“Going home” are words filled with nostalgia for many people. The word, “nostalgia,” was coined as a medical term to translate the German word, heimweh, meaning homesickness, something most of us have experienced at some point in our lives. For example, young people, when leaving for the first time for a distant college, will attempt to fight homesickness with the parting words, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Nostalgia is a good word to describe one’s feelings when returning to a former home filled with family memories.
Home is a word filled with precious memories for many people. It is also a word that holds special meaning for the believer, especially as he or she grows older and nears the end of life on this earth. I’m often reminded of some of the lyrics of various songs or hymns about growing older, some of which may be familiar to you: “No I don’t feel any older, just another year closer home.” “Oh, when I come to the end of my journey, weary of life, and the battle is done.” “When the darkness I see, He’ll be waiting for me; I won’t have to cross Jordan alone.” “Lead me gently home, dear Father.” I could go on, but I think you get the idea. All of this introduces our theme: THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE—GOING HOME.
Pilgrimage is a pervasive theme throughout Scripture
Pilgrimage is a pervasive theme throughout Scripture. The Apostle Peter refers to it often, and at the beginning of his first epistle, he addresses believers as sojourners and pilgrims (1 Peter 2:11). In today’s language it means that we are homeless. We usually associate homelessness with those people standing at a busy intersection holding up a sign that may or may not be true, and with people whose character and life is often suspect. Peter, of course, has something else in mind. Nonetheless, the “homeless people” whom Peter addresses often encounter unjust accusations as well: I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims . . . [that you have] 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 2:12). As homeless people, we will also encounter suffering: For this is commendable, if because of conscience towards God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully (1 Peter 2:19). As homeless people, we will meet with daily insults: But even if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. And do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled (1 Peter 3:14). As homeless people we will face fiery trials: Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified (1 Peter 4:12-14). Similarly, the Apostle Paul constantly reminds us of our pilgrim status when informing us that our citizenship is in heaven: For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20).
The letter to the Hebrews is an operating manual for the Christian’s pilgrimage. It locates the Christian squarely in the desert, likening the Christian life to the wilderness wanderings in the Old Testament. In Hebrews 3:7-4:11, the analogy is particularly compelling. Israel in the wilderness and believers in the New Testament are in analogous or parallel situations. How so? The same warning concerning the promised rest is in view. The author of Hebrews wrote, quoting from Psalm 95:7-11, “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest;’” and then he concludes, “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it” (Hebrews 3:11; 4:1). New Testament Christians today are exposed to similar trials and the same danger of unbelief and apostasy: Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of un-belief in departing from the living God. . . . So we see that they (OT Israelites) could not enter in because of unbelief (3:12, 19). Also, Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience (4:6). Christians, then, are exhorted to persevere in the faith: Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, in the day of trial in the wilderness . . . For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end (3:8, 14). The conclusion is, Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (4:11). Clearly, in the New Testament as well as Old Testament times, God’s people are pilgrims and travelers. Now, as then, they are a people “on the way,” on the way to the promised land, on the way home.
In Hebrews 11, the author conducts his great survey of pilgrims. He describes these OT saints as strangers and pilgrims on earth, with no abiding city, relying on faith in the promises of God, knowing that their inheritance was something better than this present world: These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 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 go back, 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 (11:13-16).
In all of these NT texts, the writers lean heavily on the OT. In the desert wanderings of the Israelites, we see Christian pilgrimage. The story of the OT pilgrims is our story, written expressly for us. Listen to Paul writing in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11: Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. ’ Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all of these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
As pilgrims, however, we do not merely repeat the story of Israel. We find our identity in union with our Lord and Savior—the Bible’s ultimate pilgrim. Jesus created the world, John tells us (cf. John 1:1-14), but that very world despised Him. He would be tested in the wilderness, suffer rejection by His people, and wander this earth without a place to lay down His head. As a pilgrim, Jesus set His face upon Jerusalem so we may set our face upon Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. To be a pilgrim is to embrace, in imitation of Christ and His pilgrimage, the life and way of the cross. The way of the cross leads home.
God’s pilgrims also receive and accept His provision. In the OT, it was manna in the wilderness. In the NT, Peter offers grace and peace to the elect strangers or pilgrims: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied (1 Peter 1:1, 2). This salutation is no social pleasantry or pious sentiment. It is an official declaration from Christ’s ordained officer. As God nourished His ancient pilgrims with manna from heaven and water from the Rock, both pointing to Christ, so He continues to nourish His modern pilgrims through His grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. “Grace, truth and peace shall mark the way where the Lord His own will lead” (cf. Psalm 25:10).
By remembering, as did Abraham, the location from which we have been called, then our present desert location, and then where we are headed, we increasingly realize our dependence upon the grace of God and our need for God’s provisions. The Apostle Paul lays it out for us in Ephesians 2:11-19: Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were 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. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. This is the glorious good news, the means of grace by which we now know who we are and where we are going. This is our food and drink, our spiritual nourishment and healthy diet as Christian pilgrims in this desert world.
To reject this healthy diet and seek alternative nourishment is to claim to be wiser than God and yearn for the diet of Egypt. Remember the Israelites who tired of the manna that God provided. Like the Israelites, we turn to alternative nourishments and remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (Numbers 11:5). Egypt (or today’s sinful world) has many subtle and tempting things to lead the Christian pilgrim astray.
Pilgrimage has consequences
Pilgrimage has consequences. Always keeping our theme in mind will reap several benefits for us. First, it will keep us from the common misunderstandings of the Christian life. The besetting problem for too many American Christians is an overwhelming high self-esteem that attends our notions of the Christian life; that the road or path will always be easy. One advantage to remembering and singing the great hymns of the faith is their emphasis on our weakness and frailty. Many are hymns of pilgrimage, such as: “Lead on O King eternal, the day of march has come. Henceforth in fields of conquest, Thy tents shall be our home,” and some more: “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below, A little silver and a little gold; But in the city where the ransomed will shine, I want a gold one that’s silvered lined. Though often tempted, tormented and tested, And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone; And though I find here no permanent dwelling, I know He’ll give me a mansion my own. Don’t think me poor or deserted or lonely—I’m not discouraged, I’m heaven-bound;–I’m just a pilgrim in search of a city, I’ll have a mansion, a robe and a crown. I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop, In that bright land where we’ll never grow old; And some day yonder we will never-more wander, but walk the streets that are purest gold.”
Echoing Hebrews 11, such are the claims of pilgrimage. God’s triumphant people are satisfied to live in tents awaiting a permanent home. Similarly, Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” is the cry of a pilgrim: “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also.” I’m sure we can cite others, but we must not omit this classic: “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou art mighty; Hold me with thy powerful hand; Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven, Feed me till want no more, Feed me till I want no more.”
A second benefit of always seeing ourselves as pilgrims on the way home is this: more dedication and thoughtfulness in our Christian life. We will reflect more critically on the surrounding culture and the worldliness toward which we are too easily drawn. We will grow in appreciation of and dependence upon God’s grace. We will see His grace at work through the Church, where we hear and receive the benefits of the redemption purchased for us by Christ. It will make us rethink and become more appreciative of worship. Casual church attendance or impulsive church shopping are characteristics of those too comfortable in the wilderness of this life. A discerning pilgrim cultivates the ability to distinguish Christian pilgrimage from its counterfeits. Churches that design worship for “seekers” often attract shoppers and browsers—not true pilgrims who are in for the long trek. We will sing with more enthusiasm: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come. And I hope by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home. O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be; Let that grace now like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”
In his introduction to Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan wrote: “This book will make a traveler of thee.” This classic has long had the reputation of being the all-time, best-selling Protestant devotional book. Today that reputation is rapidly waning, and it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find the book in Christian bookstores or church libraries. It makes little sense to those with a free-will approach to salvation; to those who reduce the saving work of God to a spectacular, instantaneous conversion experience, where everything is wonderful. God does not promise a wonderful plan for your life. He does promise marvelous, all-sufficient grace to walk in His paths. He says that He chastens those He loves, and scourges every son whom He receives (cf. Hebrews 12:6); and that it is through much tribulation that one enters His kingdom (cf. Acts 14:22); Jesus tells His followers to take up their cross and follow Him (cf. Matthew 16:24). Bunyan does not describe the Christian life in the often glowing terms of today’s TV evangelists. Rather, salvation entails a life-long process of journeying through the wilderness of this life, and conversion is the beginning of that life-long trek/pilgrimage. God’s Word would have us view the Christian life as one of gradual progress through an often dangerous journey. We are on a sojourn that works out salvation with fear and trembling. We are relying on the provisions of a gracious God through every step, since we are, indeed, pilgrims and strangers in a foreign, desert land. Paraphrasing the words of another old hymn: “This world is not our home. We are only passing through. Our treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue, where the angels beckon us from heaven’s open doors. And we can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” AMEN.
Rev. Vernon Pollema