Hebrews 11 has been called the “Great Hall of Faith” chapter. It’s a chapter filled with the faith stories of the great Old Testament saints, which are intended by the writer of Hebrews to be teaching tools and examples for us for our own personal faith journeys. Hebrews 11:1 begins with what sounds like a definition of faith but is in fact a description of what faith does and how faith works. In describing faith as “the assurance of things hoped for,” it is not blind optimism with an “I hope so” or an “I hope things will work out” attitude. It is also not believing in something without any evidence—which is what we call superstition. Rather, it is believing and trusting in God’s word in spite of circumstances that would typically lead you to do otherwise. It is trusting that God’s word is true and that you can rest and trust in the consequences of your actions when you obey Him. Accepting Yeshua as your Lord, Savior, and Messiah will result in eternal life in His presence. God will keep all His promises as He truly is a promise keeper. The word translated “assurance” means literally “to stand under, or to support.” When a believer has faith, it is God’s way of giving him confidence and assurance that what is promised by God will be experienced. He can stand under it with the confident assurance that it won’t all collapse upon him.
Continuing to describe faith in 11:1, the writer of Hebrews adds “…the conviction of things not seen.” The Greek word ellegos can either be translated “conviction, evidence, or proof.” Either way, the thought is that the person of faith is living out that faith convinced that these unseen things are absolutely true. Those “things not seen,” already elaborated upon in Hebrews, would include the priestly ministry of Jesus, the full access to God and to His throne of grace, the full pardon of sin, and the full atonement through the death of Jesus. While the believer is unable to see these things, he nevertheless is convinced that they are indeed true. In 11:2, the writer states, “For by it, the men of old gained approval.” It is as if the writer is saying, just look through the examples of the Old Testament saints, which will be the remainder of the chapter, and see how they acted in history and how God approved of how their faith was lived out. They will ultimately be the “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in Hebrews 12:1.
Finally, Hebrews 11:3 says, “By faith, we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God.” The phrase “by faith” will be repeated many times throughout the chapter. Here, it is in relation to how creation is viewed and is a clear allusion to the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis. Since no man was present to observe the creation of the universe, it is only by faith that we can understand God created it by His word. The writer concludes the thought with the phrase “…so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” Theologians today use the phrase “Creation ex nihilo” when speaking about the universe being created out of nothing. That’s not what the writer is referring to, which is something that the Greek philosophers of his time would reject. Rather, he is saying that the universe did not originate from some sort of primal ooze or anything that is visible. Most people view faith as something that is always looking forward to the idea that one day we will all be with Jesus in eternity—and this is the basis of our Christian faith. But faith sometimes looks backward, and in this case at creation, believing that God exists even though no man has ever seen Him. What the writer of Hebrews is saying here is that creation itself bears witness to the existence of God.