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Faith in the invisible

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1, NIV)

Why does the writer to the Hebrews start his great section on the life of faith by saying that faith is assurance about what we do not see?  Isn’t that a statement of the obvious?

But Bible readers know that what can seem a statement of the obvious normally packs more punch than we realise.  Just so here.

As the context makes clear, the first readers of Hebrews lived in a world where they were surrounded by the visibles of religion: priests, rituals, possibly still the Jerusalem temple, and more.  But the Christians had none of these visibles themselves.  Their High Priest was the risen Christ; their sacrifices for sins no longer needed; their temple sanctuary, in heaven.  Indeed, this lack of visible rituals in their practice may have contributed to the charge of “atheism” which was made against them in Roman times.

When you are surrounded by others who do have the visibles of religion, these props are alluring.  They seem to show us something tangible for our faith to rest on.  It seems likely, then, that the readers of Hebrews were being tempted to swap their invisibles for their old, more visible religion, and head back to ritual.

Church history shows this to have been a repeated temptation for Christians down the ages.  The medieval church had many visibles: buildings whose architecture sought to mimic the Temple sanctuary; priests with special clothes; pilgrimages; rituals, relics.  Although the Reformation rightly rejected these, they enjoyed a resurgence in the Oxford Movement in the Church of England from the 1830s, which remains influential.  From another wing of Christianity, a strong stress on contemporary signs and wonders is also, in part, a search for assurance in the visible.

But faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. Real Christian faith is based on something which is, in the long run, much more solid than the props of religion.  It is based on the promises of God.  The gospel is a set of promises: about the future return of Christ as Lord and King, about heaven and hell, about the forgiveness of sins.  Faith is a response to those promises.  Because a promise concerns the future, by definition it is largely about what are presently invisbles.

But it is no less certain for that.  Do a Bible overview course and you will see how the Bible itself – written over a period of more than 1200 years – demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Read the life of Christ and you will see piles of evidence that he really is our present and future king.

Of course, the Christian life is not only about the future. There is a real, present experience of Christ by His Spirit, a deposit on the inheritance that will one day be ours.  But this experience comes by hearing and trusting the promises of the gospel, not via the props of visible religion.  Moreover, those props never actually provide assurance, because they don’t point to any solid promise.  They flourish only in contexts where the promises of the gospel aren’t heard.  Trust the gospel promises – don’t settle for less!

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