By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even though she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. 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. Hebrews 11:11-16
'You surely do not believe that impossible story in the Bible about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Granny?” said a clever skeptic to a well-known godly aged woman, who was known all over the village for her good works. 'Oh, aye, I believe it, and if God said that Jonah swallowed the whale, I would believe that too, because I know my Father tells no lies, and nothing is impossible to Him.” The skeptic walked off in silence.
There are two things this passage and the story reveal to us.
One, God cannot lie, and two, nothing is impossible for Him to do for those who place their faith in Him. Faithful Abraham was told a story just as silly as Jonah swallowing a whale, and slightly more personal—that at the age of 100 he was going to be a father, and at the age of 90 Sarah would be the mother. They both laughed, of course (Genesis 17:17; 18:12). How could they not? The impossible often brings with it incredulity, and the thought that accompanied this was, 'It's too good to be true.” Laughter is our way of trying not to look like a fool in the face of such an absurd proclamation.
But this is God talking here. This is not some roaming evangelist selling his books for 20 minutes before he gets to the message. This is not some self-proclaimed mystic who has a word for everybody but refuses to listen to leadership. This is the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY speaking, and you know Abraham was listening. With God all things are possible and, true to His word, a year later Sarah had a child and they named him 'He Laughs.” You may know him as Isaac. The reception of the impossible in our lives should result in holy laughter. Falling down, holding onto your sides, I-can't-believe-it-is-true-oh-thank-You-Lord laughter. Sarah and Abraham received from God something so precious they didn't want to believe it at first for fear that it would not be true. But it was.
Yet, after having received from God the impossible, they were still waiting for the total fulfillment of God's promises when they died. 'These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen and greeted them from afar” (v. 13). All the patriarchs lived by faith, and all died without physically receiving the land of promise as their own, seeing it only from a distance. But their hope did not rest in a plot of ground. Even when Abraham was living in Canaan, his attitude was that of 'a sojourner and foreigner” (Genesis 23:4). Jacob (Genesis 47:9) and the Psalmist (39:12) echoed the idea of being a stranger on the earth. Peter and Paul both point out that we are foreigners (1 Peter 2:11) whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). It was by faith that these men lived as strangers on earth, because their spirits knew that their true residence was in heaven.
There are three words used in this passage that described the patriarchs. The first word is xenon(v. 13), a Greek word that means stranger and foreigner, sometimes a refugee.
Do you ever wonder why you never quite fit within the system of this world? Do you feel like you are always walking just a half step off from the rest of the crowd? As a Christian, whose real citizenship is in heaven, you are a foreigner on this earth. You should feel like you are out of sync with the world, for you are. You are not really crazy, just wonderfully and truthfully observant. We were never created to live amid the sin and disobedience that exists in the world today. This is why I believe that Adam and Eve were not allowed to return to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). They were not intended to live forever in disobedience, and so God made sure that they had a way to live forever in His presence, and that way was through the death of the body, and ultimately through the death of Christ. Before their disobedience, Adam and Eve had everything they needed from God and I don't believe they had any recognition of time. However, after the Fall they understood their state, and by His mercy God did not allow them to live forever cut off from His perfect presence.
The sad part is that sometimes we can feel like strangers and foreigners within our own church body. This sometimes happens when people in the church are living more like the world in its attitudes and ways than they are like Christ. What a pity to feel like a foreigner in the church, but sometimes it happens. This is why we have numerous warnings in the New Testament regarding our need to separate from the ways of the world (1 John 2:15), and especially that of the worldly Christian (James 4:1-4).
In verse 9 we have the word paroikein.
This was a resident alien. The Jews who lived in Babylon and Egypt were resident aliens. As such they were not very much above living as slaves in the social circles, and even had to pay an alien tax. They were always outsiders and only because they paid were they considered members of the community.
The next word is parepidemos (v. 9).
This was a person who was staying in a place temporarily and who had his permanent residence somewhere else. He was a man staying in temporary lodgings, living in a place where life had sent him. All their lives the patriarchs were men who had no permanent place to live, traveling from one place to another and living in tents (11:9). I've traveled to other countries, and no matter how interesting the sites and the people, I always know in my mind that this place is not my home. I know where I truly long to be, and I know that I will be comfortable and peaceful only when I find my way home and sleep again in my own bed. Traveling to a foreign country is fine but Dorothy was right—there really is no place like home.
This desire for a heavenly country argues for the fact that human beings have deep within them a yearning for the point of our origin. C.S. Lewis, in response to a letter from Sheldon Vanauken said, 'You say the materialistic universe is 'ugly.' I wonder how you discovered that! If you really are a product of a materialistic universe, how is it you don't feel at home there? Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, aquatic creatures? Notice how we are perpetually surprised by time. ('How time flies! Fancy John being grown-up and married! I can hardly believe it!') In heaven's name, why? Unless, indeed, there is something in us which is not temporal.” Because we long for eternity, we find ourselves in a lifelong struggle against time, and rightly so.”1
Are we truly aware that our great hope does not lie in earthly treasures, but is fulfilled in the heavenly realm? We may nod our heads 'Yes,” but what do our lives show? Do we fuss and fume and fight to make our way known, establish our reputation and secure our future? What can the non-Christians in our lives discover about our other-worldly attitude as they observe the relationship we have with our earthly stuff? Does our talk about earthly treasures betray our profession of faith in Christ and Christ alone? There really is no 'settling down” in our life on earth, for about the time we have 'made it,” death comes along and we no longer possess those things we made central to our lives. There is no going back, no pausing of time, no stopping the inevitable future.
Furthermore, the patriarchs show us that a return to our former way of life is impossible if we are going to please God.
In verses 14-15, we see that they all had opportunity to return to their homeland, but they didn't. They never went back, for their faith would not let them. Nothing physical will ever stop us from returning to our former life; only an attitude of faith excludes the possibility of a return to the place God brought us from. Jesus reminded us, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Their descendants desired to return to Egypt, but the patriarchs did not. They knew that they had reached a point of no return and they didn't look back with their eyes or their hearts. If we ever catch ourselves yearning for what we had prior to our salvation, we may need to examine our lives and see if it is really God who is satisfying our souls, or if our priorities lie elsewhere.
But if we know that we have something beyond ourselves waiting for us on the other side, we will learn to enjoy the journey. Many people do not like to travel because all they have in mind is their destination. They are impatient with the traffic, the other drivers, the mediocre food and sometimes even their traveling companions. These people are making their own lives miserable, and usually the lives of those around them, because in their selfish desire to arrive they miss the beauty around them.
The patriarchs, having had a taste of what was ahead, continued on because they were haunted by what was waiting for them. But they never seemed to grow impatient, enjoying the journey for what it was. Can you imagine having a conversation with God the way Abraham did in Genesis 15, and afterwards longing to return to Mesopotamia?
As Christians we have all had life-changing conversations and conversions with God, and we should now all be overwhelmed with the hope that propels us ever forward into His presence. But it must be resolved that we will leave completely the life we had prior to God's call. We cannot live with one foot in Canaan and one in Ur. Like Paul, we must forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead (Philippians 3:13).
However, knowing that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) should not make us 'so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” Jesus knew where His kingdom reigned, yet look at all the good He did. The people around Abraham were certainly glad he was there in times of trouble (Genesis 14). Are your neighbors grateful for your presence in difficult times? Can they rely on you to help them when their ability to cope and see things through fails them? We must keep our hope in heaven, but never forget we still have work to do here.
The longing of the patriarchs was for 'a better country” (v. 16), and they lived by faith in God's word and showed that faith by never turning back. The result of this life of faith was that 'God is not ashamed to be called their God.” He is often referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and sometime uses these words to describe himself (Exodus 3:6, 15-16).
This makes me wonder if God thinks the same way about me. Is God ever ashamed to be called my God? Would He ever refer to himself as 'The God of Jim?” Would He ever point to me as He did to Job and ask Satan, 'Have you considered My servant, Jim?” Would He address other Christians and say, 'I am not ashamed to be known as the God of Jim. He is a man faithful, and to his credit I declare him righteous.” It gives me joy to know that I do not need to be perfect, faultless and without error or sin in order for God to find no shame in being my God. I need only to believe in God and obey His Word to one day hear Him pronounce, 'I was not ashamed to say, 'I am the God of Jim.'”
Then, would God be so honored by my faith in Him that He 'prepared a city” for me?
He did for the patriarchs, so He must have for us. God did not 'go to prepare,” but 'prepared.” It is finished. Jesus went to prepare a place for us, but He did so in the finished house of the Father, the way the groom would make room in the father's house for his new bride.
We desire to see the Father's house, but we must stay here a little longer. We remain as sojourners, aliens, strangers, foreigners, and refugees. Tertullian said of the Christian, 'He knows that on earth he has a pilgrimage but that his dignity is in heaven.” Clement of Alexandria said, 'We have no fatherland on earth.” Augustine said, 'We are sojourners exiled from our fatherland.” It has been said that the world is a bridge. The wise man will pass over it but will not build his house upon it. We are to have the faith of aliens and strangers in a land not our own. It is vital that we look upon this earth as a bridge to eternity, and not a place to build our hope upon. People may wonder what we find so interesting on the other side, and if the opportunity arises we can share with them the joys of knowing Christ. But do not be surprised when most people think of you as being strange, your ideas as foreign, and treat you as if you don't belong. You should take it as a compliment, for you don't belong here. You have a home in another country.
1. Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy (New York, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1977) p. 93.