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 11.13-16
In part 1 it was observed that in a sense, Christians are heirs of Abraham’s land promise. Yet it is important to recognize, that according to the book of Hebrews, this land 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.
But what does that mean? If our hope is “heavenly”, what does that mean about the resurrection? Can we actually have bodies in the heavenly city? Or will we simply be bodiless spirits floating somewhere up above the clouds?
To answer these questions, it is important to recognize two things.
- The author of Hebrews assumed that bodily resurrection was a foundational Christian doctrine
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
- There is a sharp distinction between “heavenly” and “earthly”, but this distinction is not a distinction between “material” and “non-material”
The book of Hebrews doesn’t force us to choose between either a heavenly hope or a bodily resurrection. It holds these two together in one unified picture of hope.
Hebrews’ Contrast Between Heavenly and Earthly
The country we will receive is “heavenly” because it is not “earthly.” There is a big difference between the two and it is very important that we maintain this distinction. But as we seek to maintain a distinction between the “heavenly” and the “earthly”, it is important that we notice how the book of Hebrews describes that distinction.
The primary point of distinction between “heavenly” and “earthly” is not what many assume it to be. It is not a distinction between a “spiritual” existence (in the Hellenistic, non-bodily sense of the word) and “material”. It is not a distinction between “up there” and “down here”.
The main point of “faith” in Hebrews 11 is that it looks forward to what has been promised but has not yet been received. Just as Noah acted on a promise when he built the ark (11.7), so Abraham acted upon a promise when he waited for the heavenly city. For whatever other differences there may be between “heavenly” and “earthly”, the primary point of contrast, according to the author of Hebrews, is a contrast between that which “now is” and that which “will be”. It is a contrast between the present world and the future world (11.13).
We can at present see cities designed and built by men. Only by hope can we see the “city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11.10). We can at present see earthly counties. Only by hope can we see the “better country” which God has prepared (11.16). We are at present “strangers and exiles” in our earthly countries. By hope, we seek a country prepared by God which we can call our own (11.13).
The author of the book of Hebrews speaks further of this “heavenly city” in chapter 12, where he identifies it as the “heavenly Jerusalem.”
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. – Hebrews 12.22-23
Here, in speaking of the “city of God” we read about the “spirits of the righteous” who are currently enrolled in heaven. This is presumably the spirits of the departed righteous who are waiting for the resurrection day. This is consistent with other scriptures that speak of us departing from our bodies upon death, and going to be with Christ (read more on this temporary state of the righteous dead here). But even so, this seems to be an intermediate state, for the text goes on to speak of another day still in the future, in which both heaven and earth will be shaken, so that what God intends to last forever may do so.
But now He has promised, saying “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” This expression “Yet once more” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude. – Hebrews 12.26b-28a
That which is currently on earth and in heaven will be shaken. That which we are to receive cannot be shaken. It will be more solid and more enduring than what we now experience. As we envision this heavenly city, we must not think it will simply be a resuscitation of the same old, deteriorating, fragile earth we presently know.
The same point is restated briefly in Hebrews 13.14.
Here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.
In summary, we must not think that Abraham was promised a land built, designed, or founded by man. We are not looking forward to an earthly country that is fragile and shakable like the ones we now know. The land promise was never intended to be fulfilled in the earthly country of Israel. We are looking forward to a city which is designed, built, and founded by God, which will be far more enduring and unshakable. The book of Hebrews describes these as the ways in which our hope is “heavenly”, not “earthly.”
Is it possible that the “heavenly” and “earthly” are different in ways far beyond these differences described in the book of Hebrews? Perhaps so. But whatever other contrasts there may be, we must not assume that the Hebrew author held to a view of the “heavenly” city as a place “up in the sky” for “bodiless spirits” in a purely “non-material” state. We must not make this assumption lest we deny what the Bible teaches as the foundation of Christian hope: The material, bodily, resurrection from the dead.
The Importance of Bodily Resurrection
The author of Hebrews assumes that the “resurrection from the dead” is among the most basic of all Christian doctrines (6.2). Abraham himself had faith in God’s ability to raise dead people back to life (11.19). In Hebrews 11.35, women endured torture, not because they hoped to be released from their physical bodies, but because they believed they would obtain a “better resurrection.” It is hard to see how anyone could have spoken of Jesus freeing “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (2.6), unless they believed that death itself was actually reversed (as opposed to just being redefined).
From Philippians 3.20-21, we learn that Jesus will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body. When Jesus was raised from the dead, he was not just a bodiless spirit. Although His body was certainly different than it was before, the resurrection was a material resurrection. He walked, talked, and even ate fish. He could be seen and even touched. His resurrection actually left the grave empty. His body was spiritual, or as Peter described it, it was “made alive by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3.18), but it was a material, tangible body.
Our bodies will be like his. Or as Paul describes it in Romans 8.23,
Even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
The book of Hebrews does not force us to choose between a bodily resurrection and a heavenly city. It doesn’t force us to choose between Abraham’s land promise and a city built by God. It holds all these ideas together into one unified picture. The Christian hope is for a bodily resurrection, in a permanent city built by God, which is the ultimate fulfillment of Abraham’s land promise. When we speak of heaven, we must never so “spiritualize” our hope to the point that we deny the bodily resurrection.
Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. – Hebrews 13.20-22