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. Hebrews 11:13-16
For decades, Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Israelite nation, lived in tents, childless, away from their home and family, waiting for God to act on his promises to give them a big family and a land of their own. They waited, and saw only the hint of the fulfillment in the birth of their son Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his family, also received the promises, then spent their lives waiting and sojourning. “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you,” Abraham told his neighbors (Genesis 23:4). So he remained for the rest of his life. In his lifetime, he never got his homeland.
In chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author says that, by calling himself a sojourner and foreigner, Abraham meant not only that he was a stranger living in a foreign country. He also meant he was a stranger and an exile on earth itself.
Exile is a major theme of the Bible. For over 400 years, the young Israelite nation lived as exiles and slaves in Egypt, until Moses and Joshua led them out of Egypt and into Canaan, the “promised land.” Some number of centuries later, the entire nation of Israel was taken out of Canaan into exile again, first by the Assyrian empire, then by the Babylonian empire.
Foreign invasion and mass exile is traumatic in the extreme for any people group in any time period, but perhaps for none more so than the Israelites. Invading conquers stole the promised land from them; their national and even spiritual identity, their self-understanding, their hopes, their plans, not to mention their possessions and livelihoods: all gone on an tyrant’s whim.
In one of the Bible’s most bitterly sad and poetic psalms, an Israelite expatriate expressed the pain of exile like this:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? Psalm 137:1-4
The promised land was, to the people to whom it had been promised, home and more than home. It was nearness to God himself. Their God was the God of Israel, the God of Jerusalem, the God of Zion. To be away from Jerusalem was to be away from the temple, the designated “dwelling place” of God.
To the exiled Jews, physical separation felt like, and represented, spiritual and relational separation from God. When God sent Israel into exile, away from the land, he was sending them away from himself “with a decree of divorce” (Jeremiah 3:8) because of the flagrant paganism and corruption of the people, which he called “adultery.” To them, home was where God made himself present. And God was not present in Babylon.
Even to this day, Jews are still seeking the homeland of their ancient past. They are waiting for the day when God will fulfill his promises to give them back their land, and by doing so, give them himself.
In Hebrews 11, though, the author says something really amazing. He says that the homeland the patriarchs anticipated, and that the exiles in Babylon ached for, was in fact “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
For [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. Hebrews 11:10
Not Jerusalem, but the New Jerusalem, was Abraham’s real home. That is to say, God himself was Abraham’s homeland. Paul said,
But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. Galatians 4:26
In our lives we live with an idea in our minds of where and what our home is; or perhaps, what we want it to be. As Christians, God forbid that we settle for a homeland on this earth. In fact, he does forbid it: he forbids that we live as natives and citizens in this world, in “Babylon,” when in truth, because of Jesus, we are exiles and strangers. Like Abraham, we spend our lives sojourning. God’s promises are what we base our lives on.
Jerusalem above, the city of God, the promised city, “built by God,” is our only home. Jesus has gone ahead to prepare it for us. Indeed, Jesus has bought and paid for our citizenship with his life.
More on that later.