That Country or a Better Country?
Being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ demands a commitment of a person’s entire being. Your body and soul belong to him and must be used to bring glory to his name by obeying his Word. If anyone thinks otherwise, hear what Jesus said on the matter: No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).
According to our text this morning, Abraham understood this. He left his family, his land and his former gods to go to an unknown land that God would show him. Hebrews does not say that he continued on this trek because he, like Lot whose house and city burned to the ground, could not return to his former life. To the contrary, it says that he could have returned if he had been mindful of the place from which he had come. He had plenty of opportunities to consider this. Genesis records the fact that Abraham sent his servant back to his own people, who by this time had settled in Syria, to find a wife for Isaac. Jacob also, when he fled from his brother, went to Padan-Aram. Though a scoundrel, he realized that he did not belong there. God had promised Abraham a better land. Neither he, nor Isaac nor Jacob sought anything else.
Are we any different? There was a time, as Paul wrote in the second chapter of Ephesians, when we were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world (v. 12). This world, which still bears the curse of God, was our natural home. But now that Christ has reconciled us to himself by the blood of the cross, our citizenship has changed. We live in a better country which we know as the church, the kingdom of God, or ultimately heaven. A few verses later Paul added, Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit (vv. 2:19–22).
Opportunities to Return
Like the patriarchs, we have more than ample opportunities to return to that country from which we came. When we work among unbelievers, how easy it would be to forget God and frolic in their reckless pleasures. But what about when you’re in your own home? There you will also find countless temptations to go back. Your sin nature will feel freer to express itself in an environment where people already know you. Harsh words and hateful thoughts, anger and resentment, and many other evil passions arise with great ease. Opportunities to turn our backs on Jesus Christ do not come by the year or even by the month. They come hour by hour and minute by minute. In adversity, we’re tempted to return because we imagine that God has forsaken us. In times of blessing, we’re tempted to return because we think that we don’t need God anymore. In fact, you will find no circumstance in your life that lacks an occasion to deny the Lord who bought you with his own precious blood. Apollyon, the destroyer of men’s souls, is more than adept at making opportunities for your retreat into a life of sin.
But understand this: the opportunities to return to that country, as the writer of Hebrews described them, are not just things that exist out in the world. The fault is not in our unbelieving co-workers or the deceitfulness of their pleasures. Nor is it in our homes, our spouses, our parents or our children. “The fault, dear Brutus,” said Cassius in Shakespeare’s play, “is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” Our text more accurately places the fault in our own desires, when it says, if they had been mindful. Every incentive to withdraw from Christ is first entertained in the mind. The mind recreates that other country, making it look more attractive and pleasing than it really is. The mind fabricates every manner of justification for going back. The mind also convinces itself, contrary to what it knows to be true, that everything will be all right — no harm will come, God really isn’t that interested in the puny sins of my miserable existence.
James wrote, But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed (Jas. 1:14). As long as your sanctification is incomplete, which it will be until the Lord calls you home, opportunities to return will always be present to your mind, just as they were to Abraham’s. But Abraham refused to entertain them. Our text says, “if he had been mindful,” to make it clear that he was not mindful. We, too, must not be mindful of that country. We must not allow our lusts to draw us away from the better country, where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob now enjoy everlasting blessedness.
Given the power of sin and the weakness of our fallen nature, it’s almost incredible that any of us perseveres long enough to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ”; and yet, it’s our perseverance in pursuing the heavenly country that is the strongest evidence of our faith. The reason we persevere, however, is not the result of our own might. It is rather the power of God working within us. His strength alone keeps us from returning to our previous life.
Even so, you might ask, “If God loves us, why does he keep us in a world where the opportunities to draw back are so numerous?” No one doubts that he could have spared us these trials if he had wanted to. Yet, the fact that he has not done so demonstrates conclusively that he wants to try your faith. He brings trials into your lives so that your perseverance might confirm to you that you are one of his dear children by faith in his Son. He uses your trials to make your faith stronger day by day. By exposing your weaknesses, he shows you that his kingdom advances solely by his own power and might. And most importantly, by introducing periods of testing into your lives he teaches you not to live unto yourselves, but to glorify your God and Savior.
Desiring the Better Country
The opportunity to go back to a life of sin is always there, but the saints of God do not and cannot return. Does anyone really think that this world can satisfy a believer in Christ? Maybe it did when you were dead in your trespasses and sins. After all, it’s very appropriate that a dead man should live in a dead world. Whatever the world calls good, because it lacks God’s blessing, is like a Christmas present wrapped in barbed wire. And whenever men seek earthly treasures, day soon find how quickly they disappear. Being transitory, this world can never really satisfy God’s elect.
Further, there is a second reason why the saints of God cannot go back. Verse 16 of our text says that they have their minds and hearts fixed on something far greater than anything this world can offer them. Abraham had an unquenchable yearning for a better country, that is, a heavenly.
Let me ask you today, What do you desire? If the Lord were to give you whatever you crave the most, what would you ask for? Solomon asked for wisdom when he was given this choice because his heart was set on ruling the kingdom of God. But what would you choose?
In II Timothy 4:10 Paul complained that Demas loved this present world. Apparently, he desired the world above all else. We all have a natural tendency to do the same. That’s why John wrote, Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him (I John 2:15). Therefore, one of the things we have to do while we are here is wean ourselves from the world. We learn to say goodbye to people and things that we once loved dearly. The Lord takes them away from us — sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently — and we have to let them go.
What should we desire then? Do you not believe that the Scriptures guide you even here? David expressed his greatest desire in the forty-second Psalm: As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God (v. 1); and again in the seventeenth Psalm, As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness (Ps. 17:15). Likewise, Moses prayed, O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (Ps. 90:14). Jesus also taught his disciples what to desire when he said: But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:33). Each of these passages in its own way reminds you that your chief delight ought to be in God. As the first answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, you should not only glorify God; you must also enjoy him.
So that we never forget this, the Lord occasionally sends us back to that country from which we came. This reminds us of two things: how bad that country was and how great the blessings of the better country are. He did this with all the patriarchs. In a time of famine, Abraham sought refuge in the land of Egypt and there found himself in great sin. The same thing happened again when he withdrew to live among the Philistines. Isaac followed his father’s poor example. Jacob’s retreat was the longest. He lived with his uncle for many years. There he took two wives and had many children, but in all his searching he could not find contentment. This world has no comfort to offer people who love the Lord.
Christians cannot reestablish citizenship in their former country, although the opportunities are many, because God’s grace has given them a desire for a far better land — a land for which we now have a foretaste in the church , and a heavenly land for which we ultimately long. We cannot be content with anything less than a land in which the glory and enjoyment of God are first and foremost.
Do you meditate on the blessings that God gives you in the church? Do you long for that day when the Lord Jesus Christ will take you out of this world, remove every remnant of sin, and clothe you with the Savior’s glory? When you take communion, does it make you hunger after face-to-face fellowship with the one who died on the cross to bear your sins?
I fear sometimes that we don’t take advantage of these things as we ought. We say that we’re mining for gold, but the only thing we see is the rocks and dirt that we have to dig through to reach it. But if we keep our minds on Christ, he will give us more gold than we can imagine. Let us, therefore, desire that better land, and our attachment to this world will soon fade away.
Not a Country, but a City
Today’s text ends with a sweet promise for those who desire the better country: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
When you think about it, this is really an amazing statement. God was not ashamed to identify himself as Abraham’s God, although he had every reason to be ashamed of him. Abraham had worshiped another god in his youth. God told him to leave his family, but he allowed Lot to follow him (and apparently other relatives traveled with him as far as Syria). Twice he commanded Sarah to lie to save his life. And even though God had promised to give him a son, he chose a servant to be his heir and later sought to produce a child through his wife’s concubine. After all of this, was God ashamed of Abraham? James 2:23 says, And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
If God had cause to be ashamed of Abraham, then he certainly has cause to be ashamed of us. We are sinful and foolish, and sometimes we are even ashamed of him as if he had done us wrong. He knows not only the sins that we’ve committed outwardly, but even the secret sins that we cherish in our hearts as well as the sins that we have not yet done. And yet, God is not ashamed of us either. Earlier in Hebrews the author wrote, For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren (Heb. 2:11). The Lord Jesus Christ rejoices that we are his people, bought and paid for by his precious blood. He loves us and delights in us, and the fact that we now desire a better country than what we came out of demonstrates that he desires our fellowship.
If Abraham was a friend of God, then we are too. Consider the love that Jesus expressed toward us in these words: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you (John 15:13–15).
The Biblical record tells us that Abraham lied, David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, and Peter denied ever having known the Lord Jesus. Our own experience teaches us the depth of our own wickedness. So, how can it be that God is not ashamed of his people? It’s probably because God does not look upon us as we have been or how we are at present. Rather, he looks upon us as we are in Christ. When he looks at us, he sees what he has prepared us to be. He sees us clothed in white raiment, dwelling in unimaginable light and glory. He rejoices as he awaits the day when all the redeemed will be gathered together in that city which he has prepared for all those who delight in him.
At this point, we note a fascinating change in verse 16. Abraham left the country of his fathers to search for a better country. God had commanded him to do so. But God delighted in Abraham so much that he gave him more than he promised: a city instead of a country. A city suggests permanence. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who once dwelt only in tents, now have mansions. And what is God’s promised to us? Jesus said, In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you (John 14:2). Paul elaborated on this somewhat when he wrote to the Corinthians: For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (II Cor. 5:1). A city is also a place of society. In the church, and even more so in glory, the Lord will knit together individuals from every family, tribe, nation and people on the face of the earth into one magnificent community of faith and love. In that city, there will be nothing but endless peace and joy.
Do you find it strange that the world feels threatened by the church’s presence in this world? You shouldn’t. Remember that you now have a new citizenship and are no longer part of this world. Because of this, you cannot expect the world to like you. What does the Bible say? Jesus said, Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household (Matt. 10:34–36). The time to worry is not when you’re persecuted; it’s when you’re not persecuted. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).
Your greatest joy in this world does not come from the world but from the fact that God is not ashamed to be called your God. What more could you ask for? If you want a joy that will never fade or disappear, then make God your joy. In him you will find true delight — a delight that will keep you pursuing the city that God has prepared for you.
But if you are a citizen of this world and find your comfort here, then pay careful attention to this. The country that you delight in will one day be burned up. It is a land destined for destruction. The king will send his armies against it and utterly destroy it. Every citizen of that land will suffer total loss, including the loss of his own soul. If this is where you find yourself today, if you are secretly living in sin while claiming to follow the Savior, then you must cast off your hypocrisy and trust Jesus alone. If you do, you will find in him a full, perfect and complete salvation. Your sins will be washed away. The love of God will become sweet to your soul. You will have a peace that you never before could have imagined. By trusting in Christ, you will come to love the words of this morning’s text: And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
May our merciful God give each of us a desire for the heavenly country, where God delights in everyone who delights in him, and where he gives us exceedingly above all that we can ask or think. To him be the praise and glory now and forever. Amen.