BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: From past studies of Hebrews we may remember that this book is a late first century text, composed by an unidentified author, and is not really a “letter,” but more of an extended discourse. It relies heavily on the authority of scripture, as interpreted in the document, to demonstrate the surpassing excellence of Christ’s message and work. Jesus is better than an angel, better than the prophet Moses, better than an ordinary high priest. Jesus mediates a better covenant, is associated with a better temple, and – as we read in the text for this week – heralds life in a better country. [We have some struggle to keep from drawing anti-Judaic conclusions here.]
Because of this, it’s especially important not to fall away from the faith when suffering trials. This line of argument is what makes commentators think Hebrews may have been written to people who were suffering some form of persecution.
Our text comes at a late stage in the argument. The author will run through an honor roll of the Biblical faithful as examples to be emulated. All that will remain are some direct exhortations not to lose hope under trial or fall away from the faith, and then some more detailed practical moral instruction.
This text is one of the lectionary readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Regular churchgoers are likely to have heard it preached on in church some time.
CLOSER READING: There is some emphasis on the contrast between things visible with things invisible in this passage. What can be seen does not measure up to what cannot [yet] be seen. This contrast is reinforced by some stress on the condition of “sojourning,” living as “foreigners and sojourners” in someone else’s land. In this case, the sojourners are oriented towards something that cannot [yet] be seen – except by the eyes of faith.
Verse 1 is famous:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
The word translated as “assurance” is hypostasis, which in another context becomes a heavy theological word. [The Trinity is one ousia, three hypostases.]
We need to be careful about how we understand “faith” in this passage. The context here implies that faith entails experience, not simply mental assent. Faith behaves more like trust or confidence in a person than like affirmation of a proposition.
Then, in v3, this trust becomes more a matter of understanding how things are. What is visible is made from what is invisible.
We skip the discussion of the faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, and go straight to Abraham in v8. Abraham’s “obedience” is the same verb we encountered in Romans 10:16. Abraham does what many who hear the gospel do not, namely, pays close attention and acts on.
In v9, Abraham lives as a stranger in another’s country. He is awaiting “the city with foundations, whose architect and builder (demiurge) is God.” The “foundations” suggest the city can be more permanent, perhaps, than a city without foundations. The “foundations” word refers us back to the hypostasis in v1, as a hypostasis can mean exactly that: a foundation.
This image of the faith-filled sojourner, putting up with the condition of being a stranger in someone else’s land for the sake of something better up ahead, surely ought to give us pause.
V11 has been translated as being about Abraham, but other versions identify Sarah as the one who by faith is empowered to conceive. Either way, the outcome is progeny compared to the multitude of stars, or the uncountable grains of sand on “the lip of the sea,” in a lovely figure of speech.
In v13 being a stranger or sojourner becomes something to “confess” – again, as in Romans 10, a common speaking. That is, it becomes an acknowledgement of a status, based on knowledge of what is invisible. The confession of sojourner status is what makes visible the desire for a “fatherland.”
We might notice: the faithful individuals listed here all seem to have personal, experiential knowledge of God.
What it means to have faith here is to know that God is trustworthy. It is to know that something [or someone] unseen is the foundational source of what can be seen [at present], as well as the source of something even better than what can be seen, which is yet to be realized. It is to know this so as to act on it. One way into this text would probably be to think of examples of that kind of knowing in our own lives.
Image: Angels and Jesus Christ, Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos at Kondorpoga, 17-18 century icon painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons