Stephen wanted to go home. Stephen was bruised, bloody, dying, and hopeful as he died the death of the faithful martyr. He looked up into Heaven beyond the suffering and saw the glory of God and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Upon seeing his Heavenly home, “he called out, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).
Joseph wanted to go home. Joseph recognized that he was about to die, but promised his brothers that “God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (Genesis 50:24-25). Moses took the bones of Joseph with him as he led the children of Israel out of Egypt by the hand of God (Exodus 13:19).
Habakkuk wanted to be at home. Habakkuk saw the immoral people surrounding him and his nation so he cried out to God for deliverance. He described his day and ours by saying, “the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4). God’s response was, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4).
It is that heroic faith which empowers God’s people to endure this wilderness of temptations and compels them to journey home. The Holy Spirit inspired this sermon we know as the book of Hebrews in order to motivate God’s people to cling to faith and obey the faith which saves. This faith of God’s people will be erased by the sight of the “city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). “This city is the reality which was foreshadowed by the rest which God entered on the Sabbath day (Heb. 4:3b-11); the presence of God (7:19, 25; 12:23), a city (11:10, 16; 13:14) identified as the heavenly Jerusalem (11:14-16), the goal post at the end of a foot race (12:1), and Mount Zion (12:22).”
The 11th chapter of Hebrews forms the culmination of God’s challenge for his people to be faithful and rewarded. The children of God who demonstrated heroic faith in their willingness to accept God’s promise by forsaking all physical connections are put forth as examples to the reader. The text under consideration (Hebrews 11:13-16), stands as the centerpiece urging Christians to excel in faithfulness like those who have gone on to rest in awaiting the city of God.
We must turn the focus of the exhortation toward God’s people today. Will we enter into that rest waiting in the Heavenly city? How can we live our lives as strangers and pilgrims on this earth as we anticipate the manifestation of God’s promise?
We Must Die the Death of the Faithful
These died in accordance with faith. The paragraph begins with a summation of those possessing heroic faith–“these all died in faith” or more literally–“according to faith these all died”. We might say that “they died the death of the faithful.” Because they lived according to the faith, they were also able to die according to faith. We can find no greater blessing than to die in faith.
God told us, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Blessed indeed says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13-14). When the faithful depart, Christians can find comfort in knowing they have a place of rest (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). The examples of Hebrews 11 remind us to live in faith so that we may die in faith and be rewarded by that faith. By faith we trust the record of Luke 16:22 and pray that we too will be carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. Let us have the same confidence of Joseph who knew God would bring his people into the promised land and make preparation for our bodies to dwell there also.
The death was possible because it was preceded by a life of faith. The life of faith begins as we die to the world. Repentance is the first step in reaching the destination of faith. True repentance is rightly described as death since it involves the renouncing of worldly things in the interest of spiritual things of God. The apostle Paul said, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20). Being dead to the world, we are buried beneath Christ (Rom. 6:1-5). This burial marks the beginning of our new life and stands as a reminder of our hope in the resurrection of the last day.
The life of faith is continued as we live as strangers and pilgrims on earth. Christians have not yet seen the promised land, but as Peter said, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, even the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). Being a citizen of Heaven, we keep our lives focused on things which are Heavenly. Chrysostem said:
The first virtue, yea the whole of virtue, is to be a stranger to this world, and a sojourner, and to have nothing in common with these things here, but to hang loose from them, as from things strange to us….As those blessed disciples did, of whom he says…of whom the world was not worthy (Heb. 11:37-38).
It has been rightly said that “If I empty out half of my life, God can only fill half. And my spiritual life would be diluted with the things of the natural man.”
Hebrews 11:13 says that the things promised were seen and greeted from afar. The word “seen” is defined as “to see with the eye”, but it also means “to see with the mind.” Being sojourners on earth, they looked for the Heavenly city to which they belonged while enjoying God’s blessings on earth. The word “promise” as it is used in the book of Hebrews seems to refer to the promised land, but also to the blessings which foreshadow the promised land on earth. So we say “Come, Lord Jesus” while enjoying the blessings of His first appearing.
We must Declare our Desire to be at Home with the Faithful
Those who look for the promised land and behave as strangers and pilgrims on earth, must declare their destination with their speech. Our manner of life determines our destination. So we read the previous exhortation to “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence to the end” (Hebrews 3:12-14).
The Old Testament faithful are routinely described as strangers on the earth. While Hebron in the land of Canaan, Abraham said, “I am a sojourner and a foreigner among you” (Genesis 23:4). The Psalmist said, “I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers” (Ps. 39:12). David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:14 records his words, “For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.”
Christians must learn to behave as Heavenly citizens in exile on earth. A second century Christian wrote:
You know that you who are servants of God are dwellers in a foreign land for your city is far from this city. If then you recognize your city in which you shall dwell, why do you prepare here fields and expensive displays and buildings and dwellings, which are superfluous? The person who builds these thins for the city does not intend to return to his own City.”
His admonition is based on that of Christ. Jesus encouraged his people to “lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:20-21). Christians are the “elect exiles” living for Heaven and enduring earth. Peter said that Christians are “born again unto a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in Heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3b-4).
We Must be Determined to Reach the Destination of the Faithful
The true joys of God’s promise outweighs the transient appearance of glory found in things of this world. The preacher reminds his audience, “If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return” (11:15). In John 16:21-22 Jesus said,
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Determination keeps the Christian focused on glory. While on the journey of life, one must be careful to avoid falling into the same condemnation of Lot’s wife.
The admonition “Remember Lot’s wife” (Luke 17:32) is brief word of warning, but is a reminder of the necessity of faithfulness in the Christian’s affections. Lot and his family were told, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (Genesis 19:17). However, she did “loathe to forsake her possessions” and “she hesitated.” “Lot’s wife vacillates, probably longing for what she left behind, and experiences the fate of the city with which she identifies.” Christians cannot afford to turn back in their hearts. Rather, the heart must be determined to reach the Heavenly destination.
This determination of faith is reinforced by the better quality of the Christian’s destination (Hebrews 11:16). Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. wrote, “Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” God’s children prepare themselves to go home for the first time. The foundations of physical Jerusalem shook with every turn of history’s page, but God’s children seek “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). It is the kingdom that can never be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).
This Heavenly city, which is the reality creating the shadows of blessing on earth, far exceeds the imagination because it is home to the best kingdom and the best King. Amazingly, “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16). This privilege is undeserved and beyond comprehension. When the promise is finally received, God will say: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 26:34). It is possible because Jesus went to prepare a place for his people so that he can say, “where I am you may be also” (John 14:2).
Having finally gone home, the child of God will sit beside the river of life under shade provided by the tree of life. There the child of God will worship and serve the true Father in the eternal day. The reward of faith is the home with God. Christians must begin to meditate on the precious value of redemption. Paul said, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20).
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people , and God himself will be with them as their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:1, 11).