Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19

Text in purple indicates Fr. MacEvilly’s paraphrase of the scripture he is commenting on.


The Hebrews, it would appear, were not sufficiently impressed with the importance and necessity of faith; and were, therefore, in danger of losing it by apostasy. They were taught to look upon it as a mode of justifying wholly unknown to the saints of the Old Testament; and to these false notions, with which they were imbued, inight be traced their fatal facility, in deserting it under the pressure of persecution. The Apostle (10:38) takes occasion from the words of the Prophet Habacuc, to confute this pernicious error. Before making the application of it, in this chapter, to the sainted heroes of old, he first gives a description offaith, describing it by two of its qualities best accommodated to the circumstances of those, whom he addresses (verse 1).

In the next place, applying this faith to the saints of old, he shows that it was owing to if, the most distinguished among them obtained justification (2-39).

He, finally shows the great advantage which we, in the New Law, possess over the ancients. We can, at once, enter on the possession of the promised blessings, while they were obliged to wait for our time to enjoy them in common with us; and, surely, we should display no less heroism in the cause of faith, of which the blessings and promise are present, than they did, for whom the fulfilment of the promise was distant.

NOTES ON HEBREWS 11:1-2, 8-19

Heb 11:1  Now, faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.

(As, then, the just man lives by faith, [10:38] it is of importance for us to know the nature of this virtue, which is the spiritual life of our souls). Faith is the foundation of the blessings we hope for; or, the subsistence in our intellect of the things we hope for; it is the fullest convincing argument of the existence of these things, which are neither the immediate object of our sight nor perceived by reason, but which we still more firmly believe than if we saw them.

“Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for.” In order to render more
clear the application of faith to the examples he is about adducing, the  Apostle commences with a description of faith, and he describes it, by two of its leading qualities,First—”It is the substance of things to be hoped for,” to which words, some, with St. Augustine give this construction, “It is the substance of those who hope.’” These attach an active signification to the middle verb in the Greek, ελπιζομενων υποστασις, corresponding to the words in our version, “to be hoped for.” Otirs is the more probable construction. “The substance,” i.e., the basis and foundation, on which rest the blessings of salvation we hope for. For, it is, “the root and foundation of all justification.” (Council of Trent, SS. 6, c. viii.) Without faith we could no more obtain justification than we could build a house without a foundation, or have an accident, ordinarily speaking, without a substance. Or, the word “substance” (in Greek, ὑπόστασις) more probably means, subsistence, of the things to be hoped for; inasmuch as, faith makes the future goods of the life to come, so to exist in our apprehension, as if we actually possessed them. It gives these things, we hope for, a new and anticipated existence in our minds.

Secondly—It is “the evidence of things that appear not ” (ου βλεπομενων), i.e., of things that are neither visible to the senses, nor perceived by reason. This by no means appears to be an adequate or reciprocal definition of faith; for, things to be dreaded form subjects of faith no less than “things to be hoped for” (v.g.) hell’s torments; so did Noe’s deluge (verse 7). Neither does it appear that obscurity essentially belongs to subjects of faith; for, if so, how could the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Apostles have faith in many of the miraculous works of our Divine Redeemer, which they witnessed? Do we not believe in death, although sensibly taking place, and its universality confirmed by experience ? Do we not believe in God, as Creator of heaven and earth, an evident natural truth? This definition cannot exclude the application of faith to things clear; because, although such things be naturally evident, we can abstract from their natural evidence, and believe them like every point of faith, on the authority of God, whose revelation is necessary in order that they should become subjects of faith. Moreover, in the present obscured state of the human intellect, there are but few things so evident as not to be susceptible of confirmation, and of greater subjective certainty, from the authority of God, upon which all faith must be based. The opinion, therefore, of the Thomists requiring obscurity in an object to be necessary, in order to become a point of faith, appears improbable; because, the principal ground of this opinion, viz., that the Apostle here gives a reciprocal definition of faith, is unfounded. The Apostle only describes faith by two of its qualities, the most praiseworthy, viz., its giving the things to be hoped for, an anticipated existence in our minds; and its making certain for us, things that are obscure and inevident—two qualities best accommodated to the circumstances of those whom he addresses, who possessed not, and could, therefore, “only hope for” the invisible blessings of the life to come; neither did they clearly see them, because they “appear not.” These men were to be animated to patient suffering, with the prospect of the same blessings in hope.

Heb 11:2  For by this the ancients obtained a testimony.

For, it was by this faith in God’s promises, holding out distant and, humanly speaking, unattainable goods, that the ancient fathers were distinguished, and obtained from God an illustrious testimony of their sanctity.

Some interpreters connect this verse immediately with verse 38 of last chapter, “the just man liveth by faith, for by this the ancients obtained,” &c. Others, with preceding verse, as in the Paraphrase.

It is not undeserving of remark, that the faith commended by the Apostle in this chapter, is not the special faith of Protestants, in reference to each man’s justification and salvation; but, as is clear from the entire chapter, a firm belief in the things revealed by God, which all the examples quoted clearly demonstrate.

Heb 11:8  By faith he that is called Abraham obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing whither he went.

It was by faith that he who, from Abram or high father, was called Abraham, or father of a multitude, went forth in obedience to the divine call into the inheritance he was about to receive, not knowing in what particular part of the promised land he was to fix his abode.

“He that is called.” The Greek copy, followed by the Vulgate, had, ὅ  καλουμενος. This is also the reading of the Alexandrian Manuscript. In this reading, allusion is made to the change of name in Abraham (Genesis, xvii. 3). The article (ὅ) is omitted in the ordinary Greek copies, and the words are rendered, Abraham, when called, obeyed to go, &c., in which rendering the participle “called,” which in the Greek, is the present tense, receives a past signification. Our reading is, however, the better sustained.

Heb 11:9  By faith he abode in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in cottages, with Isaac and Jacob, the co-heirs of the same promise.

It was by faith that he lived in the land of promise, as in a strange land, dwelling in moveable tens; the co-heirs of his promise, Isaac and Jacob, did the same.

He dwell as a pilgrim in the land of promise where he did not occupy a foot of  ground, as his fixed habitation, “with Isaac and Jacob:” “with” has the meaning of as well as, it denotes parity of circumstances, Though it might be said that he dwelt in tents with Isaac and Jacob; for, Jacob was fifteen years old at Abraham’s death,the former meaning, viz. : they, as well as Abraham, dwelt successively in tents; is the more probable.

Heb 11:10  For he looked for a city that hath foundations: whose builder and maker is God.

It was by faith he did so; for, assured of the divine promises, he firmly expected and anxiously longed for a city immoveably fixed and founded (not like the tents), the artificer of which was God himself.

“For, he looked for a city,” &c. In this verse, the Apostle proves that it was owing to faith that Abraham dwelt as a stranger in moveable tents in the land of promise, because he locked forward to the heavenly city of eternal stability, firmly fixed and founded by God himself. What an idea of the condition of man here below is conveyed to us, in the faith of the Patriarch!—like him, we are here but strangers in this foreign land; heaven is our true home, our eternal dwelling-place, on which our thoughts and affections should be fixed. Our conversation should be in heaven, whither we are tending.

Heb 11:11  By faith also Sara herself, being barren, received strength to conceive seed, even past the time of age: because she believed that he was faithful who had promised.

It was through faith that Sara herself, notwithstanding the twofold obstacle of barrenness and old age, received strength to conceive a son, believing him to be faithful, who promised.

“Being barren.” These words are omitted in the ordinary Greek copies, but they are found in the Alexandrian and other Manuscripts.

Objection.—Was not Sara rebuked by the angel for laughing from incredulity?—(Genesis, xxiii. 15).

Answer.—Although Sara smiled at first, still, on discovering the dignity of him who made the promise, she believed. Some, among whom is Estius, by “faith” understand the faith of Abraham himself, which the Apostle would appear to be specially commending, and in consideration of which, Sara conceived; in the same way, the walls of Jericho are said to have fallen by faith, i.e., the faith of the Jews, and the following verse in some measure favours this opinion. However, the following words, “She believed,” are in favour of the other interpretation. “To conceive seed;” to which the Greek adds, and brought forth.

Heb 11:12  For which cause there sprung even from one (and him as good as dead) as the stars of heaven in multitude and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.

Wherefore there sprung from one man only (and he was dead as to the powers of propagation), a posterity, countless as the stars of heaven, or the sand on the sea shore.

“As the stars… as the sand,” &c. These are hyperboles easily understood, signifying a very numerous progeny. They may refer to carnal Israel, in the first place, and to spiritual Israel, or to all Christians, in the second.

Heb 11:13  All these died according to faith, not having received the promises but beholding them afar off and saluting them and confessing that they are pilgrims and strangers on the earth.

In faith, these Patriarchs died, without receiving the promises, only beholding them from afar, and saluting them, and confessing themselves to be strangers and pilgrims on earth.

“All these,” i.e., the three last mentioned Patriarchs, to whom were made the promises, “died according to faith,” i.e., persevered till death in faith, believing in God’s promises, although they did not receive the promises, nor did they enjoy them immediately themselves. This is true, whether the promises be referred to the occupation of Chanaan by their innumerable offspring, or to heaven, which was closed until after the ascension of Christ; they contessed themse.ves, on aii occasions, to be foreigners and sojourners on earth; “but beholding them from afar, and saluting them,” like sailors, who, after a dangerous and distant voyage, on descrying land for the first time, joyously salute it. After the words, “beholding them afar off,” are added in some Greek copies, being persuaded of them. But, this addition is generally rejected by critics, as unsupported by the authority of the chief Manuscripts. The Apostle refers to the promises, which the Patriarchs themselves did not obtain during life, in order to show the firmness of their faith, and thus to animate the Hebrews, of his own day, to perseverance under affliction, although the promised goods of heaven in store for them, were distant and invisible; for, tiiey had been stih more so, for the Patriarchs.

Heb 11:14  For they that say these things do signify that they seek a country.

For, by professing themselves to be strangers, they showed they were anxiously in search of some country different from that of Chanaan, in which they were sojourning, as pilgrims and strangers.

Having observed in the preceding verse, that the Patriarchs died without obtaining the promises, the Apostle shows what the promises regarded, at least, so far as they themselves were to enjoy them; surely, not the possession by them or the land of Chanaan; for, by saying they saluted them from afar, there could not be question of the place where they actually dwelt. Moreover, by calling themselves pilgrims, they showed that they were in search of some permanent country, and Cnanaan was not their country.

Heb 11:15  And truly, if they had been mindful of that from whence they came out, they had doubtless, time to return.

It cannot be Chaldea, their native land, from whence they came; for, if so, they had leisure to return to it, and an opportunity of doing so, its distance from Chanaan—where they sojourned—being so short.

Nor was there question of Chaldea; for, if so, they might have returned, as it was not more than fifty leagues distant from Chanaan.

Heb 11:16  But now they desire a better, that is to say, a heavenly country. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

It is, therefore, evident that the object of their longing desires was a better, that is to say, a heavenly country; and because they sought God and heaven; hence, God was not ashamed to be called, in a particular way, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, since he prepared for these as his chosen friends a fixed abode in the heavenly Jerusalem, where they shall reign with him for ever.

Then, it follows, they were in search of a better, that is to say, their heavenly country; hence it is, that God, though God of all mankind, calls hiuiseit their God in particular, as if rendering them equal value with the rest of creation.

Heb 11:17  By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

It was by faith that Abraham determined to offer up his son Isaac, when, to test him, God commanded him to do so, and he who received the promises, offered up his only begotten son:

Some interpreters make the words, “he who had received the promises,” refer to Isaac, thus: he offered up his only begotten son, who had received the promises. The former construction, which refers it to Abraham s receiving the promises, is more probable, as appears from the following verse. “Offered Isaac,” i.e., was aboutoffering him, and would have done so if he were not prevented; he did so in heart and will.

Heb 11:18  (To whom it was said: In Isaac shalt thy seed be called).

To whom it was said: In Isaac, shall thy seed be reckoned.

The seed promised him was to come only through Isaac. Hence, the heroic firmness of Abraham’s faith in sacrificing him.

Heb 11:19  Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him for a parable.

It was through faith he did so; firmly believing that God could, if he wished, raise up Isaac from the dead (and would do so, if necessary, for the realization of his promises), whence it came to pass that he received him back in figure or type of some future great mystery, i.e., of the resurrection of Christ, as well as of the general resurrection of all men, from the tomb.

Abraham was firmly persuaded through faith, that if the resuscitation of Isaac from the dead were necessary for the realization of God’s promise of giving him seed in Isaac, God would raise him. “Whereupon also he received him for a parable,” i.e., according to some, as a memorable example and prodigy of faith, worthy of being celebrated by future ages.

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One Response to Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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