Key Verse 11:2
“This is what the ancients were commended for.”
This whole chapter is about faith. First let’s look at what the last thing the apostle said to these people. After warning them about giving up what they have in Christ and looking back to what they left behind, he tells them in 10:36 that they need to persevere so that when they had done the will of God, that is, when they had fulfilled their purpose in serving God in their lives, they will receive what was promised them. He then reminds them of the Lord’s return, and the Lord Jesus will surely return! The apostle then encouraged them to continue living by faith as the Lord says: “My righteous one will live by faith” (10:38) for God isn’t pleased with those who shrink back from faith. Finally he told them that we don’t belong to those who shrink back from faith, but to those who have faith and are saved on account of their faith.
So now he dedicates the whole chapter to describing what faith is and lists a cloud of witnesses (12:1) whose faith rocked the world and left a mark on heaven. The first thing he does is describe to us what faith is. Let’s read verse 1 in the different versions of the bible. The Old NIV says: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The new NIV says: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The ESV says: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And the KJV says: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” These basically all say the same thing in their description of faith, but we’ll consider KJV which says “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. For a better understanding however, the Darby translation of the Bible says it best. It says: “Now faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. Now the word substantiating is very interesting. What does substantiate mean? It basically means to establish something as true by proof or evidence. It also means to affirm as having substance, to give a body to or to strengthen something. You substantiate a truce between two warring factions. You substantiate an idea by giving it a body or substance, a working model of the idea. What then does all this have to do with faith?
The apostle says, “Now faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. He’s talking about the [substance or the] substantiation of faith. He’s talking about faith being the evidence or proof of existing truth. I see faith almost as the counterpart of the truth it actually represents. I see faith as an image of what is actually there but unseen. Let me give an example. In life we are constantly substantiating everything. For example our eyes substantiate colors and objects all the time. Our ears substantiate all kinds of sounds. Our taste buds substantiate flavors. Faith, in a sense, is the same thing in that it is seeing and hearing and tasting, substantiating in our own hearts and minds what is in God’s word and perhaps even in God’s kingdom. You and I can see it right there with the eyes of our hearts— with eyes of faith— as real as we can see these chairs and walls.
If someone is reading the Bible, I can hear and I believe what I’m hearing. I substantiate it. On the other hand, if someone is hard of hearing, he can see the person reading the Bible, but he can’t hear what is being said. He lacks substantiation. The words are there but he lacks the substantiation. I have the substance but he doesn’t have the power to substantiate it. As we said, all our organs are always doing the substantiating. A bad smell, a loud sound, a good taste etc. So is faith! faith is substantiating what is there! Faith is substantiating the very substance we hope for and the substance unseen. Most people lack the substantiating ability. They lack the faith. They lack what it takes to translate what God says and what they hear in the gospel through faith into something real and solid and true— something even though they don’t see is in fact real and there. As a result they doubt the reality of things that are actually there. A man or woman of faith knows that all the spiritual things promised are actually there. God has placed all things in his word so that we can see and hear and take a hold of them. But the problem is that most people’s taste buds are not functioning. They are walking around like the blind and the deaf. But if you have faith you will substantiate all God’s word which is already in the Bible and have fully been given to those who believe and have a conviction of the truth.
So what then is faith? Faith isn’t just believing that God exists. James tells us that this is basic, such that even demons believe and tremble. (James 2:19) Faith also isn’t just intellectually believing what the Bible says as if it were no more than a doctrine or a moral code to follow. Faith is actually reflecting what God’s word says as reality and having a conviction of its truth. So when Jesus tells us: “Have faith in God,” … “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.’” (Mark 11:22-26) When Jesus says this, he certainly wants us to go way beyond just believing in God superstitiously or out of sheer resignation. He wants us to have a faith to believe and to see the things unseen— the faith to substantiate them in words and actions. The problem is we need to do a lot of forgiving in our hearts. We need to have a heart purified from sin, and unbelief.
All of us are called to have faith and to live by faith. Read verses 1-3 again. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. 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.” These first three verses do not define faith as much as they describe it. They describe what faith is all about and how faith works. Let me remind you again that genuine biblical faith has nothing to do with optimism, the sort of “hope so” feeling most people associate with faith. We talked about substation. Genuine Biblical faith is confidence in and obedience to God’s living and active word in spite of circumstances, situations or even consequences. Let’s truly reflect on that last statement! Genuine Biblical faith is confidence in and obedience to God’s word in spite of circumstances, situations or even consequences. This kind of faith is actually very simple. God has spoken, he is speaking and we simply hear his word. We trust what he says. And then we act on what he says regardless of what the circumstances are, or what situation we’re in, or no matter what the consequences may be, even if they’re awful or unknown to us. Nevertheless, we obey his word all the same, and we trust him to do what is right and good in his wisdom. That’s faith.
The world apart from God (the unbelieving world) doesn’t understand genuine Biblical faith nor can it. And part of the reason is no doubt because it hardly witnesses genuine Biblical faith in action in church members. The world thinks that faith is unreasonable belief in the improbable or the impossible. That’s exactly contrary to what we know the Lord has said: “Is anything too hard for the Lord”? (Genesis 18:14) Or “For nothing is impossible with God”. (Luke 1:37) What the unbelieving world doesn’t understand is that faith is as good as its object of faith; and the object of our faith is God Almighty, the Lord Christ who redeemed us through his blood. Faith is certainly not some feeling that we conjure up to help us in times of need, or in life’s difficult times. Faith is our unreserved and complete response to what God has made known to us through his word.
Look at verses 1-3. The words that stand out (in different versions) are: substance, confidence, assurance, evidence, conviction. They’re the foundation of everything we stand on. To a true believer in Christ, faith is like the very foundation of a building or structure. It gives confidence and assurance and a deep conviction that he is standing on the very substance of truth, and what is absolutely real. That’s why the author says in verse 1 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (ESV) When you and I have faith, it is God’s grace and God’s way of giving you and me confidence and assurance that every word spoken by him is living and active and true to its very foundation. It is his way of giving you a conviction and evidence that you will surely experience what he promised. The presence of God-given faith in your heart is conviction enough that he keeps and will continue to keep his word. Faith is alive in you because the object of your faith is the Lord God himself who is living and faithful. God who created all things out of nothing, and brought this universe and life into being (3), is faithful. His handiwork in life and in the universe are obvious. He, who created all things including our lives, is the same God who speaks words and promises to us about our lives and future, about the world and the coming kingdom. Every word can be substantiated through our faith, and held on to most securely. That’s what the ancients were commended for as well!
There’s another word here in these verses that stands out. The word commended. He says in verse 2, “This is what the ancients were commended for”. The author uses the word “commended” three times in this chapter (2,4,39). These ancients include all the men and women listed in this chapter. They are the same people he later calls “The great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). They were all commended by God and became witnesses to us because God himself witnessed to them by commending them. God witnessed to them as they witnessed to God through their faith. They were commended for their faith in all the amazing and incredible things God acted in their lives and ministries in response to their faith. Faith is the best witness to God because it’s the very conviction and assurance that God is not only there, but working to fulfill his purpose through our lives and ministry. And God’s blessing and God’s amazing work in our lives is his best commendation that he is pleased with our faith as he uses it to his own glory. How beautiful is this faith: God witnessing to our faith, as we witness to his faithfulness.
In each of these men and women of faith’s life and ministry mentioned here in the rest of this chapter, God himself gave witness to their faith in remarkable ways. He commended them through the evidence of his work and blessing in their lives and ministries— some through triumph and victory and others through the suffering and hardship they endured. (32-38) God’s pleasure with us when we live by faith and act by faith doesn’t necessarily always reflected in ways we consider to be humanly favorable such as triumph or victory. They also come through ways we consider to be humanly unfavorable, such as hardship and defeat and suffering!
There are many heresies today who equate having faith with good health and prosperity and success. They consider the absence of these in one’s life and ministry as tantamount to a faulty insufficient faith, or even the lack of it. That’s pure rubbish and utterly unbiblical and heretical theology, and it has caused the destruction of many innocent and Biblically illiterate people. In this chapter the apostle lists those who experienced victory as well as those who experienced pain, suffering and persecution. They all pleased God and were commended for their remarkable faith. We must remember this because the times have come as Paul says: “When men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3) These times have already come upon us. As for us who hold to the true gospel teaching— all of it— we are commanded to “Teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine”. (Titus 2:1) God in his wisdom had chosen and commanded each of us to have faith and to display faith, to act on faith and to live by faith. That’s our mandate. That’s our witness. On the other to God in his sovereign wisdom, to him belongs the way he may wish to witness to us, in whatever kind of commendation he may choose, be it humanly pleasant or not. That’s God’s design and prerogative. That too is a faith decision and application on our part!
The apostle makes it very clear in this chapter that faith is not a theoretical nor abstract thing, but a very practical thing indeed, although the non believing world thinks otherwise. Faith is the very thing that lets us understand what God did, or does or even what God is about to do. Faith lets us see what others cannot see. Consider Noah’s story. Noah saw the flood coming with eyes of faith, as we too see the return of the Lord and the day of judgment with eyes if faith. Consequently, Faith lets us do what others cannot do. The world laughed and jeered at these people when they stepped out by faith and acted out their faith. But God was with them and enabled them to fulfill their God given purpose and to succeed in their mission for his own glory and honor. They each stand at the gates of heaven cheering us on through their faith and God’s faithfulness. So regardless of how many times we may stumble and fall, you and I can only get up by the grace of God and go forward! We have their witness. We have God’s assurance. And we have heaven’s cheer. Most of all, we have the Lord who loves us and intercedes for us at the throne of God. Amen.
Read verse 4. “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” You can read the background story in Genesis 4:1-10. The Lord Jesus spoke of Abel as a Righteous man because of his faith. (Matthew 23:35) God had certainly revealed to Adam and his descendants the way of true worship. Abel must have learned God’s instructions and obeyed God by faith. Cain, on the other hand, who was not a child of God but of the evil one (1 John 3:10-12), must have decided to worship God in his own way. We can say that Cain was religious but not righteous, for he did not have faith. And when in love God tried to counsel him, Cain’s jealousy, pride and rebellious nature caused him to kill his brother Abel. Abel’s faith cost him his life. The apostle here tells us that Abel’s faith still speaks to us today as the first martyr of the faith. We can say that Abel’s faith is a worshiping faith.
Read verse 5-6. “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. And 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.” According to Genesis 5:22, “Enoch walked with God” and he did so by faith. Faith grows when we walk with, or fellowship with him. But we must truly have the desire to please him and the sincerity of heart to seek him. We can do that in prayer and meditation on the word of God, in worship and in self discipline etc,. All these things are pleasing to God and help us in our walk with him. Enoch walked with God when the world was very wicked and perverted and had sunk to the depth of depravity. Before the flood came, he kept his life focused on the Lord, not following the world, nor walking in its ways. And one day, he was taken to heaven and wasn’t found because God took him. Abel died a terrible death at the hands of his own brother, but Enoch never died. Surely God has a different plan for those who trust him and walk with him in faith. We can say that Enoch’s faith was a walking with God faith.
Read verse 7. “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 comes by faith.” Noah’s faith involved his whole being completely. His mind was warned by God. His heart was moved with holy fear. His will acted on the words God had told him. No one at the time had known a flood, or even a rain storm. So Noah’s actions brought much attention but mostly ridicule from the people of his time. But his faith was a good influence on his whole family; it brought them salvation. At the same time, his faith condemned the world. How? By revealing the terrible wickedness and unbelief of a godless people living to please only themselves rather than God. What happened then showed that Noah was right. And our Lord Jesus used that same story to warn people to be ready for his return. Jesus didn’t say the world was in turmoil in Noah’s day. Here is what he said: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.’” (Matthew 24:36-42) Jesus warns that in Noah’s time, people were seemingly involved in innocent every day activities, while completely ignoring Noah’s preaching. We can say that Noah’s faith was an obedient working faith.
There are many ways for us to live by faith and to grow in faith. But the apostle encourages us to examine these people’s lives and walk with them in our earthly pilgrimage to his kingdom. Here we have a short but powerful summary of their lives of faith to reflect on, a thousand and one witnesses to behold, and countless examples to follow. In each example we find the same essentials of faith. 1. God spoke to them through his word. 2. Their inner person was moved and stirred in different ways. 3. They trusted and obeyed God and his word. 4. And God in every instance witnessed to them as they witnessed to him.