Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. 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. (Hebrews 11:1-3, ESV)
The Hebrews congregation has been wrestling with leaving their current practice of Christianity for their former practice of Judaism and our author has been presenting them evidence that such a move is counter to the new realities about God’s bringing salvation history to a conclusion in Jesus Christ. Such a move is also therefore counter to the positive prospects of those who stay outside the pale of Christian faith. He has been sternly warning them of the consequences of not holding fast to their original confidence in the gospel. But he has also offered gentle and sincere encouragement to them of his confidence in their faith and in the evidence of their faith. This chapter also serves as a more gentle encouragement for them to stay true to the faith.
He begins what will be a “hall of faith” tour through kingdom history that highlights famous and not-so famous believers who stayed firm in their faith when they had as yet no physical realization of what God promised them. From that standpoint faith may be defined as the assurance and conviction that what God has promised He will deliver on. The promise of the New Covenant is that God’s perfect kingdom made up of God’s perfected saints will come and rule on earth forever. But as yet it has not materialized.
Does this mean we must believe in it despite the evidence? Of course not! We have been given lots of evidence that God’s kingdom is coming and so were the people our author will mention in his catalog of believers in this chapter. But as with any promise, though you have confidence in the promise-giver the fulfillment of the promise will take time and you must wait for it and continue believing it will come. And there might be times when you doubt its fulfillment.
Faith is that means by which we cling to God’s promise even when we can’t see its arrival yet. Just as the universe was made out of things that couldn’t be seen but came into existence by the word of God (“And God said, ‘Let there be…'”), so too God will speak one day and what we couldn’t see will become visible. In the meantime we can be like the ones he mentions in this chapter who were commended because they didn’t give up on God’s promise even though they couldn’t see it physically yet.
In a German prison camp in World War II, unbeknownst to the guards, the Americans built a makeshift radio. One day news came that the German high command had surrendered, ending the war—a fact that, because of a communications breakdown, the German guards did not yet know. As word spread, a loud celebration broke out.
For three days, the prisoners were hardly recognizable. They sang, waved at guards, laughed at the German shepherd dogs, and shared jokes over meals. On the fourth day, they awoke to find that all the Germans had fled, leaving the gates unlocked. The time of waiting had come to an end.
And here is the question I ask myself: As we Christians face contemporary crises, why do we respond with such fear and anxiety? Why don’t we, like the Allied prisoners, act on the Good News we say we believe? What is faith, after all, but believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse? (Phillip Yancey)