The Patriarchs: Longing for Heaven

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Hebrews 11:13-16

INTRODUCTION: We are now halfway through our series on “Growing in Faith.” We have covered eight messages so far, and we have eight more to go including today’s message. As we’ve said from the beginning, the purpose of this series is to help us better understand true biblical faith and to grow in our own personal faith as followers of Christ.

So far, the writer of Hebrews has been working his way through a list of Old Testament individuals who demonstrated true biblical faith, but he takes a temporary break here and pauses to consider Abraham, Isaac and Jacob together. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are what we call the patriarchs, or the founding fathers in the Old Testament. They are the ones to whom God gave the promises concerning the land and the people of Israel.

And the patriarchs all shared one important aspect of faith together. All three of them demonstrated an intense longing for heaven. The patriarchs lived as strangers here on earth, far from home and country, claiming no land as their own, waiting for the land of promise. In many ways they are the ideal example of what it means to live on earth while longing for heaven by faith. (Read Hebrews 11:13-16 and pray)

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Longing for heaven. How much time and energy do you spend thinking about heaven? Do you think more about heaven or more about earth? Some people say that thinking about heaven is a waste of time. And whether they believe in heaven or not, they maintain that because we live here on earth in the present, that earth is where our focus should be. They complain about people being “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” And I would agree with them if, and only if, our focus on heaven distracts us from our duties and responsibilities here on earth.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it really shouldn’t be that way. Rather than distracting us from our earthly tasks, a proper focus and longing for heaven will sharpen our sense of calling and responsibility here on earth. One writer puts it this way: “True faith … allows the future to shape the present.” Longing for heaven rather than earth should free us to serve God and others more effectively during our time here on earth.

One of the ways we demonstrate our faith as Christians is by truly longing for heaven. It’s not something you can fake or pretend. It’s not something that you can work up on your own. But one of the key measures of your faith as a Christian, one of the tests of what you truly believe is whether you long for the things of earth or whether you truly long for God’s kingdom in heaven.

For example, if you found out this afternoon that you were terminal and had only six weeks to live, I would expect you to be frightened, shocked and dismayed. That is a normal reaction, even for a Christian. Life is God’s good gift to us. Therefore, it is right to mourn the passing of life, and to feel some sense of disappointment and regret that your years will be cut short.

But as a Christian, I would also expect you to feel a sense of wonder, excitement, joy and anticipation. You are going to heaven! You are going to be with God and with Christ! You are going to be freed from the sadness and sorrows of this world and ushered into the joy of God’s presence and kingdom forever. If we truly long for heaven, then we will face death with an attitude of victory rather than defeat. We will face death with a sense of hope rather than despair.

Why should we long for heaven? Our passage this morning gives us three good reasons why we should long for heaven rather than settle for the things of this earth.

I. Heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled (13a)

The first reason we should long for heaven is that heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled. We see this in verse 13 which tells us: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” Heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled.

You will notice that verse 13 says that “all these people were still living by faith when they died.” So, the first thing we need to figure out is, who are “all these people?” One possibility might be the four people already listed in Hebrews 11 who were commended for their faith – Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. But I don’t think that’s what the verse means, for a number of reasons.

First of all, verse 13 says that “all these people died,” but, if you remember, Enoch didn’t die. In fact, the outstanding fact of Enoch’s life and faith was that he was taken straight to heaven without dying. So all these people can’t include Enoch.

Secondly, verse 13 says concerning these people, whoever they are, that at the time they died, “they did not receive the things promised.” But Noah did receive what God promised him. God rescued Noah and his family from the flood just as he promised. So all these people can’t include Noah, either.

And then, finally, the rest of the passage takes “the things promised” from verse 13 and places them within the context of leaving your own country for Canaan, the land of promise. Well, to whom did God promise the land of Canaan? God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, not to Abel, Enoch or Noah.

So then, who are “all these people?” Well, the immediately preceding verses speak of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and so this phrase, “all these people,” refers to the patriarchs, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was to the patriarchs that God gave the promises of the nation and the land. (Genesis 12:2,7)

This makes sense, because all three of the patriarchs were still living by faith when they died. They were still living by faith because “they did not receive the things promised.” They were given the promise of the nation, but none of them actually saw the formation of the nation of Israel. They were given the promise of the land, but none of them actually saw their descendants take possession of the land. At the time they died, all three still living by faith because none of them had received the things promised.

   A. We do not receive all of God’s promises while here on earth
      – John 11:25-26

Now, what was true for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is true for us as well. We also do not receive all of God’s promises while here on earth. For example, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life … whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26), yet we still experience death here on earth. God has promised us complete freedom from sickness and illness someday, yet we do not always receive healing in this life. God has promised us complete victory over sin someday, but we still struggle with sin as long as we are in this world. God has promised us perfect joy and happiness one day, yet we still experience many troubles and sorrows while here on planet earth.

Just because you are a Christian does not mean that you experience perfect health and prosperity while here on earth. In fact, many Christians experience just the opposite, as they undergo severe persecution for their faith. We receive many wonderful blessings from God while here on earth, but we should not look for ultimate satisfaction or fulfillment here in this life. Earth is not heaven. And heaven is not earth. Any theology that confuses the two is not biblically balanced.

Heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled. As author Richard Phillips writes: “The primary blessings Christianity offers do not lie in this life but in the life to come.”
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still living by faith when they died, because they “did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” (Hebrews 11:13a)

   B. We only glimpse the glories of heaven from a distance
      – 1 Corinthians 2:9, 13:12

Now, the second part of that sentence is also important which says, “They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” Although they did not see their descendants take possession of the land, they did see the land which their descendants would one day possess. Although they did not see their descendants become a mighty nation, they did see the birth of their children. Abraham gave birth to Isaac. Isaac gave birth to Jacob. And Jacob gave birth to the twelve tribes of Israel.

The promises were for the future. They did not see the promises fulfilled in their lifetime, but they saw them and welcomed them from a distance. God gave them glimmers of hope, glimpses of the promises which would one day be fulfilled.

In the same way we also glimpse the glories of heaven from a distance while here on earth. Although we are not always healed in this life, God in his goodness and grace often does heal in answer to prayer. Although we do not obtain total victory over sin in this life, we do achieve degrees of victory over sin, as we grow in our faith and learn to yield to God’s Spirit. We may know sorrow and trouble here on earth, but we also experience God’s supernatural peace and joy. The Bible tells us, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9), and yet God often blesses us with foretastes of heaven during our times of prayer and worship and communion together.

Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we do not receive all the things promised in this life, but we see them by faith, and we welcome them from a distance. As it says in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) Why should we long for heaven? We should long for heaven first of all because heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled.

II. We are aliens and strangers here on earth (13b-16a)

A second reason we should long for heaven is this: because the Bible tells us, as Christians, we are aliens and strangers here on earth. Look at the end of verse 13 now reading through the beginning of verse 16: “They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. (Hebrews 11:13b-16a) As Christians, we are aliens and strangers here on earth.

   A. We do not belong here
      – Genesis 23:4; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Corinthians 5:17

And that means, frankly, we do not belong here. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob understood this. Hebrews 11:13 tells us” “they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” The word translated “admitted” in this verse is the same word we often translate as “confessed.” It is a word that means “to agree or to say the same thing as someone else.”

So, who were the patriarchs agreeing with here? They were agreeing with God! And what were they agreeing with God about? “That they were aliens and strangers on the earth.” The word “alien” in verse 13 means “a foreigner, or an outsider,” and the word “stranger” means “a pilgrim or a traveler.” It was a word used to describe someone who settled temporarily in a foreign country, or even to describe someone stopping in an inn for the night.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob admitted, they confessed, they agreed with God that they were aliens and strangers on earth. God had called them out of the world to himself. They no longer belonged here as before. They were foreigners, outsiders, pilgrims, just passing through.

Hebrews 11:13 takes this language about aliens and strangers directly from Abraham’s own words back in Genesis 23:4 where Abraham told the Hittites: “I am an alien and a stranger among you.” (Genesis 23:4) Hebrews 11:9, which we looked at last week, says the same thing about Isaac and Jacob, who also lived in tents as strangers in the promised land.

As Christians we too are aliens and strangers on earth. The book of 1 Peter in the New Testament addresses us as “God’s elect, strangers in the world.” (1 Peter 1:1) It wasn’t always that way. We used to fit in here. We used to fit in really well. But all that has changed now. The Bible says: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Christ has changed our lives, and, as the old song says, “we don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” We feel a sense of restlessness. We feel out of place. We do not belong here.

   B. We can’t go back
      – Genesis 24:1-4, 28:1-5

Not only that, but we can’t go back. Abraham left the city of Ur in Mesopotamia and came to dwell in the land of Canaan in obedience to God’s call. But Abraham’s family and relatives still lived back in Mesopotamia. The same was true for Isaac and Jacob. We’ve seen that all three admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth.

Verse 14 tells us: “People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.” (Hebrews 11:14) So, what was this country they were looking for? Were they homesick for Mesopotamia, for the land of their fathers? No, because verse 15 says “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.” (Hebrews 11:15) The word translated “thinking” in this verse is a word that means “to remember.” It means “to think back.” If they had been “remembering” or “thinking back” to Mesopotamia, they could have returned at any time.

Now, Abraham sent his servant back to Mesopotamia to find a wife for his son Isaac, but he did not go back himself. (Genesis 24:1-4) Jacob returned to Mesopotamia for a season, but only to escape from his brother Esau. (Genesis 28:1-5) God called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob out of Mesopotamia into the land of Canaan, and for them there was no going back.

We are studying Hebrews 11, and this was such an important message for the original readers of this letter. Remember what we said earlier about Hebrews. The letter of Hebrews was originally written to Jews who had become Christians who were now thinking of returning to Judaism because they were facing severe persecution as Christians. Hebrews 11 pointed them to the patriarchs, to the examples of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and said, “Hey, you can’t go back. You are Christians now. You can’t go back to the way you were.”

This was such an important message for them, and it is such an important message for us today as well. Because you know what? As Christians, we can’t go back either. We may not like this feeling of “not fitting in,” of “no longer belonging,” but going back is not an option for us. We can’t go back to the way things were even if we wanted to.

Now, Christians sometimes do go back to their old ways or their old sinful habits. But it’s never the same. Those things that used to bring you pleasure now only make you miserable. Do you know why? Because you are no longer the same person. The Holy Spirit lives in you now. God has made you a new creation in Christ, and you can’t go back. It’s like the old song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.”

   C. We can only look forward
      – Matt 6:19-21; 1 Cor 7:31; Phil 1:21; Col 3:2; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:4

As Christians living on earth, we are caught up in between. We are in the world, but not of the world. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob felt the same tension. Mesopotamia was no longer their home, but then neither was Canaan. It was the land of promise, but they lived there as strangers.

They weren’t looking for a home in Mesopotamia or Canaan. Verse 16 tells us: “Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:16) They did not belong here, and there was no going back. Which means they could only look forward. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth, and therefore only heaven could fill their deepest longings. The word translated “longing” in this verse is a word that means “to desire or to yearn for something.” It’s a word that means “to stretch your arm out in order to touch or to grasp.”

This longing for heaven should be the normal reaction for every Christian on earth. Colossians 3:2 says: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2) Jesus says in Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) Where is your heart this morning? Is it trapped here on earth, or is your heart set on heaven?

The apostle Paul wrote in the book of Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) Now that’s looking forward! Think about it. If you are an unbeliever, then death is the end of all your hopes and dreams, of all that you have lived for. But if you are a believer in Christ, then death is the beginning of all your hopes and dreams, of all that you have lived for. And so, you are filled with longing for a better country – a heavenly one.

How is heaven better than earth? Heaven is better in every way! Heaven is better than earth because it is a lasting world rather than a passing world. As we read in 1 Corinthians 7:31: “This world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7:31) Heaven is better than earth because it is a holy place rather than a sinful place. 2 Peter 3:13 calls heaven “the home of righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13) Heaven is better than earth because it is a place of joy rather than a place of sadness. We read in Revelation 21 that in heaven: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) And of course heaven is better than earth because we will be with Jesus. We will see Christ face to face. And nothing could be better than that.

III. Heaven is our true home (16b)

Why should we long for heaven? We should long for heaven first of all because heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled. And then, secondly, we should long for heaven because we are aliens and strangers here on earth. And then finally, we should long for heaven because heaven is our true home. Look at the end of verse 16 with me now: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:16b) Heaven is our true home.

   A. God is not ashamed to be called our God
      – Exodus 3:6; Hebrews 2:11; Revelation 21:3

Hebrews 11:16 tells us that because the patriarchs longed for heaven as their true home, therefore God was not ashamed to be called their God. And God was not ashamed. When God later spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, he identified himself as who? As “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6) God was unashamed to be called their God.

Do you long for heaven as your true home? Then God is not ashamed to be called your God either. Revelation 21 tells us that when Christ returns and brings us to heaven, God will proclaim in a loud voice from the throne: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3) Hebrews 2:11 says that “Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers.” (Hebrews 2:11) God delights to call us his people, and he delights to proclaim himself as our God.

   B. God has prepared a place for us
      – John 14:1-3; Hebrews 11:10; Revelation 21:1-2

How do we know for certain that God is not ashamed to be called our God? We know because God has prepared a place for us. Back to Hebrews 11:16, we read: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:16) This is the better country. This is the eternal city. This is the city with foundations that we looked at back in Hebrews 11:10. God is not ashamed to be called their God, because God has prepared a city for them.

God has also prepared a place for us. Jesus said in John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)

In fact, God has prepared a whole city for us. The apostle John wrote down his vision of this city in Revelation 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:1-2)

If you are a Christian this morning, then you do not belong here on earth, but you do belong in heaven. Heaven is God’s home, and you are part of God’s family. Heaven is your true home.

CONCLUSION: Why should we long for heaven? We should long for heaven first of all because heaven is where all God’s promises will ultimately be fulfilled. We do not receive all of God’s promises while here on earth. We only glimpse the glories of heaven from a distance.

Secondly, we should long for heaven because we are aliens and strangers here on earth. We don’t belong here. We can’t go back. We can only look forward.

And then, thirdly, we should long for heaven because heaven is our true home. God is not ashamed to be called our God, and he has prepared a place for us.

And what a beautiful place it is! As the Bible says: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9) True biblical faith means longing for heaven. Are you longing for heaven this morning?

© Ray Fowler

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