Nitty-Gritty Faith

Hebrews 11

December 3, 1989 | Ray Pritchard

It is a pleasure to salute our young people today. They are the future of this church. And it is a pleasure to have our teenagers share in the morning service. In case you didn’t know, Bruce Smith made the announcements, Elizabeth Morris read the Scripture, and Tom Krumsieg led in prayer. And our ushers today are from the junior and senior high youth groups. We’re glad to have them take part because they are the leaders of tomorrow.

And my congratulations to Bob Boerman and the youth leaders. They have put together the finest youth ministry I have ever seen. Every week nearly 100 teenagers come out for our various events.

Ecclesiastes 12:1 says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” It is clear that many of our young people are doing just that.

Young People Who Made A Difference

Have you ever stopped to consider how many young people in the Bible did something significant for God?

•There is Joseph (Genesis 37), who was sold into slavery at the age of 17 by his brothers. He rose to become one of the rulers of Egypt and later saved his people in a time of famine.

•There is Gideon (Judges 6), who was just a young man when the Lord used him to rescue Israel from the Midianites.

•There is David (I Samuel 16-17), who was a teenager tending his father’s sheep on the hillsides of Bethlehem when he rose up and slew Goliath.

•There is Joash (II Kings 12), who became king of Judah at the age of 7. He reigned for 40 years and led the people in a major refurbishing of the Temple.

•There is Uzziah (II Chronicles 26), who became king of Judah when he was 16 years old. He reigned for 52 years and was counted as one of the great military leaders of the Bible. At one point, he led an army of 307,500 fighting men.

•There is Hezekiah (II Kings 18-20), who became king of Judah when he was 25 years old. He reigned for 31 years and was Judah’s greatest king.

•There is Josiah (II Kings 22-23), who became king of Judah when he was 8 years old. He reigned for 40 years and led the nation in a mighty religious revival.

•There is Daniel (Daniel 1), who as a teenager was taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar. In Babylon, God honored his convictions and he entered the king’s service.

There is one other example we ought to mention at this time of the year. It is the most famous teenage couple in all the Bible—Mary and Joseph. In those days, people got married at a very early age. Mary is perhaps 15 years old and Joseph 16 or 17. Read Luke 2 and imagine two teenagers trying to make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the dead of winter.

The point must not be missed—God has always used teenagers to get his message to the world. He still does today. All he looks for are teenagers who will put their faith into action.

Faith Is …

By all accounts, the best definition of faith in all the Bible is found in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The King James Version translates it this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The word that is translated “substance” or “being sure of” is the Greek word upostasis. It literally means “to stand under.” It is the firm reality which stands under something, like a foundation “stands under” a house. In a similar sense, it could be used to refer to the title deed to a piece of property. Faith, then, is like the solid foundation upon which we build our lives. It is like the title deed to the things we are hoping for. It gives “substance” to our dreams.

The word translated “evidence” or “certain of” is the Greek word elegchos. It was used for the legal proof needed to back up an accusation. Faith in that sense is the inner conviction that God will keep his promises. Faith is like the evidence that is offered in a courtroom. It produces an inner conviction that certain things are true.

Faith makes real the things we hope for. It gives inner conviction to our dreams. Faith makes the things we hope for so real that it is as if we already had then. By faith, we “see” things that do not yet exist.

Andre Ware

His name is Andre Ware. He is the junior quarterback for the Houston Cougars. Yesterday he won the Heisman Trophy. Along the way he set 16 NCAA records. It is all the more remarkable because his team was on probation which meant that none of the Houston games were televised this year. And at the beginning of the season no one mentioned his name on the list of likely Heisman winners.

But yesterday he won the trophy. Did you happen to catch his acceptance speech? He began by saying, “I want to thank God who gives me strength to get up every morning and do my best.” Then he said, “I want to thank my mother who never stopped believing in me.” Then he began to tell the story of his life. How people never thought he could be a college quarterback. How the recruiters tried to get him to switch positions. How he was too short or not fast enough.

Then he said, “I hope this will be an example to many young people. There are lots of you out there and people are telling you, ’You can’t do this. You aren’t smart enough. You aren’t big enough. You’ll never make it.’ When they say you can’t, that’s when you go out and prove you can.”

It was an eloquent speech by a fine young men who proved that it is possible to do more than you think you can.

A Simple Definition Of Faith

Let me give you the best definition of faith I’ve ever heard. I heard Jack Hyles give this definition several years ago, and it makes more sense than anything else I’ve ever heard. Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part.

Let me explain that. We all know that belief is involved in faith. You have to believe something before you can have faith. If you go to a doctor, you must believe he can help you. If you don’t believe, you’ll never go in the first place. Before you step into an elevator, you’ve got to believe it will hold you up. If you don’t believe, you’ll end up taking the stairs. So belief is always the first part of faith. It is the conviction that certain things are true.

Unfortunately, some people stop their definition of faith right there. They think faith is belief plus nothing else. Faith to them is pure belief without any mixture of doubt. That’s okay as long as you stay in your house, in your bed, and under the covers. But in this world, it’s hard to arrive at 100% certainty about anything. You hope the doctor can help you, but maybe he’s really a quack. You hope the elevator will hold you up, but maybe the cable has gone bad.

People who truly believe that faith means 100% certainty are paralyzed. They are waiting for something that will never happen.

In truth, there is always unbelief mixed in with our belief. You see it best in the big decisions of life. You get a good job offer in another part of the country. It’s a great opportunity, but you don’t want to move. You are stuck in your present job, but the kids are happy in school. Your wife doesn’t want to move, but you’ve found twice the house for half the money. You think you should, but some of your friends aren’t sure. Late at night you lie awake tossing and turning, first going one way and then going another.

That’s reality. You don’t have 100% certainty and you don’t know of any way to get 100% certainty. You think so, you hope so, you pray for guidance, you seek counsel, you write it all down, you wait for a lightning bolt from heaven but it never comes.

What is faith? In the big decisions of life, faith is not waiting for 100% certainty. Faith is wavering between belief and unbelief, doubt and assurance, hope and despair, and finally, hesitantly, with your heart in your hands, acting on the belief part.

Let me put this very clearly. Many people think “living by faith” means staying over in the “Belief” column until you get certainty. But that almost never happens. That’s not “living by faith;” That’s “stalling by faith.”

Living by faith means acting on the belief part. It means taking a step of faith, however small, however halting, however unsure of yourself you may be.

And The Walls Came A Tumblin’ Down

Go back and take a survey of Hebrews 11 and see if it isn’t so. Faith always means taking action. Look at the list. By faith … Abel offered a better sacrifice (v.4), Noah built an ark (v.7), Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees (vv.8-10), he offered his son Isaac (v.17), Moses left Egypt (v.27).

And consider the example of the walls of Jericho (v.30). The Hebrews marched around the walls once a day for seven days. Can you imagine the scene? Thousands of Jews line up the first day to march around the city. In front are the priests with the Ark of the Covenant. They march around singing and laughing. Inside the pagans are scared to death.

Nothing happens. The next day the Jews march around again. And nothing happens. On the third day they march around again. And nothing happens. Only this time the people inside are starting to relax. It’s some kind of crazy joke. These Jews must be nuts! And outside, some of the people are complaining. “Hey, Joshua! What’s going on, man? This is a waste of time. Let’s attack ’em and get it over with.”

On the fourth day they march around again. And nothing happens. This time some garbage flies over the wall. The people of Jericho are shouting insults at the people of God. On the fifth day the same thing. On the sixth day the same thing.

But on the seventh day, as they march around the city, the trumpets start to play and the people let out a shout. And in one miraculous moment, “the walls came a tumblin’ down.”

That’s it. That’s how faith works. Don’t you think there were some doubters? Don’t you think there were some critics? Don’t you think there was some grousing in the ranks? Sure there was. These are real people who are tramping around in the hot sand day after day. It’s hot and nasty and extremely frustrating.

But they did it. That’s “acting on the belief part.” And when they took the step of faith, God honored it and the walls of Jericho fell to the ground.

And somewhere down in Texas about 13 or 14 years ago, a young boy tied a rope to a tire and began throwing a football through that tire. At first he wasn’t very good, but he kept at it day after day. You see, that young boy had a dream of being a football player. He wanted to be a quarterback on a winning team. A lot of people discouraged him, but he never gave up. Eventually he got good enough to play junior high ball. Then he was a freshman. He told one of his friends that someday he would be all-district. And he did it. He signed a scholarship to play college football and became the starting quarterback. All that practice finally paid off. Yesterday he won the Heisman Trophy.

What made Andre Ware keep going? It was faith. Did he know he would someday be that good? No, but he had a dream and the dream kept him throwing that football through the tire day after day. He wanted to reach the top and his dream gave substance to his hopes. He believed even when others doubted. He took a step of faith and then another one and then another one. In the end, his faith was rewarded far beyond his childhood dreams.

Let me say it again. Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part. Don’t worry about your doubts. Faith is always mixed with doubts. When you finally get up the courage to act on the belief part, in spite of your doubts, then you are truly living by faith.

The Other Side Of Faith

But there is more to the story than that. If I left the matter there, I would be leaving a very incomplete picture. It sounds too easy. But living by faith is often very difficult. And it doesn’t always end up the way we would like.

Suppose you ask the question this way: Does living by faith mean you will always receive a miracle? The answer must be no. Consider again the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Only this time let’s go to the end of the chapter. Verses 33-35a record the Triumphs of Faith:

“Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received their dead back to life again.”

That’s a wonderful list and we can all think of the great Biblical heroes who did these things. But that is only part of the story. Verses 35b-38 record the Trials of Faith:

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned and they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

Who are these poor, benighted souls? What have they done to deserve such punishment? The writer simply calls them “others.” They are “others” who lived by faith. These men and women who endured such torment were living by faith just as much as Noah, Abraham, Moses or Joshua. Their faith was not weaker. If anything, their faith was stronger because it enabled them to endure incredible suffering. They are not “lesser” saints because they found no miracle. If anything, they are “greater” saints because they were faithful even when things didn’t work out right.

In light of that, let me revise my definition of faith. Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part without regard to the consequences. Living by faith means you take a step of faith without knowing where it will lead you. If you are Noah, you build the ark and hope it floats. If you are Abraham, you set out for the Promised Land and hope you find it before you die. If you are David, you step into the valley to face Goliath and you pray that you kill him with the first stone because you won’t get a second chance.

Sometimes it works out. Other times it doesn’t. Faith means you step out with no guarantees.

Even Until Death

That brings me at last to the church covenant and to the final promise we have made. We do, therefore, in his strength promise … that we will in all conditions, even until death, strive to live to the glory of Him who hath called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

I freely confess to you that I have struggled more with this section of the covenant than with any other. I can’t get away from it. What were they thinking of when they wrote it? The last part is clear. We are to live to the glory of God. But the phrase “in all conditions” sounds like Hebrews 11. And the phrase “even until death” sounds like the “others” in 11:35-38.

Did they really expect us to take that seriously? Are we promising to be faithful even until death? I think the answer must be yes. We hope it never comes to that. We pray that it doesn’t. But it might.

If it comes to that, we should not be surprised because “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The history of the Christian church is the story of men and women who were willing to lay down their lives for Jesus Christ. We must keep our promise because men and women of faith over the centuries have kept it for us.


This week I read again the story of Telemachus. You can find it in Chuck Colson’s book Loving God, pp. 241-243. It’s a true story about an Asiatic monk who lived during the fourth century.

One day, as he was tending his garden at the monastery, he felt God calling him to go to Rome. He had never been there and had no idea why God would want him to go. But the feeling grew stronger until Telemachus knew he must make the long journey.

So he set out across Asia Minor and caught a boat for Rome. After many days he landed and made his way to the Imperial City. When he got there, he found that the city was in the midst of a great celebration. The Romans had just defeated the Goths.

Telemachus still had no idea why he had come but he noticed great crowds moving through the streets toward the famed Coliseum. He followed the crowds and thought to himself, “Perhaps this is the reason why God has called me here.” It turned out that the crowds had gathered for the gladiator contests. That meant that men would fight against men on the arena floor until only one man was alive. Then the wild animals would be let loose to devour the body of the dead gladiators. It was a violent, bloodthirsty sport. The crowds had come to watch the action.

At length, the gladiators marched in, saluted the emperor and shouted, “We who are about to die salute thee.” Then the games began. Telemachus was shocked. He had never seen such a thing. But he knew that he could not keep silent while men killed each other for entertainment.

In a flash of blinding insight Telemachus knew what he must do. He ran to the perimeter of the arena and cried with a loud voice, “IN THE NAME OF CHRIST, STOP!”

The crowd paid him no heed. He was just one voice among thousands. So Telemachus made his way to the edge of the arena and stepped onto the sandy floor. There he was, rushing here and there, dodging the gladiators as they thrust at each other.

He cried out again, “IN THE NAME OF CHRIST, STOP!” The crowd began to cheer, thinking perhaps that he was part of the entertainment, like a clown at a rodeo.

Then he blocked the vision of one of the gladiators causing him to narrowly avoid a death-dealing blow. Suddenly the mood changed and the crowd became angry. “KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM!”

The gladiator he had blocked took his sword and struck Telemachus in the chest. Immediately the arena floor turned sandy red from his blood. The little monk fell to the ground and as he died, he cried out for the final time, “IN THE NAME OF CHRIST, STOP!”

Then a strange thing happened. A hush fell over the arena. All eyes were focused on the still form in the crimson sand. The gladiators put down their swords. One by one the spectators left their seats and emptied the Coliseum.

Historians tell us that was the last gladiatorial contest in the Roman Coliseum. Never again did men kill men for entertainment in the arena. When Telemachus died, the gladiator contests died with him.

Think about that story for a moment. Was Telemachus a man of faith? Yes. Did he obey God? Yes. Did he have his doubts? Certainly. But he acted on the belief part without regard to the consequences. Living by faith, in the end, meant dying by faith. But he made a difference in the world.

You Can Make A Difference

As I think about these young people seated before me, I wish I could guarantee them a long life and much happiness. They deserve it. They represent all that is good and right in the world. Our hopes and dreams are bound up with them. May God grant each of them much success.

But I can’t promise them that. If they decide to live by faith, there are no guarantees. Some of them may not live for seventy years. Some of them may be called of God to serve Christ halfway around the world. Some of them may end up great heroes of the faith; some of them may end up among the “others” who suffer for Jesus Christ.

Young people, I cannot promise you an easy road if you decide to follow Jesus Christ. But I can promise you this: you will be blessed and you won’t be sorry. And in the end, you will discover that the life of faith is full of adventure, and you will be glad you weren’t a couch potato but dared to make a difference in the world.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?