Hebrews 11:13-22 – A Better City

We reminded ourselves last time that everybody lives by faith. It’s not just the Christians; everybody lives by faith. The question is: faith in what? “What is the object of our faith?” Everybody deep within their souls has a longing—a longing for something that will satisfy, a longing for something that gives us significance. We have these deep real longings in our souls as people made in the image of God, and there are millions of people who believe somehow, some way, those deepest longings can be satisfied in this world. They believe somehow this world will ultimately make them happy…will make them significant…will meet the deepest needs in their soul. In essence, they do believe you can create heaven on earth. Most of us here would say, “We simply don’t have that much faith.” We look at the world, such as it is, and it just seems like a reckless leap of faith. Rather we choose to believe there’s got be something different and something better. That’s what we want to talk about today in Chapter 11.  

It’s our second part in Hebrews 11, and it would be good to go back to verse 1 and just remind ourselves again of the Hebrews’ definition of faith. So: “Faith is the assurance, (the confidence) of things hoped for.” Again, hope in the New Testament is something that is certain but it is also something that is yet future. This word assurance is a word that can also be translated as the substance. In other words, it’s something I believe so strongly that it actually becomes the substance or the foundation of my life. I believe it to such a degree that I live in such a way that I actually give people a glimpse today of the world to come. It is: “…the conviction of things not seen,” which reminds us this is a faith that is thoughtful; it’s reasoned; it’s not just a reckless leap of faith, but rather we have examined the evidence and concluded, “This is what we believe is true.” The writer then goes on to illustrate this kind of faith through people like Abel, through Enoch, through Noah, through Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob, which is where we pick up the story in verse 13: 

All of these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. (*NASB, Hebrews 11:13-15) 

This is very important to understand. What the writer says is all of these died in faith, without receiving the promises. We don’t like that. We want what we want, and we want it now. “I want the promises kept and I want them kept now!” Many Christians struggle with this desire to see the promises fulfilled and fulfilled now. We want to believe that somehow the deepest longings of our soul can be satisfied in this world. We want to somehow create heaven on earth.  

It’s a little bit like building your dream house in a war zone. And let’s imagine the builder tells you again and again not to do it, “It’s not going to work,” but you won’t listen; you insist! So he builds you your dream house in a war zone. Then you don’t like it. “It’s too noisy; it’s too dangerous!” But here’s the irony: Then you turn around and you blame the builder. That’s what we do. We take these promises and we want them fulfilled now; we want our best life now!  And so that is what we try to accomplish—heaven on earth.  

But this world just breaks our heart again and again and again, and when it doesn’t work out like we want it to, then we blame God. And God says, “Wait a minute, that’s not what I promised. I didn’t promise your best life now.” You can sell a lot of books with that theme; you can fill a big auditorium with that theme, but it simply isn’t what God promises. What God promises is: this is going to be tough. This is going to be hard. The hope of the gospel is the reminder that one day Jesus is coming back and we will be ushered to the place that our souls long for.  

Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob—they all believed the promise that God would give them a land, but they all lived in tents. They all died having never seen the promise fulfilled. The text said they were aliens and strangers. They were saying, “This world is not my home—at least not as it is now.”  The writer says they wanted to find a place to call home, and if they were referring to the cities from which they left, they could have just gone back home. Moving to some other place, trying some other thing is not going to cut it. But rather with eyes of faith, they knew they were headed for somewhere else. Verse 16: 

But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.  

They understood that even the land of promise is but a shadow of the eventual city their souls long for—which is not an earthly city—it is a heavenly city that will be everything that they longed for. But they believed by faith. They lived by faith; they died by faith…believing it’s true. It’s very interesting what the last part of verse 16 says: Therefore…  As a result of that—remembering that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, these were not perfect people—go back and read their stories. There were times of struggle, times of death; there were times when they seriously messed up. Jacob was a liar; he was a schemer; you don’t even like the guy after you read his story. The message has never been on the basis of their performance but on the basis of their belief. They believed that God would keep His promise.  Therefore God is not ashamed.   

Verse 17: 

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… (Vs. 17a)   

So this story is found in Genesis chapter 22; you can go back and read it for yourself. The verb tense here would indicate that in Abraham’s mind he had already offered Isaac. In other words, he wasn’t still wrestling with the idea.  He had settled it; he would offer his son, Isaac.  

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; (Vs. 17b)   

It’s the same language as John 3:16—For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son. The language means specifically unique or special. We’re called the sons and daughters of God, but we’re not God’s only begotten Son in that special way that Jesus was. In the same way, Abraham had other sons, but they were not the son of promise—Isaac was! And so Abraham is wrestling with this idea that God promised that the seed would travel through Isaac, but He’s asking me to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. At this point Isaac would have been 12 or 13 years old. Verse 18: 

 …it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE  CALLED.”  (So, in his mind, Abraham had settled it.)  He considered… (That word is very strong. He had a deep, deep conviction…) that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type. (Vs. 18-19) 

Essentially what the text is saying is that Abraham, in his mind had sacrificed Isaac—he had settled it. But he believed so strongly in the promise and that God tells the truth that somehow God would raise him from the dead in order to fulfill His promise. As a matter of fact, if you go back to Genesis 22:5 and you read the story, Abraham says to his servants, “Wait at the bottom of the hill and we will return to you.” He believed with all of his heart that he and Isaac would return, and his way of making sense of that is, “God’s going to raise him from the dead.” 

But the other part of that story is in that moment when God stopped Abraham, He provided a ram, and the ram would die rather than Isaac. The ram would be the substitute for Isaac that would die that day. We don’t have to guess at this; the text actually tells us:  that was a type—a shadow, a picture. Isaac’s story was a type (parable, figure, illustration) of the fact that God will give us what He has promised. He was a type of Christ. We’ve had a lot of that in Hebrews. It was the reminder that one day on this same mountain, on Mount Moriah, there would be a Father who would actually sacrifice His only begotten Son for the sins of the world. He would be the substitute. He would be the Lamb of God who would die the death for Isaac, would die the death for Abraham, would die the death for all of us as sinners. We’ve learned this in Hebrews: He died our death. His blood is sufficient payment for sin. There’s nothing more that needs to be done.  

But what the story also includes is the resurrection—that Jesus not only died and was buried, but He conquered sin and death once and for all when He rose from the dead—literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead! That’s Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15—the basis by which we believe that we will experience resurrection after death, and it is not just religious talk, not just wishful thinking. It’s based on the fact that Jesus Himself literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead and conquered sin and death once and for all that we, too, might be resurrected and live even though we die. Verse 20: 

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come. By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.  (Vs. 20-22)  

The text is reminding us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph believed the promise, but they would die having never seen it fulfilled. They would never inherit the land in their lifetime. What did Abraham have to pass on to Isaac? The promise! What did Isaac have to pass on to his sons Jacob and Esau? The promise! “Boys, I know we’ve been living in a tent our whole lives, but God tells the truth. We have to trust Him.”  Joseph so believed the promise that he said, “Don’t bury me here.” Egypt was his home. “Take the bones to Canaan, because that will be our land.” It would be over four hundred years before God would raise up Moses to deliver them out of the land of Egypt into the land of promise.  Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, his sons— they’d all be buried in Canaan. But at the time of the burial, the land would belong to someone else. They just believed by faith, one day God will keep His promise. But it was more than that. They understood the land of promise was yet but a picture of something more. They were aliens and strangers; they were passing through; they wanted a country of their own which ultimately would be a heavenly city that would be everything their souls longed for. It is interesting that in verse 16God had prepared a place. It was past tense—God already had the city ready. . The root of this hope is found in the resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus literally, physically, bodily rose from the dead, He did not rise from the dead with a new body. He rose from the dead with a resurrected body. He showed the imprints of the nails in His hands; He showed the scar in His side. 

It was the body that was crucified and buried that rose again. This is Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15.  That is the basis by which we believe this body, such as it is, is the body that will be raised from the dead. This mortal will put on immortality. This body will be restored to me and it will be changed and it will be made the way God intended it to be. It’s the picture of redemption, of restoration, of making right what was taken and broken. This is critically important to understand because it is the message filled with such hope! The things that broke our heart, the things that disappointed us, the things in this world that simply were not the way we had hoped they would be, somehow they’re made right and restored and given back.  

The more you understand this, the more you believe this—the more it changes the way you live everyday. The more it changes your priorities, the more it changes your perspective, the more it changes your values—the more you realize what matters and what doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to create heaven on earth. I’m an alien and a stranger and I’m headed to a better place. God made a promise, and I believe that God tells the truth and I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. And I live by faith and I will die in faith, having never seen the promise fulfilled, but believing with all my heart it is true! And there will come a day…finally…where I will finally be home! 

Our Father, it’s hard to even process the depth of the hope of the gospel. God, we know this world teases us; this world breaks our hearts again and again. And it just reminds us this world is not our home—that we are aliens and strangers—and by faith we are headed to a better city—a place that will finally be home! God, until that day, find us faithful. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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