What Is Faith? – Hebrews 11

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Having excluded ourselves from our enemies, by arguing that we have a more illustrious faith than they, we now go on by using “definitions of faith” in Hebrews 11 to acquire greater position and goods in our personal lives. “Faith is the confident assurance that we have want we desire,” and without faith for the improvement of our personal lives, “we cannot please God.” This approach to Hebrews is using the book for something quite different than the author’s intention.

The discussion about faith in Hebrews is the opposite. It is about the followers of Jesus joining with the ones the society normally casts out and bringing each other in to an orbit of fellowship and mutual care. It’s about persevering with this selfless life, even in the face of persecution from those who forbid this counter cultural way.

The narrative of Hebrews traces the meaning of faith in this context. It is a re-creation context. Faith is the element we have that joins us with God and his purposes in transforming the creation through a new family culture that is contrary to the selfishness of the normal world.

Hebrews 11 begins by placing faith in the story of God’s creation. Faith joins us to a God who is creational, who loves this world, rather than to a personal escape to heaven. “By faith we understand the universe was made out of things that are not visible.” The relevance of this for the early church was God is bringing new creation through them, by things not seen, love and justice that conquers evil.

Cain introduced violence, which began to spread as a means of building cities. Abel overcame the violence in death, with an enduring witness of peace. It isn’t short term “victory” that matters in an eternal world. Enoch testifies to the resurrection, another clear encouragement to the early church of their victory in death.

“He who comes to God must believe he is and is the rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” The people the author was writing to must believe in God and the future he is building, by identifying with it through kindness to the weak, and thereby reap the rewards we receive, even now, in the transforming of our relationships.

Noah was a witness of the coming renewal of creation. The judgment coming upon Jerusalem in the days when the letter of Hebrews was written, would make way for a new creation, with the church becoming the new Noah filling the world. Faith meant resisting the self-centeredness of the world, and preparing for the new, in which goodness reigned.

Next, we have Abraham. He believed God for his son, who was the sign of a new family, a new people who would give hope to the world, bringing about a new community to restore the nations. To the readers of Hebrews, this family of Abraham meant themselves, the church, the heirs of Abraham’s promise, the ones “repairing the breach” in the brutal Roman world. This was their faith.

Abraham and his descendants lived in the land, but were not of the land, instead bringing the kingdom of God to transform pagan child sacrifice and destructive idolatry. Their faith was in a creational God, who called them to introduce a new culture that reflected God’s image. They looked for a heavenly city, meaning a heavenly rule in our hearts and communities here on earth. From Abraham came many children, an encouragement to the early church suffering persecution, concerning their great future in the world.

Abraham received Isaac back from the dead, at least in his estimation of what God was able to do. The testimony here is to resurrection, a foundational Hebrew belief, that speaks of God’s plan for a new world, to take away the fallenness and bitterness of tribal humanity. His faith in the resurrection is evidence that his faith coincided with God’s creational purposes.

Abraham’s descendants also lived as pilgrims or exiles in the land, meaning they looked for the land’s restoration, which the church was bringing about through their witness. Joseph wanted his bones to be carried out of Egypt, because he believed in the resurrection of the body. He believed God was going to overthrow the ways of Egypt and change the world.

All of these had faith about their communities, the world being changed, not a faith about seeking personal blessings. This individualised kind of faith was the faith of the pagans. God came to change the orientation of our faith.

The readers of the letter of Hebrews identified clearly with Moses. He refused the blessings of Egypt and chose to identify with the suffering. His concern for the slaves brought great fear to Egypt, about their economy. They were ruled by fear, which led them to brutalise others. The early church was to be led by faith, which treated people differently. Moses would pay dearly for this in persecution. Likewise, the early church could join God in the sufferings of Christ to renew community or join the empire, building on the blood and misfortune of others.

The Passover Hebrews 11 recalls shows the nature of the cross. God passes over the people, like a hen over its chicks, to protect them from the destroyer. He is not the destroyer. At the cross, God passed between us and the destroyer, the legalistic Pharisees who wanted to kill the woman caught in adultery, and he took their wrath in himself, and freed us. This was a substitutionary death, but not to protect us from God.

There are many more examples in Hebrews 11 of people who by faith chose to identify with God’s salvage program for the weak and not with the controlling forces of the land. They identified with the sufferings of Christ, as they saw them in the people of their time. They risked their lives to do this, seeing the true God by faith, the God who cares for others, community and creation, and testifies against greed.

The author lists many who saw God’s power, when no earthy power was on their side. This was an encouragement to the church the author of Hebrews was speaking to. There was a greater power than the powers they faced. They should not be intimidated by what is false and is passing away in time.

Many others perished in this life but were raised in resurrection with Christ. They demonstrated faith, in a world of corruption and injustice, a faith in a God who was building a new world. The victory of Old Testament believers in their sufferings was an encouragement to the early church to persevere.

And the oppressors that the people of Hebrews 11 witnessed against, were not just Egypt and the Canaanites, but the Hebrew kings as well. Their witness was not tribal. It didn’t favour their own people above others, but shone the light on all who sought their own dynasty, against God’s program, who failed to treat all people as made in God’s image.

The book of Revelation showed the distinction clearly. The Roman world and the world of the False Prophet of Jerusalem were the Beasts. They tore up humanity as prey between their teeth. On the other hand, the early church were described as a virgin following a harmless lamb. They were vulnerable to the beast, but they were partakers of a better future. Throughout Revelation, the number seven and the presence of the Spirit were used as symbols of the creation week. Just as in the of Abraham and Moses, God was bringing about a new creation, a new community that would renew their nations.

It’s the same for us today. Often the powers of this world are nationalism, or privatism, where we seek our own dynasty, or our futures and not the wellbeing of our neighbour. The faith of these people Hebrews 11 speaks of, was to work with God in bringing a sabbath, jubilee culture of care to the broken, to restore the neighbourliness that Egypt and the others had brutally taken away. This is what our privatism does today, even if we say we “live it by faith.” This is not the faith of the scripture. It is segregation from the suffering world, the segregation from the outcast that Moses and Christ refused.

And yet, we don’t receive the full promise now, not until the resurrection, when we receive it all together. So, lets live towards that now, with the eye of faith, on the kind of God he really is, the purpose for which he has chosen us, to love one another.

When we choose to stand together with others in need, we face walls of resistance from a world that profits from their exclusion. They are scapegoated, blamed as “criminals” and said to be responsible for their plight. These walls can even be literal. Christ was victimised because he pulled these walls down. Paul shared in his sufferings for doing the same. We too will face the walls of Jericho, attitudes, vilification for standing with “our enemies”. But God will bring those walls down to save those behind them he loves.