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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I rarely hear references to believers as pilgrims in this world. Was that not a good biblical image?
It’s always been a valuable biblical image to designate the people of God. The tendency now is to use the less-religious idea of a journey. I suppose this has something to do with secularism and political correctness. Consequently, we talk about “my journey in life,” which is a private matter. Let me explore some of the main components of the biblical image of God’s people as pilgrims.
1. People on the Move: It would appear that it is in the context of the Fall that images of pilgrims surface in the Bible. As a result of humanity’s rebellion, God “banished him from the Garden of Eden”; away from the tree of life (Gen. 3:23, NIV). It is even stated that the Lord “drove the man out” (verse 24, NIV). The verb garash (“to expel”) is the same verb used to refer to the divine activity of expelling the sinful Canaanites from their land (e.g., Ex. 33:2; Joshua 24:18; Ps. 78:55). After the Fall, humans lost their land and were heading to a hostile and almost unproductive land (Gen. 3:17-19). Two cherubim “[guarded] the way to the tree of life” (verse 24, NIV). From then on humans lived as pilgrims, or sojourners, on the land that was not originally theirs. The image specifically applies to the patriarchs (Gen. 15:13; 35:27; 47:9) and to the Israelites who left Egypt. The Lord described His people, even after they had been dwelling in the land of Canaan, as sojourners on the land He had provided for them (Lev. 25:23). David reaffirmed this reality (1 Chron. 29:15; Ps. 39:12). God intended to give them a better land, what Isaiah would call “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17).
2. Pilgrims and Identity: It is difficult for foreigners to hide their identity. They differ from natives in the way they dress and speak, and in what they eat. When applied to believers, the image conveys the idea that God’s people are peculiar among the nations of the earth. They are pilgrims because Christ, at the cost of His sacrificial death, called them to become pilgrims; to be in the world but not belong the world; to be holy (Heb. 11:8; 1 Peter 1:17, 18; John 17:14-17). He was the pilgrim par excellence, and became the pilgrims’ “way” of life (John 14:6). Christians, as citizens of the heavenly city, are called to represent the values of their heavenly home through their deportment in every way possible. As aliens and sojourners, they are not to be controlled by the desires of a sinful nature (1 Peter 2:11), but to “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles” (1 Peter 2:12, NASB).* In their pilgrimage in a land of sin and suffering they go through trials, but are encouraged to persevere (1 Peter 1:6, 7).
3. Pilgrims and Hope: The image of God’s people as pilgrims also has a last-day component. The pilgrimage is not a random journey; it is oriented toward a goal. Abram went out “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10, NIV). The pilgrims’ final destination is the place that orients all other places: the dwelling of God. Pilgrims anticipate when they will find themselves at the cosmic center of worship to bow down in adoration and gratitude to their Creator and Redeemer. This will take place at the Second Coming, when Christ will fulfill the promise made to His disciples to take them to His Father’s house (John 14:1-3). For now, pilgrims journey toward the heavenly city, the better country (Heb. 11:16), possessing that specific goal by faith in divine promises. Concerning previous pilgrims, it is said that “they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (verse 13, NIV). Pilgrims hold on to God’s promises in absolute trust. At the same time they tell others that they are pilgrims, and invite others to join them in their travel to where God dwells at the center of the cosmos.