A Pilgrim People
by R.C. Sproul
There is just something about being at home, isn’t there? I am reminded of this every time I travel. As I write this column, it has been only a few weeks since we returned from a Ligonier study cruise in the Caribbean. We had a wonderful time of study and fellowship with Ligonier’s friends and supporters, many of whom are likely reading this column right now. Despite my enjoyment of the trip, however, I was happy to return home. I feel the same way every time I travel. I love my homeland and am happy to come back to the United States even after a blessed journey.
Even though I am glad to come back to America, I must admit that when I come home to my country, I long to be elsewhere. At the end of the day, the United States is but an inn, a place to rest on the way to my true home—the city of heaven. As a Christian, I realize that I will never be truly home until I am with my Savior in heaven. The old spiritual puts it well: “This world is not my home … I’m just a passin’ through.”
God’s people have always been what we would call a “pilgrim people.” The constitution of the old covenant church in the exodus gave the ancient Israelites the names pilgrims and sojourners. Living a semi-nomadic existence in the desert, they had no permanent place to call their own. Even their place of worship was a tent—the tabernacle—that had to be taken down when the Lord called Israel to move and put back up when they established a new camp. Later, John’s description of the incarnation picks up this theme. The Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) translates with the English term dwelt a Greek term with the same root that means “tent” or “tabernacle.” Christ literally “pitched His tent” or “tabernacled” among us.
Because of this, Christ is the ultimate Pilgrim revealed to us in Scripture. He became the supreme Sojourner in the incarnation, leaving His home in heaven in our behalf. He came to this world to journey along with the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on their way to their heavenly home.
Hebrews 11:13 puts it this way: The old covenant saints, having seen the promises from afar, “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Moses, Abraham, and the others went forth from their earthly homes in faith, seeking for that heavenly home that the Lord promised them. They desired “a better country, a heavenly one,” and so “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (v. 16).
Though the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 focuses on old covenant believers, the pilgrimage of God’s people did not end once they settled in Canaan, first conquered Jerusalem, or even when they returned to the Promised Land after the exile. The Christian church is a pilgrim people. The Apostle Peter is clear: “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11; KJV). We still await the holy city and heavenly Jerusalem. That is the home we were made for. “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).
On this side of heaven, the Lord gives us a glimpse of our heavenly home in many ways, especially when we gather for corporate worship. I’ve experienced this in my home church, Saint Andrew’s Chapel, where every Lord’s Day we gather and cross the threshold from the secular to the sacred. But I’ve also seen it when I have worshipped in foreign lands.
About twenty years ago, I traveled through Eastern Europe to preach and teach in several lands that had been closed to Christian missionaries during Communist rule, which had ceased just a few years earlier. At one church in Transylvania, I had the opportunity to preach one Sunday morning, and when I looked out over the congregation, I saw many elderly women, whose faces were etched with wrinkles born from years of toiling the land with primitive tools. Though they were dressed head to toe in black—black skirts, black blouses, and black babushkas—there was nonetheless a serenity about them. They looked almost angelic. These women were listening intently to my sermon, and sometimes I even saw a tear roll down one of their cheeks.
Standing there, I heard my preaching translated into their native Romanian language, and I marveled at what was happening. I felt a real kinship with them, a bond forged from nothing of this world. We had nothing in common. We spoke different languages, came from different cultures, followed different customs, and otherwise had nothing to tie us together. But we did have the blessed tie that binds—a shared love for God’s Word. We were all citizens of heaven, passing through this world in different geographies but with a profound union that resulted from our common union with Christ. I and those peasant women were both pilgrims on our way to the heavenly country.
God gives us many blessings in this world and in our earthly homes. Nevertheless, “this world is not [our] home … “[we’re] just a passin’ through.”