The first verse of chapter eleven of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which will be heard this coming Sunday during the second reading at Mass, offers not so much a precise definition of the virtue of faith, but rather a broad description of what faith does. The current English translation of the author’s Greek terms reads, “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Scripture scholars have argued over the exact meaning of the sacred author’s original words. Some have thought that the text should read more precisely that faith is the substance or the basis that allows the believer’s hopes for the future to survive and continue. Faith, others assert, is the firm assurance that a Christian’s hopes will be fulfilled. One translator opted for faith as a “guarantee” about future hopes; another suggested that faith is a “title-deed” to a Christian’s future fulfillment. Generally all agree that faith persuades the disciple of the reality of what is not yet seen and then enables the believer to act upon it.
There are a number of Scriptural translations in general circulation that do their best to convey the meaning of the author’s important but somewhat abstract words. Considering these few texts might be enlightening. The Jerusalem Bible reads: Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at the present remain unseen.” The New English Bible states: “Faith gives substance to our hopes and makes us certain of realities we do not see.” J.B. Phillips offers these words, “Faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for; it means being certain of things we cannot see.” And Father Ronald Knox offers his own idiosyncratic assessment: “What is faith? It is that which gives substance to our hopes, which convinces us of things we cannot see.”
At the time that the Epistle to the Hebrews was being written, the Jewish Christian community had become discouraged with the high expectations that were demanded of them as believers. The author cites a certain coolness toward their Christian calling. These new Christians also found some uneasiness with their former co-religionists. Because times were challenging in this world, the early Church began to have doubts about God’s promises and mankind’s fulfillment in the next world. To this discouraged generation the author of Hebrews insisted that authentic Christian faith guaranteed that faithful believers would eventually attain the anticipated and assured possession of heavenly realities. He reminds them that faith gives assurance and conviction about things not yet present but still confidently awaited. God will indeed keep his promises but they will be kept in the future. Present distress must not diminish future expectations.
The author of Hebrews would continue in chapter eleven to outline how God had been true to his promises in the past. A detailed outline of Jewish history from Abraham through Moses and the prophets is presented as an assurance that God is faithful and a believer’s difficulties are never wasted. The perseverance to which the author exhorts the readers is shown forth also and pre-eminently in the earthly life of Jesus. Despite the afflictions of his ministry and the supreme trial of his suffering and death, Christ remained confident of the triumph that God would bring about through him. The difficulties of human life, whether among the ancient Jews or in the experience of Christ, have meaning when they are accepted as God’s discipline and when they do not diminish expectations of fulfillment to come. If Christians persevere in fidelity to the word they have believed, they will be assured of possessing forever the unshakable kingdom of God. Although early Christians did recognize this fundamental teaching, they grew weary of it and of its implications; they happily required the reflections offered in the Letter to the Hebrews to stimulate their faith.
The bold determination of Christ to persevere through the difficulties of his earthly life is highlighted in the letter to the Hebrews as a support to those early Christians who had become discouraged. Christ’s successes — his resurrection, ascension and return to the Father —are truly the foundation of the Christian faith. Christ’s fruitful ministry is indeed the substance, the assurance, the guarantee, the “title-deed,” that the individual believer’s life is not in vain, but will be fulfilled by God in the kingdom to come. Christ’s continued ministry in the heavenly sanctuary, his perpetual intercession there on their behalf, should also be an assurance to the weary believer. The thought of the promised Parousia, Christ’s Second Coming, should also be a great consolation. Thus the greatest assurance that the Christian faith is valid and effective comes from the facts of Jesus’ life, as lived out by him in actual history and as preached by the Church ever since.