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.”1
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.
There is, however, another pilgrim and sojourner in the Scriptures upon whom we must fix our gaze. Jesus Christ—the Son of Abraham and greater Moses—was the ultimate sojourner and pilgrim on the earth. This was not His home. He came from His Father in glory and returned to His Father in glory. It was He who told His disciples, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). As He went to the cross, He told them: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going” (John 14:2–6). Jesus is the heavenly Sojourner, traveling through the foreign land of this fallen world to the eternal inheritance He came to possess by way of the cross. He came to inherit the world by passing through the world and finishing the work of redemption. The Old Testament saints typified the coming Redeemer. Jesus is “the Pilgrim of pilgrims, the Sojourner of sojourners, the Hebrew of the Hebrews, the One appointed from the foundation of the world to be a pilgrim as they were, to be a sojourner as they were—the One who would incarnate a Hebrew’s life; the One who would sojourn in flesh and blood though he was from all eternity not flesh and blood, but eternally very God of very eternal God.”2
When the Son of Abraham came, He traveled throughout the promised land and yet had “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Like Abraham, He never settled into any one place in the promised land. Unlike Abraham, He didn’t even possess His own burial place.
In tempting Christ in the wilderness, the devil offered to give Him the world. Having taken Jesus up to a high mountain, he offered Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment if He would just bow down and worship him. Rather than succumb to the evil machinations of Satan, the Son of God trusted the promise of His Father to give Him “the nations for His inheritance and the ends of the earth for His possession” (Ps. 2). But, He would do it in accord with His Father’s command. Jesus fulfilled the legal demands of the covenant by keeping the law, and He took the curse for those who broke the covenant. To receive the promised inheritance of “the world”—which God had given to Abraham and his seed (Ps. 37:11, 22; Rom. 4:13; Matt. 5:5; Gal. 3:16)—the Son of God had to travel through this world as a stranger. He ultimately had to be exiled from the presence of His Father on the cross (Matt. 27:46). During His sojourn in Israel, the covenant Lord was dealt with as if He was a “stranger” from the gentiles. The chief priests and elders used Judas’ betrayal money to purchase a “field as a burial place for strangers,” as a cemetery for those who belonged outside the camp of God’s people (Matt. 27:7). The body of the Savior would have ended up in a trash heap—with the other crucified gentiles and criminals—were it not for Joseph of Arimathea’s providing a more dignified burial place for Him (Matt. 27:57–60; see Isa. 53:9). The eternally glorious Son of God was treated as a stranger among His own people (John 1:10–11). But He came to make us heirs of the world to come. He came to fulfill the hope of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. He entered that state of sojourning to secure redemption for His people. He identifies with the true sons of Abraham who also pass through this world as sojourners. In the words of Henry Van Dyke:
Thou wayfaring Jesus a pilgrim and stranger,
Exiled from heaven by love at Thy birth
Exiled again from Thy rest in the manger,
A fugitive child ‘mid the perils of earth
Cheer with Thy fellowship all who are weary,
Wandering far from the land that they love
Guide every heart that is homeless and dreary,
Safe to its home in Thy presence above.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 20, 2019.