We Seek a Better City
From Gospel Translations
The Liberating Power of Christian Hope
Among the many hopes challenged, if not dashed, in the last year have been civic hopes. Perhaps we in Minneapolis have felt this more acutely than those elsewhere, but we’re not alone.
Between lockdowns and social unrest, cities have faced new setbacks and fresh threats. Cries for justice, directed at governing authorities, might, at best, find some earthly and human answer in this life — at best. But justice in this age does not make up for lost time, and even more, cannot bring back lost lives. The justice our cities hope for, and work for, is inevitably human, not divine.
The best of our cities are as deeply broken as their people. And they will not find real, though modest, healing and restoration without men and women of genuine hope. And perhaps no place in all the Bible pulls back the curtain for us, as it were, on the anatomy and psychology of Christian hope, as the epistle to the Hebrews. At the letter’s height (chapters 10–12), we see how hope worked in the life of Moses, Jesus, and the early church — and how we might hold on to real hope in the challenges we have faced, and that still lie ahead.
He Looked Past Wealth
The story of the greatest event in the Old Testament, the exodus, begins with the story of its greatest figure, Moses. God foiled the scheme of the serpent, who tried to eliminate the coming deliverer of God’s people by wiping out every male child under Pharaoh. God raised up the instrument of his rescue by first rescuing him from slaughter. Put in an ark, and found by Pharaoh’s daughter, the deliverer grew up in the very house of the one who tried to snuff him out.
And “when he was grown up,” this Moses made a remarkable choice: he “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24–25). This he did “by faith.” How did that work? We read, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
This is what faith does: it looks around at the present treasures of the unbelieving world, and despite what’s visible to our natural eyes, it looks through and beyond. It looks past the secondary reality we see with physical eyes to the primary realities of God, his word, and its revealed purposes and promises. Moses had learned that God called Abraham out of unbelief, and promised to make him a nation, and fulfill through his lineage the ancient promise of an offspring to crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). And Moses was no stranger to the rearing of those ancient fangs. As he came of age, he had a choice to make.
Even so, how could Moses refuse the wealth and privilege and comfort and ease surrounding him in the palace of unbelieving Egypt? Only as he looked “to the reward.” Not the passing, nearby treasures of the present but the lasting, far-off treasure to come, in the future, based on the promises of God. This future dimension — faith applied not just to the present but what’s to come — is what we often call hope.
So, the life of Moses turned on hope. He looked through, and past, the short-lived joys that surrounded him in the wealth and unbelief of Egypt, and he embraced a path of immediate reproach and mistreatment for the greater treasures that he saw coming in Christ.
He Endured for Coming Joy
Yet an even better model than the great Moses is the prophet who came after him, and surpassed him, the very one in whom Moses hoped. “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses — as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself” (Hebrews 3:3). Moses was faithful as a servant; Christ is faithful as a son (Hebrews 3:5). What, then, does the Son’s hope teach us?
In the climactic exhortation of the epistle to the Hebrews, the author charges his readers to endure. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). They “have need of endurance,” as he wrote in 10:36. Endurance means the runner is facing some resistance, whether internal or external: external obstacles or inner weariness, difficult terrain or discouragement. No human model could be better than Jesus, but we do not just look to him, but also see what he looked to: “. . . looking to Jesus . . . who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2).
God himself, in human flesh, had need of endurance, and need of hope. And where did he look to find hope, hope enough to not only endure common resistance but endure the cross? It was the joy that was set before him — the joy of finishing his work, the joy of securing a bride, and most of all the joy of returning to the immediate presence of his Father and sitting down at his right hand.
Hope for Christ himself, and hope for Christians today, is not human optimism we whip up on our own. It’s not the power of a resilient personality, or natural buoyancy, or positive thinking. Christian hope is supernatural. As with Moses, hope looks past surrounding wealth and promises of immediate comfort, and as with Jesus, it moves toward purposeful discomfort, even death, not from any sadistic love of pain (Jesus despised the shame of the cross), but because of solid hope, outside ourselves, for what joy awaits us on the other side — joy that will make every difficulty worth it, once we arrive in the presence of God.
They Clung to Something Better
Finally, the early Christians. Models as Moses and Jesus are, it might be easy to dismiss their feats as unusual. What about the rest of us? Hebrews teaches us the psychology of hope not only through Moses and Jesus (and other celebrated figures in Hebrews 11), but also through ordinary, nameless Christians in the early church.
In charging his readers toward Christian endurance now, in the face of their present trials, Hebrews reminds them of how they endured, and what hope they had, in those early days when they first came to faith in Christ, and the resilient hope that blossomed in such faith.
Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32–34)
Some among their number had been imprisoned for their faith. In those days, the authorities did not provide food for prisoners. So, these early Christians faced a dilemma: Do we step forward to bring provisions to our imprisoned friends, and thus identify ourselves with them and expose ourselves to mistreatment as well? If they went public as Christians, their worldly possessions, in all likelihood, would be plundered. But they had a greater hope than their earthly stuff. So they went. And as they suspected, they suffered for it.
Yet they joyfully accepted the plundering of their possessions, knowing that they had a better and abiding possession — same word in the Greek, but plural in the first instance and singular in the second. They were willing to have their earthly possessions (plural) plundered — even joyfully — because they knew themselves to have a singular, eternal, better possession, namely, Christ himself as their great reward.
The example of these ordinary early Christians teaches us that Christian hope does not mean that all our good, all our joy, all our reward is in the future. We do indeed look to the future. But even now, we have a better and abiding possession in Christ. Not just will have. We have him, even now. Our strong hope for the future is tethered to the joy we have today, in Christ, as foretastes.
And Christ is the one who sustains us now, each step along the way as we endure the barriers and obstacles, internal and external, in this age. Christian hope doesn’t mean we run on empty, and walk alone on the path of endurance, until he comes. We have him now, the one who promised to be with us (Matthew 28:20) and gives his Spirit with liberality (John 3:34).
Seek the City to Come
We do indeed have need of endurance. Christians always have, even if some feel it more acutely today.
We don’t pretend that our earthly cities — with their imperfect equity and imperfect justice and imperfect protection and imperfect opportunities — can satisfy our deep longing for the eternal city. We do “seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). We “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” knowing that God himself is preparing a city for us (Hebrews 11:16). We are those “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
For now, we acknowledge ourselves to be “strangers and exiles on the earth,” greeting divine promises from afar (Hebrews 11:13), recognizing we’re not at home. Not yet. But oh, do we have hope that we already taste.
And in that joy, we’re able to engage our present, broken, sinful cities as earthly citizens anchored in our heavenly citizenship, ready to embrace the cost now for the reward to come.