Most of us in the church are familiar with Hebrews 11, the so-called “Hall of Fame of Faith.” Many of us can recite at least portions of the great events mentioned. And countless sermons and messages have been preached on faith from this passage. This post is not intended to add to that collection. Rather, we are going to look at a part of the chapter that is often missed and overlooked. In the middle of the passage, we find these words:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 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 for them a city (Heb. 11:13-16).
Did you catch that first sentence? The heroes of the faith all died, NOT having received the things promised. That should cause us to stop and think for a moment. It’s easy to miss that in the midst of all the grand statements of what the heroes of faith were able to accomplish through the Lord. We often hear that great faith can accomplish great things. And that is absolutely true.
At the same time, we must say with the writers of Scripture that the ultimate longings of faith will not be realized in this life. The longing to be with the Lord, be fully transformed like Christ, and to dwell with God forever. Yet we, as they did, can “[see] them and [greet] them from afar.” This is the vision of faith. Until those things are realized, until we are truly Home, we live life in the minor key.
If you know anything about music, you know what is meant by “the minor key.” When something is played in a minor key it often has a darker, sadder, sometimes even morose tone. As believers living in the midst of this sin-stained fallen world (and highly aware of our own sin), we live in that same minor key. The heroes of old understood this well.
Aliens and Strangers
The Old Testament faithful, we are told, “[A]cknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (v. 13). They realized that this world was not their home. They were made for a perfect world and their world was not it. Pain and suffering, war, death, and famine were all around them. And that doesn’t even mention their own personal failings and sin.
Sounds a lot like the conditions of our world, doesn’t it?
In truth, nothing has changed. It can be safely said that, had God not made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth with a flood to kill all humanity, He probably would have started over again–and again, and again. While we live in this world, we find moments, and even seasons, of peace, love, joy, and even happiness. Those, however, are the mountain top experiences. If we are honest, most of our lives are spent on the plains and in the valleys of life.
Bills to pay
Work schedules to keep
Sickness and death of family members
Threats of war
The list could go on and on. Even when not in the dark valleys of life, we are on the plains and plateaus of life, doing our best to let life not become a drudgery. The ultimate joy we long for is far off. Because we are not home yet. This world is not our home.
As the passage tells us, “For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland” (v. 14). They were looking toward eternity, toward something better. Like them, that is the key for how we are to live life. Yes, we can and will see those times of true joy in the Lord as we walk closer and closer with Him, as our flesh is crucified and we are transformed more into His image.
But our hope for joy must not be set on this life. We will be disappointed too many times if that is where our eyes and hearts are fixed. Instead, we must keep our eyes forward, looking toward that Day.
A City Prepared
Notice what the Lord’s reaction to this thinking is: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (v. 16a). He is not ashamed to be called their God. And we can rightly read this sentence as, “Because these people were looking toward that heavenly place and the eternal joy, God is not ashamed (and is instead happy) to be called their God.”
Why is God not ashamed? The last part of the verse tells us: “For he has prepared for them a city” (v. 16b). He has already prepared a place for them to dwell. Those words apply to us as well, not just them. Jesus echoes a similar thought:
In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:2-3).
Just as God had prepared a place for the Old Testament faithful, Christ is preparing a place for us. He meant those words as a strong encouragement and comfort, because He said, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1). Translation? “You don’t have to be afraid. You’re going to see what your hearts long for, that better dwelling place with Me and My Father. You can count on it.”
That Kind of Faith
To return to our passage, we will look at one more important thing. Did you notice that verses 17-38, which catalog their mighty deeds, come after that description of faith?
By faith, Abraham . . .
By faith, Isaac . . .
By faith, Jacob . . .
By faith, Joseph . . .
This is the kind of faith that does those great things. It is not a faith that is simply pumped up. It is a faith that has absolute trust in God, having set the eyes of the heart on eternity and scorning the treasures of this world. We know that their faith produced these results because we are told “[A]ll of these [were] commended through their faith” (v. 39a). Those mighty deeds were the proof of their faith. Yet, the writer feels the need to repeat an earlier statement. These mighty people of old, though they were commended by their faith, did not receive what was promised.
Why did they not receive those things in this life? Because “God had provided something better [for them and] us” (v. 40). They, and their faith, were our examples. As God has prepared a place for them, we have the same hope.
When you feel that tug in your heart that things just aren’t right here, when you feel life is a drudgery, when you wonder “Is this all there is?,” remember that what you are really feeling is homesickness. You were created for something better. And God is pleased to give us glimpses of that eternal joy here, to remind us of what awaits us in eternity.