All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
“These people,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families, lived in a time and place where the fullness of God’s promises to them had not entirely come to pass, and they looked forward to complete fulfillment to their dying days, but they did so with joy, for the fulfillment of God’s promises was never in doubt; they lived by faith. They saw from a distance, but they held on. You’ll recall that our author said that the Old Covenant worship was but an illustration, a shadow of the reality to come. Here the author uses the words “at a distance” to describe the same thing, for the reality of all of God’s promises came in the person of Christ.
There’s something really interesting developing in these verses, something that is very relevant for the original recipients of the letter, and very relevant for us as well. Did you notice that the author keeps pointing out that they were foreigners? They were strangers in a strange land when Abraham and his household entered the promised land, for there were already people there with a different culture, different language and different values. Abraham had followed God to a place he didn’t know, and where the inhabitants didn’t know him. But that isn’t the point the author is making. Notice verse 13, “…they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” It wasn’t just that they had left Ur and travelled to Canaan, they had left the kingdom of this earth, and entered a covenant with God. They were no longer like the other people in a way that is much more significant than mere language and culture, for they have become people of God, in an environment that was in rebellion against God. Returning to Ur wouldn’t bring them home, for they were no longer citizens there, their orientation was now a heavenly one, and they could only look forward to the day when it became a reality.
Now, consider the implications of this upon the Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s persecution. Even if they had lived in Rome all of their lives, even if the State recognized them as Roman citizens, they had been transformed into citizens of a different realm, for in Christ they had become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They were now strangers in a strange land, a land that was in open rebellion against God… and Rome was acting the part. Rome persecuted them because they were of God now; that’s what the world does and it should surprise no one. Yet through this trial, they had thus far remained faithful to their new Kingdom, and in the course of that, they had declared a testimony for Christ, and as we now know as we study the past, the Gospel spread rapidly by their testimony of faith in Jesus even in the face of terrible persecution. Thus, God was not ashamed to be their God.
The historical context of this is very interesting, but it also cries out to us in an important way. What is it telling us…? It tells us that we, too are strangers in a strange land, for no longer are we citizens of an earthly nation; we too are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we too have a role to play in its development. As Paul tells us, we are its Ambassadors here on earth; what will our testimony be?