Hebrews 11 is known as the faith chapter or “The Hall of Faith” and is a list of deeds done by Old Testament saints. Many of us privately define faith as the effort required to remain convinced of what is essentially unreal. However, this is not faith, nor is it spiritual; it is an attempt to manufacture feelings of certainty. Such “faith” does not build the house of God, it only builds a house of cards, something threatened by every wind of emotion or circumstance.
What, then, is faith? The translation of Hebrews 11:1 in my Greek dictionary is, “Now faith is the realization or reality of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.” This means faith is the same “stuff” as the unseen things for which we are hoping. When we believe, we get a piece of reality, not just a whiff of possibility. When we believe, spiritual things are made real, or are realized in us. This is why Hebrews 11 is full of things people did. Unseen things were being realized in them. More to the point, perhaps we could call these acts of faith the making flesh of what is unseen.
What, then, is the unseen reality made flesh in the deeds of the saints? The crucified Christ unlocks the unseen reality manifested in the faith of the saints. By grasping this reality, Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain because his offering was in the image of Christ’s offering to come. The ark built by Noah prefigured Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Peter 3:20, 21). When Joseph’s bones were taken from Egypt to the promised land, this also foreshadowed the resurrection. Similarly, by faith, Rahab marked her window with the scarlet thread, predicting the saving blood of Christ. This isn’t to say that each of these understood, with utter clarity, that the death of a Jew in the first century AD would be their salvation. What can be said is that these saints, by faith, touched something of spiritual reality in Christ and allowed their lives to be shaped by that reality.
We tend to see the scriptures as divided into different subjects or stories. When we read Hebrews 11 from this point of view, we walk away having little sense of what is spiritually real or what it means to live by faith. Our only sense may be of a multiplicity of promises. Why God spoke all these different things to people we don’t know. All we know is that God says different things to different people at different times (this is starting to sound like Hebrews 1:1!), and they believe Him. Yet, the scriptures don’t teach us to see the many promises of God as ends in themselves but as leading to Christ. “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20). God’s goal, then, in every promise, was/is to testify of His Son.
In sum, each act of faith in Hebrews 11 somehow embodies Christ’s death and resurrection. Chapter 12 begins with an image that perfectly encapsulates these things: we are running our own race of faith, joining with a great cloud of onlookers whose eyes are fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, the One crucified in the center of the coliseum of heaven and earth. The cheer of the crowd that urges us on is not “You can do it!” but, “He has done it!”