One of the themes of Hebrews 11 is “witness”; faith is the witness of the unseen, and faith produces witness to others. The former is found in Hebrews 11:1:
“Now faith is the substance [assurance] of things hoped for [expected], the evidence [conviction] of things not seen.” (NASB – note that in keeping with the NASB’s practice that the first “things” is italicized indicating it is supplied in order to help with the translation from Greek).
There is a correspondence between faith and the unseen; faith perceives the unseen and it acts accordingly. The witness of the men and women of faith in Hebrews 11 is that of lives lived not based on the perception of natural eyes and natural understanding, but rather lives lived based on supernatural perception and supernatural understanding.
Noah is warned by God about “things not yet seen” (v.7). Moses endures “as seeing Him who is unseen” (v.27). The very idea of approaching God involves believing that He is; believing that the One who is invisible exists, believing that He is; and not only that He is, but that He will respond to us in our coming to Him (v.6).
In the early verses of this chapter we see that the “elders”, those who lived long ago, “gained witness”. Able obtained “the witness that he was righteous” and God “witnessed to Able’s faith”. Enoch “obtain the witness that…he was pleasing to God”. While English translations tend to use different English words in these verses, the Greek root word is the same and so I think this is an instance in which translators would do better to use one English word in order to maintain the emphasis found in Greek.
When we live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) we live lives of witness; we can talk about what we believe but if we do not live in correspondence with the invisible God and His invisible realities then our speech is empty. Belief is not simply intellectual assent, as it has been made out to be by well-meaning Christians; belief is not simply verbally agreeing with statements of faith – with “propositional truth” – Biblical belief, Biblical faith, is living life in correspondence and harmony with the invisible God and the reality emanating from God in and through Jesus Christ. That which is invisible is made manifest in our lives – we reach into the unseen and the unseen reaches into us.
Verse 1 is telling us that faith is “hard evidence” – it is substance. As we stretch ourselves in hope we connect with the unseen reality of God’s truth and Kingdom; then we have a decision to make, will we live in response to that real reality or will we shrink back into our materialistic shells and pretend that the real reality does not exist? Will we pretend that we are not who we are? Will we pretend that God is not who He is?
We are trained to live in the closets of our physical bodies, our egos, our minds, ourselves. We are trained to keep within ourselves, to not open doors of truth and faith and hope and questions. When we venture out of ourselves we may only do so in conformity with social and political constraints. When we express definitive “Christian” forms of religion or “spirituality”, we are given permission to only do so in designated spaces. This is the antithesis of faith, this is not living in correspondence with the invisible God and His real reality and Kingdom – this is not the way of Hebrews 11.
Sadly much of “Christian” life is taken up with rationalizing why we should not live lives of faith, of why we should not go against the grain of society, of why we should dampen our response to God and the real reality. This is not the way of Hebrews 11.
The elders in ancient times received the witness of others that they were people of faith – they lived in correspondence to and in connection with the invisible – specifically the invisible God.
When people look at our lives do they see us living in harmony with this world and its dictates; or do they see us listening to something different, seeing something different, responding to something which cannot be seen, which is not practical, which makes no earthly sense? Noah was a fool for God in building the Ark. Whose fool are we?