Are Christians still pilgrims?

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An excerpt from David Hegeman’s book, Plowing In Hope:

Are Christians still pilgrims?

The Greek word parepidemos is used to describe God’s saints in 1 Peter 1:1 and 2:11. This term (appearing always in the plural in the NT) is often rendered ‘pilgrims’ or ‘sojourners’ or ‘aliens’ in English. It expresses the idea of one who is traveling away from home, whose present residence is only temporary. Thus the term is used in Hebrews 11:13 to refer to the OT patriarchs who, because they had not yet possessed their homeland, were wanderers on the earth. The notion of the Christian as pilgrim, when combined with other verses in Scripture (e.g., Eph. 2:6, 19; Phil. 3:20) which allude to our citizenship in heaven, is often thought to mean that the earth is not our home; that we are waiting for a better, heavenly reality which has nothing to do with this present world. Augustine coined the phrase ‘resident aliens’ to describe the state of believers who currently find themselves living on the earth. To many Christians it seems foolhardy to invest significant effort in the cultural development of the earth if we do not, in fact, belong here.

But the scripture passages are plentiful which teach that the earth—albeit renewed and glorified—will be our new home (Is. 60; 65:17ff; Mt. 5:5; Rom.8:21; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21-22); that we are destined to continue to have a physical existence in glorified bodies (Cor. 15:35ff; Phil. 3:21); and that we will continue to rule the New Earth (Rev. 22:5) and serve God (Rev. 7:15) as we did in Eden. If this present earth is indeed our eventual home, as it was for Adam, why did the apostle Paul call his readers aliens? One possible reason why the saints of Asia Minor were called aliens was the hostile, pagan culture which was a constant threat to the churches in this region. (It was here that Roman persecution was often most severe.) As the Church was to prosper in later times, gaining the upper hand as it did, for example, in Reformation countries, the label ‘pilgrim’ would have lost much of its resonance for contemporary readers. Nevertheless, it is true that Christians of any era must face the continuing existence of evil and the effects of sin in society. In this sense we are alienated from all that is ungodly in this present world.

I would suggest that Augustine had it backwards: That we are not ‘resident aliens’ but alienated residents. We are grieved at the present state of affairs on our beloved earth and long and pray for its liberation from the curse and sin (Rom. 8:19ff; Lk. 11:2). Our situation can be compared to a prince who is living in cognito in a rebel province belonging to his father, the king. This territory will one day be rightfully his, but right now the prince risks great harm from his insurgent neighbors if his true identity were ever to be revealed. Thus this prince would be an alien in his own country. We Christians find ourselves in a similar situation. As heirs of the promised inheritance (Gal. 3:27; Eph. 1:11, 6:3), we find ourselves in a world full of evil, sin, and misery. But we live with the hope that the rebels will be forcibly removed from the earth (Mt. 13:41), and once it is renewed and refurnished, we will be returned to our home to live for ever and ever in God’s glorious presence.

pp. 84-87

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