Samuel Rutherford was a Scottish Presbyterian pastor who lived during the first half of the 17th century. I wouldn’t doubt that many of you have not heard of him, but he is something of a towering figure when it comes to church history.
He may even be said to have swayed the entire course of Western culture.
During this time period, you must understand, the common thought was “The king is law.” That is to say, the king in power could make any laws he wished. But Rutherford came along and said that the king is not a law unto himself. Rather the king is to be under a law, specifically God’s law.
Well, you can imagine that this didn’t sit well with the king. Kings and tyrants don’t typically like being told that they are required to submit to God and that their powers are actually quite limited. The king sought to squelch this pesky little pastor and his thoughts of limited government. So he cited Rutherford with treason and summoned him to trial. It doesn’t take much to know that this would have been nothing other than a kangaroo court, and Rutherford would have been pronounced guilty.
But when Rutherford received the summons to go before the king, he was already on his deathbed, and he refused to go. He sent these famous words back, “I am summoned before a higher court and judicatory. That first summons I behoove to answer and ere a few days hence I shall be where few kings and great folks come.”
Upon what had Rutherford laid his faith? Was it in reforming a nation? There is no doubt that he had a great love for his country. He longed for reformation in his land and for the transformation of society. But when it comes down to it, Rutherford did not put his hope in these things. By faith he lived in this world—by faith he fought for this world—but one thing is for sure, his faith looked beyond this world. He looked forward to the high court of heaven and the judicatory of King Jesus.
That is why he is an embodiment of what our passage speaks of this morning. We’ve been talking about enduring faith. We’ve talked about the nature of this faith and we’ve seen some examples of men and women who persevered. But here in our passage it tells us why they were able to persevere. It is because their faith had a particular focal point. Their faith looked beyond this world. They looked beyond this world to a greater land and a greater life because their faith was fixed on the ultimate fulfilment of the gospel promises.
And it teaches us that if we are going to have a faith that lasts to the end, then we have to have a faith that focuses on the end. Our faith must be a future oriented faith. It must look beyond this world to grand end of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
As you look at our passage you can see how our forefathers had this gospel oriented faith. In verses 13-16 we are told that they were able to persevere in faith because their faith focused on a greater land.
I. Their faith looked beyond this world to a greater land [13-16]
Look at verse 13. It says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.” The promises God made to them, were seen and greeted from afar. They did not receive them. But did that hinder their pursuit of them? No it did not. That’s because they knew the fulfilment of those promises was further off. In reality, they were not banking on finding a piece of land here in this age or in this world. They were looking beyond it.
That’s why this verse goes on to say that they knew themselves to be “strangers and exiles on earth.” What do you call someone who has a home in any given area? You call him a native or a neighbor. But that’s not how the Patriarchs viewed themselves. They understood that they were aliens because their home was somewhere else.
Not one of the Patriarchs thought of themselves as people who belonged to this world or this system of things. For instance, Abraham called himself a stranger and a sojourner. That’s the way he viewed himself. If you would take time later, you could go back to Genesis 23. That’s the chapter that records the death of Abraham’s wife and her burial. You may remember that Abraham bought a plot for her, and when he did so he talked to the owner of the plot. In that conversation he said, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” He didn’t say, “I’m one of your neighbors.” He didn’t even say, “You know I’m new to the area and I’m looking to put down some roots. I really look forward to building a good a home here and maybe joining the Rotery.” No, he recognized that was someone who was just passing through on his way to another country.
The same goes for Jacob. Do you remember when Jacob came down to Egypt? There had been a famine and his son Joseph, who had become a high official in Egypt, brought Jacob down. Jacob got to meet Pharoah and Pharoah asked him, “How old are you?” Jacob responded by saying, “The years of my pilgrimage have been 130 years.”
He saw himself as one who was on a pilgrimage. He saw himself as one who was on a journey to another country.
And all of that is summed up in verse 14. It says, “For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” Then skip down to verse 16. It says, “But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”
Now this is the clearest expression right here. What were they seeking? Were they seeking a plot of land in Israel? Did they have their eyes on a certain neighborhood or piece of farmland? Not at all, this verse tells us that they did not see the promises of God ultimately applying to any particular area in the middle east. What were they looking for? It wasn’t something over there, but their eyes were looking up. They were seeking a heavenly country.
In other words, they understood that that the land of Israel was symbolic. It was archetypal of what God ultimately had in store for them. The promise of God was not so much about Israel as it was about the restoration of Paradise lost. That’s what a heavenly country is. It is a place where there is no sin. It is a place where there is are not tears or sadness or shame. It is a place of perfection. It is a place where God resides.
That is why Abraham lived by faith. He was ultimately seeking the Lord’s salvation.
Now, I recognize that there is some difference of opinion in our church when it comes to this. But this is why our church, confessionally speaking, holds to the covenantal view of Scripture and not a dispensational one. Dispensationalism says that all the promises to the OT saints will come to a literal fulfillment. They say that God gave a promise of land, so the dispensationalist framework believes that the Jews will receive the land of Israel.
But I would like to suggest to you that this does not comport with what is said here in Hebrews 11. This tells us that Abraham was never ultimately looking for any land, at least not one in this world. Abraham had an eschatological outlook. His eyes were on God’s kingdom and the redemption that accompanies it.
And really, that’s what this verse calls us to do. We are to keep our eyes on that same horizon; looking forward to that same land. Yes, we are to be seeking the kingdom of God now. We are to ask the Lord to build his kingdom and we are to seek to make it visibly manifested to the extent that we can. We are to fight against sin and make every attempt to tear down the strongholds of Satan—just like Abraham and Rutherford did.
But ultimately, our hopes look beyond this world to another land. Our faith must rest in the second coming of Christ and the new heavens and new earth that will be ushered in at that time.
That’s why Abraham and everyone else mentioned here could persevere. They did not turn back (as it says in verse 15) because they did not have their minds on this land.
He persevered because his gps was set on a much greater destination.
And along with that greater land, you must be looking for a greater life—a life beyond the one we experience in world.
II. Their faith looked beyond this world to another life [17-19]
That’s what you find in the next portion of our text. Verses 17-19 tell us that our forefather’s in the faith not only expected a greater country, but they expected a greater life. In other words, they had resurrection faith.
In verses 17-19 we are reminded of the time when Abraham was tested. God told Abraham to go and sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. And Abraham obeyed. But you understand something of the quagmire that this put him in. Verse 18 reminds us that God’s promise to Abraham was to be fulfilled in and through Isaac. But if you are to kill him, that might put a damper on the whole thing.
So Abraham had to wrestle with this dilemma: The promise is through Isaac; I have to put him to death. And how does he solve this enigma? He has complete faith in God’s promise. “God said it; I believe it. That settles it.” Verse 19 says, “He considered that God was able to raise him from the dead.”
And when you read the account of this in Genesis 22, you see this. There is that one point where Abraham and Isaac leave the servants that accompanied them behind and they go on alone. And he said, “You guys stay here. Isaac and I will go over there and worship and then return to you.” So you see his faith there. He knew Isaac would be with him when he came back.
Abraham’s faith enabled him to look beyond the grave. He understood the Lord to be the God of resurrection. Even something as silly as death can’t stop the Lord from fulfilling his purposes.
And that is why Abraham’s story anticipates Easter. Isaac was a type of Christ. Isaac was one who was miraculously conceived. He also was one who was resurrected, at least in a figurative way. So he prefigures Jesus and he points us to the saving power of God.
And as we gather here today we unite to affirm that our God is one who overthrows sin and death. He is the God of resurrection. Jesus Christ has risen again from the grave and because he did we may have all that much more reason to persevere in faith.
What does 1 Corinthians say? If Christ has risen, we are above all people to be pitied. He says that if Christ has not risen our faith is in vain. In other words, if it’s a bunch of bunk we should drop it right now and find another religion; there is no need to persevere! It would be foolish to do so.
But we have the guarantee of the empty tomb. And because Christ has risen, we have more cause to believe and not shrink back. Living this side of Christ’s resurrection we have even more assurance than Abraham that God will fulfill his promise and that we will have a new life in the new land.
There again you see the faith that is driven by the gospel. We look beyond this world to a new body fitted perfectly for the new land in which we will live.
The resurrection is gospel. Because a resurrected body corresponds to that heavenly country. It is one that is free from sin; it is free from corruption. It is wholly spiritual in nature taking on properties of a glorified state—something of which I doubt we can fully comprehend this side of experiencing it.
And yet, even though we might not understand all the details pertaining to it, we know that it will be grand. It is like a glorious birthday present that we fully expect, and yet, at the same time, it will completely astonishment us when it is revealed.
And friends, this is what makes death tolerable. Though we may face death, we ultimately look beyond death. Death does not have the final say in our lives. We look beyond this life to the greater life that God promises us in the gospel.
In hearing these things it is important us not forget how this passage begins: “These all died in faith.”
Really, if you think about it, I think that that’s the whole point here. I think that is the whole point of this chapter. It’s that whole chiasm thing. The great thing about these people is not so much that the lived by faith—though that is a wonderful thing. It is not even the great things they did through faith—though those are wonderful to and can teach us many things. Really, the great thing about these people is not so much that they lived by faith, but rather it is that they died in faith. The persevered to the end!
And they were able to do so because they had a faith that looked beyond it. The believed the gospel. God had promised them a greater land and a greater life so they could face death with hope and peace.
May that same gospel and same promises cause us to persevere as well.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.