This is the fourth in a series of extracts from “A glorious High Throne”, a readable Bible commentary on Hebrews and is Ch. 40 of the original book. The series will cover the whole of Hebrews 11, the great New Testament chapter on the subject of faith.
Please read Hebrews 11:13-16
There is considerable overlap between this passage and the previous one. Both portray believers as ‘strangers and pilgrims’, having no ‘continuing city’ in this world (see also 13:14). Both speak of the eternal city that God has prepared for those who love him, and of their heartfelt desire to reach it. But new aspects of faith are nonetheless laid before us here. What are they? That faith embraces the promises of God and actively pursues their fulfilment.
In our dealings with men we are often constrained to cry in frustration: ‘Promises, promises!’ We are tired of promises that go unfulfilled. We want action, not words. But things are different when we deal with God for, unlike men, ‘he is faithful who … promised’ (11:11). This passage, therefore, directs our attention to the faithfulness and promises of God — a God who keeps his covenant with his Son, and thus with the beneficiaries of that covenant, the heirs of salvation.
Embracing the promises (11:13)
The Writer continues: ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (11:13). ‘These’ refers, of course, to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob. They died in faith, we are told, without receiving the promises of God. What, then, were those promises?
They are recorded for us in Genesis and contained three elements (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:4-6; 17:1-8; 22:16-18; 26:3-5;28:13-15; 35:11-12). First, Abraham and his sons were promised a land; secondly, they were promised descendants without number; and thirdly, they were promised that their seed would become a blessing to all the nations of the earth.
The promises were fulfilled, physically and historically, long after they had died. Israel did possess the promised land of Canaan in the days of Joshua, and Israel did become a mighty nation. Even more important, the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, invaded human history to bring the blessing of his kingdom to every tongue and tribe and kindred and people.
But even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows that the promises had a spiritual fulfilment far more important than the historical one — and this is what the Writer seeks to show in these verses. Although their descendants would receive the land as a natural inheritance, this would be of little value to the Patriarchs after their death! Rather, in pursuit of the promises, they looked for things they would eventually experience and enjoy. Delitzsch observes: ‘The shell of their longing might be of earth, [but] its kernel was heavenly and divine’ .
What were their future expectations? Firstly, a spiritual homeland and a heavenly city. Secondly, spiritual descendants without number — people who would share both their faith in God and the eternal inheritance he has prepared for those that love him (Gal. 3:29). Thirdly, the blessing of personal salvation through his own ultimate Seed, even Christ (Gal. 3:16; Jn. 8:56). These were the things they saw ‘afar off’ and concerning which they ‘were assured’. And it was in this sense that they ‘died in faith’, still anticipating these eternal blessings — blessings now being fulfilled through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Notice once again how the Writer equates faith to spiritual sight — having seen the promises Abraham and his family were assured of their truth and reliability. They did not infer the promises, or deduce anything relating to them. Their assurance did not flow from speculation or intellectual exercises. On the contrary, it was based on revelation — what God showed them directly by his words. This is true for us today also. God speaks to us through his written Word, the Bible, and faith discerns both the import and the truth of what he says. This is the experience of every true believer and the basis of all our assurance.
We are further told that they ‘embraced’ the promises in faith. The verb means to ‘draw to oneself’, hence to embrace — though it is normally translated ‘salute’ or ‘greet’. Pink clearly prefers the warmth of ‘embrace’, stating: ‘They who really embrace the promises of God are suitably affected and influenced by them: their delight in heavenly things is manifested by a weanedness from earthly things … [the Patriarchs] had such a satisfying portion in the promises of God that they publicly renounced .. a concern in the world …’ . Owen adds succinctly: ‘This embracing of the promises is the heart’s cleaving to them with love, delight and complacency’ .
It is not enough merely to ‘see’ God’s promises, nor even to be assured of them; faith’s work is not complete until we have embraced them. It is this final step of grasping and holding the promises to our heart that generates the kind of positive action and achievement recorded in Hebrews 11.
‘Believism’ is a common problem in the church today. Christians both understand and believe the teaching of Scripture, but do so in an intellectual manner, engaging the mind but not the heart and will. There is no commitment, no passion, no sacrifice, no abandonment to that which God reveals. As a result, there is no fruit, no ‘work of faith’, no ‘labour of love’ no ‘patience of hope’ (1 Thess. 1:3). Let Hebrews teach us not only to approve what God reveals and commands, but to embrace it!
Making a statement (11:13-14)
Abraham and his family not only believed inwardly — they also vocalised and evidenced their faith — they ‘confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (11:13). This confession was twofold. Firstly, they did not hesitate to tell others where their allegiance lay. For example, Abraham refused to accept gifts from the king of Sodom saying: ‘I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God most high, the possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing … lest you should say, “I have made Abram rich”’ (Gen. 14:23). Abraham made it clear that he looked to God for his supply and sustenance, not to man. Secondly, the Patriarchs confessed their desire for a heavenly country by their actions as well as their words. Thus Abraham allowed Lot to choose the richest land for himself, disdaining the earthbound self-interest that motivated his nephew (Gen. 13:9-12). By both their words and actions, therefore, these men and women of faith made the clearest of statements — ‘For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland’ (11:14).
Genuine faith has an unmistakable impact on the life of the believer. ‘Show me your faith without your works [if you can!], and I will show you my faith by my works’, challenges James (Jas. 2:18). True faith is never invisible, for it prompts the faithful to confess where their confidence lies, both in speech and lifestyle. ‘If … you were raised with Christ’, says Paul, ‘seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth’ (Col. 3:1-2). These words of exhortation launch one of Paul’s most trenchant statements on the practical implications of the Christian life, covering sins to be avoided, graces to be cultivated, ministries to be exercised, and relationships to be honoured (Col. 3:3-4:6). Faith works, in every sense of that phrase!
Furthermore, the work of faith spells out one message in particular — heaven is our homeland. That is why we are to set our minds on things above, not on things on the earth. We have died to this world and our ‘life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then [we] also will appear with him in glory’ (Col. 3:3-4). Believers engage in the affairs of this world that they might serve Christ, testify to his grace, preach his gospel, and glorify his name. But they do so as ‘strangers and pilgrims’, not entangling themselves with the issues of this life (11:13; 2 Tim. 2:4). As beneficiaries of the new covenant, they have an altogether higher calling than unbelievers — and must recognise it.
No looking back (11:15-16)
Jesus once told a would-be disciple: ‘No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:62). Severe words, perhaps, but necessary. The Writer has already raised the issue of those who cast longing glances behind them: ‘But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul’ (10:39). He now underlines the lesson by reference to the pilgrim Patriarchs.
He writes: ‘And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return’ (11:15). ‘They might easily have returned to Chaldea’, writes Brown. ‘The distance was no obstacle. There does not seem to have been any external obstruction. But they gave clear evidence that they were not disposed to return’ . No doubt their country of origin had much to offer that was not available in Canaan. Civilisation, for one thing. A settled existence, for another. But the Patriarchs embraced a nomadic existence because ‘they desire[d] a better, that is, a heavenly country’ (11:16). Their example must surely challenge us today, accustomed as we are to the comforts and attractions of the world around us.
In the West at least, Christians have grown ‘soft’. To ‘endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’ is just not on our agenda (2 Tim. 2:3). We find it hard to imitate the One who ‘pleased not himself’ (Rom. 15:1-3; AV). Should we not re-examine our lives and our priorities, both as individuals and as churches? Should we not review our use of time, money, possessions, and life-styles? Ought we to display more of the love, compassion and sacrificial self-giving that characterised the Lord Jesus Christ on earth? In short, should we not live as citizens of the heavenly country that God is giving us, rather than squander our lives on the affairs and preoccupations of this world? We shall indeed do so, if we truly ‘desire’ the heavenly country.
Their God (11:16 cont.)
The words: ‘I will be their God and they shall be my people’ are definitive of the new covenant (8:10). The Writer now recalls and underlines this gracious provision. The faith of the Patriarchs had an immediate reward, not just the distant prospect of one. What was this instant reward? Nothing less than the favour of God! ‘Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them’ (11:16). Although they suffered privations and hardship, these ‘people of faith’ are not to be seen as stoical individuals, clinging grimly to the unseen promise of God. Rather, they rejoiced in God and knew his smile.
Their relationship with the Almighty under the covenant of promise was deeply experiential, for God drew near to them in intimate and dramatic self-revelation. To give but one example: ‘the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?”’ (Gen. 18:17-18). These people walked with God by faith, and he in turn was not ashamed — it was not beneath his dignity — to declare himself ‘their God’. He bound himself to them in glorious and compassionate condescension.
This is an amazing thing. Isaiah teaches the same remarkable truth: ‘Thus says the high and lofty One, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy. I dwell in the high and holy place with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite ones’ (Isa. 57:15). Shall God indeed dwell with men? Yes, he is not ashamed to do so, and has demonstrated this fact once and for all by sending his Son into the world ‘to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Lk. 19:10). And for the redeemed ‘he has prepared a city’ (11:16) where ‘there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him. They shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads’ (Rev. 22:3)
1. Delitzsch 2 p.247
2. Pink p.722
3. Owen 7 p.88
4. Brown p.518