God might be revealed in the gospel—in the very face—of Jesus Christ. Where we have fallen short in our faithfulness, Jesus has not. Where we failed to look forward to the glory promised to us, Jesus did not. Where we decided to ignore the past faithfulness of God’s providential work in our life to sustain us, Jesus did not. Where we refused to suffer the consequences of our own sinfulness and the frustrations of this life, Jesus did not.
Brothers and sisters, what is the object of our faith? What is it that we cling to? What is it that is assuring us? What is it that is uplifting us as we wait the fulfillment of God’s promises to us? For our forebears, it was the knowledge of the invisible God who created all that we see by the power of his Word. In his speaking, it came to be. So too, in his promising, it shall come to be. And yet, for us, is not our boast far greater? For as the author of Hebrews has told us at the beginning of this letter, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by whom? By the radiance and perfection of his Son.”
We do not stand upon a faith that only testifies to God’s creative power in creation; we stand as those who possess an even greater, more complete faith that testifies to God’s saving power in the cross. This is the object of our faith. In the condescension of Christ who took upon himself our humanity, in his propitiatory death for the guilt of our sin and the wrath of God, in his victorious resurrection over the grave, and in his glorified ascension to the right hand of the Father, all that was promised to our forebears has been fulfilled. And as their faith-filled hope was satisfied in their longing and in their waiting by the coming of Jesus Christ, so too shall we, one day, see our hope satisfied when he shall return in glory to bring us home.
I do not know all of the details and circumstances of each of your lives. You may be frustrated with how things are going. You may not understand why God seems so distant from you. You may have burning questions about what you’ve been placed on this earth to do—I don’t know exactly what that problem might be for you, but this one thing I do know: the God of Creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David, and the God of our Lord Jesus Christ—he has not forsaken you, and he shall never forsake you. His promises not only endure, but they shall be made visible, and on that day, all of your frustrations, all of your striving, all of your lamenting and sorrow—all of it shall be taken from you and replaced with an eternal satisfaction. And how do we know this? We know this because all of it has already been satisfied in the cross. Let the incredible work of God’s creation assure you that his word is secure. Let the incredible work of his salvation through his Son convict you that his promise has been sealed, and the future has been fixed. Our sovereign, omnipotent God has always fulfilled his promises, and he shall undoubtedly fulfill them again. All he requires of us in response is to be his people—a people who are characterized by their faith.