“But now they…“
The writer of this epistle is still speaking of those heroes of faith mentioned in the preceding context, particularly Abraham and Sarah, who had demonstrated a faith all the saints of God ought to emulate. And the words “but now” indicate that the words of our text are not in a temporal, but a logical connection with the immediately preceding context. In other words, the writer to the Hebrews is not contrasting what took place in the old dispensation with what is true now; but he is referring to the faith and hope of the saints of whom he had been speaking. In the immediately preceding verse he had written: “If they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.” That is, if these patriarchs had wanted to return to the place where they came from (i.e., their earthly fatherland), they could have done so. But now, as things really were, they didn’t desire this, but they desired and sought after a better country, an heavenly.
The patriarchs, those heroes of faith, sojourned in a strange country, and while they did so, they looked for a better.
Of Abraham we read in verse 10, that he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
We read in the verses 13 and 14 of these heroes of faith that all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, confessing that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. And the writer to the Hebrews notes in this connection that they who say and who do such things show plainly that they seek a country; a country of their own.
In our text we read, that they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly.
A heavenly fatherland!
No one understands better than the emigrant, one who migrates from the land of his birth to another land, a strange land, what is implied in the term “fatherland.” Coming to another country which to him is strange, with strange customs, with its entirely different manner of living, he is a stranger in it. And even though he is purposed to remain in it and not return whence he came, his old fatherland, the land of his nativity, of the language and customs of his youth, pulls at the heart-strings. Fatherland has the love of his heart. There he felt at home in the fullest sense of the word. There he lived with his own people, and spoke the language which was familiar to him.
However, the fatherland which the saints seek after is not the land or a return to the land of their natural birth. But it is the land of their second birth. It is the heavenly fatherland, for they have been born again and from above. They seek a better country, that is, an heavenly.
O, assuredly the heavenly fatherland is a country!
It is not an abstraction, merely a fanciful idea that has no reality!
Heaven is a real place, and much higher than all the lands of the world. Of that country Canaan, to which Abraham was called, was but a type, and a very faint picture. To this earthly Canaan Abraham and Sarah went, and there they lived with Isaac and Jacob in tents, and moved about in it as strangers. All that Abraham owned in it was the cemetery of Machpelah which he bought of the sons of Heth for four hundred shekels of silver. Never was it his intention to make the land a permanent abode. For he had a desire for a better country, that is, an heavenly.
A better country!
Always in the epistle to the Hebrews the Word of God by comparison speaks of the better: a better hope, a better covenant, better promises, better sacrifices, a better and enduring substance, a better resurrection; and according to our text, a better country.
Always the reality is better than the type, the heavenly better than the earthly. Therefore also while the elect strangers wandered in the typical land, they could not be satisfied until they had attained to the better. And the reason, no doubt, was that the typical always pointed away from itself to the reality. O, indeed, the typical was beautiful, a land that flowed with milk and honey. But it was so imperfect. God was there, but always behind curtains where none could approach to Him but the priest and that only with blood. God’s covenant was realized there in the generations of the believers, but always in a reprobate shell and not without sin. Life could be lived there, but not without death and its attending miseries. And peculiarly this is precisely what the Lord was always teaching His saints as they roamed amid the types and shadows. Actually He was always saying to them: You must look for something better, far better. You must look for the highest manifestation of My covenant of friendship as it will be realized when you shall see Me face to face, when you shall dwell in My house of many mansions, when you shall experience the highest possible manifestation of My grace, the pleasures that are to be found at My right hand where you shall know even as you are known, and dwell with Me forevermore.
To this better country the heroes of faith looked in hope! They had to see, as the Lord also taught them, that the type, beautiful as it may have appeared, as a shadow would pass away. It was so temporary. It would soon be overrun by enemies and destroyed. In it the Israel of God was never really safe, and soon it would be taken away, from them and given to the invaders. But the heavenly fatherland was of endurable substance: because God Who is the center of it all is the everlasting God. There in the very center of it dwells the Triune God in the face of Christ Jesus, in the light of His eternal covenant.
Nothing is conceivably greater and more glorious than that! In the new heaven and new earth where righteousness shall dwell—that is the better country which the saints desire.
Because of that desire, they are willing for a while to be strangers and pilgrims in the earth. Because of that desire, they are also willing to lose all which they have invested in the temporary. They are willing to be marked as strangers by the world round about them, even willing to bear the reproach of that world that continually mocks them for being so stupid as not to seek the things below. O, when they speak of their hope of something better, the world may deceptively agree that they too are always looking for something better. The world realizes that what it has is filled with many ills. Therefore the world is always seeking for improvement. It desires to eradicate all its ills, and make the world a better place to live in. But it has no use for a world in the center of which God dwells. The hope of the world ends in death. The elect stranger is not deceived with the philosophy of something better of which the world prates.
We should not make the mistake, however, to conclude that the elect strangers seek and are searching for an undiscovered land, and possibly at last will discover that the land of their hope does not exist. Nor should they in the expression of their hope ever leave the impression with others that that possibility exists. Nay, they seek not in that unsatisfactory and disturbing sense. But they seek in the sense of projecting themselves and their desire onward to the blessings God already prepared for them, and their faith grasps the promise, and their thoughts expatiate into the future, which is as sure to them as the present, because God has made it so. Thank God they have not to seek their native soil as wanderers who may perchance fail in their quest, and die at last homeless. The better country is brought to them and certified to them by divine promise, and sealed to them by divine power, and made possible for them by divine mercy. In this hope they are saved. And all other longings are subjected to it.
Because this hope, this constant longing, this fervent desire is in them, God is not ashamed to be called their God.
Not ashamed of them is their God because He recognizes in them the working and the power of His own grace which He has given to them. O, how ashamed of them He must be when they do not always live out of this hope, and reveal this desire! And what saint is he who can boast that his desire is constantly fixed on the better country? Does not Scripture itself reveal how that men like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had their moments when hope was dim and desire was weak? And is there anyone of us who moves about in our affluent society today, who dares to boast that all his hope and all of his desire is stayed on the city which has foundations? But when we observe these weaknesses and failures, neither can we boast that God is not ashamed to be called our God. The text, therefore, means to teach that God is not ashamed to be called our God when His grace in us comes to manifestation, when it reveals itself in this fervent longing for our heavenly fatherland. That the text speaks in this negative way, must certainly encourage us to continue constant in our hope. Positively, this implies that God is greatly delighted in those who live out of this otherworldly principle, and set their affection on the things above.
Because God is not ashamed to be called their God, and because He positively finds delight in them, they also shall never be ashamed.
For He hath prepared for them a city!
The figures of the city and that of the fatherland are not essentially different. Both refer essentially to the blessed estate and glorious inheritance God has prepared and promised to His saints. The difference between the two is only one of viewpoint. The city makes the idea of fatherland more concrete. The city is a well-planned, well-established entity containing all that which is requisite for well-rounded life and fellowship. It stands in direct contrast to the tent in which the elect strangers are now required to dwell. The tent is fragile, while the city is substantial. The tent is temporary, while the city is permanent. Not forever shall the child of God live in a temporary, moveable, and fragile dwelling; but his future home is permanently established. “We are come,” says the writer to the Hebrews in another place, “unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Paul, in Galatians 4, says: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” And John on Patmos was privileged to see “that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God.”
That city God has prepared for them!
He prepared it in His counsel when He planned it; and in that counsel it was prepared from before the foundation of the world. Therefore Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham looked for a city which had foundations, because it was there to the eye of their faith, and into that city they did enter when their earthly pilgrimage was over.
He prepared it also in and through Christ, through His perfect obedience and righteousness. And in His day that city shall be revealed in all of its glory. At God’s right hand exalted, He has received power to fulfill His promise to us that He will prepare a place for us in it. And when we are prepared by His grace and Spirit for that place, we also shall enter into that city, and the house with many mansions.
Keep your eye of faith, and your desire of hope fixed, therefore, on that city in the midst of the fatherland of God, pilgrim, and you shall never be ashamed, world without end, Amen!