The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is undoubtedly one of the most famous passages in the entire New Testament. Affectionately called “The Hall of Faith,” this text has endured as one of the most celebrated chapters in this entire letter. Hebrews 11 sees the writer call to mind a great host of past saints, all of whom, he says, had “great faith.” From Abel to Noah to Joseph to Moses, it’s a who’s who of famous Bible characters. And there’s a tendency to slam on the brakes whenever the page turns to this chapter as we stop to review the biography of each figure who’s listed in order to examine the quality of their faith. While there’s certainly some merit to that endeavor, I can’t help but wonder, Why? Why does the writer devote so much time talking about all these ancient men and women? What’s his point? What’s his purpose? Where does this chapter fit into his larger argument? Is his point merely to make us admire them?
This chapter is often treated as if it’s nothing more than a catalog of folks who possess great faith in order to convey the corresponding message to go and do likewise. You know, “Dare to be a Daniel,” “Have faith like Noah,” “Be brave like Gideon,” “Be valiant like David,” and so forth. The point of this chapter, however, is not merely to offer myriad examples of why we should have faith like so-and-so. The writer’s intent behind bringing to mind all these examples of faith is to lead us to the astounding conclusion that opens the succeeding chapter:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1–2)
We can’t divorce the Hall of Faith from the “founder and perfecter of the faith.” After all, there’s no true faith without him.
No matter what era of history you reference, you will always find God’s people living as people of faith. Throughout every age of mankind’s history, the defining trait for those who belong to the Lord has always been faith in the Lord’s word of promise.
While we’re often conditioned to think of faith only in religious terms, no matter how religious you are, you’re living by faith in something. “Faith is never its own basis,” R. C. H. Lenski comments. “Faith rests on somebody or on something outside of itself and not on itself. Somebody, something outside of me inspires faith or trust in me” (375). There’s something you are ascribing ultimate value to, on which you’re hanging all your hopes and dreams. This could be any number of things: fame, relationships, politics, career, education, science, even religiosity. Whatever it is, there is some defining thing in everyone’s life that effectively informs how they live. That is their faith. After all, in its most basic form, faith is entrusting ourselves to and having confidence in someone or something. To ask, “Are you a person of faith?” is to ask the wrong question. A better question is, “Whom do you trust? What do you believe in?” Where are you placing your faith? What is the object of your faith? Faith’s object, not its existence, is what ultimately makes the difference for you and me.
Accordingly, the writer’s overarching concern is to hold up Jesus as the true and better object of the church’s faith. Instead of putting your confidence in forms and rituals, and copies and shadows, the gospel is an invitation to put your faith in the Substance of all those things—namely, in Christ alone who is the fulfillment of everything that God’s people have hoped for from before the days of Noah. The temptation to exchange faith in Jesus for faith in religiosity was not only the height of foolishness; it was also a categorical misunderstanding of what it means to live by faith in the first place.
God’s people have always been people of faith. This has been the case from the beginning of time (Heb. 11:1–3). No one was there when the worlds were formed from nothing. No one has unimpeachable evidence of the event, nor can it be experimentally repeated. But, by faith, the church takes God at his word since it is through that word that God has revealed how the cosmos came to be. Consequently, even though that event was never observed by human eyes, God’s people are still “fully persuaded” it is true. That’s how it’s always been, as the writer demonstrates by ushering us through large swaths of Israelite history.
The reason why he mentions Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and the like is that he knows that each of those figures, without question, lived by faith despite having little tangible reason to do so. Many of them died without “having received the things promised” (Heb. 11:13). But each of them took God at his word because they were “fully persuaded” that God’s word is true. This was true of Noah, even though he didn’t see it (Heb. 11:7). This was true of Abraham, even though he didn’t understand it (Heb. 11:8–9). This was true of Sarah, even though she laughed at it (Heb. 11:11). Over and over, God’s people are identified as the people who put their trust in God’s word despite any apparent evidence or experiences to the contrary.
Noah built the ark without any rain in the forecast. Abraham left home without having GPS coordinates for where his next home might be. Joseph was confident that Egypt wouldn’t be his final resting place even though that’s where he was laid to rest (Heb. 11:22). Moses willingly surrendered his status in Egypt even though that was the only life he knew (Heb. 11:23–28). The point is, in each of these cases all the available evidence except God’s word said one thing but faith followed the promise.
The worldly way of faith says that it doesn’t matter what you believe, it only matters what you receive. Of utmost importance are the tangible benefits; if you’re receiving good things, then your faith must be good. The Hall of Faith, however, is full of people who didn’t receive what they expected but believed God anyway. It is only in that way, then, that these heroes can be called heroic since by their example they demonstrate what it looks like to believe in God’s promises. They summon us to faith by following in their footsteps of simple trust in the words of God alone. It was Jehovah’s word that gave them the faith to see “from afar” that all his promises were true, solid, and trustworthy:
These all died in faith not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb. 11:13–16)
Faith in God is being convinced of things that are not often readily apparent. Faith in God is always far-sighted. It’s never based on outside circumstances. Rather, it takes God at his word, trusting that he will make good on all that he has promised. That he will make a way where none seems to exist. That he will provide where it doesn’t seem possible. That his plans will succeed even when everything looks like a certain defeat. And even if that provision and success aren’t always realized, faith still believes. Faith always takes God at his word.
This, you see, is the gist behind that rapid-fire list of anonymous “others” who, because of their faith endured all kinds of affliction and adversity (Heb. 11:32–40). All of them, by and large, received the opposite of what they expected. They believed and it cost them their life, which, to the world, sounds like foolishness. But to God, this is what faith sounds like. “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). “Our God [is] able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not . . . we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan. 3:17–18). Who says stuff like this?
Only those who take God at his word.
Only those who have their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:1–2).
These so-called heroes of the faith are less like heroes and more like heralds who bear witness to the fact that the most fulfilled life is the one that’s lived by faith. Nineteenth-century Scottish orator and theologian Alexander Maclaren agrees, declaring in his Expositions:
Their histories shine out across the centuries testifying to us in our toils how good it is to trust in the Lord . . . these bright names that shine in the heaven of His word proclaim His tender pity . . . and there they stand, victorious witnesses to us, that whosoever will put his trust in the Lord shall have strength according to his need inbreathed into his uttermost weakness, and have One by his side in every furnace, like unto the Son of Man (15:2.169–170).
In life and in death, these saints call us to “hold fast” and to keep our eyes on “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” The gospel of our great High Priest welcomes weak and wobbly sinners to put their faith in its only rock-solid object, Christ. The “people of old” might not have understood how or who but, even still, they were convinced of what God would do because of his word of promise. What matters, therefore, isn’t how big or brawny your faith is. All that matters is its object. As the late Tim Keller quips, “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.”
The only object that’s sturdy and solid enough to endure the highest of highs and the lowest of lows is the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith that looks to him as its object is “fully persuaded” that there are better things in store even when it doesn’t look or feel like it (Heb. 11:40). We can believe and take heart because the Seal and Substance of God’s promise has already come and died for us. The “author and perfecter of our faith” has put his signature on all the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20), signing them with his own blood.
Even though we might not understand the hows or the whys of this life, believers must be “fully persuaded” of what God’s word says, come what may. Though there always seems to be a simmering dose of doubt about what’s to come, as the people of God we’ve been called to live “not by sight” but “by faith” (2 Cor. 5:7). This isn’t about knowing what will or might happen in the future. It’s about knowing and looking to the One who does. It’s faith in God that fills our gloomy days with the hope of his salvation; that speaks peace to us when the chaos of the world gets too loud; and that gives us words of comfort when all other comforts vanish.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Hebrews (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1961).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).