“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
- Hebrews 11:1, KJV
Hebrews 11:1 is often taken as the biblical definition of faith. However, if we do not consider the context of this verse, it might lead us to an incorrect view of what faith is. One misunderstanding about faith is that it is an emotion or feeling that increases in us. It could even be described as an eager wish for something to happen or a strong belief that does not need any evidence. We can easily have this superficial understanding of faith if we do not examine the verses preceding Hebrews 11:1.
In the first part of Hebrews, the author laid out the theological arguments for the superiority of the Christian faith. In the second part, starting from 10:19, he builds upon this theological foundation, various issues of practical life with extended passages on faith and discipline. The context for understanding faith begins from 10:32, where the author of Hebrews calls upon his readers to remember their past experiences. When they first understood who Christ is, they remained faithful to Him even though it meant having to endure a hard struggle. They were able to do this because they knew there were better things waiting for them that will last forever (v. 34b). This confident trust in the Lord should not be abandoned, but a patient endurance is needed to continue to do God’s will (vv. 35-36).
This context of trust and perseverance leads to Hebrews 11:1. The author summarizes what he has just explained into a single statement. What were his readers hoping for in faith? They saw the same thing that God sees on the day of judgment. On that day, the righteous will be honored and rewarded, and the reprobate and corrupt will be exposed and punished (2 Cor. 5:10). They were living in the light and anticipation of the coming of this day. They had the assurance that this will happen because the promises of God are utterly dependable (vv.37-38).
In what way is faith the evidence of things not seen? His readers were able to endure persecution because they could perceive the world differently. They lived by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). God’s people are able to see and perceive His work in the world, while the rest of the world ignores or rejects it.
How then should we respond to this? As we struggle through the trials of this life, we need to focus our trust on God. We must remember that we trust Him because of who He is and not because of what we have done for Him (Heb. 6:17-18). In spite of the circumstances, we must remember His faithfulness to us in the past and perceive the spiritual realities that are revealed to us in His Word. It is through these conditions that biblical faith is truly exercised.
Dn. Mervin Lin