Strangers and Citizens

THE MAN looked disorientated. “You’re not from these parts, are you?” asked the kindly shopper. “No,” the man replied hesitantly. “Not from this country.” He sighed. “I don’t have a country. I am seeking asylum here. I had to flee from my country because I believe in Jesus Christ. In my country I would die.”

We all like to feel that we ‘belong’ somewhere – but there are some people who have nowhere they can call home. They feel like aliens, unwanted, often vulnerable. And they are not always treated with compassion, even in affluent societies.

Strangers

‘Strangers’ are a theme in the Bible. They are sometimes described as ‘sojourners’—temporary dwellers with no inherited rights. In this way they are very similar to modern-day refugees. In the Bible the concept is first used of Abraham (Genesis 17:8). God told him to leave his own country and go to a land where he would be a stranger. When he arrived in Canaan God promised him and his descendants that He would give the land to them. Abraham did not inherit the promised land (Acts 7:5), and nor did his son or grandson. This promise and the fact that it is not yet fully realised are key messages of the Bible. They show that God’s plan for the faithful is on the earth and its fulfilment is still in the future.

Abraham’s grandson (Jacob) went from Canaan with his family down into Egypt to escape famine. These ‘Hebrews’ were foreigners in Egypt, and later when they had grown into a nation they were enslaved and ill-treated by the Pharaoh. God delivered them by Moses, but the nation was instructed never to forget their own experience of being strangers. God told them that when they were living in their land they must treat strangers kindly (for example Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:3334). He was insistent that the Israelites were not to be influenced by strangers’ religious practices: on the contrary, any sojourners in Israel had to respect the God of Israel and His commandments (Leviticus 18:26). But he also insisted that they treat strangers well.

We’re All Strangers

A psalmist prayed, “I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Your commandments from me” (Psalm 119:19).

According to King David we’re all strangers in a way because of our mortal state:

For we are aliens and pilgrims before You, as were all our fathers; our days on earth are as a shadow, and without hope (1 Chronicles 29:15).

But the apostle Paul tells us how we can become citizens:

“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 (Ephesians 2:12–13).

How to Achieve Citizenship

It is a grave situation that in our natural state we are without hope, alienated from, strangers to, and even enemies of God (Romans 5:10). We naturally belong to a race of people subject to sin and consequently destined for extinction. As far as God is concerned, we are strangers. But He wants us to belong to Him.

He asks us to believe in Jesus and to give him our allegiance. While we have no inherited right to God’s grace He offers it to us freely. We must, however, be prepared to regard ourselves as strangers in this world, waiting for citizenship of God’s kingdom which Jesus will bring on his return to earth. We can remain patriotic citizens in this present world and strangers to God’s promises, or aspire to be citizens of God’s Kingdom, making this the focus of our lives. Paul described this transition:

Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).

We are asked to follow the example of Abraham and other faithful people who regarded themselves as strangers in this world. They did not value the standards, possessions and priorities of this life but wanted to serve God and to be in His promised Kingdom on a transformed earth, whatever the consequences in this life.

Believers are warned against loving this present godless world (1 John 2:15) or accepting its standards (Romans 12:2; 1 Peter 2:914). They should, however, be thankful for all of the blessings they receive from God now, including any rights they have as citizens of one of this world’s countries. Moreover, they are commanded to respect the laws of their land (Romans 13:1).

It would be good to think that the refugee was granted asylum and is able to live at peace in a new and better country. However, citizenship in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ offers benefits beyond our wildest dreams. This will also be for ever. Surely this is the citizenship that we should long for.

What of Us?

Where do we belong or want to belong? If Jesus came tomorrow would we be reluctant to leave our possessions and homes, or do we regard them as nothing in order to be with Christ?

Can we echo the words of the faithful Apostle Paul:

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (Philippians 3:8–9).

Anna Hart