What is faith? No better answer is given in perhaps all the Bible than in the great eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. Here a tapestry is unfolded, depicting great examples of faith from the record of Old Testament heroes.
In great castles, dark tapestries hang on musty walls to portray the exploits of great knights and lords from long ago, preserving the virtues and valors that made the kingdom great. Hebrews 11 is no musty hallway! It is a spiritual walkway adorned by the weaving of God's living Word, depicting faith as the key virtue by which God has made His kingdom great. Hebrews 11 is often called the "Hall of Heroes." But the true hero of this chapter is God who gives faith to His own, by which the smallest of men and women have done great things in His strength.
Hebrews 11 shows that faith is so important because God's people are beset with weakness, poverty, and difficulty. This is why verse one tells us, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." The context for faith is a life in which things are hoped for but not yet seen or possessed. Faith grasps things that are promised by God but are so far unfulfilled in our experience. We hope for power in the midst of weakness; we hope for peace in the midst of conflict and for joy in the presence of sorrow. For all these reasons, God's people require faith to persevere in a difficult world.
What, then, is faith? Faith is believing God's Word in order to lay hold of things that are promised and make them real in our lives. Faith is the mode, or the manner by which we possess heavenly things on earth. The point is not that faith creates the things we hope for—this is the false teaching of many today who use this verse to ascribe creative power to our faith. Instead, faith receives from God the blessings He gives. God gives forgiveness, peace, and spiritual provision. He promises a "city with foundations," in which we will live forever (Heb. 11:10). Faith is the evidence of these things in our lives, the conviction that draws strength from them to follow God.
Any further questions we may have are answered not by reasoned argument but by the example of faith set by the godly people remembered in Hebrews 11. It might be better to say that faith is here personified through the record of the Old Testament. We start in Genesis at the creation itself: Faith looks at the data of creation and sees there really is a God (v. 3). Next come three pre-flood heroes, who together depict the pattern of any believer's life: By faith Abel came to God and was justified; by faith Enoch walked in fellowship with God, and by faith Noah served God through obedient works.
The largest section of Hebrews 11 is given to the patriarch Abraham. We are told of four things that Abraham did by faith: He obeyed God's call; he lived as a pilgrim in a strange land; in old age, he and Sarah gave birth to God's promised child; and by faith he offered up that son, Isaac, in obedience to God's command. That is quite a life, all by faith!
So on it goes. The tapestry of faith unveils generation after generation of God's faithful, from Moses and Joshua through the judges, to David and the prophets and even the Maccabbean heroes who came after the Old Testament. By faith, they conquered kingdoms, stopped the mouths of lions, and became mighty in war. They endured torture and stood firm in the face of death. Together they proved that by faith a believer has everything he or she needs to triumph against the world's worst opposition.
Hebrews 11 tells what God's people did by faith. The thing to notice about these heroes is not their personality traits, their training, or their upbringing. We are not told that Abraham was a resourceful kind of person or that his personality made him suited for disappointment. The only thing that made him different from others was his faith, and by his faith what a difference he made for the whole world. How did a man like Moses turn his back in the prime of his life on the pinnacle of worldly power and pleasure and riches? It wasn't because Moses was such a moral person. He did it by faith! Without faith, none of these heroes of Hebrews 11 would have lived for God in the ways they did. But by faith, they lived with a power the world knows nothing about and gained a salvation the world has ignored. Because of their faith, verse 16 says, "God is not ashamed to be called their God."
Faith can do great things in anyone's life. If you live by faith in God, no matter who you are and whatever else is true of you, you can make a difference for God's kingdom. What really matters is not your strengths or weaknesses, your training or lack thereof. By faith you can be a spiritual hero. Why? Is it because of some power inherent to faith, or because faith will unleash your hidden potential? Not at all. Faith can do great things through you, verse six tells us, because God "rewards those who seek him." Faith gains its power from its object, the saving God who gives grace to those who trust in Him.
If you look for these heroes of faith in the secular histories of the ancient world, you won't find them. Why is that? Because there is something faith will not do. Faith will not give you fame and fortune as the world reckons them. These heroes of faith were worldly nobodies, but they were great in God's sight. Their faith did not commend them to the world. Many of them were put to death because of their faith. As a rule, their faith earned them the world's contempt.
But look at verse 2: "For by it [faith] the people of old received their commendation." What commendation was that? By faith they were commended by God, and it doesn't get any better than that. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for," begins Hebrews 11. What better to hope for than commendation from God—not just to be forgiven and received by faith, essential as that is, but to really please God with your life. By faith you may be assured even of this.
What is it, then, that really matters in your life? Hebrews 11 says that what matters most about you, about every Christian, is your faith. Since that is true, nothing is more important than feeding and exercising and growing your faith. When you believe God's Word and trust His promises in the challenges of your own life, you enter into this tapestry in which faith's tale is still being told. By faith, you, just like Noah and Abraham and Moses, can do great things by God's power and for His glory.