On Being a Pilgrim People

The relationship between the people of God and the world which God has created is a lengthy and complex subject. Christians have had different ideas about how we should relate to this present world. It is not my intention here to even remotely seek to properly enter into that enormous discussion.

But a few quick points can be mentioned. God’s people have always been a pilgrim people. We are just a passin’ through, as the old hymn goes. We can never become too comfortable in this world, as we await a newer, better world.

But at the same time we are called to live out our faith in the world we find ourselves in. Thus there will always be a tension in the Christian life. On the one hand, we are “strangers in a strange land” as Moses says (Exodus 2:22). On the other, we are to be salt and light in the world we live in, as Jesus says (Matthew 5:13-16).

We are, in other words, in the world but not of it, as Jesus mentions in John 17:14-15. How this is all to be fleshed out is, as I say, a major point of debate, and different believers of course have had different takes on this issue. But I want to pick up on this theme where I left off in a recent post.

Just recently I wrote about the Babylonian captivity, and how Israel fared as a people in exile: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/07/05/by-the-rivers-of-babylon/
I wrote there about how the church today is also in a captivity of its own, but that our attitudes tend to be far different from those of most Jews in Babylon.

Here I want to complete the story of this captivity. One of the most incredible passages in Scripture concerning this period in Israel’s history is Jeremiah 29. It is a remarkable passage, given what Israel was going through. The Jews of course wanted to get back home as soon as possible, and certain prophets were telling them that this would happen very soon indeed.

But they were false prophets, not God’s prophets (vv. 8-9). Thus real prophets before and during the exile – like Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel – had to tell Israel the truth. And that truth was that they were going to be in captivity for quite some time. Indeed, Jeremiah says it will be for seventy years (v.10). (This may well be a round number. But if we reckon from the defeat of the Assyrian Empire in 609 BC to the defeat of the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, then it is indeed a seventy year period.)

Thus Jeremiah tells the Hebrew captives to think about settling down. He actually tells them to build houses, plant gardens and get married – all in pagan Babylon (vv. 4-6). And then most incredibly of all, he says this: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (v. 7).

Pray for those lousy pagans? Seek their welfare? This is incredible. Yet it was the word of Yahweh to those captive Hebrews. And it is also a word for us. You see, the truth is, we are always citizens of two kingdoms: the earthly and the heavenly. We exist in both, and have responsibilities to both.

Augustine could write his classic work, The City of God in which he speaks of the two cities that we find ourselves in. So he rightly recognised that we have dual citizenship. And of course he was being quite biblical in recognising this. The New Testament writers made it clear that the church is in a sense in the continuation of the Hebrew exile. We are also part of the dispersed people. In fact, in James 1:1 and 1 Peter 1:1 that very term, diaspora, is used.

As we await the New Jerusalem, we are still in Babylon. So how do we live in this cultural captivity? What is our response to be? How should we then live? (Ez. 33:10). Jer. 29:7 seems to be part of the answer. We are to seek the welfare of the places we find ourselves in, be it Australia, America, or wherever.

Thus the Christian’s task has never been one of simply trying to get individual souls into a wispy heaven. We have a very real task right now to seek to see God’s will realised on planet earth. In case you think this to be unbiblical, I remind you of the words of Jesus in his famous exemplary prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

So the salt and light business which Jesus spoke about is not some optional extra. It is actually part of the Christian job description, and something which every single one of us is commanded to carry out. Again, this will take many different forms and expressions. And how we are best to carry out these functions will not always be clear or easily discerned.

But that is part of what we are called to be and do as Christians. Yes we are a pilgrim people, and yes this is a world contaminated by sin and rebellion. But it is also a world which God has made, and he will redeem it for his good purposes. Indeed, the new heaven and new earth, however we understand them, seem to be perhaps a continuation of the present ones.

Interestingly, a recent book has sought to make the same case. I only just received it in the mail, part of a package of books from Amazon. It just so happens that the last book penned by Richard John Neuhaus before his untimely death earlier this year deals with this very theme. It is called, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile (Basic Books, 2009).

Neuhaus reminds us that “The People of God is a pilgrim people”. Thus, “For those whose primary allegiance is to the City of God, every foreign country is a homeland and every homeland a foreign country”. He concludes his book with these words:

“It is a time of many times: a time for dancing, even if to the songs of Zion in a foreign land; a time for walking together, unintimidated when we seem to be a small and beleaguered band; a time for rejoicing in momentary triumphs, and for defiance in momentary defeats; a time for persistence in reasoned argument, never tiring in proposing to the world a more excellent way; a time for generosity toward those who would make us their enemy; and, finally, a time for happy surrender to brother death—but not before, through our laughter and tears, we see and hail from afar the New Jerusalem and know that it is all time toward home.”

I like his sentiments. Indeed, he spent most of his life thinking and writing about these sorts of topics. His very famous and influential 1984 volume, The Naked Public Square sought to examine how believers should live in light of “the enforced privatisation of religion and religiously informed morality”.

In his new book he comments on the Jeremiah 29 passage: “The time away from their true home was a time of waiting, but not only of waiting. They were to be engaged in the tasks of that time and place. It could have been otherwise. It could have been a time consumed by bitterness, a place of unrelieved pining for what they had lost. . . . To seek the peace and welfare of Babylon is to seek improvement, and another word for improvement is ‘progress’. Devotion to progress is devotion to the common good, including the good of those citizens of Babylon who seek no other city.”

That is why the Christian church has always insisted that the proclamation of the gospel is to be accompanied by acts of kindness, mercy ministries and social betterment. Wherever Christian missionaries went, they set up hospitals, helped women and children, cared for the sick and needy, taught literacy, established schools, worked with prisoners, and so on.

They sought the welfare of the city, in other words. And that is our calling today. That in part is the rationale for this website. I want not just to see individual souls saved; I want to see society transformed by the grace of God. Now is not the time to sit back and bewail our condition.

Sure, we should grieve over the anaemic condition of the church. But we should also be up to our ears in business for the kingdom, and that includes seeking the welfare of the Babylon that we find ourselves in. We may be a pilgrim people, but we are also a people with a very real mission on this planet.

[1477 words]

18 Replies to “On Being a Pilgrim People”

  1. Thanks Bill.
    As I mentioned to you a couple of days ago, the primary metaphor for the Christian Church until the C11th was that of the band of pilgrims, who are “strangers and exiles in this world” (Heb.11:13), who are heading to “a better country”.
    I have noticed over many years that religious liberals hate this whole notion of the pilgrim church. It offends their “social justice” agenda; they claim it calls Christians to opt out of worldly involvement; it underscores the “pie in the sky” outlook. They pour scorn and derision on such hymns as that of isaac Watts,

    “Then let our songs abound,
    And every tear be dry;
    We’re marching though Immanuel’s ground
    To fairer worlds on high.”

    But Jeremiah 29 is the answer to all such objections, and indeed it is the Lord’s mandate while we remain part of the Dispersion (James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). It is a clear, if limited mandate: on one hand it bids us to seek the welfare of the city/country where we live, but on the other it forbids us from becoming so attached to that city/country that we identify its programme with that of the Gospel. British Christians did this in the C19th; American Christians did this in the C20th.
    There’s more: Jer.29 forbids us from trying to build Christian states or theocracies, a “kingdom of God on earth”, whether the Constantinian variety, the Byzantine variety, the Papal variety, the Cromwellian variety, or for that matter, the modern Christian Social Democrat variety.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. Thanks Murray

    Just out of curiosity, would you then see Calvin’s Geneva or Knox’s Scotland forbidden as well? It starts getting a bit complex here it seems, and I suppose it all depends on what one means by a theocracy.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. I once heard a preacher scolded his congregation for being so Heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use. Sometimes I wish it were so, but the reality is that the reverse is true, and that is modern Christians are so earthly minded that they are of no Heavenly use.

    The Christian forefathers consciously recognised their position as pilgrims and heeded well the call of Jeremiah and so put their hope in the Heavenly home first in their hearts, without neglecting thier responsibilties to society on this side of life. Hence many of the educational institutions, hospitals, social and welfare works, etc were their great contributions, along side their great missionary achievement.

    Today, modern Christians are attracted to Christianity by what they can get out of God in this life – gold and silver, success and achievement, happiness,and anything that will make one feel good and comfortable etc. Heaven is furthest from their minds and to some even unreal and just a ‘hope’ as against a sure thing. ‘Abundant life’ is more about the here and now, and if you don’t have it, then you missed out on what God promises to all believers on earth. And this really is the product of what is widely and intensely preached in the church today. So, far from regarding ourselves as pilgrims, Christians have become very attached to and comfortable in their positions as citizens of this world. Heaven is just an after thought or thought of only nearing the end of our lives.

    This reminder from Jeremiah is really good and appropriate and should be preached in churches on a regular basis because we are all apt to forget and get ourselves very attached and bound to earth. Thanks Bill.

    Barry Koh

  4. Thankyou, that was an interesting post.

    I agree, we are to be salt and light in a world of darkness. We are the light in this world and while we still can preach the gospel of hope to a hopeless world, we should because a time will come when it will be a criminal offence or death sentence to do so. Jhn 9:4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. Our role isnt to create this New Jeruselum on earth, that wont occur until the Lord Jesus returns again to set up this new kingdom himself. Before that happens tribulation must come. Act 14:22 Confirming the souls of the disciples, [and] exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.

    Your comment “the Christian’s task has never been one of simply trying to get individual souls into a wispy heaven” I must disagree, the christians task is to preach the gospel of goodnews to the lost and warn them of their future distruction. Mar 16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. I must disagree also, heaven isnt wispy in fact its where the King of Kings lives.

    You suggested how to live in Babylon, I would suggest that we are not to live like the heathens do, but to be separate, live in the world but not of the world. 2Cr 6:17 Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean [thing]; and I will receive you.

    Your comment “We have a very real task right now to seek to see God’s will realised on planet earth” My opinion is that the Lord is still on the Throne and he is more than capable of achieving his own will on planet earth, our task is to seek the Lord in our lives first and all of the rest, He will sort out. Luk 12:31 But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you.

    I agree, we are a pilgram people with a very real mission on this earth.

    Donna Opie

  5. Thanks Donna

    But I did not say we should not preach the gospel. I simply said there is more to the Christian’s job that just that. And I used the word “wispy” to refer to the way many believers think about heaven: that we will simply float around on clouds strumming harps. Our eternal destination is more real and firm than that: a new earth as well as a new heaven.

    As to Babylon, we have a biblical example of how to live in it: Daniel and his friends. They were very much immersed in the culture, politics and language of Babylon, yet did so without compromise. We are also to be involved in the world we live in, yet without compromise. Thus we are not to seek to run away from the world and hide from it, but be involved in it for the sake of the kingdom, being salt and light as Jesus commanded.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Hi Bill.
    You asked about Calvin’s Geneva or Knox’s Scotland, and one could throw in the Puritan colonies of C17th America for that matter. I still maintain the position outlined above: forming Christian states I believe is wrong-headed in principle, and also in practice the various experiments have failed for the simple reason that trying to impose Christian values on an unwilling populace by legislation will never work. That’s where Cromwell’s Commonwealth failed: the English public at the time did not accept it, and so they threw it all away and went wholesale for the debaucheries and profligacy of the Restoration period. In short, you will never produce a Christian commonwealth by Acts of Parliament!

    On the contrary, Daniel 7 teaches us, I believe, that Christians live and work under the rule of Gentile powers until the Second Coming. Then and only then will the theocracy (properly a Christocracy) be realised. Wanting it all now, i.e. the fulness of the Kingdom, is but an example of impatience, an unwillingness to await God’s good time.

    On the other hand I would concede that if there ever came a revival and there were enough Christians in the society to enact Christian legislation then one should proceed. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury are good examples of this. But alas, our present world is far from that of C19th Britain, controlled as it is by the United Nations and its secular agenda, even reaching into the affairs of supposedly sovereign states.

    In summary, we must have an eye to the issues of this world, and exert our influence as far as we are able; but we must have the other eye “looking for and hastening toward the coming Day of God, …when there will come a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12-13). Therein is my problem with post-millennialism and all notions of ‘man – even Christian man – “building the Kingdom of God”, i.e. a false eschatology.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  7. Thanks Murray

    I am not quite so critical of some of these attempts as you are. And I could debate some of the points you raise, but Christians do agree to disagree here.

    Of course in a fallen world no attempt at bringing the kingdom of God to earth will fully succeed, although in varying ways we can try to see God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But since I am still reading Neuhaus, let me mention him once again.

    His book is about how as exiles we are to live our lives in the Babylon we find ourselves in. Throughout history this has taken different forms of course. What we call Christendom, “which runs roughly from the fourth century to the sixteenth,” has had some high points – as well as low points. While he does not mention the examples we have just discussed, he does say this:

    “Christendom sometimes provided an almost seamless fusion of the city of man with the City of God. It was exile without alienation, as though nature and grace converged in providing a fitting home here and an assured graduation, in due course, from the earthly city to the New Jerusalem.”

    I quite agree. But he also admits that “that Christendom is no longer available to Christians today, and it is hardly possible to imagine how it could ever be again.” One can debate whether he is being overly pessimistic here. Is not a sovereign God able to yet again to some great things on planet earth, including political and social structures? Time will tell.

    Finally, as to postmillennialism, I don’t think most of its proponents would describe their view of things merely as “men building the kingdom”. But that is another debate.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Thanks Bill.
    I can see that we do disagree here in certain respects, but to get back to your original point, we need to recapture the concept of the pilgrim church – travelling through this world to “fairer worlds on high”, even though that will incur the contempt of leftist ‘Christians’. This is the central thrust of your article above, and I entirely agree.
    As to postmillennialists, they most certainly do talk in terms of men building the Kingdom. I have heard their rhetoric along this line endlessly, esp. that of the Reconstructionists, or the Dooyeweerdians. The latter in particular differ little from the Social Gospellers, except that there is a slightly reformed flavour about their rhetoric, but only a flavour – the substance is the same.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  9. Thanks Murray

    Yes agreeing to disagree in this regard is not inappropriate. But as to postmillennialism, you need to think historically here. Postmillennialists have been around for millennia (no pun intended), while the Reconstructionsists (eg., Rushdooney, North, Chilton, Bahnsen, etc) have only been around since last century. On that basis alone, the majority of postmillennialists have not been part of the Reconstuctionist camp.

    And while Reconstructionists certainly have drawn upon the thinking of Dutch Calvinists such as Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, it would be incorrect to label these two as Reconstructionists.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. “…Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, it would be incorrect to label these two as Reconstructionists.”
    Bill, with respect, I was not saying that they were equivalent. On the contrary, there are clear differences between the two camps, but for all that they would stand together in this post-millennial, “Christianised world” vision, (whatever that is conceived to be).
    Another thing, Dooyeweerd fair out-Kuypered Kuyper, as so often is the case when a great man’s thought comes into the hands of less gifted disciples. I would classify Dooyeweerdianism as more a theosophy than genuine Christian theology or a Christian world-view.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  11. Hi Murray,

    I am very interested in your comment that it wasn’t right (or it wouldn’t work) to force Christian principles on an unwilling population. It is also interesting to note that you disagree with the Christians of America and Britain in molding their government on primarily Christian principles.

    Surely from history we can see that these two nations had the most profound and beneficial impact of any of the great world empires. Yes, there were wrong decisions made, after all, these nations were run by humans . But by and large their effect on the world was beneficial, far more beneficial than any other world empire has been (such as the Roman, Greek, Persian, Chinese or Mongol empires).

    Jesus came to seek and to save those whom were lost, he came to offer not only spiritual healing but also temporal healing. In the same way, Christians should looking not only to save souls, but to save cultures, countries and civilization. Note, I am not saying that saving souls is unimportant but saving souls is only the start of the work. Then the process of sanctification (bring our lives and countries into conformity with God’s word starts).

    Throughout the books of Kings and Chronicles anyone should be able to see that when the King (or government) recognized God and sought to live by his laws there was a revival in Israel, but when there was an evil king usually the opposite was true.

    Proverbs also backs this principle up many times:
    “When the Godly succeed everyone is glad. When the wicked take charge people go into hiding.” Proverbs 28:12
    “When the Godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan.” Proverbs 29:2 NLT
    “When the wicked are in authority sin increases but the godly will live to see the tyrants downfall.” Proverbs 29 16

    From these principles we can see that the godly will generally do a far better job at governing than the wicked will because they will follow God’s principles while they are in government. So why should we not try to build a theocracy or literally God government. Personally we all should be under such a system ourselves in that God should rule what we do in our lives. Many people have argue about the way that a theocracy on the governmental level should be set up and what particular form it should take but whatever form it takes as long as it seeks to apply God’s principles and laws into their government they will be blest by him.

    Why settle for second best? Why should we let the pagans make all sorts of mess ups in running a country?

    By the way your comments on the reconstuctionist are misleading at best. Social gospelist are those who try to foist their own opinions (particularly about social/economic structure) on a people through government, Reconstuctionists are those who apply God’s word as best they see it on others, they believe that God’s word has the answer to all of man’s problems and thus they try to impliment God’s word in evangilism, in government and family, in fact in all areas of life.

    Social gospelist primarily focus on the state to heal man’s troubles. Reconstructionist focus on all areas of life though there has been an emphasis on government and family because both have been going to the dogs for the last fifty to a hundred years.

    Also social gosepelists are from the left big time in terms of economics. Reconstuctionists are primarily capitalists in terms of their economics.

    In fact, really it all boils down to the underlying differences in their philosophy. Social gospelists believe that man’s problems mainly come from his environment, that is why they heavily focus on aid to poorer countries ect. Reconstructionist believe that man’s problem is that he is living in rebelion against God and that if we bring our lives into conformity to God’s world it will certainly bring spiritual if not temperal blessings.

    Also I am not quite sure how you relate the imposing Christian standards on un unwilling populace to the American Colonies and Calvin’s Geneva as in both of these instances it was a willing not an unwilling populace that it was forced on.

    I also disagree with your speculation of why, after Cromwell’s death, the people of England wanted Charles II to rule. The whole of the English civil war was about whether a man could overthrough parliament and strange though it may seem the answer was yes, Cromwell could. It is ironic that the very people who were fighting against tyranny would end up having a greater tyranny placed on their heads as a result. Cromwell weilded far more power than any of the Stuarts and was probably the most absolute of the rulers of England since the time of William. Thus the English people found that instead of getting more freedom they got less and thus they thought it was better to have the Stuarts back.

    It is also interesting to note that for all that people talk of Cromwell establishing a theocracy, he didn’t do it. He established a dictatorship with him as the head. Anyone who was willing to kill and enslave many of the Royalists in Ireland (or who had fled to Ireland) for no other crime than that they were loyal to their rightful king instead of a usurper was not in total obedience to God. Also, many of his laws were to supress people not to aid in public morality even though some of the laws were couched in those terms. Also he was a rebel who certainly had not grasped the concept of what David was meaning when he said that he could not hurt the Lord’s annointed.

    Timothy Coombe

  12. Thanks again Bill,
    Not at all central to your subject but possibly of interest on two overlapping 70 year periods to do with the Babylonian exile and the destruction and rebuilding of the temple: could we regard from 609 (the first wave of exiles) to 539 (the defeat of Babylon and the beginning of the return) as 70 years of “exile;” and 586 (the third wave and, importantly, the destruction of the temple) to 516 (the completion of the rebuilding of the temple) as 70 years of “desolation?”
    Just a thought
    Alec Witham

  13. Thanks Alec

    Yes you could be on to something there. And recall that Jews who lived under subsequent regimes (the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires) still felt that they were in exile, in captivity, even though back at home. Indeed, Daniel could speak of 70 times 70 (490) years of captivity (Dan. 9:2, 24). They awaited the Messiah who would come in power and glory and bring the true and final end to exile (by routing Israel’s enemies and restoring Israel to its former greatness). And as I mentioned, NT writers view believers as also part of the dispersal, waiting a final gathering when Jesus the Messiah comes a second and final time. So there are lots of interesting themes and ideas here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Timothy,
    Obviously you and I disagree on Reconstructionism, but since you seem to have your wires crossed on my points regarding that and Dooyeweerdianism (D’sm) let me put the record straight:
    1. My comments regarding social gospellers was that they in many ways are similar to the latter group (D’sm). I was not comparing them to Reconstructionists. I would have thought that was fairly clear, if you had read my remarks carefully.
    2. I’m sorry, but English people DID react to the Puritan ethics being imposed on them, and wanted in 1660 the attractions of the Cavalier lifestyle. Bear in mind also that the move for restoration did not take place shortly after Oliver Cromwell’s death, but only after 20 months of incompetent rule by his son Richard. By 1659 the English administration was in a mess, and in crisis. Hence the parliament and the people sought a return of the Stuarts to restore order, and also to throw off the “repressions” of Puritan morality. They found out eventually that such debauchery had a price tag. The rest of your assessment of Oliver Cromwell is your personal opinion, which I do not share.
    3. You misrepresent me, “you disagree with the Christians of America and Britain in moulding their government on primarily Christian principles”. When did I disagree with that? You have put words in my mouth.
    Of course I agree with say, Alfred the Great moulding English Law on the Decalogue. But why? Because there was a concurrence of king, Church, and populace on such matters at that time. What you have in the Commonwealth period, by contrast, was a whole raft of Sunday laws, the abolition of Christmas celebrations, or the prohibition of Anglican worship, to name a few, which went down like the proverbial lead balloon. Politics is the art of the possible!
    I much prefer the path of changing men’s hearts and minds by the preaching of the Gospel and the regenerating work of the Spirit than by Acts of Parliament.
    There is the contrast of the Puritan Commonwealth on one hand, and the C18th Revival on the other.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  15. Christians and this world: As I say on my website, somewhere, this world is only a means to an end (albeit the only means to the (only) end); and once you try to make this life/world into an end in itself (individually, or society/the nation), that’s when things begin to go bad, really bad …
    John Thomas

  16. Absolutely brilliant article – and the book sounds like a “must read”. I don’t feel qualifiede to enter into the theological arguments (reconstructionist/post millenialist etc) that came in but do believe that we ARE meant to do all we can to ensure that our countries are “Godly and quietly governed” to quote the old Anglican prayer book. One thing I wish people would not do is making sweeping statements about Christians. Of course there are those who have become conformed to this world, but there are many thousands I have met across this world who are good and true and are very actively seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.
    Katharine Hornsby

  17. It is interesting to see Neuhaus referring to ‘brother’ death. St Francis of Assisi used the term ‘sister’ death. In either sense, death is someone very close.
    Dunstan Hartley

  18. Thank you again Bill, for your timely notes. Christians really do have an important role in society, but it is not often pointed out. I think Fred Nile is a great example. I understand he chairs more parliamentary committees than anyone else. And homeschoolers, I understand, are sought after, because they are hardworking, honest and reliable.
    Tom Wise

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