by Shane Scott
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV). For the original recipients of the Book of Hebrews, there is something very specifically to be hoped for that faith assures – something specifically unseen for which faith provides conviction or “assurance” (NIV). That something is “what is promised” by God (Hebrews 10:36), the “great reward” that awaits those who live by faith (10:35-36), the eternal home that is a “better possession” than mere earthly goods (10:34).
But the Hebrew Christians did not see that reward at the moment. Instead, they saw suffering. This wasn’t the first time. Previously in their experience as Christians they had experienced verbal and physical afflictions – “joyfully,” in fact (10:34). But something was different this time around. They were sluggish (5:11), they were struggling (12:4, 12), and some had already started to abandon the gatherings of Christ’s people (10:25). Clearly, the author of this “word of exhortation” (13:22) is gravely concerned about the possibility of wholesale renunciation of the good confession, knowing the terrifying judgment that awaits the one who abandons faith in Christ (10:26-31). But he doesn’t intend for them to be among those who “shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (10:39). But what does that kind of faith look like?
That’s what Hebrews 11 is designed to explain. And what the writer says is that the faith that endures is one that trusts in the power of God’s word to keep His promises. And after all, what is a promise of God but an unseen reality? As you look at the list of people in Hebrews 11, there are several obvious instances of seeing the unseen, of seeing through the eye of faith. Noah was warned “concerning events as yet unseen” (11:7). Abraham was called to a place “not knowing where he was going” (11:8). Joseph spoke about the “exodus of the Israelites” hundreds of years before it happened (11:22). Moses’ parents “saw he was no ordinary child” (11:23, NIV). Moses was “looking to the reward” (11:26) and “endured as seeing him who is invisible” (11:27).
But as we wait for God’s promise, there is a price to be paid. And the question facing the Hebrew Christians was, “Is this price worth it?” Was it going to be worth it to face another round of slander and reproach? To be stigmatized as outsiders? To bear the brunt of another wave of violent persecution? To pay the ultimate price of death itself?
In this light, notice how many outsiders there are in Hebrews 11. Noah’s behavior was so non-conformist it “condemned the world” he lived in (11:7). Abraham and his family were “strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13). Joseph died in Egypt and requested to be buried back home (11:22). Moses rejected his Egyptian upbringing, “choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God” (11:25), an act the writer connects with the “reproach of Christ” (11:26). Even a Canaanite prostitute was led to become an outsider to her own people because of faith (11:31).
The choice to trust in God has always carried a price. The stigma, shame, and even violence threatening the Jewish Christians addressed in this letter were nothing new. But the legacy of faith provided by the stories in Hebrews 11 also reveals that God can overcome the obstacles that threaten His people, even the gravest threat of all, death. Righteous Abel still speaks through his faith “though he died” (11:4). Enoch “was taken up so that he should not see death” (11:5). Abraham was “as good as dead” (11:12), yet from him God produced innumerable descendants. Abraham reasoned that when God commanded him to offer Isaac He “was able even to raise him from the dead” (11:19). And as the list of the faithful reaches its crescendo, 11:35 says, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.” And if you ignore the chapter break, the greatest example of faithful endurance overcoming death is found in 12:2: “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Jesus endured on the basis of God’s promise to seat Him at His right hand, and Jesus was rewarded. The faith that the author of this letter called his readers to, and calls us to, is the same commitment to trust in God, to endure, knowing that we will receive what God has promised us. While discussing Abraham’s faith, the writer says this: “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (11:10). In 11:16, he calls it “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” And in 12:22-24, in one of the most majestic passages in the New Testament, he describes it in detail:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Do you see this “city that is to come” (13:14)? This is the object of hope that faith assures us exists; this is the unseen reality that faith convicts us is more real than any earthly city. And this is the city where those who suffer shame and reproach can dwell forever with the One who is “not ashamed to be called their God” (11:16), saved through the death of the One “not ashamed to call them brothers” (2:11).
Over the last couple of days I have visited two members of our congregation who are suffering from cancer and in very serious condition. Meanwhile, as many of you know, my wife is receiving chemotherapy for cancer. And a friend and brother just received news that his cancer has spread, and there is not much more that can be done for him medically. I really wish that none of these loved ones was suffering from this horrible disease. Just as I am sure the Hebrew Christians wished that they did not have to face whatever trials confronted them. But God’s word to His people in the first century and the 21st century is to trust Him, knowing that confidence in Him will have a “great reward” (10:35). And the greatest reward of all is God Himself.