"These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." (Hebrews 11:13)
THESE words came to my mind while attending the funeral of the late Mr. Garrard last Thursday, apparently through various conversations I had with him during his lifetime, and especially the last time I saw him. I will try and condense the thoughts that were on my mind while there, and give utterance to them as the Lord will please to enable me.
In trying to look at the words I would not notice them just in the order in which they stand, but would invert them, and take the latter part of the verse first. I will give you my reason for so doing, which perhaps you may yourselves see when I read the words over again: "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." They are dead, they are gone, they did not receive the promises, but they cannot tell us about it now--their tongues are silent; but, when on earth (this preceded their death)--"having seen them afar off, they were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." That was their confession made whilst they were living here below, and the reason of this their confession was that they saw the promises afar off. You know the natural meaning of that word: things may be here close at home, but there may be some in America--they are far away; and there may be others in China, farther away still. These, we are told, they saw afar off. Now there is another idea connected with the word, and that is distance of time, as well as distance of space. The promises were not fulfilled; they saw them in the future, in time to come, and "afar off" in that sense. I apprehend that both these senses are intended in the words.
Now, "having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth," their confession and their lives bearing witness to the faith that was in their hearts, they "died in faith, not having received the promises."
"They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." "Strangers and pilgrims" here. We will look at this from two points of view: that they were strangers to the men of the world by whom they were surrounded, and strangers, as the Apostle in another place puts it, far away from home, at a distance from their Father's house. There is an idea in the chapter which I read (2 Cor. 5) which throws light upon it: "For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord." There, distance from God holds forth the idea of a pilgrim journeying to his home, as John says, to see Him as He is, and be like unto Him.
We notice first that we are "strangers" here, and what it is that makes us strangers unto the world surrounding us; and how also we are strangers in that other sense I have spoken of.
We are strangers here on earth to the world by whom we are surrounded. It is said, "Their portion is in this life."
"Their hope and portion lie below,
'Tis all the happiness they know."
Here they seek their name, their fame, and reputation; here it is they seek their treasure; here they seek their enjoyment, and are satisfied with it; they have it as they will, in as great a measure as God is pleased to permit them. Not so with the saints of God, and why is it? "For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Cor. 4:18) They see that which is invisible. The things which are seen are but for a moment, a short period, and pass away; but that God whom we see not, lives for ever; that Word by which He declares unto us His sacred will, His purpose, the good pleasure of His will, is a Word that passes not away; it is, as the Scriptures say, a "sure Word." Therefore we look unto Him, and endure "as seeing Him who is invisible;" as believing on Him, whose voice we have not heard, like we hear our fellow-creatures speak; but that revelation He has given us in the Scriptures of Truth, and which the Word tells us is given by the inspiration of the Spirit of God, who searches the deep things of God, and makes them known unto us, we believe is the Word of God. So in receiving this truth which is made known, we "receive it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, which effectually worketh in you that believe," (1 Thess. 2:13) as Paul tells the Thessalonians. Now to the world this is strange, and this makes the saints of God to be some unaccountable beings in their eyes, because the things of vanity, things which are transitory, things which are but for a little moment, things which can be seen and felt and apprehended by natural sense, receive not the attention, are not the subject nor object of the desires of this strange people; but it is something which no eye hath seen, nor can see, which no mortal vision can ever apprehend to search and pry into, and bring that testimony, such as can be brought by worldly things unto them. They are strange, unaccountable beings, for giving up, as they consider, this world with its goods and glory, for the sake of that which they only hear about, and which no man has come back and told us concerning--none but the Lord of glory having come and declared it unto us.
"Strangers," too, and "pilgrims." Now in this state there is a manifestation of the former. As strangers here on earth, so they are journeying travelers, not taking up a fixed abode anywhere.
But we will just stop a moment and look at the other sense of the saints of God being strangers here; and that is, they are not at the home they are looking for, they are absent from their Father's house, absent from the Lord, and therefore cannot see Him as they desire to see Him. Hear of Him they do, while here. You know, if you were in America, and I were here, we might write to each other, we might send various things to each other, but we could not see each other; we might have a knowledge in that way, and it might warm up the affection of our souls towards each other; but it is not like personal communion, seeing face to face; it is not like being present with each other, conversing then, and beholding each other. There is something in a sight that cannot be conveyed to us by other communications. So it is in spiritual things. We are absent, we only hear by the Word of Truth, through the instrumentality of the Spirit of God granting to us that Word of Truth, and opening it, and giving us an understanding therein. We discern now by faith; we see not face to face, but as in a glass. We hear, but it is through the Word, and the power of the Spirit attending that Word. It is not that we are brought into that close contact, but we receive by faith the knowledge. Now we know not what we shall be. Says John, "It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is." (1 John 3:2) Not seeing Him now in that way, we have but an imperfect knowledge and understanding with respect to Him, but when He shall appear, and we shall see Him as He is, then he says, "we shall be like Him." "Now," says the Apostle Paul, "we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor. 13:12) But this very sight that we get "through a glass, darkly," is of a transforming nature; the reality itself, the real thing, the substance will change us into His image, and "we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." To this state we are yet comparative strangers. Now we have a body of death; we must die, and that be put off. Death will be swallowed up in victory when the resurrection comes, and then that corruption of our nature, which is now in it, will not be raised again, but will be for ever separated. "For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1 Cor. 15:53-55) And mortality must be swallowed up of life. Not that we are strangers in this respect: we live by faith. It is by faith the heart is purified; by faith we get a sight of Him, through the revelation which God has given us of Himself. And it is as the Word of Truth is received by faith in the heart, that we are conformed to that image and likeness. God purifies the heart by faith; the renewing comes in the spirit of the mind. But we find, with the Apostle, we carry about with us a body of death; so, when we would do good, we find that evil is present with us, and the good that we would we do not. Until, then, that time comes when God calls us from this time state Himself--yea, rather, when He comes again, and by the sound of the Archangel's trumpet awakens the dust of His saints, raising them up, and fashioning their bodies like His own glorious body, we shall not see Him as He is, and be like Him, nor come to that full knowledge of His eternal, His essential glory.
To that we are yet strangers; but though strangers, we are only so in measure or degree, for divine faith having been granted to us of God's rich mercy, we are led to see what God has promised, what He has purposed to do, and to that we hasten.
Through God's rich and sovereign grace (and that sovereign grace He has made known in the promise in His Word, which tells us of His own eternal purpose), we behold by faith the purpose of God fulfilled in His own eternal, co-equal Son, assuming human nature, and dying an accursed death in the sinner's stead; and through faith we receive the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins, according to the rich grace of God, "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," according to that eternal purpose of God which He purposed in Himself before the worlds were. We, by that Word and Spirit, see that the Son of God was "made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor. 5:21) Now that is held by faith, and we believe, according to the rich purpose of God, that "there will be a resurrection from the dead, both of the just and of the unjust." Here is not to be our abode, nor this world our portion; but God has raised His Son from the death, set Him at His own right hand, given Him a name and authority over all, both the names that are in heaven and on earth, a name above them, and a session or position above them all--"Head over all things to the church, which is His body" (Eph. 1:22,23)--and has appointed Him "Heir of all things."
Now that self-same Word tells us of His kingdom, of His glory, of where He is, of His Father's welcome, of His glory, of where He is, of His Father's welcome, and of the inheritance that is bestowed upon Him. So, as strangers here, we are likewise pilgrims, walking by the faith of God according to the light which shines in the Word (and the Word tells us of invisible things), looking for that hope which is set before us in the Word of truth--that "hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began," (Titus 1:2) and for that eternal, incorruptible inheritance, which is undefiled and fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for us. (1 Peter 1:4) We walk by faith to it.
Now, as pilgrims journeying to their home, walking by faith to it, they do not go to purchase estates in the land in which they are pilgrims, nor stop to mine and delve down in the earth to get their treasure from thence, nor build houses or palaces there to dwell in; but journey onward to their own country. So it is that is this time state, as we are journeying through, whatsoever is of that burdensome nature, the Scriptures tell us the saints of God are to lay aside: "Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us." (Heb. 12:1)
It may be, as we journey along from one place to another, there may be many things by the way that may look very attractive to us, but we do not stop there--this is not our home, it is not the journey's end, the object we have in view--they are not for us, but we are pilgrims to another world, to a heavenly home. We find the corruption of our nature is such that the world and the things of it have a mighty effect upon us, and consequently we need from time to time these reminders, and to have our minds stirred up from time to time that this world is not our home. Consequently come the various trials by the way--sometimes losses and crosses, at other times persecutions and afflictions, which the saints of God have borne; as Paul says, "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Cor. 4:17,18)
I say, as pilgrims here, with a body of death, and a natural inclination after the world and our own selves, God, in His infinite mercy, has been pleased to let afflictions, distresses, perplexities, persecutions, and other things befall us by the way, to remind us this is not our home, it is not our portion, these are not the things God has promised to bless us with, they are but for time; the home we are journeying to, and the things we are looking for, they are spiritual, and they are eternal. So we are passing on; and this pilgrimage is a pilgrimage of faith, the life is a life of faith, the walk is a walk of faith, and that which we look for, it is faith only that sees it whilst we are here.
Now it is said, they saw the promises afar off, "and were persuaded of them, and embraced them."
But suppose we look at the former part of the verse and see what faith is. "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." Divine faith has to do with a divine testimony; natural faith has to do with a natural testimony. Divine faith rests upon the testimony which God Himself gives; natural faith rests upon the testimony which a creature gives. God's promises were made known; now we ought to look at these promises awhile, or rather, we ought to notice their nature, and what they have reference to. There was once a time when man was not a fallen creature; these promises had no relation to that time, nor to that state. Then man lived a natural life according to the natural rule or law which God gave him; he broke it, and became a sinner, and death entered into the world. Here come all the works which creatures were bound to do to fulfill God's sovereign pleasure as a Creator. It came to an end; man sinned and brought death into the world; and here is an end of all natural religion God-ward, that man could stand in God's favor according to that.
Now, when that was brought to an end, the curse of God came in; man had broken God's law, and God's curse was denounced against the sin of man. But God in His rich mercy made known the purpose of His will, in a dark manner to what it has been revealed in after days, but He made known the purpose of His will by declaring it; and here comes God's promise, God's Word. We have many words to express the various degrees (if I may so say) in which a thing is set forth, but it is not so in all languages, nor was it so in the Hebrew language. God's Word makes known to us what His purpose was, it is the declaration of His will, His promise that such a thing shall be. God said, "the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head." (Gen. 3:15) This He said should be done, and in the fullness of time God fulfilled it when He sent His Son. Thus we see the very declaration of what God's will and purpose is, that is the promise of God, the faithful promise of God. God does not say to men now, "I will do this for you." But He puts it in this form, "Such a thing shall be." "The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent's head." They relied upon it; God had promised it, and it would surely be done, for "God that cannot lie" spake this thing. That is the nature of a promise of God; they rested on what God had said should be.
You mind this, friends, people think that God speaks these promises direct to them, and so forth. There is not the slightest foundation for such an idea in the Scriptures of Truth, not the slightest foundation that we should look for anything of that kind; but the Scriptures give us examples to the direct contrary of all this, and show unto us what God has said shall be fulfilled.
Now God the Spirit enlightens the minds of His saints to see what God has promised; and to see that it is the Word of God, not the word of man; not what I say I will do, nor what you say you will do, nor what the rulers of the world will do; but what God has said He will do. The ruler of the world said "I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them." (Exo. 15:9) But God did not say so; God said, "My people shall come out of Egypt"--here is God's promise--"I will bring them forth again"--here is God's Word. Pharaoh said, "My lust shall be satisfied upon them." But God brought them forth out of Egypt in triumph, and drowned Pharaoh in the Red Sea.
Here is God's promise, "My people shall come forth." Faith received it, and said, "What God says, He will do; what His purpose is, that shall be;"--and relied there. Thus you find Moses feared not the wrath of the king, he braved his wrath, he relied on what God said, that Divine testimony of Jehovah, "My people shall come forth at such a time." Pharaoh's host relied on what Pharaoh said, "My lust shall be satisfied upon them," and so they pursued them to the Red Sea; but Pharaoh's word stood not, and they were drowned. Divine faith rested upon the word God had spoken as to what He would do, and the children of Israel were brought through the Red Sea.
God says "He will bruise the serpent's head," destroy him that had the power of death, "bring in everlasting righteousness." Faith believes the testimony which God gives, as the testimony of God. We did not see the thing actually performed, we did not see the dead rise again; we hear the things spoken in God's holy Word, in the Old Testament as to what He would do, and in the New Testament as to what He has done, when He raised His Son Jesus Christ, and showed to us the way of life; divine faith rests on that testimony, mixes with that Word, and receives it as the Word of God.
They saw the promises afar off in two senses. The Son of God had not come in the flesh, an end had not been put to sin, everlasting righteousness had not been brought in, everlasting life had not been brought to light, nor that triumph been gained over hell and the grave. They were in the distance. God said it should be done; yet they all died. David died and was buried, and his sepulcher remained; the prophets died, they were buried; many of the saints of God were devoured, some in one way and some in another, but they relied upon the promises, though they were not fulfilled; they saw these promises "afar off," it is said, "and embraced them." You read in this very chapter the account of their trials, of their difficulties by the way, and of how they endured unto the end. But neither the end of sin, nor the bringing in of everlasting righteousness, nor the resurrection from the dead had been in their day; the opening of the gates of life, the path of light to eternal glory was not known to them. All the intimation they had of it was through the promises of God, and those natural figures which God used to set forth and convey to them spiritual things, gave them an idea of it.
But God has "provided some better thing for us, that they without us would not be made perfect." We live in other days. The Lord of glory has been and done the work, opened the gates of life to us, and shown unto us the resurrection from the dead through Himself, and that immortal, eternal life which He has risen unto, He has manifested. He is risen again from the dead, and ascended to glory; and though we cannot see Him, though we cannot feel Him, nor behold Him (He was beheld by some); it is the report, friends, that God has given of it, it is that Word by which God declares this unto us, by which we rightly see Him. And whatever earthly things may be taken into account, what ever earthly things may be brought to assist in this matter, it is no better a help than was Pharaoh's word to his host, when he pursued after Israel, when they had escaped from bondage; they are only natural things, and all must perish.
It is the declaration of God in His Word by which His purposes are made known; and as He has declared it in His Word unto us, He is bound by it. He has condescended to bind Himself; here is His promissory note to us,--such a thing is.
The only apprehension we have is the apprehension by faith, which brings the promise home to us, unlocks it, and we derive the benefit from it.
They saw it afar off, and they embraced it, and it wrought this effect in them, "they confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth."