Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. – Hebrews 6.1-2
For here we do not have a lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. – Hebrews 13.14
God never promised the church the land of Israel. But as we oppose the hope of an earthly kingdom, we must not so “spiritualize” our vision of heaven that we end up denying the bodily resurrection of the dead.
The book of Hebrews describes the Christian hope as the “heavenly” country (11.16) and the “heavenly Jerusalem” (12.22) For many, when they read of this heavenly hope, they envision some sort of non-material, non-bodily, eternal life up above the clouds. Before we conclude that the Christian hope is simply “going to heaven when we die” as bodiless spirits, we must remember that the author of Hebrews assumed that the bodily resurrection of the dead was a foundational Christian doctrine (6.1-2). We are not forced to choose between either a heavenly hope or a bodily resurrection. The author of the book of Hebrews holds these two together in one united picture of hope.
The purpose of this two part article is to examine the Christian’s heavenly hope as it is presented in the book of Hebrews.
- Part 1 will examine how Hebrews develops the picture of the heavenly city by reflecting on God’s land promise to Abraham
- Part 2 will consider the “heavenly” nature of the city, and the “bodily” nature of the resurrection, and how Hebrews describes our hope as both “heavenly” and “bodily”.
Background: Abraham’s Land Promise
He was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. – Hebrews 11.10
The heavenly city is introduced to us in the context of Abraham’s faithful response to the land promise. This promise is repeated several times throughout the book of Genesis, and is developed into one of the most prominent themes in the Old Testament.
And He said to Him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” – Genesis 15.7
I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. – Genesis 17.8
It is sometimes thought that the land promise ceases to play a role in the New Testament. While it is true that the church is never promised an earthly country, it is important to recognize that the author of Hebrews builds on this land promise as he develops his picture of the heavenly city.
Note that in Genesis 17.8, it reads “I will give to you and your descendants after you, the land of Canaan.” The promise of the land was not just given to Abraham’s descendants. It was also given to Abraham himself. But as we continue reading Genesis, we see that with the exception of a small burial plot (Gen. 23) Abraham was never given possession of the land.
Stephen the martyr, in reflecting on this promise, noted that Abraham never received what he was promised.
God had him move to this country in which you are now living. But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that “He would give it to him as a possession and to his descendants after him.” – Acts 7.4b-5
Hebrews gives us insight into Abraham’s mindset towards this land promise.
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. By faith he 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; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God….
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. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, as heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
– Hebrews 11.8-10; 13-16
Abraham did not assume that the land promise was limited to the earthly borders of an earthly nation. Although he lived in Canaan, he dwelt there as a stranger and exile, still awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise. As Abraham looked for the fulfillment of God’s land promise, he looked forward to what Hebrews calls the “heavenly” country and the “city” prepared by God.
Heirs According To The Promise
The Christian hope is found in this same heavenly city.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem – Hebrews 12.22
We receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken. – Hebrews 12.28a
For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. – Hebrews 13.14
We learn from Galatians 3.29 that all those who have faith and are baptized into Christ are “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” From the book of Hebrews we learn that, in a sense, we are heirs of the land promise. The heavenly city, introduced in Hebrews 11 as the fulfillment of Abraham’s land promise, is developed in Hebrews 12-13 as the heavenly city for which Christians hope.
In this sense, we are heirs of the land promise. However, we must not misunderstand the nature of this promise. The promise was never intended to be fulfilled in an earthly city or an earthly country. We must not think that the Christian hope is somehow limited to the land of Canaan or the earthly city of Jerusalem. Just as Abraham was looking forward to a heavenly city, so we look forward to fulfillment of the land promise in that same heavenly city. What Abraham hoped for is what we hope for. And since Abraham never set his hopes in an earthly county, and neither should we.
Does this mean that Abraham was simply longing to “go to heaven when he died” and live eternally as bodiless spirit? Is this what Abraham had in mind when he longed for a heavenly city? Is this what the author of Hebrews believed would be the fulfillment on the land promise? What is the nature of the heavenly country?