In his sermon “Heavenly-Mindedness,” Geerhardus Vos explained how the partriarchs could be said to be “waiting for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10), “seeking a homeland” (Heb. 11:14) and “desiring a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Heb. 11:16) when in fact they had not received an explicit word from God about a heavenly resting place. In his typical brilliant fashion, Vos observed, “Only the predestined inhabitants of the eternal city know how to conduct themselves in a simple tent as kings and princes of God.” Vos went on to explain that there was a Divine anachronism taking place in their history since God stands outside of time. He wrote:
The other-worldliness of the patriarchs showed itself in this, that they confessed to be strangers and pilgrims on the earth. It found its visible expression in their dwelling in tents. Not strangers and pilgrims outside of Canaan, but strangersand pilgrims in the earth. The writer places all the emphasis on this, that they pursued their tent-life in the very land of promise, which was their own, as in a land not their own. Only in this way is a clear connection between the staying in tents and the looking forward to heaven obtained. For otherwise the tents might have signified merely that they considered themselves not at home when away from the holy land. If even in Canaan they carried within themselves the consciousness of pilgrimage then it becomes strikingly evident that it was a question of fundamental, comprehensive choice between earth and heaven. The adherence to the tent-life in the sight and amidst the scenes of the promised land fixes the aspiration of the patriarchs as aiming at the highest conceivable heavenly goal. It has in it somewhat of the scorn of the relative andof compromise. He who knows that for him a palace is in building does not dally with desires for improvement on a lower scale. Contentment with the lowest becomes in such a case profession of the highest, a badge of spiritual aristocracy with its proud insistence upon the ideal. Only the predestined inhabitants of the eternal city know how to conduct themselves in a simple tent as kings and princes of God.
As to its negative side, the feeling of strangeness on earth, even in Canaan, the writer could base his representation on the statement of Abraham to the sons of Heth: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you,” and on the words of the aged Jacob to Pharaoh: “The days of the years of my pilgrimage are an hundred and thirty years: few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.” As to the positive side, the desire for a heavenly state, there is no such explicit testimony in the narrative of Genesis. None the less the author was fully justified in affirming this also. It is contained by implication in the other. The refusal to build an abiding habitation in a certain place must be due to the recognition that one’s true, permanent abode is elsewhere. The not-feelingat-home in one country has for its inevitable counterpart homesickness for another. The writer plainly ascribes this to the patriarchs, and in doing so also ascribes to them a degree of acquaintance with the idea of aheavenly life. His meaning is not that, unknown to themselves, they symbolized through their mode of living the principle of destination for heaven. On the contrary, we are expressly told that they confessed, that they made it manifest, that they looked for, that they desired. There existed with them an intelligent and outspoken apprehension of the celestial world. Let us not say that such an interpretation of their minds is unhistorical, because they could not in that age have possessed a clear knowledge of the world to come. Rather, in reading this chapter on faith let us have faith, a large, generous faith in the uniqueness and spiritual distinction of the patriarchs as confessors, perhaps in advance of their time, of the heaven-centered life of the people of God. In other respects also Scripture represents the patriarchal period as lifted above the average level of the surrounding ages, even within the sphere of Special Revelation. Paul tells us that in the matter of grace and freedom from the law Abraham lived on a plane and in an atmosphere much higher than that of subsequent generations. Anachronisms these things are, if you will, but anachronisms of God, who does not let Himself be bound by time, but, seeing the end from the beginning, reserves the right to divide the flood of history, and to place on conspicuous islands at successive points great luminaries of his truth and grace shining far out into the future. The patriarchs had their vision of the heavenly country, a vision in the light of which the excellence or desirableness of every earthly home andcountry paled. Acquaintance with a fairer Canaan had stolen from their hearts the love of the land that lay spread around like a garden of paradise. Of course, it does not necessarily follow from this that the author credits the patriarchs with a detailed, concrete knowledge of the heavenly world. In point of heavenly-mindedness he holds them up as models to be imitated. In point of information about the content of the celestial life he places the readers far above the reach of the Old Testament at its highest. To the saints of the New Covenant life and immortality and all the powers of the world to come have been opened up by Christ. The Christian state is as truly part and prelibation of the things above as a portal forms part of the house. If not wholly within, we certainly are come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God. And in this we are more than Abraham. No such Gospel broke in upon the solitude of these ancient shepherds, not even upon Jacob, when he saw the ladder reaching up into heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending upon it. But do you not see, that precisely on account of this difference in knowledge the faculty of faith had addressed to it a stronger challenge than it has in us, who pilgrim with heaven’s door wide open in our sight? For this reason it is so profitable to return again andagain to this part of the Old Testament Scriptures, and learn what great faith could do with less privilege, how precisely because it had such limited resource of knowledge, it made a sublimer flight, soaring with supreme dominion up to the highest heights of God.1
1. Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory (Grand Rapids: The Reformed Press, 1922) p. 139-140