Chapter 11 is an exhortation. The writer of Hebrews exhorts these Jewish Christians to have faith and uses the example of faithful Old Testament people as an example to them. The section actually continues all the way through 12:13.
Christians often say they walk by faith rather than by sight. We believe in Jesus, whom we cannot see with our eyes. We believe in Heaven, which we will never see on this earth. In contrast, the Jew had things he could see. He had a temple. He had a synagogue. He had animal sacrifices. They were tempted to give up what they could not see (Jesus) for what they could see (Jewish ritual).
The writer of Hebrews sought to convince them that the Old Testament heroes of God lived by faith and their faith is what pleased God.Believing in God, Father and Son, whom they could not see, and believing in Heaven, was something the Old Testament heroes had done. Therefore, they should follow in the steps of these great men and women and live by faith.
The chapter starts with a prologue or introduction in the first three verses. Then it gives examples of faith. Then in 13-16 there is an interlude where he talks of believers as pilgrims looking forward to something better in the future. Then there are more examples. Finally, verses 32-40 are the conclusion.
Each example is begun by the words “by faith”. The writer does this to focus his readers on the importance of faith even in difficult circumstances, and to give overwhelming evidence that it has always been necessary to live by faith and not ritual.
The writer defines faith as a certain belief. He says it two ways: first, it is the assurance of things hoped for and second, it is the conviction of things not seen. Faith is not wishing the outcome will be good. It is a believing for certain that God has a future for us that is great.
For example, I heard a teenager at an church event once say something to the order of “you may as well believe. If you are right, it will be great. If you are not, you haven’t lost anything”. That is not Biblical faith. In his case it was hedging his bets. He thought if he said the right words, God would save him, if there is a God who saves. That, of course, is not the kind of faith God looks for. He wants the kind of faith that is absolutely certain that he exists and saves those who come to him through faith in Christ.
It has always been that way. Verse 2 says the people of old were commended for their faith. The were saved by faith, as we are, not by their ritual. The failures of Israel that resulted in punishment were failures of belief. They did not believe God would give them victory, so they shrunk back, they did not believe God would protect them and made treaties with other nations that displeased God, the did not believe God was the only god and worshipped idols.
But those who believed were saved. Their victories and deliverances occurred when they had faith.
To illustrate the requirement of faith, the writer points to the creation. We believe that God created the universe by his word, making something out of nothing. Creation was ex nihilo, Latin for “from nothing”. We were not there. We did not see it. But we believe it because God said it was so in his word.
Probably, none of these Jews doubted that God created the universe. They took that fact for granted. They were not there to see the act of creating but they saw the resulting creation and Scripture told them it came from God. So, the writer starts there, to show them they had faith in things not seen.
Examples of Faith
Abel, Adam’s son, had faith. (4) He was the second generation of humankind. But he was the first generation that did not see God personally. His parents, Adam and Eve, saw God face to face in the Garden of Eden. Their belief in God did not require faith. They had sight.
But He, Able, without seeing, believed God would honor the correct sacrifice, so he offered it. Because he believed, he offered the better sacrifice. By offering a blood sacrifice, he acknowledged his sin and believed God provided a way, through sacrifice, to obtain forgiveness. Cain, in contrast, sought to be accepted by his work. But faith, rather than works, leads to salvation.
Because he offered the better sacrifice, Able obtained righteousness. His brother killed him in jealousy, but he still speaks. He speaks because his story is recorded in Scripture (Genesis 4), commending him for having faith to please God. He is a living testimony to the fact that faith is credited to us as righteousness.
Enoch had faith to such an extent that God took him to himself without death.(Genesis 5:21-23) The Bible says Enoch “walked with God”. He had an intimate relationship with God. God commended his great faith by taking him without death.
Verse 6 is an interjection to drive home the point. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. This would jolt those who believed they could return to Judaism and please God with ritual. God told them this even in the Old Testament, of course. In Hosea 6:6, God said “for I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Empty ritual is not pleasing to God and never has been.
If you want to draw near to God, you must believe he exists and rewards those who seek him. That prayer you hear in movies “God, if you exist, do this for me” is not the prayer that pleases God.
James drove this home in another way. He told us to pray for wisdom. But he added this warning. He said “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:5-8)
Noah also had great faith. When God warned him the flood was coming, he believed God even though there was no evidence. There was no rain or flood when he began the ark. (Genesis 6) That is great faith.
Abraham was similar. God told him to leave his homeland and to to a place God would give him. (12) Abraham did not know where that would be. God directed him to Canaan. Even then, Abraham never possessed the land. He lived in tents among the Canaanites. He was an alien in the land God gave him. God’s promise was not fully realized for centuries.
How could Abraham do all that? He believed God for more than an earthly place to dwell. He looked beyond that to the heavenly city, where he would dwell in the presence of God forever. This city is designed and built by God.
Jesus also promised a heavenly dwelling to the disciples. In John 14:1-3, he said:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” So, we also need the faith of Abraham to look beyond our present circumstances to the dwelling place Jesus prepares for us.
Sarah (Abraham’s wife) did not believe. In fact, she laughed at Gods promise of a son. But Abraham believed and, through his faith, she received the ability to have a son. Sarah got to enjoy having a son. But Abraham not only had the joy of a son, but the joy of seeing his faith rewarded, and the favor of God.