Hebrews 11, The Faith, And The Substance Of The One Covenant Of Grace (Part 2)

What then about Hebrews 11:1? Substance (ὑπόστασις) is attributed to faith (πίστις)—by the way, “faithfulness” does not work here at all as a translation of faith. Steve Baugh is exactly correct when he writes, “My understanding of Hebrews 11 proceeds from the author’s presentation of the OT believers recorded in the biblical record as recipients of divine testimony to the coming eschatological realities, and thence by faith they became participants in and witnesses to the world to come.”1 By faith here means by knowledge, assent, and most importantly, trust. The believers about whom the pastor to the Hebrews is writing all lived under types and shadows. So, they had some knowledge of Christ—less than we do but more than most evangelicals assume or think. They had the grace of assent, i.e., they agreed that what God had promised was true. They trusted that what God promised was true. That is why Abraham’s only real estate in Canaan (as my pastor Chris Gordon has been reminding us) was a grave. He went to a place he did not know. He looked for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). Abraham believed God and that faith was imputed to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3). It was not the quality of his faith that made him righteous. Moses’ point in Genesis 15:6 and Paul’s in Romans 4:3 is that faith looks away from itself and toward an object. The object of Abraham’s faith was Christ. Abraham was a Christian. He was justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Now, there are a variety of ways that people have proposed translating that difficult noun hypostasis (transliterated). I freely admit that my understanding is affected by the Vulgate, which used substantia.2 Jerome et al. were correct. The first sense of the noun given in Bauer, Danker et al. is substance. It is also true that many of the references are classical (i.e., pagan). Perhaps the biblical and Christian usage signals a different sense? The second sense given, however, is substance and the reference is Hebrews 1:3, “…who being the effulgence/radiance of his glory and the character [representation] of his hypostasis.” The ESV translates it as nature here and in 11:1 as assurance. The ESV was right in 1:3 and less helpful in 11:1. Nature is much closer to the sense intended in 11:1. The pastor’s point in 1:3 is to say that when one has seen Jesus, one has seen God. Our Lord himself taught the very same thing in John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus is the Word, the revelation, the disclosure of the Father. Jesus has made him known to us. Yes, his written Word is also his infallible, inerrant revelation to us, but Jesus is the incarnate Word. The writer of Hebrews is saying, “Jesus is the revelation of the Father’s substance” or his “nature” to us. What the Father is to us is revealed by Christ. BDAG is right when they translate 1:3 as “exact representation of God’s real being.”

They argue that there is a “strong case” for translating it “realization” in 11:1 but that misses the writer’s point a bit. It is not that faith has either become aware of things hoped or has brought into existence things hoped but that faith is the substance of things hoped. That is why the writer to the Hebrews goes to argue that all the believers who lived under the types and shadows already had what the Jewish Christians are being tempted to leave behind. It would be ironic and tragic if they should walk away from what their Old Testament brothers and sisters had in substance by faith, even before it happened in history, when we New Covenant believers live in light of the accomplishment of redemption. This understanding makes good sense of Hebrews 3:14, “We are sharers in Christ if we hold fast the beginning of the substance (Christ, his benefits, and his promises) to the end.” The believers whom Hebrews is going to catalogue for us in chapter 11, despite their sins, held fast to the Christ, the substance of their faith, for which some of them were martyred and some were cut in half.

The second noun that Hebrews uses to qualify or characterize faith I translate as “proof” (ἔλεγχος). We might translate it as evidence. The noun can mean other things, e.g., reproof/correction but here something like proof or evidence makes the most sense. Again, the writer to the Hebrews is making a case to Jewish Christians why they should not apostatize and why they should not “trample underfoot the Son of God” and “profane the blood of the covenant.” When people receive the sign and seal of baptism and are admitted formally to the visible covenant community, when they come to Holy Communion (Heb 6:4) and taste of the powers of age to come, when they are, in the sense intended here, “enlightened” (not regenerated), and then walk away, they place themselves in the most serious jeopardy. That is why Hebrews utters such a dire warning. They have participated in a sacred ritual (sacrament) of the covenant, and in covenant ceremonies there is blessing for believers and cursing for unbelievers. Have you ever wondered about that strange (to us) procedure in Genesis 15, when Abraham cut up the animals, chased away the birds, was put to sleep and the firepot (a manifestation of God the Son) went between the pieces? He was taking an oath. In the Ancient Near Eastern world, he was saying, “may it be to me as it is to these animals if I break this covenant.” So it is with us. When we come forward to receive the sacred body and blood of Christ, if we are unbelievers, we place ourselves (and potentially others according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11) in grave jeopardy. This is why Reformed churches fence the Lord’s Table.

The faith, evidenced by their courage and boldness and by their fidelity to the Lord, of the Old Testament Christians catalogued in Hebrews 11 is proof or evidence of the truth—the reality or the substance—of the promise. They had the substance by faith and so, in sacramental language, faith is said to be the substance. “That rock was Christ.” That is the language of sacramental identification. “This is my body.” This is how Peter speaks in 1 Peter 3:21, “baptism now saves you…”. Peter used a sacramental identification. He explains immediately that it is not the water of baptism that does anything. It is the appeal of a good conscience. So, Hebrews says faith is the substance and it is the proof in the same way the bread and wine are his body and blood. By faith, through the bread and wine we receive Christ’s body and blood. Through faith we lay hold of the substance. We have the very stuff promised: Christ, his benefits. The very fact that we believe is prima facie evidence. Why else go through what those saints endured unless they had, by faith, what was promised.

How would you behave if you had a million dollars that no one else could see? Let us say that a credible person sent you one of those disappearing texts that said, “I have deposited $1,000,000.00 in your account. God bless you.” How would that affect your behavior? You might put up with quite a lot in order to get to the bank. No one else can see what you have seen but you know it. You trust the one who made the promise and you trust that you are already in possession of what has been promised. Your trust is evidence or proof of your possession of the thing promised. Abraham bought a grave for Sarah and Joseph wanted his bones carried out of Egypt. Moses turned his back on an opportunity, as Chris Gordon said recently in a Heidelcast interview, on an opportunity to take back Egypt for Christ because he believed the promise, because he had the substance by faith.

This verse obviously entails a number of things but one thing it clearly implies is that there is one covenant of grace and that it did first appear in the New Covenant. The “hall of faith,” as Hebrews 11 has been characterized, tells us that there were a lot of people who were not merely anticipating the covenant of grace. They were already possessors of it. They were participants in it. They had in, with, and under types and shadows but they really had it. There is only one Christ. There is only one promise and if they had the substance and their faith was the proof, then they were participating in an administration of the one covenant of grace. If that is so, and it is, then we should never suggest that the covenant of grace did not exist under the types and shadows or that all those administrations were nothing but administrations of the covenant of works. If they had the substance, just as we do, then we should not be surprised if there are other continuities in the various administrations of the one covenant of grace.3

©R. Scott Clark. All rights reserved.

Part One.

Endnotes

1. S. M. Baugh, “The Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11.” The Westminster Theological Journal 68, no. 1 (Spr 2006): 113.

2. Beza’s Latin translation paraphrased the verse.

3. I am in substantial (no pun intended) agreement with Baugh’s objective (versus subjective) understanding of the two nouns in question. Idem, 114ff.

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