Strangers and Pilgrims

One of the many descriptors that God uses for His people is strangers and pilgrims. We read in Hebrews 11:13 about Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, that “[They] confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (KJV). The word stranger in the text carries the idea of someone who lives in a place without a citizen’s rights, whose home is somewhere else.

 Not of this World

Strangers and pilgrims are appropriate descriptors of Christians because we are citizens of a kingdom not of this world. Jesus standing before Pilate, said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36). If Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, then we can rightly conclude that its citizens would also not be of this world. This is what Jesus said in prayer earlier that night. He said that “They [the disciples] are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).

Christ’s kingdom is not earthly but heavenly. It is a kingdom of people where Christ rules as supreme in its citizens’ hearts through the truth of the Gospel (John 18:37). It is a kingdom that cannot be destroyed or conquered (Matthew 16:18). Its citizens then would not live or have the same aims as those whose citizenship is of this world.

By their nature, Kingdom citizens can never fully fit in with this world. They are out of step with much of society. This is because their true loyalties belong elsewhere (Philippians 3:20; Colossians 1:13, 18).

Being out of step with the world, rather than that being a sign that something is wrong. This being out of sync with this world serves as confirmation that we are heading in the right direction.

Longing for a Better Country

God’s people in the Old Testament (and New) gladly accepted that they were out of step with the world because they knew they were heading home. We read again Hebrews 11:13-14, “having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.” Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah. As strangers in a strange land for much of their lives, they lived incredible lives full of joy and pain. They lived life with a deep abiding trust in God and His promises (Hebrews 11:1, 6). So they are held up as examples to us.

The Hebrew writer reminds their audience of their faith because we, like the original audience, will live lives of joy and pain. And it is in the moments of pain, of turmoil, of confusion, that we must look beyond the here and now and to what is to come. Note how the Hebrew writer concludes this chapter in Hebrews 11:32-40, noting verses 39-40. “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised because God had provided something better for us so that apart from us, they would not be made perfect.” All the examples of faith endured to the end because they could look beyond the present and trust in what God had promised.

The Hebrew writer reminds their audience, and us, that what the examples of faith looked to now have come. The fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The writer continues in Hebrews 12:1-2, encouraging their readers to press on to where Jesus is. Our home. He is waiting for us, so we like the examples of faith and are pressing on to a yet to come; the new heavens and earth (Hebrews 13:14 cf. Revelation 21:1-4).

What This Does Not Mean

Some might start to make some wrong conclusions about how a Christian should live on this earth. We want to deal with the two most extreme.

The first is that since this world is not our home, we should withdraw from the world. Withdrawing from the world can be a very tempting place to go when we see how crazy and hateful the world can be. However, we must resist the temptation. While in the garden, Jesus prayed, “I do not ask you take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Jesus prayed that God would not take us out of the world but that He would protect us from Satan. Jesus had taught previously that his followers were to be salt and light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). By being light and salt, the world would see us and then give God honor and glory.

The second extreme is that since this world is not our home, who cares about what happens here. Because the world can seem so distorted by sin and so corrupt, the sin of apathy can be easy to commit. It can be easy to no longer care about the lost, injustice, right, and wrong, etc. But even though this world is not our home, God still wants us to care for it because He cared deeply for it. Consider what God told his people through Jeremiah in Jeremiah 29:5-7. God sent his people to an unclean land full of idolatry and sinful practices (Babylon). This is what God told his people, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare, you will have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).

It may be difficult at times, it may be frustrating, it may be heartbreaking, but we as Christ’s people must be the example of the better land to this sick world. To show the world that three is a God who carse for them. We cannot do that if we live detached, emotionally indifferent lives away from the world.

Some Applications:

  • With all its sin and corruption, this world should serve as my motivation to reach out to the lost, show that it is not always going to be this way, and point to the better way in Christ.
  • When the nations rage (even at home), we need to remember that this is what nations have always done (Psalm 2:1), and this is not where our future is.
  •  Because this world is not my home, I need not forget where my real battle is Ephesians 6:12.
  • Because I belong to another country, I need to represent my homeland while I am here on this earth. 1 Peter 2:11-12. The emphasis is on living a life, as strangers and pilgrims, that they glorify God when noncitizens see us.

As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven; we need to be focused on reaching our home because of that fact. This does not mean that we withdraw or become indifferent to the world. It means that as we seek that better country, the country we long for, we also strive for everyone we meet to join us there one day.

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