"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" - Heb. 11:1
This is a key verse in understanding what the Bible means by "faith". So what does it say?
First, let's note that the words here can be applied in quite a mundane manner. I think doing so will be very helpful for our understanding, because we have "faith" in this sense all the time. If you're seated right now, you probably sat down without testing the seat, because you had faith - because there was SUBSTANCE to your HOPE that the seat would hold you up. Or with covid, you've probably worn a mask, social distanced, or got vaccinated, because you had faith - because there was EVIDENCE for such things, even if you could NOT SEE the virus with your naked eyes.
There's an apologetics point here about faith not meaning "irrational belief", which I have a whole post on. The above examples clears this up pretty nicely. But how does "faith" in this mundane sense translate to the spiritual topics in Hebrews 11?
I think Hebrews 11 is using "faith" exactly in this mundane sense, except that there's an additional, unstated implication that the object of this faith is God. So, substance of the evidence is God's past revelations, and the unseen hope is for God's future promises. Faith is us believing God's promises based on his revelations.
So, now that we know what faith is, what does the rest of Hebrews 11 mean for our lives?
The examples in this chapter describes how God has always worked through faith, throughout all of history. From Abel to Abraham to Moses to David, they all believed what God had revealed to them about his promises for their future. God has always worked this way, because as it says in the passage itself, without faith it is impossible to please God. God is too far beyond us - too holy - that only faith could be the mechanism of our interaction. It's how we approach God, believing that he exists and rewards those who seek him.
This still remains true for us today. God can, and does, work with in a variety of ways, which may involve both natural and supernatural means. But in every case he wants us to have faith. That's a constant in how God interacts with us. He wants us to listen to his revealed promises and act in anticipation of their eventual fulfillment.
What else can we infer from the examples in Hebrews 11? We see that, at any given moment in time, faith is often only partly fulfilled. Abel was approved for his sacrifice, but was killed soon afterwards. Abraham got to see the birth of Isaac, but not of his descendants becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky. Moses saw God lead his people out of Egypt, but didn't get to enter the promised land. David became king and saw his kingdom established, but not the coming of the promised Messiah. For all of them, as for us, there is still the unfulfilled part that we're all waiting for.
This may seem like a downer, but it's actually what allows us to persevere in working out our faith. For who hopes for what they already have? This partial fulfillment strengthens our faith, and serves as an additional promise of the eventual, complete fulfillment in the future. God has provided something better for us than immediate fulfillment, so that we would be made perfect only together with all the past heroes of faith.
We can see this through the structure of the passages surrounding Hebrews 11. Chapter 10 ends by exhorting the believers to endure, through suffering and persecution. Chapter 11 then gives us the examples and the hope of ultimate fulfillment that makes such endurance possible. Chapter 12 then starts by saying that since we have this hope, and the example of this "great cloud of witnesses", this allows us to run our race with endurance, throwing off our sins and entanglements, with our eyes on Jesus.
This was all summarized in last Sunday's sermon at my church. Pastor Vince talked about how faith powers our lives - how it's supernatural in origin, but meant to be worked out in the natural world. And in addition to the witnesses in Hebrews 11, we furthermore have the example of Jesus, who worked out his Father's will.
And don't underestimate what God can accomplish through your faith. Don't aim low, and don't have set expectations. Remember, all things are possible through faith: Jesus took 12 disciples who had some flawed faith, and changed the world. Believe that God can and will do great things through your faith as well.