“By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”
Abraham is a prominent figure in the list of heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Abraham could be considered from many points of view, but here in Hebrews 11 the emphasis falls upon the faith of Abraham. In verse 8 we are told that this faith was manifest in his obedience to the call of God. That call consisted of a twofold command: “Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house.” And, positively, get thee “unto a land that I will show thee” (). That call to Abraham included a promise. We read in : “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee….” Included in that promise was God’s Word to Abraham upon his arrival in Canaan, “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (v. 7). Abraham obeyed this call. He did not question God’s call to him or contrive excuses not to go. He took Sarah and Lot and all “the souls that they had gotten in Haran” and all their substance, and he went out (v. 5). He did so not even knowing where he was going. But by faith Abraham simply followed, step by step, the direction of the Lord.
But Abraham’s faith and obedience must not be understood as a single act that was fulfilled when he reached Canaan. Upon arriving in the land of promise he was called to persevere in his faith. For he was called to sojourn there. And his faith manifested in his life of sojourning is meant to strengthen our faith. It is meant to encourage us as we continue our pilgrimage here below.
When Abraham came to the land that God showed him, he did not find a country all prepared for himself and his family. He did not find a land that he could take immediately as his possession. He did not find a place filled with people with whom he could have a genuinely spiritual relationship. Quite the contrary, he found a country inhabited by the heathen Canaanites.
Abraham had only the promise of God. God had promised to make of him a great nation, but as yet he had no child and his wife was barren. The Lord had promised to make his name great. But here he was, a stranger in a land inhabited by heathen tribes. Jehovah had promised to give the land to Abraham and his seed. But he did not own any of the land, “…not so much as to set his foot on” ().
So what was Abraham to do? Was Abraham to return to that land from which he had come?suggests that that would have been possible. But Abraham did not and could not go back. Was he to take possession of the land of Canaan by force? After all, God had promised that the land was to be his! But Abraham was not to raise his own arm of flesh against the inhabitants of the land. Well, was he then to become a citizen of that land? Perhaps he could have moved in with some of the wicked inhabitants, or he could have built his own city there in Canaan. But Abraham, believing God’s promise, could not do that.
Abraham was called to exercise his faith! He simply had to believe the promise of God. He had to wait for God Himself to realize His promise. In a word, Abraham was required to sojourn in the land of promise. Literally, this word “sojourn” means “to dwell beside or in one’s neighborhood.” It means to dwell in a place as a stranger; to dwell as a visitor in a place that is not one’s home.
This Abraham did by faith. He dwelled as a stranger in the land of promise. He did not mingle with the Canaanites; he did not conform to their idolatrous ways. He remained separate from the wicked inhabitants of the land. He was an outsider, a foreigner in the land that would one day be his. He sojourned there “as in a strange country.” Literally, we read, “as in a land belonging to another.” Abraham lived in the land conscious of the fact that not a square foot of the land belonged to him. He never made himself at home there.
Abraham’s sojourn was manifest by his “dwelling in tabernacles.” The word “tabernacles” refers here to tents. A tent is always a temporary dwelling place. A tent may be easily taken down and carried away; it is a very weak and frail abode. A tent has no permanence and stability; it is without a strong foundation. A tent is always a moveable abode; it can be pitched today in one place and tomorrow in another. A tent is the proper dwelling place for a nomad, a wanderer in a land not his own. So a tent is the symbol of what is temporary. Abraham’s tent-life pointed to the fact that he sojourned in the land. By his dwelling in tents Abraham manifested himself as a sojourner, a stranger in the land of promise.
That Abraham sojourned by dwelling in tabernacles meant that he stood in stark contrast to the inhabitants of the land. He was a stranger there, a foreigner, and that was obvious to all. Abraham took no part in the political or social affairs there. He had very little social interaction with the Canaanites. Abraham built different altars and worshiped a different God. Abraham wore different clothes, spoke a different language, and sang different songs. Abraham had different purposes and goals. In all his life Abraham conducted himself as a foreigner, a sojourner in a land not his own.
The scriptural account of Abraham’s life testifies to the truth of all this. At the time of Lot’s separating from him, it was very clear that Abraham was willing to remain a pilgrim and a stranger in the land. At the time when Abraham fought and gained the victory over Chadorlaomer and his allies, he was known by the Canaanites as “the Hebrew.” The name means “from the other side,” referring either to the other side of the Jordan or of the Euphrates river. That name pointed to the fact that he was known as a stranger. To point to but one more example, at the time of his purchase of a burial place for Sarah, his words to the sons of Heth were: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying place with you…” ().
Our text states that Isaac and Jacob also sojourned in tents as heirs with him of the same promise. That they possessed the same promise of God is evident from the fact that God, in speaking of the promise to Abraham, includes Abraham’s seed. After Abraham had arrived in Canaan, the Lord appeared to him and said, “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (). And that promise of God was repeated to Isaac and Jacob personally—to Isaac in , and to Jacob in . Because they possessed that same promise, we read that they were “heirs with him.” They too believed the promise of God. They too sojourned in the land of promise. They also dwelled in tents as strangers and pilgrims in the land. All this emphasizes that these patriarchs had to live their whole life by faith, as sojourners in the land of promise.
Abraham’s sojourn was possible only by faith. By nature he might have been inclined to return to Haran. Or he might have attempted to conquer the land. Or he might have built a city there and joined himself with the Canaanites. Humanly speaking, the life of sojourning was impossible. But Abraham did all of this by faith. He believed the promise of God. Believing, he was content to sojourn in the land.
But we might be inclined to ask then, Did not Abraham die sorely disappointed, without any hope of the realization of the promise? God had told him that he would receive the land, but he never did. All his life he merely sojourned in the land of promise. Abraham hardly saw a glimmering of fulfillment. Was not his faith in vain?
Not at all, for he looked for the heavenly, “for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” Abraham knew that God’s promise did not refer ultimately to that earthly land of Canaan. He realized that the promise of God went far beyond that earthly land. In that earthly Canaan Abraham saw only a shadow of the much more glorious, heavenly inheritance. Because of that, he could sojourn in the land of his inheritance. He could persevere in his faith.
This city for which Abraham looked was a city with foundations. This implies that this city is not something temporary or frail. It is the incorruptible inheritance of which Peter speaks in. This is a city whose builder and maker is God! God is its sovereign architect. God is also its Builder, the one who actually framed the city. This is, of course, the deepest reason for its abiding character.
This city, therefore, is the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city. And the New Jerusalem is the church, according to Scripture. Inwe read: “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem as “the general assembly and church of the firstborn….” This is also plain from the beautiful description of the New Jerusalem given in Revelation 21. There John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, prepared as a bride. The point is that the city is not a number of houses and buildings, but it is the living citizens, the people, who constitute the city. The church depicted as a city emphasizes the idea of communion and fellowship, something quite different from Abraham’s life of sojourning.
That this city has foundations means, therefore, that it is a city founded in God’s eternal decree. God’s decree is the foundation of this city! Election makes this a firm and abiding city. God as the architect designs it in His eternal decree. God as the builder builds that city through Jesus Christ. Christ, after all, is the heart of the promise, the chief cornerstone in that city. And the working of the Spirit of Christ in our hearts makes us citizens of the city, living stones from which that city is built. This was the motivation for Abraham’s sojourn by faith. He looked for the everlasting glory of the church in the new heavens and the new earth. With that faith Abraham was content, perfectly content, to sojourn all his life in the promised land.
We may be inclined to ask, Why? Why did God require Abraham to sojourn his entire life? Why did not God immediately give him the land? Why did not God immediately fulfill His promise to Abraham? And why does God require us to sojourn here below? Could He not immediately give us our inheritance? Could He not immediately bring us to our heavenly home?
The answer is that God wanted Abraham and wants us to live by faith! God has determined every step of the way to our inheritance. Of course, Christ had to come! And now we wait for His return upon the clouds of heaven. God will not bring about the final fulfillment of His promise until all the elect are saved.
But what does it mean that we are called to sojourn? Sojourning here below does not mean that we become isolationists. We are not to separate ourselves physically from the inhabitants of this earth in some remote colony. Abraham did not do that. Neither are we to separate ourselves from the things of the world as such. Abraham did not do that.
For us to sojourn means that we live here not as citizens, spiritually, of this world, but as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We live in the midst of the world, but we are not of the world. This means that we strive to live antithetically here below, seeking all that is good and rejecting all that is evil.
More specifically, that we sojourn here below as strangers in the land means that we are different just as Abraham was different. We speak a different language, spiritually speaking. We sing different songs, the songs of Zion. We worship a different God, the God of Scripture. We have different goals than does the world. And this must be seen by all! In our day camping, tenting is extremely popular. But are we spiritual tent-dwellers? Do we live in tents spiritually, or in houses with foundations?
Only by faith can we sojourn here below. By God’s grace we too look for the city which hath foundations. In the faith of Abraham we will receive our glorious inheritance.