There’s a problem with the “Hall of Faith” (Christians often refer to Hebrews 11 as the Hall of Faith, as opposed to a “Hall of Fame,” more on that below). The problem is in Hebrews 11:32-34,
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
The problem is Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah. Is David a Hall of Faith guy? No doubt. One major failure, but God’s grace abounds, right? What about Samuel? This guy was a faith machine from a young age. You try rebuking the retired High Priest about his parenting skills when your voice hasn’t changed yet (1 Samuel 3:15-18). How about the prophets? Clearly Daniel is in view, as well as others, and they definitely pass muster.
But have you read Judges lately? Gideon had precisely 1.5 faith moments in Judges. He gets partial credit for tearing down the altar to Baal, but loses points for doing it at night (6:25-27). He was finally convinced to trust God by a divinely inspired albeit bizarre Midianite dream, and did so for the duration of the “battle.” In the aftermath, however, Gideon quickly lost sight of God, and ends up setting up another idol.
How about Barak? Barak scores a little better than Gideon, but he still hesitated to believe that God would use him to lead Israel to victory. He practically had to be pushed down Mt. Tabor to go fight, and a housewife took his privilege of killing the enemy general, Sisera.
What about Samson, the undisputed UFC champion of the OT? Samson expresses exactly zero faith in the Judges narrative. He’s too busy chasing girls. Even at the dramatic conclusion of his life, his prayer to God is motivated by a desire for personal revenge against the Philistines.
And then there’s Jephthah, who, despite what you may have been told, most certainly sacrificed his daughter in a Canaanite ritual as “payment” for God’s giving Israel victory.
The author of Hebrews commends these men to us, but why? They are not role models in the way they lived their lives. As far as the Biblical record goes, they only had fleeting moments of faith. So why commend them? Because Hebrews 11 isn’t about what they did; it’s about what God did.
How does Gideon’s “army” defeat an innumerable Midianite host? How does Barak’s infantry succeed against Jabin’s iron chariots? How does Jephthah the social outcast provide victory over the Ammonites? How does Samson, one man, provide victory for Israel over the Philistines?
They didn’t. God did. Even if just for a moment, these men followed God’s lead, believed his promises, and acted in faith. Reflecting on the awkwardness of their presence in Hebrews 11, John Calvin said,
Therefore, the apostle attributes their every praiseworthy deed to faith, even though there was not one of them whose faith was not lame!
The Hall of Faith isn’t at all like a Hall of Fame. Consider the Pro Football Hall of Fame: players are inducted by a selection committee that considers their accomplishments as a player. But in Hebrews 11, it’s not the individuals’ acts that are in view, but rather their faith in God who acts for them.
What should we take away from the presence of these questionable characters in Hebrews 11?
- Their presence does not endorse a sinful lifestyle. We shouldn’t think that Gideon’s anxiety or Samson’s lust somehow provides a justification for our own. It doesn’t.
- Their presence should remind us that faith is about God, not us. Perhaps today each person listed in Hebrews 11 would say, “It’s not about me, it’s about him.” Let’s not be naming ministries after ourselves.
- Their presence should motivate us to live by faith. This is what the author of Hebrews is after- casting off sinful entanglements and running the race God has for us by faith in him. Why should we attempt to serve God in remarkable ways? Because we believe he is who he says he is.
- Their presence reminds us that God is pleased to use common people for his glory. We can all relate to Gideon, Jephthah, Barak, and Samson on given days. God used them in spite of their significant limitations.
Again, Calvin has good insight here:
…the wrongs which burden us should neither dishearten us nor break us down, provided only that we follow our calling by faith.
In the same way, God calls us to great faith in him. There is hope for us, not because of who we are, but because of who God is. When we think about Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, and Samson, we might wonder what would have happened had they trusted God more. But this doesn’t go far enough. The better question is, what would happen if we trusted God more?