For the past several weeks our study of the book of Hebrews has led us down many wonderful and insightful roads. We have made many visits to the Temple. We’ve become more familiar with the role of the Temple Priests than most Gentiles. We’ve examined the many ways in which Jesus is a far superior priest for those who will trust in His guiding care and ultimate sacrifice as payment for our sins. We’ve learned what it takes to please God…faith and faith alone.
In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews we have been invited to take a stroll down the halls of the great “Hall of Faith.” We have been invited to learn from the saints of the past. Men like David, Abraham, Moses, Samuel and the prophets, and Gideon. Women are there on the list as well. Women like Rahab, Sarah, the widow of Zarephath whose little boy was raised back to life by the power of God, the Shunammite woman of 2 Kings 4 who had her son brought back to life as well, and Moses’ mom – Jochebed. What a crew!
If you read the individual stories of all of these faithful men and women of God listed in Hebrews 11 you will find that their stories are so different in so many ways, and yet there are a couple of commonalities shared by each of them. Last week we talked about the faith of those that are listed in Hebrews 11. This week I want to build upon our study from last week and then take a look at the second aspect that we find in each of the lives of these faithful men and women. As we study the lesson this morning I pray that the Lord will quicken your heart and mind and cause you to examine the second commonality of the saints of God found in Hebrews 11. As we see how these faithful men and women had their sights set on Heaven and not on this earth, hopefully it will enable us to discern where we are heading in this life. For those who are listed in Hebrews 11, their destination was certain…they were just headin’ home.
There are so many things that seek to anchor us in this life. There are so many voices calling out to us, urging us, to build our own little kingdoms. So many enticements that desire to lure us into laying a foundation, planting our roots, and fastening ourselves to anything or anyone that will promise us peace and security in this life. The saints that we will read about today in the book of Hebrews had their roots in Heaven as they longed for a better home, a more secure Kingdom, and a greater reward than anything this world had to offer. For Moses, Sarah, Gideon, Samuel and the rest — there were no roots included in their 5-year plans, no financial foundations projected for their portfolio, and no dreams of any kingdom other than the Kingdom of God. Everything within them yearned for the promise that God had made…the promise of a land that they would inherit one day. This is so evident in each of their lives, but I would just like to give you one example. Abraham was a man who was called by God to leave everything that was familiar to him. He had been on the move since he was 75 years old. God had promised Abraham that He was going to lead him to a new land, to Canaan land. After Abraham and Sarah were in Canaan they really never settled in any one place for very long.
Take a look with me at Genesis 12.
4 So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. 6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 9 Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev. 10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. (Genesis 12:4-10 NIV)
In the very next chapter, Genesis 13, the Lord had blessed Abraham and Lot, his nephew. Their herds were growing and the land was not able to support all of their livestock so Abraham told Lot, “You pick the land you want and Sarah and I will find some other place to graze our animals and make our home.” Lot chose the choicest land, the land around the plain of the Jordan where success was certain. Abraham and Sarah had started in the other direction when the Lord said to him,
14 The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. 17 Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD. (Genesis 13:14-18 NIV)
The Lord guided Abraham’s steps. That is so important – it was the Lord that guided Abraham’s steps. Lot chose the choicest land that he saw, but God led Abraham to where God wanted to establish him. A great lesson for you and me in taking a look at Abraham’s life is that Abraham had not seen one of God’s promises fulfilled in his life at this time – He hadn’t taken possession of any land, he didn’t have any children, but he held tight to the promises of God. Take a look at Genesis 15 and read along with me.
You need to know that when Lot went towards the plain of the Jordan and Abraham and Sarah went towards Canaan there were already people there. They were warring against each other, pillaging villages, and unrest was a part of everyday life. During this time, the Lord appeared to Abraham again. 1After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” 2 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” 4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars-if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. 7 He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” 8 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how canI know that I will gain possession of it?” (Genesis 15:1-8 NIV)
Abraham says, “Lord, how can you give me what you have promised? I don’t have any kids, no one to give my estate to except my servant. Lord, how can I even know that I will take possession of the land you will give me when there are so many others here already?” Those are real questions from a man who had left everything when he was 75 years old and set out on a journey of faith – clinging to the promises of God. Abraham continued on, trusting in God. When we get to Genesis 24, Sarah died when she was 127 years old. They had been a family on the move for about 50 years. In Genesis 21, Sarah had given birth to Isaac, the son of promise, but other than that they still did not have a retirement home, a retirement fund, or plans for their retirement, but they were still clinging to the promises of God when Sarah died. They were strangers and aliens in Canaan, but they were at home with the Lord wherever He led them. Read with me from Genesis 24:1-6.
1 Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. 2 She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her. 3 Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, 4″I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.” (Genesis 24:1-5 NIV)
God had given Abraham a son, but even more than that, God had given Abraham the promise of His presence, the promise of a future inheritance, and for Abraham — God’s promise was enough. When we get to the end of Abraham’s life, Genesis 24 says that Abraham was very old, 175 years old, he still had not taken possession of the land, but he died with a grip on God’s promises. The story of Abraham and Sarah that I have just chronicled for you does not set well with the health, wealth, and prosperity Gospel of our day, but it is one of the greatest examples for you and me of a life of faith. The writer of Hebrews says that Abraham died commended by God for his faith, but that Abraham had not received the promise yet. What is true of Abraham is also true of all of those who are written about in Hebrews 11. Moses had a glimpse of the Promised Land but he never set foot in it. Samuel never saw David enthroned as the King. Although Daniel lived to witness the return of the captives to Jerusalem, he was not permitted to share in the celebration, but he was encouraged to be patient in the assurance that he should have his lot “at the end of the days” (Daniel 12.13).
Not only these, but all of those who are mentioned here in Hebrews 11 lived by faith as aliens and strangers on this earth knowing that they were heading home. Read with me from Hebrews 11:13-16.
13 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. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 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 11:13-16 NIV)
They were longing for a better country. I love the faith that gripped the men and women of God. They did not set their anchor in the soil of their surroundings – they had their sights set on a better place. They were heading home! Where are you heading to day? What do you have your heart set on today? Are you heading to another meeting so that you might boost your stock? Are you heading to the courts so that you might get what’s yours? Are you heading to a beach or a mountain lodge where you can get away from it all? Are you heading towards the fulfillment of your dreams, the realization of your plans for a successful life? Where are you heading this morning? Hebrews 11:13 tells us that these faithful men and women admitted that theywere “strangers” and “aliens” on earth. I want to take just a moment to share with you the meaning of these words. The first word which is translated, “stranger” is the Greek word, “xe,noj” (xen’-os), and it means “a foreigner, a stranger, or an alien.” The second word, which is translated, “alien,” is the Greek word, “parepi,dhmoj” (par-ep-id’-ay-mos) and it means, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives, a stranger, sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner. In the New Testament it is used as a metaphor in reference to heaven as the native country, one who sojourns on earth.” These words are used in other places in the Bible. Peter loved these two words, he uses them twice in his first letter. Peter writes,
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, 2 whohave been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Peter 1:1-2 NIV)
Peter addresses “God’s elect,” those who have been chosen by God and immediately calls them “strangers in the world.” That same thought can be applied today. Those who are “in Christ” are not of this world. What does that mean? Great question. It means that you and I, God’s people, do not live our lives like those who have their hearts set on the things of this earth. It means that we long not for the bounty of this world, but for the blessing of inheriting Heaven, our eternal reward. It means that God’s will and glory are our mission in life — not gaining a name for ourselves. It means that we have renounced the lifestyle that we knew before we became God’s people, and now we seek to live life by walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Peter goes on to say in 1 Peter 2,
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11 NIV)
Living life as a stranger and an alien also means that the only dwelling we sink our roots into, the only foundation we build upon is dwelling in God’s presence. In the Hebrew Bible we read,
12Hear my prayer, O LORD, listen to my cry for help; be not deaf to my weeping. For I dwell with you as an alien, a stranger, as all my fathers were. (Psalm 39:12 NIV)
The people that we are talking about this morning were not an elite class or the upper crust of society. Most of them were not privileged by the standards of this world. Some of them tasted sweet victory in this life, but there were others who lost it all for the cause of the Kingdom of God. Whether they tasted sweet victory or death – they all longed for the Heavenly home that God had promised them. I want to share with you another Scripture from Hebrews 11 so that you can see the stark contrast in the lives lived by God’s people.
32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:32-40 NIV)
When you read this section of Hebrews you can see such a stark contrast. In verses 32-34 there is a trend. Victory is gained! We are told that folks like Barak, Samson, David, and others “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, gained what was promised, shut the mouths of lions, became powerful in battle, routed foreign armies, escaped the edge of the sword, and saw their weakness turned to strength.” Now that’s the kind of story we like, don’t we? Victory in this life, promises claimed and realized, and success – that’s the stuff of movies, that’s what sells books!
What is interesting is what we find when we come to verse 35. The first part of the verse is another victory – the widow of Zarephath and the Shunammite woman of 2 Kings 4 are referred to when we read, “women received back their dead.” What an incredible victory and yet the very next sentence says, “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.” They didn’t consider renouncing their faith because they had their sights set on Heaven, a better resurrection than simply being released from the torture they were facing. What was true of those we read about in Hebrews 11 is still true today. We don’t have any firsthand knowledge of friends of ours, or family members, who have faced torture or death because of their faith, but in other parts of the world it takes place every day. Let me share with you about one man who refused to renounce Christ because he had his sights set on Heaven. Mehdi Dibaj grew up in an upper class Muslim home in Iran. Through the influence of Christians, Mehdi’s entire family came to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Mehdi’s heart was set on fire for the things of God and he began to grow and grow in his faith and trust in the Lord. In Iran, only Christian materials in the Armenian language were legal. The vast majority of the population spoke Farsi, but it was illegal to have any Christian materials in Farsi. Mehdi had an idea – he would take the Armenian materials and translate them into Farsi so that more and more Iranians could come to know Jesus as their own Lord and Savior. To make a long story shorter, Mehdi became a pastor. He was arrested several times for his faith, but each time he continued to be faithful to God. Finally he was arrested and charged with apostasy, denying the Muslim faith. Mehdi knew that if he was found guilty he would be executed – if he renounced his apostasy and returned to the Muslim faith then he could live. What wouldhe do? It wasn’t even a question in his mind.
When Pastor Mehdi Dibaj was on trial for his life, his accusers gave him the opportunity to speak on his own behalf. He was asked why he left Islam and became a Christ worshipping “apostate?” Pastor Dibaj said, Men choose a religion, but a Christian is chosen by Jesus Christ. To be a Christian means to belong to Christ. Jesus asked me to renounce even my life, to follow Him faithfully, not to fear the world even if my body must perish. I prefer to know that God, the Almighty, is with me, even if it means that the whole world is against me. I am in God’s hands. For 45 years I have walked with the God of miracles, and His goodness is for me a shadow that protects me in His love. The God of Daniel, who protected his friends, protected me during my nine years in prison, and all torments changed to my good, so that I have the fullness of love and gratitude. Of all the prophets, Jesus alone was resurrected from the dead, and He remains our living Mediator forever. I gave my life into His hands. For me, life is an opportunity to serve Him and death is the privilege of getting to be with Him. (Voice of the Martyrs magazine, March 2002.)
How does a person speak with such calm and hope while staring death in the face? Mehdi Dibaj had his sights set on Heaven and when his life was over, after his accusers killed him, Mehdi looked into His Father’s eyes and heard, “Well done My good and faithful servant. Now enter in to your rest!” For those in Hebrews 11 there was a myriad of hardships that they faced throughout their lives. Read along with me in verses 36-38.
36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-38 the world was not worthy of them.
This past week, as I have been studying this section of Scripture, I have been amazed at the dramatic disparity of the lives of those listed in Hebrews 11. In the world’s eyes some of these folks are heroes and others are zeroes.
Some had victory worthy of headlines in the morning paper and others were lessons in tragedy. We are not looking through the eyes of the world at these faithful lives this morning. We are leaning in to listen to what God has to say about these lives. From paying attention to God’s Word we can easily see that all of these folks were merely heading home. We can see God’s hand at work in the tragedy and in the triumphs of each of their lives. My friend, I long for you and me to learn to recognize the Sovereign hand of God at work in every moment of our lives – the tragedies as well as the triumphs! God is at work when the widow’s son is raised to life and God is at work when Simon Peter is crucified upside down because he believes that he is not worthy of being crucified in the same manner as his Lord. God is at work when Gideon’s army of 300 defeats over 120,000 Midianites and Amalekites and God is at work when Stephen is stoned to death. God is at work when Moses says, “Thus saith the Lord!” to Pharaoh and God is at work when the entire nation turns a deaf ear to Jeremiah. God is at work.
On April 16, 1948, the great missionary Jim Elliot wrote these words: “Father, take my life, even my blood if You will, and consume it with Your enveloping fire. I would not save it, for it is not mine to save. Have it, Lord, have it all. Pour out my life as a sacrifice for the world. Blood is only of value as it flows before Your altar.” Eight years after penning this in his diary, Jim Elliot and his four partners were martyred by the Auca Indians of Ecuador. In spite of her great loss, Jim’s wife, Elisabeth, would not give up hope for the salvation of these people. The Auca Indians were so amazed at her resolve and dedication to Christ that in time she led the whole tribe to the Lord. God was at work when Jim Elliot was killed and He was at work when his wife Elisabeth lived to declare the salvation of Jesus Christ to the Auca tribesman who killed her husband.
John Piper says,
The common feature of the faith that escapes suffering and the faith that endures suffering is this: Both of them involve believing that God himself is better than what life can give to you now, and better than what death can take from you later. When you can have it all, faith says that God is better; and when lose it all, faith says that God is better. … What does faith believe in the moment of torture? That if God loved me, he would get me out of this? No. Faith believes that there is a kind of resurrection for believers that is better than the miracle of escape. It’s better than the kind of resurrection experienced by the widow’s son, who returned to life only to die again later.
Where are you heading today? Where are you heading at this moment? I have no idea where you were heading when you arrived at church this morning, but my earnest prayer for you today is that the Lord has spoken to your heart of a better destination than where you were heading and that you will surrender your life to Jesus Christ this moment. Set your sights on the home that God has promised for those who will cling to Him in faith.