Summary: Running the race with the heroes of the faith, with our eyes fixed on Jesus.
THE HALL OF FAITH
1. In the earlier verses of Hebrews 11, the ‘Hall of Faith’ (as I have called it) spoke of faithful individuals, ranging from Abel through Abraham to Moses. Now we have a shift to the plural, emphasising the collective faith of all involved. “By faith THEY passed through the sea” (Hebrews 11:29).
‘Show me your faith without your works,’ says James, ‘and I will show you my faith by my works’ (James 2:18). Without the practical application of faith in their lives, the children of Israel would still be standing there beside the Red Sea when the Egyptians caught up with them. The order of the day, ‘Stand still and see the salvation of the LORD’ was closely followed by, ‘Move forward’ (Exodus 14:13-15).
Not only does the obedience of faith (Hebrews 11:8) belong to the faithful, but those without faith were “swallowed up” by the sea (Hebrews 11:29). A generation later the walls of Jericho, symbol of Canaanite strength, came a-tumbling down - but only after the Israelites had faithfully, and obediently, walked around them for seven days (Hebrews 11:30).
2. Returning to the roll-call of individuals, we are reminded that “the faith” is not the sole preserve of one group of people. Rahab was a lonely believer in a condemned community (Joshua 2:9-11), but did not fail to put her faith into action (Hebrews 11:31). Furthermore, God’s care of His covenant people did not necessarily pick out the most deserving, nor even the most likely (Hebrews 11:32).
In the generalities that follow (Hebrews 11:33-38), we are able to recognise certain people from the Old Testament, and from the 400 years between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. There are two main groups: those who persevered and overcame (Hebrews 11:33-35); and those who suffered and (in some instances) were martyred (Hebrews 11:35-38). It is no coincidence, coming so soon as it does after Hebrews 11:36-38, that the Greek word for “witness” (Hebrews 12:1) gives us the English word for ‘martyr’.
The list is left unfinished: it is unfinished yet (Hebrews 11:39-40). Yet what remains is the variety of people and circumstances through which the LORD has fulfilled, and is fulfilling His purposes. We are not clones or drones, and our callings may vary, but we are all part of the same team.
3. Hebrews 12 begins with a doubly strengthened form of the particle, usually translated “therefore” (for that reason), or more correctly “wherefore” (as a result of which). This is so that we do not miss the connection with what has gone before: “since” we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, “consequently…” There follows an exhortation based on the roll-call of the faithful in the previous chapter.
This great throng is envisaged as “encompassing” us, surrounding us like the environs of a district, enclosing us like a crowd in a stadium. Yet they are not just on the touchline, cheering us on, but very much a part of us (Hebrews 11:40). They are called “witnesses” not because they are armchair spectators, but fellow-participants in the mutual and collective “race” (Hebrews 12:1).