Hebrews 11:13 Aliens and strangers

Christians often feel that they do not fit into the society in which they are living.  Our values are increasingly regarded negatively, our activities are at best treated with indifference or with derision.  Such attitudes crop up in many areas of life.  The danger is that we slide into self-pity, yet this experience is nothing new.  God’s people have always had to deal with such issues.  We will consider Hebrews 11:13 Aliens and strangers.

1. Abraham the wanderer

Hebrews 11 gives significant attention to Abraham, who obeyed God’s call ‘to go to a place he would later receive as an inheritance’ (v8).  He lived as a nomad in Canaan and did not personally experience the fulfilment of the promise in this life.  He was ‘like a stranger in a foreign country’ (v9).  It was with the eye of faith that Abraham could envisage the land as the possession of his descendants.  This was God’s will for Abraham and the next generations – ‘they did not receive the things promised (v13).  Abraham knew that his ultimate goal was a heavenly city (v10) and that he was only passing through this world.  That sets the pattern for God’s people – pilgrims on the way to glory.

2. Alienated from God

The theme of ‘aliens and strangers’ did not disappear when Israel took possession of Canaan.  Note the statements by David (Psalm 39:12) and Solomon (1 Chronicles 29:15).  Such statements are a recognition that the only way in which people may stand in the presence of God is if he graciously allows them.  We are separated from God by our sins (Isaiah 59:2).  That is man’s fundamental problem.  Our sinful separation from God can be addressed only by his gracious provision.

3. Bearing our sin

That gracious provision is embodied in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.  What was beyond our capacity, he has done for us.  Jesus was treated as an alien and stranger in his public ministry – in John 8:48 the Jews say, ‘you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed’.  Ultimately he was crucified outside the city, condemned as a criminal.  On the cross he took the alienation of his people as he bore their sin (1 Peter 2:24), bearing their God-forsakenness (John 27:46).   He has done all to end our alienation from a holy God.

4. Living as aliens

The good news for believers is, ‘you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellowcitizens with God’s people and members of God’s household’ (Ephesians 2:19).  Our standing before God has been transformed.  But as children of God we continue to live in this present fallen world into which we do not fit.  We are called to holy living ‘as aliens and strangers in the world’ (1 Peter 2:11).  All of life is to be brought under Christ’s lordship, conscious that, though we enjoy the good things of God’s creation, we are pilgrims going to better things, among people who do not share our faith and hope.

Acts 12:1-10 God’s mysterious providence

In Acts 12:1ff we have the account of an outbreak of persecution instigated by ‘King Herod’ (v1, Herod Antipas).  Several believers are arrested and James, the brother of John, is executed (v2).  Herod ‘proceeded to seize Peter also’ (v3), no doubt planning his death too.  Events turned out very differently when ‘an angel of the Lord’ released Peter in a miraculous intervention of the Lord.  James was executed – Peter was released: the difference raises the kind of questions we often ask about God’s dealings with his people, especially the differences we see between them.  Consider Acts 12:1-10 God’s mysterious providence.

1. Our conviction

We must begin with a fundamental conviction that God is sovereign over all things in his creation.  Only in that context can we speak of ‘providence’.  The sovereignty of God is taught throughout Scripture: ‘God is King of all the earth’ (Psalm47:7-9).  His rule extends even to the birds (Matthew 10:29). The supreme example of the sovereign working of God is the death of Christ (Acts 4:28).  We need a robust – biblical – doctrine of providence.  However we explain God’s actions (if we can), we cannot compromise his sovereignty. 

2. Our ignorance

The providence of God quickly brings us to realise our profound ignorance of God’s ways.  Why did James die and Peter live?  It cannot be that one was more godly and deserved life – both were imperfect sinners.  We must conclude that God still had work for Peter to do.  Regarding the providential working of God in the lives of his people, most aspects are unknown and unknowable.  We may discern some aspects of God’s purpose in events, though at times our guesses are entirely inaccurate, but in general we remain ignorant.  He acts ‘as far as it shall serve for God’s glory and their own good’ (Shorter Catechism Q66).

3. Our submission

The attitude of believers must be willing submission, not making foolish comparisons between his people, otherwise we will fall into discontent, even anger and bitterness.  With Abraham we can say, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).  We know he will always do right, and so we rest content, since ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6).  We must beware of questioning the wisdom, power or love of the Lord, or referring only to pleasant outcomes as ‘God’s good providence’.  With the Holy Spirit’s help, we cultivate a spirit of happy submission.

4. Our confidence

We can be confident of one thing: the Lord’s eternal purpose will be fulfilled in every detail.  This is because of his sovereignty, as Nebuchadnezzar was brought to realise (Daniel 4:35).  God’s providence accomplishes all that he wills.  All glory is to be ascribed to God for his works of providence, which includes our salvation (Revelation 5:13).  We can thus be at peace when we do not understand the details of his working for us or others.

Numbers 17:1-13 The Lord’s chosen priest

The journey of Israel to the Promised Land included times of grumbling and of outright rebellion against the Lord.  The Lord’s response was often dramatic as Israel endured the consequences of sin.  One example is Numbers 16, describing the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.  The Lord opened the earth and they were consumed.  When the Israelites protested, plague broke out.  In Numbers 17 the Lord provides a long-term solution to the situation.  Consider Numbers 17:1-13 The Lord’s chosen priest.

1. The challenge

There has been judgment on those at the centre of the rebellion (16:31) and on those who objected (16:49).  Serious issues are at stake.  More is needed: ‘I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites’ (17:5).  The Lord is going to deal in a lasting way with the root issues underlaying the rebellion.  At one level the opposition was against Moses and Aaron, claiming all God’s people are equal (16:10), refusing to accept his ordained order.  The focus is on the priesthood (16:10).  The deeper issue – ‘these men have treated the Lord with contempt’ (16:30).  Sinners must approach him in the way he commands – by sacrifice offered by his chosen priest.

2. The solution

The Lord decrees precisely what will happen -v1-5 -Staffs are provided from the leaders of every tribe (v2) along with Aaron’s staff (v3).  All are placed ‘in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony (the Ark)’, probably in the Holy Place.  It is the Lord’s presence that is crucial – the result of the test will show who may approach his holy presence on behalf of Israel.  God will bring life out of dead wood (v5) and he works a miracle – ‘Aaron’s staff   had not only sprouted, but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds’ (v8).  The Lord makes clear only Aaron may function as priest to represent Israel in offering atoning sacrifice, a unique role in the Lord’s provision of salvation and forgiveness.  The staff is kept as ‘a sign’ (v10) – a warning, but above all a testimony to God’s grace in forgiveness.  Tragically many of the Israelites react in terror (v12), with no sense of the grace of God.

3. The fulfilment

At best the OT sacrificial system was a God-ordained temporary provision – ‘it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins’ (Hebrews 10:4).  It was never suggested that it could – the blood of an animal could remove ceremonial uncleanness but could not cleanse the human heart.  But just as the Lord set apart Aaron, so he set apart the final, perfect High Priest (Hebrews 4:14).  Christ is the chosen priest (Hebrews 5:5) prophesied in e.g. Psalm 110:4.  Our Priest is the sacrifice – ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).  The Father designated Aaron by bringing life from dead wood – he designated Christ by bringing life (the resurrection) from death (the cross).  In Christ we have the essential priest who provides the salvation that sinners need, the salvation that no animal sacrifice could secure.