It is not uncommon for preachers and Bible teachers to refer to Hebrews 11 as the Hall of Fame of Faith, since the chapter offers a long list of Old Testament saints whose trust in the Word and promises of God prompted them to act with extraordinary boldness and courage in some unexpected and often dire circumstances. I know that those who refer to Hebrews 11 this way do so with good intention, which is to inspire their audiences to trust God’s Word and promises in spite of their situations.
But in sports, the very idea of a hall of fame implies individuals whose career accomplishments set them apart from others who have played their respective sports. A common refrain for sports enthusiasts in regard to players who may have had a very long and good career but who do not make it into the hall of fame is that “it’s the hall of fame, not the hall of very good.” So, when I think of a hall of fame, I think of inclusion (the exceptional) and exclusion (the very good but not quite good enough).
Hebrews 12:1–2 seems to imply that the names mentioned in chapter 11 are not included so that the reader would be awed by the exploits and deeds of these Old Testament saints and therefore try to emulate what they did. On the contrary, chapter 12 opens by calling them “witnesses,” which is a far cry from hall of fame language. These saints are witnesses to the efficacy of God’s grace for those to whom He has given the gift of faith.
In spite of their flaws and failures, these saints trusted God’s Word, sometimes at great risk or cost. It is not their exploits that are the focal point; it is their trust (which is God’s promise). Abraham continued to trust God’s promise in spite of his failure in regard to his wife in Genesis 12:10–17. Moses trusted God’s promise, but in Numbers 20:12, he is told he would not be the one to lead the children of Israel into the promised land.
The exhortation of Hebrews 12:1–2 indicates that the individuals named (and those who are not named) in chapter 11 are witnesses to the fact of God’s faithfulness in sustaining the faith of His saints in spite of their flaws and failures:
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.
If we look at the names in chapter 11 as only a Hall of Fame of Faith, we miss the point. We may assume that we don’t have what it takes to measure up. We may think that our flaws and failures make us lesser saints. That’s why the exhortation is to look to Jesus, because He is the substance to which our faith attaches. The cloud of witnesses testifies to the fact that looking to Him and not to our abilities emboldens us in ways we could never imagine.