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. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV
The first four words of this section of Hebrews 11 are critical: “By faith Abraham obeyed.” It would be easy to put the emphasis on the latter half of the statement, making the obedience of Abraham the point. But the author is clearly out to build a case for his opening statement: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). Abraham’s obedience, while important, takes a back seat to his faith. It is a byproduct of his faith. As the author said in verse six, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”
We have to go back to the Old Testament book of Genesis to see the complete story of Abraham’s call and his subsequent obedience to that call. He was living in Haran with his father and the rest of his family. They had moved there from Ur. And it was while he was living in Haran that God came to Abram (his original name), and said, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV). What’s important to notice is that the text indicates that God had not told him exactly where he was going. Even the passage in Hebrews says that Abram “went out, not knowing where he was going.” This is an important part of the story. All Abram knew was that God had called him and he was offering to give him some land and to make him a great nation. While some pretty impressive promises, let’s admit that they were a bit vague. Anyone would naturally want to know where and how. Where do you want me to go? How are you going to make me a great nation? But the point is that, “by faith Abraham obeyed.” He had no idea where he was going or how God was going to pull off what He had promised.
And Genesis tells us that Abram headed out, under the direction of God. Before long he found himself in the land of Canaan, a land occupied by none other than the Canaanites, the descendants of Ham, one of the sons of Noah. Abram was a descendant of Shem, another son of Noah. So once he got to where God was sending him, Abram found the land already taken by some distant family members. The author of Hebrews reminds us that “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land” (Hebrews 11:9 ESV). And while the occupants of the land were living in houses, Abram and his family were forced to live in tents. They were little more than squatters and vagabonds, moving about from place to place, with no sense of stability or ownership. And this would last for generations, spanning the lives of Isaac and Jacob. He had received a promise of a land but never got to truly live in it or occupy it. The author tells us that “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10 ESV). The Greek word the author uses is ekdechomai and it means “to look for, expect, wait for, await” (Greek Lexicon :: G1551 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Web. 4 Feb, 2016. <http://www.blueletterbible.org). Abram was waiting for, expecting, anticipating some that had not yet come. He was eagerly and hopefully waiting for God to make his residence a permanent one. His understanding of the promise was that it would include a city made up of bricks and mortar, with walls, ceilings and floors – not a nomadic existence spent living in tents.
But he had to wait. And he had to deal with not only the existence of Canaanites, but the impact of a debilitating drought. It was so bad, he was forced to flee to Egypt. Not exactly what he was probably expecting. But through a series of unexpected chain of events, Abram arrived back in Canaan a wealthy man with lots of livestock. In fact, his flocks were so large that he and his nephew Lot had to decide to part ways in order to keep from running into conflicts over pasturing rights. And when he gave Lot the first choice of land, he chose the very best, leaving Abram with the less attractive portion. But Abram was trusting God. He was placing his hope and convictions in the promises of God. So that, even after Abram gave Lot the choice of the best land, God reconfirmed His promise to him.
Look as far as you can see in every direction—north and south, east and west. I am giving all this land, as far as you can see, to you and your descendants as a permanent possession. And I will give you so many descendants that, like the dust of the earth, they cannot be counted! Go and walk through the land in every direction, for I am giving it to you. – Genesis 13:14-17 ESV
According to God, the land was as good as his – all of it. Every square acre of it, including all of the land occupied by the Canaanites and by Lot. It was Abram’s land. Even though he had yet to take possession of a single foot of it. Abram’s faith was in God and His word. The fact that he did not have a permanent home or the deed to a piece of property in his possession did not diminish his belief that God was going to follow through on His promise. His faith was the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Abram and all the others listed in chapter 11, “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” (Hebrews 11:13 ESV). Their’s was a future-focused faith. It was based on a promise. And the promise was assured because the promise-maker was trustworthy. Abram knew that the promise of God was far greater and encompassed far more than just his individual blessing. God’s promise was regarding future generations and had far-reaching future applications. Abram would never live to see the complete fulfillment of God’s promise. He would be long gone by the time his descendants moved to Egypt. He would never live to see them multiply and grow to such a degree that the Pharaoh would become fearful of them. He would not experience the joy of watching God set his descendants free from captivity and led to the promised land. He would not enjoy the thrill of seeing them conquer the land of Canaan and make it their own. He would not see the rise of the kingdom of David or the splendor of the kingdom of Solomon. And he would never live to see the coming of the Messiah, the one through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed.
But Abram believed. He had faith. He obeyed. He worshiped. He waited. And he left the future in God’s hands. He had future faith because he believed in an eternal God who never fails to keep His word or fulfill His commitments. Paul would have us live by faith as Abram did. He reminds us, “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:23-25 ESV).