Volume 8, Issue 5: Exegetica
The City Which Has Foundations - Hebrews 11:8-16
God's people face the continual temptation to consider the things of this world as the final object of His promises. Our eyes look down to this world, but He calls us to look up toward the world to come. Moses longed to set his eyes upon Canaan, pleading with the Lord, "Let me cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan, those pleasant mountains, and Lebanon." But God did not allow him to go, saying, "You shall not cross over this Jordan" (Deut. 3:25, 27). The Jews of Jeremiah's day were rebuked for trusting in these words: "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!" (Jer. 7:4), holding to the structure they built with their own hands. This temptation was still active among the Jews of Stephen's day, who reminded them that "the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands" (Acts 7:48).
And so we are not surprised that the recipients of this epistle, tempted as they were to forsake the assembling of themselves together and return to the Jewish temple worship with its visible priests and sacrifices, needed reminding that the faithful saints of old, when acting according to their faith, had a very different hope. "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would afterward receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he sojourned 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 the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. 11:8-10). Abraham's faith gave "evidence of things not seen," for God called Abraham to follow Him before he saw the land, before he was even told where he was going. And once he arrived, he clearly showed that he was not looking to the visible land as his final home. For rather than building a house with foundations, he dwelt in tents held lightly to the ground with ropes and pegs. The author thus reminds his readers and us to hold lightly to this earth, longing instead for the city which has foundations, built for us by the Lord Himself, the heaven of which Jesus said, "I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2; cf. Matt. 25:34).
The faith of Abraham extended to his family, not only to his descendants (as we shall see later), but also to his wife. "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" (Heb. 11:11). Though the account in Genesis speaks primarily of Sarah's doubt (Gen. 18:10-15), the author of Hebrews seems to have in mind Genesis 21:1-2, "And the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age." Thus Sarah became the mother of Isaac, the son of the promise, and through him the mother of God's people, when she looked away from her own weakness and doubt to the faithfulness of the God who promised.
"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" (Heb. 11:12). Abraham was almost eighty-six years old when God made the promise to him in these words, "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your descendants be" (Gen. 15:5). Had he looked to himself, he would have seen a man "as good as dead." Yet God waited another thirteen years to fulfill this promise, as if to show Abraham beyond doubt that the power to carry out the promise was not in him, but in the Lord alone. Abraham looked away from himself and toward the heavens, "and he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). Thus we see this faith in God's promise was justifying faith. Similarly, if we are to be justified, we must also count ourselves as good as dead in our sins, looking to God who regenerates our souls, that we may bear fruit for salvation.
"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" (Heb. 11:13). To his death Abraham believed that God would fulfill his promises, not primarily those concerning the physical land of Canaan and his physical descendants, but the promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ Himself, through whom "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3).
Abraham told the people dwelling in the land which God had promised him, "I am a foreigner and a sojourner among you" (Gen. 23:4), showing that he knew his true homeland was in heaven, "for those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them" (Heb. 11:14-16). Abraham looked away from this world, desiring instead the city with foundations, being prepared for the day of resurrection. In such faith God is "not ashamed to be called their God," the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So the Hebrew Christians are encouraged to forsake their earthly city for the city of God, "for here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come" (Heb. 12:14). And as the Lord calls us out of this world, we also should confess that we are but strangers and pilgrims on the earth. This world is not our home. We are just passing through.