Jesus: Stranger and Exile

And so continues by research into the question: What does it mean for Christians to live out their lives as strangers and exiles in the world?

Since we Christians take Jesus as our Supreme example in all matters of Christian living, it is fitting to ask the question: Was Jesus an example of what it means to be a stranger and an exile? One of my Bible dictionaries told me the answer was “yes” so I decided to explore it a bit more and underlined everything in the gospel of John related to the topic. Here is the fruit of that labor.

Journey motif

The journey motif is central to the idea of being a stranger. This is most obviously true of Abraham and Moses. One of the first things we observe in the gospel of John is the journey motif as it applies to Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, and ascension.

Jesus was “sent” by his Father into the world (3:34, 5:23, 24) and is described as the one who “came” into the world (1:11). In the other gospels Jesus is always seen traveling about. This is not as prominent in John but in one telling verse after especially strong opposition from the Jewish leaders, Jesus is essentially “exiled” to the village Ephraim in a region near the wilderness (11:54). In the synoptic gospels Jesus’ homeless status is made clear when Jesus states, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20, Luke 9:58).

If Jesus set out on a journey at his incarnation and lived as a transient during his time of ministry, he faced the ultimate “exile” in the crucifixion. But he was also a man with a destination. He knew that he would be returning to the Father (8:14, 21; 20:17) in order to prepare a place for those who would believe in Him (14:1-4).

Jesus’ relation to the world

It is not enough to say simply that Jesus was on a journey. To be a foreigner or an exile He must be in foreign territory. Was Jesus’ a foreigner in the world?

In one sense, Jesus was as far from being a foreigner as one could get. After all, the physical world, if it is anyone’s, is God’s. Jesus came to the world that He made (1:3) and He even came to His own people (1:11, that is, the Jewish people). When Jesus entered into the Temple and saw the money changers he was inflamed with zeal because of what had been done to His Father’s house (2:16-17).

But, though the world belonged to Jesus, as did the people to whom He came, as did the Temple in which he entered, he was rejected. He was like a King returning to his land to find that it had been conquered by an enemy force. It is his land but he finds nothing but enemies there. That king is on a mission, to free it from the hands of the enemy. This is what Jesus does in the incarnation, he comes into the world that, while it is his own, is under another power, filled with people loyal to that new power. Jesus is a man on a mission. He came to redeem and to win back what was rightfully his, but in doing so he takes on the position of a foreigner.

C.S. Lewis provided an excellent description of the incarnation that I think captures this same perspective, though with a different metaphor.

“In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity… down to the very seabed of the Nature he created. But he goes down to go up again and bring the whole ruined world up with him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He stoops in order to lift, he must disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.” (C.S. Lewis, Miracles)

If this is the case the next question we must ask is: Why was Jesus rejected? What other power did Jesus come to rescue us from?

Why was Jesus rejected?

The gospel of John answers this question in several ways. Jesus (the Light) was rejected because men love darkness because their deeds are evil (3:19). He was hated because he testified that what men did was evil (7:7). At the root of their actions was a false religion. Jesus states on multiple occasions that He was rejected because his opponents did not “know” the Father (7:28) and because they do not “belong” to the Father (8:47). In fact, not only do they not “belong” to the Father but they have another father entirely, the devil, and so carry out his commands (8:44).

Once the true worship of God has been done away with we are able to see the false gods of Jesus’ opponents. One false god is the Law, particularly the legalistic rules surrounding the honoring of the Sabbath. It is because the Sabbath is worshipped instead of God, who made the Sabbath that the Pharisees failed to rightly judge Jesus (7:24). Another god is security. As Jesus gained popularity the Sanhedrin decided to step up their efforts to take him down because, they said, “if we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (11:48, see also 19:15). A third false god was the praise of men. Many, though not outright opponents of Jesus, were afraid to follow him because they feared being put out of the synagogue, therefore losing the praise of men (12:43).

It is worth noting that those who most furiously opposed Jesus, and who Jesus associates with “the world” in the gospel of John, are not the so-called sinners. Instead, it is the most intently religious, those who most forcefully pride themselves on how well they keep the commands of God.

The World

Speaking of “the world”, some clarification on this point is due. On the one hand, “the world” is the object of God’s love and the reason for which Jesus came and willingly gave up his life. On the other hand, “the world” is that which opposes Jesus. Jesus can say to his opponents, “You are of this world; I am not of this world” (8:23). In fact he must “overcome the world” (16:33). His kingdom is a kingdom “not of this world” (18:36).

I think this apparent contradiction can be understood using the above metaphor of the returning king. Jesus is the king returning to his kingdom, the object of his love, and to the people of his kingdom. But there is another power at play which must be opposed (sin and the devil) which is so pervasive so that it might really be called “the world”. The people have been deceived into a false allegiance and, in fact, have become willing participants in an outright rebellion. Their sin (and again we must emphasize that it is primarily the sin of the religious people) blinded them to the Light of the world.

The Hinge

When Jesus comes into the world, then, he comes as a dividing force. His presence forces people to choose their allegiance. Will their allegiance be to the false gods of religious systems or will it be to the true King Jesus? This decision hinges on what they believe about Jesus. It is those who believe that have eternal life (6:47). The disciples stick with Jesus because they know that He is the Holy One and that he has the words of life (6:68, 69). It is through belief that Jesus’ disciples can receive living water (7:38). Those who believe enter into the kingdom under the allegiance of Jesus. Those who refuse to believe that Jesus is the Messiah hold onto their false allegiance and, Jesus warns, will die in their sins.

Jesus the Conqueror

If Jesus is the returning and conquering king, how does he conquer? How does he win? Certainly the disciples probably expected a real military conquest, but Jesus had no such plan in mind. He declares “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:31-32). This “lifting up” was not a description of his glorification, at least not immediately, but of his humiliation in his crucifixion. It was a description of how he would die (12:33).

In his death he offered his body as the true bread from heaven which could impart not momentary satiation of an appetite, but eternal life from God. It is a bread which can only be received through faith.

In conclusion, Jesus was a stranger on earth not because he was a “spiritual” being in a physical world but because He came from and honored Father God in a world that had turned away to false gods. He was rejected because the world had already rejected the Father.

Jesus’ disciples

Jesus’ disciples are “strangers” in this world like Jesus. Like Jesus they are not “of the world.” His disciples have been “chosen” out of the world (15:18-19; 17:6) because Jesus has “sanctified them with the truth” (17:14, 17). To be sanctified is to be set apart. Jesus’ act of sanctification, of selection, is a way that Jesus reconciles believers to himself but in doing so also alienates them from the world, from the worship of the false gods the world has turned to.

Jesus’ disciples should expect the same treatment as Jesus. They should expect a mixed reaction. Some will respond to Jesus and some will reject Him. Those who reject Him will also reject His disciples. Nevertheless, Jesus does not pray for His disciples to be taken out of the world. Instead he prays for their protection and their sanctification. It’s pretty clear from the rest of the gospel, and from the rest of the Biblical record, that this is not necessarily a protection from danger. Instead, in pairing it with a prayer for sanctification in John 17, it is clear that Jesus is asking the Father to protect them from sin and apostasy.

On this reading of John a particular phrase stuck out to me as never before. The phrase is translated in the NIV as being “put out of the synagogue.” After Jesus healed the blind man the Pharisees questioned the man’s parents but they did not want to answer because “they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22). Some individuals believed that Jesus was the Messiah but would not openly acknowledge their faith “for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue” (12:42). Jesus warns his disciples that “they will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who killed you will think they are offering service to God” (16:2). Being “put out the synagogue” is a sort of religious exile, being cut off from the religious practices and community of the surrounding culture.

But the disciples relation to their world (and again, in John, “the world” actually equals the religious world which has rejected Christ) is not entirely antagonistic. The world is something which Jesus overcomes, but it is also the thing to which Jesus is sent, the object of God’s love. Likewise, Jesus’ disciples are sent “into” the world on a great mission. Their mission is to bear witness to Jesus through love and persuasion, and so bring others to believe in Jesus and thereby into eternal life (17:20-23). Jesus’ disciples are to live as strangers and aliens, set apart because of their faith in God and their true worship through Jesus, bearing witness to the Messiah.

In all this they live and act with great hope. As anyone on a journey they live with the hope of a destination. Jesus has gone before to prepare a place, and he will return one day in glory.