How Are Christians Strangers and Exiles on Earth? #325
Happy Monday, friends! Today’s episode was almost titled, “What is Faith?” and, indeed, I typed that into the title box at the very beginning until I searched and discovered that episode #129, in which we covered Hebrews 11, was also entitled, “What is faith?” So, if you are interested in that question, just look up episode #129 in your podcast app, or check out show-notes page. Our Bible readings today contain more hard to pronounce Hebrew names in 1st Chronicles 7 and 8, Amos 5, Luke 1, and Hebrews 11, our focus passage.
Today we are talking about our status as aliens and foreigners, strangers and exiles on earth. There are many things about American Christians that have puzzled me over the years, but two of the most puzzling I will discuss briefly today: when people who claim to be Christians and pray over their meal, but treat the waiter or waitress with contempt, anger, or any sort of harshness, that troubles me deeply. We are to be a people of great grace and humility, for one, and for two, the both the word minister and the word deacon come from those who wait tables, which tells me that none of us should look down on waiters/waitresses. More appropriate to today’s passage is those American purported Christians who treat foreigners with any sort of contempt. That one is weird to me because so often, the Bible tells you and I that we are not first and foremost citizens of this world, but our ultimate citizenship is in Heaven, and we are therefore strangers and exiles on the earth. Today’s focus passage is all about faith, and in the middle of it, we have a strong truth that so many of the Old Testament saints walked by faith precisely because they knew they were foreigners and exiles – they knew they were seeking a homeland beyond this earth. Let’s read Hebrews 11 and then grapple with this important truth.
13 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. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But 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.
By the way, it’s not just Hebrews that identifies followers of Christ as exiles/foreigners/strangers in the land:
1 Peter 1:1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ: To those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen
1 Peter 2:9-11 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Dear friends, I urge you as strangers and exiles to abstain from sinful desires that wage war against the soul
Philippians 3:20 Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I take from this that I am not first and foremost an American, that you listeners in Oz aren’t first and foremost Australian, our listeners from all across India are not first and primary citizens of India, but we are all – in Christ – looking forward to a permanent home, confessing with the Old Testament saints that we are strangers and exiles on this earth.
What does it mean that we are exiles, then? Well – there are many implications to that. It means, practically, that we don’t look down our nose at anybody based on their citizenship or ethnicity for one. It also means that our ties with Christians brothers and sisters around the world go deeper than we might realize, because our citizenship is WITH THEM. Peter gets to the heart of that dynamic in 1 Peter 1:1, noting that we Christians exiles are “dispersed abroad” throughout many different countries. The word there that the CSB translates as dispersed, is the Greek word diaspora, which is usually applied to the Jewish people scattered all across the world – Peter applies it to the followers of Jesus, baptized into the Body of Christ, and given an uber-citizenship in Heaven, not on earth. Keller gives a very good explanation of what it means to be an exile, starting with the literal word meaning, and moving to the spiritual implications:
Christians are exiles, and we’re to live as exiles. The Greek word used there, as is often the case, as you know, can’t be completely conveyed by any one English word, so the word exiles isn’t bad, but the actual Greek word refers to a very particular kind of person. I think the word exile is too general. If somebody is trying to get away from being put in prison in one country, you run to another country (you’re in exile), but that’s probably not the best way to understand it. The word parepidēmos, which is the Greek word here, is best translated resident alien.
Some of you, probably, are resident aliens at a literal level. Here’s what a resident alien is. On the one hand, you’re not a tourist. You’re in another country, a country you’re not a citizen of, but you’re not a tourist. You live here. You’re here on a resident passport or you have what we call a green card. You’re part of society. You are a functioning part of society. You have a job. You’re here. You know the language.
You’re not like a tourist who comes and somebody is doing all of the translation and you’re detached and looking at all of the exotic things. No. You’re a resident. You’re here. You have a job here. You’re a part of society. You know the language. You’re fluent. You have friends and neighbors who you are in relationships with. On the one hand, you’re residents (you’re not tourists), but on the other hand, you’re still not a citizen.
You’re a citizen of your home country. You haven’t assimilated. You haven’t given up your citizenship; therefore, if you’re a resident alien, even though your neighbors like you (you can speak the language and they like you), they still think you’re kind of weird, because you don’t share all of their values. You don’t share all of their customs. You’re still different, and it also, by the way, means because you’re not a citizen, you don’t enjoy all of the privileges of full citizens, and lastly, you’re here on a passport, which means you’re not expected to stay forever.
That is the word (it’s a very, very specific kind of word) Peter uses for Christians. We are resident aliens. We are not tourists. We are engaged. On the other hand, we’re not citizens. We’re citizens of heaven; yet, we are residents here, and we are engaged to love our neighbors. That is the balance.
What does that mean? What are the implications? I’ll give you two implications of this word for how you live the Christian life. One implication is that we are pilgrims here, and this is a related word we don’t talk about enough, I think, certainly in the modern church. We are pilgrims. Being exiles means we’re not home. We’re on our way home, but we’re not home.
Timothy J. Keller, “Our Identity: Joyful Exiles,” in The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2014–2015 (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2014), 1 Pe 1:1–2:12.
Spurgeon, in preaching on this passage, gives us a jolting call to be in the world, and not of the world, while also pointing to the gospel and the need for we strangers and pilgrims to take that gospel to a world that is destined for destruction:
…Our calling is to be separate from sinners and yet to live among them. We must be strangers and pilgrims in their cities and homes. We must be separate in character from those with whom we may be called to grind at the same mill, …
If believers could form a secluded settlement where no tempters could intrude, they would perhaps find the separated life far more easy, though I am not very sure about it, for all experiments in that direction have broken down. There is, however, for us no “garden walled around,” no “island of saints,” no Utopia. We journey among those whose ungodly lives cause us frequent grief, and the Lord Jesus meant it to be so, for He said, “Behold I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt 10:16). Come, now, are you willing to be one of the separated?
God’s People Are Strangers on Earth
Don’t wonder if you have discomforts here. If you are what you profess to be, you are strangers. Don’t expect the men of this world to treat you as one of themselves—if they do, be afraid. Dogs don’t bark when a man goes by that they know—they bark at strangers. When people slander and persecute you no longer, be afraid. If you are a stranger, they naturally bark at you. Don’t expect to find comforts in this world that your flesh would long for. This is our inn, not our home. We tarry here a night; we are away in the morning. We may bear the discomforts of the evening and the night, for the morning will break so soon. Remember that your greatest joy while you are a pilgrim is your God. So the text says, “God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Heb 11:16). Do you want a greater source of consolation than you have got? Here is one that can never be diminished, much less exhausted. When the creature streams are dry, go to this eternal fountain, and you will find it ever springing up. Your God is your true joy—make your joy to be in your God.
Now what shall be said to those who are not strangers and foreigners? You dwell in a land where you find some sort of repose, but I have heavy tidings for you. This land in which you dwell, and all its works, must be burned up. The city of which you, who have never been converted to Christ, are citizens, is the City of Destruction, and as is its name, such shall be its end. The king will send his armies against that wicked city and destroy it, and if you are citizens of it you will lose all you have—you will lose your souls, and you will lose yourselves. You must do as Lot did when the angels pressed him and said, “Flee to the mountains, lest you be destroyed” (Gen 19:17).
The mountain of safety is Calvary. Where Jesus died, there you shall live. There is death everywhere else, but there is life in His death. Trust him. God gave His Son, equal with himself, to bear the burdens of human sin, and He died a substitute for sinners—a real substitute, and an efficient substitute for all who trust in Him. If you will trust your soul with Jesus, you are saved. Your sin was laid on Him. It is forgiven you. It was blotted out when He nailed the handwriting of ordinances to His cross. Trust Him now and you are saved. That is, you shall become a stranger and a pilgrim, and in the better land you shall find the rest that you never shall find here.
Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon Commentary: Hebrews, ed. Elliot Ritzema and Jessi Strong, Spurgeon Commentary Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 355–356.