Why Are God’s People Called “Pilgrims”?


by Wayne S. Walker

     One of the groups which are always studied in early American history are "the Pilgrims" who landed at Plymouth, MA, in 1620. They called themselves "pilgrims" because first, they were English people who had lived in Holland for a time to escape persecution, and second, they were English people who were coming to live in a new land. Our English word "pilgrim" is defined as a wanderer or sojourner. It comes from a Latin term meaning foreigner which in turn is made up of two Latin roots, "through" and "country," and thus refers to one who is merely passing through a country and is not an actual citizen of that country. A sojourner is one who lives somewhere temporarily.

     In the Bible, God’s people have sometimes been identified as "pilgrims." "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were asssured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11: In the original language, the word translated "pilgrims" in this passage is actually an adjective which signifies sojourning in a strange place, away from one’s own people. Thayer’s Lexicon says, "One who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives."

     The text applies the term primarily to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who indeed lived in the land of Canaan but were simply wanderers there. Even though God had promised the land to their descendants, they didn’t own it themselves but were simply sojourners. Yet the same principle applies to God’s people today as well. Thayer’s Lexicon also says, "In the N. T., metaphorically, in reference to heaven as the native country, one who sojourns on earth, as of Christians." A foreigner who iss living in a strange land usually still has a house, his family, and most likely other cherished possessions back in the homeland. And Christians have some very important things not here on earth but in heaven. So, why are God’s people called "pilgrims"?


      First, their treasure is not here but in heaven–or at least that is the way it should be. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthes 6:19-21). This does not mean that it is wrong to have treasure on earth period, because we need a certain amount of this earth’s treasure to provide for our needs. Rather it means that we need to remember that there is more to life than just having treasure on earth and thus place more importance on treasures in heaven in preparation for going there. "…Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses" Luke 12:15).

     Jesus went on in the ensuing verses to illustrate this principle with the parable of the rich fool. The man was not condemned because he was a successful businessman, because his crops were plentiful, because he built bigger barns, or because he had treasures on earth, but because he made no provisions for his soul, simply laying up treasures for himself and not being rich toward God. As a result, we need to make sure that we develop the proper attitude towards the riches of this world. In 1 Timothy 6.6-10, Paul reminds us that godliness with contentment is great gain and warns against the desire to be rich and the love of money. How do we lay up treasures in heaven? In 1 Timothy 6:17-19 Paul tells the rich to trust in God and do good to store up a good foundation (treasure in heaven) for the time to come. In short, we lay up treasure in heaven by obeying God and striving to do His will. And Jesus told us that where are treasures are, there will our hearts be also.


     Second, their citizenship is not here but in heaven. "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able to subdue all things to Himself" (Philippians 3:20-21). On this earth, most people are citizens of a nation because they are born there to parents who are citizens there; but we also know that many people leave the lands of their birth to become naturalized citizens of another country. How do we become citizens of God’s spiritual kingdom? "He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13-14). We are delivered from power of darkness and conveyed or translated into His Son’s kingdom by have our sins forgiven.

     However, when does this take place? "Buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses: (Colossians 2:12-13). We are forgiven of sin when we are buried with Him in baptism. Thus, baptism is like the "swearing-in ceremony" of citizenship in God’s kingdom. The main reason why people change citizenship is because they perceive that there is some advantage to being a citizen of the new country; and there certainly are many advantages to being a citizen of God’s spiritual kingdom which is centered in heaven. "For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). Godliness is the character of those who are citizens of God’s kingdom, and it has benefits both in this life and in the life which is to come


      Third, their mind or affections are not here but in heaven. "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:1-2). If a person has his mind set on things in heaven above rather than on the things of the earth, this attitude will be reflected in how he lives: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous of good works" (Titus 2:11-14). When we set our mind on things above, then we shall be looking for the appearing of Jesus Christ and thus order our lives here on earth so as to be prepared as His own special people.

     In fact, this is really what led the patriarchs to consider themselves pilgrims. Yes, they did not own the land in which they lived, but the truth is that they were actually looking for something else anyway. "For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them" (Hebrews 11:14-16). Thus, the writer of Hebrews seeks to encourage his readers to develop the same mindset, saying, "For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come" (Hebrews 13:14). If our minds are on things of this earth, then we shall live like the people of this earth, and we shall have no more than an earthly reward. But if our minds are truly on things above, we shall live as God wants us to live, and we can look forward to that better country.


     This brings us to our fourth point, that their hope is not here but in heaven. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undeviled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed at the last time" (1 Peter 1:3-5). Something to hope for is very important. One of the main reasons that people who commit suicide give in the notes that they leave behind is that they feel that they do not have anything left to hope for. There are many things in this life that we hope for–when we are young, we may hope to graduate from college, find a good job, get married, buy a nice home, have a family, etc. And all these are good. But as we grow older and come face to face with our own mortality, we begin to wonder whether there is anything beyond this life to hope for.

     Whatever hope we might have for life after death cannot be here on this earth, because it is going to be destroyed. "But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up…Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:10-12). So the Bible teaches that the physical heavens and earth will pass away and be burned up. However, Peter mentions a new heaven and a new earth, that is, a completely new and different order of things, which John describes in more detail in Revelation 21:1-8. Those who rebel against God will have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone; but in contrast, those who serve God will receive their hope in the holy city, New Jerusalem, which John saw in his vision coming out of heaven from God


     For all these reasons, Christians are called pilgrims just like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the divine writers appeal to us as pilgrims to order our lives so as to please God. "Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:11-12). We even sing songs about being pilgrims: "Here we are but straying pilgrims, here our path is often dim…," and "This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through; my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue…."

      If we are pilgrims, then we need to live like it. So, as Christians, we must remember that our citizenship and ultimately our hope are not here on this earth, where we live merely as pilgrims, but in heaven. If some reader is not a citizen of God’s spiritual kingdom but you want to have a home in heaven, then you need to obtain the forgiveness of your sins by God’s grace through the blood of Christ by obeying the gospel which includes, as we saw earlier, being buried with Christ in baptism according to Colossians 2.12-13. In a sense, we are all but pilgrims on earth because it will not be long before we pass from this life, and then we must ultimately give account to God for how we have lived during our pilgrimage.

     [—taken from Faith and Facts, April, 2007, Vol. 35, No. 2.]


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