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By Virginia Smith

The Bible: Light to My Path

St. Anthony Messenger has invited several biblical experts to contribute to this column in 2002. Each month, one author will choose a passage that comforts, challenges or seems neglected. He or she will explain how to apply this passage and connect it to everyday life. This month’s guide:

Virginia Smith has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University, with an emphasis on Scripture. She is coeditor of and a frequent contributor to Scripture From Scratch, a monthly four-page newsletter published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.

 

Q U I C K S C A N

Invisible Comes First
Firm, Informed Faith
Biblical Background


Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

 

Mention 1 Corinthians 13 and the response is predictable: “Oh yes, Paul’s exquisite homage to love.” Mention Hebrews 11 and the response is less certain if it exists at all.

Yet this frequently overlooked chapter is to faith what First Corinthians is to love. It would not be a stretch to position the two in tandem since “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:31).

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the relative difficulty of the two texts. The Letter to the Hebrews, whose author is unknown, reads more like a theological sermon, dwelling at length on the priestly ministry of Jesus.

Readers may simply not read far enough into the text to reach Chapter 11. Whatever the reason, this beautiful passage continues to be unfamiliar to many.

Invisible Comes First

“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen,” says the writer, launching what is apparently a favorite theme. “By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible” (11:3). I find that statement so relevant in an age that tends to upend it.

Today’s scientific worldview, of undeniable value, nonetheless discounts or discards that which does not lend itself to proof through scientific methods. The author of Hebrews contends it’s just the opposite; the unseen is the precursor of the visual.

He then addresses himself to the faith demonstrated by “the ancients”: Abel, Enoch, Noah and the father of faith himself, Abraham. “All these died in faith. They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and greeted it from afar...“ (11:13).

Over the years, in times of discouragement, I have often returned to that verse. Will I live to see the fruits of my labors?

Probably not, but that puts me in rather distinguished company as I look at the lives of these and hundreds, no, thousands of others throughout human history who trusted their God to utilize their efforts however and whenever he saw fit. It reminds me of a poster inscribed, “Life should be lived for something that outlasts it.”

Firm, Informed Faith

Taking up the roster of faithful forebears, the writer speaks of Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the Judges; of David, Samuel and the prophets and what they endured rather than betray their faith. None of these stalwart souls who lived two to four millennia ago had the benefit of the teaching of Jesus. Nor could they read the writing of great thinkers who followed him, helping us to grasp his meaning.

If they stood firm, understanding so little of the God they served, how much more should be expected of 21st-century me? How great my faith should be!

A beloved Jesuit friend and spiritual director habitually asked us to pray that his faith might be increased. What seemed absurd to me then becomes clearer every time I read Hebrews 11. “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

 


Biblical Background

The Letter to the Hebrews is, in a sense, an orphan in the Christian canon. Although once attributed to Paul, differences in style, vocabulary and themes all but rule that out. It does not follow the traditional form of first-century correspondence, leading some to see it as a written sermon that came to be circulated among the early Churches.

The title is apropos, however, as the content is unquestionably directed toward a Jewish audience. Hebrews 1:1—4:13 goes to great pains to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to Moses. The central chapters, 4:14—10:31, compare Jesus’ eternal priesthood to the Jewish temporal one. The writer, whoever it is, is skilled. Time spent with the Letter to the Hebrews is a rewarding experience.



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