The Biblical Teaching Of The Word Pilgrim

Grace For The Journey

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5May  Yesterday’s blog focused our attention on the “pilgrim” principle of the Christian life.  I want to use today’s blog to expand on this biblical truth.  There are several terms in the Bible that speak to this.  Peter referred to his readers in 1 Peter 1:1 as “pilgrims, sojourners, foreigners, temporary residents,” using the Greek term “parepidemos.”  This term is a compound word combining the two Greek prepositions “para” (meaning “beside” or “along”) and “epi” (meaning “upon” or “over”) along with the noun demos.  Combined, the prepositions have the sense of “distance from something.”  “Demos” originally had to do with “race” or “family” and later developed the sense of “people living in a district or community.”  Taken together the compound word means “stranger, sojourner, or one who resides in a place temporarily.”  In essence, the term means “a stranger in a strange land.”  Sojourners did not hold citizenship in the host country.  As aliens, they had few rights and privileges and were viewed suspiciously by the permanent residents.

The term appears twice in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  When Sarah died, Abraham requested a burial plot for her among the Hittites (Genesis 23:4).  He requested: “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you.  Give me propriety for a burial place among you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”  Abraham and Sarah certainly knew what it was to be strangers in a strange land.  In response to God’s call (Genesis 12), they had lived their lives as sojourners and pilgrims.  Their descendants, the people of Israel, likewise knew the experience of living as temporary residents, even exiles in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  In light of their experiences, Sarah’s being buried in a foreign land seems appropriate.

The second usage of the term “parepidemos” in the Greek Septuagint comes as a cry from the Psalmist, “Hear my prayer, LORD, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears.  For I am a stranger with You, a sojourner (parepidemos) as all my fathers were” (Psalm 39:12).

The psalmist lamented the transitory nature of life.

As a result he realized . . .

All that matters is one’s relationship with God.

While the psalmist was a current resident of this world, he was only a foreigner and pilgrim whose true home was with God.

In the New Testament, outside of 1 Peter the term appears only in Hebrews 11:13.  After defining faith as the firm conviction of certain realities even though they cannot yet be seen (Heb. 11:1), the writer of Hebrews offers an extensive list of examples of people of faith from Jewish history (11:7-40).   After listing Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, the writer paused and stated:  “These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13).

Although these Old Testament heroes had kept the faith, their journeys had not ended, for their full inheritance would be realized at Christ’s appearing.  Nevertheless, in God’s strength they had maintained the journey toward God’s promises with steadiness, run the race with perseverance, and pursued the imperishable city with vigor.

That the early Christians saw themselves as pilgrims on a journey is evident by their earliest designation: people of the “Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22).  Similarly, Paul presented the Christian life as “a walk,” as in Galatians 5:16: “I say then, walk by the Spirit.”  Thus, a consistent portrait emerges in the New Testament of the Christian life as a journey, and those who choose to live the Christian life as pilgrims or sojourners in a foreign land but journeying into a future with God in heaven.

Nowhere is this truth more prevalent than Peter’s first letter.  Peter picked up on the notion of going to heaven, but unlike much popular theology, Peter did not focus on the conclusion of the journey “when we die,” but rather on the present experience of living as strangers journeying in a foreign land.  In order to capture the essence of how Christians were to live in a pagan society, Simon Peter employed the image of a pilgrim.

Peter wasted no time introducing the image of the Christian life as a pilgrimage.  He begins his letter, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ: To pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1).  Peter described his readers using the Greek term “parepidemos.”  They were “temporary residents” who were scattered throughout Asia Minor.  As strangers in a foreign land, these believers faced rejection and persecution at the hands of the nonbelievers of Asia Minor.  Because these Christians were sojourners in a foreign land, people viewed them with suspicion, distrust, and a fear that was rooted in ignorance.  The fact that these Christian “pilgrims” declined to acknowledge Caesar as Lord and refused to participate in pagan worship would have alienated nonbelievers; and their acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord alienated the Jews.  Thus, by living a life of commitment to Jesus they faced harassment, slander, and reproach.  Such is the life of sojourners in a foreign land.

Following his introductory greeting (1:1-2), Peter offers reassurance and hope for these persecuted and alienated Christians.  They had been given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (verse 3).  Until the time when the living hope reached fulfillment at the final revelation of Jesus, they would find themselves in conflict with their society’s values.  Although this conflict would inevitably lead to suffering in various kinds of trials, the joy that comes from their new birth would far outweigh their grief.  In fact, the suffering indicated they were in the process of receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls (verses 8-9).

The proper response to God’s gracious action in Christ was to:

(1) Set their minds fully on God’s grace (verse 13);

(2) Be holy as God is holy (verses 14-:15);

(3) Love one another from the heart with total commitment (verse 22); and

(4) Crave the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word (2:2-3).

These Christian pilgrims were living stones in God’s spiritual house, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s possession who had received His mercy and grace (verses 4-10).

Having offered encouragement and exhortation, Peter turns to the pilgrim motif once more in order to call his audience to live godly lives in a society that largely rejected God.  Peter implored: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly desires that war against the soul.  Having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by observing your good works, glorify God in a day of visitation” (2:11-12).

Peter exhorted his Christian readers to live exemplary lives within their pagan society. As holy citizens of God’s kingdom, they each had a moral responsibility to live a self-controlled life that bore witness to the truth of the gospel.  Peter did not teach that because of their status as strangers and pilgrims in this world that they should seek to escape from this world.

The Christian pilgrim must walk a delicate balance between complete alienation from this world on the one hand, and assimilation to the values of this world on the other.  We can easily miss this … that is why John says “do not love the world nor the things in the world” (1 John 2:15).  He also said “for God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16).  Peter’s writings also hold both subjects together profoundly. As Christian pilgrims journey in this world, we must avoid assimilation into the hostile culture.

We must maintain distance from the values and customs of a world that opposes God and refuses to acknowledge Him as Creator.  And yet, we must not withdraw from the world and fail to shine forth the light of God’s glory and grace.

Analyzing of the word “parepidemos” and seeing the way it is used in both the Old and New Testament should help us avoid romanticizing the idea of the Christian pilgrim.  To be a resident alien meant a person was outside of his or her homeland because of some political or economic disruption, or even military invasion.  It spoke of life in a foreign land where a person felt alienated and abandoned.  This is the plight of Christians as citizens of God’s kingdom living as temporary residents in a pagan society.  Yet, we do not sojourn alone.  Jesus is the Pilgrim par excellence, the victorious One who leads His fellow travelers to their eternal destiny.

Jesus is the courageous Pioneer who goes on ahead to make sure that the road is safe for all who follow Him.  We can rest assured that He will lead us safely from this current evil age of destruction to our celestial home.

This is God’s Word For Today … This Is Grace For The Journey

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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