Many today speak positively of faith, but what is faith? And what does it look like to live by faith? This passage shows us by beginning the author’s list of examples of those who lived by faith.


Hebrews 11:1-16

Hebrews 9-13 (WBC)William Lane

Hebrews: Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary, Thomas Schreiner

Hebrews, John Owen

Sermon Transcript

What is faith? The musician George Michael, later followed by the metal band Limp Bizkit, told us they’ve “gotta have faith”, but what is faith? If you were to take a poll of your neighbors and co-workers and ask them, “Do you think having faith is a good thing or a bad thing?” my guess is the percentage of people who would say it’s good to have faith, and perhaps even that you’ve gotta have faith, would be pretty high. But what is faith? As we turn to Hebrews 11 today, our passage begins with a summary statement: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For what things are you hoping today? Maybe you are hoping that your chronic pain will go away, that your sales numbers will increase next quarter, or that you’ll soon find your spouse. If you were to share those hopes with others, they might even tell you in response, “You’ve got to have faith! Believe that you’ll get better, believe that you’ll succeed, believe you’re going to meet the right person!” and if you were to actually do that, you might begin to feel an assurance of the things for which you are hoping. That’s faith, right?


In a sense, yes, but that’s not the kind of faith Hebrews 11 is about. We’re going to see through the examples that our author covers in this chapter that the faith he has in mind is not mere optimism about an unseen future that you desire. Rather, the faith our author has in mind is a well-grounded assurance that what God says is true, even when it is unseen. And that’s important, because in the final verse just before this chapter begins, he says that we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. The preservation of our souls, our final salvation, comes through faith. And yet, the kind of faith described here, that saving faith, is not actually easy to live by. It requires that you be convinced of things you cannot see. While it may often look to us like there are better ways to live than by faith in Christ, how can you keep going so that you will preserve your soul in the end? Walk by faith, not by sight, and this passage shows us four components of that, four objects of faith: Believe everything God says, believe that he rewards those who seek him, believe in the coming judgment, and believe in the coming city.


Believe everything God says


So our passage begins with verse 1, which I’ve already quoted. Some translations of Hebrews 11:1 actually say something like, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” meaning faith takes that future hope and brings its effects into the present, making it real to you now. Think about two salespeople, each doing the same job, day in and day out. One of them is pretty sure her sales numbers will never increase, while the other has assurance that they will. Wouldn’t you expect the former to go through her work with a sense of drudgery, while the latter is taking on every day with joy and expectation? This is why self-help literature in America has for decades now been promoting the “power of positive thinking” and a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset”. Faith assures you of something for which you are hoping, and thus brings that future hope into the present, even though you cannot see the future in the present. That’s what the second half of the definition captures. Faith is the conviction of things not seen. Faith means I am convinced of something that I cannot see, and obviously the future falls under that banner, though faith can also be exercised on unseen things in the present or the past. The opposite of walking by faith, then, is walking by sight, living only by what you can see.


Verse 3 of our passage starts us off with a fitting example: By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. None of us were there when the universe was created; we did not see it, nor can we see it today. Even if we had a video recording of it, we’d have to exercise faith that the person showing us the video is telling the truth when he says it is a recording of creation or the big bang or whatever else he might call it. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists all have this in common: None of us saw the creation. And yet by faith, as Christians, we understand that the universe was made by the word of God. And how do we understand that? It’s not because it makes us happier to think of it that way; you can find reasons to like or not like any creation account. On the one hand, it does seem like a happier thought to live in a purposeful universe than the purposeless universe of today’s popular Darwinian creation account, but on the other, my flesh doesn’t really like the idea that there is a God who made everything to whom I am therefore accountable, and that he therefore determines my purpose. So we do not understand that the universe was created by the word of God because we have surveyed all the possible creation myths and decided this one makes us happiest. We understand that the universe was created by the word of God because when we open our Bibles to Genesis chapter 1, we read that God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Then we read that God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters” and it was so. Then we read that God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered into one place” and it was so, and so on. Now among us we may disagree over how long those events took and over the details of how exactly all of it happened, but that everything that exists was created by the word of God is the plain teaching of Genesis 1 and the universal affirmation of Christians everywhere. God did not rearrange existing matter to make everything. Rather, he spoke, and all that exists came into being.


There are interesting arguments for the necessity of a creator. Thomas Aquinas popularized what is called the “cosmological argument”: Everything with a beginning must have a cause, and therefore there must be some first cause at the beginning that is itself without a beginning and therefore without a cause. Modern physics even lends support to this argument by positing that our universe does, in fact, have a beginning. But it’s not by these arguments ultimately that Christians believe the universe was created by the word of God. Even if you find those arguments persuasive, and there are good reasons to find them persuasive, you still can’t get past the fact that you simply did not see the creation with your own eyes. But for us as Christians we believe the universe was created by the word of God because God said so in Genesis 1. Why is there light? Because God said so. Why is there water? Because God said so. Why are there mountains? Because God said so. Again, plenty of fascinating and helpful scientific work can be done on how God’s word formed those things by way of secondary causes, but the ultimate explanation is still that God said so, and we believe that because God said so.


That’s the most general sense of biblical faith: Believing whatever God says. The idea that the universe was created by the word of God is not a promise about the future. Our assurance of it is not so much an assurance of something hoped for, because it already happened. But it is a conviction of something not seen. None of us saw God part the Red Sea, but we believe it happened, because God said so in the book of Exodus. None of us saw Jesus rise from the dead, but we believe it happened, because God said so in multiple places in the New Testament. If you want an even simpler depiction of walking by faith and not by sight, we could put it like this: “God said it, so I believe it.”


Are there things the Bible clearly teaches that you still refuse to believe? It’s understandable that from time to time, you will have questions or doubts about what the Bible really teaches. Maybe you don’t believe in the doctrine of unconditional election because you are not sure whether the Bible really teaches it. Ok, fair enough, but the work to do next, then, is to examine the scriptures to see what they really teach. The fact is, while there are some parts and doctrines that are harder to understand, the main message of the Bible is fairly clear, and once you do know what it says, faith is the conviction that what it says is true, even though it often speaks of things not seen. “I know the Bible says it, but I’m not sure I believe it” is the opposite of faith. You may struggle with what the Bible says, you may confess not liking it or being uncomfortable with it, but to disbelieve what God has said is to disbelieve God himself, and that is not something God will commend. And why would you do that? Do you think God is lying, or that what he says is somehow not good? The true God is true and good! Everything he has said is true, and good. To walk by faith and not by sight is to believe everything God says. And next we see that it is to believe that he rewards those who seek him.


Believe that he rewards those who seek him


In verse 2 our author said that by this faith the people of old received their commendation. In verse 3, he took us all the way back to Genesis 1 and said that by faith we believe the universe was created by the word of God. What he’s going to do through the rest of the chapter is walk through the biblical history and just point out examples along the way of those who were commended by God for their faith. The first one to which he points is from Genesis 4, and his name is Abel. He says in verse 4 that by faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, and we know that Abel was commended because Genesis 4 tells us the LORD accepted his offering, but not Cain’s. Though Cain made an offering from the fruit of the ground, Abel offered to God the best of his flock, including the fat portions. What did the fact that he did that demonstrate? It demonstrated his faith, not so much that the universe was made by the word of God, but that God exists and rewards those who seek him, as verse 6 puts it. Indeed, his reward remains in a sense, in that though dead, the record of his faith continues to be retold not only in the time this letter was written, but 2000 years later as we continue to talk about it today.


Before I get into verse 6 though, let’s just note verse 5. Here our author mentions Enoch, a character we don’t know too much about, except that in Genesis 5:24 we read that he walked with God, which the Greek translation of the Old Testament translated by saying he pleased God, and then he was not, for the LORD took him. He is one of the only examples in the Bible of someone who God spared from death by taking them directly to heaven; that’s quite the reward. And why would God do that in Enoch’s case? Our author concludes that it must have been by his faith, because, now into verse 6, without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would please him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.


Why would Abel offer to God his best animal, including his best portions? I mean, he could have butchered it and eaten it himself or he could have used it to feed the poor. It’s not like God needs to eat; why offer it to God? Because he believes that God actually exists, AND that he rewards those who seek him, even though he could not see God, nor could he see the future reward in the present. But it was a well-grounded assurance, a well-grounded conviction, because though dead, his reward lives on as he still speaks. In Enoch’s case, his reward was to be spared even from death itself. In other words, these brothers were right to believe that God exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. We’re not always right to believe that we’ll get the promotion, but those who believe God exists and he rewards those who seek him will be rewarded by him.


Again, there are plenty of good arguments for the existence of God, but ultimately, we believe God exists by faith. We cannot see him, but we believe there is a real, invisible, spiritual, all powerful, present everywhere, all knowing, eternal, unchangeable, holy, wise, just, loving, good being who made everything else and who presently rules over everything else. And, we believe he rewards those who seek him. Here’s how he says it in Proverbs 8:17 – “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.” Here’s how Jesus said it in Matthew 7:7-11 – “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!


If you seek God, I can’t tell you down to the details how that will change your life. But I can tell you this: That’s a good path to be on. That path ends well. He exists, and he rewards those who seek him. For much of my life I was hesitant to seek the real God. I believed that he existed, but I thought that if I really sought him, that would mean I’d have to give up a lot of the stuff I liked and do stuff I was not excited about doing. So I lived with a kind of domesticated version of him that I had engineered to fit into my life. And I still face the temptation to do that to him, to not draw too near to him, to not dig too deep into what’s true of him and what he wants from me, because the unbelief that remains in me still thinks that may not end well for me. Are you doing that to God today? If so, repent, and seek him. To really do that won’t just cost you the things you like; it will cost you everything. Jesus was clear: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it,” and listen, here’s the reward: “but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).


My former self was right: Seeking the real God costs everything, but the benefit far outweighs the cost. One time Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, said this to him: “See, we have left everything and followed you” and do you know what Jesus said in response? “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28-30). Again, none of us know what that will specifically look like in your life, but you can know this, though you can’t see it: He exists, and he rewards those who seek him. Abel and Enoch are not in heaven saying, “yeah this eternal reward beyond death is great and all, but I could have kept that animal and even eaten the fat! What a bummer” and no one who leaves everything to gain Christ will end up feeling that way. Seek the real God, and believe by faith that will end well. Then believe also in the coming judgment.


Believe in the coming judgment


We see the coming judgment in the case of Noah, whose story is briefly summarized in verse 7. There we read that Noah was warned by God concerning events as yet unseen. To all appearances in Noah’s day, every day was continuing just like the last. But then God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them…Make yourself an ark” (Gen 6:13-14). What? Really?! And then God gave Noah the dimensions of the ark and it turns out he wasn’t just talking about a little life raft. That jawn was supposed to be about 500 feet long. That’s like, a football field and a half. In the ancient world, that’s an incredibly expensive and time-consuming project to undertake. Nonetheless, he does it. Why? Because he believed in the coming judgment, and he wanted to save his household from it, so in reverent fear he constructed the ark. And what do you know? God rewarded this one who sought him by saving him and his household. He was declared righteous by God and rewarded, not so much for what he did in building the ark, but because that action revealed his faith. The action demonstrated that he believed what God told him concerning events as yet unseen. That’s what our actions or works do. They demonstrate the reality, or lack thereof, of our faith. Righteousness, God’s declaration of righteousness, comes by faith alone, but that faith will never remain alone in those who are declared righteous; it will produce the actions commensurate with it, as was the case in Noah. So we see at the end of verse 7 that he became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.


Do you believe what God says about a coming judgment? Hebrews 9:27 tells us that it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. Hebrews 10:25 told us to encourage one another all the more as you see the day drawing near. 2 Peter 3:7 even says that one of the things we learn from the flood that God sent on the earth in Noah’s day is that “the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7). To walk by faith rather than sight in this life means being able to look at what you can see in this world and to recognize that it is all destined for destruction. Do you think about that regularly?


When my wife and I have home repair issues that tend to stress us out, we try to remind one another: “You know, one day this whole house is coming down.” None of our home repairs will make our house our eternal home. Even scientists recognize that this planet is heading for destruction. So don’t get too impressed by this world and the things in it. An abundance of possessions, a big 401(k), fame and honor, even obedient children and good health…none of it will last. And compared to eternity, the day of its destruction is drawing very near, and our lives in this presently seen world are very short. Everyone must face that reality, but the unique offer of the Christian gospel is a way of salvation from the destruction to come. God did not just tell Noah that judgment was coming; he told Noah to build the ark for the saving of his household, and because Noah believed in the coming judgment, he did it, and was saved. We too have hope in the face of the coming judgment, because we have hope of a coming city. Let’s turn to the story of Abraham, the longest story in this passage, to see that.


Believe in the coming city


In verse 8 we read that by faith Abraham obeyed. There again you can see the relationship between faith and works in the Bible. Abraham obeyed God, that’s the work, but he did so by faith. If he had done the same basic activity of going out to a place he was going to receive, but for some other reason: Maybe he perceived the food there was better, that would not have pleased God. Rather, his obedience sprung from his faith; he trusted God’s promise of an inheritance, and therefore he left his home land and his people, all that he knew, to go out to a place that he did not know, simply trusting that God would give him an inheritance, because that’s what God promised. So notice again in each of these cases that we do not have faith as some vague optimism about the future. Faith is not a blank check that we fill in with our dreams. In each case, we have a believing trust in something God said: We understand that the universe was created by the word of God, that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him, that judgment is coming, that God will give Abraham a land as an inheritance, though he went out not knowing where it was.


And again, if you walk by faith in what God says, it is hard to know the details of what that will mean for your life. You go out not knowing where you are going. But you can know where you will end. In verses 9-10 we read that Abraham went to live in the land of promise in tents with his children who were heirs of the same promise. Eventually God did tell him where the land was, and he went to live in it. But the whole time he was there, he never actually got to possess any of it besides a plot of land in which to be buried. He was buried in it, but he never lived in the land as his own possession. So why’d he keep doing it? Verse 10: He was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. He saw that even the promise of land on earth was not ultimately about the land on earth, but another city, whose designer and builder is God.


And, in fact, verse 13 even says that these all, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his wife Sarah, these all died still believing, even though when they died, they had not received the promised land as their inheritance! Why did they die still believing? Why did they die in faith? I mean, if someone promised to give you a plot of land, and a decade went by, at the end of which you still did not possess that land, wouldn’t you start to get skeptical? Now imagine you get all the way to your deathbed, your life is literally about to be over, and the land is still not in your possession. Wouldn’t you be tempted at least to say, “Man; I can’t believe I wasted my life trusting that promise. It clearly didn’t come true.” But Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob did not do that. These all died still believing, though they had not yet received the things promised. Why?


Because verse 13 tells us they did see them and greet them from afar. That’s interesting, right? Faith is the conviction of things not seen, but here we read that they did see the things promised, not because they saw the land, though they did, but because they saw through the land, with the eyes of faith, to a better city, whose maker and builder is God, and though they died not having yet entered that city, they died with the hope of it firmly fixed in their minds. When they lived on earth, they acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles in it. When they dwelt in tents in the land God promised to give to them, they didn’t go to the residents and say, “You know this land is really ours, right?” Instead, they lived as strangers and exiles because they were seeking a better homeland. And we know they were looking for a homeland beyond earth, because, verse 15, if they had simply been looking to make a home for themselves on earth, they could have just gone back to the land from which they came. But, verse 16: as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one, and therefore they too became heirs of the righteousness that is by faith. God commended them by in successive generations even identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and preparing for them a city.


Abel’s faith lives on. Enoch did not see death. Noah was saved through the flood. God has prepared a city for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob. Faith is the well-grounded assurance of things hoped for, the well-grounded conviction of things not seen, and we too must now walk by it, for we too are strangers and exiles on the earth, but God has prepared for us a city. How might your life be different if you did not believe that? There are many ways to walk by sight, and not by faith. If you did not believe in the coming city, if you did not believe you were a stranger and exile on the earth, but rather that this earth was your only shot at a home, how would you live? The Hebrews were facing that temptation. Since following Christ, they had endured suffering. In chapter 10, which we looked at last week, we saw that they were exposed to public reproach and affliction, some were imprisoned, and others had their property plundered. If this life is all you’ve got, why spend it like that? So some of them were tempted to return to the Judaism out of which they were converted. That was an accepted religion in their day, one with which not everyone agreed, but the Roman Empire at least allowed it, and their families always envisioned them being part of it. But now they found themselves publicly reproached, afflicted, imprisoned, bereft of their property, exiled from their families and native communities, and all for what? A city they can’t even see? A city they may even die without seeing? Without faith, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to just be nice Jews, like their parents before them?


So I ask again, how would your life be different if you did not believe in this coming city? If the answer is that it would be no different, might it be the case that you actually do not believe in this coming city? But many of you do, and your lives would be different if you didn’t. Maybe you would give far more time to your career than you currently do; I mean, think of how much time you’d get back if you stopped going to church, stopped going to Citygroup, stopped spending time with people from church to develop deeper relationships with them, stopped reading your Bible, stopped praying, and stopped volunteering at the rescue mission. Or maybe you would spend your money far more lavishly: Think about how much house you could get if you weren’t giving your money away to fund the expenses of your church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel to all nations.


Or maybe you wouldn’t chase the prestigious career or the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Maybe you’d just aim at a low-stress, predictable life. Get up a half hour or so before you have to log on to work for the day, run through the shower, get a quick breakfast. Keep your head down at work, do what you have to do, then log off, have dinner with the family, clean the dishes, pay your bills, watch a TV show or two, call it a night, and do it again tomorrow. No need to lose sleep to make time for prayer, no need to stress about the ethical dilemmas following Christ and trying to keep your job present, no need to exert energy fighting your own sin, no need to have that really uncomfortable, scary conversation with that fellow church member to confront them about their sin, no need to figure out how to really love people who are really different from you, no need to worry about the eternal condition of your neighbors, no need to live on a tight budget because you’re giving so much of your money away, no need to ever do anything that risks you or your family’s personal safety, no need to ever face public reproach or affliction, no need to face prison, and so on. I mean, if all you are trying to do is make a home for yourself on earth, that sounds like a pretty good way to do it: live a predictable, low-stress life.


And yet I see so many of you in this room not living like that. I see you giving generously, waking up early to pray, working through uncomfortable conversations toward reconciliation with people you could easily choose to ignore, confronting sin and false teaching rather than just affirming it to keep the peace while at the same time seeking to love and show mercy to those who would ridicule you, choosing to live in a city in which the houses are smaller and more expensive, the crime is higher, and the schools are worse than they are elsewhere, trying to figure out how to lovingly share the gospel with people who don’t yet know Christ, not just giving the materially poor a handout but welcoming them into your home and life, and even considering learning a language and moving to another part of the world with far fewer material comforts than America to share the gospel with people who have never heard it. I mean, that’s crazy…unless this present world is destined to perish anyway, and God has prepared for us a city to come. Why do you live that way? Because you have an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. Though visibly that life looks crazy, there is something invisible and real that makes total sense of that life: God has prepared for us a city.


And we know that because though these all died in faith, not having received the things promised, we know the one who died, rose again, and entered that city that is to come. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, and when he became man, those who saw him, saw God (John 14:9). He is the Word through whom all things were made, and when he became man, that Word became flesh and dwelt among us. As a human, he was the only human who lived a life entirely pleasing to God, and yet God did not take him up so that he would not see death. Instead, he went through the coming judgment on our behalf when he died on the cross, suffering under the wrath of God for our sins, and three days later he rose again, the first recipient of that heavenly inheritance of eternal life, in a human body, and then 40 days later he ascended into the heavenly city, where he has gone now to prepare a place for all who draw near to God through him. Make no mistake about it: The God who made everything by his word exists, and he rewards those who seek him. And by the same word by which he made everything, God promises that a day is coming when he will destroy everything you now see in judgment, will bring the city you do not now see to earth, and only those who turn from their sins, only those who turn from this world to seek the city that is to come through faith alone in Christ alone will be commended by him in that day, and will be granted entry into that heavenly city. So in this life, walk by faith, not by sight. If the Lord gives you another 10, 20, 30, 80 years from today, and still you have not yet received the things promised, and still it’s stressful, and still there is public reproach and affliction, and still there is imprisonment and the plundering of your property, walk by faith, and not by sight. Believe everything God says, believe he rewards those who seek him, believe in the coming judgment, and believe in the coming city.