Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lived in tents, sojourners and foreigners in the very land that God promised to give to their descendants. Again, this is the very definition of faith. They lived their entire lives trusting in a promise that they never got to see fulfilled. All around the patriarchs were mighty cities with walls and fortifications to ensure their protection, even Lot (Abraham’s nephew) was pulled into the security and comforts of the cities. Yet these men of God chose to dwell in tents, ever wandering through the Promised Land that was not yet theirs.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, 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.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.
Hebrews 11:8-22 ESV
Proverbs 27:21 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and a man is tested by his praise.” Because we naturally praise what we love and delight in, what a man praises is fitting test for determining what his heart truly loves.
In a similar fashion, the heroes that a society praises necessarily reveal what that society loves, delights in, or values as the highest good. Indeed, the present lack of any almost universally beloved real-life heroes is itself a sign of our divided worldviews. Of course, in the world of fiction, comic book superheroes had their moment of glory, which appears to have already faded away. Again, what values are being praised by heroism is the test for why these modern mythologies were so successful and are increasingly no longer so. I believe the baseline appeal of many of the most popular superheroes is their own hunger for fatherly approval, which reflects our society’s own groaning under fatherlessness. Interestingly, the more they attempt to engage in social issues, the less popular they become. Spider-Man’s futile struggle to hear the approval of his deceased father-figure uncle has already hit a cultural nerve that no single headline could ever capture.
Recently, I’ve been reading the tale of one of Rome’s heroes, Aeneas. His story was written by the poet Virgil at the commission of Caesar Augustus only a decade or so before the birth of Christ. Beyond pleasing Caesar, The Aeneid was immediately received as the heroic mythology of Rome’s foundations that Virgil intended for it to be. Indeed, it immediately became the essential text of a Roman education, just as Homer’s poems were used in Greece. Augustine said, “Virgil certainly is held to be a great poet; in fact he is regarded as the best and most renowned of all poets, and for that reason he is read by children at an early age–they take great draughts of his poetry into their unformed minds, so that they may not easily forget him” (City of God, I.3). Given how frequently Augustine cites Virgil, he knew that statement to be true by experience. Roman children were catechized through the Aeneid because the Romans viewed Aeneas as a mythological embodiment of Rome and what it means to be Roman.
Indeed, he is not the tantruming toddler that Achilles was nor is he the scheming liar that Odysseus was. Though the Greeks produced aesthetically beautiful art, even the Romans could identify the hopeless despair that undergirded it all. No, Aeneas was a hero marked by piety. His journey from the burning city of Troy to the Italy is not about his own glory and honor but about founding the Roman people, a people destined to “rule with all your power the people of the earth… to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace, to spare the defeated, break the proud in war” (VI.981-984). Aeneas carried the godly burden of establishing an eternal city that would bring enforce peace through all the world by breaking the proud in war.
We would do well to remember that the original readers of Hebrews lived under the seemingly all-encompassing shadow of Rome at the height of its dominion and with centuries of global rule still before it. As Jews, the city of Jerusalem also ever stood before them. The city of David and of the only temple to the living God on earth, a temple now abandoned by God after the final sacrifice had been made.
Two cities, each bursting with stories of its peoples’ heroes, vied for their affections. Yet both were, at best, only shadows of a truly eternal city still to come. Despite what the nonbelieving Jews may have claimed, the heroes of faith throughout the Old Testament had their eyes set upon that everlasting city. Indeed, for we who are of faith, the saints here in Hebrews 11 are more than our heroes; they are our ancestors. The Romans took great pride in being the children of Aeneas, but we are children of Abraham, the man of faith, and are blessed alongside him.
The Faith of Abraham & Sarah // Verses 8-12
In our previous text, the author of Hebrews began his survey of the heroes of the faith with three men of God who lived before (and in Noah’s case, through) the time of the flood. He now naturally moves on to the time of the patriarchs, which is recorded for us in Genesis 12-50. As we will see in the verses before us, the faith of Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph is recounted for us, yet the figure that appears most is Abraham, whom Paul rightly calls “the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9). In the first section of our text, we find three instances of faith: two of Abraham (vv. 8-9) and one of Sarah (v. 11).
Verse 8: By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.
The event being described is found in Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Notice that, as the author Hebrews makes clear, Abraham was not told where he was going. God did not inform him that he was going to travel hundreds of miles down to Canaan. He was simply told to go until God showed him the country where he would stop, and in one of the most amazing verses in the Bible, verse 4 says, “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…” Abraham obeyed God. Rather like with Noah, God gave Abraham a command that could only be obeyed by faith. Only by an assurance of things hoped for and a conviction of things not seen could Noah build the ark and Abraham roam the earth until God showed him the land of Canaan.
Verse 9: By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.
Here the author notes that Abraham did not merely embark upon a long journey of faith in obedience to God, he also lived the rest of his life (as did his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob) without ever actually possessing the land that God promised to him. Indeed, the only plot of land that the patriarchs actually owned was a field with a cave in Machpelah that Abraham bought as a burial ground for Sarah after she died. Other than that, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lived in tents, sojourners and foreigners in the very land that God promised to give to their descendants. Again, this is the very definition of faith. They lived their entire lives trusting in a promise that they never got to see fulfilled. All around the patriarchs were mighty cities with walls and fortifications to ensure their protection, even Lot (Abraham’s nephew) was pulled into the security and comforts of the cities. Yet these men of God chose to dwell in tents, ever wandering through the Promised Land that was not yet theirs.
Verse 10 explains how they lived this life of faith: For he was looking forward to a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.
One glance at any of the Canaanite cities might have left one admiring how established they were, especially if compared to the tents of Abraham. However, by faith, Abraham looked beyond his present day and beyond what his physical eyes could see. Regardless of how steadfast they appeared to be, in reality, they were fleeting vapors that, if fortunate, may still have some ruins to be seen today. By faith, Abraham saw through the earthly display of permanence and set his gaze upon the City of God with eternal and everlasting foundations. He set his sights upon the eternal reality rather than upon the earthly shadows.
Verse 11: By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.