8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV
The first four words of this section of Hebrews 11 are critical: “By faith Abraham obeyed.” It would be easy to put the emphasis on the latter half of the statement, making Abraham’s obedience the main point. But the author is simply attempting to provide further proof for the opening line of this chapter: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Abraham’s obedience, while important, is meant to take a back seat to his faith. It is a byproduct of his faith. As the author said in verse six, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
We have to go back to the Old Testament book of Genesis to see the complete story of Abraham’s call and his subsequent obedience to that call. He was living in Haran with his father and the rest of his family. They had moved there from Ur. And it was while he was living in Haran that God came to Abram (his original name), and said, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV).
What’s important to notice is that, according to the text, God had not given him the exact location of his final destination. Even the passage in Hebrews says that Abram “went out, not knowing where he was going.” This is an important part of the story. The extent of Abram’s knowledge was limited. He knew that God had called him and had promised to give him land and to produce from him a great nation. While these promises were substantial in scope, they were also a bit vague. Anyone would naturally want to know where and how. Where is this land you are giving me and how do you intend to produce a great nation from a man with a barren wife?
Abram would have had questions and concerns, yet he still obeyed God and did exactly as he was told. But the author’s emphasis is the faith that fueled Abram’s obedience.
…by faith Abraham obeyed. – Hebrews 11:8 ESV
He had no idea where he was going or how God was going to pull off what He had promised. Genesis tells us that Abram headed out, under the direction of God, and before long he found himself in the land of Canaan, a land occupied by none other than the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, one of the sons of Noah.
Abram was a descendant of Shem, another son of Noah. So once he arrived at his final destination, Abram found the land already occupied by some distant family members. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land” (Hebrews 11:9 ESV). Abram found himself living in a land that belonged to others, and its residents lived in well-furnished houses while his small family was relegated to the transient lifestyle of nomads, living in tents and constantly moving from one location to another.
They were little more than squatters and vagabonds who enjoyed no sense of stability or ownership, and this state of affairs would last for generations, spanning the lives of Isaac and Jacob. Abram had received a promise of land but he spent his entire life living like a stranger rather than an occupant. He never owned a home or lived within the secure walls of a city. In fact, the author of Hebrews states that during his entire tenure in Canaan, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10 ESV).
The Greek word the author uses is ekdechomai and it means “to look for, expect, wait for, await” (Greek Lexicon :: G1551 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Web. 4 Feb, 2016. <http://www.blueletterbible.org). Abram was waiting for, expecting, and anticipating something that had not yet come. He was eagerly and hopefully waiting for God to make his residence a permanent one. His understanding of the promise was that it would include a city made up of bricks and mortar, with walls, ceilings, and floors. Abram was eagerly anticipating the end of his nomadic existence spent living in tents.
But he had to wait, and along with having to deal with the existence of Canaanites, he had to endure the devastating impact of a debilitating drought. When he first arrived in the “promised land,” things were so bad that he was forced to take an unplanned detour to Egypt to seek food for his family. This was not what he had expected when he obeyed the call of God back in Ur. But through a series of unexpected but divinely ordained events, Abram arrived back in Canaan a wealthy man with an abundance of livestock. In fact, his flocks were so large that he and his nephew Lot had to part ways in order to keep from running into conflicts over pasturing rights. And when he gave Lot the first choice of land, his nephew chose the very best, leaving Abram with the less attractive portion. But Abram continued to trust God. He placed his hope and convictions in the promises of God. Even after Abram gave Lot the choice of the best land, God reconfirmed His promise to him.
Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you. – Genesis 13:14-17 ESV
According to God, the land was as good as his – all of it. Every square acre of it, including all of the land occupied by the Canaanites and by Lot belonged to Abram. He had yet to take possession of a single square inch of the land of Canaan but, according to God’s promise, it was all going to belong to his descendants. Abram placed his faith and hope in God and His word. The fact that he did not possess a permanent home or the deed to a piece of property did not diminish his belief that God was going to follow through on His promise. Abram lived with the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Yet, the author states that Abram and all the others listed in chapter 11 “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” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). Theirs was a future-focused faith. It was based on a promise, and that promise was assured because the promise-maker was trustworthy. Abram knew that the promise of God was far greater and encompassed far more than just his individual blessing. God’s promise involved future generations and had far-reaching implications. Abram would never live to see the complete fulfillment of God’s promise. He would be long gone by the time his descendants faced another famine in Canaan and returned to Egypt. He would never live to see them multiply and grow to such a degree that Pharaoh would become fearful of them and decree a pogrom designed to exterminate them. He would not experience the joy of watching God set his descendants free from their captivity in Egypt and lead them back to the promised land. He would not enjoy the thrill of seeing them conquer the land of Canaan and make it their own. He would never see the rise of King David or view the splendor of Solomon’s grand kingdom. And he would never live to see the coming of the Messiah, the one through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
But Abram believed. He had faith. He obeyed. He worshiped. He waited. And he left the future in God’s hands. He had future faith because he believed in an eternal God who never fails to keep His word or fulfill His commitments. And the apostle Paul would have us live by faith as Abram did.
…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. – Romans 8:23-25 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.