Scripture uses many names to describe God’s people. Some of them are nouns, such as elect, saints, God’s people, the righteous, saints, the beloved. Collectively they are called children, church, brethren, a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, Zion, and Jerusalem. Sometimes individuals are addressed, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Adjectives include called, sanctified, faithful, holy, justified, meek, merciful, pure in heart, poor in spirit, and many more. The list is extensive and diverse; each word describes a different aspect of God’s people. All of these terms are used by Scripture to teach us who and what we are, and for that reason are useful and edifying.
Among these descriptive terms are the two that form the title of this article: strangers and sojourners, which occur together in Psalm 39:12. They do not necessarily have greater merit than many other words, but they are important as descriptions of God’s people. Because they are important, and because they are interesting, I have chosen these words as the general theme for a series of articles. I intend to explore various facets of what it means to be strangers and sojourners. Some of these I already have in mind; others will appear as they occur or are suggested to me. The series will be open-ended as to its length and content. Readers are encouraged to submit suggestions. I intend to write for the general edification of all those who read, but with specific application to our young people, who are beginning their life’s sojourn.
These two words are significant because they describe the Christian life. Who are we? We are strangers and sojourners. That is our identity.
The terms picture life as a journey comprised of a beginning, a trip, and a destination. The first and last elements are not stated expressly, but are implied in the figure. Our collective life has a beginning. For us as Christians that starting point is heaven, or perhaps more accurately, the life of heaven known to us as regeneration. Our lives originate with God in heaven by virtue of the truth that he is the creator who forms us in our mothers’ wombs and gives us physical as well as spiritual life, bringing us into this world both as his creatures and as his children. By the working of his Spirit in the wonder of regeneration, he infuses the new life of Christ into us, spiritually making us his people as he places us on life’s path. So where do we come from? Simply put, from God himself.
Our life also has an end, which is heaven. Our place of origin and our destination are essentially the same. About this destination I intend to say more in the future, because the wonder of heaven serves as an incentive to us on our journey. Besides, the figure itself demands an end. Our journey is not an aimless wandering, a helter-skelter roving hither and yon, but a trip with a purpose. We have a place that we need to reach, a place to which we very much want to go, so that we bend every effort toward our arrival in glory. Where are we going? To heaven.
Although the beginning and end are integral parts of the figure of a journey, the emphasis falls on the trip itself. This is especially evident from the term sojourner. The word in its various noun and verb forms and translated in the English as sojourners is used with only a couple of exceptions in the Old Testament. It is the translation of similar Hebrew words that have essentially the same meaning. Wherever it occurs it has the idea of staying someplace only for a time, to dwell temporarily, to be always on the move because a sojourner is on a journey. This calls to mind the familiar figure of camping. Many of us do this, staying in a tent or in a trailer when we go on vacation. We do this because we do not intend to stay in one place more than a night or two as we travel to different parts of the country. We do not buy or build a house, because we do not purpose to live permanently in a given location. We are not dwellers, but campers. This idea is biblical. Scripture tells us that the patriarchs did not build houses, but lived in tents; from time to time they pulled up their tent stakes and moved on.
Such is the life of Christians. We are spiritual sojourners who have no abiding place here. The world is not our home either in the physical sense or especially in the spiritual sense. True, we live here for a time, and though we build houses, whether humble abodes or mansions, our hearts are not set on the things below. We live in tents, for we are only passing through the world on our way to heaven. It is not our goal to pile up the possessions of this world, because they only hinder us on our journey. How is it possible to camp when we have to take truckloads of stuff with us every time we pull up our tent stakes and move? This is even more true in a spiritual sense: we cannot be encumbered by the value system of this world, which is eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. No, for seventy or eighty years we camp in this world, always journeying toward our destination.
The companion idea of sojourners is strangers. The word appears 211 times in Scripture, all but a handful in the Old Testament, where four words are used to describe us. They are not substantially different from one another, and are used interchangeably. Together they mean alien, foreigner, outsider, stranger. They convey the idea of not belonging and not fitting in. The primary word used in the New Testament has the similar idea of someone who is of another kind, and therefore different or strange. Perhaps “resident alien” best expresses the meaning. We understand that that this term refers to someone who comes from another country to the United States with the intention of staying here for a while, and perhaps of someday immigrating permanently. He obtains permission from the government to stay here for a time and to take up residence. Yet he is not a citizen, but remains an alien; he may live in the U.S., but he really does not belong here completely.
Such strangers we are. We live in the world. We live, work and sometimes play in the world. We are born the same way, grow up the same way, eat the same foods, wear the same clothing, go to school, play sports, get jobs at many of the same places, find girlfriends and boyfriends, get married, buy a house and a car or two, have children and grandchildren, retire, grow old, and finally die. When someone looks at us, we do not seem to be very different from the people of the world. And in reality we are not so different. The reason for this is that God has created mankind as an organic unity. God made man not as an unconnected and unrelated collection of individuals, but as a race of creatures. Rightly it has been said that we have all things in common in this world except grace.
Yet we are different. Although we have all things outwardly in common, the difference between us and the world is exactly grace. Grace, as we know, is God’s favor, his attitude of love toward us. Not to everyone, for his grace is not common, but toward his elect people. His grace is completely undeserved and unmerited on our part, as Scripture teaches in many places. He gives us his grace in his work of regeneration, by which he implants in our hearts the seed of the new life in Christ. He gives us his grace through the death of his Son on the cross, by which we are justified, free from guilt and righteous before him. He gives us his grace by leading us in the way of sanctification, a life and walk of holiness as his people in the world. Precisely here is the difference between elect and reprobate, righteous and wicked, the church and the world, saints and heathen. Grace is what makes us strangers. In most aspects of our life we are not apparently dissimilar from the children of the world. Yet there is an essential difference, and that difference is grace. Because that difference is grace, the idea of the antithesis is implied in being strangers and sojourners. We do not simply live side by side with this world, but because we are different, there is a tension, a relationship of enmity: although we live in it, we are not one with it, and we do not get along with the world.
It is striking that the Bible presents our being strangers and sojourners as a fact. In all the numerous places that these terms are used, we are never told that we must become strangers. How we must behave as strangers, yes indeed. But never what we must be. We are strangers; this is assumed when Scripture uses these words to describe us. This is exactly because of grace: by it God has made us strangers, so strangers we are.
In several instances Scripture uses strangers and sojourners together (Lev. 25:6, 23, 35). This brings up the question of the relationship between the two terms. Are we sojourners because we are strangers, or are we strangers because we are sojourners? Both are true. The answer depends on our perspective. The fact that we are strangers means that we are sojourners, for those who are not strangers have no reason to be sojourners; they fit right in with the world. And that we are sojourners means that we are strangers, because those who sojourn are by that fact strangers. The one idea implies and complements the other.
Being strangers and sojourners, how then must we live? What do we look like spiritually? Specifically as young people, how ought we to behave ourselves on the way to our destination? The answers to these questions we will explore in future articles.