Question: "What does it mean that faith is the substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1)?"
Answer: The writer of Hebrews opens chapter 11 with a brief description of faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NKJV). This statement should not be regarded as a complete definition of faith. Instead, the author focuses on two critical aspects of a much broader theological concept to introduce a famous gallery of Old Testament heroes of faith. The first vital facet of faith is that it is “the substance of things hoped for.”
The word for “substance” (KJV, NKJV) in the clause faith is the substance of things hoped for, is alternatively translated as “assurance” (ESV), “confidence” (NIV), and “the reality” (NLT). In the original Greek, the term conveys the idea of “a firm foundation,” “the real being,” “the actual existence,” “the substantial nature,” and “a resolute trust.” One sense of the word refers to a title deed or a legal document guaranteeing the right to possess a property.
According to Moulton and Milligan in Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” could be translated “faith is the title-deed of things hoped for” (Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1960). Another commentary suggests that faith, as described in Hebrews 11:1, “apprehends reality: it is that to which the unseen objects of hope become real and substantial. Assurance gives the true idea. It is the firm grasp of faith on unseen fact” (Vincent, M. R., Word Studies in the New Testament, Vol. 4, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887, p. 510).
The clause faith is the substance of things hoped for describes a conviction that already takes custody—here and now—of what we hope for and what God has promised us in the future. This present-day ownership of things hoped for and promised in the future is an inner reality. Right now, amid a global pandemic, financial crisis, and social unrest, as our world seems to be falling apart, we can stand on the rock-solid, unshakeable promises of God’s security, rest, peace, provision, mercy, grace, and salvation. His Word can be trusted. We can have full confidence in the Lord’s promises because they are real and a firm foundation for this life.
This “substance” or “assurance” describes our inward response to God’s trustworthy, unfailing nature. We can be sure of the Lord’s promises because, as the writer of Hebrews goes on to show, biblical heroes of every generation have proven them to be true: “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead. By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death” (Hebrews 11:4–5). On and on goes the list. By faith Noah built the ark, saved his family, and became an heir of righteousness (Hebrews 11:7). By faith Abraham obeyed God and moved from his homeland (verses 8–10).
The writer of Hebrews presents example after example of those who demonstrated faith as the substance of things hoped for: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13). From the patriarchs to King David to anonymous champions of faith, believers have trusted in God’s promises despite enduring unimaginable challenges (verses 17–38).
Faith, being the substance of things hoped for, is also an outward force. Possessing the reality of hope supplies believers with the motivation to endure trials and hardships. It results in decisive obedience—the kind that caused the ancient heroes of faith to act upon their hope. Faith, as the substance of things hoped for, activates believers to preach boldly, pray unceasingly, love unconditionally, serve compassionately, and work tirelessly “as long as it is day” (John 9:4). The inward substance of faith moves our hearts while the external reality moves mountains.