Hebrews 11 is often called the faith chapter. It tells us how various people responded in faith to what God said to them. But these stories are not told as historical trivia — they encourage us to have faith in our situations, too.
An introduction to faith
The epistle to the Hebrews has just told the readers that God wants his people to “live by faith” (10:38). He wants them to persevere, do the will of God and receive the blessing (verse 36). Christians are people “who believe and are saved” (verse 39, NIV 2011 edition used in Hebrews 11-13).
Chapter 11 then describes what faith is like: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11:1). Ancient orators sometimes gave a brief definition of a word they wanted to talk about. This is not a complete definition, but it highlights one characteristic of faith.
Commentators argue at length about the precise meaning of the Greek words used here: Is faith a feeling of being sure (as the NIV has it), or is it the “substance” (NKJ) of our hope? These debates often miss the point — the author is not trying to define faith, but to describe one of the results it has in our lives. His point is that faith means believing and acting on something we cannot see. This is the quality of faith that the author especially wants the readers to imitate.
“This is what the ancients were commended for” (verse 2). The element of faith is a thread that runs throughout the history of God’s people, and the author brings it down to the present day by adding, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (verse 3, referring to Gen. 1:3 and Ps. 33:6).
From the very beginning to the present moment, faith is needed. Creation itself shows that just because something can’t be seen, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. The author does not say that God made everything out of nothing — he only says that he made the visible out of the invisible; that is the contrast he wants to make. Our future is based not on what we see today, but based on something we do not see: God.
Abel and Enoch
With that brief introduction, the author starts to give examples: “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb. 11:4).
Genesis 4 actually tells us very little about Abel: He brought an offering, and God looked on him with favor (Gen. 4:4). It does not tell us why his offering was better than Cain’s (in ancient Israel, grain was just as legitimate an offering as a lamb was), and it says nothing about faith. Nevertheless, the author of Hebrews assumes that if God was pleased, then Abel must have had faith.
The next example is Enoch: “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God” (Heb. 11:5, quoting Gen. 5:24).
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2005 and updated in 2011. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
Again, Genesis says little about Enoch, but Jewish legends said that he was taken into heaven, and this is reflected in the author’s comments — that Enoch did not die. God took him because he “walked with God,” which our author takes as evidence that he had faith. We do not know exactly what he believed, or what he did.
The readers probably do not need any proof that Enoch had faith, because they already know that Enoch was one of the “good guys.” The author is not trying to argue his case with logic here — he is painting a picture, presenting faith not as a strange thing, but as normal for the people of God.
The readers already know that faith is good, but the author is using his skill as an orator to build positive emotions for faith, when the readers already face possibly unpleasant consequences for having faith in Jesus Christ. For Abel, faith meant an early death; for Enoch it meant the opposite. Either way, the people of God need faith.
After these two introductory examples, the author states the lesson he wants to highlight: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). In this little creed, the author reminds us that God rewards the faithful — those who seek him. Although we cannot see him, we have evidence that he exists. In addition to supernatural rewards, faith has natural rewards in the here and now: Faith feels better than fear.
The author emphasizes his point more by beginning each sentence with “by faith”: “By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith” (verse 7). For Noah, the author has more biblical information: God warned Noah about a flood, told him to build an ark, and Noah obeyed and saved himself and his family (Genesis 6-9).
Noah didn’t really condemn the world (God did that, based on their behavior), but his faithful example made it obvious how hopelessly evil the world had become — no one repented even after 120 years of warning. And by his faith Noah became an heir of righteousness — he is the first person in the Bible to be called righteous (Gen. 7:1). As it would later be said for Abraham, “His faith was counted as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). He was considered right with God because he was faithful.
The Greek word pistis can mean either faith or faithfulness, and many people have noticed that Hebrews often uses it in the sense of faithfulness, or obedience, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether the author is focusing on belief or behavior. (Although Paul occasionally uses the same word in the sense of faithfulness, he usually refers to belief.) Obedience is evidence of belief, and both are needed. Noah did what God told him to do because he trusted God — he believed that God would condemn the wicked and save Noah and his family if they built an ark.
Things to think about
- If we are certain that something will happen, but it doesn’t, is it still called faith? (verse 1)
- The universe is visible, but do we have visible evidence that it was created? That it was created by a command from God? (verse 3)
- How can Abel speak even when he is dead? (verse 4)
- Abel is dead, but Enoch did not experience death (verse 5). Why this difference, and where are they now?
- Is it really important for us to believe that God will reward us? (verse 6)
- In what way do people today “condemn the world” by having faith? (verse 7)