Hebrews 11:13: Aliens and Strangers
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth...Hebrews 11:13
These words are applied in the book of Hebrews to Abraham in particular. He was a man who lived by faith; and faith, as defined in Hebrews 11, is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (vs.1). Faith is an acceptance of the word of God because it is God who speaks it. Faith does not need the reality of what is promised to be present before one believes and acts on that promise.
Make no mistake: it took great courage and commitment for Abraham to respond to God’s promise in Genesis 12. Against the background of the table of nations in Genesis 10 and the dispersion of the peoples after their attempt to make a name for themselves by building a tower that reaches to heaven (11:47), God informs Abraham that he will make him into a great nation. What’s more, God will make Abraham’s name great (12:2) and all peoples on earth will be blessed through him (12:3). But for this to occur, Abraham has to leave his country, his people and his father’s household and go to the land that God will show to him (12:1). This was no easy calling. Abraham was being effectively told to burn his bridges with his family, his country, and his past and find his security in God alone.
Believed God’s Promise
When he reached the land of Canaan, Abraham discovered that the reality of the situation was not exactly in sync with the promises God had given him. The land God had designated for him was occupied already by the Canaanites (12:6) and there were items of cultural and religious significance already in place there. Nonetheless, Abraham believed God’s promise that his offspring would be given this land (12:7) and he proceeded to build altars in Canaan, calling on the name of the Lord (12:8).
However, verse 10 of Genesis 12 tells us that there was a famine in the land and Abraham was forced to leave Canaan and travel to Egypt. Again, God’s promise must have seemed out of step with the reality of Abraham’s situation. Again, he had to trust and act not upon what he saw with his eyes but upon the promise of God alone. He was still on a journey.
As the journey continues, God makes another promise to Abraham. This time, he is told that he and his wife Sarah will have a son (15:4). There are only two problems: First, Sarah had borne Abraham no children all their married life (16:1). Second, he and Sarah are now in their latter years, beyond the age when children might be expected (17:17). Again, the promise and the reality seem to be at odds, and all Abraham can do is trust God’s word.
When the child was born, it was time for rejoicing. Isaac was the miracle child, the child born outside all human expectation. Furthermore, he was the one on whom the further promises of God depended. God would establish his covenant with Isaac “as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (17:20). Here God is informing Abraham, in effect, that all the other promises he had received from the Lord would ultimately be realised through Isaac. Remember, Abraham was destined to become the father of not just one but many nations (17:6) and his descendants would be as the stars of the heaven for multitude (Gen. 15:5).
Imagine, then, the shock and bewilderment that Abraham must have felt when he received from God a command to kill Isaac in sacrifice. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (22:2). Strictly speaking, of course, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. He had another son called Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise and the covenant blessings and responsibilities would not be realised through him. From the point of view of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants, Isaac was the only child. Everything else was bound up with his life and his future. Quite apart from the horror of even thinking about killing a son in sacrifice, let alone having to carry that out, Abraham is being asked to bring an end to all the promises in one fearful stroke. How can this be? How can God be asking this of him? Hebrews 11:19 tells us that Abraham reasoned God could raise Isaac from the dead. Of course he could. And he would have to if the other promises were to be realised. But why would God require such a thing?
From the comfort of our vantage point, we can say with equanimity that this was all designed to show in advance how God would later offer up his Son, his only Son, whom he loved. God himself would provide the Lamb for sacrifice and he would not stay his hand. The offering would take place in this very region of Moriah, because this was the place where the temple in Jerusalem would be built centuries later (2Chron. 3:1). Of course! It all fits. But what did Abraham know of all this? This was the greatest test of faith that Abraham ever faced. It came after a lifetime of other tests. Time and time again, the patriarch had to take God’s word on trust, believing and expecting the promise apart from and even in spite of the reality that he faced in life.
What of Abraham at the end after all those years of walking with God and trusting in him? How much did he have to show for it? After all, God had promised him and his descendants the land of Canaan, and it was on this basis that the patriarch had burned his bridges with his family and his homeland and begun his pilgrimage with the Lord. Well, all he possessed of this land was a field with a cave in which he could bury his dead. Hardly a significant land acquisition. And this was not achieved as a result of victorious conquest. Abraham had to purchase this field from Ephron the Hittite at an exorbitant price (23:10-16).
Was God harsh and mean-spirited through all of this? Absolutely not. The promises and the blessings associated with the covenant were both gracious and bountiful and every last one of them was fulfilled. In fact, they are still being worked out today as the Gentiles continue to be brought into the Church (Galatians 3:29). Abraham is indeed the father of a multitude of nations and all peoples of the world are being blessed through him!
Moreover, Abraham’s life and his faith are a tremendous example to us all. They show us that there is much more to life than the things of this world. We too are on a journey with the Lord, and we too will receive our tests of faith along the way when the promises seem to be out of sync with the reality we are facing. Like Abraham, we need to take God’s word on trust and continue to walk with him. Like Abraham, we need to look for a heavenly city, living all the while as aliens and strangers in this world.
If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.Hebrews 11:15, 16