"All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be call their God, for he has prepared a city for them." Hebrews 11:13-16
The author of Hebrews 11 makes it clear that the righteous of old--Abel, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, to name a few--lived by faith. But they also died in faith. In other words, all of these people died believing in God's faithfulness, even though the promises they had received were not fulfilled during their lifetime. To the earthly eye, the things God had promised them hadn't come true. To the earthly eye, "God had failed." For example, Abraham died with a single righteous heir, even though God had promised he would make a great and numerous nation years before. YET, Abraham died still believing that God would fulfill each and every promise to him. He died in faith. In verses 13 through 16, the author of Hebrews explains why these righteous men and women of old could have such faith: "They agreed they were foreigners and nomads here on earth."
When we live with the right perspective, we will not live by what we see around us but by what God has promised us. The right perspective means understanding our place in God's plan for our lives, for humanity, and for this present earth. You see, these righteous men and women in the Old Testament knew that their lives were so small and temporary--they were nomads on this earth--that God's promise was bigger than their lifetime. In fact, God's promises to us are even bigger than this present world. In other words, the real fulfillment of all God's promises will not come to pass until this present world has passed away and the merging of heaven and earth occurs in the final days. That's why the author of Hebrews writes: "Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own." These people weren't looking for something they were familiar with--their old homeland. Instead, they were looking forward to a new homeland--God's country. They believed the promises would be fulfilled, in this life or the next.
These are my questions for us today:
Are we so caught up with this present world, this present country, that we lose sight of our future homeland? Do we even desire this future with God? Or are we so caught up with having our questions answered today we have no space in our hearts for the promise of tomorrow? Are we putting our faith in what we can see, or what we can not yet see, in this lifetime or the next?
As Christians, we are in a special position; we exist in a blessed tension. We actually have received the fulfillment of the most important promise, the promise of God's salvation. In other words, "Christians actually participate in this new reality because the good things have come through Christ in his death, resurrection, and ascension. Christians live in a semi-heavenly age, whereas in the old covenant...people could not fully participate in the "heavenly things," (ESV Study Bible, "Redemptive History in the Book of Hebrews").
We live in a "semi-heavenly" age--and that experience of heaven is not outside of us but inside of us. We often make the mistake of putting our hope in our external world. But it is not the things of this world that will be heavenly. Because God is inside of us through Jesus, we can actually create a heavenly environment around us as we learn to walk by the Spirit. It is a semi-heavenly age because we as Christ's people get to manifest and bring heaven around us. How amazing! Do we take the abundance of this blessing seriously? Do we praise God simply for being in us and going with us? Through this reality we see miracles, emotional and physical healing, the gospel spreading, fulfillment of the Great Commission, and so much more than we ask or imagine.
Yet there's more to the story. As Christians, we are experiencing God here. We are concerned with this present world, and what we can do to glorify God in this present world. Here's where the tension comes in: glorifying God in this present world pulls on one side of the rope. Yet something else is pulling on the other side of the rope.
You see, God is preparing a city for those who yearn and long for it (v. 16). He is not ashamed--he will eagerly welcome--those who yearn in faith for a place we can just be with him, seeing, tasting, hearing, and experiencing the fulfillment of all things.
We cannot lose sight of the age that is to come, when we will experience the full "Sabbath rest" for the people of God (Hebrews 4:1, 9). As Christians, we can get so concerned with seeing the fulfillment of all of God's promises in this present country that we forget how to desire the one to come. In other words, when we have Christ in us, we should desire even more the FULLNESS of intimacy with Him that we will only experience in the world to come.
We are not to love this world, or the things of this world. Our whole hope cannot be in this world. And that means we are also not to love our work for God in this world more than the world that is to come. The whole fulfillment of our unique callings will not be in this world. "What we can do for God" in this present world--through ministry, through evangelism, etc--cannot be our whole hope. Because all these things, while good, are not the whole story.
This is why Paul writes:
"Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely." (1 Corinthians 13)
When we are too present-minded, even as Christians, we will trend towards being stressed, worn out, and putting all our hope on a single church service, event, conversation, or ministry. In the end, all this will pass away. In my experience, we tend towards one of these two sides of the tension as Christians. Many people feel so intensely passionate about bringing the glory of God here on earth that we can become extremely discouraged when we don't see it manifesting this side of Heaven. For example, perhaps you are passionate about social justice or alleviating poverty. It can be dejecting to fight for these Kingdom causes and get knocked down again and again by the harsh reality of the world that even Jesus vocalized--"The poor you will always have with you." (Mark 14:7). We can feel so called to meet the real needs of this present age that we forget to meditate on and live out of the hope we have in this world to come. When we try to do any ministry or initiate change without an eternal perspective we will find ourselves fatigued, and perhaps even numb or depressed. It will feel like there is no hope of this world ever changing.
But we have as our hope the truth that even if our actions in this world don't produce the change we wish to see, each thing we do for the glory of God is a brick in the foundation that will one day become our heavenly kingdom.
I challenge all of us today to be oriented more towards that heavenly kingdom we have inherited and will one day inhabit in full.