Aliens, Exiles & Sojourners (Gospel Citizens #3)

In parts 1 & 2 of this series, “Gospel Citizens,” we considered the New Testament’s presentation of Christians as citizens of heaven and united, fellow citizens of the new society God is establishing through Christ.  Today we consider the flipside: full belonging in God’s society means we cannot really be at home in this world. 

Brisbane locals, especially graduates of the University of Queensland, will be familiar with the name Forgan-Smith. Building #1 at the university is named after the 24th Premier of Queensland. During his last year in office the Premier gave a very interesting order. He wanted authorities to hunt for aliens in Queensland – and if any were found they were to be locked up.

Forgan-Smith didn’t invent the X-Files or Men in Black half a century before they hit our screens. The year was 1942 and with the threat of invasion from the north looming over Australia there was an unusual addition to the list of things that could get you locked away in Queensland. All you needed was to be a German citizen, a Japanese migrant, an Italian – or in any way suspected of being sympathetic, loyal or connected to somewhere the government saw as a threat to Australia. Many of these “aliens” were treated with suspicion and hostility in their communities – 3624 of them were detained under broad warrants and placed in internment camps in places such as Enoggera.

Being identified with a country which had a hostile relationship with Australia during this time meant the loss of a place in the community, loss of reputation and often the loss of property, freedom and family. If you were suspected to have values or loyalties that were not compatible with Australia, you were an outsider – or worse – an enemy within.

Sounds harsh doesn’t it? Unfortunately Christians can experience something very similar. There is a certain degree of hostility from this world towards the kingdom we belong to. We can find ourselves mistrusted as foreign elements with divided loyalties. In some countries being a Christian gets you locked up. Even when we don’t experience open hostility, there is an abiding sense of not belonging to a world set against God.

Those who seek God’s city, are outsiders on earth.  

The Book of Hebrews chooses an interesting example of living as an outsider on earth.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (11:8-16).

The above passage would have been shocking to a Jewish audience, as it suggests that Abraham lived in Canaan – the promised land of milk and honey – as though it were a foreign land (v. 9). Though he was dwelling in the land that would be possessed by his descendants as a homeland, for more than a century he lived there like someone who wasn’t at home, but rather on a long journey.

Nearly 7 years ago I went on a mission trip to Indigenous communities in rural Queensland and the Northern Territory. The team I was part of slept in swags for fourteen nights in a row – finally using tents for the last few nights of the trip to avoid being devoured by giant mosquitoes. We lived in such a way because we were on a long journey and only stopping for a single night in most places. Something more permanent like a room or even a bed had to wait until we arrived back at home.

J Coulson NT mission 012
Photo Credit: John Coulson

Abraham lived like this for a whole lot longer because “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (v. 10). While he lacked the revelation we have in the New Testament about the Eternal City of God, Abraham nevertheless knew, by faith, that his home was with God and lived like his time on earth was just a passing phase.

Abraham’s time in tents, waiting to arrive at his true home, lasted for the entirety of his time on earth, v. 13. After spending his life living in temporary accommodation at various sites in Canaan, Abraham dies before seeing the fulfilment of God’s promise of countless descendants and the city with eternal foundations. But he had seen them by faith, as a future reality that God would bring to pass. And so in the meantime, he and his sons lived their lives as a confession that they were “strangers and exiles” on the earth.

These words are opposite to “citizen.” Foreign people who don’t really belong. People who aren’t permanent residents where they live. Abraham actually referred to himself in this way back in Genesis 23, when speaking to the Hittite tribal leaders who lived in Canaan. “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” (v. 4)

Hebrews is saying that Abraham wasn’t just being modest. He saw himself as a foreigner and temporary resident in the land, because it just wasn’t good enough to be the fullness of what God had promised. v. 14, shows he was still seeking a homeland. Canaan was a good land. But if Abraham had an iPod, he would’ve gone to sleep in his tent every night playing U2’s I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

Abraham & Us

The big difference between Abraham and us is that while we still wait for the full enjoyment of our city – we know where we’re going. We’ve read Revelation 21. And there’s a sense in which we’ve already arrived. Hebrews 12:22 says “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” Hebrews says: “Christian! You’re already there!”

What does this mean?

v. 24 says we’ve also come “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Jesus Christ, through His bloody, sacrificial death and then His resurrection and ascension has manifested God’s Kingdom and brought us to the heavenly city. As we live out the reality we saw in Ephesians last week, of being a community of fellow-citizens who are being built up into a temple that God is going to come and live in – we’re already experiencing the beginning of our eternal future in God’s city.

Our focus shifts from Abraham to Jesus. Because to gain our citizenship and belonging in God’s city – the King of Heaven became the ultimate outsider on the earth.  

Hebrews 13:10-14. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

To deal with our sins, Jesus was taken “outside the gate” and offered as a sacrifice in the same place that the carcasses of animal sacrifices had always been burned. By doing this – Jesus made us holy – His sacrifice was acceptable to God and as a result, so are you if you’ve trusted Jesus and what He did.

But being executed as a criminal outside of the city boundaries showed that at the same time, Jesus was rejected by men. Rejected by Jerusalem – the capital of God’s covenant people the Jews and condemned by Rome – the greatest city in the pagan world.

Trusting in Jesus as your Saviour means acceptance from God. Following Jesus as your Master means rejection from those who belong not to God, but to this world. Hebrews 13:13 – Let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured.

For those first readers, this meant leaving the security and social status that came from towing the line in the Jewish religious community – where being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth was not welcomed. It was costly and comfort and respectability was tempting.

For us today it means stepping away from the “in-crowd” and bearing the scorn that’s directed at Jesus. Not because our primary identity is that of rejects or outsiders. But because we belong to Jesus and are seeking the city of God, which earns us the rejection of others.

It’s not an easy matter, but we’re reassured that we can bear the rejection, discrimination, loss of social standing and persecution in human society because,here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

Just like “aliens” were suspected and mistreated in Queensland during the wars – you and I get treated as outsiders because we belong to another place, which many regard with hostility. But in the midst of this – we hold to our identity and keep seeking the day when we see God’s promises fulfilled.

Because unlike the interned outsiders in WWII, our country will show itself triumphant over all its rivals. Every hostile city, culture, or social environment you find yourself in will soon surrender to Jesus and those who’ve persecuted His people will be held to account.

Will we be outsiders now on earth and insiders in God’s everlasting kingdom? Or will we conform to the ways of this world to fit in – even if it puts us at risk of being eternal outsiders – forever shut out of the goodness and joy God showers on His citizens?

One final point worth reflecting on is the relationship between this aspect of our identity and the one we looked at last time.

Because every Christian must endure the hardship of being an outsider in the world, it’s vital that no one should be made to feel like an outsider in the church as well. This is a doubly cruel burden for any saint to have to bear and when we exclude Christians from full belonging in our communities we not only deny the truth of our united identity, but in fact we show ourselves to be guilty of worldliness when we should be exhibiting Christlikeness.

Hebrews tells us we have come to the city of the living God. The people we are in church with are the people we will spend eternity with. When the heavenly city comes in all its fullness every Christian of every kind of background or personality will inherit it as citizens. We are outsiders in this world, but we shouldn’t be loners.

Let’s strive to make this pilgrimage together as a community and encourage one another to maintain hope and endure hardships for the Lord Jesus Christ.

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