Hebrews 11:1 is a scripture we all know well in the context of faith – it is, after all, the Bible’s own definition of faith. But in the New International Version of the Bible – quoted above – that so many of us use regularly, the word “assurance” is perhaps a poor choice of translation into English.
On a scale of one to ten – where one is something that might possibly happen and ten is something that will happen without any doubt – most of us would rank the word “assurance” as perhaps a five! The word does not really convey a lot of certainty – we speak of having to “reassure” people because the original assurance may not have been enough. Other English translations use stronger words such as “evidence” (KJ and NKJV) or “proof” (HCB), and these seem to better convey the sense of what Hebrews is telling us.
Actually, the underlying Greek word which is translated “assurance” in Hebrews 11:1 is hypostasis – a word formed from stasis “to stand” and hypo “under.” The combined hypostasis or “standing under” refers to the ground on which something is built or the foundation of a house or other building. In fact, this basic meaning of “foundation” gave rise in ancient Greek to the use of hypostasis to mean, by extension, “real estate” or “property” and specifically the title deeds or documents recording the ownership of property. In the ancient world, just as today, home or property ownership was recorded in “title deeds” and these documents were kept as the proof of ownership. Archaeologists have found such deeds hidden under the floors of homes in many cultures.
This usage of the word hypostasis for “title deed” was anciently very common. J.H. Moulton and G. Milligan's authoritative Vocabulary of the Greek Testament states that hypostasis can mean “property, effects, written undertaking, agreements of sale, evidence of ownership” and that “… in all cases there is the same central idea of something that underlies visible conditions and guarantees future possession.” Moulton and Milligan conclude that this is the essential meaning of hypostasis in Hebrews 11:1, so we can legitimately translate this verse as “Faith is the title deed of that which we do not see.”
Just as ancient peoples carefully placed the title deeds to their homes in places where they would be protected, today we usually place the title deeds to our homes or other property in our bank’s safe deposit box. If we ever need proof that we own our home and that it is indisputably ours, we need only look to the title deed we have stored in the bank. In saying that faith is the “title deed” of that which we hope for, but do not yet see, the author of Hebrews is using a far stronger word than “assurance.” Hebrew s 11:1 is telling us in effect that the faith we are given is the title deed – the guarantee – of our possession of something even if we do not see it now. That assurance is a ten on the scale of one to ten – it’s a certainty we can take to the bank.