Forbes magazine features the four hundred most wealthy families in America each year. Those who make “the top four hundred” constantly change, according to their abilities in making and investing money. Being listed in this group is a measure of very high ability in dealing with certain aspects of the created order. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is also a list of “the top people” over a long period of history, but it is very different from the Forbes group. For the people listed in Hebrews 11 have been assessed from God’s point of view, and their standing is in light of eternity, not the relentlessly changing measurements of our society’s economy and politics. If getting into Forbes represents major temporal success, those who by grace follow the principles of Hebrews 11 have been granted the highest eternal success, than which nothing could be more wonderful for any human life.
The most basic principle of this chapter is faith. Truly, as 1 John 5:4 says: “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” To make great money, one must overcome many things; to be in God’s gloriously and lastingly happy hall of heroes, one must overcome far more obstacles. To make it in one (the merely earthly) and not the other (the heavenly) constitutes a supreme tragedy, for as Jesus asked us: “What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36).
Faith then is the greatest factor in enabling human life to reach its divinely intended potential. While there are many definitions of faith in the Bible, the definition in Hebrews 11 emphasizes the fact that faith involves, above all else, living your life on the basis of things not seen. Worldly wisdom stresses prudent decisions on the basis of things you can now see (or in the case of the very best investors, things you can in some sense foresee shortly coming into marketing decisions). No doubt, there is a place for that, as we see in various texts of the book of Proverbs.
But, on the contrary, Hebrews 11 operates precisely on the foundation of things you do not see. And — if you want your life to count for eternity — there is an even greater place for that (as you will also find in the book of Proverbs, as well as here). To achieve the highest potential in any human life, God says: “Live on the basis of what you do not see.” Thus, faith means acting on the basis of what you cannot now see with the physical eye.
Noah could not see any rain, much less a flood, but God told him that a massive cataclysm of water was coming as a judgment on sinful humanity. Therefore, he was instructed to prepare an ark for his family and to preach to the public. Noah acted on the basis of God’s word, although it went against all of his visible experience up to that point. He “became heir of the righteousness which is by faith” by living his life on the foundation of things not seen.
Abraham was called from the familiar comforts of home to follow God to a country he had never seen, and “he went out, not knowing whither he went.” He deemed the promises of God to be more important than his own limited human experience. But his faith in the goodness and eternal trustworthiness of the promises of the invisible God was never more evident than when the Lord called on him to sacrifice Isaac, his long-awaited and beloved son of divine promise. Hebrews 11 tells us something that we do not find in the Genesis text about Abraham’s heart as he prepared to offer up Isaac on the altar. Abraham had faith in the resurrection (v. 19). No doubt, Abraham’s son was spared because in the fullness of time “God spared not his own Son” (Rom. 8:32). Faith in the God we do not see, even when it seems to take us through the breaking of every precious dream (that we do see), ultimately brings us through to resurrection glory (whether figuratively now, or literally hereafter). Then the best dreams really are fulfilled with exquisite pleasure in fellowship with God’s beloved Son!
Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph pronounced their last blessings upon their families in light of a glorious future they could not then see, but they knew it was real, and worth losing everything else for, because God was preparing it for those who trust in Him (see John 14:1–4).
By faith, Moses, Pharaoh’s adopted son and presumed heir to the world’s greatest throne, gave it all up in order to lead the suffering people of God out of slavery, simply because “he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (v. 27). The prostitute Rahab had enough faith in the unseen God of Israel to disdain the thick walls of Jericho and risk everything for Him. Hence, she became the ancestress of King David and of King Jesus!
The judges, prophets, and holy martyrs — without human weapons, and often against all worldly wisdom and even natural laws — “subdued kingdoms” and “obtained promises” (v. 33). It was because they were in touch — through faith —with the Creator and Ruler of heaven and earth, who is also in Christ the covenant Redeemer and “Captain of Salvation” for all who believe in Him. He has chosen to put forth His infinite power into this world through even the weak faith of very lowly persons, who nevertheless will “lift up their eyes unto the hills from whence cometh their help” (Ps. 121:1). The look of faith constitutes the only grounds of meaning in earthly life and eternal joy in the halls of heaven. With it, all is gained; without it, all is lost.