The “Hall of Faith,” found in Hebrews chapter 11, gives us a list of OT heroes, including men like Noah, Moses, and Abraham. Women of faith are included in the chapter as well. Often seen as giants of the faith, these people are presented to us like Olympians on their pedestals during an award ceremony. They are faithful believers, worthy of our consideration and imitation.
However, hidden within this list of “heroes,” the author of Hebrews also brings to our attention four unlikely characters.
In verse 32, the author of Hebrews writes:
And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah….i
In this list, we are told of four men found in the book of Judges: Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah.
These are odd additions for the author of Hebrews. When we go back to the Book of Judges and consider the accounts of these men, it does not take long to see that they all had serious shortcomings.
In the case of Gideon, the author of Judges paints a nervous, and distrusting, example of a believer. First, he tests the Lord with the fleece. When that wasn’t good enough, he does it a second time but with new stipulations (Judges 6:36-40). Later, Gideon takes gold from the people of Israel, and turns it into an Ephod (Judges 8:24-29). We are told that because of it the nation played the harlot, and it became a stumbling block for Gideon and his family. Thus, Gideon ends his life, having led the nation, and his own family, once again down a path of idolatry and destruction.
When we look to Barak, we find similar deficiencies. In Judges 4, we read the story of Barak and Deborah. Barak is offered the opportunity to defeat Israel’s enemy, including their commander Sisera in battle. Deborah tells Barak that if he fights against Sisera, the Lord will deliver the commander to him, and he will claim the victory and honor (4:7). However, Barak refuses to go to battle without Deborah. Because of his cowardice, the glory of defeating Sisera goes to a woman (Judges 4:8-9). Thus, Barak goes down in history as the guy who hid behind the skirt of a woman and loses the honor of defeating Israel’s enemy firsthand.
Then the author of Hebrews lists Samson. Probably the most well-known of these four men, Samson is a lifelong womanizer. He marries a pagan (Judges 14:1-3), sleeps with a harlot in Gaza (16:1), and ultimately dies due to his involvement with the prostitute Delilah (Judges 16:4ff). His habitual sexual immorality is undeniable, and yet it is often ignored by many when they talk about this man.
Finally, we have the account of Jephthah (Judges 11:1ff).
The son of a harlot, Jephthah is first introduced as an outcast, running around with a gang of outlaws (v 3). The Lord uses him to defeat the enemies of Israel, but he only agrees to fight if the elders will agree to make him their commander (vv 9-11). In other words, Jephthah doesn’t go into battle out of the goodness of his heart; it’s a lucrative business deal. To make matters worse, Jephthah then makes a vow that causes his only child to pay the price for his error.ii When you read the account of Jephthah, what you find is a man whose faith was often overshadowed by foolishness and self-gain.
With this list of these four men, we don’t have shining examples of sinless believers. Instead, we see flawed and messy men who look more like a police lineup than a panel of Olympians.
Can a believer habitually sin? Can a believer have doubts, struggle with cowardice, or make foolish decisions that have life-long consequences?
Can someone like Samson, a habitual womanizer, and sexually immoral person, still be one of the great heroes of the faith?
According to the author of Hebrews, they can. Despite these clear examples, this is often denied by most in Christendom. The Arminian would say these men lost their salvation. The Calvinist would say that anyone who habitually sins proves he wasn’t saved in the first place.
And yet, these men are found in the Hall of Faith. The author of Hebrews drags these messy, imperfect, men forward, and says even they are worthy of imitation.
In what way?
Certainly, the author of Hebrews has in mind the common theme we see with these men. All four of them ultimately trusted in God, and faced their enemies. Granted, it would have been a better if they’d been willing to go without certain security fleece blankets. Regardless, they went into battle. For the readers of Hebrews, this would have had significance, as they faced their own enemies. Gideon was nervous, Barak needed a woman, and Jephthah had to be bribed, but at the end of the day, they went into battle and did what God told them to do.
It is worth noting that the sins of these men didn’t go without consequences. Barak lost the honor of defeating Sisera, Jephthah lost his daughter, and Samson lost his life. While believers can’t lose eternal life due to our failures, we can lose privileges, rewards, and honor when we sin. These men also teach us that there are consequences for our disobedience.
Many in Christendom today shy away from this verse in Hebrews 11. They skim over this list of defective men and wish to jump to the “greats.” What they fail to see is that when you only look for unblemished heroes of the faith, you will end up with empty pedestals.
In contrast, the author of Hebrews tells us there is much to learn from these imperfect men. They show us that eternal security has never been dependent upon our works. We can’t lose eternal life due to our sins. They also remind us that anyone can be great in the kingdom of heaven, even those who have flawed stories. In the end, these four men stand beside the others, as equal members of the cloud of witnesses (12:1), worthy of our imitation, and study.
[i] Some commentators suggest that verse 32 consists of three pairs of men, with the most famous of the two listed first: Gideon-Barak, Samson-Jephthah, David-Samuel. [ii] Since Jephthah is included in this list, it is unlikely that he sacrificed his daughter. Most likely he required her to remain a virgin her whole life, never marrying and never giving him grandchildren.