The Hope of Exiles on the Earth
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 15 And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; 18 it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED." 19 He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type. 20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the exodus of the sons of Israel, and gave orders concerning his bones.
The words that I am going focus on this morning are "seek" and "desire." These are the elements of faith that our writer wants us to grasp today. Or here's another way to see where we are going this morning. In verses 13-16 we are looking into the heart of those who live and die in faith. We are focusing on the inner experience of faith, rather than the outward acts that come from faith. And then, in verses 17-19, we watch Abraham act out faith in an incredible demonstration of utter confidence in the promises of God against all human odds. Then we see Isaac, Jacob and Joseph at the end of their lives give expression to their hope in the promises of God, even in the face of death.
The Promises of God are not Mainly for this World
Let's look first at verses 13-16. Verse 13: "These all died in faith." He has just mentioned Abraham and Sarah, and earlier - in verse 9 - he mentioned Isaac and Jacob. So he says, these all died in a way that accords with faith. How so? They did not receive most of the promise (verse 13). Some, but not most. The lesson the writer wants us to get, right off the bat, is that the promises of God are not mainly for this world - some, but not mainly. He works this out for us.
He says that the promises of God are like a great friend or lover coming to meet you. You see her in the distance and your heart leaps up and you greet her the best you can from a distance, and you say to others, "I am waiting for her to come. That is what I want. This time and this place are incomplete without her. I don't really belong here; I belong with her." Read verse 13 with me: "All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth . . ."
The writer wants us to realize that the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were sojourners, exiles, refugees - and so is everyone who lives by faith, including those of us who even know Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Not even the coming of the Messiah has brought all the promise to us. What the coming of Jesus has done is put the foundation of the promises on a visible, demonstrable footing. In Christ all the promises of God are Yes (2 Corinthians 1:20). But the promises are still future. And we are still aliens and exiles and sojourners, just like the fathers and like the other Old Testament saints.
The Life of Faith is the Life of a Sojourner
Here's the sequence of sojourner texts. In Genesis 23:4, Abraham pleads with the sons of Heth for a grave for his wife - "I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight." At the end of his life, Jacob said to Pharaoh in Egypt, "The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty" (Genesis 47:9). In Psalm 39, King David looked back over these testimonies and included himself in the lineage of sojourners on the earth. Verse 12: "Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with Thee, a sojourner like all my fathers." And in the New Testament Paul says in Philippians 3:20, "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." And Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul."
So the point here is that the life of faith is the life of an exile, a sojourner, a refugee. The promises of God are our real home and we have seen them from afar and have greeted them and tasted them and they have made us restless and uneasy. They have begun to shape our whole way of seeing and thinking and feeling. They have colored all our values and goals and desires. We have been put out of sync with this world because our treasure is in heaven.
Seeking and Desiring Another Country
Now look how the writer argues for this life of faith. He says in verse 14 that those who speak this way-namely as sojourners-are seeking another country. There is the key word "seeking." A sojourner living by faith in God's promises is "seeking" another country (see Matthew 6:33). He is not settling in here. He is sitting loose to things, and is unwilling to be conformed to this age. He is "seeking" the one he has greeted from afar.
In verse 15, the writer argues that if the country the patriarchs were seeking were on the earth and obtainable by human means, they would have gone after it. But they didn't. They lived in tents (verse 9), and refused to go back to Ur of the Chaldees (see Genesis 24:6). So he says, "If they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return." But they didn't. Why not? Verse 16 gives the answer, and here we meet that other great word, "desire." Verse 16: "But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one."
The life of faith "seeks" a "country of its own" (verse 14) and "desires" a better country - a heavenly one (verse 16). This is what the writer is focusing on in these verses. He is not focusing here on the outward acts of faith, but the inward desires of faith. Faith considers this world and what it offers, then faith considers the promises of God what they offer - and faith "desires" the one over the other. Faith "seeks" another country. It sees the promise from afar, is stunned by it and greets it and begins to confess that to being a stranger and sojourner here.
That is what we need to hear this morning about faith. Faith sees the promised future that God offers - some now, mostly later - and "desires" it. Dwell on this for a moment. There are many people who water down what saving faith is by making it a mere decision with no change of what one "desires" and "seeks." But the point of this text is that living and dying by faith means having new desires and seeking new satisfactions. Verse 14: they were seeking a different kind of country than this world offered. Verse 16: they were desiring something better than what earthly existence, as we know it, could offer. They had been so gripped by God that nothing short of heaven - or what heaven could make out of earth by God's presence on it - would satisfy.
What is faith? It is seeing the promises of God from afar and experiencing a change of values so that you desire the promises above what the world has to offer. It is a glad greeting of those promises from a distance and a heart- seeking to know them and cherish them and be satisfied by them so that a new kind of life emerges that is out of sync with the world - like we said last week: a life that builds an ark in the desert and leaves the securities of home and builds a crib when you are ninety, or lifts a knife over your most treasured earthly possession.
God is not Ashamed
But before we look at that demonstration of faith, there is one more wonderful thing to see in verse 16. Notice the amazing "therefore" in the middle of that verse: "Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God." God is not ashamed! That is a very striking phrase. There is nothing quite like it that I know of anywhere else in the Bible - connecting shame with God and saying, God might be ashamed to do something, but he is not ashamed to do this.
I really want God to be able to say that of me: "I am not ashamed to be called John Piper's God." If he were to say the opposite, "I am ashamed to be called John Piper's God," then he would not be my God, because he will not do anything shameful. So you see what is at stake here!
He is not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Recall Exodus 3:6: at the burning bush, God says to Moses, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Why is he not ashamed of this? The writer gives two reasons: one in front and one behind. You see the "therefore" at the beginning of the statement: "therefore God is not ashamed . . . " - which means a reason for God's not being ashamed comes before. And then at the end of the statement you see the word "for" - "for he has prepared a city for them."
So what are the two reasons God is not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? The reason at the back is that he has prepared for them a city - a heavenly city of promise. And the reason at the front is that they desire that city. It says, "They desire a better country - that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God." God made it for them and they desire it, that is why he is not ashamed to be called their God.
Now think about this for a moment. Do you want God to be unashamed of being your God? So what must you do? Some great exploit that he can be proud of? Some high moral achievement that impresses him? The simple, stunning answer is this: desire him. Desire the city he has made for you. Desire the city of God over the city of man. Desire heaven over earth. Desire God over everything but God. This is what faith is on the inside. Faith desires God and the city God makes for his people more than it desires what the world can give. Faith in God means desiring God.
But think on this a little more. What's the opposite of being ashamed? If God were to state it positively how would he say it? "I am not ashamed to be called your God, rather I am _________ (what?) to be called your God - "I am proud or I am pleased to be called your God." Why would God be proud to be called the God of someone who desires him and his city over the city of the world? Because desiring God honors God. When you desire someone you call attention to their worth. Desiring is no great achievement on our part. Nobody brags about getting hungry, especially for the best food in the world. So nobody will brag about desiring God, who is more desirable than anything in the universe. Desiring God doesn't call attention to our value, it calls attention to God's. We have the need for safety; he has the city of heaven.
What a City God's City Is!
And what a city it is! No pollution, no graffiti, no trash, no peeling paint or rotting garages, no dead grass or broken bottles, no harsh street talk, no in-your-face confrontations, no domestic strife or violence, no dangers in the night, no arson or lying or stealing or killing, no vandalism and no ugliness. The city of God will be perfect because God will be in it. He will walk in it and talk in it and manifest himself in every part of it. All that is good and beautiful and holy and peaceful and true and happy will be there, because God will be there. Perfect justice will be there, and recompense a thousandfold for every pain suffered in obedience to Christ. And it will never deteriorate. In fact, it will shine brighter and brighter as eternity stretches out into unending ages of increasing joy.
When you desire this city above everything else on the earth, then you honor God, who, according to verse 10, is the architect and builder of the city. And when God is honored, he is pleased and not ashamed to be called your God. The great battle for faith is not at the level of behavior, it's at the level of desire. What do you desire?
The Behavior of Faith
But we must also take a brief look at the behavior of faith in verses 17-19. Faith not only desires what God promises more than anything, it also does things that can only be explained by the assurance that God will do what he has promised, in spite of humanly impossible obstacles. Faith desires the God of the promises and faith trusts the God of the promises to deliver. And so faith acts in ways that are out of sync with a world that does not desire or trust God.
Consider what Abraham did - what he did! Verse 17: "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac" - that is, he laid him on the altar and was ready to end his life. Why is this astonishing? Not just that a father loves a son. And not just that the Ten Commandments will say not to murder. But because God had given Abraham a promise that he would have many descendants and that this very son - his only son, the son of his old age - would be the one through whom the descendants would come. Verse 18: "In Isaac your descendants shall be called." If this boy dies, everything in human experience says, the promise of God will fail.
So here's the test: will Abraham reason his way out of obedience or will he trust that the humanly impossible will come to pass? The answer is in verse 19: "He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type."
When Obedience Feels Like the End of a Dream
Now I close by applying this to your life. For many of you right now - and for others of you the time is coming - obedience feels like the end of a dream. You feel that if you do what the word of God or the Spirit of God is calling you to do, it will make you miserable and that there is no way that God could turn it all for good.
Perhaps the command or call of God you hear just now is to stay married or stay single, to stay in that job or leave that job, to get baptized, to speak up at work about Christ, to refuse to compromise your standards of honesty, to confront a person in sin, to venture a new vocation, to be a missionary. And as you see it in your limited mind, the prospect of doing this is terrible - it's like the loss of Isaac. You have considered every human angle, and it is impossible that it could turn out well.
Now you know what it was like for Abraham. This story is in the Bible for you. It is in this message for you. It is at the end of the message so that you will not easily be able to walk away from it. Do you desire God and his way and his promises more than anything, and do you believe that he can and will honor your faith and obedience by being unashamed to call himself your God, and to use all his wisdom and power and love to turn the path of obedience into the path of life and joy?
That is the crisis you face now: Do you desire him? Will you trust him? The word of God to you is: God is worthy and God is able.