Hebrews 11 offers a simple structure that helps organize the material in a nice, orderly fashion. Yet it still throws in a few surprises along the way that serve to highlight some of the author’s main points.
A cursory reading of the text will show 18 times when the author begins a sentence, “By faith.”
11:3 – “By faith we…”
11:4 – “By faith Abel…”
11:5 – “By faith Enoch…”
11:7 – “By faith Noah…”
11:8 – “By faith Abraham…”
11:9 – “By faith he…”
11:11 – “By faith Sarah…”
11:17 – “By faith Abraham…”
11:20 – “By faith Isaac…”
11:21 – “By faith Jacob…”
11:22 – “By faith Joseph…”
11:23 – “By faith Moses…”
11:24 – “By faith Moses…”
11:27 – “By faith he…”
11:28 – “By faith he…”
11:29 – “By faith the people…”
11:30 – “By faith the walls of Jericho…”
11:31 – “By faith Rahab the prostitute…”
With both Abraham and Moses, the “by faith” mantra appears more than once. Moses gets two additional “by faith” mentions (vss 27-28), whereas Abraham gets at least one in vs 9. Depending on how one interprets vs 11—with either Abraham or Sarah as the subject (see my sermon on this point)—we might say Abraham gets two additional “by faith” mentions, plus the third in vs 17 which explicitly mentions him by name again. This explicit mention, by the way, may lend structural support to seeing vss 11-12 referring to Sarah, causing the author to revert back to Abraham explicitly in vs 17 after the interlude.
Hebrews 11:6 throws an early curveball. Instead of “by faith,” it has “without faith.” This has the effect of showing us what faith should and should not look like. Namely, faith “must believe that [God] exists” and faith must believe “that [God] rewards those who seek him.” The people on the Hebrews 11 list both believed in God’s existence and believed that God rewards those who seek him.
In addition to this “without faith” aside, we also see a full paragraph that acts as a summary of the entire message: 11:13-16. Here, the author explicitly tells us what was so great about each of these people: they desired a heavenly home, acknowledging their temporary status on earth.
The final part of the list, which mentions Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets (11:32) as well as others (11:33-38), does not have the typical “by faith” formula, but instead opts for a construction of preposition + genitive noun (“through faith”). This throws a different kind of spotlight on the people in this part of the list, not as focused, but rather a collection of faithful examples.
The chapter also begins by defining faith (11:1-2) and ends with a summary (11:39-40) and application (12:1-2).
Another interesting feature of this chapter is the heavy focus in the Pentateuch. Discounting the examples that are mentioned in passing from vss 32 on, we see the biblical focus as follows:
Genesis: Creation (vs 3), Abel (vs 4), Enoch (vs 5), Noah (vs 7), Abraham (vss 8-10, 17-19), Sarah (vss 11-12), Isaac (vs 20), Jacob (vs 21), Joseph (vs 22).
Exodus: Moses (vss 23-28), First-generation Israelites (vs 29).
Joshua: Second-generation Israelites (vs 30), Rahab the prostitute (vs 31).
It’s clear how heavy an influence Genesis had on the author as he considered the various examples of faith.
Considering the structure of a passage helps us to understand the flow of thought and main points an author makes. As elsewhere, the mind of the author of Hebrews is steeped in the Old Testament, offering dozens of examples of what a faith-filled life looks like.