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. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Heb. 11:8–10)

In the twenty-plus years my wife and I have been married, we have lived in six apartments and three homes. She was a missionary kid and I was a military kid, so we both know the joyful frustration of transient living. Perhaps some of the more memorable examples of transient living have been on our several camping trips together.

I like to camp while my wife likes to “glamp.” Roughing it in the wilderness is not her idea of a restful getaway, as I learned once on a surprise anniversary trip I planned for the two of us. By the time we reached our temporary domicile in the middle of the woods, it was dark, it was foreboding, and it felt more like the beginning of a horror movie than it did a fun-filled getaway. The temperature dropped way below what was forecast, bears had apparently been in the camp the night before, and my sweet, patient bride understandably found herself questioning the judgment of her overly ambitious husband.

While camping in tents is a welcome reprieve for most of us on occasion, living long term in a camp would be a hard sell for most couples. But that is the situation in which we find Abraham and his family, who spent the majority of their life living in tents.

This section in Hebrews 11 is easy to skip over. At first glance, it seems more like the backdrop of something important rather than a key part of the hall of faith. To the contrary, however, the author of Hebrews is telling us something important not only about Abraham, Sarah, and their sons, but also about what it means for us to be the people of God. In short, we are a pilgrim people whose permanent home is not found in this world but in heaven, the eternal city of which the builder and maker is God.

Hebrews 11:8 has an interesting way of describing God’s command to Abraham. Abraham was told to go before he was told where he was going. It’s like being told, “Get up and start walking, and I’ll tell you where we are going on the way.” Accordingly, Abraham did “not [know] where he was going” (11:8). Despite not being told what his destination would be, Abraham obeyed and simply started going, far more confident in the One who was leading him than he was in the place to which he was being led. This is a beautiful portrait of true faith, as Abraham clearly began to walk by faith and not by sight. His trust was in the promise of God, and, being confident that God was both good and faithful, Abraham simply packed up and started going. I wonder what Sarah thought about this plan of packing up and moving out without a named destination.

Jesus not only secured our heavenly inheritance, but He also showed us how to live as those whose true hope and lasting city are found in heaven with God. Jesus was the perfect pilgrim.

The next verses, though introduced by another “by faith” reference, are clearly connected to the same story, as Abraham’s journey of faith brought him into the Land of Promise—what would become the land of Canaan. It is here that the language of “living in tents” (v. 9) comes particularly into focus. There is irony in what is emphasized here: Abraham, along with faithful Sarah, and their descendants, Isaac and Jacob, all lived nomadic, tent-dwelling lives in the Land of Promise. The irony is that this was the land that God had promised to give them as part of their inheritance. It is the land included in the Abrahamic promise—a land that not only would the patriarchs reside in, but so also would the descendants of Abraham—Israel. Father Abraham, the heir of the promise, who is called the “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13), in spite of his wealth and ability, nevertheless lived his life in the Land of Promise as a tent dweller, a resident alien, a pilgrim.

This emphasis of Hebrews 11 is written with narrative irony. Abraham lived his life in a tent, signaling that his true and lasting home was not to be found in this world, not even in the Land of Promise, but rather in heaven. That this is the author’s point is made clear by his explanation of why Abraham lived in a tent all those years: “For he was looking to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). A city has something a tent does not: a foundation. Life in a tent signaled transience or spiritual pilgrimage, but the city Abraham was looking to was one that would be permanent and abiding. Once Abraham reached that “lasting city” (13:14), he would not move again. His faith would reach its final resting place, and no longer would he be Abraham the pilgrim but Abraham the conquering inheritor. No longer would he apprehend the promises from a distance by faith, but he would finally see the fullness of the promise and presence of God.

Abraham’s story is told not simply for his sake, of course, but also for our sake. His pilgrimage is a preview of the life of an even greater pilgrim, Jesus, who left His home in heaven to come and sojourn in this world as the One who had in this world no lasting place to lay His head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus’ kingdom was ultimately not of this world (John 18:36). He is the Author and Perfecter of our faith as He was the perfect pilgrim who, far better than Abraham, showed us what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. Jesus not only secured our heavenly inheritance, but He also showed us how to live as those whose true hope and lasting city are found in heaven with God. Jesus was the perfect pilgrim.

The Christian, in union with Christ and therefore an inheritor of the promises made to Abraham, is also called to walk by faith and not by sight. We may not be called to spend our entire lives living in tents (thankfully), but we are called to live as those whose true hope and treasure reside with God in heaven. It is only by faith that, as the old hymn goes, “The things of this earth grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Where is our true home? It’s not a street address, a house or apartment, or even an earthly tent. Our true home is in heaven. With our eyes fixed on Jesus, the perfect pilgrim as well as the Author and Perfecter of our faith, let us continue to walk the pilgrim path to which God has called us, proclaiming the faithfulness of our God who is not simply our destination but the faithful covenant companion who travels with us.

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on January 3, 2018 and is part of a series on faith. Previous Post. Next Post.

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