Hebrews 11 continues and develops the argument of chapter 10. In chapter 10, we are told not to give up, but to press forward in faith. Hebrews 11 describes what that faith looks like, how persevering faith that doesn’t give up and receives the reward has expressed itself in the lives of great men and women of God.
The author to the Hebrews makes great use of what I call “hook words”. He’ll be talking about one subject, and toward the end of it he’ll introduce a word or a phrase that he’ll go on to unpack in the next section. That’s what he does here. At the end of chapter 10, we’re told:
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,
“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
That brings up the question, what is faith? It’s crucially important to understand what saving faith looks like. Hebrews 11 then launches into a description of this faith, in definitions but more in depictions of how it has looked in the lives of believers in the past.
First we’re told: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This is exactly why faith is hard. If we could see the realities of what we believe, it would not be difficult to keep believing. Instead, we’re called by God to put our trust in what he says is true, what he says is reality, what he says has happened and what will happen, without being able to see it.
This is pretty much the exact opposite of a scientific, materialistic worldview, which says: I will only believe that which I can see, feel, hear, measure, prove.
Here are some examples that follow: by faith we believe that God created the universe. By faith Noah spent years building an ark for a flood that he had no visible evidence was coming, and had never happened. He only had God’s word. By faith Abraham left his home country and went to a place he had never seen and didn’t even know existed, because God promised him it would be his. By faith Sarah conceived a child when she was humanly speaking past any hope of doing so. By faith Moses chose to endure persecution with God’s people rather than the luxuries and sinful pleasures of Pharaoh’s court. And so on.
Many of the people it mentions were persecuted or killed for their stubborn insistence on walking according to what God said instead of conforming to the world around them. Many of them died before seeing what they believed in come to pass. It was crucial for the Hebrews to understand this so they didn’t think the troubles they were experiencing for their faith were abnormal.
So here’s what we can say about faith. Faith is believing God despite what we see, hear, or experience around us. Most of the time, the voices around us, and even inside us, are not encouraging us to believe what God says. Rather, they are explicitly anti-God messages, denying what he has said and substituting an alternate truth. Being a Christian in some senses is like swimming against a strong current, or walking determinedly into a stiff wind.
There’s no place for cynicism, independence, or self-determination in the Christian life. Rather, with our ears pitched toward heaven and our eyes fixed on Jesus, we walk in trust toward heavenly realities, in a manner that looks absurd to the world around us, shutting our eyes and deafening our ears to all that shouts at us that God’s not real, this world is all there is, we are fools.
You are going to be against the world, and the world against you. Forget thinking you can be friends with it, or make peace with it. If you’re walking according to God’s voice, you’re walking in direct opposition to the world, and you will invite its hostility.
But this kind of faith will receive its reward. We can’t see Jesus’ return; we can’t see God’s judgement; we can’t see heaven or hell. We only have God’s word that these things will happen, and that those who persevere in believing will be recompensed.
What does this saving faith look like in a secular, western, modern world?
Many ways, but here are a few that come to mind:
Holding onto the biblical teaching that God made us male and female, there are only two genders, that marriage is between a man and a woman for life, that single people are called to chastity, that this is a beautiful and good design that brings life and flourishing to those who follow it. Despite the fact that we will be hated and called bigots for this.
Not spending our money endlessly to accumulate more and better things and live a more comfortable life. Investing our money in the Kingdom of God and giving to those in need.
Believing that God’s word is true and reliable in all it says. That God spoke the universe and life into existence, rather than it somehow evolving out of nothing over billions of years. That Jesus is the truth and the only way to God.
This kind of faith won’t make you popular with the world. But it will be rewarded by God.