The difference a single word makes

Hebrews 11:13-16 is often cited as biblical evidence that the earth is not our real home and that we are awaiting our heavenly abode. The NIV reads,

13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (NIV)

It seems that this passage is saying that the Old Testament people cited in Hebrews 11 were examples of faith because they understood that this earth is not our home. They saw themselves as “aliens and strangers on earth.” They were looking forward to their heavenly dwelling place, a city prepared by God for them away from this earthly realm. Faith, as defined by this passage, is longing for that time when we will leave this earth and go home to be with God in heaven.

theBut the NIV leaves out an important little word in verse 13. And what a difference a single word makes. The last three words of that verse in Greek are “epi tais gais,” or “on the earth.” Not simply “on earth.” The English Standard Version translates it this way:

13These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (ESV)

If that single word is included, it opens up an opportunity to read this passage differently. Perhaps instead of “earth” being an earthly existence, and that we are meant to see ourselves as aliens and strangers to earthly lives, what is being said is that while these people walked upon the earth, they never had a place to call home.

As they used to tell me in seminary, “A text without its context is a pretext for a proof-text.” So, maybe if we look at the context we’ll see this to be the right interpretation.

Right before this passage, the author was talking about Abraham and the promised covenant God had made with him. The story of Abraham is about a man and his family who left their country for another because he was “called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance” (v. 8). “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country” (v. 9). So here’s the point: Abraham never actually received the land!

“They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (v. 13). Abraham never actually experienced the promises of Genesis 12, 15, and 17. He never possessed the promised land; he never saw a multitude of descendants; he never had the joy of seeing himself being the blessing to all the nations. These were all fulfilled after he had died.

So, while they walked on the earth, Abraham and his family were aliens and strangers – never actually taking hold of the land that was promised. This, therefore, is a rhetorical phrase – it’s not pointing to the idea that Abraham and his family saw themselves as aliens and strangers on earth (that is, as aliens and strangers to an earthly existence), but rather as aliens and strangers as they roamed on earth (that is, never actually having a home, even when they arrived in the promised land.

So why is this important?

We need to get out of our heads that heaven is our ultimate destiny (or, as I hear more often than not in Christian funerals, the unbiblical idea that “heaven is our true home”). We are human beings, created from the dust of the earth, created to live on the earth, and destined to live forever on a renewed earth. This creation is what God called “very good,” and it is our home. We are not aliens and strangers here.

In fact, when we die and go to “heaven” (what theologians call “the intermediate state”), we will be aliens and strangers there! For we were not created for existence in a bodiless spiritual place; we were created for existence in a body, on earth, in the life God originally intended for humans.

That is the wonder of resurrection.

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