I am working on an extended research project on what it means for the church to be a people of strangers and foreigners, exiles, sojourners in a foreign land. As part of my research I came across an interesting thought: an exile/sojourner/foreigner is in an awkward state. They are “living in tents” as the writer of Hebrews might say. They are a people without a home. They may not be homeless (a tent is a sort of a home) but they are not yet at “home” in the fullest psychological sense.
Sojourners and exiles are related but distinct people groups. A sojourner is on a journey, but it is journey they set out on freely. Abraham is the quintessential sojourner. An exile is someone who has been banished. Daniel was an exile. Moses, when he realized that his killing of the Egyptian had become public knowledge, became an exile. But sojourners and exiles share a common trait – they are not at home.
This place away from home can be quite emotionally and psychologically taxing. The early Christians certainly understood this. They were an extreme minority within their culture and faced financial, social, familial, religious, and political pressure. A Christian community on this journey faces a choice – do they move forward on the journey or go back? To return to the familiar is sometimes the path of least resistance, even for the exile.
The writer of Hebrews addresses the question, urging his readers again and again to move forward, to press toward the goal, and to resist the urge to return to the familiar.
The preacher’s first warning is to those who are in danger of “drifting” away from the faith, that is, drift back to unbelief, pulled along by those subtle pressures of life that work in resistance to the gospel (Heb 2:1-4).
The preacher’s second warning is to heed the example of the Israelites. They had reached the edge of the Promised Land. They had reached the end of their journey. Yet when they saw the “giants” of the land they were to enter turned back in unbelief and faced the judgment of God. The preacher urges his people forward: “The promise of entering rest still stands, let us be careful that none of us have fallen short of it” (Heb 4:1) and again “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb 4:11).
The preacher’s third warning once again centers on the theme of “falling away” (Heb 6:6). This time, instead of exhorting his people to press onward, he encourages them to “imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what is promised” (Heb 6:12). He provides plenty of examples of pressing on towards the goal in chapter 11.
The preacher’s fourth warning is a call to persevere. The church is called to “draw near,” “hold unswervingly to the hope,” and “spur one another one” all in light of the final Day (Heb 10:22-25). That is, the commands to persevere and commands given in hope of the future reality of the land we are moving toward. This hope is a “rich reward” for those who persevere (Heb 10:35).
The preacher uses the “hall of faith” to put an even finer point on the matter:
Reflecting on Abraham, who had left all of what was familiar in Haran, the preacher says, “People who say such things show they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared a city for them.” Abraham the sojourner knew returning to the home he had left was impossible. His lack of opportunity was not a logistical problem. He had no opportunity to return because his eyes were so focused on the “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Abraham was not the only one with his eyes to the future. The preacher describes Moses in precisely the same way. “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking forward to his reward” (Heb 11:26). The same is true for all the saints in Hebrews 11. Their faith was characterized by a “confidence in what we hope for” (Heb 11:1). Even those who accepted martyrdom did so because they looked forward to a “better resurrection” (Heb 11:35).
At the finale of this section the preacher points his readers to Jesus, the quintessential sojourner. We are called to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” all as we run the race. We are not blazing a new path, but one that has been run many more times. It has been run by our very Savior. He Himself was a stranger on earth. He was rejected. He experienced shame. He endured the cross. He was glorified. He now sits at the right hand of the throne of God.
The church has always been a colony of foreigners in a foreign land, though at various times and places it has been very easy for the church to feel at home in the structures, systems, and culture of our world. I believe we are awakening to the reality of our true position. As we do we will face the same temptation that every other sojourner and exile faces, the temptation to lose our distinct reality and drift away from those offensive elements of our faith, or drift away from the faith entirely. I believe the writer of Hebrews would urge us forward. “At least in Egypt we won’t starve or be murdered by giants” the Israelites said. True, but we also won’t receive the fullness of the promise of God.