Hebrews 11 is one of those chapters in the Bible that is packed with so much that it takes numerous readings to grasp its various teachings. It’s the chapter where the writer outlines all those significant biblical characters of the past, and describes briefly how they lived by faith, trusting and obeying God throughout their lifetime.
For me, stepping into Hebrews 11 is like walking into a museum. A museum with a long dimly lit corridor, with dark floorboards, and square-paned windows letting the light in. And as you walk down this corridor there are old paintings hanging on the walls. And along each side of the corridor there are white marble busts of significant leaders of history and important dignitaries sitting on top of pillars.
This is what I think of when I read Hebrews 11.
All these people from the Old Testament in painting or statue form, highlighting their status among the saints of the past. And with each of these saints we get a small glimpse into what they are commended for; what they have done to earn such a reputation to be written about hundreds of years after they have died.
To extend this museum illustration further, I can imagine that next to each painting or statue there sits a little plaque and as you wander down the corridor you can walk up to each of those plaque’s and read how they lived by faith. Next to each item there is a little inscription starting with “By faith…” and flowing into their individual commendation of how they lived by faith.
By faith Abel…
By faith Enoch…
By faith Noah…
By faith Abraham…
By faith Sarah…
And as we work our way through this chapter we come to an editor’s sidebar. Like one of those big signs at a museum that gives you a broader explanation of what’s going on, there in the middle of this corridor stands as sign with v13-16 on it.
“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, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
These words describe how all these people we read of in Hebrews 11 died knowing there was something better for them. They lived on earth as exiles, as people who were in the world but not of it. While the land was plentiful and the descendants numerous God had promised something better. This earth and life was a prototype of something greater. They knew there was something more to come.
This is why the writer can say in v16, “…they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
And this resonates with the words of Revelation 21:1-5,
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
We know we live in a world that is broken. People are broken, governments are broken, organisations are broken. This results in a world where bad stuff happens, stuff that is not fair for the individual and the collective.
But here in v13-16 we are told of the future hope we can have as believers.
As followers of Jesus we recognise the reality of a broken world. A world broken by sin but a world being prepared for restoration and renewal through the coming again of Jesus Christ. For through Christ there is the promise of forgiveness for our own sin and shame. Through Christ there is the promise of being able to live by faith in relationship with God. Through Christ there is the promise of the restoration of the world. Through Christ is the promise of life-everlasting in the renewed creation of God.
In the same way as the Old Testament saints live by faith for what is to come, so too we live in the world as people who know there is greater to come (despite how bad it may look at times) as God prepares us for the restoration of all things.
I’m a big fan of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. I really enjoy reading the whole collection every so often, and at the end of the final book, The Last Battle, there is a depiction of heaven as the various characters and animals make their way to a renewed land. Lewis writes,
It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time there were somehow different — deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.
The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed, and then he cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!” (p154-155)
A vivid piece of writing, but also a great reminder that we do indeed live, by faith, looking forward to the Holy City, a better country, a heavenly one.