The Believer as a Pilgrim
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
What comes into your mind when you consider the terms ‘pilgrim’ or ‘pilgrimage’? My English dictionary1 defines pilgrim as ‘a person who undertakes a journey to a shrine or other sacred place’. This common understanding reflects widespread practice in earlier centuries, but is divergent from scriptural teaching. As we consider this important subject, we discover that Christians are constituted pilgrims by God’s call. At the same time, living out the implications of this is quite another matter! Yet there are few topics more vital for bringing the right perspective to life in this world.
Some terms used
Peter refers to believers as ‘strangers and pilgrims’. From the outset he addresses the ‘elect . . . sojourners of the Dispersion’, 1 Pet. 1. 1 RV. Originally, the Dispersion denoted Jews living outside Palestine.2 It pointed to the fact of being scattered, but, at the same time, reminded the Jews of their commonwealth, homeland, and temple at Jerusalem. However, in view of the fact that Peter’s readers are mainly Gentiles,3 he is thinking of a Christian dispersion, not a Jewish one. Just like Israel, we too are sojourners, in an alien land remote from our heavenly homeland.
Again, Peter addresses his ‘beloved’ readers: ‘I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul’.4 The word ‘sojourner’ (Gk. parepidemos) literally denotes persons staying briefly in a foreign country, and emphasizes the transitoriness of their sojourning. ‘Pilgrims’ (Gk. paroikoi) points to their legal position as resident aliens in a foreign land. Christians are sojourners and pilgrims for a good reason – we belong elsewhere: ‘For we have not here an abiding city, but we seek after the city which is to come’.5 As Paul put it, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’; ‘Rejoice’, said Christ to His disciples, ‘that your names are written in heaven’.6
The words highlighted above are used by Abraham in his negotiation with the sons of Heth, Gen. 23. 4 LXX. He says, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner with you’. Abraham and his descendants had been promised the land of Canaan by God, yet it is clear that he possessed none of it. In fact, following the death of Sarah he had to purchase a burial site. Canaan never was the ultimate goal of Abraham and his family, for we read: ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things make it manifest that they are seeking after a country of their own. And if indeed they had been mindful of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city’, Heb. 11. 13-16 RV.
The Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed to a community of Jewish Christians who had made a bright start in their Christian pilgrimage, but who are now paying a price for their loyalty to Christ. Unbelievers would taunt them that they had abandoned their Jewish heritage with nothing to show for it. ‘Not so’, says the writer. He emphasizes that, on the contrary, they have a far better inheritance in the Lord Jesus and associated new covenant blessings than Israel could ever boast of. Moreover, they (as opposed to unbelieving Israel) are the true spiritual successors of the men and women of faith whose lives are celebrated in Hebrews chapter 11. We may confidently trace parallels and encouragements for ourselves in what the writer has to say of the pilgrim patriarchs.
In response to the call of God, Abraham had ‘gone out’ from his familiar surroundings, facing an unknown path; similarly, the Hebrews responded to the gospel call, renouncing Judaism and ‘going forth’ unto Christ alone.7 Abraham did not live to experience the fulfilment of the messianic promises, but he and his offspring ‘greeted them from afar’, as a weary traveller sees the goal of the journey afar off, and is refreshed and energized thereby. Similarly, the Hebrew Christians could endure present trials in view of the assurance of the coming of the Lord.8 They no longer have any attachment to Jerusalem, but, like Abraham, they have citizen-rights in the well-founded eternal city which was his goal.9 The word ‘for’, connecting Hebrews chapter 11 verses 9 and 10, indicates a causal connection; it was the wonder of the heavenly inheritance that enabled succeeding generations of patriarchs to hold loosely to earthly possessions. We would do well to follow their lead. J. N. Darby caught the spirit of this with the following lines:
‘Tis the treasure I’ve found in His love that has made me a pilgrim below;
And ’tis there, when I reach Him above,
as I’m known, all His fullness I’ll know’.
More generally, the people of Israel were to regard themselves as aliens, even when settled in the Land: ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine: for ye are strangers and sojourners with me’. At the same time, they could be reassured of God’s protection and instruction.10
The concept of earthly pilgrimage and heavenly citizenship is fundamental to the Christian understanding of life. The believer is in the world, but not of the world. We do not owe our origin or prospects to the world. Our value lies in being distinct from it, not accommodated to it, just as light dispels darkness and salt stems putrefaction.11 The church at Philippi was founded as a colony of heaven in a colony of Rome, with distinctive values, practices, and prospects.12 On the other hand, we must not allow our separation from the world to degenerate into isolation. That would be to disobey our Lord’s express intention for our mission: ‘As thou didst send me into the world, even so sent I them into the world’.13
There is no doubt, however, that tensions arise from worldly influences which test our pilgrim commitment. Israel was constantly in danger of absorbing the debased religious practices of the surrounding nations. There is always the danger of acclimatizing to our cultural surroundings. Indeed, some believers crave acceptance from the people of the world, in the utterly mistaken belief that somehow the gospel can thus be promoted. When Christians ‘go native’, it is clear that they have forgotten their true homeland and heavenly citizenship. So, how can we remain true to this divine calling?
Those who succeed in business or sport invariably set their hearts single-mindedly on achievement. Some might call it obsession. We must allow our pilgrim/sojourner status to exercise a controlling effect over our lives. This will only be possible as we ‘set our affections on things above and not on things on the earth’,14 allowing the glory of our heavenly inheritance to illuminate and regulate all earthly pursuits. We must remember that ‘the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever’.15 May we know what it is to truly set our hearts on pilgrimage!16
2 New identity
In a world struggling with multiculturalism, we should rejoice in the wonder and glory of our position by grace in the diverse worldwide household of faith. Unity in obedience to Christ is the divine antidote to all that fractures and mars human society both locally and globally. What a priceless message! This should also guard us from narrow nationalism, and, instead, broaden our horizons to embrace a world of need, both by prayer and by practical support. At the same time we should seek to be ideal citizens of the community in which we live.17
3 Clear testimony
The patriarchs were characterized by bold confession, whether we think of Abraham facing the sons of Heth, or Jacob before Pharaoh. The testimony of both life and lip are important, and must be consistent. Hebrews chapter 11 verses 13-14 stress the importance of this: ‘having . . . confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly’. For their part, the Hebrews had confessed Jesus as their Apostle and High Priest; accordingly, they are exhorted to hold fast their confession without wavering, for ‘He is faithful who promised’.18
4 Heavenly values
As aliens in a foreign land, our values will be biblically informed and, thus, distinctive from those around. Peter appealed to his readers that ‘they abstain from fleshly lusts’.19 These evil desires are on the march; they go to war against the soul. In a similar vein, Paul lists the works of the flesh in Galatians chapter 5 verse 19 onwards. Note that his list encompasses enmities, jealousies, and strife – sins not specifically associated with the body. But this passage also reminds us of the indispensible help of the indwelling Holy Spirit in this ongoing battle.
Unregenerate people know no such battles, and, faced with conscientious Christian living, may oppose and misrepresent believers. Yet Peter also expresses optimism that ‘they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation’.20
5 Fellowship on the journey
Jonathan Edwards, the New England Puritan, wrote: ‘Let Christians help one another in going this journey. Therefore let them be exhorted to go this journey as it were in company: conversing together, and assisting one another. Company is very desirable in a journey, but in none so much as this. Let them go united and not fall out by the way, which would be to hinder one another, but use all means they can to help each other up the hill. This would ensure a more successful travelling and a more joyful meeting at their Father’s house in glory’. 21
1 The New Collins Concise English Dictionary, pg. 858.
2 John 7. 35.
3 1 Pet. 1. 18; 2. 10; 3. 6 RV ‘whose children ye now are’; 4. 3.
4 1 Pet. 2. 11 RV.
5 Heb. 13. 14 RV.
6 Phil. 3. 20 RV; Luke 10. 20.
7 Heb. 11. 8 (x2); 15; 13. 13.
8 Heb. 9. 28; 10. 25, 37.
9 Heb. 11. 10.
10 Lev. 25. 23; 1 Chr. 29. 15; Pss. 39. 12; 61. 4; 119. 19.
11 Matt. 5. 13-16.
12 Acts 16. 12; Phil. 3. 20; 2. 15-16.
13 John 17. 18 RV.
14 Col. 3. 1f.
15 1 John 2. 17.
16 Ps. 84. 5 NIV.
17 1 Tim. 2. 1-2; cp. Jer. 29. 7.
18 Heb. 3. 1; 4. 14; 10. 23.
19 1 Pet. 2. 11.
20 1 Pet. 2. 12; 4. 4.
21 Jonathan Edwards ‘The Christian Pilgrim, or The True Christian’s Life a Journey Toward Heaven’, (Sermon on Hebrews 11. 13-14), 1733.