This passage of scripture from Hebrews 11 helps us understand why “faith that pleases God” matters. It also demonstrates how faith inspired various individuals in the story of ancient Israel, which in turn challenges us to discern how our faith inspires us to obey and serve God in the world in which we live.
What is faith?
We frequently use the word “faith” in religious discussions. We talk about the faith journey, having faith in God, faith in ourselves, and faith in others. There are times when we question our faith and discuss things such as lack of faith, doubt, and the necessity to see something to believe it instead of believing without seeing. Sometimes we attempt to define the word itself with other words like belief, loyalty, or allegiance.
In Hebrews 11:1, the writer says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I must confess that, whenever I see this verse, I have to read it several times and think about what the writer is actually saying.
Another way to say “the assurance of things hoped for” is to declare that faith is the reality of what we hope for. As we hope and trust and wish for certainty in our relationship with God and in this world in which we live, we understand that things may not turn out the way we want. But we have faith anyway. We express faith and trust that God will walk with us wherever we go and regardless of what we encounter.
When we try to make sense of “the conviction of things not seen,” we can say we don’t have to see everything with our own eyes to believe it exists. We may say that we have never actually seen God but we still believe in God’s existence. We believe that we can feel God’s presence around us and that we can experience God through our interaction with others.
We have faith that the divine causes certain things to occur, even though we can’t explain why or how. I can’t explain why I received the blessing of a chance encounter with the woman who is now my wife. But I know it wasn’t a coincidence. I believe that God had a hand in our meeting, even though I could not see God’s hand at work. I have faith that God is present in and works in our lives, even though we can’t always explain or see what’s going on.
In verses 1-2, the writer tells us what faith is and how persons in the history of ancient Israel demonstrated this faith.
The first literary aspect of Hebrews 11 becomes obvious when we notice how the writer arranged the contents of the chapter. Verses 4-31 provide examples of individuals who expressed their faith. Some biblical interpreters call this an “example list,” in which an author presents a notion or idea and then lists numerous persons to illustrate it. In verses 4-7, the writer uses examples from the stories in Genesis 1–11, such as Abel, Enoch, and Noah.
In verses 8-22, the writer looks to the patriarchal sagas in Genesis 12–50 to demonstrate how Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph lived by their faith. The next examples of faith in the listing include the parents of Moses and Moses himself in the book of Exodus. The writer rounds out his narrative by including the people who crossed over the Red Sea and Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho.
Notice how the writer names someone and then follows with a brief summary of how they expressed their faith. Noah built an ark because God warned him about the impending flood that was to destroy the earth. Abraham took his family and traveled to the land of Canaan, a great distance away, because God told him to.
The example list in Hebrews 11 solidified the writer’s intent to show how faith inspired these persons to obey God even though they did not know for certain if such actions would benefit them in the future.
Another literary device used by the writer of Hebrews 11 is to introduce each example with “by faith.” This phrase occurs 18 times in this chapter. By repeating it again and again, the writer inserts a certain cadence to the chapter. “By faith” “x” did “y.” By faith Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice. By faith Abraham obeyed God by going to an unknown place.
Each time the word “faith” is repeated, it drives home the notion that faith is important. Therefore, the repetition captures our attention. It also serves as a memory device reminding us to associate the notion of faith to this chapter.
Martin Luther King Jr. used this type of literary device in his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963. At its conclusion, King repeated the phrase “I have a dream” eight times. It captured the attention of those who heard it at that time, and it captures our attention 60 years later. It gave the speech a life of its own.
To underscore the faith of historical figures in the Church of the Brethren, we can follow the model of Hebrews 11 with an example list of our own: By faith Alexander Mack baptized seven adults in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany, on an early August morning in 1708. He did so, knowing that the consequences were risky and dangerous since the authorities at that time recognized only Christian traditions that practiced infant baptism.
By faith Brethren preacher John Naas was tortured because he refused to serve in the Prussian army, declaring that he already had a captain that he served, Jesus Christ. By faith Sarah Righter Major followed God’s call to preach years before it was acceptable for women to preach.
By faith John Kline, from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, traveled to both sides of the Civil War preaching peace, and was killed by his Virginia neighbors who labeled him a traitor. By faith Mattie Dolby became the first Black woman minister in the Church of the Brethren. By faith Dan West organized Brethren farmers to send heifers to people who needed a daily supply of milk.
What we do
Faith is not simply a belief—it often inspires action. According to the writer of Hebrews, Noah built an ark because his faith made him trust God’s warning that a flood, not yet on the horizon, was about to occur. Abraham obeyed God’s call to go to the “promised” land sight unseen. The example list of Old Testament historical figures in Hebrews 11 is not a list of people who simply believed in God, but people who did something pleasing to God because of their faith.
The phrase “by faith” assumes the person had faith in God. After the phrase, the writer of Hebrews added actions that illustrated the faith that the person exemplified. The aspect of faith that we find in verses 1-2 focuses on hope and things we cannot see. The examples of faith in verses 4-32 combine faith and action, thus showing that a person’s faith can often inspire what a person does.
May we, like this cloud of witnesses, be inspired to obey God and follow Jesus Christ in the things that we do.
David A. Leiter is a retired minister in the Church of the Brethren. He lives in Manheim, Pa.