Living in Exile as a Child of God

All humanity lives in exile of one sort or another. Natural man lives “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Even those who are “fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19) and whose “conversation (citizenship) is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), live as “strangers and pilgrims (aliens) on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). 

The concept of the Christian life as an exile is not a favorite school of thought in our day, especially in the Western culture where general prosperity gives rise to the materialistic “name it and claim it” doctrines peddled by the preachers of prosperity. Even in more conservative Christian circles, they present exile as a condition that one must overcome through victorious living. 

The Apostle Paul, however, embraces the reality of exile and addresses those who live by faith as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). Peter continues this theme by referring to the earthly life of the redeemed as “the time of your sojourning” (1 Peter 1:17). Sojourning here comes from the Greek paroikia, meaning to have a temporary residence in a foreign land (Acts 13:17; 1 Pet. 1:17).

We do not teach the doctrine of exile to create fear and discomfort in the lives of believers, but to give a reason for the way things are. Jesus did not sugarcoat the alienation His disciples would experience in this world. He prepared them to meet the challenge head-on. “Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Matthew 10:22). “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Since Jesus’ Kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36), neither are his followers. “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:14). 

The exile of the Jews in Babylon stands as a metaphor for the condition of God’s people in every age. Accepting our role as exiles provides us with rhyme and reason for things as they are, so that we are more equipped to confront reality and live in the hope of a brighter future.

Aliens, foreigners, exiles often live their lives in the quiet desperation of a people rejected by the society in which they live. The family of God suffers such rejection and life becomes at time difficult to endure.

If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

John 16:33

The divide between the enemies of Christ in the world and the family of God becomes more pronounced as time progresses. 

Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. 

Matthew 24:9-12

But for God’s exiles, that’s not the end of the story. Rejection by the world in this present time serves to augment the promise of a brighter future when the downtrodden exiles in this life inherit the eternal kingdom of God. “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

Modern attempts to cover up the prospect of suffering and alienation by promising material prosperity and carnal delights do more harm than good. Their false doctrine robs God’s people of their blessed hope that far supersedes the accumulation of worldly goods. During the Babylonian captivities, false prophets appeared on the scene, presenting a distorted picture of the way things were. Jeremiah addresses this in his letter to the exiles.

Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you, neither hearken to your dreams which ye cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely unto you in my name: I have not sent them, saith the LORD.

Jeremiah 29:8, 9 

What were they prophesying? A false hope that the captivities would soon be over, they’d quickly return home, and all would be well again. They preached what the people wanted to hear. “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14). Jeremiah further warns the exiles to be wary of these Old Testament preachers of prosperity in Jeremiah 23:16-17. 

Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the LORD. They say still unto them that despise me, The LORD hath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you.

Jeremiah 23:16

Their lies promised superficial relief to the exiles, but only delivered a false hope that obscured the truth of true deliverance according to God’s perfect plan for their future.

For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end … I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places whither I have driven you, saith the LORD; and I will bring you again into the place whence I caused you to be carried away captive.

Jeremiah 29:10, 11, 14.

But living as exiles on earth goes beyond biding our time until Christ comes again. God’s sojourners serve a higher purpose than mere waiting. Jesus makes it clear in his prayer that His disciples are “not of the world” (John 17:16). But he also reveals why He prayed not that the Father “shouldest take them out of the world” (John 17:15). God uses his people as witnesses of the truth in the land of their exile. “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).

Jesus tells his reviled and persecuted people, “Ye are the salt of the earth” and “Ye are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14).

Exile isn’t merely a condition to be endured, but an opportunity to represent God among the nations. Who can know the length of Israel’s influence in the land of their captivity? Think of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. We can find no greater testimony to the sovereignty of God than Nebuchadnezzar’s words at the end of his days (Daniel 4:34-37). Or what of Joseph in Egypt and Esther in Persia? Lights among the nations serving as God’s agents among their captors.

“Ye are my witnesses” God told the Babylonian exiles through the mouth of Isaiah (Isaiah 43:10).

As sojourners in the modern Babylon in which God’s people live, we, too, have the opportunity to be God’s witnesses to the world. Lights on an otherwise very dark planet.

Jesus warns his disciples that life cannot be easy for those who are not of this world. But, while you’re here, choose a better path than those Jewish exiles in Babylon who hung their harps on the willows and wept, asking, “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137). God has a higher purpose for you and me as pilgrims in this strange land. “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21).

Encouraging God’s people to acknowledge that they are strangers and exiles on the earth is not a negative or discouraging doctrine. Understanding our life as an exile provides a true perspective of the transient nature of the present against the backdrop of “that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).