Descriptive Terms of Christians Pilgrims, Sojourners, Strangers

By Mike Willis

“Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).

On several occasions, the New Testament uses the words “stranger,” “sojourner,” and “pilgrim” as descriptive names for Christians. For many of us; our acquaintance with the idea of “pilgrim” is largely derived from the usage of the word to describe the Pilgrim fathers who founded Plymouth Caloiiy in 1620. Some would also think of a pilgrim as one’ who takes a “pilgrimage,” i.e., a journey to some distant sacred place. But neither of these ideas is an accurate usage of the New Testament meaning of the words.

Definition of Terms

The New Testament words for “pilgrim,” “sojourner,” and “stranger” are parepidemos and parolkos. However, the meaning of these words are related to the Old Testament usage of gur and ger. The verb gur means “sojourn . . . dwell for a (definite or indef.) time, dwell as a new-comer (cf. ger) without original rights” (Brown, Driver, and Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 157). Its noun cognate ger means “sojourner . . . temporary dweller, new-comer (no inherited rights” (ibid., p. 158). These words are used to describe Abraham’s stay in Egypt to escape the effects of the famine in Canaan (Gen. 12:10), Lot’s stay in Sodom (Gen. 19:9), and a non-citizen dwelling in a foreign country (Ex. 12:48-49).

Parepidemos has a similar meaning. Thayer defines the word as follows: “Prop. one who comes from a foreign country into a city of land to reside there by the side of the natives; hence stranger; sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner, . . . in the N. T. metaph. in ref. to heaven as the native country, one who sojourns on earth; so of Christians in 1 Pet. i.1. . ” (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 488). The word is used in Acts 2:10 to describe the Jews from Rome who were visiting in Jerusalem to observe the day of Pentecost and in Acts 17:21 to denote the visitors to the city of Athens who spent their time in “nothing other than telling or hearing something new.” Parotkos is defined similarly as witnessed by Thayer: “1. in class. Grk. dwelling near, neighboring. 2. in the Scriptures a stranger, foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship . . .a” (Ibid., p. 490). It is used to describe the patriarch’s sojourn in Canaan, a land in which they had no citizenship (Acts 7:6; Heb. 11:9), Israel’s stay for 400 years in Egypt (Acts 13:17), and Moses’ flight and subsequent stay in Midian after he had killed an Egyptian (Acts 7:29).

Although these terms are translated by the English word “pilgrim” in some places, this translation is poor. The primary meaning of “pilgrim” is “to travel.” “Both the Heb (see Ger) and Gr words contain the idea of foreign residence. but it is the residence and not travel that is implied. Consequently, `pilgrim’ is a poor tr, and ,sojourner’ should have been used throughout” (“Pilgrim, Pilgrimage,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. IV, P. 2398).

Ideas Denoted By These Words

In Eph. 2:19, Paul said, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household . . . .” Earlier in this passage, Paul had declared that we Gentiles had formerly been separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in this world. Fortunately, Christ came, broke down the barrier of the dividing wall-the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, and made possible the reconciliation to God of both Jew and Gentile in one body, the church. William Barclay’s comments on v. 19 are especially pertinent:

“Paul used the word xenos for foreigner. In every Greek city there were xenoi, and their life was not easy. A man who was a stranger in a strange city writes home: `It is better for you to be in your homes, whatever they may be like, than to be in a strange land.’ The foreigner was always regarded with suspicion and dislike. Paul used the word paroikos for sojourner. The paroikos was one step further on. He was a resident alien; he was a man who had come to stay in a place but who had never become a naturalized citizen; he paid a tax for the privilege of existing in a land which was not his own. He might stay there and he might work there, but he was a stranger and an outsider whose home was somewhere else. Both the xenos and paroikos were where they were on sufferance; they were always on the fringe.

“So Paul says to the Gentiles: ‘You are no longer in the Church and among God’s people on sufferance. You are real citizens of the society of God. You are full members of the family of God’ ” (The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, P. 138, emphasis mine).

A second idea, derived from the first, is that since our citizenship is in heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20), we are strangers and sojourners on this earth, i.e., we are resident aliens, non-citizens. Jacob described his life as a pilgrimage when he stood before Pharaoh (Gen. 47:9). The idea of the sojourning of the wandering patriarchs is discussed in Heb. 11:8-16 as follows: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow-heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who promised; therefore also there was born of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:8-16).

Thus; when the inspired writers use parepidimos and parotkos to describe the Christian, the idea that is conveyed to us should be the same as the one expressed in the words on this song:

“This world is not my home, I’m lust a passing through.

My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.

The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

“O Lord, you know I have no friend like you,

If heaven’s not my home then Lord what will I do;

The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” -Albert E. Brumley

Effects On One’s Life

If one has the proper disposition toward his life on this earth as a sojourner (cf. 1 Pet. 1:17), some of the major decisions we face would immediately become infinitely small. One such decision might easily relate to his job in a situation like this one: A relative of mine was offered a promotion and a raise in pay if he would relocate in a city in which no conservative congregation existed. He moved there and then cried for help saying, “What am I going to do? There is no conservative brethren within driving distance.” He knew that when he moved there! If he did not know that, he should have checked before moving. Suppose the decision became your own in the situation that your employer offered you the same terms, what would you do? On one occasion, Dale Winegar was reported to say, “If your job interferes with your service as a Christian, quit it. I’ll guarantee you that you will get a better job.” Before you become critical of our brother for promising things which he cannot guarantee will occur, I should add that he said, “Oh, it might not pay as much but it will be a better job!” About the only measure we Americans use to determine whether a job is a good or bad one is the take-home pay and fringe benefits. (One could almost conclude that a casual relationship exists between this fact and the unhappiness most have with their present jobs. Ask any factory worker how well he likes his work.)

On one occasion, Jesus said, “. . . the sons-of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” (Lk. 16:8). I could not keep myself from thinking of that passage as I listened to a radio interview of a movie star who was giving advice to young people about how to become a movie star. The star commented about how slim a chance an individual has to make it to stardom and, therefore, advised anyone aspiring to become a movie star to get some training which qualified him to get a good paying job. Then, the individual should take a job and work at it, taking studio performances as they came. Then, she advised that if an opportunity to perform should present itself, however small the role might be (one never knows what might be just the break he needs), take it, even if it means giving up the job which the person has. The reasoning behind this advice was as follows: Your primary goal is to reach stardom; always keep that first in importance; make everything fit around it. This is exactly the attitude the Christian should have toward his service to God! My service to God is the most important part of my life; everything else-job, recreation, house, car, etc.-must be fitted around that goal. With this disposition of mind, see how insignificant these decisions become:

1. Am I going to join a bowling league which bowls on Wednesday night?

2. Am I going to work overtime this Sunday?

3. Am I going to take a job, buy a house, and move to (any city without a faithful congregation)?

4. Am I going to go mixed bathing this summer while on vacation?

The list could be continued indefinitely.

I should think that if my citizenship were in heaven that I would want to read about that place, think about it frequently, and prepare to go there. Like David, I should be saying, “I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Thy commandments from me…. Thy statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (Psa. 119:19, 54).

Another song we often sing is “Here We Are But Straying Pilgrims.” Can you truthfully sing that about yourself?

Truth Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 9