Sermon preached on Hebrews 11:13-15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/4/2018 in Novato, CA.
Living and Dying in Faith as Pilgrims
As I was studying today’s passage, I kept thinking about the classic story of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. That’s an allegory of the Christian life as one of pilgrimage from this life to glory. In it, the main character who is named Christian leaves his hometown called “City of Destruction” and sets out in pursuit of the “Celestial City” which is seated on the top of Mount Zion. The book is full of Scripture references and allusions as it pursues this story. Well, at one point while on his pilgrimage, Christian is asked by someone named Prudence if he sometimes thinks back and remembers the city which he had come from. Christian replies, “Yes, but with much shame and detestation: Truly, if I had been mindful of that Country from whence I came out, I might have had opportunity to have returned; but now I desire a better Country, that is a heavenly.” Hopefully you see that Christian’s response references today’s passage here in Hebrews.
And so today we’ll have a chance to think about the pilgrimage of the Christian. First, we’ll see what this passage says of the destination, of the place God has promised us. Second, we’ll think about how that destination makes us strangers and pilgrims then in this life. Third, we’ll think about this reference to dying in faith and how that is what we all should be setting our hearts on again today; that not only would we live in faith, but press on even to that day that we die in faith.
Let’s begin then with seeing more about our destination. We said in last week’s passage that God had promised Abraham both a people and a place. We today who trust in Jesus are part of the fulfillment of that promise of a people. And today’s passage tells us more about God’s promise of a place. Last week we saw that God’s promise to Abraham of a place meant that God called him to migrate out of the land of the Chaldeans up to Haran, and then out of Haran into the land of Canaan. Initially it looked like God’s promise of a place for Abraham and his descendants was a promise of a physical land on this current earth. God even promised to Abraham specifically that he would give his descendants that land of Canaan. In fact, after several generations and a time in Egypt God did provide for Abraham’s descendants to conquer and possess the Promised Land of Canaan.
Yet, in this passage and also in last week’s, we see that a physical earthly homeland was not what the patriarchs were ultimately looking for. In last week’s passage not only did Abraham not secure a place of his own in the Promised Land – he had to live as a sojourner, like a nomad; but we see that he didn’t even find a suitable place he could have settled down into. Unlike Lot, he was not willing to settle into a godless city. He was looking instead for the city that has God as its foundations. So, Abraham, believing that God would ultimately provide such, was content to live as a sojourner in tents until then. This is what we saw last week. Today’s passage further develops this. In describing their destination, it’s described in verse 14 as a homeland. That complements the description of a city that was used in last passage and also again in verse 16. This place, this city, that God would bring them to, it would be their new homeland. That is where they would settle. That is where their home would truly be.
Verse 16 shows us that we are supposed to compare this new homeland to the other options before them. Compared to where Abraham came from and even where he came to in the Promised Land of Canaan, this ultimate destination would be better and it would be heavenly. Better and heavenly! There is surely some redundancy there. To say that God’s promised homeland for them would be heavenly would surely imply that it is better than anything earthly. Of course, we could think in other ways that it would be better. It would be provided by God and founded upon God. God’s ways would be loved and honored and kept. If we pull in description from Revelation 21 then we see things like no more death, pain, or sorrow. It will be a place of healing for God’s people after all the troubles in this world. There will be no more evil, no more Satan, no more sin. Indeed, this city and homeland to come will indeed be better in every way!
And yet even though to call it both better and heavenly are almost synonymous, let’s pause for a moment and think about some of the significance about describing this new homeland as heavenly. First, we remember that heavenly here is in contrast with earthly. Earth is where we are, in a fallen sin-cursed world full of miseries. Heaven stands above this earth as the exalted and holy abode of God and his mighty angels. It is also where Christ our hope has ascended to in victory. Jesus has told us that he will come again to bring us to this heavenly abode that he has prepared for us. That idea is further clarified in Revelation 21 when we see that this earth is made anew and out of heaven a new Jerusalem comes down and sets itself up on this new earth. And so, for this ultimate homeland for God’s people to be described as heavenly, it ultimately looks beyond this fallen world into the world and age to come. This again points us back to what was said a moment ago: to be heavenly it means it is qualitatively different that anything earthly; and it is not only qualitatively different, it is qualitatively better.
Realize then the ramification of this point. It says that the earthly promised land was only a type and a shadow of the ultimate homeland that God’s people would inherit. It’s hard to say how much the patriarchs understood this. But in some sense they did, according to Hebrews here. And if they had some sense of it, then we have a lot more sense of it! This was the same point Hebrews made back in chapter 4 that even after the Israelites finally did possess the land of Canaan that they still hadn’t entered the ultimate rest and inheritance God had in store for them. That’s because the ultimately homeland for God’s people is not some plot of land in the middle east, but it is something far better, something heavenly, that God has prepared for his people. As a point of application, this is why ther is no current religious value about that land. There may be political reasons or even historical reasons a person might have interest in that physical, geographical land of Israel. But there is no compelling spiritual value or prophetical value. It was but a placeholder under the old covenant that meant to point them and us beyond to a better, heavenly homeland. That’s what the Bible says here.
This then is the destination ultimately held out to the patriarchs and to us. Let’s turn now to our second point and think about being a stranger and a pilgrim in light of this final destination. We see this language in verse 13. In context, this most directly refers back to the point of verse 9, how Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in tents as strangers and pilgrims in the promised land of Canaan. In their lives, they never truly settled down there. You read through the accounts in Genesis and you see them as sojourners and nomads, but never really owning the land and living in it as their own. The first piece of land that the family finally owns in the Promised Land is when Sarah dies, Abraham buys a small plot of land to use as a burial site, the cave of Machpelah. But otherwise, they lived as guests in the land, allowed to exist as sojourners there.
Notice the point it makes in verse 13 and 14 about the attitude of the patriarchs here. It describes their actions of living as sojourners as a confession that they were looking for a different and better homeland. At their time, they knew God had called them to that place. But they didn’t settle down yet because they didn’t see the kind of place there that they believed God would be bringing them. So, their living like sojourners demonstrated their patient waiting. Verse 13 further describes their hope as having seen the promises from afar and embracing them. To see them from afar, reminds us of how back in verse 1 of this chapter it spoke about having faith in things that are not yet seen. They didn’t see them yet with their eyes; they didn’t see them yet ion terms of actual realization of the promises. But they did see them with the eyes of faith. When it speaks here of them embracing these things from afar, the word “embrace” is literally about saluting something. The picture then here is of someone looking at their homeland in the distance, far, far, away, and saluting it. I think of how Daniel prayed toward Jerusalem when in Babylonian exile. If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, when you’ve been staying in one motel after another, living out of a suitcase, toward the end of the trip most people start to become more and more eager to get back home and back to their own bed. You can become homesick. Well, the patriarchs were homesick, so to speak, for the home they didn’t yet have, but they did possess it by faith. In faith, they saluted it from a distance and put their allegiance in the kingdom to come.
The patriarchs, then, were strangers and pilgrims while they were in the Promised Land because they knew that God yet had a greater homeland to come for them. In faith they looked toward that even though they didn’t receive it in their life. This theme finds similar expressions in Scripture. When Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before they came into the Promised Land, it was a similar idea. Likewise, when the Israelites were brought into Babylonian exile for 70 years, it again was a similar idea. And as we mentioned, even when Israel did possess the Promised Land as their own, they were supposed to realize that it was only a type and a shadow of the true homeland God had prepared for them. So then, us too today in the new covenant, are called strangers and pilgrims looking forward to one day going to our true and final home in glory.
The application then to us is that we are to seek such a homeland even as the patriarchs are described here as seeking such. That’s the language of verse 14. They “seek such a homeland.” The word “seek” is the same one used of Jesus in the sermon on the mount for pretty much the same idea when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Likewise, we see this point come a summary and climax in chapter 13, verse 14, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” That’s the application, brothers and sisters. We are strangers and pilgrims in this life. We need to live heavenly minded. We need to live with the perspective that nothing in this life is our permanent home. There is a sense in which we always live out of a suitcase in this life. Our citizenship is ultimately in heaven, and so in one sense we are always going to be foreigners here in this world. This must be the perspective of faith.
I would add one caveat to this. And I will use the example of Israel’s time of sojourning in Babylonian exile. In Jeremiah 29 God tells Israel two important things after telling them he would be exiling them because of their sin. One, he tells them the good news that he will ultimately bring them back to their homeland of Israel. That should certainly cause them to set their heart on their eventual returning. But second, he also tells them that they are going to be in exile for a long time, for seventy years, so they need to seek the peace of that city where they are exiled. They need to seek its peace and they need to pray for that place, because he tells them, “in its peace, you will have peace” (Jer 29:7). That’s wisdom for us too. It comes into the idea sometimes referred to as the “two kingdoms” doctrine. In other words, though we ultimately seek our eternal heavenly homeland, right now we live here in this world and in whatever earthly kingdom or country God has providentially placed us. There is an ethic for sojourners and pilgrims that says we should look to bless the place we live in in this world. If you look in Genesis you can see positive and negative examples of this. For example as a bad example, Genesis 20 records Abraham getting rebuked by Abimelech for not telling him that Sarah was his wife. Abraham surely should have been more forthcoming, and his actions put Abimelech into jeopardy with God. As for a good example, we can remember how in Genesis 14 Abraham liberated many people of the land of Canaan, plus his nephew Lot, who had fallen victim to an enemy coalition of five kings. The King of Sodom after that came out to greet Abraham in appreciation for his help. The point is that while we live as sojourners here and now, looking to glory, we should still look to be a productive person in this life, looking to bless the society and people we live with in this present age. These things are not mutually exclusive.
In our final point for today, I briefly point you to the reference in verse 13 about dying in faith and remind you that our life of faith needs to finish the race through dying in faith. As it has been said of Christian ministers, our job is to help people die well. We find this idea rooted here with the patriarchs. In their own lives, they never fully received the promises that they set their faith upon. Yes, they did receive certain aspects of fulfillment. Isaac was born to them. They did at least make it to Canaan and were able to live in tents. But they never really came into the homeland and the city they were seeking; not in this life. It’s in fact in their death that we see the closest realization of their faith, when Abraham finally buys a small plot of land in Canaan to bury Sarah. He himself is later buried there as well as Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah. There, in their deaths they finally had “settled” into the earthly Promised Land, in a land that was legitimately owned by the family. In their death they began to receive the promise in a way that they hadn’t yet in their life. As a side note, we are reminded that the patriarchs thought their burials should convey the content of their faith, and certainly how they chose to be buried does that. So, then the point here is simple. Abraham and all the patriarchs during their lives lived and kept living in faith. And they also died in that same faith.
I hope you realize the implied point in that statement, that they died in faith. It’s hugely thematic for this book of Hebrews. To die in faith means they persevered until the end. You see verse 15 shows what could have happened instead. It means that if they didn’t have this kind of faith that we’ve been talking about today, if they didn’t believe and trust God to provide a heavenly city and homeland, then they could have just packed up those tents and gone back home. They could have returned to their former home, either the land of the Chaldeans or certainly up to Haran where they still had family. But they wouldn’t. That point was seen so clearly in Genesis when Abraham was trying to find Isaac a wife. He sent his servant up to Haran to find a non-Canaanite wife for Isaac, believing there would be more opportunity to find a godly wife there. But Abraham made it very clear to his servant. He was authorized to bring a wife back from Haran to Isaac, but under absolutely no circumstances was he to bring Isaac up to Haran. In Abraham’s mind, in his faith, there was no going back, no return, for he and his family. And so, this is the theme that Hebrews keeps bringing in this book. We need to persevere in faith. Jewish converts must not abandon that faith and return to the Jewish synagogue and old covenant ways. Gentile converts must not abandon their hope in Christ and return to their pagan idols. Similarly, both Jewish and Gentile Christian see that are faith is not about going back to the old covenant types and shadows but embracing the substance of what they pointed to and what we have begun to have in Jesus Christ. Christians must be moving forward in faith, living in faith and keep living in faith until they die in faith.
And that faith does not disappoint! As it says in verse 16, God is not ashamed to be called their God. There’s an interesting dynamic, for example, that we see in Jacob’s life in Genesis. As the Lord is working in his life, there is much of his life where he refers to God as the God of his fathers, but not his God. It is only after much wrestling with God and his grace that Jacob begins to own that title for himself, that the God of his fathers is also his God. Jacob gets to the point that he is not ashamed to call God his God. In fact, that expresses a similar journey for various covenant children where as they grow up they come to a conscious realization that the God of their parents is indeed their God as well. And yet as much as we can think that to be a huge thing for us to acknowledge God, realize it is even a more amazing and wonderful thing in the other direction. It’s a good thing when by grace we acknowledge God to be our God. But it’s an even more amazing thing when God acknowledges that he is our God. And remember, that is exactly what God has done for the patriarchs. To later generations, God revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God was not ashamed to be called their God; he even identifies himself that way. God was pleased to call these men of faith his own. That’s been the overarching theme down through the generations; for the people of faith in God, he says “I will be there God, and they will be my people.” For we who die in faith, this is our heritage. Our faith does not disappoint.
Connected with this, verse 16 also says that God has prepared a city for them. Notice how this puts things almost in terms of reward. In light of their faith he “therefore” has prepared a city for them. Of course, their faith was in the first place in the promise that God would prepare such a city. But that’s how these things work in Scripture. God promises good to his people, his people by his Spirit’s working within them trust in those promises. Then God gives them those promises because they trusted in them. So then, verse 16 is supposed to encourage us again that our faith does not disappoint. This is meant to encourage us to both live and die in such faith.
May we find such encouragement today, dear saints of God. Unless we are the few blessed to be alive when Christ returns, we will die in this life, not yet having fully received God’s promises to us. But we are reminded here again today of the great reward that comes to the people of faith. That means ours is a pilgrim’s life until then. I quoted that reference to Pilgrim’s Progress in the beginning because it reminds us of the temptation to give up our pilgrimage and return to a life that makes this world our homeland and reward. But may today’s passage remind us to always set our heart’s desire on this heavenward goal. Something far better is in store for the people of faith. May we indeed, by the grace of God, live and die in such faith. Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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