Faith in the Past, Present and Future
What is the nature of faith? Is faith simply assenting to rational content? Or is faith an irrational leap into the dark? So often our understanding of the nature of faith swings widely between these two extremes; either faith is solely an assent to certain beliefs or it is ultimately devoid of intellectual content and consists exclusively of feelings of total dependence.
The author of Hebrews grounds faith in the “assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.”(1) The early Christians who received this letter were undergoing tremendous suffering and persecution, and the author reminds them that faith is assurance even in the midst of trouble.
The “assurance of things hoped for” is not merely wishful thinking about a yet to be determined future. Rather, it is a description of what true faith already has: the possession in the present of what God has promised for the future. In other words, faith is the response to the trustworthiness of God for what God has already promised and has brought to pass. So faith is confidence in God’s saving work done in the past, and hence a hopeful assurance that God will act in the future. To illustrate this point, the author recounts those who by faith believed God in the past in order to encourage the beleaguered recipients of this letter. Just like those who walked in faith before, we too may not see every promise fulfilled. The content of faith is in remembering God’s faithfulness in the past, so that we might trust in God’s goodness for our present, and in a future that is yet to come.
The writer of Hebrews even chose a particular word to illustrate this point. The Greek word that is used for “assurance” is hypostasis. This is the same word that is used to describe how Christ is the hypostasis, “the very being” of God. In the same way, faith is the “very being” of things hoped for; it is the reality that God’s promises will be fulfilled ultimately, and they are being fulfilled already, in the present time! While we often focus on the bad things that are happening around us, faith directs our gaze to see God’s work going forward in the midst of crisis and chaos.
Ultimately, the “assurance of things hoped for” is an assurance that comes in Jesus Christ. For Jesus is the promise fulfilled and the very substance of faith. It is to Jesus Christ and to him alone that the writer of Hebrews directs us as we look for the content of faith. We have faith because we look to Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We look to Jesus, who endured in faith on our behalf, so that we might not grow fainthearted.
Assurance doesn’t come in well-ordered circumstances or trouble-free living. Nor is assurance found in having a rational answer for every question. Assurance comes in relationship with a trustworthy God who fulfilled promises in the past and who will fulfill them in the future. Faith is grounded on God’s faithfulness demonstrated in Jesus Christ.
(1) Hebrews 11:1.