Christians are a pilgrim people, never fully at home in this world. As John Bunyan so ably illustrated in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christians are those who have been brought out of the City of Destruction, but only through many trials and grace-born faith do we enter into the Celestial City of God. It should come as no surprise that during the time in which many Puritans were coming across the sea to settle the new world, The Pilgrim’s Progress was the second most read book in print—second only to the Bible. The pilgrim metaphor is one of the most pervasively used metaphors in the Bible. Ever since Adam was expelled from the garden of Eden, man has been a wanderer, seeking a lasting place of rest, worship, and peace. Adam never found that lasting city in this world, and neither did Enoch or Noah. This brings us to Abraham, the first person to whom God makes a promise of not only a people but also a place.

The language of Hebrews 11:13–16 suggests that the patriarchs, even though they had genuine faith in the promises of God, did not receive the things that God had promised them. They lived and died in a state of forward-looking expectation. Even more, we are told that the patriarchs in some sense both saw and greeted the promises from afar (v. 13). This language is intriguing, as it seems to nearly contradict the previous statement. If the patriarchs did not receive the promises, how did they “see” and “greet” them from afar? The answer is found in two ideas. First, through the word of promise that God gave to them, they were able to see with the eyes of faith what God was going to do for them in the future. Faith looks beyond the visible things of this life to the things that are yet to come in this life or in the life of heaven. Faith lays hold of unseen things. Second, in an even greater sense, the people of God also saw and greeted the fulfillment of the promises through foretastes God gave them.

As the wandering people of God, we are seeking not simply the city of God but the God of the city.

For example, God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore. Abraham would not live to see that promise completely fulfilled, but he would live to see the sweet day of Isaac’s birth when the reproach of his and Sarah’s barrenness was transformed into the joy of parenthood. God also promised Abraham a land inheritance that would belong to Abraham and his descendants. Abraham would step foot into that land, but he would always reside in it as a pilgrim, never truly owning and ruling it except for his place of burial. Last, God promised Abraham a descendant who would be a kingly blessing to the nations. This, of course, was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet even Abraham in his day was able to see something of the coming day of Christ and to rejoice in it by faith (John 8:56).

The patriarchs, like the people of God today, were “strangers and exiles on the earth,” and as such, they declared in their pilgrim story that they belonged to a better land that, though invisible, was no less real. Even while living in the land of promise, they were still “seeking a homeland” (Heb. 11:14). This is the heart and soul of what it means to be the people of God. While we live our lives in this world, no matter what we have or don’t have, no matter where we live or wish we lived, what defines us is not the things of this world but the fact that we belong to God and that the home He is preparing for us is far greater than anything we might find in this world. To say such things is not to disparage the things of this world, as many of those things are very good. Yet one of the goals of the book of Hebrews, both theologically and pastorally, is to help us distinguish that which is good from that which is better—in Christ.

The threat to the faith of Christians today is in many respects the same threat that might have overtaken the patriarchs—the threat of longing for the things of the world or the things of our past rather than pressing on to the better things of heaven. When we do this, we slouch back toward Egypt, Gomorrah, or sin-stained Eden. The Christian’s gaze should never be in the rearview mirror; rather, it should be straight ahead with our eyes fixed on Christ. Some of the older Puritans referred to this as living with a sense of godly farsightedness. May God grant us such spiritual lenses.

Another endearing and encouraging part of this section is found in God’s approbation of His people. What more heartening thing might God say of us than that He is not “ashamed” to be called our God? How often have we given God reasons to be ashamed of us? How many times have we acted as though we were ashamed of being identified with Him? How many times have the things of this world so eclipsed our love for Him that we wondered if He would ever love of us again? And yet He does love us—even in spite of our many shortcomings. Though the saints of Hebrews 11 were a people of faith, they were also a people of failures whose sins and shortcomings were often perplexing. The story of the patriarchs is not an unblemished one but one in which God’s faithfulness profoundly exceeds those of His people. Where would we be without His redeeming grace? Where will we be because of it? We shall rest in the everlasting city of His grace and peace.

As the wandering people of God, we are seeking not simply the city of God but the God of the city. He is the jewel of the city. He is its beauty and glory. He is what makes the eternal city so desirable. Thus, while we continue to seek that city above—our heavenly city—let us remember that God is not simply our destination but the One who journeys with us. The way may not always be easy, but it always takes us closer to home and closer to Him.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on faith. Previous Post. Next Post.

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