The term Hall of Faith is never used in the Bible. It is a term that modern interpreters have used to describe Hebrews 11. It is a take-off of the modern idea of a “Hall of Fame.” Most professional sports (and many colleges and high schools as well as other organizations) have a Hall of Fame. Once a professional athlete has retired from the game, the biggest honor that can be bestowed is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Only the very best are selected. Those inducted into the Hall of Fame are those whose careers are so stellar that they should be remembered as long as the game is played. Fans who never saw those athletes play in person will be able to hear of their exploits and honor them long after the athletes’ deaths.
The Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 is a list of people in the Old Testament who were outstanding and should be remembered, not because of their athletic prowess but because of their faith in God. The readers of Hebrews are encouraged to imitate the faith of these men and women of the past.
The book of Hebrews was written to Jews who had professed faith in Christ but were experiencing persecution that could be avoided if they would simply go back to the Old Testament system of law and sacrifice. In the first century, this may have been the result of direct Jewish persecution, but it may also have been the result of Roman persecution.
Normally, as long as a person or group did not cause any civil disturbance that would threaten the peace of Rome (pax Romana) and as long as they would swear ultimate allegiance to Caesar with the declaration “Caesar is Lord” and offer sacrifices to him, it was of no consequence what other deity or deities they might worship. Because Judaism was a long-established religion, older than the Roman Empire, Jews were exempted from the requirement of offering worship to Caesar if they did not disturb the peace. At first, Christianity was considered a subset of Judaism, and Christians were extended this same exemption. However, as time went by, Jewish leaders were increasingly hostile to Christians and began to denounce them. Once Rome began to see Christianity as a new religion, then the requirements regarding Caesar were enforced. Of course, for Christians, “Caesar is Lord” is a direct contradiction to the essential truth that “Jesus is Lord.” However, it seems that some Jewish believers had the idea that, if they could go back to Judaism, they could escape persecution and still be rightly related to God through Old Testament means.
The writer of Hebrews warns that there is no going back, now that Christ has come. Relationship with God has always been by God’s grace through faith, and has ultimately always relied on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (Romans 4:1–16; Ephesians 2:1–10). The Old Covenant pointed to Christ, and He is the fulfillment of it. A proper understanding of the Old Testament will not draw anyone back to Judaism and the temple and the law and the sacrifices. Rather, it will push one forward to faith in Christ.
In Hebrews 10:39 (the last verse of chapter 10), the writer expresses confidence that his readers will make the correct decision but also warns of the consequences of the choice: “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.” Then chapter 11 starts out, “Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1–2). Then the writer lists several people in the Old Testament who accomplished great things by faith. He calls on the readers to imitate their faith. Those included in this “Hall of Faith” are not perfect. Many had stunning failures, and some had serious, ongoing character defects. However, each of them came to a turning point where he or she chose to trust God rather than place confidence in what he or she could see.
The author starts the Hall of Faith list with names and a brief explanation about how they exercised faith. The author speaks of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. The ancient Jewish readers would have been well-acquainted with Old Testament history, so the author continues, “Time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” (Hebrews 11:32). Their acts of faith are summarized: “Who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection” (Hebrews 11:33–35).
Then, after highlighting all the wonderful victories achieved by faith, the passage takes an unexpected turn: “Others were tortured, not accepting their release in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy) wandering in deserts and caves and holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35–38, NASB1995). The life of faith does not mean things will always go well. A careful reader would not be surprised by this, for the very first man on the list, Abel, was killed because he pleased God.
Ultimately, all of these in the Hall of Faith “gained approval through their faith, but did not receive what was promised because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39–40, NASB). In other words, the Hall of Faith can include the present readers if they will also exercise the same faith. In fact, the heroes of the faith will not experience all God intends for them until all of God’s plan has been completed, which includes the readers of Hebrews at that time and even today. The testimony of those in the Hall of faith should encourage all of us to press on, even in the face of persecution. God is faithful and always has been.
All of these “heroes of faith” in the Hall of Faith should be an inspiration, yet Hebrews 12 gives us the ultimate example: “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2–3, NASB1995).
Faith does not guarantee that things will go smoothly for us. It does guarantee that we will be living in such a way that God is pleased with us and that we will experience His blessing, even in the midst of trouble and persecution. We can join the Hall of Faith if we trust the promises of God through Christ.