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.