Hebrews 11 says that Abraham lived “like a stranger in a foreign country” even while living in the Promised Land. He lived as an alien and a stranger, not interested in returning to his homeland and “longing for a better country.” He was searching for a “city with foundations, who architect and builder is God.”
Hebrews 11 is given for us to emulate the faith of the heroes mentioned within. So how do we emulate this aspect of Abraham’s faith? How do we live as foreigners and strangers in this world?
What it doesn’t mean
First, this isn’t a passage that teaches platonic dualism. Some might read the passage to mean that Abraham was a stranger in the physical world who was longing for a spiritual home. Being a foreigner in this sense means that our “true home” can only be found when we escape from our bodies and from our physical world.
But a “spiritual” reality isn’t the hope in Hebrews. The hope of Hebrews is in “a better resurrection” (11:35) and for an enduring and eternal city. Our hope is not simply in what happens when we die, but in what happens when Christ returns “to bring salvation to all who are waiting for him” (9:28), which includes a new heaven and a new earth.
Christians aren’t strangers on earth because of our physicality. We’re strangers because of our faith. Abraham’s faith set him apart. It made him a foreigner on earth and a citizen of heaven.
Second, this passage isn’t telling us to be grumpy or to seek “escape.” Abraham may have been longing for a country of his own, but he wasn’t seeking escape from the place God had placed him. His attitude must have been similar to that of Paul who stated, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He longed to be at home with Jesus, but he was by no means seeking to escape from this world.
Once we realize we’re foreigners and aliens because of our faith, it can be tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Just get me out of here God.” But that’s not the attitude we’re called to. We’re called to contentment, peace, and joy. We’re called to live life with a mission. This present age may not be our ultimate home, but it is the home God has called us to cultivate and enjoy.
What does it mean?
If this passage isn’t about ontological dualism and it isn’t about pessimistic escapism, what is it about?
First, to re-iterate, Abraham was a foreigner because of his faith, which in Hebrews also means his obedience. Living as a stranger means living out an ethical reality. 1 John 2:15-17 clears things up for us a bit:
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
We live as strangers when we do not “love the world.” And, in this case, “the world” refers to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” To be a stranger in this world means to reject the sin that this world offers.
Matthew 13:22 is helpful as well:
The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.
We live as strangers when we are not caught up in the “worries of this life the deceitfulness of wealth.” We live as strangers when we realize that this life is not all there is, that our wealth and worries are temporary realities, and that we have something greater to look forward to.
A new perspective and a new identity
Living like a stranger means living with a new perspective and identity. The new perspective is an eternal perspective – the realization that anything that is offered to us in this age is as temporary as a tent (11:9) but that in the age to come we will inherit an enduring city.
The new identity is a switch in citizenship. You may not feel at home in this world. Maybe you’ve felt like you’ve lost a bit of your citizenship. You have. But take heart. Those who embrace their new identities as foreigners and strangers on earth receive the favor of God. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (11:16b).