Hebrews 11 – The Heroes of Faith

When trying to get to grips with a passage, and understand it’s meaning, it can be helpful to look at how it is divided up into sections, and I shall use this structure:

A 11:1-3 Introduction: the ancients commended for their faith – but they did not see [its fulfilment – implied]
  B   11:4-12 Examples of men and women of faith – Abel to Abraham
    C     11:13-16 Interlude: Pilgrim faith sees beyond the grave
  B’   11:17-38 Examples of men and women of faith – Abraham to Maccabean revolt
A’ 11:39-40 Conclusion: these men and women were commended for their faith – but did not see the fruit of it

Straightaway this structure tells us something important about the central message of this chapter – faith is not based upon what we can see, i.e., it’s not based on experience.  As we shall see, faith is focussed on the person who makes the promise – Jesus the Christ.


It’s always tempting to jump straight into looking at the verses, but a better approach is first to step back from the detail and look at the “big picture” – what is the overall aim of this chapter?  In order to do this we must understand why the author wrote this chapter and why he chose the particular examples that are listed.

Persecution of 1st Century Christians

Most evangelical scholars believe that Hebrews was written around the mid-60s A.D., when the Christians in Rome were experiencing ever increasing persecution under the Emperor Nero.  The pressures they were under resulted from the way in which the Roman authorities viewed Christianity.  If you were a Jew, you were fine – Judaism was an “approved” religion, but Christianity was banned because of the way in which it proclaimed that ONLY Jesus could be worshipped as God.  The Romans saw this as a threat to the sacred (and money making) status of their many gods, such as Jupiter, Neptune, Mars and Venus.

Most (if not all) of the Christians being addressed in the book of Hebrews were of Jewish descent, and it is thought that many of them were giving up on their Christian faith because it was too hard and dangerous.  The attractions of returning to their Jewish roots, with its freedom from persecution, was just too strong for many of them.  Thus the author of the book (no-one is certain who it was) sets out to show them that Jesus (and the New Covenant promises that He has created) is vastly superior to anything that Judaism has to offer.

The Big Picture – what’s chapter 11 all about?

By the time we get to chapter 11, the author has finished most of what he wants to say about the superiority of Jesus, and the last few chapters consist of encouragements to stay true to their Christian faith, persevering to the end.

The first thing you need to remember is that the chapter divisions as we have them today did not appear in the original manuscript.  Chapters were introduced in the 13th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as a navigation aid.  However, he sometimes got the divisions slightly wrong – and that is the case with Hebrews 11.

(Out of interest, the verse divisions came along even later.  For the Old Testament, verses were added in the 15th century by a Jewish Rabbi; for the New Testament, verses first appeared in the 16th century.)

The whole purpose of listing all of these heroes of faith is stated in chapter 12:1-4, which in reality should form part of chapter 11 (I’ve re-formatted the NIV  text to make the purposes behind chapter 11 much clearer):

Heb 12:1-4 NIV  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,

3 let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And
  2 let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,
    1 (2) fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. … (3) Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners,
  2′ so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
3′ (4) In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Notice how the clauses mirror one another – this is Hebrew poetry, where the most important point is usually in the middle

The most important purpose behind chapter 11 is – Fix your eyes on Jesus!  In other words, don’t look at the heroes of faith as if they were role models to be followed.  Instead, let their lives of faith (especially the way in which they persevered in spite of their circumstances) point you to the Lord Jesus Christ.  However, as we shall see, there are one or two other lessons that we need to learn from them, but the main issue is the need to have your faith focussed on Jesus.

“Focusing on Jesus means thinking about who He is and what He does.”
— Judah Smith (lead pastor of the City Church in Seattle, USA)

Close on the heels of the first purpose is the 2nd one – persevere and don’t grow weary; don’t lose heart!

Notice the context – that of running a race.  Many commentators believe that the image in the author’s mind was that of a 1st century athletics competition, held in an arena such as those that can still be seen dotted around Europe:

Monumental bullring Barcelona, Spain

This idea is based on the phrase “cloud of witnesses”, which can be translated as “surrounded by” or even “seated around about”, i.e., a crowd of seated spectators, looking on while the athletes perform.  This idea is further reinforced by the third main purpose:

“Throw off everything” that gets in the way of you running your race well.  “Throw off everything” can be translated as “setting aside every weight”, which may well reflect the way in which Greek and Roman athletes used to strip off and slim down to perform.  In other words, we are being encouraged to set aside anything which might hinder us from living our Christian life, with patient perseverance, as Jesus desires.  When taken in conjunction with the race metaphor, it seems obvious that the author has in mind a long distance race rather than a sprint – perhaps a marathon?  As we might say in modern English – “We’re in it for the long haul” – which, to us conjures up images of long distance goods haulage – another human endeavour that requires determination to continue to the end of the journey.

However, in case you get the wrong end of the stick from this metaphor, we mustn’t imagine the heroes of faith (or God Himself) looking down at us in critical judgement, waiting for us to fail:

“It is not so much they who look at us as we who look to them – for encouragement” – F.F. Bruce

When you remember the background of persecution being experienced by the 1st century Roman Christians, you can see that the author is trying to encourage them not to turn back to Judaism, but to persevere in following Jesus to the end of the race marked out for them.

The List of Heroes of Faith

Once we start to examine the actual list of people included in chapter 11, a number of awkward questions begin to surface:

  • Some of the men and women listed seem, on the face of it, to be of questionable morality.  For example, Rahab the prostitute, Jephthah (killed his own daughter) and Samson might seem odd choices.  (See the Appendix for a complete list)
  • It is remarkable how many outstanding men and women of faith have been omitted.  For example, why have people such as Daniel, Ezekiel, Hosea, Nehemiah and Ezra been left out?
  • The experiences of some of these heroes was downright awful, e.g., “Some … were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated” (Heb. 11:36-37)
  • In addition, is Heb. 11:1 meant to be a definition of Faith?  If it is, it doesn’t seem to be all that helpful.

So, what’s the point?  What’s the author attempting to communicate?

Some faith – not perfect faith

Remember that the author is trying to encourage his audience not to turn back to Judaism.  If he only included those who were truly remarkable examples of faith in action, discouragement might have been the result.  They might well have said to themselves “I’ll never be as good as them, so there’s no point trying”.

The point is that God doesn’t look for perfect faith from you and I – that’s an impossibility, since we are mere frail and feeble human beings.  What God looks for is humble faith that recognises that it is a gift from God, who is gracious towards those who come to Him with hope and expectation, in recognition of their need of salvation.

Eph 2:8 NIV  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–

Each and every one of the men and women listed in chapter 11 showed by their actions that they placed their faith in God, in spite of their circumstances.  Space won’t permit a full consideration of all of the heroes, but let’s consider two of the most jaw dropping examples.

Abraham and Isaac

The 1st century audience would have been extremely familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac, but since we 21st century Christians aren’t as steeped in Scripture knowledge, let’s first set the scene.

God made a number of remarkable, covenant promises to Abraham, and I have summarised them in the following table:

Genesis passage

what God promised Abraham
12:2-3 Ur of the Chaldees he would become a great nation and ALL nations would be blessed through him
12:7 Shechem he would have children (seed) who would inherit the land
13:14-17 Lot & Abraham part company he and his seed would inherit the land forever and they would be multitudinous
15:1-12 & 17-20 Hebron God makes a covenant with him by sacrifice.  The boundaries of the land are defined
22:15-19 Mt. Moriah (after God provides a ram) through his seed ALL nations would be blessed.
the promise was confirmed by God’s oath.

Notice how often the word “seed”, meaning “descendants” occurs in these promises.  It is the last of these promises to which Heb. 11:17-19 refers.  And remember, Abraham and his wife were childless until God intervened and gave them Isaac, their only son.

Having been given all these promises by God, that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars in the sky (Deut. 15:5), imagine how Abraham must have felt when, one day, God comes to him as says:

Gen 22:2 NIV  … “Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

How would you have felt?  Devastated?  Bitter?  Angry? 

Isaac is a grown man by this stage, so there’s another wonder – that Isaac agrees to go with his father, knowing what’s about to happen.

Abraham could have given in to all of the negative emotions you have imagined, but he simply obeys God, and takes his son to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him to God.  Heb. 11:19 tells us that Abraham trusted God, believing that if necessary, He would start from scratch and give him a new son, to a new wife, since Sarah was (some scholars think) dead by this stage.

I’m so glad that God hasn’t tested my faith to this extent – yet …

Without doubt, Abraham is a shining example of positive faith, and he is rightly venerated by Jews as the father of their nation.  However, even he wasn’t perfect (see Appendix) – he lied about his wife to Pharaoh (Gen. 14:11ff). and to king Abimelech (Gen. 20:2ff).  That serves to encourage those of us who have fallen in some way or other.

Rahab the prostitute

  sacrificing children to the Canaanite god Baal

As the Children of Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land, they were faced by a people who worshipped many gods, chief amongst whom were Baal and his mother Asherah.  Worship of Baal became a major stumbling block to the Israelites a few generations after the conquest of Canaan, even though he was shown to be impotent when God devoured the Prophet Elijah’s drenched altar with fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:20-40).  Nevertheless, the people continued to worship him and on occasion they gave their children to him as a sacrifice.

Part of the worship of Asherah, which also became prevalent, provoking God to anger on many occasions, involved the practice of ritualised sex.  Rahab was probably one of those involved in this practice, and would have been considered contemptible by Joshua and the Levites, if not by the majority of the Children of Israel.  Yet when the two spies were sent to spy out the city of Jericho, they were welcomed into her house (Jos. 2:1), possibly because she was used to entertaining many men from all over Canaan.  Some scholars think that this is why she was so well informed about the power of the Israelite God.  She knew about the crossing of the Red Sea and of their various conquests on their journey towards the Jordan.  She became convinced that Yahweh was the One True God and hence when the king of Jericho tried to make her turn the spies over to him, she protected them.  She saw the writing on the wall and made a bargain with the spies to save her whole family, which they honoured.

So far, the story could be seen as one of a debauched female who received mercy because she showed the smallest glimmer of faith – just enough to save herself and her family.  But the Biblical record, which is always transparently truthful, doesn’t end with the capture of Jericho.  Rahab becomes the wife of man called Salman, of the tribe of Judah, which would only have been allowed if she had become a part of the Jewish nation.  In Deuteronomy 7:3 we hear Moses giving this instruction – “Do not intermarry with them [the Canaanites, et. al.]”, so she must have converted to Judaism after the fall of Jericho.  One of her children was Boaz, who married Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, and after many generations one of her ancestors was Joseph, the “father” of Jesus.

Can you imagine the reaction of the 1st century Jewish-Christians?  I believe that many of them would have been shocked by Rahab’s inclusion in the list of the heroes of faith, because of her stained upbringing.  But then, that’s the point of her inclusion; the author doesn’t want them to miss the fact that Jesus forgives the foulest of sinners – and only on the basis of the beginnings of faith.  In earlier chapters he has shown that the salvation that Jesus has to offer, far exceeds anything on offer under the Old Covenant

Appendix – the positives AND the negatives of the Heroes of Faith

Character Positives Negatives OT ref.
Abel (11:4) The difference between the sacrifices of Cain and Abel was that Abel made his by faith Gen. 4:3-5
Enoch (5-6) Commended for his intimacy with God – he “walked faithfully with God” Gen. 5:21-24
Noah (7) Obeyed the warning that God gave him and built the ark – his obedience saved both him and his family Got drunk and naked Gen. 6:14-22; 9:21
(8-10; 17-19)

Obeyed God’s command to journey, without knowing the precise location.
Offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice – a type of Christ

Acts 7:2-4 – obedience delayed until father’s death.  Also, he lied about his wife to Pharaoh (Gen. 14:11ff). and to king Abimelech (Gen. 20:2ff)  Gen. 12:1-7
[Eventually] believed that God could give her a child, despite her age. She laughed at God in disbelief (Gen. 18:9-15) Gen. 18:11-14
Isaac (20) Blessed Jacob and Esau, believing God’s promises In “flesh” when he blessed Jacob – he really intended to bless only Esau who had sold his birthright. Gen. 27:27-29
Jacob (21) His worship was the result of his trust in God, believing that He held the future securely in His hands Had favourites (esp. Joseph); wrestled with God (Gen. 32:24-32); cheated Laban (Gen. 30:25 – 31:16) – Laban also cheated Jacob Gen. 49
Joseph (22) Faithfully resisted Potiphar’s wife; interpreted dreams with God’s insight; believed God for the Promised Land Boasted and bragged about his dreams.  Married the daughter of an Egyptian (occult) priest. Gen. 50:24, 25
Moses (23-28) Despite being educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22), he chose God’s leading at the burning bush and faithfully led the people of Israel for the last 40 years of his life; mediated the Sinai covenant and faithfully instituted the Law. Murdered an Egyptian overseer (Ex. 2:11-15); struck the rock in the wilderness (Num. 20:11) Most of the Pentateuch
Nation of Israel in the wilderness (29) Passed through the Red Sea; crossed the Jordan; took possession of (most of) the Promised Land Grumbled many times in the wilderness and were punished for rebellion – most notably the 12 spies of whom only Joshua and Caleb gave a good report; Most of the Pentateuch
Joshua (30) [by implication] Moses’ successor; captured the Promised Land Failed to take ALL of the Promised Land; made a pact with the Gibeonites when they deceived him (Jos. 9:1 – 10:15) Joshua 6:20ff
Rahab (31) Trusted in God and protected the spies; included in the lineage of Jesus (Mt. 1:5) Not born into the nation of Israel, she was a prostitute. Jos. 2:1 – 6:25
Gideon (32) Faithfully obeyed God and with only 300 men defeated the Midianites At first unwilling to believe God without two confirming miracles (wet and dry fleeces – Jdg. 6:36ff); made a golden ephod that was worshipped instead of God. Jdg. 6:11 – 8:35
Barak (32) He led the people of Israel in a dramatic victory over the Canaanites. Yet he hesitated and went forward only when Deborah encouraged him. Judges 4
Samson (32) Defeated the Philistines in the strength given him by God. A womaniser, who married outside the nation of Israel; headstrong Judges 13-16
Jephthah (32) Defeated the Ammonites Made a foolish vow to kill the first thing that met him – then killed his daughter when she was the first out to meet him Judges 11
David (32) A great king and type of Christ; showed remarkable faith; author of majority of the Psalms (songs of worship) Adultery with Bathsheba, then had her Hittite husband murdered; failed with his children Most of 1 & 2 Samuel, and the start of 1 Kings