What’s It Like to Be a Christian?

Faith, Obedience, and Living as Strangers

Cities Church | St. Paul

At the end of July, our family visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, with our sons’ 12U baseball team. After hearing so often about Cooperstown as a lifelong baseball fan, it was surreal to finally be there onsite, and especially to walk through the famous Plaque Gallery and see the faces of the Hall of Fame inductees.

One thing I didn’t realize about Cooperstown until this year is how far it is off the beaten trail. It’s not in New York City or LA or Orlando or Vegas, where tourists would already be gathered. It’s four hours north of Manhattan. You don’t just happen to go by the Hall of Fame. You go out of the way, to upstate New York, away from the big city and other distractions, to this small town with a population less than my wife’s hometown of Aitkin, Minnesota. So, you get away from normal life, and stand in awe of these larger-than-life figures who did what very few humans can do.

Sometimes we hear Hebrews 11 talked about as the “hall of faith” or “faith hall of fame,” but that might give the wrong impression. Hebrews 11 is actually not like the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is not a remote gallery to visit while you forget normal life and gawk at inimitable greats. Rather, Hebrews 11 takes normal humans, who had faith in the true God, and presses their stories into the service of our real lives and struggles. This is no mere record of Israel’s history, but Israel’s history pressed into the service of helping us persevere in faith.

We live in times where this is particularly needed. We need examples and encouragements to help us endure in faith and keep believing.

Amen Time

Chapter 11 is the rhetorical climax of Hebrews, the best part of the sermon, the big “amen” part, leading up to the highest point in 12:1–3, where Jesus is the climactic man of faith, and author and perfecter of ours.

Along the way, while narrating this “by faith” history of Israel, Hebrews makes four editorial comments (in verses 6, 13–16, 32, and 38). By far, the editorial comment in verses 13–16 is the longest, and most significant. Verses 13–16 are the heart of our passage this morning, and in some ways the heart of the whole chapter. And verses 13–16 deal with three distinct but connected realities: faith, obedience, and being strangers because of it.

This chapter leads us not only to ask what these realities are and what they mean, but what they are like. In other words, what’s the experience of faith like? What’s it like to obey from faith? And what’s it like to live as strangers and exiles in this world, seeking another, rather than being at home in this one?

So, with this risky experiential focus, let’s ask three “what’s it like” questions this morning: (1) What’s it like to have saving faith? (2) What’s it like to obey from faith? (3) What’s it like to live in this world as strangers and exiles, seeking a homeland?

1. What’s It Like to Have Saving Faith?

We start with the first half of verse 13:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar . . .

Last week we looked at verse 1, which may be the closest thing to a definition of faith in the New Testament. However, the chapter keeps going. Instead of just giving a definition and then moving on, Hebrews keeps going and shows us faith from one angle after another.

In fact, if you were to say, “Okay, what does this chapter say about the nature of faith, and what it’s like to have it?” you will find various angles on this many-splendored reality:

  • Verse 1: Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
  • Verse 5: Faith pleases God, and walks with him.
  • Verse 6: Faith sees God as a rewarder of those who seek him.
  • Verse 10: Faith looks to God’s city, not man’s.
  • Verse 11: Faith considers him faithful who promised.
  • Verse 14: Faith seeks another homeland, and desires a better country.
  • Verse 19: Faith considers that God is able to raise the dead.

But the first part of verse 13 has a particularly important contribution to make: faith (1) sees God’s promises from afar and (2) greets them.

Last Sunday we saw this emphasis on faith as “seeing” what is not yet visible. Faith hears the promises of God and sees them with the soul, or the eyes of the heart. Faith sees spiritually what cannot yet be fully seen, or seen at all, with the physical eyes. There is a kind of distance, for now, bridged by faith.

And because this “seeing” is a response to hearing God’s promises, faith is tied repeatedly in this chapter to “receiving” (verses 8, 11, 13, 17, and 19). Faith receives. It’s a “peculiarly receiving grace,” as Andrew Fuller said. It is not a “doing grace” or a “performing grace.” It does not merit God’s favor. Rather, faith receives God’s favor and “sees” his promises that are still, for now, invisible and distant.

But faith not only sees from afar. It greets. That is, it welcomes, embraces, even kisses. Faith receives with delight, not with disgust or disinterest. It is not mere assent, but warm embrace. In the language of verse 6, faith looks to the reward. Verse 10: it looks forward to the heavenly city. Verse 16: it desires a better country, the heavenly one. And the whole point of the chapter is that saving faith perseveres. It keeps seeing, keeps greeting, keeps looking forward, keeps desiring and tasting of the fullness of joy to come.

So, then, what’s it like to have saving faith? What might we say about the experience of faith?

On the one hand, to live according to faith is not to have all the promises yet. Once you have all the promises, you no longer live by faith, but by sight. Faith is not yet content with the here and now, as we’ll see.

But faith also has a foretaste of the goodness of God’s promises. Faith hears God’s word and sees him as true with the eyes of the soul and embraces him as desirable. Saving faith is not indifferent to what it sees or apathetic toward who God is and what he has said and done. Rather, there is in faith an eagerness, a desire, a thirst to drink, a hunger to eat, and a foretaste of satisfaction. As Jonathan said last Sunday, faith says to God, “I want you.” And saving faith perseveres. It keeps wanting. (Which might lead us to ask, practically, How am I conditioning my soul — for indifference to God or delight in him?)

So, faith, in verse 13, sees God’s promises from afar and greets them, and continues to want them. Which leads to our second “what’s it like” question.

2. What’s It Like to Obey from Faith?

We ask this because verses 8–12 and 17–22 tell us about external, observable actions undertaken in faith: Abraham obeyed and went out and lived in a foreign land. Sarah received power to conceive and gave birth. Abraham reached for the knife to sacrifice his beloved son of promise. Isaac and Jacob and Joseph invoked blessings on their heirs and gave them future directions.

So, having some working sense of the experience of faith, what’s it like to obey, to act, to live by faith?

Faith Looks Forward

First, verses 8–9, Abraham’s obedience:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.

So, God said to him in Genesis 12:1, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And Abraham obeyed. But (this is very important) God didn’t only command obedience; he made promises:

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2–3)

This wasn’t just “command and obey,” but “command and promise,” leading to “trust and obey.” So, verse 10 tells us how faith led to obedience. What was it like?

Abraham obeyed because (“for,” verse 10) “he was looking forward [that’s faith] to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” In other words, God didn’t just command it, and Abraham obeyed it. God made commands and gave promises, and Abraham looked forward to — that is, believed — God’s promises as the better future, which led him to obey. Still today, when we talk about looking forward to something, we mean something we want, desire, anticipate enjoying.

Faith Considers

Then, Sarah. The first part of verse 11 tells us she obeyed, and the second part describes how it happened:

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

Now, this obedience seems very different from her husband’s. He goes out and moves and stays. Sarah obeys by welcoming God’s work in her womb and preparing at age ninety to finally have a child, to nurture the child in pregnancy and give birth and nurse and raise the child — all sorts of big and little obediences to bring a child into the world, and to do so at age ninety.

And how did her obedience come from faith? See that word considered in verse 11? We’ll see it again in verse 19 (and again next week, talking about Moses, in verse 26). That idea of “considering” is so important to obeying from faith and to how faith gives rise to obedience.

There is a natural course of action — ninety-year-old women don’t prepare to have babies. But faith considers. It does not simply move, like natural humans, with the patterns of the world. God’s promises come, faith receives them and looks forward to them, and it changes how we live. We move to another place and live in a different way, with our eyes opened to something better. We open our arms to receive a child, or later we open our hands to release our grasp on that child (that’s next).

So, Sarah heard promises from God, like Abraham, and she too considered God faithful. She believed God would do what he said, and she desired that he do it, that it would be better, and so she acted differently. Faith changed how she lived. Her faith led her to obey.

Faith Acts (Differently)

Now, back to Abraham. Verses 17–18 tell us about Abraham’s further obedience by faith, and verse 19, how it happened:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Like Sarah, he considered. Naturally speaking, it made no sense to offer up Isaac. How could offspring come through Isaac if he was dead? Answer: God could raise him. God had promised offspring, and God had said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and . . . offer him . . . as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). So, Abraham tells the two young men he brought with them, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (Genesis 22:5). Abraham would obey God, and he believed that God would provide a rescue, or resurrection, for Isaac.

Again, faith leads to obedience. Faith takes God at his word. Faith considers the truthfulness and faithfulness of God, and his goodness, and that his plan is better, and faith leads us to act differently than we would without it.

So, what’s it like today to obey from faith? In short, we see something better than the world sees, and we act accordingly. Hearing God’s promises, we consider differently than unbelievers. Our minds and hearts do different calculus. We don’t float through life, with its givens, like unbelievers do. We don’t just see and do. We see, we stop, we see with the eyes of faith, and we then act. For Christians, the line “everyone else is doing it” is not a good reason to do it or (don’t miss this) not do it, but for us to pause and ask, Given my true home and my new desires, what is obedience here?

So, faith gives us a foretaste of God’s promises, our souls consider the world and life differently, and we obey from the heart.

3. What’s It Like to Live as Strangers?

Now we finish with the rest of verses 13–16. We already saw in verses 9–10 that Abraham “went to live . . . in a foreign land. . . . For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Now we learn more:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 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 for them a city.

So, men and women of faith not only see God’s promises from afar and welcome them, but they acknowledge, or confess, themselves to be strangers and exiles on earth. Make no mistake: faith makes them strangers. To hear God’s promises and embrace them is to be a stranger. You are no longer “of the world.” Now you are different, strange. But Hebrews says these examples of faith also acknowledged it. They confessed it. They recognized it and said it.

And verse 14 says that people like that, call them Christians, “make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” They are not “at home” in this world, and don’t expect to be, and don’t pretend to be. This age, its patterns, its assumptions are no longer theirs. They are Christians, and by definition, they seek a homeland other than where they were born on earth or where they live for now.

Strangers Refuse to Move Back

In verse 15, Hebrews looks his first audience right in the eye (if you can do that in a letter). He puts his finger on the connection between Abraham’s story and theirs. Because of social pressure, they are tempted to “go back” to Judaism apart from Jesus. So, Hebrews says about these examples of faith, “If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.”

But they didn’t. They didn’t reminisce about the past. They didn’t dwell on the comforts of their former life before God spoke and they believed. They didn’t constantly consider the old or pine for the other. For them, the “return” would have been Judaism. For us, what might it be? Normal modern American life?

And to them, and to us, Hebrews says, “Don’t go back. Don’t settle for an earthly homeland when God has prepared a better city. In Christ, the best is ahead, not behind. Don’t let nostalgia play tricks on you. God has prepared a better place for you — a New Jerusalem, the better city and country that is come, the heavenly one, ‘that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God’” (verse 10).

We seek a homeland that is not immaterial, but is not of this age and not of this earth (but “of heaven”). We seek the better city, built and inhabited by God himself, that soon will come “down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2).

Strangers Live Differently Than Locals

So, what’s it like to live today as strangers and exiles? Simply, our hearts are not at home in this world. God has lit the flame of faith in our souls, and now we no longer want all our world wants and do all it does. We’re not at home with its movies, its shows, what it affirms and denies, its values and priorities and proportions, its distractions and investments of attention, its ways of talking, its dreams, its topics, its ways of using technology. We do not think and feel and live like everyone else. Or do we?

Being strangers and exiles doesn’t only mean that we give Christian takes on all the world’s topics and trends while we just swallow its feeds and add our spin. We find different feeds. We order our lives around God’s word and his people, rather than the world’s authorities and algorithms. We set the patterns and pace of our souls through meditating on Scripture and rhythms of prayer and meeting together in the habits of church life. Or do we?

Now, all the answers and subtle ethical challenges are not easy. We overlap as humans: we eat, we sleep, we love, we nurture, we exercise, we work, we rest. But now it’s all different, even while some of it’s still very similar.

If you ask, “How do I live as a stranger and exile in this luxurious, twenty-first-century American life?” wisdom requires walking in tensions, not reaching for easy fixes or simplistic compromise or separation. The answers are often not in the absolutes but in the proportions, and in the rhythms of our lives, and in how we condition our souls.

But what Hebrews 11 makes unmistakable is that the Christian faith is not a layer you add to the old life of unbelief, but it is new life, from the inside out — joy enough to obey and own that we are strangers.

Not Ashamed to Be Our God

Let’s end with the amazing statement in verse 16. So those who are of saving, persevering faith are not those who return to where they came from, but desire a better country, the heavenly one. Verse 16:

Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

I can’t think of anywhere else in Scripture that talks about God being ashamed or not ashamed. What could Hebrews even mean that God would be ashamed? God never does anything shameful. God could never be put to shame. So, what is Hebrews communicating by saying that God is not ashamed to be called our God, if we have such faith?

What is the opposite of shame? Honor. So, put it like this: for those who desire the heavenly city, God is honored to be their God. Don’t you want that? None of us wants to bring shame to one we call our God. And in the end we won’t, because if we abandon faith, we show that he was not our God. God will not be shamed.

But he will be honored. He will be honored by those who take him at his word, welcome his promises, embrace his Son, and confess themselves to be strangers on the earth — and desire a better country, a better land, a better city than human hands and constitutions can build. Not only is that desire an aspect of faith, but that desire honors God. He is not honored by indifference or apathy to him and his promises. He is honored by souls that seek him, embrace him, welcome him, desire him. He says, in effect,

I am honored to be their God because they desire me, not their world and its empty promises. They seek a fatherland, a home, with me, not on earth. They see me and my city from afar, and they are not uninterested or unimpressed, but they greet it, welcome it, embrace it, kiss it. They want me, and that honors me. They enjoy me, and that glorifies me. No, I am not ashamed to be their God; I am honored by such hearts of faith. And they will not be disappointed — because I have prepared for them that better city that they desire.

And a better Table.

To the Table

We come here with such faith. We do not come with indifference or apathy or disinterest. We come here seeking satisfaction. We come desiring God and his city. We come embracing his Son, and cherishing his Isaac-like and Isaac-surpassing sacrifice.

In faith, we see the crucified and risen Jesus from afar and greet him. We receive his good news as true, and we receive it as good. We come to eat and drink according to faith and to satisfy our souls in him.