• - View of the sunrise from the top of Mount Gerizim near the northern West Bank city of Nablus on October 13, 2019. Photo by Mila Aviv/Flash90

A Heavenly Country?

editor - 10 August 2020

“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 a city for them.” Hebrews 11:16

At first sight, you could conclude from the letter to the Hebrews, that we should not take the land promise too literally. The letter speaks of a better, a heavenly country, and calls on its readers/hearers “to go outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city” (Hebrews 13:13-14). Earlier in this passage, the writer seems to confirm that their earthly city is temporary, or does it? “By faith he [Abraham] lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise” (11:9).

The reference to the land of promise, as found in Genesis 17:8 and 24:3, is unmistakable. But the question remains open: “Has the promise been fulfilled?” Abraham did live in the promised land, but as an alien, in tents. The promise was not yet completely fulfilled. That was still to happen.

In Hebrews 11:9-10, two realities are contrasted. We have to read those verses carefully. The ‘city which has foundations’ is opposed to the ‘tents’, and not to the land in which Abraham is sojourning. Abraham expected God to establish that city in the land of promise. Then, it would no longer be a ‘foreign land’, but finally, he and his offspring would inherit it, according to the promise. Nowhere, does the letter to the Hebrews claim that the promise to — or covenant with, Abraham, is annulled. When the letter to the Hebrews speaks of the Law as a shadow (Hebrews 10:1), or of a covenant that is ready to disappear (8:13), it is clearly about the covenant of Sinai, and even more precisely, about the sacrificial service, and not about the covenant with Abraham.

Moreover, we have to keep the historic context of the letter in mind. Jerusalem was occupied by the Romans. The temple was destroyed or was threatened with destruction. The faithful found themselves in the land in the same way as Abraham: as strangers and sojourners in a land, that was promised to them, but still occupied by other nations and other gods. Or, they are in exile, outside the promised land of Israel and the beloved city of Jerusalem. Therefore, the writer calls on them to look forward to the realisation of the divine city and the temple, the model of which is in heaven (compare Exodus 25:9, Hebrews 8:5). All this will become reality on earth, when finally, Jerusalem and Israel, and the whole world, will answer to their original destination. This is the expectation the writer of the letter to the Hebrews encourages his hearers to cherish.

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