In the phrase "faith is the substance of things hoped for," Paul is not really defining what faith is, but rather he is showing what faith does in an operative sense: Faith undergirds what we hope for. Substance means "that which stands under." Faith is the foundation for what we hope, the foundation for our relationship with God and everything that it implies within His purpose. Faith is the very beginning of everything that really matters spiritually.
By saying that it is the "evidence" or "assurance" (the word can literally be translated "title deed," but "assurance" seems to be the best all-around word) of things hoped for, the author comes much closer to defining what faith is. In its simplest form, faith is merely belief. As our understanding becomes more complex and operative, when we begin to put faith to work, it becomes "confidence," and finally, in its best form, when it becomes fully operational, it is "trust." This trust, this full measure of faith, is alive and works within our relationship with God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
A Pre-Passover Look
Faith is the confidence we have in possessing the things we hope for because of the promises of God. Faithfulness is adhering unswervingly to God and His covenant. To be faithful we need to be loyal (steadfastly affectionate and allegiant to God), conscientious (scrupulous in doing God's will), dedicated (zealously devoted to God), and truthful (true to God's Word and standard of righteousness).
Martin G. Collins
A clear understanding of faith in Hebrews 11 largely depends on how we perceive the word "substance" in verse 1. In Greek, it is hypostasis, literally "a standing under." A more complex definition is "that which underlies what is apparent." Amplified a bit further, it is that which, though unseen, exists beneath what is visible. It, then, has the sense of a foundation. Even as the foundation of a building is unseen, but the building above ground is apparent, the foundation, the hypostasis, is nonetheless real, supporting the building. Hypostasis is the unseen support of what is standing in clear view.
Spiritually, then, invisible faith underlies, supports, and thus motivates the visible action. However, that does not end the discussion of how hypostasis is to be understood. Should it be understood subjectively or objectively? In other words, should we consider faith to be a quality, a virtue within us (that is, subjectively), or should we understand it as something not a part of us but on which we can rely (that is, objectively)? Neither of these usages is wrong, but one seems better than the other within the context of the entire book.
If the translators believed it should be understood subjectively, then the first phrase in Hebrews 11:1 will be translated similar to, "Faith is being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we do not see." Another subjective variation might be, "In faith, things hoped for become a reality." This emphasizes conviction, an internal certainty about what we believe.
If the translators believed it should be understood objectively, then the same phrase will be translated, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for" or "Faith is the title deed of things hoped for." This emphasizes something outside the person that he can rely upon.
This issue is not an easy matter. However, the subjective perspective, conviction within us, is better, given the tenor of the entire epistle.
Certainly, Paul spends a great deal of time reminding the Hebrews of how great what they believe in is—that things pertaining to Christ are far better than anything ever before offered to mankind. This by itself would require an objective point of view. However, the real problem was within these Hebrews' hearts. Paul was exhorting people who were letting the things of God slip away from them through personal neglect. It was not that they did not have something to believe in, for the epistle clearly states they had formerly done much better. Rather, through their lack of conviction, and thus their neglectful personal application, they were slip-sliding away. The real issue is subjective.
Several times, Paul urges them to recall former days and recapture the bold confidence they once had. Thus, though neither of these approaches is wrong, the subjective perspective is better, meaning Hebrews 11:1 is better translated, "Faith is being sure of what we hope for, certain of what we do not see." The believer is convinced that the things he cannot see regarding God are real, and so, from that perspective, he will act in fullness of hope.
Many claim to believe God, but what influence does this belief have on their behavior? If it wields little or no influence, they are unconvinced people, people without conviction who are seeking only an intellectual righteousness. Such belief is without certainty, and so it lackadaisically, gradually retreats instead of going forward in growth. These Hebrews had become this way under the pressure of time and trial.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Christian Fight (Part Three)
What is the "evidence of things not seen?" God's words. The rest of the chapter with its examples of faith illustrates that the faithful had only His words as evidence.
Faith—What Is It?
We can tell whether we have the right kind of faith. Hebrews 11:1 provides a definition: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Hupostasis, the word translated "substance," means "that which underlies the apparent; that which is the basis of something, hence, assurance, guarantee and confidence" (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, p. 1426). The English "substance" is built from a prefix and a root which together mean "that which stands under." Webster's defines it as "the real or essential part or element of anything; essence, reality, or basic matter." It is very similar in meaning to hupostasis.
Paul is saying that, for Christians, faith underlies what is seen externally in the conduct of their lives. Underlying a building is its foundation, and in most buildings, the foundation is rarely seen. If it is seen at all, usually only a small portion is visible, but it is there. If no foundation exists, the building soon becomes crooked and warped. In most cases, it will collapse and be completely unusable.
Since Paul says, "We walk by faith, not by sight," we understand that underlying the conduct of a Christian's life is not merely believing that God is, but a constant and abiding trust in Him. Since it is impossible for God to lie, we trust that what God has recorded for us to live by is absolute and must be obeyed, and that it will work in our lives regardless of what may be apparent to the senses.
How much of what we do is really motivated by an implicit trust in God's Word? This is how we can tell whether we are living by faith. We must be honest in our evaluation though. We find it very easy to shade the truth through self-deception. We justify disobedience by rationalizing around God's clear commands or examples, saying that our circumstance is special because . . . (fill in the blank).
John W. Ritenbaugh
Wandering the Wilderness in Faith
Understanding this verse is essential to deriving the most from this chapter. It establishes a good, practical definition of faith, but it is not the only one, since the Bible uses the term "faith" in several other ways. We have to be thinking as we read, or we may get an idea about faith other than the one God intends within a given context.
Galatians 1:23 uses "faith" in a somewhat different manner. "He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy." In context with "preaching," faith, as used in religious parlance, means "a confession," thus "a creed," "a body of religious beliefs," or "a statement of the principles of one's way of life." The New Testament often uses "faith" in this manner. Its usage in Jude 3 is similar but a bit clearer, as a body of beliefs to which we must cling steadfastly and apply to life's challenges.
In John 20:29, the apostle relates, "Jesus said to him, 'Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'" Here, with Jesus Christ as faith's object, believing indicates a personal trust or confidence in Him. Paul, in Romans 3:22, puts it in a different light: ". . . even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe." Here, in a legal context, it indicates a level of personal confidence or trust in what Christ did as a means of justification and therefore access to God.
Romans 10:17 imparts vital understanding on how faith in God becomes part of our thinking and conduct: "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." Faith becomes an element of our thinking by our hearing words that concern the objects of faith: our Father in heaven; His Son, Jesus Christ; and Their message, the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Interestingly, Paul emphasizes hearing rather then merely reading, though reading is included in the sense of hearing. Jesus declares in John 6:63, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life." Hearing—or more correctly, listening—is probably Jesus' most frequent and consistent exhortation during His ministry.
If we do not listen thoughtfully, we will not have faith in the right object. Regardless of the context, faith always contains a mixture of believing, knowing, understanding, trusting, and sometimes even bold conviction—all locked together and pointed toward a specific object. Within the Bible, that object is almost always either God, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, or a messenger sent by God, whether angel, prophet, or minister.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Christian Fight (Part Three)
Hebrews 11, popularly called "the Faith Chapter," contains the recitation of the names and deeds of several men and women of faith from creation to the time of Israel's entering of the Promised Land. In it, the author—most likely the apostle Paul—presents illustrations from the Old Testament to bear out his opening statement: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony" (Hebrews 11:1-2).
In the lives of individual after individual, he shows that their expressions of faith in God, despite the lack of material evidence, proved they were righteous (verse 4), pleased God (verse 5), and were heirs of righteousness (verse 7). The remarkable acts that they accomplished—from Abel's offering of an excellent sacrifice to Rahab's hiding of the Israelite spies—were done because, believing the Word of God, they envisioned a heavenly future that others could not see.
We see, then, that the heroes of faith not only lived righteous lives in the present, but also moved and acted with a steady eye on the future. Their faith had its foundation in the invisible God whose Word they obeyed, yet their foreknowledge of God's plan for mankind contained in the promises that God gave to them and to Israel also played a major role, one not nearly recognized enough among professing Christians. It was not just the promise of salvation or even of eternal life dangled before them that made them so unflinchingly faithful. It was also their steadfast hope of a better tomorrow in God's Kingdom.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
David the Prophet
In the second phrase, faith is what others see in the conduct of a faithful person's life. Evidence of the unseen things gives a person conviction.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Elements of Motivation (Part Two): Vision
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Hebrews 11:1:
1 Corinthians 13:13
2 Corinthians 5:7