This reading occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C. The Roman Catholic church includes slightly different verses, including either Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19 or Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-12.
Summary: The writer of Hebrews uses an advanced style of Greek that makes reading it more difficult. I have included a number more technical notes than usual if you want to dig in. The big picture is this: Faith is a mighty, hard and costly matter. A good preacher should be able to extol the power of faith. A better preacher should help the people see that their faith is not their own, but a gift from God, that comes to us by the Spirit and the Word. A great preacher, dare I say it, preaches in such a way that people hear the Word and by the Spirit have this faith. As Jesus says in the related Gospel passage: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (12:32)."
Key words and grammar insights:
υποστασις (hypostasis, meaning "confidence"; 11:1) Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the word from all of the Trinitarian debates: One ousia and three hypostases! First, let's break down this word: It comes from υπο- meaning "under" and -στασις meaning "a standing." The hypostasis is the thing that settles to the ground; the foundation. This becomes understood metaphorically then as the base of confidence. The thing upon which you can stand, not just literally, but emotionally.
This is an interesting way of looking at the Trinity -- we have one substance (God) but we have means of confidence, three bedrocks of our life: the creation, the cross and the community of faith. Okay, I got a little cute there...
ελεγχος (elegchos, meaning "testing; 11:1). Liddell-Scott defines this word as "a cross-examining, testing, for purposes of disproof or refutation." Three facts that seem useless:
- It is only used once in the New Testament;
- Old Testament it is found almost exclusively in translations of wisdom literature;
- It has a different meaning if it is declined as a neuter instead of masculine noun.
What is important here: It is really hard to figure out what this word actually means because you cannot get many similar uses as the one here. The other meaning of the word is "rebuke" which makes no sense in this context. If anything, faith is the rebuke of things seen!
ελπιζομενων (participle form of ελπιζω, meaning "hope"; 11:1) How to translate this participle? First, it does not have any article, which would seem to rule out a substantive or an adjective participle. Second, it is in the genitive case and there are no other nearby words in this case, making it difficult to translates as a circumstantial participle. The word that helps us know how to translate this participle is πραγματων. This word is also a genitive neuter plural word meaning "things." There is a parallel structure in the sentence now genitive plural object - nominative singular subject. I would argue to translate ελπιζομενων as a genitive substantive participle
ελπιζομενων υποστασις assurance of things hoped for
πραγματων ελεγχος: proof of things (unseen)
You could argue that ελπιζομενων modifies πραγματων; in this case the above translation (and how everyone translates it) does not change.
βλεπομεν (participle form of βλεπω, meaning "to see"; 11:1;3) This word appears in both verse 1 and 3 in different participle forms. The point is that faith and sight are often not connected. The other point is that God can bring about things that we cannot yet see. Who would have predicted that Africa would be the heart of Christianity over a century ago? Who would believe in life after death when sitting with someone as they die in suffering? Who would believe in forgiveness when they have seen the pain that people cause?
εμαρτυρηθσαν (from μαρτυρεω, martyreo, meaning
"testify"; 11:2) As I written about before, Christians changed the
meaning of this word. Because so many Christians were killed for their
witness, the word martyr came to mean to die for one's witness! The
sentence literally reads "the elders were martyred in this faith." In this case, the word means "be well spoken of", like a "we can say about them now" kind of thing. But the most literal translation should shake us up. Faith has a cost!
πρεσβυτεροι (presbyter(oi) meaning "elder"; 11:2) This word
can mean ancestors but also simply elders. In the early church this
became a position of leadership and is still used today in various
churches to designate leadership.!
πιστει (dative form of πιστις, meaning "faith"; 11:3 and then throughout the passage). The writer of Hebrews will begin using the word πιστει repeatedly. It is the word for faith in the dative case. The dative case can have many meanings, most likely in this case the "instrumental" idea. (By means of faith...) In English, we almost always have to have words with prepositions to show how they fit together. Greek can simply "decline" them in cases so show their meanings.
κατηρτισθαι (form of καταρτιζω, meaning "restore", 11:3) This is fascinating. Typically translators understand 11:3 to refer to creation -- the old creation. This would make sense in that the writer of Hebrews is going to begin a retelling of the Old Testament. But the writer intentionally chooses restore (as in Galatians 6:1: If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently). I wonder if the writer of Hebrews here is connecting the old and new creation: God is restoring the new creation -- at his word -- having made the seen from the unseen. My sense is that belief in God's work in making the new creation takes more faith than belief in God's work in making the old creation! I don't think translating this in terms of the old testament creation is wrong (in fact the verb tenses later in the verse suggest this as well as, again, the whole framework of the passage). I just think there might be a small note of the new creation joining the chorus here.
Little bonus: In verse 10 you find a curious word for builder: δημιουργος or demiurge of gnostic faith!