What the Fathers of Israel were looking for
"Faith is the substance of things hoped for" (Hebrews 11:1)
We turn back now to the Old Testament Scriptures for the purpose of ascertaining what is foretold therein concerning the future of the Israelitic people, and particularly what, if any, indication they contain as to the restoration of their national greatness in a yet future day.
And first we direct our attention to the patriarchal era, in order to learn what it was that the fathers of Israel were taught of the Lord to anticipate for themselves and their posterity. This is the proper place to begin our inquiry; for we recall that when Paul was arraigned before King Herod Agrippa by his infuriated fellow countrymen, because he preached a hope for Israel radically different from that held and taught by them and their rabbis, he declared that he was; judged for the hope of the promise made of God to our fathers. And he went on to say that God's promise to the fathers was the true hope of all Israel - our twelve tribes; (Ac. 26:6,7).
It is written that "faith is the substance of things hoped for." If, therefore, we know what a man is hoping for, we know what he believes. "The faith of Jesus Christ" is that on which is founded "the hope of the gospel" (Col. 1:23); and there is just the "one hope" for all men (Eph. 4:4); because there is but one gospel (and never was, or will be, "another gospel." Gal. 1:6-9). The hope of the gospel has ever been the coming of Him who should bruise the serpent's head, and who should be Himself "bruised" in the deadly conflict; Him who by death should destroy him, that had the power of death, the Devil.
It is fitting that the faith of Abraham should have a large space in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews; for Abraham is "the father of all them that believe" (Rom. 4:11). That chapter does not state what the gospel was that "God preached unto Abraham" (Gal. 3:8); but it tells what the effect thereof was upon his life and conduct, and what his hope was, that is, what he was looking for. It is recorded that -
"By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange (or foreign) country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise"
(v. 9). And verse 10 gives the explanation -
"For he looked (lit. was waiting for) the (not a) city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God."
Mention is made also of Sarah's faith, which was also an important factor in the accomplishment of the purposes of God, and who is herself a type of that heavenly city upon which Abraham's hope was fixed...the "Jerusalem which is above, which is the mother of all" (Gal. 4:26). And further, it is expressly declared that Isaac and Jacob were co-heirs with Abraham of "the same promise" (v. 9). And then, concerning those four - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah, to whom "the promises" were directly given, we have this illuminating testimony:
"These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off; and were persuaded [fully convinced] of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. 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 seek 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" (vv. 13-16).
This gives us clearly to know, first that "the promises" exerted a mighty influence over those to whom they were first given, (proving that their faith in what God had spoken was real and unwavering); and second, that the nature of the promises were such as to turn their thoughts entirely away from the earth, and to raise in their hearts the expectation of a country "better" than the very best of earth (showing that the promises themselves were spiritual and heavenly in character). For those promises had the effect of making even "the land of promise" itself to be to them as a foreign country. For while the land of Canaan was indeed promised to Abraham's natural seed, that promise never was "the hope of Israel." The hope of the gospel which God preached to Abraham was of such a nature that it caused him, and those who were "the heirs with him of the same promise," to declare themselves "strangers and pilgrims on the earth."
As will be more fully shown in subsequent Chapters, God's promise that He would bring Abraham's descendants into that land was punctually fulfilled. For it is recorded in the Book of Joshua that "the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which he sware unto their fathers to give them, and they possessed it, and dwelt therein... There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord hath spoken unto the house of Israel" (Josh. 21:43-45). But the possession of that land by later generations was forfeited through disobedience, apostasy, and idolatry, even as Moses and Joshua foretold; and, in consequence of their complete repudiation of Jehovah their God, they were "plucked off the land" (Deut. 28:63,64; Joshua 12:13). And thus was fulfilled the prophetic "allegory" of Abraham's family history, according to which the bondwoman and her son, representing Israel after the flesh, were to be "cast out" (Gal. 4:30); which is the end of their history as a nation.
It was not until centuries of time had passed, not until faith had vanished from among the children of Israel, not until the true spiritual and eternal character of the promises had faded out of sight, and fleshly lusts had taken the place of heavenly hopes and longings, that there arose among the natural seed of Abraham the ruinous doctrine that "the hope of Israel" was an earthly thing. That doctrine was the product of degenerate times. It was tenaciously held and zealously propagated by the scribes, Pharisees, rabbis and lawyers of first century Judaism - that "generation of vipers"; and it wrought in them such devilishness that they eagerly carried out the will of their "father, the devil" (Matt. 23:33; John 8:44) in compassing the crucifixion of the Lord of glory. Should we not therefore regard that odious doctrine with abhorrence and fear? And should it not be a matter of anxious inquiry as to how it has arisen and spread itself among the true followers of Christ in these perilous times?
And now we come to the grand climax of the passage we are examining, Hebrews XI. It is found in verse 16, where it is announced that the fathers of Israel desired "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"; and from Revelation 21:2,3, we learn that He will dwell with them in that city forever.
Here is truth of the highest importance and most practical character. These words give us the explanation of the fact that the Eternal God, the Almighty Creator, He who is infinite in power, wisdom and holiness, condescends to call Himself "the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6, 16; Matt. 22:32).
There could be no more emphatic assertion of the oneness of God's elect, the true "seed of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7,29), and of the truly fundamental truth that there is just "one hope," one "common salvation" for them all, whether by nature they be Jews or Gentiles.
And there could not be a more impressive refutation of the erroneous doctrine - now current amongst certain groups of Christians - that the biblical "hope of Israel" is a thing of earthly place and dominion. This is surely "another gospel," very different indeed from the gospel God preached unto Abraham.
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