Abraham is the patriarch of faith. The author of Hebrews does mention other people before coming to Abraham in chapter 11 (Abel, Enoch, and Noah), but Abraham has a unique role in blazing the trail of faith for following in his footsteps to become strangers and exiles on the earth like he was.
Specifically, Paul explains in Romans 4 that Abraham is specially the forefather of all who believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised:
11He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:11-12)
The reasons, then, for Abraham’s unique role as “the chief father of God’s church on earth” (“Commentary on Hebrews,” John Calvin) are twofold: (1) Abraham received a unique call from God to serve such a role; and (2) Abraham obeyed by faith.
This is what the author of Hebrews explains in chapter 11:
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, who designer and builder is God. 11By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. (Hebrews 11:8-12)
God’s Call to Become Strangers and Exiles
God’s call to Abraham was extraordinary–so much so that we can quickly read over its implications if we aren’t careful. On the one hand, God promised Abraham an amazing role in building the Kingdom of God on earth. Abraham would be the father of a great nation through which God would bless all the families of the earth. What a privilege!
But at the same time, God’s call to Abraham was extraordinarily vague and shadowy. “Simply leave everything behind and go,” God said, “to the place I show you.” Where exactly would that be? What kind of a climate would he inhabit? What kind of people would he live among? What sorts of opportunities and dangers should he expect?
Indeed, God promised to bless Abraham, but not right away. God’s call specifically was for Abraham and his family (including Isaac and Jacob after him) to become strangers and exiles on the earth, “living in tents” because they were given no permanent city here on the earth. God promised blessing, but he promised that the blessing would come through suffering and sacrifice–the kind of suffering and sacrifice that people experience as they long for their home.
Abraham’s Obedience by Promise
But Abraham believed. And, by faith, Abraham obeyed. Despite God’s vague command and the stark necessity to trust God without the benefit of much information, Abraham went out to the place that God was giving him as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going.
Why? Because of God’s promise. Abraham obeyed by promise. The author of Hebrews explains it this way: “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Would there be sacrifices? Yes. Would Abraham always know what was coming? No.
But would he receive the city with real, lasting, eternal foundations as an inheritance? Would God himself forge, shape, design, and build this city? Yes and yes.
In some senses, Abraham stepped out on “blind faith,” since surely didn’t know the exact way that he would go. And yet, Abraham stepped out knowing exactly what would happen: God had promised to give him a lasting inheritance. Just as Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), so Abraham and his family endured their lives as strangers and exiles on the earth for the inheritance set before them.
John Calvin also has this helpful note for those of us to stumble and falter in our faith like Sarah, who is here commended, but who originally laughed at the idea that she would conceive in her old age:
But it may seem strange that her faith is commended, who was openly charged with unbelief; for she laughed at the word of the angel as though it were a fable; and it was not the laugh of wonder and admiration, for otherwise she would not have been so severely reproved by the angel. It must indeed be confessed, that her faith was blended with unbelief; but as she cast aside her unbelief when reproved, her faith is acknowledged by God and commended. What then she rejected at first as being incredible, she afterwards as soon as she heard that it came from God, obediently received.
And hence we deduce a useful doctrine, — that when our faith in some things wavers or halts, it ceases not to be approved of God, provided we indulge not the spirit of unbelief. The meaning then is, that the miracle which God performed when Isaac was born, was the fruit of the faith of Abraham, and of his wife, by which they laid hold on the power of God. (“Commentary on Hebrews“)
Duty versus Delight
The call to follow Jesus is not pleasant. Indeed, our Lord calls us to take up our cross and to die as we follow him to wherever he shows us to go.
But John Piper’s distinction between the Christian life as duty versus delight is helpful to understand the motivation behind why anyone might want to go on this journey. We don’t do it so much because “we have to” (duty), but rather we obey God because we believe that he has promised us real, lasting delight.
Like Abraham, we are looking forward to a real city, a lasting city, a city built by God himself. We are believing that in that city, we will dwell with God and with the Lamb for all eternity, and that the Spirit of God himself will flow through that city like a river, bringing healing to the nations.
We cannot arrive at that city unless we travel through this land as strangers and exiles on the earth, but when we finally arrive, all of our hardships will not compare to the eternal weight of glory prepared for us.
Brothers and sisters, let us run with endurance the race set before us. Jesus Christ himself urges us on to the finish line so that we, like Abraham, may enter into the full joy of our eternal inheritance.