There has always been a vigorous debate within the church concerning the proper role of the Christian in the world. Some argue that Christians should not be involved in politics or otherwise attempt to change culture because we are “aliens and strangers” in this life. Is this the proper interpretation of this concept?
One of the key passages dealing with this idea is Hebrews 11:8-16. This is one of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, for it turns our focus to the God who has called us to Himself and to the place where we will spend eternity with Him. It uses the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (but especially Abraham) and the divine promise of a new land to teach us about our eternal destiny. That destiny is declared to be both a city and a country, but it is “a heavenly one” (vs. 16). It is the home to which every Christian is heading, and the earthly life is a mere shadow of it.
The writer of Hebrews discusses the transition between the earthly homes in which Abraham lived. First, he lived in the city of Ur, which he left and to which he could have returned (vs. 15); second, he lived in the Promised Land, in which he and his descendant lived “in tents.” While accurate in terms of their lifestyle, it also paints a portrait of a nomadic existence that fits well with the main theme of the passage – that of our temporary stay on earth.
In the Promised Land, Abraham “lived as an alien,” and with Isaac and Jacob, they lived as “strangers and exiles.” What does this mean? Well, it has everything to do with understanding that their lives on earth were a mere shadow of the reality for which they were being prepared – heaven. That eternal reality is “a better country” – better than the land which would be called Israel and certainly better than life in America.
Does it mean Abraham disregarded earthly life and treated with contempt the ideas that would lead to a physically blessed life? The Old Testament record shows the complete opposite. In the initial covenant instituted by God with Abraham, he was told that, in “the land which I will show you … I will make you a great nation” (Genesis12:1-2). This is clearly a promise of temporal blessing, as is the promise from God that He would make his name great. Abraham would soon become rich and successful in his earthly pursuits (Genesis 13:1-6).
When he discovered that his nephew, Lot, had been taken captive in the fallout of a local war, Abraham took his warriors, pursued the enemy, and defeated them in battle (Genesis 14: 1-16). It is clear from this passage that Abraham had an understanding of battle tactics and implemented them. This indicates that studying everything pertaining to his earthly life was fitting for the man of God.
Moreover, when his descendants, living in Egyptian slavery, were finally set free, they were given the Mosaic Law – an entire moral, ceremonial, and civic blueprint for how to live as a society in “the land of promise” (Hebrews 11:9), “the inheritance” promised to Abraham (vs. 8).
This inheritance was obviously a particular, earthly, and temporal setting and God had a specific purpose for placing Abraham and his descendants – the Jewish people – there in the Promised Land. But in the New Testament age, God’s people can find themselves anywhere on earth. Nevertheless, God has a purpose for Christians everywhere they go – to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-15).
The fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13) had nothing to do with how God’s people are to construct their lives when given the opportunity to do so.
Instead, it had everything to do with understanding that even the Promised Land was not their true and final home. Their hearts were longing to be with God, so even while they were in “the land of promise,” they still felt like aliens, as if they were living “in a foreign land.” They received the Promised Land as the gift it truly was, but their hearts were not satisfied with it. They were ultimately looking for something – actually, Someone – else.
This explains the somewhat mysterious wording of this passage in Hebrews, which states that they were in the land of promise yet still died yearning for “the promises” – i.e., they had not yet received them. How could they receive the promise – the inheritance – yet still die without them? How was it possible that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw these promises and “welcomed them from a distance,” but did not receive them?
The key is that they “confessed they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” The clear demarcation in the Christian life is the line between earth and heaven. They are separate existences. The differences in the quality of life here and the quality of life there are vast. Whatever is good about life here on earth is but a shadow of what will be soul-satisfying when we arrive at our true home.
This is what it means to live as an alien, a stranger, and an exile in America. It doesn’t mean we do not seek righteousness in our culture or justice. It doesn’t mean we forego voting or demanding that laws restrain evil. Such arguments are a twisting of the concept.
Instead, it means that, whatever we do, we remember that this life is a temporary stopping point. The satisfaction, joy, and peace we seek here have their perfect fulfillment in heaven, around the throne of God. That is our home and the only true inheritance the Christian has – or will ever want.