What Faith Knows and Hopes For

As we begin our exposition of Hebrews 11, we need to see why it's here and what it has to do with your life. Go back with me five weeks and six verses to Hebrews 10:34. You may remember that some Christians were imprisoned and the others made the hard decision to identify with them and risk their property and their lives. Verse 34 tells what happened. "You showed sympathy to the prisoners, and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one."

This is the kind of life the whole book of Hebrews is aiming to produce - a life that looks at the high price of love (the seizure of our property, perhaps, or the some other kind of abuse or calamity, Hebrews 13:3-6,13), and then accepts that possibility joyfully and does what love demands, no matter what. That's the life Hebrews is aiming at. All the glorious truth we have seen about Christ -

  • giving himself once for all as a final sacrifice for our sins (9:14),
  • perfecting us for all time by a single offering (10:14),
  • giving us a clean conscience by his own blood (9:14; 10:22),
  • being our sympathetic high priest before God (4:14-16),
  • interceding for us day after day in heaven (7:25),
  • putting his laws in our minds and writing them on our hearts,
  • being our God (8:10),
  • remembering our sins no more (8:12),
  • promising never to leave us or forsake us (13:5-6)

- all this great truth that we have been reveling in for over a year is aimed practically at making us into this kind of people. People who risk property and life in order to bring the love of God to others. People who do not look for comforts and ease and security as a necessary thing in life. People who are free from the American assumptions of style and safety and wealth and leisure. People who know there is one life to live and only what's done in the name of Christ and for the eternal good of others will count in the end.

The Foundation of Risk-taking Love

And what verse 34 makes clear is that the way such a life comes about is by an unshakable hope in God beyond this life. "You accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one." The power to be joyfully sacrificial in the path of love is "knowing that you have a better possession beyond the grave." If you don't live by this great confidence, you will be continually thinking about how much you are losing out every time you make a sacrifice for others. But if this life is a brief preparation for eternal joy - a "better possession and abiding one" - then you are free to risk your life and your property in this world because, as Paul said in Romans 8:18, "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

So the whole book of Hebrews is written to give foundation to the hope that is the foundation of a life of radical, risk-taking, sacrificial love.

What more can he say than he has already said to help us have this hope so that we live out this radical love? Chapter 11 is the answer: he can give us examples of people who have laid hold on the future reward of joy with God in such a way that it makes a great difference in their lives here and now. That's what chapter 11 is. It is meant to deepen your confidence in God's promises so that you turn from the fleeting pleasures of sin and live out the radical kind of love that comes from having your hope in God (compare Colossians 1:4-5).

The Power to Sacrifice and Love Joyfully

So chapter 11 begins with a definition of faith that links it with hope and then goes on to show how this hope gave power for all kinds of radical obedience. Let's read the text (Hebrews 11:1-3):

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 For by it the men of old gained approval. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.

So the first important thing to see here is that the power to sacrifice and love and joyfully accept the seizure of your property, which we saw in 10:34, is called "faith." Faith is the assurance of things hoped for - that is, faith is the confidence that "you have a better possession and an abiding one." There's the link between the life of sacrificial love in 10:34 and the hall of fame in chapter 11. Chapter 11 is a catalogue of people who illustrate that this kind of faith - the assurance of things hoped for - really makes a difference in life.

Assurance and Conviction

So the first task we have in this new chapter is to understand more exactly what faith is. That's what verse 1 gives us - a twofold definition of faith. Let's look at both parts, one at a time: "Now faith is (1) the assurance of things hoped for, (2) the conviction of things not seen."

There is more here than meets the eye at first. The word for "assurance" in the first definition ("the assurance of things hoped for") and the word for "conviction" in the second definition ("the conviction of things not seen"), are unusual words and very difficult to translate into English. You may remember the old King James Version: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." These words "substance" and "evidence" are, in fact, very serious and important translations. What is the reality behind these two words and these two definitions of faith?

This is not merely academic. Just ask yourself this question: do you have faith? How do you know you have faith? What is faith, so that you can know you have it? What hangs on whether you have faith or not? You can see that this question is immensely practical and relevant to your life. "Conviction" or "Evidence"?

Let's start with the second definition first: "Faith is the conviction or (the evidence) of things not seen." The word for "conviction" or "evidence" is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament, its normal use is "proof" or "argument" or "evidence" - something objective - about the world rather than subjective about how we feel about the world.

But what about the meaning here in verse 1? Most translators don't use the old word, "proof" or "evidence," because it doesn't seem to make sense. How can faith be evidence or proof? Faith needs evidence, doesn't it? But let's look at the illustration of this definition of faith in verse 3. Verse 3 is directly related to this definition of faith as "the evidence of things not seen." It says, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible."

Do you see the connection? Verse 1 says "faith is the evidence of things not seen," and verse 3 says that faith understands that the world - what is seen - was made out of what is not seen - the word of God. So verse 3 is a specific illustration of the definition of faith in verse 1b.

Here's the question: How do we know that God made the world out of nothing that is seen? Not only were we not there when it happened, but, even if we had been there, we would not have been able to see the act of creation, because you can't see the word of God. So how can we know or "understand" that the worlds were made by the word of God? How can we know that "what is seen was made out of things invisible" - namely the word of God?

Verse 3 answers, "by faith." "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God." Now this starts to sound a little more like the old King James translation of verse 1 might make sense after all. If "faith is the evidence of things not seen," then it might make sense to say, "By faith (by evidence) we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God." But if we take the newer translation ("faith is the conviction of things unseen") and say, "By conviction we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God," then it just sounds like we are reasoning in a circle: I have the conviction that God created the world, therefore I understand that he did create the world. And I understand that he created the world, therefore I have the conviction that he created the world.

How is Faith "Evidence"?

So the crucial question is: How is faith "evidence" of things unseen, namely, that God created the world by his word? I take my clue from the one other place in the New Testament where God's invisible attributes are said to be "clearly seen" by man, namely, Romans 1:20. "Since the creation of the world [God's] invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood by what has been made." The word "understood" here in Romans 1:20 is the same word as in Hebrews 11:3, "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God."

So there in Romans 1:20 it says, "we understand the invisible attributes of God by what has been made." And here in Hebrews 11:3 it says, we understand the invisible word of God behind creation by faith. Romans 1:20 seems to say that the evidence that God made the world is the things made - they clearly point to a Maker. Hebrews 11:3 seems to say that the evidence that God made the world is faith. Now think about this for a moment. What shall we make of it? Here's what I make of it. Faith - at least in part - is the spiritual seeing or perceiving of the fingerprints of God on the things he has made. Now the fingerprints of God on the things he has made - the order, the beauty, the greatness, the "irreducible complexity" (as Michael Behe says, in Darwin's Black Box) - are the evidence that God made the world. But so is the seeing of these fingerprints a kind of evidence. It's just the other side of the coin. If you ask me, "How do you know Focus on the Family has a headquarters in Colorado Springs," I will say, "I saw it on Tuesday." My seeing is evidence that it is there.

I think that is the way faith is the evidence of things unseen. We all look at the same fingerprints, but some see and some don't. Those who see have the evidence - the testimony - in themselves. How can that be?

Color and Chaos or a Deeper View?

Here is an analogy at the physical level. A few years ago one of the rages was hidden 3-D images. These are pieces of art that, on one level, are one thing, but at another level are something quite different. At first glance all you see is the surface presentation. But if you let your eyes focus more deeply, or more distantly, you may see a train or a boxing kangaroo or a globe not only appearing, but actually standing up off the page. Now some people stare at these pages for several minutes and see nothing but color and chaos. But others almost immediately see the head of Beethoven or a lamb. If someone says, "How do you know a lamb is there?" the answer is, "I see it." Your seeing is the evidence. They may not see it, but that won't change your mind.

Now this is what it is like for some to look at God's creation. Some see color and chaos. Others have a deeper view and suddenly God's fingerprints come into focus. What evidence can they offer? They see it. It is as undoubted as a lamb in a 3-D image. No one can talk you out of it.

You may ask, "Should that be called faith?" Didn't Paul say (in 2 Corinthians 5:7), "We walk by faith and not by sight"? How can faith be "sight"? Paul meant that Christ is not present physically on earth to see with physical eyes, but is in heaven. He did not mean that there is no spiritual perception of God's reality. Hebrews 11:1 says, "Faith is the conviction - or better, the evidence - of things not seen." And then the writer illustrates this in verse 3 when he says that "we understand by faith" that God created the world. In other words, faith is not just a responding act of the soul; it is also a grasping or perceiving or understanding act. It is a spiritual act that sees the fingerprints of God. This does not mean that you believe them into being. That would be wishful thinking - the power of positive thinking. That is not authentic faith. Real faith is based on real Truth. It looks deeply at the world God has made - looks through it, so to speak - and by the grace of God, it sees the glory of God (as Psalm 19:1 says) standing forth off the creation like a 3-D image.

The Substance of Things Hoped For

Now that leaves us just a few minutes to focus on the other part of the definition of faith in verse 1: "Now faith is the assurance - or the substance - of things hoped for." It may be that all this means is that faith is a deep confidence that the promises of God will come true so that we bank on them. That would be enough to free us from the fears and greed and worldliness that block the flow of radical, risk-taking, sacrificial love. If we have a strong conviction that God will care for us and bring us to glory and fulfill all his promises to us forever, then we will be free from self-indulgence and free for serving others.

But I think it means more - or maybe this is just a way of filling up this meaning with all that's really here. The word "assurance" here can mean "nature" or "substance" or "reality" or "essence" in other places, for example, Hebrews 1:3 ("exact representation of God's nature"). If that is what is meant here, then we should think like this.

What could the "substance" or "nature" of things hoped for mean? I think it could mean that faith apprehends the goodness and the sweetness of what God promises so clearly that this goodness and sweetness are substantially present in faith. In other words, faith grasps - lays hold of - God's preciousness so firmly that in the faith itself there is the substance of the goodness and the sweetness promised. Faith doesn't create what we hope for - that would be a mere mind game. Faith is a spiritual apprehending or perceiving or tasting or sensing of the beauty and sweetness and preciousness and goodness of what God promises - especially his own fellowship, and the enjoyment of his own presence.

Faith does not just feel confident that this is coming some day. Faith has spiritually laid hold of and perceived and tasted that it is real. And this means that faith has the substance or the nature of what is hoped for in it. Faith's enjoyment of the promise is a kind of substantial downpayment of the reality coming.

Taste and See

This is what happens when the Gospel is preached. It is what is happening right now for many of you. The word of God is spoken - broken like sweet bread and poured out like refreshing water - and the spiritual taste of your heart is awakened, and you know that there is more here than the mere opinion of a man. Just like it says in Hebrews 10:34, you "know that you have a better possession and an abiding one."

In summary then faith is a kind of spiritual tasting of what God has promised so that we feel a deep, substantial assurance of things hoped for; and faith is a kind of spiritual seeing of the invisible fingerprints of God in the things he has made. By the one we know God's power and wisdom to make us, and by the other we know his goodness and grace to save us.

So I say with Psalm 34:8, O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org