Kingdom Uprising

Reclaiming Jesus' Hope, Gospel, and Way

City in the Sky? (Hebrews 11.16)

Church hymnals are filled with songs envisioning the day we fly away to a city in the sky and walk celestial streets of gold. Cherished as these hymns may be, a closer look at the Hall of Faith chapter in Hebrews reveals a very different picture of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Hebrews 11:13-16 (NKJV)
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

Many Christians assume this passage teaches that our planet is little more than a pit stop on the road to heaven. The traditional interpretation is summed up well by the opening stanza of the famous gospel song “This World is Not My Home”:

“This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” [1]

But how well does this tradition hold up under scriptural scrutiny? In the verses leading up to the passage in question, the author zeroes in on the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah. The Hebrew audience of this letter was well acquainted with the promise given to Israel’s patriarchs in response to their acts of faith. God specifically told Abraham that he and his progeny would one day be the permanent owners of Canaan:

Genesis 17:8 (NKJV)
Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

At the time God made this promise, the land of Canaan was owned and inhabited by other people. Abraham and his family left a comfortable life in Ur only to become tent-dwelling transients in a foreign land.  Far from owning Canaan, Abraham had to ask the native Hittites for property to use as a burial ground (Gen. 23:4). This is why the author of Hebrews tells us in Heb. 11:9 that Abraham “dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country.”

The Greek word rendered “land” in 11:9 is ge, which has a range of meanings in scripture depending upon the context. It appears over 200 times in the New Testament and is variously translated earth, land, ground, country, and world. The word as it is used in Heb. 11:9 clearly refers to the land of Canaan. But when ge appears again just four verses later in Heb. 11:13, most translations render it differently. Here we read that the patriarchs confessed they were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth (ge).”

This gives the impression that the saints were not at home on our planet and yearned instead for an extra-terrestrial dwelling. Yet such a notion clashes with the context established in 11:9, which is about Abraham and his family living like strangers on a particular tract of land that God had promised to give them for an eternal home. Heb. 11:13 commends the patriarchs not because they died believing they would leave planet earth for heaven, but because they died believing God would one day fulfill his promise to give them Canaan. Thus a more consistent reading of 11:13 would be “strangers and pilgrims on the land (ge).”

Ultimately Abraham did not own so much as a foot of the land that was promised to him (Acts 7:5). However, according to Heb. 11:10, he died anticipating “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” This city is described as “heavenly” in 11:16,[2] and identified as the “heavenly Jerusalem” in 12:10. Paul called it the “Jerusalem above” in Gal. 4:26,[3] while Jesus said that it “comes down from my God out of heaven” in Rev. 3:12.

More than a few Christians have taken this language to mean that the New Jerusalem is an invisible city floating in heaven. But it turns out that similar expressions are often used in scripture to denote things accomplished by the hand of heaven. For example, James wrote that every good gift is “from above” and “comes down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). Jesus once asked the Pharisees whether or not the baptism of John was “from heaven” (Mk. 11:30). And the author of Hebrews referred to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the “heavenly gift” (Heb. 6:4).

These things are of course experienced on earth, with the point being that they were brought about by the God of heaven as opposed to some other source. Likewise, the “heavenly Jerusalem” is not describing a metropolis floating somewhere in the stratosphere, but rather a city on earth that will be established and inhabited by God himself.

The Old Testament overwhelmingly confirms this fact. Numerous prophecies declare that the very same Jerusalem stained by sin and struck with tribulation will one day be cleansed and wondrously restored by God. Below is just a small sampling of these prophecies about the Holy City on Mount Zion:

Psalm 102:13-16
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. 14 For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. 15 Nations will fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory. 16 For the LORD builds up Zion; he appears in his glory;

Isaiah 52:1-2
Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean. 2 Shake yourself from the dust and arise; be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.

Isaiah 54:11-12
O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires. 12 I will make your pinnacles of agate, your gates of carbuncles, and all your wall of precious stones.

Isaiah 60:14-15
The sons of those who afflicted you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. 15 Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

Zechariah 8:3
Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain.

Zechariah 14:9-10
And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one. 10 The whole land shall be turned into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem shall remain aloft on its site from the Gate of Benjamin to the place of the former gate, to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s winepresses.

Zephaniah 3:14-17
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. 17 The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Micah 4:6-8
In that day, declares the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away and those whom I have afflicted; 7 and the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore. 8 And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.

Scripture makes it abundantly clear that the New Jerusalem is in fact Jerusalem Renewed. Abraham didn’t have the benefit of all these prophecies, but Hebrews 7:1-10 points out that he received an allegorical glimpse of the Messianic Kingdom when he met the mysterious priest Melchizedek (Gen. 14:14-20). This priest also happened to be the king of a city in Canaan called Salem, the ancient name for Jerusalem (Ps. 76:2). The name Melchizedek means “King of Righteousness” and the title King of Salem means “King of Peace.”

Melchizedek was a type of the resurrected Christ, foreshadowing Abraham’s future Messianic descendant who would one day reign from Jerusalem in righteousness and peace (Ps. 110, Isa. 9:7). Abraham acknowledged the superiority of Melchizedek by tithing ten percent of his war spoils to the priest-king. In so doing, Israel’s patriarch showed that he was looking forward to the day when the supreme High Priest and King takes his rightful place as ruler of Jerusalem and all the ends of the earth (Ps. 2:6-8).

How did Abraham and the rest of the saints expect to arrive at the New Jerusalem? Hebrews 11 answers this question by weaving the theme of resurrection throughout the chapter (11:19, 22, 35). The 11:22 reference to the faith of Joseph on his deathbed beautifully illustrates the true hope of the saints. In that scene Joseph made his relatives swear to take his bones along when Israel made the exodus from Egypt to Canaan (Gen. 50:24-25). The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary explains:

“In faith he looked to God’s promise of Canaan being fulfilled and desired that his bones should rest there: testifying thus: (1) that he had no doubt of his posterity obtaining the promised land: and (2) that he believed in the resurrection of the body, and the enjoyment in it of the heavenly Canaan.” [4]

This world is indeed our home, but this present age and all of its sorrows are only temporary, thanks be to God. An age is coming when “the righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever” (Ps. 37:29 ). In that day we will behold the heavenly Jerusalem – not a city in the sky, but a city right here on our planet, restored and transformed into the very capital of heaven’s kingdom on earth.


[1] Brumley, Albert E. “This World is Not My Home.” 1965.

[2] The word “country” that appears in most translations of Heb. 11:16 is not in the original Greek and has been supplied by the translators.

[3] At the return of Christ, the mountainous regions surrounding Jerusalem will be leveled while Jerusalem will remain aloft in her place on Mount Zion, resulting in the literal elevation of the city above all her neighbors (Zech. 14:10, Mic. 4:1). Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he mentioned the “Jerusalem above.”

[4] Jamieson, R. (1871). Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/hebrews/11.htm.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks. This is the good news! Many Christians are celebrating before the liberation has happened because they don’t realise that this world is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19) this is the time to pray for that liberation to come soon and to mourn over the terrible suffering there is in this world and our own sins. The only solution to all the evil is the return of the King.

  2. I don’t know where we are going at the end but I think God is speaking of a spiritual kingdom which Christ brought. Jerusalem is a country that very few would want to live in. The Jews rule very little of it and have denied the Christ. I think a lot of the prophecies pertain to back then. The kingdom came with Christ. It is how he worked miracles and made demons flee. ajc

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