Kingdom Refugees

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the elect who are sojourners of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Peter 1:1).

Peter wrote to the Christians in many Roman provinces of what we today call Asia Minor, or Turkey. He speaks of them as “elect who are sojourners” (ASV) or “elect exiles” (ESV) of the “Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). It would be easy to assume that he wrote specifically to Jewish Christians who considered themselves part of the Diaspora, the Jewish community outside of the land of Israel based on this terminology; it is similar to James 1:1, and of all the nations only Israel would see itself in exile as dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. And yet Peter considered his audience as having been redeemed “from [their] vain manner of life handed down from [their] fathers” (1 Peter 1:17); they were a people who had once not been a people, but were made the people of God (1 Peter 2:10). While the latter prophecy was given specifically to Israel (Hosea 1:1-3:5), and Peter himself considered the Law a burden he nor his people Israel could bear (Acts 15:10), no Israelite would presume that his ancestors had lived in a vain matter, or speak of their people as not the people of God; instead, Peter has Christians converted out of the Gentile world in view (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, etc.).

Peter appropriated Israelite imagery to describe Christians throughout 1 Peter. Christians are the temple and its priests (1 Peter 2:3-5); titles and concepts associated with Israel are now appropriated for Christians in 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter used the term “Gentiles” with all of its negative connotations of hostile pagans (1 Peter 2:12, 4:3), even though according to ethnic heritage many of the Christians to whom he wrote would be reckoned as Gentiles. Thus Peter envisioned Christians as the people of God, speaking of them in terms of Israel, and spoke of their opponents among the nations in terms of the Gentiles.

And uniquely among all the letters of the New Testament Peter also appropriated the imagery of sojourn and exile experienced by Israel and applied it to the present circumstance of Christians in the world. Peter addressed the Christians as exiles/sojourners (1 Peter 1:1); exhorted them to reverence before God during their sojourn (1 Peter 1:17-21); encouraged them as sojourners and exiles to conduct themselves appropriately before the Gentiles (1 Peter 2:11-12); and spoke of his current location as “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13). In this way exile and sojourn proves to be a running theme in 1 Peter: as Israel was exiled by Babylon and had to learn to live as exiles and sojourners, so Christians are to see themselves as exiles/sojourners under “Babylon,” or Rome, and live accordingly.

“Sojourners” and “exiles” are terms often used interchangeably and yet maintain important distinctions and nuances. A sojourner is a person who voluntarily leaves his homeland to go and live somewhere else; Abraham is the model sojourner, following God’s call to leave Ur and Haran and live in Canaan, in which he never owned any property beyond a gravesite (cf. Hebrews 11:9-10). An exile is a person who less than voluntarily leaves his homeland to live somewhere else; Israel in the days of Babylon is the model of exile, a people forced to go somewhere else (Psalm 137:1-9). A sojourner often has good reasons for leaving the homeland and has little desire to return; they are tempted to assimilate into their new land and culture. The exile tends to want nothing more than to return to his homeland; they are tempted to have nothing at all to do with their new land and culture and idolize their country of origin.

Christians are to be as both sojourners and exiles in different ways. Christians are as sojourners inasmuch as they should have no desire to return from the “land” of sin and darkness from which they have been redeemed (Romans 6:21, Ephesians 2:1-18). Christians are exiles inasmuch as they should not feel too comfortable in the land, culture, and nation-state in which they reside, always maintaining primary loyalty to their “real home,” the Kingdom of God in Christ (cf. Philippians 3:20-21). Christians must resist the temptation to assimilate to the land in which they live (Romans 12:2); likewise, Christians must resist the temptation to be so focused on separation from the world so as to be no earthly good, not showing the love God would have us show to those around us (Matthew 22:34-40, Galatians 2:10, 6:10).

Peter did well to speak of the life of the Christian in terms of exile and sojourn. We today rarely speak in those terms; instead, our preferred concept is that of the refugee. A refugee feels compelled to flee their homeland because of strife, war, famine, plague, or other ravages; they seek asylum in another land. Some refugees want nothing more than to forget the past and assimilate into a new land; other refugees desperately cling to their identity from their former land. Christians are to have fled to God for refuge in order to lay hold of the hope of resurrection (Hebrews 6:18); their primary citizenship, and thus loyalty, is to the Kingdom of God, even though they are also to obey earthly authorities (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 2:11-18). There is no land in which they are to feel fully comfortable; it is not for Christians to plant their flag anywhere and declare it their own in the name of God in Christ. The refugee always remains in a precarious situation, the quality of their life dependent on the goodwill and hospitability of their land of refuge; Christians are always likewise in a precarious situation under any nation-state. Christians cannot get too settled; they cannot too closely align with or be identified with earthly power, lest they prove no longer refugees for God’s Kingdom. As refugees we can identify with those who are marginalized, neglected, oppressed, or in danger; we know that God has special concern for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27). As refugees we must be skeptical of the nation-states of man even as we prove obedient to rulers, understanding that the principalities and powers of this present darkness empower the nation-states (Matthew 4:8-9, Ephesians 6:12, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Christians must know their comfort must not come from their environment but from their God (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

We find it difficult to understand ourselves as refugees because we have not physically gone anywhere; we live in a strange tension, remaining the same demographically as before, and often even within the same nation-state, and yet so fully transformed spiritually so as to be a different person than before. Such was true as well for the Christians to whom Peter wrote. It helps us understand and cope with the fractured relationships and hostility we encounter from those whom we knew beforehand who see our new conduct in Christ and prove hostile to it (cf. 1 Peter 4:1-6). But it also helps us develop a mindset and posture that glorifies God in Christ as distinct from that of the nation-state and culture around us. We may maintain friendship and association with people in the world, and yet they remain as “Gentiles.” We may appreciate the privileges of living under a given nation-state, and yet we remain as refugees within it. If we lose our distinctiveness, we prove unprofitable (Matthew 5:13).

Christians are exiles and sojourners on the earth: refugees for the Kingdom of God in Christ. We must flee the world and its ways so as to find refuge for our souls in God and hope for the resurrection and a world of righteousness in Jesus. May we live in the world as refugees of the Kingdom and glorify God in Christ in all things!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Refugees

“And a sojourner shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him: for ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

“And a sojourner shalt thou not oppress: for ye know the heart of a sojourner, seeing ye were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

You can tell a lot about a group of people by how they treat The Other.

The Israelites have set up camp beneath Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:1-25); YHWH has spoken the Ten Commandments to them (Exodus 20:1-17); and now Moses has gone up to receive more detailed legislation, often called the “Covenant Code,” to provide for Israel (Exodus 20:18-23:33). By this time, ca. 1450 BCE, the people of Israel have lived in lands not belonging to them to any appreciable degree for over 500 years. Around 2000 BCE God called Abram out of Ur and Haran to dwell in Canaan (Genesis 12:1-7). The only land Abraham ever “owned” in Canaan was the cave of Machpelah which he bought so as to bury his wife Sarah and in which he would later be entombed (Genesis 23:1-20, 25:8-10). Isaac and Jacob in turn lived in Canaan among the Canaanites but as sojourners, owning no land (Genesis 26:2-3, 47:9). It was evident that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not really “from” Canaan, made no attempt to hide it, and often reinforced their difference: Abraham did not want Isaac marrying a Canaanite, Rebekah was exasperated by Esau’s Canaanite wives and thus resolved that Jacob would not marry one, and two of Jacob’s sons would exterminate the men of Shechem on account of Shechem’s treatment of their sister Dinah (Genesis 24:3, 27:46-28:9, 34:1-31). The Hebrew author affirms how all these were sojourners seeking something better than the environment in which they lived (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16).

The Israelites were more familiar with the previous four hundred and thirty years in which they lived as sojourners in the land of Egypt, at first welcomed as Joseph’s family, and then feared and despised as Canaanites, a “fifth column” in Egypt, and enslaved (Genesis 45:16-20, 47:1-6, Exodus 1:7-12). They lived among people who thought of them as less than nothing, barbaric, inferior, with contemptuous professions and practices (Genesis 43:32, 46:34, Exodus 8:25-26). The Egyptians did not consider YHWH a God worth respecting, at least at first (Exodus 5:2). Thus it could not be reasonably said that the Israelites had an “enjoyable” sojourn, or that their time as a dispossessed people in Egypt was pleasant. Their sojourn represented, to put it mildly, a very uncomfortable experience, and not one which any reasonable person would want to continue to endure.

1867 Edward Poynter - Israel in Egypt

As part of the Law which YHWH gave to Israel on Mount Sinai, while Israel remained a sojourner in a foreign land, YHWH commands them to not oppress sojourners, because they understood the experience of the sojourner (Exodus 22:21, 23:9). Such charity is extraordinary: while ancient Near Eastern cultures, by necessity, enshrined hospitality as an important function for guests, protections for sojourners were not as strong in other law codes as they are in the Law of Moses. Granted, the sojourner has his own responsibilities: he must not have any leaven in his house during the Passover, he must observe the Sabbath and cleanliness regulations, and he must not blaspheme the name of YHWH, for there is one law for both the native Israelite as well as for the sojourner (Exodus 12:19, Leviticus 17:15, 24:16, 22). Yet the integrity of the sojourner is to be respected and maintained.

Very few people want to be sojourners. Throughout history many people have been displaced from their native lands: some gained disfavor because they stood in opposition to the existing rulers or favored rulers who had been defeated; some were part of minority groups suffering under the regime of a majority ruler (or, in some cases, a majority group suffering under the regime of a minority ruler!); others were forced to leave their homeland by an occupying power. Perhaps they felt a bit alien even in their homeland; such feelings would multiply greatly when they would have to live elsewhere. As sojourners they do not truly “fit” into their new land, for they come from a different culture and place. It is understandable why native born people would look at the sojourner with suspicion and hostility as The Other. What does he want? What will he do to me? Can I trust him?

Since Israel understood what it was like to sojourn among people with varying levels of hostility for about 500 years, so now they were to treat sojourners well and not compound their difficulties and sorrows. As Christians today we can learn from this example, for we are to see ourselves as elect exiles, strangers in a foreign land, as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ (Philippians 3:20-21, 1 Peter 1:1). We should know what it is like to live uncomfortably in a land that is really not ours, surrounded by people who do not agree with us, and who may well prove willing to cause us harm (1 Peter 2:19-25, 4:1-6).

There are always “good” worldly reasons to fear and be suspicious of The Other. That’s how Egypt felt toward the Israelites in their midst. That’s how the Romans felt about the Jews and especially about the Christians. Their very differences make them seem strange, alien, “not of us,” and thus a potential threat. Yet, as Israel should have understood the refugee experience from their time in Egypt, so we Christians should understand the refugee experience in our own lives as Kingdom citizens in a “foreign country.” If this world truly is not our home, for our allegiance is elsewhere, we should recognize how we are The Other in the eyes of those in the world, own it, and glorify God in how we treat others!

Ethan R. Longhenry