The so-called “Hall of Faith” initiates four consecutive weeks of epistolary readings from the Book of Hebrews. These texts preach well and rightly so. The “book” of Hebrews is itself a sermon and its author is regularly referred to as, “the Preacher.” Following the logic of the sermon will prove helpful to contemporary preachers.
The theme of justifying faith, of course, looms large in this text, but preachers should be mindful of how the text fortifies the Gospel lesson from Luke 12:22-34 (35-40), where our Lord Jesus encourages faith in God who cares for those, “who are of greater worth than many sparrows” (Luke 12:24). The Gospel possesses a double climax in verse 31 (“seek His kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well”) and 40 (“You also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”), in which being ready makes living by faith in the Son and, the earlier verse, shrugging off the cares of this world a fixed pursuit of the, “city whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Hebrews 11 and Luke 12 have as their antecedent lesson on faith Genesis 15:1-6: “And [Abram] believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” The Gospel of sola fide and justification by faith in the promise-making, promise-keeping God can and should be preached from each and all these texts.
The reading lends itself to the employment of several devices: chronological progression, the motif of journey, “walking” or, synonymously, living by faith, where faith takes on properties associated with “sight.” Using journey for the moment, all the Baptized are themselves on the journey of faith. This journey will take them all the way to the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem (which can be experienced in part now as the gathered church for the real voice and real presence of Jesus our King). The “Hall of Faith” and the great company which has gone ahead is the list of heroes and heroines of faith from the Old Testament Scriptures.
Verses 1-3 open with a description, not a definition of faith (πίστις). Faith, properly speaking, is far more multifaceted than the Preacher discloses here. But, again, he is preaching a sermon, not writing dogmatic theology. This working definition will do for the purposes he intends and so, he names those aspects of faith he purposes to encourage among his auditors/readers.
When the Preacher names faith as the, “assurance of things hoped for,” he is describing what faith possesses, namely, what God has promised for the future. Faith, for the intents of the Preacher, is defined in relation to hope. Faith as, “the assurance of things hoped for,” is not just inward confidence God’s plan will come to fruition, it is also an outward actuality moving the individual to engage the here and now with faithfulness.
So, while one part of the Preacher’s definition describes what faith has, another part describes what faith perceives. Thomas G. Long (in his commentary entitled Hebrews: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, published by WJK Books, 1997) explains: “The affirmation that faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen’ points to faith’s capacity to discern reality not visible to the naked eye.” St. Paul adds, “What can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is enteral… [so] we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 4:18; 5:7). Long continues, “To the eye of faith, the universe is not simply an aimless swirl of energy and matter but a creation, an expression of the love of God sustained by God’s hidden providence. As the Preacher says, ‘The worlds were preparedly the Word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible’ (Hebrews 11:3).”
The overarching point pertains directly to Christ. To base and entrust your life on what can be seen in this world is to commit oneself to unreality. The reality of things, indeed, the way, the truth and the life of the world is in what is not readily seen: Christ as Lord. What is real? Jesus, who is the world’s rightful and reigning King. But this reality is hidden from view and must be seen with the eyes of faith in the Word, in Holy Baptism, in Holy Communion, and in His Church.
Commentator John W. Kleinig (in his Hebrews Concordia Commentary: a Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture, published by Concordia Publishing House, 2017) does a great service drawing out the idea of faith as “sight.” The word “seeing” appears in 11:1, 3, 5, 7 and 13 with the negative adjective “unseen” elsewhere. “Perceiving” and the negated, “things that are invisible,” are juxtaposed in 11:3, while “showing” appears in 11:14. The repeated emphasis concerns running the race, faithfully and persistently, with their eyes fixed on Jesus to the very end, like Abraham and Moses, who saw the one and only living God who is otherwise unseen.
Kleinig again: “The whole of chapter 11 is a rhetorical tour de force, a masterpiece in persuasive speech. It appeals to the congregation imaginatively and emotionally. Its imaginative appeal stems from its vivid presentation of the story of God’s faithful people in the OT as the congregation’s own story, the story of its journey from Earth to Heaven, the story of its pilgrimage to the Enteral City of God (11:10, 16).”
The Preacher, then, having defined faith for his purposes in conjunction with “seeing,” starts to name those in the ancient tradition who exemplified such justifying faith; faith that was itself a gracious gift. He observes about these “elders” how it was by faith they, “received approval” (11:2). A more literal translation of this phrase, writes Long, “is that these exemplars of faith ‘received testimony.’ Who gave this testimony? God did. And in what court? The courtroom of Scripture.”
One final point. The nexus between faith and seeing bears on each person who has been baptized. Baptism itself is referred to in this same book of Hebrews as an “enlightening” which, along with the word “illumination,” was a favorite term of the Ancient Church for baptism. The Holy Spirit brings light, that is, He brings faith in Christ Jesus, enlightening the mind to the reality of our Lord’s rule and reign by way of the Cross and resurrection. To have faith is to believe—to see and so trust—God reigns on Earth, as He does in Heaven, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And further, this faith has hope His will shall in fact be completely done on Earth as it is in Heaven on the Last Day and to work toward that end even now by walking in faith, and not by worldly “sight.”
* From John W. Kleinig: Following vv.1-3 comes, “the long catalog of such people of faith. Surprisingly, that list does not begin with Adam but with the members of the congregation and their perception of God’s creation of the world by His Word (11:3)… The other noteworthy feature of the list in 11:3-31 is the varied comments that are attached to most of these exemplary acts of faith. They give the reason for an act (11:5b-6, 10, 13…), its purpose (11:14-16a), and the result of it (11:3b, 4c, 7b, 12, 16b).”
* It is interesting to note how the Preacher does not introduce the stories to his congregation. He assumes they already know them by way of catechetical formation. The people apparently read and study the Bible, they know the books of Moses and Joshua.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Hebrews 11:1-16.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Hebrews 11:1-16.