Injected into Hebrews 11 at this point is a short synopsis of the last few believers we have studied. We read in Hebrews 11:13-16, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”
When this passage states at the outset, “these all died in faith,” it refers to Abraham and Sarah, and then also to Isaac and Jacob, who are mentioned in verse 9. The writer to the Hebrews has these believers in mind because these received the specific promises of God’s covenant. God promised the land of Canaan as their possession and that their seed would be without number. But if we read the verses before us closely, we will also find they speak in the present. The writer does this in order to draw believers today into what is said about those believers in the past. We also today confess that we are pilgrims and strangers in the earth. This confession is true of us because we too seek a country that is a heavenly.
So, we are drawn into the hopes and desires of these saints that have gone on before. We will find that really the life of these saints, though different in time and circumstances, is not all that much different from ours today. In a very real way we can say of God’s people today, “we all die in faith not having received the promises of God.” We have received the promise of Christ’s second coming and our final redemption. We have received the promise of the final resurrection. We hope for these. But we will die not having received them—unless, of course, Christ returns in our lifetime. This Word of God therefore is timely and significant for us.
One other truth we need to bear in mind in this passage is the typical character of the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan is for us a type of heaven. This earthly country is a picture of the heavenly country. But it is not a type only for us today. It was also to the believers in the Old Testament. The promises that surrounded the land of Canaan served to point Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives to the coming Messiah and heaven itself too. That comes out clearly in the Word of God we study today.
I. A Promised Country
It is evident that the main idea of this passage is a country. But this is not just any country. It is a country set apart from all others. It is a country that one truly desires, a country that a person diligently seeks for. In fact, so special is this country that one reaches out for—stretches out his hand, so to speak—in order to grasp it, so precious is it. What makes this country so special? It is one’s homeland. That term describes this country well. It is our fatherland, the true place of our home. Such is implied in the simple word “country” in the verses we consider. It refers to the country or place of a person’s lineage. In other words, it is that country where people can lay claim to a common origin. People are born out of the same common line of a family. Some people can call themselves Dutchmen or Italian or Spanish or Asian or Indian or African. These are the countries of their origin—their homeland. Perhaps we are not able to relate to that as much in our own land since we have become a melting pot of all nations. Most of us were planted here a long time ago by our own ancestors who moved here. For us, America has become our homeland no matter what ethnic background is true of us.
This is the idea behind verse 14: “they that declare such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” Or better, “they that say such things disclose to everyone around them that they seek their homeland.” This, of course, must be applied to Abraham and his wife Sarah as well as to Isaac and Jacob. They declared that they too sought their homeland. The country they sought after was the land of Canaan. The point is, however, Canaan was not truly the homeland of Abraham and Sarah and their children. Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia was their homeland. Abraham and Sarah both were of the seed of Shem. The Shemites remained in the land of Shinar. This means that Ur of the Chaldees was actually Abraham’s homeland. But the writer to the Hebrews points out that this was no longer true of Abraham, Sarah, and their children. Verse 15 teaches us that if truly Abraham and Sarah were thinking about or desirous of the land from whence they came out, that is, Ur, they had every opportunity to return. But they did not! Canaan was their new homeland. They as it were disowned their old homeland in order to make Canaan the place where they longed to be. This was the land of promise to them.
This was where God established His covenant of friendship with him. This, therefore, was the place of their desires. Yet, not entirely! To these men and their faithful wives, even Canaan was not truly the place of their desires! They viewed this earthly land only as a picture that pointed them to their true homeland, a better homeland, a heavenly homeland! Even while living in Canaan these saints confessed they were pilgrims and strangers there. In other words, these men and women of faith saw heaven as their country, their homeland.
And the same is true with God’s people today! This is the point of the writer of these verses, to draw you and me into desiring our true homeland in heaven. Think of it, people of God. We can well understand why Abraham and Sarah made Canaan their homeland instead of Ur of the Chaldees. This was the land of promise to them. We are able to understand this in a small way. We said it earlier. Most of us have been transplanted here in the United States long ago. Our fathers saw this as the land of opportunity. They were excited about making this their new homeland. The same was true of Abraham and his children, but from a highly spiritual point of view.
Now, think of heaven! It is the true place of our lineage as believers, as it was also for the saints of old. When we were born again we were born from above! It has become the place of our common origin. No matter when or where we are born in this present world, all of us together as believers are children in the family of God. Our Father is in heaven. Our Savior is in heaven with Him. Heaven therefore is the place of our desires, our longing. This has become true of us by means of our salvation. No matter from what land or language or race or color, we are children together in the household of God. Through the death of Christ we have been grafted into the vine of the church. This transforms our desires. In this life we reach out to heaven. That is where our family is. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob reached out to heaven too. They were assured of their place in that heavenly country. For us, too, heaven is a better country, that is, a country that is far more advantageous than our place on earth. In our heavenly homeland there will be no more sin, no more misery, no more tears or sorrows. Only peace, joy, and rest. That is far better, far more advantageous, than any place on earth!
But let’s face it. We have never seen this heavenly homeland. We have never witnessed with the eyes what will be ours when we reach heaven. Just as Abraham and Sarah, along with Isaac and then Jacob, never actually possessed the land of Canaan as their own, so also have we not yet possessed heaven. Everything they looked for and diligently searched for was never theirs in their lifetimes. These things were only promised them. Yet we read in verse 13, “they were persuaded of these promises and embraced them.”
Why would they do that? Why would we do that? Why would we hope for something we have not seen? One reason is: God has promised it. We have come to know and love God, and we know that what God promises He will indeed give us. We learn of Abraham, in Romans 4, that he believed that God was able to perform what He had promised. Of Sarah we learned last week that she judged God faithful who had promised. The promises God makes to believers we need never doubt. God is the One who promises, remember. This God is the God of our salvation. He has chosen a people from eternity to be His own. He loves them with an eternal love. When He promises His people something, He will not change His mind. He is faithful who promises.
Furthermore, God is able to do what He has promised. He is God, who holds all things under His sovereign control in heaven and on earth. He not only has planned all things but in His providence He will see to it that everything He has planned He will do. God is willing to give us, His children, what He has promised, being our heavenly Father, and He is able to accomplish what He has promised, being almighty God.
Besides this, we have evidence that God is faithful to fulfill His promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never lived to see God’s promises to them regarding Canaan fulfilled, but God indeed fulfilled those promises. This is the point of the writer to the Hebrews in applying this example to us today. The patriarchs received the promises, having seen them afar off. They received those promises! We can be reassured that we too will see God’s promises to us fulfilled. God is indeed faithful who promises.
II. A Faith-Filled Confession
Though it is true that God is all of this, a faithful Father and an almighty God, nevertheless God’s Word before us emphasizes that these saints lived and died in faith. These saints were persuaded of God’s promises to them. They embraced them. That is faith. It is the substance or assurance of things only hoped for. It is the evidence, the conviction, that things not seen with the eye will indeed of a surety take place. Again, we may not forget that faith begins with the work of God’s grace in the hearts of His elect people, those chosen in Christ. At the appointed time in our lives, Christ sends forth His Spirit to dwell in us. That Spirit immediately works in us the salvation earned for us by Christ on the cross. That salvation begins with the work of regeneration, our spiritual rebirth. At that time we who were dead up to this point receive the life of Christ in us. With that work of the Spirit we are also grafted into Jesus Christ and become one with Him. That becomes the power unto believing. Without this grafting into Christ we would have no ability to see and know the things of the kingdom of heaven. But with it the child of God comes to know God, know his sin, and know Jesus Christ and His salvation. As a result, by faith we cling also to the promises God gives us.
Cling is a good word. Our text uses the word embraced. These Old Testament believers embraced to themselves the promises of God. Not, mind you, the promise of an earthly country, but that of a heavenly. But faith is not simply a work of God by which we are grafted into Christ. Faith is an activity. It is knowledge and confidence. It is conviction, persuasion. By such faith, when the believer receives the promise of salvation in Christ and a place in heaven, he embraces this promise to himself. We know what it means to embrace someone. It is to take someone into our arms and give them a long hug. The term embrace literally means to draw to oneself. This is the reaction of the believer to God’s promises. He joyfully draws them to himself and clings to them. He holds them. They are precious to him and he embraces them so as not to let them slip away. Such is the character of faith.
There is something we may not overlook here. The patriarchs received only a small taste of what was promised them. They truly did see these promises afar off, at a long distance. They yet lived in the day of types and shadows. Christ would not be born for many years. Yet, these saints embraced the promise of His coming. They embraced what that coming entailed, that is, salvation from sin. They embraced the glorious country that awaited them in heaven for the sake of that Redeemer who was yet to come. How much greater reason we today have to persevere in our faith without growing weary! Christ tells us that the kingdom of God is at hand! We live in the last days. We have been given a more sure knowledge of our salvation. We know exactly how God has saved in Christ. We know of the person and work of our Savior. The saints in Abraham’s day did not know that, yet they clung to God’s promises to them. How much more ought we to cling to those promises. We today in faith must embrace, cling to, most fervently and confidently, the promises God gives us.
These patriarchs all died in faith, confessing they were pilgrims and strangers on the earth. Not only did they confess but they also lived as pilgrims and strangers in this world. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never owned one parcel of land in Canaan. They never settled in one place to build for themselves a city where their children in their generations would live. They lived in tents and wandered from one place to the next in the land. This was true because they looked for a city that has foundations whose builder and maker is God—that city, once again, being heaven. Our text refers to it in verse 16, last phrase, “for God hath prepared for them a city.” Heaven is spoken of as a city because it is the believer’s permanent abode—a city that is eternal in the heavens, where we will dwell with the family of God forever. The patriarchs confessed out of faith that they were pilgrims. A pilgrim is one who journeys through foreign lands to visit a holy shrine or city. The patriarchs confessed and lived as those who were journeying through this present life with one goal in mind, to reach the holy city. They were always looking for that city that was to come in the heavens.
Likewise, they were strangers. They simply sojourned in Canaan without attaching themselves to the inhabitants of this land. They remained strangers to the pagan inhabitants of the land of Canaan. The confession these saints made was one that they lived in their everyday lives. They did not cast in their lot with the wicked inhabitants of Canaan. They remained a spiritually distinct people. This does not mean they did not interact with others among whom they sojourned. God does place us in this world. We certainly must deal with unbelievers in our stay here. But we do not cast our lot in with them. We remain a spiritually distinct people. The application of this Word of God to our lives in this world is clear. Yes, we live in houses. But we also understand that this world is not truly our home. We have no abiding place here. We are passing through on a journey in a foreign land. Our home is in heaven.
That is what we confess, but that is also how we must live. We must not place our affections on the things of this present world. They will all perish. There is nothing lasting about them. Likewise, though we are called to live among the unbelievers of this world we must separate ourselves from their godless lifestyle, their ungodly goals, their sins, and set our sights on the pleasures and treasures that exist at God’s right hand. Heaven is our home.
III. An Unashamed God
God was not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. What is said here of the patriarchs must also be said of us as we live in this world. God is not ashamed to be called our God. What about that? When we live as do the wicked of this world for the here and now, then God is ashamed to attach His name to ours. The patriarchs confessed and lived as pilgrims and strangers in this world. For that reason, God was not ashamed to be called their God. These men lived in faith in the promises of God. That faith revealed itself in the way they lived in this world. For that reason God was glad to say, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That is what must be said of you and me, who also profess to be believers. God must say of us, “I am not ashamed of them. I am not embarrassed to call them by my name, to attach my name to their names.”
Are we living in the same faith as our Old Testament fathers and mothers? Do we embrace the promises as fervently as they did? Do we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly? For that reason do we live as pilgrims and strangers in the earth with no abiding place here? Then God is not ashamed to be called our God. We realize there is no reason to boast in this. Our boast is in God alone and in the work Jesus Christ has performed in us. By His grace alone God attaches His name to ours. With that incentive, however, we go forth in faith, longing for the better country, that is, a heavenly.