By Faith Looking For a City

January 12, 2014 / No. 3706

Dear Radio Friends,
Abraham had moved from his home in Ur of the Chaldees. God had called him to leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house to travel to a land faraway—the land of Canaan. This was the promised land—the land where God would in the future continue His church specifically in the line of Abraham’s children.
We find in the Genesis account that, once Abraham moved to the beautiful land of Canaan, he did not settle in one place in Canaan. He did not build himself a house and a city. He was a nomad who wandered from place to place. Perhaps that does not seem all that out of place, since there were other nomadic people who lived that way in the past. But the verses of Hebrews 11 we consider today reveal that there was a reason Abraham did this. We read in Hebrews 11:9-10, “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Abraham viewed himself as a stranger and a pilgrim in the earth with no real abiding place. He looked for a heavenly city. And the reason Abraham did this was because he was a man of faith. Hebrews 11 calls our attention to the faith of Abraham.
We are going to consider Abraham’s faith today. But not as this faith was an isolated virtue in Abraham’s life alone. It is this same faith that must characterize every believer. It must characterize you and me too! It is this faith that makes us the spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham. He is the father of all believers. Because this is true, this passage teaches us a sound truth about us.
Abraham’s Faith
Abraham was a man of great faith. Faith is Abraham’s earmark in Scripture. It is true that he is not the only man (or woman for that matter) to whose faith Scripture points. Neither is he the first believer. There have been believers in this world since the time of Adam and Eve. Obviously, from Hebrews 11, there are many who have gone before us that are examples of faith. Hebrews 11 presents us with a cloud of witnesses who testified boldly of their faith in Christ. But Abraham is an outstanding figure of faith in Scripture. Out of the 40 verses in this chapter, there are twelve devoted to the faith of Abraham. Likewise, we learn of his faith in Romans 4, Galatians 3, James 2, and other chapters of the Bible. This is why Abraham is referred to as the father of all believers. We will return to that in a little while. But at this point, we need to define this faith of Abraham.
Hebrews 11 looks at faith from a particular point of view. Verse 1 explains that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But that certainly is not a complete definition of the concept of faith. A definition of faith begins with what Paul teaches us in Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” Faith is a gift of God. It is not a work of man. It is not something that a man must muster up from within himself before God will save him. It is a work of God—a gift or blessing of salvation that God works in the hearts of His elect people by the Spirit of Christ.
When the Spirit enters the heart of one of God’s people, that person is regenerated, that is, given life out of death. At that moment that elect sinner is grafted by the Spirit into Jesus Christ. That grafting, that binding us together with Christ, is the power unto faith. Such a work of faith does not lie dormant in a person, however. It is not a work of Christ that leaves you and me unaffected. In other words, faith is active in us. It affects our souls.
What is the activity we call faith? Knowledge! We are given to know God and Jesus Christ. This knowledge of faith is not the same knowledge that an unbeliever has of God. Oh, it is true that all knowledge is intellectual. All knowledge affects our understanding. The unbeliever can know exactly the same kind of facts about God and Jesus Christ as the believer can. Maybe even more! But the knowledge we have of God is one that is activated by the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit takes up His seat in our heart, then what we know of God and of man and his sin and of salvation in Jesus Christ is a true knowledge of God. It is a knowledge by which we love God, and fear God, and seek God, and, as a result, place our confidence in God.
That was the faith of Abraham. He knew God. He knew that God was the almighty, sovereign Creator who demands of His creatures that they obey Him. He knew of the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. He knew of man’s guilt before God. He knew of his need for a Messiah. But he also knew of God’s faithfulness. He knew of God’s friendship and favor. He knew God was unchanging in His love and mercy toward him. God had promised him His blessing. Abraham experienced that blessing of God too. And Abraham was confident that God would give to him everything that He had promised.
This faith of Abraham characterized, and still characterizes, all of Abraham’s children. Does this mean that all of Abraham’s natural children were believers? Does this mean that God somehow passes on Abraham’s faith via genetics? If you were a Hebrew in the Old Testament you were automatically a believer? Does this mean that the Jews today who are the natural seed or children of Abraham can only be believers? After all, God did say to Abraham: “I will establish my covenant with you and your children after you in your generations.” And was it not true that only the Hebrews in the Old Testament were saved, with the exception of a few others?
It is true that in the Old Testament times the children of Abraham were found among the natural descendants of Abraham. God limited the scope of His church for many centuries to the Jewish people. But this certainly did not make every Jew a believer! Nor were the Jews, that is, the natural descendants of Abraham, his true children! The writer to the Hebrews, in the last several verses of chapter 3, points out that many of the nation of Israel (Abraham’s children) did not enter the land of Canaan because of unbelief. Their carcasses fell in the wilderness enroute to Canaan. Jesus pointed out plainly to the Pharisees in John 8:39: “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham.” Jesus point blank told these men, who were the natural descendants of Abraham and who even boasted of being the spiritual elite of Israel, “You are not the children of Abraham! You do not do the works of faith!” Paul states the truth plainly in Romans 2:28, 29: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”
So, the natural descendants of Abraham are not Abraham’s children to which the Bible refers. The true children of Abraham are in every age those who believe! Abraham’s seed consists only of believers—all believers. This was true in the Old Testament and it is still true today. Though believers were for a long time found only among the natural descendants of Abraham, this does not mean that every natural-born child of Abraham was one of his spiritual children. This ought to be clear if we are going to apply the Word of God before us. The natural-born children of Abraham are not the seed or the children to which the Bible refers when it speaks of Abraham’s children.
So, here is the question: are you a believer? Is the faith of Abraham we have described yours? Do you believe? Do you know God, your sin, and your salvation in Jesus Christ? Do you fear God, love Him, and seek to live for Him? Are you confident that God will do what He promises in His Word? Do you recognize Him as the sovereign Creator who holds the times and the seasons, as well as your life, in His hand? Do you find Him a faithful Father who for Christ’s sake has forgiven you of sin and now dwells with you in fellowship and love? If this is true, you are one of Abraham’s children, as I believe I am! Abraham is our father, people of God. He is the father of all believers! The faith of Abraham that is revealed in the passage before us now is our faith. This is how the blessing of Abraham becomes ours, namely, through faith. This is the means by which Abraham becomes the father of many nations. This is how all the families of the earth are united together again after the division of the peoples and nations at the time of Babel.
Oh, the nations of the earth will always be divided by strife, hatred, and pride. But from among those nations God gathers to Himself a church agreeing in faith! It is the faith of our father Abraham. In light of that we are able to take what is said of Abraham in this verses of Hebrews 11 and make specific application of it to ourselves, though we live centuries after Abraham did.
Its Object
That being established, let us look back at the faith of Abraham from the point of view of the Word of God before us. Faith is the substance of things hoped for. Abraham hoped for something. He believed that God was going to fulfill something. In other words, Abraham’s faith had something as its object. We learn of the object of the faith of Abraham in our text. Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, we are told in verse 9. And at the end of that verse, he dwelt in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. The object of Abraham’s faith was God’s promise. It was this promise that he saw afar off, and was persuaded of it, and embraced it, and confessed it. What promise is that? That God would give to him and his children the land of Canaan as a possession. And that his children would be as the dust of the earth that no man can number.
Yet, to understand this promise of God to Abraham we must examine it in light of Abraham’s life and what God was performing in him. You see, this promise of God was only one among several promises. But all these promises centered in one truth. They all find their source and fulfillment in God’s covenant. God’s covenant is the bond of friendship and favor that He establishes with His people in Christ. In that covenant, God becomes the God, the sovereign Friend, of His people, and His people become those who belong to and are protected by God. God enters into the closest relationship of love with His people for Christ’s sake. He is a father, His people are His children. He is the husband, and His people are His bride. In this love and friendship, God makes different promises to His people. One such promise to Abraham was to give to him and his children the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.
God took Abraham and showed to him the entire land of Canaan. To you and to your seed I will give this land, He told Abraham. It will be your possession. That is a promise!
And Abraham believed God because he knew God. He knew who God was and that God was both able and willing to give to him what He promised. By faith Abraham dwelt in that land of Canaan, always clinging to that promise! He died clinging to that promise—never seeing that promise fulfilled. But he believed God.
But, you know what? That earthly land of Canaan was not the real object of Abraham’s faith. It was only a picture to Abraham of the place of his true desires. We read in Hebrews 11:10, “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” It is obvious that the real promise of God was this: someday you and your children (believers) will enter into a city that I have prepared for you in heaven. This earthly land of Canaan is only a token, a type, a picture of My real promise of the heavenly land of Canaan! You and your spiritual children will come to dwell with Me in a better country—a perfect country, that is, a heavenly.
Abraham in faith saw this promise of God, was persuaded of it, embraced it, and confessed it! God would fulfill it! And for that reason Abraham looked for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Abraham looked for his possession in heaven. The earthly land of Canaan was only a temporary place to live. Abraham need only sojourn there until such time as he would receive the city God prepared for him in heaven. That is what Abraham was given by faith to see when he looked at the land of Canaan. The promise of God to him was not wrapped up in the earthly. God’s promise was highly spiritual. And Abraham in faith looked beyond the earthly.
That is the idea of verse 10 here. A city is a permanent place. When a person builds a city, he builds a place of permanent abode. With the building of a city, foundations are poured, and on them houses and stores and shops are built. A person moves into one of the houses and finds his job in that city. He puts down roots. He moves in to stay with his family. He identifies himself with that city.
Where do you live? Pittsburgh—that is the place of my abode. Well, for the believer, the place of his abode is heaven. He identifies himself with heaven. Where is your home? My home is heaven. That is where my roots are. That is where I will live for an eternity. That is my city—the city that God has prepared for me. This world is not my true home. I am only sojourning here. I seek heaven. All else is but a passing phase in my life. That was what Abraham hoped for. And he knew he was going to receive that inheritance too.
He was an heir to that promise. God would give it to him. As his Father, God would give him the possession of heaven. But how could Abraham believe that? He knew that certainly he did not deserve to go to heaven. He was a sinner. He had fallen in Adam and Eve. He deserved only God’s wrath and condemnation. The permanent home he deserved was hell—not heaven! How could Abraham look for a city called heaven? Because of the one central promise of the covenant—a promise Abraham received and clung to. The promise of a Messiah.
Abraham believed that he was an heir to the heavenly land of Canaan because of the salvation that was his in the coming Messiah. Abraham believed that and clung to it and was persuaded that God is faithful to fulfill that promise. This is why Paul could write in II Corinthians 1:20, “For all the promises of God in Christ are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us.” That promise of a permanent place in heaven is given not only to Abraham, fellow believers. It is given to you and me too! In faith we look for the same city that Abraham looked for! Canaan is a picture to you and me too of that heavenly land of Canaan. We are persuaded that this city is ours! God has prepared it for us! That is the place of our desires! Why? Because we are characterized by the same faith as Abraham.
Its Result
This desire of Abraham caused him to live the way that he did. Abraham was not merely a nomad—a man who enjoyed the nomadic life. He knew what it was like to live in a city. He came from one. But Abraham while in Canaan lived in tabernacles, that is, tents, with his sons. He had no abiding place in the earthly land of Canaan. By faith he looked for a permanent abode only in heaven! So he purposely lived in tents with Isaac and Jacob. And Abraham wandered here and there in the land. He identified with no city there. Neither did he build a city and lay down foundations. Such also ought to be our life in this world. I know we live in houses and in cities, and that is perfectly fine. But how much do we place our stock in this earthly realm? How far down have we dug our roots here? How much of our lives is devoted to the earthly rather than the heavenly? By faith we must long for, wait for, hope for those things not seen.
Then too, Abraham lived in Canaan as in a strange country. He lived as a pilgrim and stranger in this world. Such too is our calling in this world. This world is not my home. I’m only passing through! The faces of the unbelievers are not the faces of friends. They are strangers. I do not fit here with them. Their goals and aspirations in life are so different from mine. I am a stranger here, dependent on God’s grace.
Why is all of this true of us? Because we live by faith and not by sight! Faith looks for and hopes for those things not visible to the eye. Abraham is our father. His faith is our faith. May we live in that faith and confess that we are pilgrims and strangers in this world.