Last week I listened to a sermon preached on Hebrews 11. While I listened I opened my Greek Bible and read that famous first verse from that passage, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (KJV) Or, as the ESV translates it today, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.“ I have heard this used again and again as the key, defining verse for faith. This is faith–our assurance of hope, our conviction of the unseen. This is faith–the feelings we have in the midst of our difficulties. This is faith, the mysterious action of the heart which is tied to our hope in Christ.
But how we read that verse is not what the author of Hebrews wrote.
The verse, in Greek, says that faith is the substance of our hopes. That word substance is very important–in Greek it is hypostasis. If you have heard of the hypostatic union of Christ, it is the way we discuss the indivisible, substantive bond between Christ’s humanity and divinity. The substance of Jesus–his material, physical being, is indivisible from his Divine Nature. It is a thing, tangible, substantive. And what does the author of Hebrews say? That faith is a hypostasis–a substance.
What has happened, as best I can tell, is that we have read Hebrews 11:1 and skipped ahead to the hope, and the unseen, and missed the opening words. We have assumed that faith is unseen, and similar to hope, and missed that faith is something real in the present. It is not an emotional state. It is not a “certain attitude of the heart.” Faith, according to Hebrews, is the live-flesh-and-blood-substance that is produced because of our hope in Christ. And our hope, not only in Hebrews but in the rest of the New Testament, is placed on Christ’s resurrection and the coming Kingdom of God. Because we hope in Christ’s resurrection, the product in our lives is faith. Do you see how this works?
Then, read through the rest of Hebrews 11–the famous “Hall of Faith”–with this in mind. What is highlighted in each of these believers? The fact that they lived a certain way in the midst of their hope. The fact that their hope in God’s promises determined their behaviour in the present. The fact that although they didn’t receive fulfillment of the promise in their lives, nevertheless they persevered in following God no matter what. That is faith: a lived experience in response to God’s promises.