Although specific details of the first recipients of the epistle are not known, we do know some about those to whom Hebrews was written. They:
were an established church – “you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles” Heb. 5:12
had experienced previous persecution from the secular authority Heb. 10:32–34
were facing present persecution from religious institutions (Heb. 13:12, 13)
were probably in the middle of a transition in church leadership (Heb. 13:7, 17; cp. 2:3)
In essence this small group was a hurting congregation who had been rejected by society and other denominations, hassled, harassed, and overwhelmed, nearly out of confidence and at the end of their rope – the apostle believed it necessary to exhort them: don’t throw away your confidence, you need endurance (Heb. 10:35-36).
It would seem these Jewish Christians were living “under the circumstances” rather than living by faith – sights fixed on present conditions rather than future hope. They needed to be reminded that their heroes had endured a lot of nasty stuff and yet persevered, not because they were tougher but because they lived by faith.
What it does (10:37-39)
distinguishes just from unjust
1 John illustrated – I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
It is not in the character of the righteous person who is living by faith to cower (tail between the legs), to be timid about expressing his confidence in God. “We are not of those who shrink back” (v. 39) Nor is it in his character to avoid persecution and suffering; after all, we are to be Christ-like. He suffered and we should expect to be persecuted as well.
Mistreatment of God’s children won’t last forever; God will deal with his enemies and those of his people, but not yet (yet a little while, v. 37a). He will come, and when the time is right, he will not delay (v. 37b). Meanwhile, God’s people must live by faith – courageously, evangelistically, joyously, confidently.
Active, living faith possessed by the believer has outward evidence, identifying him as someone who conducts his affairs according to principles different from the world. Some days we do a better job of displaying our faith by our actions; as we mature and grow in our Christ-likeness, our character will more resemble the saints of the Bible who lived by faith.
What it is (11:1-2)
Theodore Beza (16th c) – “Faith substantiates or gives subsistence to our hopes, and demonstrates things not seen.”
the objective reality possessed by the Christian which guarantees the reality of what is hoped for; it enables him to treat that which is still future as though it were present.
the objective proof (by way of inner conviction) for the Christian that unseen future and spiritual things truly exist; it enables him to treat that which is invisible as though he could see it.
in summary, that which convinces the Christian that hope has substance, that unseen things are real.
It is real, saving faith – God commended those those who possessed it (v.2; see also v.4) – and it makes spiritual things real to us. It is faith which points us outside ourselves to Christ, our head, our brother, our substitute, our exalted King. Since Christ has taken possession of his inheritance and we are united with him, raised with him in his exaltation, we have true rights to our inheritance even though it is not yet in our possession (Eph. 1:15-23).
What we do presently possess is the down-payment or the engagement ring guaranteeing our future – the indwelling Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:14). We also are the recipients of God’s grace, our eventual glorification now in the bud, which will reach full flower at the consummation when soul and body are reunited in the presence of God.
Where we get it
It is impossible for any person to manufacture this kind of reality – it must have an outside source. Paul asks the rhetorical question in 1 Cor. 4:7 “What do you have that you did not receive?” The obvious answer is “NOTHING!” The author of Hebrews didn’t leave his readers to wonder where they might go to find the source of their faith – in the next chapter he says we are to look “to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2)
True, we have a responsibility to feed and nourish our faith – taking advantage of the means of grace. But the initial helping of faith comes from God – we are saved by grace through faith which is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). In our natural condition we are enemies of God (children of wrath, Eph. 2:3) and unable to understand spiritual things (The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned 1 Cor. 2:14).
The father of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9 learned another lesson about faith – it comes in different sizes. “I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) He also discovered that God puts his children in situations designed to grow their faith. They don’t have the needed resources so they have to trust him; God comes through, confirming that he is worthy of their trust, faith increases a size.
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
O for grace to trust Him more!
How it is evident (11:3ff)
The truth of God has been proclaimed for thousands of years every day of the week to all different sorts of people. It has been met with differing responses – skepticism, disbelief, full acceptance just as in Paul’s day (Acts 17:32-34). So what makes the difference? In a word, God. Remember the source of faith? It’s outside ourselves, a gift of God and not of our own doing.
The same faith which is the instrumental cause of our salvation is the faith which changes our way of thinking. It is by faith that we are able to grasp the full significance of biblical truths, of spiritual principles. The example the author provides for us is the nature of creation by divine fiat. Scholarly ability and biblical knowledge are not enough for a right understanding of Genesis 1 & 2. For example:
“The primeval history reflects a “prehistorical” or mythical view of the movement from creation to the return of chaos in a catastrophic flood and the new beginning afterwards… The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God’s dealings with the world…” New Oxford Annotated Bible, Introduction to Genesis
Those who have the kind of living working faith talked about in verses 1 & 2 “understand the creation of the world as to its truth, its season, its cause, its manner, and end [while] others do only think about it unsteadily and uncertainly”. Owen Puts the creation vs. evolution debate in a different light, doesn’t it? We can and should stand up for our belief in the Creation account (6 literal 24-hr days, ex nihilo, etc.); however, we must realize that logical arguments by themselves cannot persuade the one who does not possess saving faith.
Faith is not solely an intellectual exercise – mental assent to a particular set of truths or principles. True faith is evident in action – faith works. Remember what Paul said in 2 Cor. 5:7 “we walk by faith, not by sight”. We live, we act according to our faith – belief governs behavior.
What we believe informs our choices, our decisions.
If we believe God is sovereign over all things we will pray to him.
If we believe God means what he says we will obey him.
If we believe Christ loves the church sacrificially, we will do the same.
If we believe how we live in this life has consequences in the next, we will spend our time in some ways and not others.
If we believe Christ is the only way of salvation, we will speak of him to the lost.
If we believe God’s approval of us is of ultimate importance, we will not be swayed by the world’s opinion.
If we believe God is the greatest treasure, we will seek him above all else.
The rest of Chapter 11 provides example after example of well-known saints who lived out their faith, whose faith worked a difference in their lives and the lives of people around them. In each instance faith is accompanied by action, a living demonstration that their hopes had substance, that the things for which they looked were real. In each instance it was a life of faith that distinguished each of these saints from the world, even at the expense of their own lives.
May our prayer be like that of the demon-possessed boy’s father – “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! Lord, awaken our faith, increase our faith, strengthen our faith, that we may be people known for our living faith in God.”