Pastor David B. Curtis


Abraham & the City of God

Hebrews 11:8-16

Delivered 11/18/2001

We are studying Hebrews 11, which deals with the subject of faith. The subject is not "saving faith" or how do I become a Christian. The subject is the growing process of living by faith.

As I'm sure you're aware, Christians disagree on just about every issue of theology, this is not different. One writer (John Piper) has this to say about Hebrews 11:

Now make sure that you don't slip into a mentality here that is common among modern Christians - namely, the mentality that assumes (without even thinking about it) that the faith spoken of here has nothing to do with personal salvation - that it is a kind of add-on to basic Christianity - that we were saved by an act of faith that is somehow different from what's being talked of here. In other words, many Christians think that saving faith is only a single act ("asking Jesus into your heart") and that all else that happens in the Christian life is something added on to that and to our benefit for the sake of our maturity, but not relevant for salvation.

I say don't fall into that mentality. Saving faith is not a mere single act of receiving Jesus. Saving faith receives Jesus in order to go on trusting him. Saving faith is a life of faith. That faith is what this chapter is trying to teach us. You can see that most clearly if you look at the verse that leads into the chapter, Hebrews 10:39, But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. Do you see what is at stake: shrinking back to destruction; or pressing on in faith to preserve the soul. In other words, the evidence of authentic saving faith is its pressing on. Faith that saves from destruction is faith that lives day by day. That is what Chapter 11 is meant to illustrate. What does saving faith look like?

Piper says, "Many Christians think that saving faith is only a single act ("asking Jesus into your heart")." The Bible says nothing about "asking Jesus into your heart". It says, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ". It is believing in Christ that saves us. He goes on to say, "Saving faith is not a mere single act of receiving Jesus." Really! The Bible says:

John 1:12 (NKJV) But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:

Piper goes on to say, "Saving faith is a life of faith...The evidence of authentic saving faith is its pressing on." If this is true, what is your assurance based on? Your faith or your perseverance? According to him, it is based on your perseverance. How do you know you'll continue? If you stop pressing on does that mean that you were never saved? If so, at what point do you receive eternal life? According to Piper, saving faith is a process, a life long process. If this was true, the reception of eternal life would have to logically be postponed until death because anything short of dying in faith could end with your turning away and perishing.

The Christian is saved by the act of faith in Jesus Christ and His finished work. Once saved, he is to live by faith:

Colossians 2:6 (NKJV) As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him,

We received Christ by faith, we are to live by faith. Not for salvation, but out of gratitude. We are to live day in and day out trusting in the promises of God. The writer of Hebrews told his readers:

Hebrews 10:38 (NKJV) Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him."

He also said:

Hebrews 11:6 (NKJV) But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

Faith pleases God, and God rewards faith. And in the 40 verses of chapter 11 the writer gives us example after example of men and women who lived by faith.

Last week we looked at Noah, and we saw that Noah's faith brought three results: 1. Deliverance of his family. 2. Condemned of the world. 3. He became an heir. God rewarded Noah for his faith, and Noah inherited the world after the flood. That God does reward those who diligently seek him is demonstrated by the lives of Noah and Abraham. They stress the reward to which faith leads.

Noah served God 120 years by faith before the flood came. He, nevertheless, saw the fulfillment of God's warning and the result of his faith. Abraham, however, was given two promises - the inheritance of the promised land, and the formation of a mighty people as his descendants. But he never saw these promises fulfilled in his lifetime, even though he lived for 175 years. Abraham, to be sure, lived by faith.

The world had been judged by the flood, and as soon as possible men set out the build the tower of Babel. That rebellion showed how deep seated was the opposition of man's heart to God, and how quickly the warning of the flood was ignored. Abraham demonstrates the faith of separation from the world, pilgrimhood.

Abraham, the progenitor of the Hebrew nation who was commonly regarded as the father of the faithful, is more fully portrayed than anyone else in this gallery of heroes of faith. Since the readers are Jewish, it is no surprise that the chapter gives special space to Abraham.

Hebrews 11:8 (NKJV) By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.

Here we see the sovereign call of God. Abraham lived in an unregenerate world. He was from the city of Ur, which was located in Chaldea. Abraham grew up in a pagan home:

Joshua 24:2 (NKJV) And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel: 'Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.

Abraham's father, Terah, served other gods. Abraham lived in an idolatrous, vile culture of paganism. So, why did God choose Abraham?

Romans 9:15 (NKJV) For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion."

God sovereignly gives mercy to whom he will and he chose Abraham simply because he wanted to. God told Abraham to leave his home and go to a place that God would show him. By faith Abraham obeyed. Remember, faith is: understanding and assent to a proposition. God said, "Go and I will bless you." Abraham believed this, and he moved out, he acted upon his faith.

The phrase "when he was called" is a present participle in the Greek and speaks of action going on at the same time as that of the leading verb, which in this verse is "obeyed". We could read this verse this way, "Abraham, while he was being called, obeyed." It was an immediate obedience to God's call. God told Abraham he would bless him, and Abraham believed God.

The end of verse 8 says, "...And he went out, not knowing where he was going." The Greek word used here for "knowing" is not ginosko or oida the usual words for knowing, but epistamai, which means: "to put one's attention on, to fix one's thoughts on, to know." Abraham's faith was so great, that he was not even concerned where he was going. We could translate this: "He went out, not even putting his thoughts on where he was going." How could he do that? He trusted God, and he didn't need details. Abraham set out in faith, his destination unrevealed, but he also set out in hope, firmly grasping the promises of an inheritance.

Abraham couldn't even tell his relatives where he was going, because he didn't know. The dialog might have been like this, "The family and I are leaving town." "Where are you going?" "I don't know." "You're leaving town and you don't even know where you're going? You're crazy!"

Abraham forsook his birthplace, his home, his estate; he severed family ties, he left loved ones. Why? Because God told him to. A walk of faith begins with a separation from our old life. Abraham's faith separated him from that which was pagan. Spiritual growth demands separation. Practical separation from the world is the beginning of walking by faith:

2 Corinthians 6:14-18 (NKJV) Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people." 17 Therefore "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you." 18 "I will be a Father to you, And you shall be My sons and daughters, Says the LORD Almighty."
2 Corinthians 7:1 (NKJV) Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

Notice verse 17, "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you." This is not talking about salvation, but fellowship. There are many passages which deal with the Christian's responsibility to separate himself from the world's system:

Romans 12:2 (NKJV) And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
James 4:4 (NKJV) Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
1 Peter 1:14-17 (NKJV) as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; 15 but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 because it is written, "Be holy, for I am holy." 17 And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear;

You might ask, "But sin is so powerful, how do we break from it?" By faith! In Romans 6, the first ten verses give us our position in Christ - we are dead to sin. Then in verses 11-13 he tells us to believe it and act upon it.

Romans 6:11-13 (NKJV) Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

Abraham believed there was a blessing for separation, and he obeyed. So should we, because faith pleases God.

As a person grows in faith, he begins to lose his desire to do worldly things. Do you know how often I want to go out and get drunk? I don't ever want to, I used to always want to. This is what spiritual maturity is all about. It's a process of growing to the place where you not only don't do it, you don't even want to do it. As we apply our faith, we grow. God has called us to be holy, that is separate from sin.

Hebrews 11:9 (NKJV) By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise;

"By faith he dwelt in the land of promise" - this is the heart of the passage. The word "dwelt" is the Greek word paroikeo. The word literally means: "to dwell beside or among." It speaks of a foreigner dwelling in a state without rights of citizenship. He was a transient in the land of promise. The word "foreign" is the Greek word allotrios, which means: "another's, i.e. not one's own; foreign, hostile". He was, "dwelling in tents" - this is a temporary dwelling. This was also true of Issac and Jacob who also were heirs of the same promise.

Did you know that even when Abraham got to the land of promise, he never got the promise. In all of Abraham's life in the land, he never owned it. God never gave it to him. Stephen, preaching about Abraham, said:

Acts 7:5 (NKJV) "And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him.

Abraham was so much a foreigner in the land of promise that when Sarah died he had to bargain with the Hittites just to purchase a burial plot for her. Why did they live as if in a foreign country when they were in fact in the land of promise? Why didn't they move in, settle down, take possession? The answer is found in verse:

Hebrews 11:13 (NKJV) These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

Abraham saw himself as a pilgrim on this earth, a stranger in this world. Abraham's hope was not upon the land of promise but upon the eternal city of God. Do you see that?

When God established the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 and then expanded upon it in Genesis 15 and 17, what was Abraham thinking? What did he understand? What sort of fulfillment was Abraham looking forward to when he was given the word of promise concerning the land? What did he expect? Did he look for an earthly fulfillment? Not according to this passage, he was looking for a heavenly city and country:

Hebrews 11:16 (NKJV) But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

By faith he dwelt in the land of promise. By faith in God's promise of a heavenly city he lived as a pilgrim on the earth. He knew the earth wasn't his home, so he never tried to make it his home.

Do you see yourself as a pilgrim in this world? Do you live as in a foreign country? It takes faith to live in this world as a pilgrim, we all tend to want to settle down and get comfortable. But as Christians, we're only pilgrims here, we're on a journey to a spiritual home in the heavens. Faith is the conviction of things not seen. We're very much like Abraham. God has called us out of the world and told us He has something better for us, but we're still waiting for it, and we must live by faith, as pilgrims. Paul said of believers:

Philippians 3:20 (NKJV) For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,

"Our" is speaking of Paul and the Philippian believers and, in fact, all believers. For all of us who have been born again, our citizenship is in heaven. "Citizenship" is from the Greek word politeuma. It is only used here in the New Testament, but it is related to the verb politeuomai used in Philippians 1:27 to denote: "the Philippian Christians' 'way of life,'" with special reference to their responsibility as members of a community.

Paul told the Phillipians, "Our citizenship is in heaven" - The word "is" is the Greek word huparcho, which expresses the continued state of a thing; it is unalterable and unchangeable. It speaks of a fixedness. Our citizenship is fixed in heaven, it is unalterable and unchangeable. What is heaven? Could you give someone a definition of heaven if you were asked?

2 Corinthians 12:1-4 (NKJV) It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago; whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows; such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man; whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows; 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

Here we see that heaven is the abode, the dwelling place of God. Heaven is not a place in this physical realm. Heaven is a literal place in the heavenly realm or dimension. As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven. We are in heaven in a positional sense now, and when our soul leaves this realm at physical death, it will go to that realm in a locational sense. When we die physically, we will dwell in heaven, the spiritual realm where God dwells.

Abraham is a good picture of the Christian. We are pilgrims on this earth, we're aliens, foreigners. As such, we shouldn't invest too much here. Look at how Jesus put it in:

Matthew 6:19-21 (NKJV) "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 "but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

As long as you're only a pilgrim here, don't invest too much in this world. And if you're only transient you shouldn't need much to get by on. Aboard ship in the Navy, I didn't have much; a bed and a small storage area under it, that was it. But it was fine, because I knew it was temporary. Since you are a pilgrim here, wouldn't it be far better to spend your time and money advancing God's kingdom instead of building your own? We need to order our priorities and work for the real rewards, not for the ashes of the earth's decaying gold.

Hebrews 11:10 (NKJV) for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

The city Abraham was looking for was the heavenly Jerusalem. The writer relates:

Hebrews 12:22-23 (NKJV) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect,

From these verses we can see the different description of the same entity; the city, the kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem, the church, and Mount Zion. These all have their fulfillment in the new covenant as established in the first century. This was in contrast to the old, physical, earthly city of Jerusalem.

Abraham was looking for the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem spoken of in:

Revelation 21:1-3 (NKJV) Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.

Notice that the New Jerusalem is in the new heaven and earth. Now turn to:

Galatians 4:22-26 (NKJV) For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar; 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Please notice that Paul is talking about two covenants (24), the Old corresponds to Jerusalem which now is - at the time of the writing Jerusalem was still standing, and the Old Covenant was still operative. The New Covenant corresponds to Jerusalem above. In Revelation 21:2, John sees the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from above.

So, the new Jerusalem is in the new heaven and earth, which is the New Covenant.

Abraham was a pilgrim in the promised land, because he perceived it to be but a pointer as it were to a far more substantial heavenly country. Abraham was given the promise of an earthly inheritance, and yet he looked forward to a heavenly one. Why? The understanding might be found in seeing the earthly in a sacramental sense.

We can refer to the elements of the Lord's Supper as sacraments. What we mean by that is that the bread and cup point to a more substantial spiritual reality which lies behind them, namely the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given for our sins.

Abraham understood the promised land as a sacrament. The land of promise was an earthly sign pointing beyond itself to a heavenly reality. We saw this principle in chapter 4 where the true "rest" was not the earthly Canaan, but it was simply a picture. Abraham clearly saw the ultimate fulfillment of that country as heavenly and not earthly.

Some Christians still believe that the Jews must live in the literal land. They insist that prophecy is being fulfilled by the Jews entering the land of Palestine. This is not biblical! The physical land promise given to Abraham is already fulfilled. It was fulfilled when the children of Israel took possession of the promised land according to Joshua:

Joshua 21:43-45 (NKJV) So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it. 44 The LORD gave them rest all around, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers. And not a man of all their enemies stood against them; the LORD delivered all their enemies into their hand. 45 Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.

This couldn't be much clearer! The physical land promise made to Abraham was fulfilled. There is no physical land promise yet to be fulfilled.

The spiritual fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham was fulfilled in the new covenant kingdom, the church. Paul said:

Galatians 3:7 (NKJV) Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.
Galatians 3:14 (NKJV) that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

This leaves no promise left to be fulfilled. They were all fulfilled by the first century. Nothing of God's promises failed, all was fulfilled by the time Jerusalem was destroyed:

Luke 21:20-22 (NKJV) "But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. 21 "Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those who are in the midst of her depart, and let not those who are in the country enter her. 22 "For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.

Notice that "all things which are written" were fulfilled when Jerusalem fell in AD 70.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to say:

Hebrews 11:11-12 (NKJV) By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude; innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.

These verses illustrate the greatness of Abraham's and Sarah's faith. They believed God when there was nothing to go on but God's word. Every circumstance was against them, but they trusted God.

Even though Abraham is clearly referred to in verse 12 by the masculine forms, the point is that Sarah had her part to play in this Abrahamic fruitfulness. In these verses on Sarah, the writer picks up the theme of promise - opened in verses 8-10. Here the stress falls on Sarah's faith in the faithfulness of the one who promised:

Genesis 18:9-14 (NKJV) Then they said to him, "Where is Sarah your wife?" So he said, "Here, in the tent." 10 And He said, "I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son." (Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.) 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing. 12 Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, "After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" 13 And the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?' 14 "Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son."

At first Sarah laughed, but when asked, "Is anything too hard for the Lord?", she realized that with God all things are possible, and she judged Him faithful who promised.

Then the writer points to the miraculous realization that the promise had:

Hebrews 11:12 (NKJV) Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude; innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.

Every circumstance in life was contrary to God's promise, but they trusted God:

Romans 4:18-21 (NKJV) who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, "So shall your descendants be." 19 And not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah's womb. 20 He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.

We, like Sarah, must trust the faithfulness of the God who promises us eternal life:

Hebrews 11:13 (NKJV) These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

They believed the promises, and kept believing, and died believing: though what was promised had not yet come. The writer here clearly extols the life of a spiritual pilgrim whose eyes are on future inheritance. For the readers, the point is obvious; they have lost earthly belongings before and may again, but that doesn't matter to someone who is a pilgrim:

Hebrews 11:14 (NKJV) For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.

They are not at home on the earth, they're seeking a country, a homeland.

Hebrews 11:15 (NKJV) And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return.

They didn't think of the land they left as their home, if they had, they could have easily gone back. This verse obviously contains a warning against returning to the life which they had left. These Old Testament saints never turned back, despite opportunity to do so. Likewise the readers have opportunity to turn away from Christianity, but should not. Remember the Israelites became discouraged by the trials of life and wanted to turn back to Egypt instead of going on and trusting God:

Hebrews 11:16 (NKJV) But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

This city of promise was the kingdom, the heavenly Jerusalem, fulfilled in the first century according to the prophecies of Jesus and the apostles.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and his sons all died before the promises were received. The example of these ancients should have encouraged these early Jewish Christians to remain faithful.

"Therefore" - because of their strong faith in God's promises, He is not ashamed to be called their God.

The key to successful living in the present is a proper understanding of the future. Abraham had a proper understanding of the future, and he set his sights on the coming of his eternal reward. It was by reason of his confident trust that God would in fact bring about what he promised that they were able to survive in those difficult circumstances living in tents with no real sense of identity in the land, and thus it is the key for us as well:

2 Corinthians 4:18 (NKJV) while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

We need to get our eyes off the temporal and on the eternal. And like Sarah, we must judge him faithful who has promised. We don't belong to this world, we're not to get to comfortable here. Our home is in heaven with our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ:

2 Corinthians 5:1 (NKJV) For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
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