This is the third in a series of extracts from “A glorious High Throne”, a readable Bible commentary on Hebrews and is Ch. 39 of the original book. The series will cover the whole of Hebrews 11, the great New Testament chapter on the subject of faith.
Waiting for a city
Please read Hebrews 11:8-12
Nobody features more frequently in the annals of faith than Abraham. The Patriarch commands such prominence in Hebrews 11 that we shall spend the next three chapters with him and his family. Both Romans and Galatians appeal at length to the faith of Abraham, because it epitomises the new covenant in Christ over against the ‘works of the law’ (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).
But how could Abraham know about the new covenant so far in advance? Paul explains: ‘The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the nations by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed”’ (Gal. 3:8). Of course, Abraham had no written Scripture. But God’s word, now recorded as Scripture, came to him with just this promise and effect. Accordingly, says Jesus, ‘Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad’ (Jn. 8:56). Abraham’s faith, therefore, was faith in Christ. This must always be the case with saving faith.
Hebrews takes over where Romans and Galatians leave off, emphasising the practical consequences of Abraham’s faith (and Sarah’s too). As a result, in verses 8-12, the Writer unveils three aspects of faith. The first — obedience — we have met already. The other two — patience and strength — break new ground.
The obedience of faith (11:8)
The Writer starts at the beginning, with Abraham’s call: ‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going’ (11:8). The verse tells us several things concerning the obedience of faith.
1. Faith hears God’s call
2. Faith obeys God’s command
3. Faith trusts God’s providence
4. Faith inherits God’s promise
Firstly, faith ‘hears’ or otherwise discerns the call of God: ‘Abraham … was called’. This call, says Owen, was ‘the foundation of the faith and obedience of Abraham’ , and had ‘two parts: a command … “Get thee out of thy country” etc. [and] a promise … “And I will make of thee …” . Without the call, Abraham would have lived out his life in Ur of the Chaldees and we would never have heard of him. Everything began when God spoke to the Patriarch. The same is true of others, like Paul who ‘was not disobedient to the heavenly vision’ (Ac. 26:19). There had to be a vision, a self-revelation of God, before Paul could obey.
God’s call is just that — a divine self-revelation — and it is inextricably bound up with faith. In Galatians 3:2 Paul speaks of ‘the hearing of faith’ — indicating that those to whom faith has been imparted by the Spirit heed the gospel call to repent and believe. Jesus said: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them’ (John 10:27). From Romans we learn that those whom God has predestined to be like Christ, and has justified by faith, are ‘the called according to [God’s] purpose’ (Rom. 8:28-30). Other Scriptures tell us that believers have been called ‘in the grace of Christ’ and ‘out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (Gal. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). Many similar references could be given. Faith always responds, but God in grace takes the initiative — he reveals himself in his call. Without it we remain in darkness.
God’s call comes to us as it came to Abraham — through the Scriptures (or, as we saw above, what would later become Scripture). It comes to us personally, for example, as the Bible is preached or read. It is just because the Scriptures are God’s self-revelation to man that they are precious to believers. By the same token, the virility of our faith can be measured by our appetite for God’s word. Do I (like David) find God’s ‘testimonies … my delight and my counsellors’, and cry: ‘How sweet are your words to my taste …’ (Ps. 119:24, 103)? How important to us is the mid-week Bible Study? How diligently and expectantly do we attend the preaching of God’s Word? But hearing is not enough. Faith delights not only to hear but to obey. Secondly, therefore, faith responds obediently to God’s word — ‘Abraham obeyed when he was called’. This is true whether the command is to ‘repent and believe the gospel’ or to follow Christ subsequently in general or particular ways. Jesus said: ‘my sheep hear my voice … and they follow me’ (Jn. 10:27). Ezekiel received a salutary warning from the Lord: ‘they sit before you as my people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouths they show much love but their hearts pursue their own gain’ (Ezek. 33:30-33; see also Jas. 1:22-25). Sadly, this same problem is often discernible in our churches. People proclaim their love for the word of God and profess submission to it. But when Monday morning arrives, their conformity to God’s word is nowhere to be seen. In their attitudes, preoccupations, motivations and behaviour, they are indistinguishable from the world around them. The problem can run deep. Those who gather for a contentious church business meeting may be unrecognisable as the congregation that worshipped together the previous Sunday. As James wryly observes: ‘Out of the same mouth proceed blessings and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? (Jas. 3:10-12). If we are to ‘be renewed in the spirit of [our] mind’ (Eph. 4:22) we must not only hear the word of God — we must heed it!
Inheritance (11:8 cont.)
Thirdly, although the call to Abraham was specific and accompanied by a promise, it left Abraham completely in the dark concerning his destination: ‘he went out, not knowing where he was going’ (11:8). His obedience necessarily involved trusting the providence of God. ‘Where am I going? What will happen to me? How will I cope? These are things he might well have asked, and we often have similar questions as we face uncharted waters. How does God reply? ‘Trust me’, he says; ‘I will show you everything in due course; but for now you have to trust’. The great ‘proof text’ is, of course, Romans 8:28: ‘We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are the called according to his purpose’.
Nor does the apostle stop there. He continues: ‘If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?’ (Rom. 8:31-32). Jesus rebukes our ‘little faith’: He counsels: ‘do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” … For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things’ (Matt. 6:31-32). Faith has total confidence in God’s eternal purpose and providential care.
Fourthly, just as God called Abraham ‘to the place which he would receive as an inheritance’ (11:8), so our own faith will also inherit what God has promised. It is both our calling and our privilege, says the Writer, to ‘imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises’ (6:12). As we shall see presently, faith always has a goal. ‘I press on’, declares Paul, ‘that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me … I press towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:12-14). There is a prize, an inheritance of glory, to be possessed. This is God’s ultimate purpose for his redeemed people. Faith sees it and pursues it with diligence, vigour, fortitude and patience.
The patience of faith (11:9-10)
Although Abraham had to trust God for the future, his faith was by no means ‘blind’. Rather, he looked forward to the fulfilment of God’s promise, a city-home in heaven. The Writer continues: ‘By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for [looked forward to] the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ (11:9-10). God did not implement his promise immediately — and seldom does. It is part and parcel of God’s eternal purpose that we are ‘saved in this hope’, namely, the hope of ‘the adoption, the redemption of our body’. And, continues the apostle, ‘if we hope for what we do not see [that is, have], ‘we eagerly wait for it with perseverance’ (Rom. 8:23-25). Faith waits patiently for God to unfold his purposes, knowing that his promises cannot fail.
Abraham displayed patience on two distinct levels. First, he waited for the promise of an earthly inheritance, the land of Canaan. He and his immediate descendants saw this land with their own eyes. They even dwelt in it, but only ‘in tents’, as strangers and nomads. Full possession of the land followed centuries later, long after their death. This, of course, is a parable for ourselves. In this life believers are ‘sojourners and pilgrims’, and as such must ‘abstain from fleshly lusts that war against the soul’ (1 Pet. 2:11). ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20) and we should ‘seek those things which are above where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God’. We must ‘set [our] mind on things above, not on things on the earth’ (Col. 3:1-3). Pink observes: ‘Abram’s “dwelling in tents” also denoted the disposition of his heart. … A little would serve Abraham on earth because he expected so much in heaven’ .
There is much emphasis today on ‘relevance’, ‘community service’ and ‘practicality’ in Christian circles. This is fine as long as these things flow from faith in Christ and a desire to imitate him who ‘went about doing good’ (Ac. 10:38). But too often they betray an impatience with biblical priorities and an unfamiliarity with spiritual truth. Let us never forget that here believers ‘live in tents’ — this world is not our true home.
The second level on which Abraham exercised patience immediately follows. He not only pictures the Christian’s hope for heaven — he shares it! Although he ‘waited for’ an earthly inheritance, he also looked forward to an eternal city. Lane comments: ‘Abraham continued to accept an unsettled mode of existence in the promised land … “for he was looking forward with certainty to the city which has foundations”. Both the nuance and the tense of the main verb … “to wait for”, “to look forward to”, are significant. The verb is intensive in force, connoting “to expect with absolute confidence” … while the imperfect tense expresses continuous expectation’ .
‘The city which has foundations’ contrasts dramatically with the ‘tents’ in which the Patriarchs lived their earthly lives. They sought no earthly metropolis, designed and constructed by men, but a heavenly city ‘whose builder and maker is God’ (11:10).
Notice first that this city ‘has foundations’. It is ‘a kingdom which cannot be shaken’, a ‘continuing city’ (12:28; 13:14). Calvin remarks: ‘He calls heaven the city which hath foundations because it is fixed for all eternity’ . Cities have always been seen as places of permanency — solid, safe and lasting. Kings and emperors have built cities to preserve their fame and secure their dynasties. In modern times we still lavish vast sums on the design and construction of cities, seeking to make them prestigious, pleasant, earthquake-proof, efficient in function, and so much else. And if the result is pleasing to our eyes and comfortable to our needs, how much more the city that God has constructed for his glory, eternal in the heavens!
Nothing on earth lasts for ever. Cities that were once the glory of the ancient world now lie in ruins. Many have vanished without trace. In contrast, the city of God remains, eternally secure, for it is the eternal bride of the eternal Son. John saw ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 21:2). This city is not simply ‘bricks and mortar’ or even their spiritual equivalent. It is a people, ‘the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … the general assembly and church of the first-born’ (12:22-23).
Note secondly that God is its ‘builder’. The word (from which we get our own word ‘technician’) is used in the NT only here, and means ‘designer’ or ‘craftsman’. Speaking through Isaiah God promises: ‘He [Christ] shall build my city and let my exiles go free, not for price or reward’ (Isa. 45:13), while Jesus himself declares: ‘upon this rock I will build my church’ (Matt. 16:18). Christ is, at one and the same time, its foundation and the one who crafts it with infinite skill. This city, then, is still being built. One by one, the elect are being called and, as living stones, incorporated into the household and city of God.
Furthermore, the work of building is God’s work, not ours. This is important for us to grasp. Unless we do, we shall see the task of building the church as our own, and will employ whatever short-term means seem to serve the end. We shall be preoccupied with methods and forms; we shall endeavour to please men rather than God; we shall offer experiences, entertainment and excitement to attract people into our churches, thinking that thereby we do God’s work. But, in reality, only God can build his church, and he does so as his Holy Spirit calls lost sinners into the fellowship of the gospel. Our task is to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, for his gospel alone ‘is the power of God to salvation’ (Eph. 3:8; Rom. 1:16).
Thirdly, God is also the ‘maker’ or creator (‘demiurge’) of this city. Plato, Philo and other Greek authors used the word to denote the prime originator of the physical universe . The Writer borrows this concept but applies it to a structure whose creation preceded that of the universe. For although this city is still under construction, it already exists in its full perfection in the mind and purpose of God. Its ultimate inhabitants are all known by name, having been chosen in Christ ‘from before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4). So supreme is this city that it overshadows the ephemeral physical world, for Christ is ‘head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Eph. 1:22-23).
But above all, the city is that which God has promised. Hebrews is replete with references to the promises of God, which are mentioned 18 times in the epistle (compared with 9 times in Romans). This emphasis serves to underline the radical nature of new-covenant religion, namely, that it designs to provide an eternal inheritance rather than satisfy mere temporal needs. The recipients of Hebrews were seeking present comfort in visible religious symbols, but they should rather have endured discomfort and persecution on earth to ‘obtain a better resurrection’ (11:35). The Writer encourage them to follow Abraham’s example and look beyond this life to the ‘solid joys and lasting pleasures’ of the eternal city of God.
The strength of faith (11:11-12)
Faith is not only obedient and patient — it is also strong. Abraham ‘did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was [inwardly] strengthened in faith, giving glory to God’ (Rom. 4:20). Likewise, ‘by faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged him faithful who had promised’ (11:11). Various commentators point out that the language used in the original makes Abraham, rather than Sarah, the more likely subject of this sentence. Bruce translates it: ‘By faith he also, together with Sarah, received power to beget a child …’ . But, either way, the significant thing is that the strength was received. ‘Through faith … out of weakness [they] were made strong’ (11:34; emphasis added). This is important for us to understand. The strength that comes through faith is not born of human effort, determination or will-power. It is ‘not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts’ (Zech. 4:6). It is the strength of Christ himself, imparted to the believer by the indwelling Holy Spirit. As Paul explains: ‘My grace is sufficient for you [says the Lord] for my strength is made perfect in weakness’. Paul responds: ‘most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities that the power of Christ may rest upon me … For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:9-10). He was ‘strengthened with might through [God’s] Spirit in the inner man’ (Eph. 3:16).
The divine origin of this power is evident, of course, from Abraham and Sarah’s experience. Their particular ‘strength’ was to do the impossible — conceive a child in their old-age! Only God can do things like that. Nevertheless, there is a balance here between the faith that the believer must exercise and the divine power that attends such exercise. God ‘gives power to the weak … [for] those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength’ (Isa. 40:29-31). To know this strength for ourselves we too must wait on God, looking to him expectantly and counting him faithful to his promise.
Faith brings divine strength, and that in turn has consequences. In Sarah’s case these consequences were immense: ‘Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude — innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore’ (11:12). Again, let us learn the lesson of this verse. When the power of Christ comes upon a believer or a church, there are always consequences that redound to God’s glory. Christ’s power is not bestowed for our selfish enjoyment, or that we might have experiences, ecstasies or spiritual ‘highs’. This seems to be the preoccupation of many today for whom worship is all about man’s pleasure and has little to do with God’s glory.
When believers are truly empowered by God, however, the results are of eternal value. Peter details some of them in his first epistle (2:9-10). People are called out of darkness into the marvellous light of Christ; they live holy lives; their intercession is efficacious; they proclaim his praises; and they confess themselves the unworthy objects of God’s mercy and grace. These things always happen. But sometimes, in the sovereign purpose of God, there is more. Just as Sarah, through faith, gave birth to a great nation so, in times of revival, multitudes may be born of the Spirit. As Christ is preached, weak human vessels become the means by which the Lord makes known the treasure of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 3:5-7). Faith demonstrates its strength.
1. Owen 7 p.57
2. Owen 7 p.59
3. Pink p.703
4. Lane 2 p.351
5. Calvin p.168
6. Lane 2 p.352
7. Bruce p.302