11:1-2 Now faith is the substance of things that are being hoped, proof of things that are not being seen, for in this, the elders were witnessed.
This is a description of one kind of faith rather than a definition, and it comes in the context of the previous verses. The author has been urging that the audience not shrink back, but press on and attain, that the audience be faithful and endure on. The audience hopes for Christ's return. The audience hopes for the whole world to be set straight.
These are not things they have today, but faith that they will happen in the future gives substance to them today. They do not see these things today, but faith that they will happen gives evidence or proof of them today. The faith to which the author refers here thus relates to the future. Faith affords endurance today because of what is believed in relation to tomorrow.
The "elders" surely refers to all the "heroes of faith," the example list that follows. These "Old Testament saints" were all witnessed to have faith. The author thus wishes to encourage the audience to continue in faith, to endure, like the myriad individuals that follow. They will see that they are in good company.
11:3 By faith we understand the aeons to have been knit together by the [spoken] word of God, with the implication that what is being seen has not come to be out of things that are [currently] visible.
The first example of faith differs from those that follow in that it does not mention some Old Testament individual but rather invokes the creation in Genesis 1 itself. We have only translated aion as "aeon" to point out that the word is somewhat unusual. "Worlds" is the common translation. We have not used it here so that we do not think of planets, solar systems, or galaxies. Aeons in Hebrews might refer to the layers of sky that Jesus passed through on route to the highest heaven (e.g., 4:14; 7:26), the created skies as opposed to the eternal sky or heaven, in addition to the earth below.
The word of God here is not logos but hrema, so we should be cautious of bringing John 1 or Christ into view here. Given the author's proximity to some Alexandrian imagery, it is interesting to say the least that he avoids logos here. God rather than Jesus is the creator here.
It is not at all clear that this verse pictures ex nihilo creation. It simply says that the materials that God used to "knit" the world together, like mending a net, are not materials that are currently visible. He thus did not make the world out of earth, air, fire, and water.
The point is that God is quite adept at making things that are not currently apparent. Thus they can be confident that the things on which they have set their hopes will materialize, even though they do not currenly see them. If the audience believed that God created the visible world out of a pre-existing chaos, as was the common belief of the day, then the illustration would be all the more poignant. Although things do not look orderly or manageable today--things look formless and void--God is quite good at creating order out of chaos.
11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a greater sacrifice than Cain, through which he was witnessed to be righteous, God Himself witnessing by way of the gifts, and through it, he still is speaking, although he died.
If the invocation of creation implied that the audience should have faith and endure, mention of Abel's faith reinforces the audience's faith in Christ's atonement. The verse is too allusive for us to know the answers to the questions we have about the nature of each sacrifice. The author merely builds on the fact that Abel's sacrifice was better than Cain's and was accepted. Similarly, the audience should have faith in the greater, more perfect, and indeed effective sacrifice of Jesus over and against the Levitical sacrifices. This is the path to justification, to be deemed "righteous," faith in the faithful death of Jesus Christ.
As a part of Scripture, Abel continues to speak of faith through the biblical text. He is a witness to faith that the audience should listen to. And if any Christians had been martyred prior to the time of writing, they were also still speaking to the audience, even though they might have died. Literal faith in life after death may also be implied as well.
11:5-6 By faith Enoch was taken so that [he] did not see death, and "he was not found because God took him." For before his taking, it has been witnessed [that he] "pleased God." But without faith it is impossible to please [Him], for it is necessary for the one who is approaching God to believe that He is and [that He] becomes a rewarder to those who seek Him.
The nature of Enoch's faith is not set out. Perhaps the image invokes the possibility that the audience might not have to face death in persecution. If Abel died because of his faithfulness, Enoch did not because of his. The chapter both reinforces faith to the point of death, while also giving hope that a person might not see death if they continue in faith.
In either case, faith is necessary for justification, for "pleasing God." In particular, Hebrews mentions the conviction that God exists, meaning the God of Israel, and faith in the things hoped for, namely, that God is going to come through on His promises. If the audience does not continue in faith in things currently not seen, they do not have faith that God "rewards those who seek Him." In that case they should not expect to receive the promise.
11:7 By faith Noah, when he was warned about things not yet being seen, he contructed a ship for the salvation of his household because he had a godly fear, through which he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness according to faith.
Thus far we have seen overtones of faith to endure in the midst of persecution (creation from chaos, Enoch) and faith in Christ's sacrifice (Abel). Noah adds another example to the first category. Noah did not see the salvation God had promised for a long time before it materialized. He nevertheless endured in faith. He constructed an ark of salvation for his household. He demonstrated reverent fear, as Jesus did in 5:7 and was resurrected in consequence.
The audience can also be a witness to the condemnation of the world that disobeys and resists God. Their faith makes them an heir of justification. They will be declared righteous, like Abel, on the Day of Judgment if they continue in faith despite the torrent that looks to beat against them in the days ahead.