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 11:13-16 ESV
“These all died in faith.” That statement sounds so odd. It seems to make no sense. These people (the patriarchs), had faith, but they died, “no having received the things promised.” Then what is the point of faith, we might ask. Why bother having faith if it isn’t going to do you any good? But that is not the author’s point. He is juxtaposing our temporal, earthly perspective with one that is eternal and future-oriented. Faith is not a point-in-time experience that takes place once in a lifetime. It is a way of life for a lifetime. We often hear people express their faith story in terms like, “I came to faith in Christ when I was 14-years old” 0r “I placed my faith in Christ when I was in my thirties.” Those statements are not incorrect or inaccurate, but they display an insufficient understanding of what faith really is. Faith is a journey, a pilgrimage. It involves this life, but it goes beyond it. As the familiar verse says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV). Our faith or belief in Christ is to have an eternal focus, not a temporal one. Jesus told Mary and Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25 ESV). Physical death is still inevitable, but our faith is based on the promise that it is not the end of life, but rather, just the beginning.
When the author opened up this section of his letter with the words, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” we tend to read them with a temporal slant. We hope for a lot of things in this life. We hope for success. We hope for good health. We hope our marriage will survive. We hope for a better-paying job. We hope our children will one day accept Christ and live for Him. And then we try and muster up enough faith so that these things will come about. But that is a misunderstanding of faith. Faith is not just another version of the power of positive thinking. In our lifetimes we have seen faith turned into some distorted name-it-claim-it theology that attempts to turn God into some kind of a cosmic genie in a bottle. We come up with our list of hopes and wishes, and then He is obligated to make them happen. But that is not the essence of biblical faith. The apostle Paul would have us understand faith differently. He wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4 ESV). Seek the things that are above. Set your minds on things that are above. Have an eternal-focus and a heavenly perspective. Paul told the believers in Ephesus that he longed for their spiritual enlightenment, “that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18 ESV). Ultimately, as believers, our hope is to be on our future redemption and glorification. Paul said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18 ESV). We live far too often with temporal hopes rather than eternal ones. We place all our hopes in this world instead of the next. We expect and sometimes demand heaven on earth, but God has something else in store. Something far better.
The patriarchs had to acknowledge that “they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Abraham and Sarah had to live as nomads, moving from one place to another, never having a real home and never getting to live in the land promised to them by God. They never had the pleasure of seeing their descendants multiply into a great nation. By the time that happened, they were both long gone. But they had faith that it would happen. They also had faith that they would live in a better country. Abraham left his hometown and headed out for a new land. He had no idea where he was going, but was simply trusting God’s word. He believed that what God was offering him was better than what he already had. He left behind his old way of life for a new one. The author says that God “has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16b ESV), a heavenly city. The ultimate reward received by Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, David, Enoch, Abel and all the other Old Testament saints listed in this passage, was heaven. Their lives spent on this planet were temporary and their days were filled with trials, troubles, set-backs and disappointments. But they maintained their faith in God and His goodness.
As Christians, we must live with a constant awareness that this world is not our home. We are simply passing through on our way to some place better. Like Abraham, we are to recognize our role as aliens and strangers in this “land.” We are not to get comfortable here. We are not to demand of God our best life now. We are not to put our hopes in things that rust, decay, break down, fall apart, get stolen, go out of style, and always fail to bring us the joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment we hoped they would. Remember the author’s description of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). We are to be assured of our future place in God’s eternal kingdom, and it is to be what we hope for. We are to have a strong conviction regarding our future glorification and the redemption of our bodies. It is that for which we eagerly wait. Paul put it this way:
And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. – Romans 8:23 NLT
We will all one day die in our faith. But because we have faith, our death will not be the end. It will be the beginning of our eternal life with God the Father and Jesus Christ, His Son. The city in which Abraham and Sarah live at this very moment is far better than any city they could have inhabited on this earth. The descendants they can claim are far greater and more in number than they could ever have imagined, and they include people from every tongue and nation. When we place our faith in God, He does great things. His will is far better than our most ambitious wishes. His promises are far better than anything we could ever dream up or hope for.