The concept of God’s people being “strangers and pilgrims” on the earth is one of the commonly recurring themes of the Bible. The writer of Hebrews expressly sets it forth when he explained that the Old Covenant saints “all died in faith..having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13). There were intimations of this reality throughout redemptive history. It is clearly seen in the lives of Noah, Abraham, and Moses. The lives of most of the Old Covenant saints reflects it in some way or another. Likewise, it is the condition of believers in the New Covenant; but, in the fullest and most significant sense, it was true of Jesus. The sojourning experience of believers throughout the history of the world is a result of their union with the heavenly stranger and exile Jesus Christ.
Noah was clearly an example of one who was a stranger on the earth in that, during his 950 year life, he experienced rejection, scorn, and loneliness mixed with eschatological hope. Noah was, in many respects, a prime example of an exile traveling to a better city. While Noah’s life is an example of pilgrimage, Abraham would be the paradigmatic stranger and exile in the OT.
Called away from his family and homeland, Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going. 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” (Heb. 11:7-9). Moving from place to place, Abraham walked by faith in the promises of God. He was given the promise of inheriting land, but all that he possessed of it was a burial place for he and his wife, his children and grandchildren. Abraham never settled into one permanent location–that is, until he died. He died in faith and entered “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
After Moses had been redeemed out of the Nile, He fled from Egypt into the wilderness of Midian where he married the daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro and fathered a son with her. Moses intentionally gave his firstborn son the name “Gershom” (lit. ‘stranger there’). In Exodus 2:21-22 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.” There is an abundance of rich biblical theology in this passing reference. Danny Olinger, in his article “Moses in Midian and Egypt,“ drew out the theological significance of Moses’ naming of Gershom when he wrote:
When it comes to revealing the history and character of his stay in Midian, Moses tells all through the naming of his firstborn son. Moses was a stranger in Midian!
Obviously the question becomes, why this name? Everything seemed to be going Moses’ way in Midian, yet to commemorate the occasion he names his son “stranger there.” With the naming of his son, Moses reveals his grasp of the biblical hope. He reveals with this name his knowledge that the goal had not been reached in Midian. He reveals with this name that as good as Midian had been to him in certain respects, it was not his final destination. By the grace of God, Moses knows that there must be a further movement for him, and he is a stranger there until that day comes.
The transition for Moses from Egypt to Midian appears most blessed as the respective accounts are matched up, and then v. 22 stops the reader in his tracks. It makes one consider what has happened previously. In fact, it makes one consider how the story of Moses begins. In a real sense, v. 22 brings one back to the beginning of Exodus 2 while at the same time wrapping things up. Verse 22 takes the reader back to vv. 1-10 where the birth and naming of Moses occurs, but it also sums up the chapter with the birth and naming of Gershom. This means that Exodus 2 begins with the miraculous salvation of one child who is drawn out of the water of death and ends with the naming of the second child by the one who is both delivered and yet a stranger at the same time.
With regard to the sojourning of Noah, Abraham and Moses, the writer of Hebrews explained:
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. 11:13-17).
New Covenant believers are no different. The writer of Hebrews sets out the history of the exilic status of Old Covenant saints in order to comfort suffering New Covenant believers. There is a parallel between the experience of Old and New Covenant saints. Throughout the New Covenant era, many 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 the “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” theme, bring the concept to the forefront of the church’s identity in the world. Olinger draws a parallel between the experience of Moses and the experience of New Covenant believers when he notes:
the history of the people of God (short of the consummation) is before one’s eyes in the story of Moses in Exodus 2. Supernaturally saved from death, the redeemed of the Lord, short of the goal of heaven—like Moses in Midian—short of the goal of the promised land, find themselves both delivered and yet strangers in this sojourn on earth. For Moses in the historical setting of the Old Testament in which he found himself, the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob rested with the deliverance of the people of God into the promised land of Canaan.”
Still there is one significant step in the development of the biblical theme that must not be passed over. Jesus Christ–the greater Noah, son of Abraham and greater Moses–was the antiytpical sojourner and pilgrim on the earth. This was not His home. He came from the Father and returned to His Father. 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). In John 14:2-6 he told them, “I go to prepare a place for you? And 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.” Jesus is the Heavenly Sojourner, travelling 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. Bill Dennison explains how the partiarchs were types of Christ in this regard when he writes:
How could it be that these sojourners of faith, these pilgrims of the former age could see the end of their journey so confidently, and so steadfastly possess that final end—that rest afar off? How could it be? Could it be that they were reflections of 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. The One who would display his blood in Abel’s lamb; the One who would reveal that he is son of the Hebrew Abraham, bound over to death by his Father, yet raised from death because he is the Hebrew with eternal life—with the power of an endless life. The One who would be revealed in the blood of a lamb upon the doorposts of his mirror-reflection pilgrims, aliens in a strange land—bond-servant sojourners of a land of death; this One bearing in his pilgrimage, his descent into Egypt the reproach of their bondage, laying his life-blood upon their pilgrim hovels so they could travel with this Lamb—this Passover Lamb—travel with this Lamb to the land of milk and honey—travel with this One tabernacling amongst them, accommodating himself to their pilgrim mode, drawing them unto his everlasting self by pilgrim sacrifices, pilgrim priests, a pilgrim tent of meeting—mirroring himself in priesthood and sacrifice, in tabernacle and veil.
When the son of Abraham came, He–like Abraham before Him–travelled throughout all the promised land, and yet He had “no where to lay His head” (Lk. 9:58). Like Abraham, He never came to settle into any portion of the promised Land in the here and now. Unlike Abraham, He didn’t even possess His own burial place.
As he does with us, the devil offered to give Christ the world in the here and now. 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. But 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). He would have to do it in the way that His Father commanded. He would have to fulfill the legal demands of the Covenant and take the curse for those who broke the Covenant. In order to receive the promised inheritance of “the world”–given Abraham and his Seed (Ps. 37:11, 22; Rom. 4:13; Matt. 5:5)–the Son would have to travel through this world as a stranger and be exiled at the cross. The Covenant Lord, would come as a sojourner in Israel, to be dealt with as if he were a “stranger” of the Gentiles> The money that Judas received and returned to the chief priests and elders was used to purchase a “field as a burial place for strangers” (Matt. 27:7). The body of the Savior would have most likely been dumped in that place–with the crucified Gentiles and criminals–were it not for Joseph of Arimethea providing a more dignified burial place for Him (Is. 53:9; Matt. 27:57-60). The eternally glorified Son of God was treated as a stranger among His own people (John 1:10-11). But He had come to make us heirs of the world to come. He entered into that state of sojourning to identify with the true sons of Abraham who would 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.