Faith of Abraham - From Ur to the Heavenly city

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Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith Hebrews 11

Faith of Abraham - From Ur to the Heavenly city

by I Gordon

We are moving through Hebrews 11 looking at the saints of old and how their lives speak to ours. We have looked at Abel, Enoch, Noah and now, in this study, Abraham. Each story represents a different aspect of faith. In this study we shall look at the call of Abraham. There are two main points that we will explore:

  1. Abraham's faith in stepping out into the unknown.
  2. His heavenly motivation for his life of obedience.

Hebrews 11 spends more time in what motivated Abraham and the patriarchs to act than in speaking about their actions so I will do likewise. But we'll still examine both. We'll spend most of the time in Hebrews 11 but also jump back to Genesis to look at his call. Let's go.

Abraham's background - Who was this man Abraham? 

Now if you weren't aware, Abraham is a pretty important man both in scripture and history. He is the father of the Jewish faith and nation. But he is important to Christians as well for Paul, in Romans 4:11-16, says he is the father of all those that believe. He is mentioned 70 times in the New Testament including the very first verse, Mathew 1:1, where it starts by stating that Jesus was a descendant of both David and Abraham. He's even important to Islam where he is seen as a prophet and the father of the Arab nations through Ishmael. So these three main faiths all have an association with this man Abraham. Most importantly, he was a man of great faith and one who pleased God.

For the first 99 years of his life, Abraham ('Father of a multitude') was called Abram (meaning 'Exalted Father'). For the first 75 years he lived among his brethren in his native country of Chaldea, in the city of Ur. This was in the southern part of Mesopotamia or what is today southern Iraq. It is estimated his journey would have been between 1300-1600 km's. Most inhabitants of Ur worshipped the moon-god. Ray Stedman writes:  'It was once thought that Ur was a very primitive city... But the spade of the archaeologist has since turned up the ruins of Ur, and we have learned that this was a city of great wealth and considerable culture, containing a library and a university. The city was devoted to the worship of the Moon Goddess, and it is almost certain, that Abram was an idolater, a worshiper of the moon.' 

In the book of Joshua, Joshua addressed the tribes of Israel and mentions this at the start of his address saying  "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods.' (Joshua 24:2) 

So that is the family that Abraham grew up in. They were idolaters. But God, in his sovereignty, had His eye on this man Abram. God knows the heart and like Jesus pointing to His disciples and saying 'Come and follow me' so the Lord made a sovereign choice of this man Abram, to take him out of his family and land with all its wealth and false gods, and to make from him an entirely new nation that would be separated unto the Lord: Israel - a nation that would not be reckoned amongst the nations - then or now.

Going... when you don't know where you are going. 

Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.

So as we start in Hebrews 11, his first act of faith mentioned involves obeying the call of God to leave what he knew and to go out, not even knowing where he was going. Some of you have gone out, often in your car, and then realised you have no idea where you are going (or why you are even in your car!) But I'm not sure that is the same thing as we have here. Abraham had a specific call from God to go and so he went, not even knowing where he was going  [1]  but simply trusted God to direct. No Google maps, no GPS in his car, and, well, no car. There were also no reservations for where he was going to stay. Just went out not knowing where he was going, while realising he would never return. Let's look at his call back in Genesis.

The Call of Abraham

Genesis 12:1-9 The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. (2) I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (4) So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. (5) He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. (6) Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (7) The LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

This is the first of seven recorded times that Abraham received direct instruction and revelation from God. This passage records the first description of what is called the 'Abrahamic covenant' and it involves a specific command from God for Abraham to 'go forth'. If Abraham would do this, God would do the following:

  • I will make you a great nation - In Genesis 10, 70 nations are listed coming forth from Noah's three son's but now God will make one more of his own from Abraham - one that will be separated from the others throughout history.
  • I will bless you - a personal blessing, both material and spiritual, upon Abraham himself
  • I will make your name great - personal honor for this man Abraham. Here we are 4000 years on and we are still talking about him and he holds a prominent place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you - This was a personal promise for Abraham himself but later that same promise is spoken of all of Israel (Num 24:9). God is still honoring this promise which even empires throughout history have discovered when they turn against Israel and the Jews.
  • All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you - This would, as Paul brings out in Galatians, find its fulfillment in the Son of Abraham, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, through whom Jews and Gentiles alike would find blessing.

Verse 4 tells us that Abraham left as God had told him. He left not only his country, not only his people, but also his extended family and stepped forth into the unknown, beginning a journey to the Promised Land. What a step of faith. But there is a very real sense in which this story is played out again in the life and call of every Christian. Just as Abraham left his life in Ur with its worldliness and false gods, so those that hear the call of the gospel today are called to do the same. I remember when I first heard God calling me at the age of 19. As I read God's word for the first time, I heard the call to believe and follow Him. It wasn't easy and I battled with it for several months. I knew it would mean big changes to the life I was living. I suspected that it would mean losing all my friends and, not knowing one other Christian in the city, that was a troubling thought. But in the end, if it meant becoming a bit of an outcast but gaining eternal life, then I reasoned it was all worth it. And so began my journey. But we are all on, or should be on, a journey to our Promised Land - a pilgrimage from the city of destruction to the celestial city as Pilgrims Progress would say.

Abraham's motivation for his journey of faith

Hebrews 11:9-10 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. (10) For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

So Abraham made his way to the Promised Land, dwelling in tents and building altars to God in various places. In fact those two outward symbols of Abraham's life, the tent and the altar, sum up his life as both a pilgrim on this earth and a worshipper of God along the way. But what was his motivation? You might think 'well, he was going to the land that God would give him and his descendants - it is a land that is incredibly important to the Jewish race, then and now.' And that would be true. The Jewish people have a deep connection to the land of Israel that seems built into their DNA. That is why so many feel this inward desire and urge to leave whatever country they have grown up in and return to Israel.

But according to the book of Hebrews, the father of the Jewish race didn't have his eyes on the Promised Land so much as the land still to come. He wasn't looking so much for the city of Jerusalem as he was the Heavenly city. His motivation and gaze was on the heavenly city whose architect and builder is God. I love this thought quite frankly! In the natural he was on a journey to a land he had never seen but this was but a picture of the greater journey to the heavenly land that Abraham wanted to see. How is your desire for heaven? Are you able to see past the things of this world and see this greater hope? It is very important. Some can only see the here and now. And some fight so hard for that which will pass away.  [2]  But it is our eternal destination that is important. Actually, as a side note I later read about an Alabama tombstone inscription that expressed this truth, which death is not the end very distinctly. It said:

Here lies Solomon Peas, under the daisies and under the trees

 But Peas is not here, only the pod, Peas shelled out and went home to God 

I like that! But even for Christians it is easy to lose this eternal perspective when the things of earth cloud our view. In the late 1980's Dave Hunt wrote a book called 'Whatever happened to heaven?' (Today we could also ask 'Whatever happened to hell?') Hunt rightfully saw that the church had moved from its historical emphasis on the hope of the heavenly home and eternal matters to come and was becoming more and more focussed on the here and now. In the language of a more recent popular book, the church became focussed on 'Your best life now'. But here, in this chapter on faith in Hebrews 11, we see that even Abraham, 4000 years ago, obeyed God in the here and now because of this critical thought of eternity and his eternal home. It was his motivation. How much more important is it for us today then; who live all that much closer to the coming of the Lord and experiencing the place that Jesus left this earth to go and prepare for us?

So what did Abraham know about the heavenly city to come? 

I find it amazing that Abraham was looking, or keeping his focus, on the eternal heavenly city. What did he know? What had he seen? We do not know. You can't turn to the Old Testament and find God giving Abraham details about the heavenly home. But though it isn't recorded, Abraham clearly was given revelation on this important topic. H.A Ironside says  'The tenth verse (of Heb 11) suggests that God had made wonderful revelations to Abraham, which are not recorded in the Old Testament; for we read, 'He looked for a city which hath foundations, whose Builder and Maker is God.' This city is never described for us until we come to the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. It is the home of all the saints of God and toward that Abraham looked and, because of its glory, counted things then present as of small moment (or importance).'  Clearly, Abraham saw more than is revealed in the Old Testament. You may remember that Jesus told the Jews of His day:  "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." (John 8:56)  Abraham was given revelation concerning Jesus; either the day of his suffering or the day of His exaltation and kingdom. We don't know exactly what this was just from the Old Testament... But Abraham was glad by what He saw!

Keeping the right focus

Hebrews 11:13-16 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (14) For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. (15) And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. (16) 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.

Again we see this hope and focus that the men and woman of faith in days gone by had in desiring a better country. Therefore, it says, God is not ashamed to be called their God. They kept the right perspective. Someone once described heaven as 'an unknown region with a well-known inhabitant.' I like that. The Puritan church leader Richard Baxter expressed in this brief poem writing

 'My knowledge of that life is small, The eye of faith is dim,
But it's enough that Christ knows all, And I shall be with him.'  [3]  

We read earlier that with the heavenly city God is both architect and builder. If we were to get more specific, it is Jesus who has gone to prepare this place for us. Now when you are building a new home you need both a good design and a good builder to implement the design. Failure at either stage can lead to problems and dissatisfaction. With the heavenly city  [4]  , Jesus has not left anything up to chance. He kept both roles in His own very capable hands and I can assure you that there will be no dissatisfaction with what He has done! Think for a moment of what has been recorded:

  • David said '  I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.' (Psalm 17:15)  and '  In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11) 

Paul said '  Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.' (1 Corinthians 13:12) 

  • Jesus said  'Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." (Luke 10:20) 
  • John heard a loud voice from the throne saying,  "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (4) He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (5) He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Revelation 21:3-5) 

Conclusion - some quick lessons that we learn from the life and journey of Abraham 

  1. The importance of obedience  in his journey - God appeared to Abraham and said 'Go' (Gen 12:1). Imagine if Abraham had said 'Mmmm... No. No, I quite like it where I am actually. Uz has been good to me. Nice climate, got a lake... No I like it here.' God would have found another way because he is not limited by man but we wouldn't be talking about Abraham today. We need to learn to obey. God may be saying 'Go forth and encourage Bob', 'Go forth and speak to that person about Me', 'Give that person some money and help'. Abraham obeyed, in faith, and went forth. It actually took a bit of time and working out (more so than what is given in Hebrews) but the bottom line is he obeyed and we also need to learn obedience.
  2.   God doesn't reveal the whole journey but gives strength for today   - Abraham went out not knowing where he was going. God didn't come to him and say 'Ok Abraham, listen up, I've got this amazing plan. I'm going to make a great nation from your descendants in a far away land but here's the thing... I'm going to leave it incredibly late for you to have the promised child and you will start to even wonder whether it is going to happen, but it will. And then, get this, when your promised child is older I'll actually ask you to sacrifice him. Now you won't have to go through with it because I'm testing your faith and obedience and I'll provide an actual sacrifice...' No - just 'go forth and I'll be with you, bless you and make you into a great nation.' We don't need to stress and have our whole lives figured out. We don't need to worry ourselves to death over what may or may not come in the future. God is very much the 'I AM' - He operates in the present and gives strength for today. Many of you will have gone through long periods of trial and difficulty and looking back you'll wonder 'how did I get through all of that?' The sum of the whole thing looks too overwhelming... but you got through because God is with you one day at a time, gives strength for that day and simply wants you to walk each day, by faith.
  3.   Abraham held things lightly in his journey through this world   - Because Abraham knew that God was with him and that he had a glorious eternal future to look forward to, Abraham was able to hold things quite lightly in this world. He was 'gloriously detached from the pressure of circumstance' as Major Ian Thomas used to say. When it came time to split with Lot his nephew, they looked out over the land and Abraham could say 'You choose. You have first pick. If you got left, I'll go right, and if you go right, I'll go left.' He didn't need to fight or demand his rights. He didn't say 'Listen Lot, God's covenant is with me, and I'm the oldest so I'll make the choices round here thank you very much and you can have what is left'. No... just the opposite. He didn't fight and bicker or step on people to try get higher up the social or corporate ladder. He had his eyes on a whole different land!
  4.   The journey is harder when we take our eyes off the glorious finish line.   This can be illustrated by the following story given in Randy Alcorn's book 'Heaven'. In 1952, Florence Chadwick stepped into the waters of the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island, determined to swim the 26 miles to the shore of mainland California. She'd already been the first woman to swim the English Channel both ways. The weather was foggy and chilly; she could hardly see the boats accompanying her. Still, she swam for fifteen hours. When she begged to be taken out of the water along the way, her mother, in a boat alongside, told her she was close and that she could make it. Finally, physically and emotionally exhausted, she stopped swimming and was pulled out. It wasn't until she was on the boat that she discovered the shore was less than half a mile away. At a news conference the next day she said, 'All I could see was the fog... I think if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.' Two months later, she tried again. The same thick fog set in, but she succeeded in reaching Catalina. She said that she kept a mental image of the shoreline in her mind while she swam. Alcorn goes on to ask '  Can you relate to those words? We live our lives in a fog of trouble, worry, doubt, depression, health problems, unemployment, financial uncertainty, strained relationships...and loss of loved ones... All these things create a fog. It's difficult to see in front of us. We end up focusing on the fog because we can't see the shore. Sometimes we feel like giving up because we don't have the strength to stay afloat any longer. This is where the people of God throughout the ages had a source of strength and perspective that for some reason we don't talk much about today: Heaven. It was their north star by which they could navigate their lives. It was their great reference point.'
  5.   The journey has a wonderful destination and ultimately only Heaven will satisfy -   However you imagine heaven to be, it will be better. 'But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.' (Heb 11:16) Here they were, in the Promised Land - the land flowing with milk and honey, and what was their desire? They desired a better country, a heavenly one. C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity said:  'If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.'  I live in a wonderful country. It has vast beauty, prosperity, freedom... But as a Christian it isn't my true home. And as time goes by and we see things changing in this country and world, Christians in general are feeling more and more like aliens and exiles. That's ok. We need to be weaned off this world and God, as it says in our passage, is not ashamed to be called the God of those whose desire is for their heavenly home. As C.S Lewis said, 'you were made for another world'.

As the hymn says:

 This world is not my home; I'm just a passin' through; My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue 

 The angels beckon me from heaven's open door; And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. 

 Oh, Lord, you know, I have no friend like You; If heaven's not my home, then, Lord, what will I do? 

 The angels beckon me from heaven's open door; And I can't feel at home in this world anymore. 

[1] ↩  When I started Bible College, right in the first few weeks, they had a weekend where all the students go out and minister in some way and then come back and talk about what happened. One option, that a friend and I did was just to walk out the front gate of the college without any money or extra clothes and see what God does. We had no idea where we were going or what was going to happen. We decided to start hitchhiking and speak to the people who picked us up. It didn't take long before we got our first ride. Now the normal first question when you pick up a hitchhiker is 'Where are you off to?' The normal first reponse is not usually 'Wouldn't have a clue!' But that is what we had to say. Followed up by a quick 'where are you going?' 'We'll go where you are going.' I remember the first person to pick us up. A tiny little mini sized car and after we explained why we had no idea where we were going (being Bible college students leaving for the weekend without any money and seeing where God leads), the man said to us 'So you don't smoke then?' 'No' we replied, 'we don't smoke.' He then asked 'do you drink?' 'No, we replied, 'we don't drink.' 'Well' he replied after a slight pause, 'do you eat?' 'Yes, we are experts at that!' we replied. He then said he'd take us to a breakfast cafe, which he did, and he bought us both the biggest meal on the menu. It had everything... bacon, eggs, sausages, hash browns, drinks... just one of those monster cooked breakfast meals. We were just poor students and I remember seeing the price on the board thinking 'yikes' but this guy showed tremendous kindness towards us even though we were complete strangers. As we spoke to him we found out more about him. It turned out he had cancer and there was a great uncertainly about his future. We were able to share the gospel and pray with him. We never saw him again so I don't know what happened to him or whether there was a happy ending but we came away from that rejoicing, thinking if nothing else happens for the entire weekend that was a God-given encounter and an answer to prayer! We carried on our adventure not knowing where we were going.

But unlike Abraham, we did know we were coming back by the end of the weekend! The Bible College would have been in some serious trouble if we were never seen again! Abraham's journey was one way.

[2] ↩  Let me give you an example. At lunch times during the week, I tend to go for a run. I have a few different routes to choose from depending on my energy and enthusiasm or lack thereof. Now on one of tracks along the express way that I use, an older Maori man decided to setup his home. He moved in, setting up a tarp under the trees next to the track and has everything that he needs to live there 24-7. One time I was running along this public track and he was out with a makeshift broom from a tree sweeping the track in front of his tent. I felt like I was running through someone's backyard even though this is a very public track along council land! I assumed that he was homeless, but I wanted to find out what his story was. As I ran past about 2 weeks ago he was there, sharpening his axe, which seemed like a good time to approach him (while kind of hoping that he was sane!) It turns out he isn't homeless; he is sane, quite friendly and has been living out under the trees for a few months now. From what I could make out, he is actually protesting a large claim before the Maori land court that a local Marae has made because it encroaches on areas of land that, according to him, should be his. His link to the land and his claim mean a lot to this man. So much so that he is willing to live outside in a public place to protest for months. That is all we spoke about in my first few visits. But I actually felt sorry for him as he was obviously very passionate about what he was doing but didn't seem to know very much about the land to come. He said to me that 'what God is for you, the land is for us. It is our spirituality.' I told him that Jesus said that 'heaven and earth will pass away' - all that we see will be dissolved, but that the Bible promises a new heaven and a new earth, and it is that land that you want to make sure you are a part of because it is eternal. He seemed to listen. I asked him if he knew where he was going when he died and he said he was going to his ancestors on the Island in the middle of the estuary. I said that is where your body will go but what about your spirit? He didn't know. He shook my hand when I left so I can only hope he will continue to think about these things.

[3] ↩  I don't know who came up with heaven just being an eternity of sitting on clouds strumming harps but, though I hate to break it to you, it's not biblical. That sounds incredibly boring and God is anything but boring. You only have to look at the vast creativity that He has crafted into everything that He does, even in this world, to know that a wonder of variety and exploration awaits. No two fingerprints or snowflakes being the same speaks of His creative nature right through to the vastness of space and the universe which speak of His glory and the wonders of exploration that await. And best of all we will be with Him who is life! It will be anything but boring!

[4] ↩  Speaking of Heaven, the Bible says

Our Father is there - Matthew 6:9, Our Saviour is there - Heb 1:3, Our fellow saints are there - Heb 12:23 

 Our home is there - John 14:2, Our name is there - Luke 10:20, Our life is there - Col 3:1-3 

 Our heart is there - Matt 6:19-21, Our inheritance is there - 1 Pet 1:3-5, Our citizenship is there - Phil 3:20 

Our joy is there - Psalm 16:11 (adapted from a list by  Henry Durbanville)