Once more we would remind ourselves of the particular circumstances those saints were in to whom our Epistle was first addressed. Only as we do so are we in the best position to discern the meaning of its contents, and best fitted to make a right application of the same unto ourselves. It is not that the Hebrews were Jews according to the flesh and we Gentiles, for they, equally with us, were "holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling" (Heb. 3:1). No, it is the peculiar position which they occupied, with the pressing temptations that solicited them, which we need to carefully ponder. Divine grace had called them out of Judaism (John 10:3) but Divine judgment had not yet fallen upon Judaism. The temple was still intact, and its services continued, and as long as they did so, an appeal was made to the Hebrews to return thereunto.
Now that historical situation adumbrated a moral one. The Christian has been called out from the world to follow Christ, but the judgment of God has not yet fallen upon the world and burned it up. No, it still stands, and we are yet in it, and as long as this is the case, Satan seeks to get us to return thereunto. It is this which enables us to see the force of those verses which are now engaging our attention. Keeping in mind what has just been said, the reader should have no difficulty in discerning why the apostle reminds us, first, that the patriarchs lived on earth as strangers and pilgrims; and secondly, that they went not back again to the land of their birth. As we saw in our last article, that which was typified by the patriarchs living in separation from the Canaanites and their "dwelling in tents," was the Christian’s renunciation of this world; that which was foreshadowed by their refusal to return unto Chaldea was the Christian’s continued renunciation of the world, and his actual winning through to Heaven.
In the verses which are now to be before us clear light is thrown upon an essential element in the Christian life. They present to us an aspect of Truth which, in some circles, is largely ignored or denied today. There are those who have pressed the blessed truth of the eternal Security of the Saints with a zeal that was not always according to knowledge: they have presented it in a way that suggests God preserves His people altogether apart from their use of means. They have stated it in a manner as to virtually deny the Christian’s responsibility. They have implied that, having committed my soul unto the keeping of the Lord, I have no more to do with its safety, than I have with money which I have entrusted to the custody of a bank or the government. The result has been that, many who have accepted this false presentation of the truth have felt quite at ease in a course of careless and reckless living.
So one-sided is the teaching we refer to, that its advocates will not allow for a moment that there is the slightest danger of a real Christian apostatizing. If a servant of God insists that there is, and yet he also affirms that no real saint of God has perished or ever will, they consider him inconsistent and illogical. They seem unable to recognize the fact that while it be perfectly true from the side of God’s eternal counsels, the value of Christ’s redemption, the efficacy of the Spirit’s work, that none of the elect can be finally lost; yet it is equally true from the side of the Christian’s frailty, the existence of the flesh still within, his being subject unto the assaults of Satan, and his living in a wicked world, that real (not theoretical or imaginary) danger menaces him from every side. No, they fondly imagine that there is only one side to the subject, the Divine side.
But the verses we are now to ponder show the fallacy of this. So far from affirming that there was no possibility of the patriarchs going back again to that country which they had left—which; in type, would mean a returning to the world—the apostle boldly affirms (caring not who might charge him with being inconsistent with himself) that if their hearts had been set upon Chaldea, they "might have had opportunity to have returned." Had they grown weary of dwelling in tents and moving about from place to place in a strange land, and purposed to retrace their steps to Mesopotamia, what was there to hinder them so doing? True, that would have been an act of unbelief and disobedience, a despising and relinquishing of the promises; yet, from the human side, the way for them so to act was always open. Let us now weigh the details of our passage.
"And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned" (verse 15). There is a threefold connection between these words and that which immediately precedes. First, at the beginning of verse 13 the apostle had affirmed that all those to whom he was referring (and to whom he was directing the special attention of the Hebrews) had "in faith died"; in all that follows to the end of verse 16 he furnishes proof of his assertion. Second, in verse 15 the apostle continues the inference he had drawn in verse 14 from the last clause of verse 13: the confession made by the patriarchs manifested that their hearts were set upon Heaven, which was further evidenced by their refusal to return to Chaldea. Third, he anticipates and removes an objection: seeing that God had commanded them to take up their residence in another land (Canaan), they were "strangers" there by necessity. No, says the apostle; they were "strangers and pilgrims" by their own consent too: their hearts as well as their bodies were separated from Chaldea.
The patriarch’s remaining in a strange land was quite a voluntary thing on their part. And this brings us unto the very heart of what is a real difficulty for many: they do not see that when God "draws" a person (John 6:44), He does no violence to his will, that though exercising His sovereignty man also retains his freedom. Both are true, and hold good of the Christian life at every stage of it. Conversion itself is wholly brought about by the mighty operations of Divine grace, nevertheless it is also a free act on the part of the creature. Those who are effectually called by God out of darkness into His marvelous light, do, at conversion, surrender their whole being to Him, renouncing the flesh, the world, and the Devil, and vow to wage (by His grace) a ceaseless warfare against them. The Christian life is the habitual continuance of what took place at conversion, the carrying out of the vows then made, the putting of it into practice.
Immediately before conversion a fierce conflict takes place in the soul. On the one side is the Devil, seeking to retain his captive by presenting to it the pleasures of sin and the allurements of the world, telling the soul that there will be no more happiness if these be relinquished and the rigid requirements of Christ’s commandments be heeded. On the other side is the Holy Spirit, declaring that the wages of sin is death, that the world is doomed to destruction, and that unless we renounce sin and forsake the world, we must eternally perish. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit presses upon us that nothing short of a whole-hearted surrender to the Lordship of Christ can bring us into "the way of salvation." Torn between these conflicting impressions upon his mind, the soul is bidden to sit down and "count the cost" (Luke 14:28); to deliberately weigh the offers of Satan and the terms of Christian discipleship, and to definitely make his choice between them.
It is not that man has the power within himself to refuse the evil and choose the good; it is not that God has left it for the creature to determine his own destiny; it is not that the temptations of Satan are equally powerful with the convictions of the Holy Spirit, and that our decision turns the scale between them. No indeed: not so do the Scriptures teach, and not so does this writer believe. Sin has robbed fallen man of all Power to do good, yet not his obligation to perform it. The destiny of all creatures has been unalterably fixed by the eternal decrees of God, yet not in such a way as to reduce them to irresponsible automatons. The operations of the Holy Spirit in God’s elect are invincible, yet they do no violence to the human will. But while salvation, from beginning to end, is to be wholly ascribed to the free and sovereign grace of God, it nevertheless remains that conversion itself is the voluntary act of man, his own conscious and free surrendering of himself to God in Christ.
Now the same diverse factors enter into the Christian life itself. Necessarily so, for, as said above, the Christian life is but a progressive continuance of how we begin. Repentance is not once and for all, but as often as we are conscious of having displeased God. Believing in Christ is not a single act which needs no repeating, but a constant requirement, as the "believeth" of John 3:16, and the "coming" of 1 Peter 2:4 plainly shows. So too our renunciation of the world is to be a daily process. The same objects which enthralled us before conversion are still to hand, and unless we are much upon our guard, unless our hearts are warmed and charmed by the loveliness of Christ, through maintaining a close fellowship with Him, they will soon gain power over us. Satan is ever ready to tempt, and unless we diligently seek grace to resist him, will trip us up.
"And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned," but as the next verse shows, they did not do so. In this they were in striking and blessed contrast from Esau, who sold his birthright, valuing temporal things more highly than spiritual. In contrast from the Children of Israel who said one to another, "Let us make a captain, and let us return to Egypt" (Num. 14:4). In contrast from the Gadarenes, who preferred their hogs to Christ and His salvation (Mark 5). In contrast from the stony-ground hearers who "have no root, which for a while believed, and in time of temptation fall away" (Luke 8:13). In contrast from the apostates of 2 Peter 2:20-22, the latter end of whom is "worse with them than the beginning." Solemn warnings are these which each professing Christian needs to take to heart.
Note how positively the apostle expressed it: "And truly" or "verily." "If they had been mindful," which means, had their minds frequently dwelt upon Chaldea, had their hearts desired it. How this shows the great importance of "girding up the loins of our minds" (1 Pet. 1:13), of disciplining our thoughts, for as a man "thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). "It is in the nature of faith to mortify, not only corrupt and sinful lusts, but our natural affections, and their most vehement inclinations, though in themselves innocent, if they are any way uncompliant with duties of obedience to the commands of God—yea herein lies the principal trial of the sincerity and power of faith. Our lives, parents, wives, children, houses, possessions, our country, are the principal, proper, lawful objects of our natural affections. But when they, or any of them, stand in the way of God’s commands, if they are hindrances to the doing or suffering any thing according to His will, faith doth not only mortify, weaken and take off that love, but gives us a comparative hatred of them" (John Owen).
"They might have had opportunity to have returned." They knew the way, were well furnished with funds, had plenty of time at their disposal, and health and strength for the journey. The Canaanites would not have grieved at their departure (Gen. 26:18-21), and undoubtedly their old friends would have heartily welcomed them back again. In like manner (as we have said before), the way back was wide open for the Hebrews to return unto Judaism: it was their special snare, and a constant and habitual renunciation of it was required of them. So too if we choose to return unto the world and engage again in all its vain pursuits, there are "opportunities" enough: enticements abound on every hand, and worldly friends would heartily welcome us to their society if we would but lower our colors, drop our godliness, and follow their course.
But the patriarchs did not go back again to that country from whence they came out: instead, they persevered in the path of duty, and despite all discouragements followed that course which the Divine commandments marked out for them. In this they have left us an example. They hankered not after the wealth, honors, pleasures, or society of Chaldea: their hearts were engaged with something vastly superior. They knew that in Heaven they had "a better and enduring substance," and therefore they disdained the baubles which once had satisfied them. Divine grace had taught them that those sources of joy which they had once so eagerly sought, were "cisterns that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13); but that in Christ they had an ever-flowing well, that springeth up unto everlasting life. Grace had taught them that it is sinful to make material things the chief objects of this life: they sought first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
So little did Abraham esteem Chaldea that he would not go thither in person to obtain a wife for his son, nor suffer Isaac to go, but sent his servant and made him swear that he would not bring her thither, if she were unwilling to come—another illustration that nothing is more voluntary than godliness. So it is with the Christian when he is first converted: the world has lost all its attractions for him, nor can it regain its hold upon his heart so long as he walks with God. The acutest test comes in seasons of prosperity. "David professeth himself to be a stranger and a pilgrim, not only when he was hunted like a partridge upon the mountains, but when he was in his palace, and in his best estate. We are not to renounce our comforts, and throw away God’s blessings; but we are to renounce our carnal affections. We cannot get out of the world when we please, but we must get the world out of us. It is a great trial of grace to refuse the opportunity; it is the most difficult lesson to learn how to abound, more difficult than to learn how to want, and to be abased; to have comforts, and yet to have the heart weaned from comforts; not to be necessarily mortified, but to be voluntarily mortified" (T. Manton).
It is not the absence of temptation, but the resisting of and prevailing over them which evidences the efficacy of indwelling grace. The power of voluntary godliness is manifested in the conflict, when we have the "opportunity" to go wrong, but decline it. Joseph had not only a temptation, but the "occasion" for yielding to it, yet grace forbade (Gen. 39:9). It was the command of God which held back the patriarchs from returning to Chaldea, and the same controls the hearts of all the regenerate. "It is easy to be good when we cannot be otherwise, or when all temptations to the contrary are out of the way. All the seeming goodness there is in so many, they owe it to the want of a temptation and to the want of an opportunity of doing otherwise" (T. Manton). Not so with the real Christians.
"But now they desire 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" (verse 16). The first half of this verse gives the positive side of what has been before us, and amplified what was said in verse 14. It is not enough to renounce the world, but we must also have our hearts carried forth unto better things: we must believe in and seek Heaven itself. There are some disdain worldly profits, but instead of seeking the true riches, are immersed in worldly pleasures. Others while despising fleshly recreations and dissipations, devote themselves to more serious occupations, yet "labor for that which satisfieth not" (Isa. 55:2). But the Christian, while passing through it, makes a sanctified use of the world, and has his affections set upon things above.
"But now they desire a better country, that is an heavenly." It helps us to link together the four statements made concerning this. First, Abraham "looked for a city" (verse 10), which denotes faith’s expectations of blessedness to come: it was not a mere passing glance of the mind, but a serious and constant anticipation of Celestial Bliss. Second, "They seek a Country" (verse 14): they make it the great aim and business of their lives to avoid every hindrance, overcome every obstacle, and steadfastly press forward along the Narrow Way that leads thither: "Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life" (1 Tim. 6:19). Third, "they desire a better Country’’ (verse 16): they long to be relieved from the body of this death, removed from this scene of sin, and be taken to be forever with the Lord: "We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body" (Rom. 8:23): he that has had a taste of Heaven in the joy of the spirit, his heart cries "when shall I come to the full enjoyment of my Inheritance!" Fourth, "they declare plainly that they seek a country" (verse 14): their daily walk makes it manifest that they belong not to this world, but are citizens of Heaven.
One of the best evidences that we are truly seeking Heaven, is the possession of hearts that are weaned from this world. None will ever enter the Father’s House on high in whose soul the first fruits of heavenly peace and joy does not grow now. He who finds his satisfaction in temporal things is woefully deceived if he imagines he can enjoy eternal things. He whose joy is all gone when earthly possessions are snatched from him, knows nothing of that peace which "passeth all understanding." And yet, if the auto, radio, newspaper, money to go to the movies, were taken away from the average "church-member," what would he then have left to make life worth living? O how few can really say, "Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation" (Hab. 3:17, 18).
"Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God." "The word ‘wherefore’ denotes not the procuring or meritorious cause of the thing itself, but the consequent or what ensued thereon" (John Owen). God will be no man’s Debtor: "them that honor Me, I will honor" (1 Sam. 2:30 and cf. 2 Timothy 2:21) is His sure promise. By confessing they were strangers and pilgrims, the patriarchs had avowed their supreme desire for and hope of a portion superior to any that could be found on earth. Hence, because they were willing to renounce all worldly prospects so as to follow God in an obedient faith, for the sake of an invisible but eternal inheritance, He did not disdain to be known as their Friend and Portion.
"We are hence to conclude that there is no place for us among God’s children except we renounce the world, and that there will be for us no inheritance in Heaven except we become pilgrims on earth" (John Calvin).
"God is not ashamed to be called their God." Here was the grand reward of their faith. So well did God approve of their desire and design, He was pleased to give evidence of His special regard unto them. "Not ashamed" literally signifies that He had no cause to "blush" because He had been disgraced by them—it is God speaking after the manner of men; it is the negative way of saying that He made a joyous acknowledgement of them, as a father does of dutiful children. When we think not only of the personal unworthiness of the patriarchs (fallen, sinful creatures), but also of their contemptible situation—"dwelling in tents" in a strange land—we may well marvel at the infinite condescension of the Maker of the universe identifying Himself with them. What incredible grace for the Divine Majesty to avow Himself the God of worms of the earth!
Ah, those who renounce the world for God’s sake shall not be the losers. But observe it was not simply, "God is not ashamed to be their God," but "to be called their God." He took this very title in a peculiar manner: unto Moses he said, "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6). Thus, to be "called their God" means that He was their covenant God and Father. Not only is He the God of His children by creation and providence, but He is also unto them "the God of all grace" (1 Pet. 5:10), as He is the God of Christ and all the elect in Him. This He manifests by quickening, enlightening, guiding, protecting and making all things work together for their good. He continues to be such a God unto them through life and in death, so that they may depend upon His love, be assured of His faithfulness, count upon His power, and be safely carried through every trial, till they are landed on the shores of Eternal Bliss.
"God is not ashamed to be called their God." The wider reference is to all the elect, who have a special interest in Him. These are known, first, by the manner of their coming into this relation. God brings His people into this special relation by effectually calling them and then when He has taken possession of their hearts, they choose Him for their all-sufficient portion, and completely give up themselves to Him. Their language is, "whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee" (Ps. 73:25). Their surrender to Him is evidenced by, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do"? (Acts 9:6). Second, by their manner of living in this relation. They glorify God by their subjection to Him, love for Him, trust in Him. Unto those who have renounced all idols, God is not ashamed to be known as their God.
Now if God be our "God" how contented we should be! "The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage" (Ps. 16:5, 6): this should ever be our language. How confident we should be! "The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want" (Ps. 23:1): this should ever be our boast. How joyful we should be! "Because Thy loving kindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee" (Ps. 63:3): this should ever be our confession. "Thou wilt show me the path of life: in Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11): when brought Home to glory we shall better understand what this connotes—"their God."
How may I know that God is my "God"? Did you ever enter into covenant with Him? "Was your spirit ever subdued to yield to Him? Do you remember when you were bond-slaves of Satan, that God broke in upon you with a mighty and powerful work of grace, subduing your heart, and causing you to yield, to give the hand to Him, to come and lie at his feet, and lay down the weapons of defiance? Didst thou ever come as a guilty creature, willing to take laws from God? Though it be God’s condescension to capitulate with us, yet we do not capitulate with Him as equals, but as a subdued creature, who is taken captive and ready to be destroyed every moment, and is therefore willing to yield and cry quarter. How do you behave yourselves in the covenant? Do you love God as the chiefest good? Do you seek His glory as the utmost end? Do you obey Him as the highest Lord ? Do you depend on Him as your only Paymaster? This is to give God the glory of a God" (T. Manton).
"For He hath prepared for them a City." Here is the crowning evidence that He is their "God." The "City" is Heaven itself. It is spoken of as "prepared" because God did, in His eternal counsels, appoint it: see Matthew 20:23, 1 Corinthians 2:9. But sin entered? True, and Christ has put away the sins of His people, and has entered Heaven as their Representative and Forerunner: therefore has He gone there to "prepare" a place for us, having laid the foundation for this in His own merits; and hence we read of "the purchased possession" (Eph. 1:14). He is now in Heaven possessing it in our name. O what cause have we to bow in wonderment and worship.