Strangers are those who no longer live in their homeland but seek to create a new life in a foreign land. There is a sense in which they have lost something – the personal support of their fellow countrymen – just like the widows who have lost their husbands, and the orphans who have lost their parents. Strangers often feel very much alone. In a new land they appear conspicuously different, at least at first, and their presence may be regarded as unsettling, and even threatening to the larger population. The biblical term is equivalent to those we refer to today as ‘foreigners’ or ‘immigrants’.
The national identity of the descendants of Abraham was always sharply defined. Their language, dress, and culture were distinct, and their religious belief in the one true God set them apart from the surrounding Gentile nations. And yet, the divine promise to Abraham and his seed was not exclusive. God was not saying that in choosing them He was rejecting everyone else, but that He was choosing them so that they would become a channel of blessing to all others: ‘And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curses thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed’, Gen. 12. 2-3. These words foreshadowed the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of Abraham, who would be the Saviour of the world.1
When the children of Israel made their exodus from Egyptian bondage, they were accompanied by others of diverse origin known as ‘a mixed multitude’.2 These non-Jews became permanent residents of Israel, sojourning among them.3 Once the nation had traversed the wilderness and began conquering the land of Canaan, Joshua read the words of the law to the whole congregation of Israel, ‘with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them’, Josh. 8. 35. This confirms the abiding presence of other nationalities among the Jews. In the time of Solomon they numbered over 150,000,4 but, unfortunately, the king took to himself many foreign wives whom he allowed to turn his heart away from the one true God. In his old age he became an idolater.5 In the later history of Israel, the word ‘strangers’ often refers to foreign invaders rather than internal residents.6
It is true that many people have short memories, and often they choose to ‘forget’ their humble origins; with false pride they can pretend that they have always been something better than what they once were. God frequently reminded His earthly people that they too were once strangers; they were to be kind to the strangers in their midst. As noted in the other two studies concerning the widows and orphans, after the main harvest was reaped, the harvest gleanings of corn, olives, and grapes were to be left for these needy groups including the strangers.7 Every third year a tithe was to be set aside for the same.8
Abraham called himself ‘a stranger and sojourner’ in Canaan, and Jacob was described as dwelling ‘in the land wherein his father was a stranger’.9 Moses also knew what it was to be a stranger when he lived in the land of Midian, and called his son, Gershom, meaning, ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’.10 The people he subsequently delivered from bondage were told, ‘Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’, Exod. 22. 21.11 On one occasion Moses’ brother and sister foolishly complained about his marriage to a foreigner; the Lord was angry and judged them severely.12
Ruth, the Moabitess, was a stranger in Judah, but through her faith in the living God she became a recipient of divine blessing through Boaz, ‘Why have I found grace in thine eyes … seeing I am a stranger?’ Ruth 2. 10. Job was less well treated by his former acquaintances when multiple misfortunes flooded into his life, ‘They that dwell in mine house, and my maids, count me for a stranger: I am an alien in their sight’, Job 19. 15.
Coming into the age of the church, we find that there were tensions created when the Gentile believers began quickly to outnumber their Jewish brethren. In the book of the Acts there are a number of examples of racial discrimination that had to be dealt with: the inferior treatment of the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem;13 Peter’s inconsistent behaviour;14 the attempt by some Jewish men to impose circumcision on others;15 the persecution of Paul because he had turned to the Gentiles.16 We thank God that strong, godly men confronted these issues and with the Lord’s help were able to set things right.
Drawing all of these threads together, the scriptures would encourage us to be kind and sympathetic to foreigners, and to remember the way in which God has bountifully blessed us, Gentiles, who once were aliens and strangers.17
The hymn writer, James G. Deck, wrote of the Lord ‘wandering as a homeless stranger, in the world … [His] hands had made’. The Lord Jesus Christ was never aimless in His movements, but often He must have felt unwelcome. We know that at His birth there was no room for Him in the inn at Bethlehem, and, in later life, the people of His home town, Nazareth, cast Him out. Finally, the people of Jerusalem delivered their decisive verdict, ‘Away with him!’ and took Him outside the city wall to crucify Him.
There were times when those who followed Him would retire of an evening to their own homes, but the Lord withdrew alone to the Mount of Olives.18 He had left His family home in Nazareth behind, and, as He travelled from place to place, He could say, ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head’, Matt. 8. 20.
Of course, even more than the physical aspect of being treated as a stranger, there was the moral aspect – He was never at home in the midst of sin, even though He came for sinners, loved sinners, and lived among them. His holiness set Him apart, and often stirred up opposition and hatred. He was the man from heaven who was born to die. He came down from God to men, so that He might bring men back to God.19 In a future time of millennial glory, He will recall every kindness shown to Him when He was here upon earth, ‘I was a stranger, and ye took me in’, Matt. 25. 35.
We who know and love Him are also to have the same heavenly focus and remember that this world is not our home. Peter says that we are ‘strangers and pilgrims’, 1 Pet. 2. 11. We are not at home here, but travelling to our home up there.
The growing pace of travel and immigration has meant that communities that were once insular have now to get used to sharing the street, the restaurant, the college, the workplace, with people of another race. This has also been reflected in local church life.
These facts present challenges to us all, whether we are receiving foreigners, or whether we ourselves are the foreigners seeking to make a new life in another land. The language barrier too is an obvious hindrance to communication and understanding. After the strangeness, there can arise suspicion. One thing can quickly lead to another: strangeness and suspicion, then insecurity and fear, and finally, intolerance and hatred.
What does it say to a jaded and cynical world when in a local assembly of Christians there is a real and visible unity, where believers of all cultures embrace one another warmly and linger to talk together afterwards, not in national cliques huddled in opposite corners, but mixing freely? In such close interaction we can learn so much from one another.
When we are prompted and controlled by the Spirit of God, and motivated by the love of Christ, these racial barriers can be overcome. Indeed, there can be great potential in diversity brought together in unity. This is all part of Christ’s work in us and through us, for is it not true of more than the Jew and Gentile divide, that He is ‘our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us’, Eph. 2. 14? Christ is the great uniter of all His people, binding them together in love.
Today we must rise above any feelings of racial superiority in the church. We cannot speak to a man face to face if we are looking down on him. People of other cultures are just as sensitive to atmosphere and tone as we are, and just as easily offended, though sometimes too polite to show it. They pick up the non-verbal communication as quickly as we do: the tepid handshake, the half-hearted smile, and the awkward glance.
If you have any contact with foreigners, and if they join in the Christian fellowship of which you are a part, make sure that you greet them warmly, and be not just polite but kind to them. Consider inviting them to your home and getting to know them better, so that you come to appreciate how much you have in common.
In the local church, wherever found, and whatever its racial makeup, we should shower one another with the deepest love, and treat one another with the utmost respect. Nothing less is worthy of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Love ye therefore the stranger’, Deut. 10. 19.
1 John 4. 14.
Exod. 12. 38; Num. 11. 4.
Lev. 18. 26; Num. 15. 26.
2 Chr. 2. 17.
1 Kgs. 11. 1-6.
Jer. 51. 51; Lam. 5. 2; Ezek. 11. 9.
Deut. 24. 19-21.
Deut. 26. 12.
Gen. 23. 4; Gen. 37. 1.
Exod. 2. 22; Acts 7. 29.
‘Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’, Exod. 23. 9.
Num. 12. 1, 9-11.
Acts 6. 1-8.
Gal. 2. 11-13.
Acts 15. 1-22.
Acts 13. 46-51; 18. 6.
Eph. 2. 12.
John 7. 53 – 8. 1.
‘I came down from heaven’, John 6. 38; ‘I go unto my Father’, John 14. 12.
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