An Exposition of Hebrews
by A. W. Pink
The Excellency of Faith
Ere we take up the contents of the 11th chapter let us briefly review the sound already covered. Chapters 1 and 2 are more or less introductory in their character. In them the wondrous person of the God-man Mediator is presented to our view, as superior to the O.T. prophets and as excelling the angels. The first main division of the Epistle commences at Hebrews 3:1 and runs to the end of Hebrews 4:15, and treats of the mission of Christ: this is seen to surpass that of either Moses or Joshua, for neither of them led the people into the real rest of God; the section is followed by a practical application in Hebrews 4:16. The second principal division begins with Hebrews 5:1 and extends to Hebrews 10:18, and deals with the priesthood of Christ: this is shown to transcend the Aaronic in dignity, efficacy and permanency; the section is followed by a practical application, contained in Hebrews 10:19 to Hebrews 12:29. The closing chapter forms a conclusion to the Epistle.
"The general nature of this Epistle, as unto the kind of writing, is paranetical or hortatory, which is taken from its end and design. The exhortation proposed is to constancy and perseverance in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the profession of the Gospel, against temptations and persecutions. Both these the Hebrews had to conflict with in their profession; the one from the Judaical church-state itself, the other from the members of it. Their temptations to draw back and forsake their profession, arose from the consideration of the Judaical church-state and Mosaic ordinances of worship, which they were called by the Gospel to relinquish. The Divine institution of that state, with its worship, the solemnity of the covenant whereon it was established, the glory of its priesthood, sacrifices and other Divine ordinances (Rom. 9:4), with their efficacy for acceptance with God, were continually proposed unto them, and pressed on them, to allure and draw them off from the Gospel. And the trial was very great, after the inconsistency of the two states was made manifest. This gave occasion to the whole doctrinal part of the Epistle, the exposition of which, by Divine grace and assistance, we have passed through. For therein declaring the nature, use, end, and signification of all Divine institutions under the O.T.; and allowing unto them all the glory and efficacy which they could pretend unto, the writer of this Epistle declares from the Scripture itself that the state of the Gospel church, in its high-priest, sacrifice, covenant, worship, privileges and efficacy, is incomparably to be preferred above that of the O.T.; yea, that all the excellency and glory of that state, and all that belonged unto it, consisted only in the representation that was made thereby, of the greater glory of Christ and the Gospel, without which they were of no use, and therefore ruinous or pernicious to be persisted in.
"After he had fixed their minds in the truth, and armed them against the temptations which they were continually exposed to; the apostle proceeds to the second means, whereby their steadiness and constancy in the profession of the Gospel, which he exhorted them unto, was already assaulted, and was yet like to be assaulted with greater force and fury. This arose from the opposition which befell them, and from the persecutions of all sorts that they had endured, and were still like to undergo, for their faith in Christ Jesus with the profession thereof, and observance of the holy worship ordained in the Gospel. This they suffered from the obstinate members of the Jewish church, as they did the other (temptation) from the state of that church itself. An account hereof the apostle enters upon in the close of the foregoing chapter; and withal declares unto them the only way and means on their part, whereby they may be preserved, and kept constant in their profession notwithstanding all the evils that might befall them therein, and this is by faith alone. From their temptations they were delivered by the doctrine of the truth, and from the opposition made unto them, by faith in exercise" (John Owen).
The particular character of the section begun at Hebrews 10:19 is not difficult to ascertain: it is addressed to our responsibility. This is at once evident in the "Let us" of Hebrews 10:22, 23, 24. In Hebrews 10:32-36 there is a call to patient waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Nothing but real faith in the veracity of the Promiser can sustain the heart and prompt to steady endurance during a protracted season of trial and suffering. Hence in Hebrews 10:38 the apostle quotes that striking word from Habakkuk, "The just shall live by faith." That sentence really forms the text of which Hebrews 11 is the sermon. The central design of this chapter is to evidence the patience of those who, in former ages, endured by faith before they received the fulfillment of God’s promises: note particularly verses 13, 39.
"Whoever made this (verse 1) the beginning of the eleventh chapter, has unwisely disjointed the context; for the object of the apostle was to prove what he had already said—that there is need of patience. He had quoted the testimony of Habakkuk, who says that the just lives by faith; he now shows what remained to be proved—that faith can be no more separated from patience than from itself. The order then of what he says is this: ‘We shall not reach the goal of salvation except we have patience, for the prophet declares that the just lives by faith; but faith directs us to things afar off which we do not as yet enjoy; it then necessarily includes patience.’ Therefore the minor proposition in the argument is this, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for’" (John Calvin).
"The apostle now, for the illustration and enforcement of his exhortation, brings forward a great variety of instances, from the history of former ages, in which faith had enabled individuals to perform very difficult duties, endure very severe trials, and obtain very important blessings. The principles of the apostle’s exhortation are plainly these: ‘They who turn back, turn back unto perdition. It is only they who persevere in believing that obtain the salvation of the soul. Nothing but a persevering faith can enable a person, through a constant continuance in well-doing, and a patient, humble submission to the will of God, to obtain that glory, honor, and immortality which the Gospel promises. Nothing but a persevering faith can do this; and a persevering faith can do it, as is plain from what it has done in former ages" (John Brown).
The order of thought followed by the apostle in Hebrews 11 was ably and helpfully set forth by an early Puritan: "The parts of this whole chapter are two: 1. a general description of faith: verses 1 to 4. 2. An illustration or declaration of that description, by a large rehearsal of manifold examples of ancient and worthy men in the Old Testament: verses 4 to 40. The description of faith consists of three actions or effects of faith, set down in three several verses. The first effect is that faith makes things which are not (but only are hoped for), after a sort, to subsist and to be present with the believer: verse 1. The second effect is that faith makes a believer approved of God: verse 2. The third effect is that faith makes a man understand and believe things incredible to sense and reason" (Win. Perkins, 1595).
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (verse 1). The opening "Now" has almost the force of "for," denoting a farther confirmation of what had just been declared. At the close of chapter 10 the apostle had just affirmed that the saving of the soul is obtained through believing, whereupon he now takes occasion to show what faith is and does. That faith can, and does, preserve the soul, prompting to steadfastness under all sorts of trials and issuing in salvation, may not only be argued from the effects which is its very nature to produce, but is illustrated and demonstrated by one example after another, cited in the verses which follow. It is important to bear in mind at the outset that Hebrews 11 is an amplification and exemplification of Hebrews 10:38, 39: the "faith" which the apostle is describing and illustrating is that which has the saving of the soul annexed to it.
"In verse 1 there is the thing described, and the description itself. The thing described is Faith; the description is this: ‘It is the substance of things hoped for’ etc. The description is proper, according to the rules of art: habits (or graces) are described by their formal acts, and acts restrained to their proper objects; so faith is here described by its primary and formal acts, which are referred to their distinct objects. The acts of faith are two: it is the substance, it is the evidence. Think it not strange that I call them acts, for that. is it the apostle intends; therefore Beza says, in rendering this place, he had rather paraphrase the text than obscure the scope, and he interpreteth it thus—Faith substantiates or gives a subsistence to our hopes, and demonstrates things not seen. There is a great deal of difference between the acts of faith and the effects of faith. The effects of faith are reckoned up throughout this chapter; the formal acts of faith are in this verse. These acts are suited with their objects. As the matters of belief are yet to come, faith gives them a substance, a being, as they are hidden from the eyes of sense and carnal reason; faith also gives them an evidence, and doth convince men of the worth of them; so that one of these acts belongs to the understanding, the other to the will" (Thos. Manton, 1670).
The contents of verse 1 do not furnish so much a formal definition of faith, as they supply a terse description of how it operates and what it produces. Faith, whether natural or spiritual, is the belief of a testimony. Here, faith is believing the testimony of God. How it operates in reference to the subjects of this testimony, whether they be considered simply as future, or as both invisible and future, and the effects produced in and on the soul, the Holy Spirit here explains. First, He tells us that "faith is the substance of things hoped for." The Greek word rendered "substance" has been variously translated. The margin of the A.V. gives "ground or confidence." The R.V. has "assurance" in the text, and "giving substance to" in the margin. The Greek word is "hypostasis" and is rendered "confident’’ (should be "this confidence of boasting," as in Bag. Int.) in both 2 Corinthians 9:4 and 11:17; "person" (should be "subsistence" or "essential being") in Hebrews 1:3; and "confidence" in Hebrews 3:14. Personally, the writer believes it has a double force, so will seek to expound it accordingly.
"Faith is the confidence of things hoped for." In this chapter (and in general throughout the N.T.) "faith" is far more than a bare assent to any thing revealed and declared by God: it is a firm persuasion of that which is hoped for, because it assures its possessor not only that there are such things, but that through the power and faithfulness of God he shall yet possess them. Thus it becomes the ground of expectation. The Word of God is the objective foundation on which my hopes rest, but faith provides a subjective foundation, for it convinces me of the certainty of them. Faith and confidence are inseparable: just so far as I am counting upon the ability and fidelity of the Promiser, shall I be confident of receiving the things promised and which I am expecting. "We believe and are sure" (John 6:69).
From what has just been said, the reader will perhaps perceive better the force of the rather peculiar word "substance" in the text of the A.V. It comes from two Latin words, sub stans meaning "standing under." Faith provides a firm standing-ground while I await the fulfillment of God’s promises. Faith furnishes my heart with a sure support during the interval. Faith believes God and relies upon His veracity: as it does so, the heart is anchored and remains steady, no matter how fierce the storm nor how protracted the season of waiting. "These all died in faith, not having received the (fulfillment of the) promises; but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them" (Heb. 11:13). Real faith issues in a confident and standing expectation of future things.
"Faith is the substance of things hoped for": as the marginal reading of the R.V. suggests, "giving substance to." Crediting the sure testimony of God, resting on His promises, and expecting the accomplishment of them, faith gives the object hoped for at a future period, a present reality and power in the soul, as if already possessed; for the believer is satisfied with the security afforded, and acts under the full persuasion that God will not fail of His engagement. Faith gives the soul an appropriating hold of them. "Faith is a firm persuasion and expectation that God will perform all that He has promised to us in Christ; and this persuasion is so strong that it gives the soul a kind of possession and present fruition of those things, gives them a subsistence in the soul by the firstfruits and foretastes of them; so that believers in the exercise of faith are filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory" (Matthew Henry).
The confident expectation which faith inspires, gives the objects of the Christian’s hope a present and actual being in his heart. Faith does not look out with cold thoughts about things to come, but imparts life and reality to them. Faith does for us spiritually what fancy does for us naturally. There is a faculty of the understanding which enables us to picture to the mind’s eye things which are yet future. But faith does more: it gives not an imaginary appearance to things, but a real subsistence. Faith is a grace which unites subject and object: there is no need to ascend to Heaven, for faith makes distant things nigh (see Romans 10:6, 7). Faith, then, is the bond of union between the soul and the things God has promised. By believing we "receive"; by believing in Christ, He becomes ours (John 1:12). Therefore does faith enable the Christian to praise the Lord for future blessings as though he were already in the full possession of them.
But how does faith bring to the heart a present subsistence of future things? First, by drawing from the promises that which, by Divine institution, is stored up in them: hence they are called the "breasts of consolation" (Isa. 66:11). Second, by making the promises the food of the soul (Jer. 15:16), which cannot be unless they are really present unto it. Third, by conveying an experience of their power, as unto all the ends of which they are purposed: it is as Divine truth is appropriated and assimilated that it becomes powerfully operative in the soul. Fourth, by communicating unto us the firstfruits of the promises: faith gives a living reality to what it absorbs, and so real and potent is the impression made, that the heart is changed into the same image (2 Cor. 3:18).
Ere passing on, let us pause for a word of application. Many profess to "believe," but what influence have their hopes upon them? How are they affected by the things which their faith claims to have laid hold of? I profess to believe that sin is a most heinous thing—do I fear, hate, shun it? I believe that ere long I shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ—does my conduct evince that I am living in the light of that solemn day? I believe that the world is an empty bauble—do I despise its painted tinsel? I believe that God will supply all my need—am I fearful about the morrow? I believe that prayer is an essential means unto growth in grace—do I spend much time in the secret place? I believe that Christ is coming back again—am I diligent in seeking to have my lamp trimmed and burning? Faith is evident by its fruits, works, effects.
Faith is "the evidence of things not seen." The Greek noun here rendered "evidence" ("proving" in the R.V., with "test" in the margin) is derived from a verb which signifies to convince, and that by demonstration. It was used by the Lord Jesus when He uttered that challenge, "which of you convicteth Me of sin?" (John 8:46). The noun occurs in only one other place, namely, 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is... profitable for doctrine, for reproof," or "conviction"—to give assurance and certainty of what is true. Thus, the word "evidence" in our text denotes teat which furnishes proof, so that one is assured of the reality and certainty of things Divine. "Faith," then, is first the hand of the soul which "lays hold of" the contents of God’s promises; second, it is the eye of the soul which looks out toward and represents them clearly and convincingly to us.
To unbelievers the invisible, spiritual, and future things revealed in God’s Word seem dubious and unreal, for they have no medium to perceive them: "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). But the child of God sees "Him who is invisible" (Heb. 11:27). Perhaps we might illustrate it thus: two men stand on the deck of a ship gazing toward the far horizon; the one sees nothing, the other describes the details of a distant steamer. The former has only his unaided eyesight, the latter is using a telescope! Now just as a powerful glass brings home to the eye an object beyond the range of natural vision, so faith gives reality to the heart of things outside the range of our physical senses. Faith sets Divine things before the soul in all the light and power of demonstration, and thus provides inward conviction of their existence. "Faith demonstrates to the eye of the mind the reality of those things which cannot be discerned by the eye of the body" (Matthew Henry).
The natural man prefers a life of sense, and to believe nothing more than that which is capable of scientifical demonstration. When eternal things, yet invisible, are pressed upon him, he is full of objections against them. Those are the objections of unbelief, stirred into activity by the "fiery darts" of Satan, and naught but the shield of faith can quench them. But when the Holy Spirit renews the heart, the prevailing power of unbelief is broken; faith argues "God has said it, so it must be true." Faith so convinces the understanding that it is compelled, by force of arguments unanswerable, to believe the certainty of all God has spoken. The conviction is so powerful that the heart is influenced thereby, and the will moved to conform thereto. This it is which causes the Christian to forsake the "pleasures of sin" which are only "for a season" (Heb. 11:25), because by faith he has laid hold of those satisfying "pleasures at God’s right hand" which are "for evermore" (Ps. 16:11).
To sum up the contents of verse 1. To unbelief, the objects which God sets before us in His Word seem unreal and unlikely, nebulous and vague. But faith visualizes the unseen, giving substantiality to the things hoped for and reality to things invisible. Faith shuts its eyes to all that is seen, and opens its ears to all God has said. Faith is a convictive power which overcomes carnal reasonings, carnal prejudices, and carnal excuses. It enlightens the judgment, moulds the heart, moves the will, and reforms the life. It takes us off earthly things and worldly vanities, and occupies us with spiritual and Divine realities. It emboldens against discouragements, laughs at difficulties, resists the Devil, and triumphs over temptations. It does so because it unites the soul to God and draws strength from Him. Thus faith is altogether a supernatural thing.
"For by it the elders obtained a good report" (verse 2). Having described the principal qualities of faith, the apostle now proceeds to give further proof of its excellency, as is evident from the opening "For." It is by faith we are approved of God. By the "elders" is signified those who lived in former times, namely, the O.T. saints—included among the "fathers" or Hebrews 1:1. It was not by their amiability, sincerity, earnestness, or any other natural virtue, but by faith that the ancients "obtained a good report." This declaration was made by the apostle with the purpose of reminding the Hebrews that their pious progenitors were justified by faith, and to the end of the chapter he shows that faith was the principle of all their holy obedience, eminent services, and patient sufferings in the cause of God. Therefore those who were spiritually united to them must have something more than physical descent from them.
"For by it the elders obtained a good report." Observe the beautiful accuracy of Scripture: it was not for their faith (nor could it be without it!), but "by" their faith: it was not a cause, yet it was a condition; there was nothing meritorious in it, yet it was a necessary means. Let us also observe that faith is no new thing, but a grace planted in the hearts of God’s elect from the beginning. Then, as now, faith was the substance of things hoped for—promises to be accomplished in the future. The faith of Abel laid hold of Christ as truly as does ours. God has had but one way of salvation since sin entered the world: "by grace, through faith, not of works." They are grossly mistaken who suppose that under the old covenant people were saved by keeping the law. The "fathers" had the same promises we have: not merely of Canaan, but of heaven—see Hebrews 11:16.
The Greek for "obtained a good report" is not in the active voice, but the passive: literally, "were witnessed of," an honorable testimony being borne to them—cf., verses 4, 5. God took care that a record should be kept (complete in Heaven, in part transcribed in the Scriptures) of all the actings of their faith. God has borne witness to the fact that Enoch "walked with Him" (Gen. 5:24), that David was "a man after His own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14), that Abraham was His "friend" (2 Chron. 20:7). This testimony of His acceptance of them because of their faith was borne by God. Not only externally in His Word, but in their consciences. He gave them His Spirit who assured them of their acceptance: Psalm 51:12, Acts 15:8. Let writer and reader learn to esteem what God does: let us value a Christian not for his intellect, natural charms, or social position, but for his faith, evidenced by an obedient walk and godly life.
We cannot do better in closing our comments upon verse 2 than by giving the "practical observations" on it of John Owen: "1. Instances or examples are the most powerful confirmations of practical truths. 2. They who have a good testimony from God shall never want reproaches from the world. 3. It is faith alone, which, from the beginning of the world (or from the giving of the first promise), was the means and way of obtaining acceptance with God. 4. The faith of true believers, from the beginning of the world, was fixed on things future, hoped for, invisible. 5. That faith whereby men please God acts itself in a fixed contemplation on things future and invisible, from whence it derived an encouragement and strength to endure and abide firm in profession, against all opposition and persecutions. 6. Men may be despised, vilified, and reproached in the world, yet if they have faith, if they are true believers, they are accepted with God, and He will give them a good report."
"Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear" (verse 3). There is a much closer connection between this verse and the two preceding ones than most of the commentators have perceived. The apostle is still setting forth the importance and excellency of faith: here he affirms that. through it its favored possessors are enabled to apprehend things which are high above the reach of human reason. The origin of the universe presents a problem which neither science nor philosophy can solve, as is evident from their conflicting and ridiculous attempts; but that difficulty vanishes entirely before faith.
"Through faith we understand." Faith is the vehicle or medium of spiritual perception: "if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God" (John 11:40); "which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth" (1 Tim. 4:3). Faith is not a blind reliance on the Word of God, but an intelligent persuasion of its veracity, wisdom, beauty. So far from Christians being the credulous fools the world deems them, they are the wisest of earth’s inhabitants. The "fools" are they who are "slow of heart to believe" (Luke 24:25). Through faith in what has been revealed in the Scriptures we know that the universe is created and fashioned by God. "What does faith give us to understand concerning the worlds, that is, the upper, middle, lower regions of the universe? 1. That they were not eternal, nor did they produce themselves, but they were made by another. 2. That the Maker of the world is God; He is the Maker of all things; and whosoever is so must be God. 3. That He made the world with great exactness; it was a framed work, in every thing duly adapted and disposed to answer its end, and to express the perfections of the Creator. 4. That God made the world by His word; that is, by His essential wisdom and eternal Son, and by His active will, saying, Let it be done, and it was done. 5. That the world was thus framed out of nothing, out of no pre-existent matter, contrary to the received maxim, that out of nothing nothing can be made, which, though true of created power, can have no place with God, who can call things that are not as if they were, and command them into being. These things we understand by faith" (Matthew Henry).
"That the worlds were framed by the word of God." The word for "worlds" in the Greek signifies "ages," but by a metonymy it is here used of the universe. "The celestial world, with its inhabitants, the angels; the starry and ethereal worlds, with all that is in them, the sun, moon, stars, and fowls of the air; the terrestrial world, with all upon it, man, beasts etc.; and the watery world, the sea, and all that is therein" (John Gill). These "worlds were made at the beginning of mundane time and have continued throughout all ages. "The apostle accommodated his expression to the received opinion of the Jews, and their way of expressing themselves about the world. ‘Olam’ denotes the world as to the subsistence of it, and as to its duration" (John Owen). We do not, then, espouse Bullinger’s strange view of this verse.
The "worlds," or universe, were "framed," that is, were adjusted and disposed into a wise and beautiful order, by "the word of God." That expression is used in a threefold sense. First, there is the essential and personal Word, the eternal Son of God (John 1:1). Second, there is the written, ever-living Word, the Holy Scriptures (John 10:35). Third, there is the Word of Power or manifestation of the invincible will of God. It is the last-mentioned that is in view in Hebrews 11:3. The Greek for "word" is not "logos" (as in John 1:1), but "rhema" (as in Hebrews 1:3); "rhema" signifies a word spoken. The reference is to God’s imperial fiat. His effectual command, as throughout Genesis 1: "God said (the manifestation of His invincible will) let light be, and light was." "For He spake, and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast" (Ps. 33:9). An illustration of the Word of His Power (see Hebrews 1:3) is found in John 5:28, 29.
"So that things which are seen, were not made of things which do appear." There is some difficulty (in the Greek) in ascertaining the precise meaning of this phrase. Personally, we are inclined to regard it as referring back to Genesis 1:2. The verse before us concerns more directly the fashioning of the present heavens and earth, though that necessarily presupposes their original creation. The elements were submerged and darkness enshrouded them. The practical force of this verse to us is: our "faith" does not rest upon what "appears" outwardly, but is satisfied with the bare Word of God. Since God created the universe out of nothing, how easily can He preserve and sustain us when there is not anything (to our view) in sight! He who can call worlds into existence by the Word of His Power, can command supplies for the neediest of His creatures.