ABRAM’S SOJOURN IN THE LAND OF PROMISE
2nd week of December
Heb. 11: 9, 10-
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
The previous verse tells of Abraham going forth at God’s command this verse speaks of his sojourn in the land of Canaan.
THE LAND OF PROMISE
By “the land of promise” as it is spoken of in vs. 9 we must understand Canaan, the earthly Canaan. The text cannot refer to the heavenly Canaan of which the earthly is a type, for in the heavenly reality no one is a stranger or sojourner. Besides, vs. 10 tells us that he sojourned in the land of promise because he looked for the heavenly city.
The land into which Abram came was the land of promise. It was that then, it is that now in the New Testament no more. Some teach that Canaan is still the promised land which the Jews will inherit. However, the promise of receiving has been fulfilled in the past, and now the church looks directly to the heavenly Canaan. For Abraham it was and remained the land of promise. Personally he never so much as owned a foot of ground in it, except the cave of Macpelah which he bought at a good price to busy Sarah. All his life he was a stranger dwelling in a strange land, among strange peoples. The text says that this also applies to Isaac and to Jacob after him. It was not till some four hundred years later that Abram’s seed received the land as their possession. During the life of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob the land was the property of the Canaanites. Theirs were the cities and the land. The land was also quite densely populated as the history of Genesis clearly shows. Abraham was therefore in Canaan a man without a country. Nowhere could he settle down. Neither might he, he was called to go up and down in the land. When death entered his home he did not even have a tomb to bury his beloved Sarah. Stephen in Acts 7:5, 6 pictures Abraham as a wandering nomad, an alien in a strange land.
That Abraham sojourned in the land of promise implies therefore: 1. that he never possessed a foot of ground in Canaan he could call his own, except the tomb he bought, that he lived as an outsider. 2. It also meant that he lived as a stranger among the peoples. He did not amalgamate with them and become a Canaanite. He lived along, even naturally- apart from their cities and customs. Above all, he did not join in their religions; he everywhere built altars to the Living God.
This separate life Abraham chose. He could have intermingled, but for God’s sake he might not and did not. He could have become a mighty leader among them, but he would not. He could have returned to Ur, but he remained steadfast to his divine calling.
Undoubtedly Abraham the father of believers is an example for us to follow. We must not intermingle, we must be spiritually separate. Our residence here below must be a spiritual dwelling in tents.
WHY ABRAHAM LIVED AS A SOJOURNER
The text says, “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”.
What was that city Abraham looked for? One interpretation has it that Abraham was looking for the earthly Jerusalem. Those who thus interpret always resolve the hope into as earthly inheritance of some kind or another. Abraham had in mind the earthly city of David where the temple later stood. How this could have been possible for him these interpreters do not say. They claim, however, that the Old Testament nowhere tells us of a longing for the heavenly things on the part of Abraham. This interpretation referring the city which hath foundations to the earthly Jerusalem is for various reasons altogether untenable. First of all, the interpretation must weaken the meaning of “which hath foundations” and “whose builder and maker is God”. The very words themselves are a warning against the earthly interpretation, and refer to a heavenly city. Besides, the context of verses 13-16 plainly disproves the interpretation. And, finally, the Old Testament believers did look for the heavenly things, and very definitely. Cf. Ps. 73:24, 25: John 19:5-27, etc. Surely the Old Testament believers did not see the heavenly things as clearly as we do in the New Testament, since Christ ascended and the Spirit was poured out, but essentially they too looked for the heavenly reward and inheritance. This vs. alone of Heb. 11 in connection with the following verses clearly shows it. The Spirit that inspired the writer Himself so interprets, and that should be the end of all contention on this score.
The reference can only be to what Scripture calls the new Jerusalem, the city of God, Paradise. That final manifestation of glory is called a “city”, a city that “hath foundations”. The latter descriptions points to the stability and permanence of the heavenly over against the temporary dwelling intents. It is founded on the solid foundation of Christ the Lord, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Of that city the “builder and maker” is God. “Designer and builder” would more correctly give the idea of the original, I believe. The city is entirely God’s work. God conceived it in His counsel and willed it, God alone also builds it. There is no room for glory in man. All salvation is the work of God alone.
It was for that city that Abraham looked. “Looked” means: expected, longed for, waited for, hoped for. That heavenly city was the goal and object of his life.
For the sake of that final city and its glory Abraham was willing and ready to sojourn in the land of promise. He did not remain a sojourner in Canaan because he could never forget Ur, the land of his native birth. So some people always remain sojourners and never quite at home in the new land to which they come. You may not so explain Abraham’s sojourn in Canaan. Abraham looked for the heavenly city. Therefore he obeyed God and dwelt along in Canaan. Had he amalgamated he could not have entered that heavenly city. He understood that it was his calling of God to walk as a stranger in Canaan, the land of promise, and with a view to his final reward of grace he obeyed.
This sojourn in the land of promise with a view to the heavenly city as his goal was possible only “by faith”. That he looked for the heavenly city and was assured of it was faith. That he sojourned in the land of Canaan and believed that his seed would receive the typical Canaan was faith. For without faith Abraham could never have thus acted.
QUESTIONS: Did Canaan ever become Abram’s homeland? Why did Abram dwell in tabernacles (tents)? Is Canaan still the land of promise? Did Abram remain faithful merely because he hoped one day to inherit the land of Canaan? Why is God called “the builder and maker” of the heavenly city? Why is final salvation pictured as a “city” instead of as a “garden”?
SARAH A MOTHER BY FAITH
3rd week of December
Heb. 11:11, 12-
Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.
In the hall of the heroes of faith are also the portraits of heroines, of women who are example of a life of faith. God’s grace is no respecter of sex and in Christ Jesus there is no difference. Although the man more than the woman stands on the foreground in Scripture, women occupy a rather prominent place not infrequently in the sacred record. It was Mary’s privilege to be the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ who had no earthly father; it was the women’s glory to receive the good news of the resurrection first, etc. This chapter of Heb. 11 speaks in succession of Sarah, of Rahab, and then of “women who received their dead to life again.”
Sarah’s faith is spoken of in her relation to her husband as his wife. It is Sarah in her marital life, of which the text speaks. Twice Scripture so refers to her. Once Peter does so (1 Peter 3), calling attention to her faith as she showed it by recognizing Abraham as the head of the home. Peter calls believing women to follow her example and to do well and not be afraid with any amazement: he speaks of the woman’s faith as manifested in her relation to her God-given husband. Hebrews 11 does not speak of Sarah so much as a wife as it does as a mother. A God-fearing wife wishes to be a mother as well as a wife. By faith Heb. 11 says Sarah became a mother, and by faith alone.
A GLORIOUS FAITH
Apparently in the light of the Old Testament record it would seem at first sight that Heb. 11 speaks far too strong language when it lauds Sarah’s faith in connection with her motherhood. The text says that Sarah through faith received strength to conceive seed, because she judged him faithful that had promised. This means that she believed the promise of God in respect to seed, that she waited for that promise, that she clave to it even when it seemed hopeless, and that at God’s time she received strength and brought forth a child. Now this testimony of Heb. 11 is very striking. In the previous illustrations we have seen that the writer singled out exactly those instances in the lives of the saints that most clearly reveal their faith. Instances of sin, e.g. Abraham’s life in regard to Sarah, are passed by, and the one main instance most sharply bringing out faith is held up. That must be the case here too. Sarah was, of course, a woman of faith, but in this instance of her motherhood her faith reveals itself most gloriously. So Hebrews 11 would seem to imply. Now, if you compare the testimony of Genesis, it would seem that Sarah was rather weak in this matter. History would seem to disprove that “she judged him faithful who had promise”. Take, e.g. the instance of Hagar- Sarah suggested that Abraham beget seed of her, does it not seem that she had lost hope and faith, and that she took matters entirely in her own hands and acted contrary to faith? Again we might mention her laughter when God announced the birth of a son a year hence, Gen. 18: 11-15.
However, the writer of Heb. 11 is not mistaken in his evaluation of Sarah’s faith in regard to the birth of a son. Firstly, he could not be because he wrote by inspiration of the Spirit, and the Spirit is never mistaken. Secondly, as far as the case of Hagar is concerned, we must remember the following: God had not yet specifically stated that Abraham’s seed would be born of Sarah, although it was surely implied: and further, when she gave Hagar to Abraham with the purpose of begetting seed it was her faith that induced her to this act. It is true it was misguided faith, but nonetheless underneath her attempt to have a child through her maid, was the fundamental faith that God would somehow give them seed. She sought the seed and looked for it; even though Jacob-like she sought it amiss. In regard to her laughter at the angel’s announcement there is an element almost natural in her laugher because of her age. Even Mary said, “How shall these things be?” Note, further, that when the angel reprimands her laughter Sarah in her shame denies her unbelief- this could only be because she fundamentally believed that with God all things are possible. These instances indeed show an imperfect faith, yet even in them faith is not entirely absent by any means. We may be sure that Sarah looked for the fulfillment of the promise, and that when it finally came she continued in firm assurance that god would fulfill his promise. That faith for a woman who was some 65 when they left Ur and 90 years old when she gave birth to her first-born and only son was indeed a remarkable and glorious faith.
HER WONDER CHILD
Isaac was wholly a wonder child. He was that from a physical viewpoint. For, as far as Sarah was concerned, she had always been barren. Besides, when the child was born she was long past the normal time of child-bearing. She was 90 years old. As far as Abraham was concerned, this was also true. “As good as dead” of vs. 12 is a deficient translation: the Dutch is better, “dat en verstorvene”. Abraham was sexually incompetent, as the original means, and as Romans 4: 19 testifies. Some have asked, if Abram was sexually incompetents, how then can we explain Keturah’s children, i.e. the children Abraham begat by Keturah, Gen. 25: 1-4. Two explanations are possible: either Abraham married Keturah and begat these children before this time or the rejuvenation of his body continued after Isaac’s birth. But, one thing is plain, when Abraham begat Isaac it was not in the normal course of nature, but it was by an act of God. Hence, both from the viewpoint of Sarah and from that of Abraham, the birth of Isaac was from the viewpoint of the physical a miracle of God.
Isaac was also a wonder child from the spiritual viewpoint. Parents can only beget corrupt offspring; we pass on a corrupt nature, we cannot pass of grace. Isaac was the child of the promise, not merely because of the wonder of his physical birth, but also because he was a child of the Spirit. “In Isaac shall thy seed be called”. Isaac was the spiritual seed, the seed of election, the seed that would believe, and in whom the covenant of God should be continued. He was that by the power of Almighty grace, and therefore surely the wonder-child.
This child Abraham and Sarah received by faith. This does not mean that their faith as such empowered them. It rather means that they believed God’s promise, and that God fulfilled that promise to which they clave. It was all by faith therefore.
AN INNUMERABLE PROGENY
God had promised Abraham a multitude of descendants. As the stars make the impression of countlessness, and as the sands of the seashore and multitude, so God had said would Abraham’s seed be. This promise God fulfills. Already four hundred years later, the descendants of Isaac and Jacob are a mighty number. In Egypt they multiplied and grew, remarkably so. All this multitude sprang from one, one that was dead.
In the miracle-child, our Lord Jesus Christ, the promise of a multitudinous offspring is finally fulfilled. Abraham becomes the father of many nations, the father of all believers. That centrally through the one great wonder-child, Jesus Christ, for whose sake Isaac was so wondrously brought forth in old age.
QUESTIONS: Why does Peter mention Sarah’s faith as wife, while Hebrews mentions her faith as mother? Prove that it is certainly true that Sarah believed the promise and judged him faithful that had promised. Why was Isaac born in their old age, so miraculously?
STRANGERS AND PILGRIMS ON EARTH
4th week of December
Heb. 11: 13-15-
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country, and truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.
All men die, but all men do not die in faith. To die in faith means that one belongs to Christ, and with a living faith looks forward expectantly to the full salvation in Christ Jesus, and in that faith lays down the head on the pillow of death in the firm assurance of going home to glory. So all men do not die. Only the believers so die.
The text tells us that “these all”, so died. “These all” refers back to Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob and all the heroes of faith.
So to die implies, of course, that we have lived “in faith”. It is impossible to live in unbelief and then to die in faith. As we live, so we die. To live in faith is prerequisite to dying in faith. And, to live in faith means to live as strangers and pilgrims here below.
STRANGERS AND PILGRIMS ON EARTH
The words “strangers” and “pilgrims” both stress the same fundamental thought: not yet home. However, each emphasizes the thought in its own way. To be a stranger means that in the land where you temporarily dwell you are not a citizen. The people of the land do not speak your language nor follow your customs. The word pilgrim emphasizes that although you are not a citizen you do temporarily dwell there, you do live among the others. Thus the two words are simply aspects of the same fundamental idea: not yet home. Your home is elsewhere, you do not settle down permanently, you look forward to return to your homeland, you do not give up your citizenship at home.
God’s people are described as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Notice, the text does not say “in the world”, but “on earth”. The saints are also strangers in the world, in the world as it lies in sin and seeks it. The saints are not of this world and maintain their spiritual distinctiveness. Yet that is not the thought stressed here; nor could it be, for that saint is a pilgrim of that world. The text says “on earth”. The word “earth” has in view creation with its natural ties, even apart from sin. Also in relation to those earthly ties, of man and wife, brother and sister, employer and employee, house and possessions, the saints are strangers and pilgrims. They may enjoy all God gives in these natural things but do not set their heart on them. They understand that these things are only a means to an end, a means on their journey to the heavenly city.
Of course, men are not strangers and pilgrims on earth by nature. By nature, even apart from sin, the saints are also of the earth earthly, and due to this may at times feel very much at home on earth and loathe to part with these ties. Yet as Christians the new life is not earthward but heavenward in its inclinations. In a good sense the Christian grows home-sick for heaven, and desires the better and heavenly country, and the heavenly ties. These spiritual ties become precious, and for them the Christian is ready to sacrifice the natural ties of flesh and blood.
Notice that the text says that the saints confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth. They all did. They did it by mouth and by their whole walk. They confessed it by speech, for vs. 14 speaks of those that say such things. Think only of Jacob’s testimony before Pharaoh, Gen. 48:9. They, however, did not only say it, they also showed it by their whole walk. Abraham left Ur for Canaan at God’s command; they all continued in this sojourn though if that had been their purpose they had time to go back. But through the years they continued faithfully to deport themselves as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. They did it and were encouraged therein by their faith, for they looked for the heavenly fatherland, the better country. They kept their eye on the heavenly reward and continued steadfast unto the end.
This behavior of the patriarchs finds its explanation in their faith. For by faith they saw the promises afar off, were persuaded of them, and embraced them.
The promises spoken of refer to all God’s promises to them. Centrally, however, it is the Christ, the promise. In this center all the promises find their pivotal point, and to it all the others are related.
These promises they saw far off. They did not see their fulfillment in their own life-time. Yet they saw them and were persuaded of them. i.e., they were convinced that God could and would realize them. And therefore they also embraced them, i.e., trusted them and acted out of the belief in their certainty.
Thus they lived. And thus they died. Even the advent of death did not change their hope. Hoping they went to glory, expecting the better fatherland and country for which they had hoped and suffered.
QUESTIONS: What difference is there between a stranger and a pilgrim? What do they have in common? Must God’s people still be strangers and pilgrims on earth? If so, in what sense? Were the saints seeking the earthly Canaan as the object of their faith? Explain. What does it mean to confess that one is a stranger and pilgrim on earth? What are the implications of confession of faith? What does it mean to die in faith?
DESIRING A HEAVENLY FATHERLAND
1st week of January
But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city.
The text speaks of desiring a better country. In a sense the whole world desires a better country, a better world. Also today this desire is frequently given expression to by wicked men. The text does not refer to this striving of wicked men, but to the definite longing of God’s saints for a truly better country, i.e., for the heavenly fatherland.
THE FATHERLAND DESIRED
To understand what the text means we may well begin by emphasizing what is implied when a better, heavenly country is spoken of. It means, negatively, that the saints never seek an earthly country. Both modernism and premillenarianism look for an earthly Canaan. The modernist simply seeks this world, this earth, and wants a heaven (without God) on earth. The premillenarian claims that the country the Old Testament saints sought was the earthly Canaan. They claim the Jews shall still receive it. Now it is true that departing Israel forgot the typical character of Canaan and was interested only in the earthly land and not in what it typified. The true Israel of God, however sought the earthly as a type of the heavenly, and the heavenly fatherland was their aim and goal. Since Pentecost God’s church looks directly to the heavenly, and the Old Testament types are forever fulfilled. There will be no millennial reign of Christ on earth with the Jews in Canaan.
Secondly, we should note that the text speaks of the heavenly country as a better country. We do not know how to describe its glory and life; we do know it is better, far better than ought that has ever come up in the heart of man. Most important to our mind is that this better country is, according to the original Greek very clearly, the fatherland. That idea should be stressed. There is a great difference between a fatherland and a country. One may be living in a country, a country better than one’s own and yet not be in his fatherland. A fatherland is one’s own country, the country of birth and love, where one’s language is spoken, where family and kin are. The better, the heavenly country is the Christian’s own country, his fatherland. It is the land of his spiritual birth and kin; it is the land where he will be at home and no more a stranger and pilgrim. Thither all his desires go, for “they desire” that country, i.e., long after it, yearn for it, aspire to it. And therefore also the saints are strangers and pilgrims on earth, marching upwards and onwards to Zion, the heavenly homeland.
THE CITY PREPARED
The text says that God has prepared a city for them. Note, the country here becomes a city, showing that earthly terms are used to explain the heavenly salvation. A city implies permanence and close fellowship. The heavenly city is the “new Jerusalem”. This city God has prepared “for them”. God did not simply prepare it, but he prepared it “for them”. We may also emphasize that there is not a city prepared for the citizens of this world, only for the strangers and pilgrims.
God has prepared it. God, not man; God alone in Almighty Grace. The city is now prepared. First of all, because it was eternally prepared in God’s sovereign counsel. Further, it was historically realized by Christ’s mediatorial work. And it is ready to be revealed in the last time in all its glory, I Peter 1:4-8.
There will be no disappointment for the stranger and pilgrims.
THE GOD NOT ASHAMED
The portion “wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” is not altogether easy to explain. According to the usual interpretation the meaning is as follows: because the saints by faith seek a heavenly country, confessing their God, God on His part is not ashamed of them. According to this explanation the idea is that if the saints did not confess God, God would be ashamed of them seeing he has prepared for them a city. To this interpretation the main objection is that it is hard to fit it in the last part of the text. The last part of the text says the reason God is not ashamed is because he hath prepared for them a city. The reason God is not ashamed is not, therefore, that the saints desire a heavenly country and confess their God, but it is specifically because he has prepared for them a city.
A second explanation is possible, and to our mind it is the only correct one. The meaning of the text is that Christians are strangers and pilgrims without a country here below. They desire a better country but they do not yet have it. They call God their God. Seemingly God ought to be ashamed of Himself, ashamed of the way he lets his children be treated on earth. But the text says God is not ashamed, nor need be, for he has prepared for them a city. This interpretation fits the whole context and does justice to the last part.
An example has been used to clarify the second and proper interpretation. We shall repeat it. A father has riches and wealth, lives in a palace and bathes in luxury. He has children whom he allows for a time to run in rags, to go hungry and cold. Would you not say of such a father, “He ought to be ashamed of himself, ashamed as the father of those children”? So one would be inclined to say of God, and the heather do indeed mockingly say to Israel, “Where is thy God?” A God who lets his people be strangers and pilgrims on his earth certainly, it would seem, ought to be ashamed of himself.
Yet God is not ashamed, nor need he be, “for he has prepared for them a city”, the heavenly city. And thither he leads his saints, and he makes all the present work together to realize that ultimate day. In his wisdom we are now strangers and pilgrims, in heaviness as long as necessary as God knows is best. But the way leads home. E’erlong the children of the king shall be clothed in glory, and at home with their God. God is not ashamed “for he has prepared for them a city”.
QUESTIONS: What difference is there between a country and a fatherland? In what sense is the heavenly country the saints’ fatherland? Why is this country also called a “city”? Why is God not ashamed of himself? Why must a Christian be a stranger and pilgrim here below?