These 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. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
As we continue to read chapter 11 of Hebrews, we see the inspired author bring up Abraham’s faith (11:8-12, 17-22). God called Abraham “to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (v. 8; cf. Genesis 12:1-4). Imagine the trust in God needed to obey this command to simply pack up and leave your hometown and family behind, headed to who knows where. When he arrived “to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land,” he basically “lived in tents” for the rest of his life, as did his son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob (v. 9). Indeed, the only property he would ever own as his own would be his wife’s burial spot (Genesis 23:2-20). Abraham knew that the land God promised to him would not become his in life but would go to his descendants centuries later (Genesis 15:12-21). Yet God had also promised him Heaven, “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God,” and he was “looking forward” to that (v. 10).
Abraham’s faith in God was most clearly seen when God, after having fulfilled his promise to give him a son and promising him that future offspring would come through Isaac, decided to test his faith by commanding him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice (vs. 17-18; cf. Genesis 22:1-10). Parents, consider the immense hardship it would be to sacrifice your own child! Frankly, I’m not sure I could do it if God gave a similar command to me. Yet Abraham’s faith in God and God’s promises never wavered, even though God was asking of him something not only immensely painful but also asking him to commit an act that would basically nullify God’s promise to give him descendants through Isaac! His faith was so great that he “considered that God was able even to raise (Isaac) from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (v. 19). In other words, Abraham’s faith prompted him to reason that even if he killed Isaac, God would still keep his promise to him and simply bring Isaac back to life. Such deep, abiding faith! It is truly an example to us all.
His wife, Sarah, had great faith too. Even though initially she laughed when she first heard God’s promise of a child well past the normal age of pregnancy (Genesis 18:11-14), she later “considered him faithful who had promised” her this miraculous gift and thus “received the power to conceive” (v. 11; cf. Genesis 21:2). She gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:3), who himself had great faith.
The Hebrew writer points out that it was due to his faith that “Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau” (v. 20; cf. Genesis 27:27-29, 39-40), blessing which were prophetic in nature in that they concerned not only his twin sons’ futures but also what would happen to their descendants. His son Jacob’s faith was likewise great, in that it prompted him to invoke similar prophetic blessings upon Joseph’s sons as he was nearing death (v. 21; cf. Genesis 48:14-20). Jacob’s son, Joseph, likewise had great faith in God. That faith prompted him to foretell of Israel’s exodus out of Egyptian slavery centuries later by giving instructions for his descendants to make sure to carry his bones back to his native land at that time (v. 22; cf. Genesis 50:24-26). Since Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph’s blessings and wishes were prophetic and thus involved promises made by God himself, their choosing to share those promises showed that they believed them and thus had great faith in God.
All of them died without receiving these promises in their lifetimes…but their faith showed them the promises “from afar” (v. 13). They knew they “were strangers and exiles on the earth” because they were “seeking a homeland” (vs. 13-14). They weren’t focused on “that land from which they had gone out, (for) they would have had opportunity to return” (v. 15). Instead, they “desire(d) 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” (v. 16). In other words, God was very pleased with them because of their faith and the obedience it prompted. That is why all faithful Christians will join them in Heaven for eternity.