After the Flood God had chosen to establish His church and covenant with the seed of Noah’s son Shem. With the division of the peoples at the time of the tower of Babel, Shem’s generations remained in the Mesopotamia area. A man named Abraham was born ten generations or about 400 years after Noah in that line of Shem. Abraham and his wife, Sarah, lived therefore in Ur of the Chaldees. They were well rooted there, along with their kindred, that is, their relatives. Abraham was 75 years old and his wife 65 years old when God appeared to Abraham to call him to move to Canaan. We can be sure that by this time in their lives Abraham and Sarah were rather comfortable in their home in Ur.
It is in this context that we need to consider the Word of God before us today in Hebrews 11:8-10. We read, “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. 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.”
The Bible makes repeated reference to Abraham and his faith. The New Testament Scriptures emphasize this faith of Abraham because God’s covenant with him is one and the same covenant God shares with believers today. A person cannot read the New Testament Scriptures with discernment without coming to that conclusion. Abraham is the father of all believers, we learn in Roman’s 4. In Galatians 3:29 we learn that if we belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s seed. You and I are sons and daughters of Abraham, and the relationship of friendship that God established with him is the same as He establishes with us. This is why so much emphasis is placed upon Abraham and his faith here in Hebrews 11.
This is also, remember, the theme of Hebrews 11: God’s people must live by faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen. Faith always clings in hope to the truth that what God promises He will fulfill. This is the faith that must characterize us as God’s people today.
I. Abraham’s Call
The call Abraham received of God was twofold. We read in our text, first of all, that “he was called to go out.” This refers to the truth that Abraham was called first of all to leave Ur of the Chaldees, where he initially lived with his family. When he left Ur he left his people, the Semites behind. After this initial call, Abraham moved with his father and his brother and their families to Haran, just north of Canaan. There he again received the call by God to leave Haran to go to a land that God would show him. When he left Haran, Abraham left his family behind. Only he with Sarah and their nephew Lot traveled to Canaan.
Now, we cannot help but note that Abraham and Sarah were called to leave everything and everyone they loved behind. Further, God probably explained to them the particular land to which He was sending them. After all, they did not follow a star to Canaan, as did the wise men centuries later. Nevertheless, they had never seen the land where they were to go. It was a foreign land with a foreign people. This is what Hebrews means when it says that Abraham “went out, not knowing whither he went.” Today, people have the advantage of all kinds of information about where they are going at their fingertips on the Internet. Even missionaries today often take classes in order to learn how to acclimate themselves to a foreign country. Abraham had none of that. Imagine once: Abraham was called to leave his own home with all its comforts, with all its security, with all its familiarities to go to a land that he knew absolutely nothing about. “Abraham, pack up your wife and what little you can carry and leave your life behind to go to a place where I am calling you to go!” How many of us would be willing to do that? Well, Abraham would not have been willing either, except by faith. We will consider that in a moment.
But there was another important side to this call that is only implied in these verses in Hebrews 11. There was a promise attached to his call. We are told in verse 9 that Abraham sojourned in the land of promise. Isaac and Jacob were heirs with him of the same promise. What promise did God give Abraham? This: “the land to which you are going, Abraham, I will give you as an inheritance! It is yours! You will inherit it from me.” Again, in verse 8, Canaan was a place which Abraham “should after receive as an inheritance.” Remember, the earth is the Lord’s. As Possessor of all the earth, God now says to Abraham, “I will give to you and to your children the land of Canaan as an inheritance from me.” That is the promise God gave to Abraham. Leave Ur and go to Canaan and I will give it to you and your children in their generations as an everlasting possession. I will make of you, Abraham, a great nation. And more, in you and in your children I will bless all the nations of the earth.
So, the land of Canaan was the land of promise. We also learn from the Word here in Hebrews that Abraham was called to live there with his children as a stranger. Our text states that Abraham sojourned there as in a strange country. This means first of all that Abraham was to dwell among the wicked inhabitants of this land. The people of this country, remember, were the wicked generations of Canaan, the cursed son of Ham. This is why this land was called Canaan. Abraham’s call by God, then, was to live in the land to which He would call Abraham and remain a stranger to the wicked people of this land. He must live the life of the antithesis in this world—a life of spiritual separation from the wickedness of the people of Canaan.
I say spiritual separation. Obviously, God sent Abraham into the land of Canaan to live among its inhabitants. Abraham could not live in isolation from the people. Neither did he. When we read the account of Genesis we find that Abraham certainly did interact with the people of Canaan. But he was to live the life of a stranger among them in this sense, that he must isolate himself from the wicked lives of these people. He must not join with them in their sin. He must not enter into league with them or join with them in their goals and aspirations. Abraham was to live in Canaan as one who was of the party of God in this world, one who represented the cause of Jehovah. He must live as one with whom God established His covenant. The friendship he must seek was that of God’s friendship. That is what it means to live as a stranger in a strange land.
All of this Abraham was called to do. He must leave the church and his people behind. He must leave his family behind and travel his life all alone without the fellowship of those friends. He must go to a land that he knew nothing about save that it was filled with wicked unbelievers. He must make a life for himself there with just his wife and nephew, and that while remaining a spiritually distinct person from the rest of the world.
What a lonely life! This is to what God called Abraham. Oh, it was not as if everything to which God was calling Abraham was bleak and despairing. I mean, Abraham was going to receive an entire country as an inheritance of his own. He was going to have children as the sand by the seashore, who would possess this land. That was promising! But all of this was in the future—distant future, at that! It was all far beyond the hope of fulfillment in his lifetime. What could possibly have motivated Abraham to make such a huge move in his life without seeing any possibility of the promise given him of God to be fulfilled? Well, it is the same thing that motivates all of God’s people: faith. By faith Abraham believed God and His promise to him.
II. Abraham’s Obedience
Now, it would become somewhat repetitious that with each of these saints of Hebrews 11 we redefine their faith for ourselves. But it does stand out that Abraham was motivated by the same wonderwork of God in his heart that God worked in the hearts of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. God’s people have always lived by faith. This is the faith that still characterizes God’s people today. This is the faith God works in our hearts. The power unto faith is a gift God bestows on us at the moment of our regeneration. Regeneration, remember, is that moment in a dead sinner’s life when God instills in him the life of Christ. He that was born dead in sins is now made alive in Christ by means of a spiritual rebirth—regeneration. At the very moment of our spiritual rebirth, God takes the elect saint and grafts him into Jesus Christ. As a result, he is united to Christ. We become branches in Christ the tree. Or, to use the more common figure in the Bible, we become members of Christ’s body. We are one in Him. That is the power unto faith—that is where faith finds its spiritual seat in us.
But faith itself comes to manifestation in our lives when we are made conscious of our salvation. That is when faith becomes active in us. Sometimes when a person hears the call of the gospel and is converted as an adult, this activity of faith becomes evident immediately. At other times, when such faith is worked in the heart of an infant, the activity of faith reveals itself slowly, while the child matures in his awareness of this work of God in his or her heart. But in one way or another the activity of faith is always both a certain knowledge and a hearty confidence. This activity of faith is also a wonderwork of God’s grace in us too. That was the faith that characterized Abraham. Abraham had a certain knowledge of God—a knowledge by which he knew God as his God, loved and feared God, stood in wonder at the knowledge of Him and therefore worshiped God. He also had a hearty confidence that the Holy Spirit worked in his heart, an assurance that this God was his sovereign Friend with whom he could walk in blessed fellowship. Abraham had the knowledge and assurance that there awaited him an eternal inheritance in heaven.
The question is, when it comes to Abraham and the Old Testament saints, how could they have such knowledge and confidence? The knowledge we possess comes to us from what God has revealed in His Word to us. Furthermore it is rooted in the cross of Jesus Christ. The confidence, the assurance of fellowship with God, comes through the knowledge that Christ has gone to the cross and paid the price for our sins. God is our sovereign friend only on the merits of what Christ has done for us. He alone has made us righteous before God. He alone has delivered us from the clutches sin had on us. The knowledge and confidence of our faith is based upon, is found only in, Christ’s work for us. Furthermore, it is only through the work of Christ that we have attained to the gift of faith. There can be no faith apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. How then could Abraham possess the gift of and exhibit the activity of faith in his life?
Ah, that is a very good question. Let us begin our answer to that question by asking another question: could the saints of the Old Testament be saved in any other way than by Christ? Some men insist that the people of the Old Testament were saved in a different way than we are today. They claim that the church today is saved through Christ, but the Old Testament saints were saved by the keeping of the laws of Moses. But this could not be true of Abraham. By the deeds of the law no man is justified. Abraham was not saved on the basis of his obedience. Besides, the laws of Moses did not come until much later. How could Abraham be saved in Christ if Christ was not born yet? How could Abraham even be given faith if such a gift is accomplished through the work of Christ who had not yet come?
Through the promise! The saints of old were given a promise: the promise of the Messiah who was to come and save them from sin. The promise that now God gave concerning the land of Canaan to Abraham was rooted in this one central promise of the covenant. We read 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.” Abraham was given the certain knowledge that a Savior was to be born out of the line of his generations and that this Savior would save him from his sin. In faith he looked for that Savior. His faith is really no different than ours, which looks back to that Savior for salvation. We look back, but Abraham looked forward in faith to the coming Messiah. For that reason he also was united to Jesus Christ by faith. He therefore, like us, was saved in the blood of that One to come by virtue of the promise given him.
Though Christ had not yet been born or died, Abraham was seen in Christ as righteous before God. And for that reason he believed that he was worthy of God’s friendship and a place in eternal glory. Abraham lived in that faith and therefore he obeyed. He left his people and his family behind, he traveled to a place he knew nothing about. He lived among the heathen with Sarah. His son Isaac, and then Isaac’s son Jacob, would follow him in that faith, continuing to live in Canaan as the land of their inheritance. The obedience of Abraham was therefore but the fruit of that faith of Abraham. It flowed out of that faith just as all obedience to God’s commands does.
Such also is the calling of every believer: to obey unquestioningly the call of God to us. I realize that God does not place before us the same call as He did before Abraham, but there are often important decisions that believers today must make too. Whom am I going to marry? To what church must I belong? Then too, ought I to center my life in that church? How do I serve God in the place of my employment? What will I do when society and the government demands of me to disobey God? So many other questions flood to mind when we talk about obedience to God’s will. The answer to these questions is to live by faith! Our faith and not our personal desires ought to drive us in our lives. Faith always clings to Christ. The mind of Christ, the desires of Christ in us, must determine the direction of our lives. When we walk with God by faith, this will determine our obedience too.
III. Abraham’s Hope
But according to Hebrews 11:1 faith is also this: the substance of things hoped for. It was this hope of Abraham that determined his obedience. The hope of Abraham is recorded for us in verse 10: “he looked for a city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God.” While Abraham lived in Canaan, he dwelt in tents. Abraham sojourned as a stranger in a strange land with no permanent dwelling place. He and his sons with him were nomads who lived in tents, moving from place to place. The reason for this is found in Abraham’s hope. Abraham did not simply look for, but he also waited for, that is, he hoped for a city which has foundations. He looked for a heavenly city that, unlike a tent, would have foundations. In other words, this city would be a permanent structure that could not be removed. That city, of course, is heaven. We say that because the builder and maker of that city is God. The builder or the architect of a city is the one who plans it. He draws up the blueprint of that city. Heaven is the end of all our hope, fellow believers, because it is the purpose or goal of God for all things. That is where in faith we long to be.
Further, God is the Maker of this city. Through His providence God constructs this city in its minutest detail through the course of the history of this world and the church. That is why this city was the object of Abraham’s faith and hope. This is what motivated him to obey. Somehow God revealed to Abraham that the land to which he was to go for an inheritance was only a picture of the heavenly land of Canaan. It is called a city here in our text because heaven is in fact the heavenly Jerusalem. But Abraham looked beyond Canaan. That is why he lived in tents. That is why he sojourned there as a stranger. His sight was set beyond the earthly to the heavenly. Such was the character of Abraham’s faith.
That must be the character of our faith too. We too must be willing to forego our earthly wants and desires to seek the things of God’s kingdom. Why? Because that is our ultimate hope. We are only passing through this world on our earthly sojourn. Peter calls us pilgrims and strangers in his epistle. What we possess in this world is not permanent. Though we do not live in tents we must always view the things of this present life as that which will perish. We must not place our hope on things that rust and moths will eat or thieves may break in and steal. We must lay up treasures in heaven—the place of our permanent abode. That we must do following the example of Abraham—by faith.