After a decade of church planting and pastoring in the beautiful Southern coastal city of Savannah, Ga., my family and I moved on to a new place to begin a new ministry and a new season of life. As our time in Savannah came to a close, my heart began to fill with sadness over the fact that we were leaving behind beloved friends, a house we loved, and a delightful city. At the same time, I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’ statement about “pleasant inns” in his book The Problem of Pain. He wrote, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. . . . Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
As believers, we are called by God to train our minds and hearts to firmly latch onto the biblical teaching that we are passing through this world as pilgrims and strangers. We can never allow ourselves to become comfortable here. We are merely sojourners passing through this world on our way to glory. From the first promise of redemption in the garden (Gen. 3:15) to the glorious heavenly vision of the City of God (Rev. 22), the totality of the Bible focuses on the pilgrimage for which God has redeemed His people.
When God called Abraham to leave his family and his homeland, he “went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). “By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise” (11:9). Moving from place to place, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob walked by faith in the promises of God. The Lord had promised Abraham that he would inherit the land; yet, the only land he ever possessed during his pilgrimage was a tiny plot that served as a burial place for him and for his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. The act of burial was the last great act of faith. It proved that he was looking for something better—the hope of the resurrection. Abraham never had a permanent home until he died. When he died in faith, he settled in “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
Joseph also lived and died as a pilgrim and stranger on the earth. Abraham’s great-grandson spent the better part of his life as an alien in a foreign land. He was cut off from his earthly family until the end of his father’s life. He was instrumental in the rest of his brethren coming and dwelling in a foreign land. When he died, Joseph “made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Heb. 11:22). By charging his brethren to take his bones up from Egypt and into the promised land (which would not occur until some four hundred years after he died), Joseph was teaching the Israelites that there was a better city—one for which God would raise him up, body and soul.
After Moses fled from Egypt into the wilderness of Midian, he married the daughter of the Midian priest Jethro and fathered a son with her. Moses named his firstborn son Gershom (literally meaning “stranger there”). Scripture teaches us the rich biblical theological meaning of this name in Exodus 2:21–22, where we read: “Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.’”
We discover the secret to spiritual pilgrimage when we read:
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. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 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. (Heb. 11:13–16)
The writer of Hebrews set out the history of the exilic status of old covenant saints to comfort suffering new covenant believers. There is a parallel between the experiences of old and new covenant saints. Throughout the new covenant era, Christians have had their homes and possessions taken from them. Many have been persecuted and martyred. Like the prophets before them, they were men and women “of whom the world is not worthy.” The world may not have been worthy of them, but “the world to come” was prepared for them (Heb. 2:5). The common status of all believers in this world is that of being “sojourners and exiles.” When the Apostle Peter wrote to the early church, he addressed them as “elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” James, writing to the new covenant church, addressed believers as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” These allusions to the “pilgrim” motif bring the concept to the forefront of the church’s identity in the world.