Sarah’s faith was exemplary, her trust in God’s word of promise such that she bore a son when it was naturally impossible (Heb. 11:11). Isaac, her son, was the first of Abraham’s innumerable descendants, and thus God’s promise to the patriarch was fulfilled (v. 12; see Gen. 15:1–6). Yet, this was only a partial fulfillment of the promise of the Lord to Abraham, our father in the faith. Both Abraham and Sarah died before they could have a multitude of sons and daughters through Isaac, and all the patriarchs died before inheriting the whole of the promised land.
That helps explain why in today’s passage the author of Hebrews pauses his roll call of faith to offer some application. He notes that Abraham, Sarah, and everyone else listed in Hebrews 11 died “in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (v. 13). This statement reminded the first audience of the epistle of Hebrews of several truths. First, the Old Testament saints were in a position inferior to that of new covenant believers. Old covenant believers experienced benefits such as reconciliation with God that come through Christ and His kingdom, but they did not know Jesus with the same fullness that we do. Second, because of this, it is foolish to abandon Jesus to return to the old covenant system. The old covenant saints were looking for things beyond the old covenant, the reality to which the old covenant was but a temporary pointer (see also Gal. 3:15–29). Going back to the old covenant is a regression, not an advance. Third, the faith of the old covenant saints, looking for God’s kingdom to come, made them exiles and strangers on earth, not citizens of this world (Heb. 11:13). Life as a stranger and sojourner is inherently difficult; noncitizens face problems ranging from the minor (difficulty adjusting to their temporary country) to the major (threats of death from the nation where one sojourns). The kind of persevering faith that the old covenant saints had puts one’s life at risk. Thus, no Christian should be surprised by the threat of persecution.
Ultimately, old covenant believers were not looking for a mere earthly inheritance in the land of Canaan. They hoped for a dwelling place with God in the eternal city that He is building for His people (vv. 14–15). Jesus is bringing that city (Rev. 21), and God is not ashamed to be God of anyone who looks to dwell with Him in and through Christ (v. 16).