Christian, you are an exile for Christ. If you are indeed in Him, you cannot be anything but an exile because you exist as one who has been made new, living in an old world passing away (2 Corinthians 5:17). The Scriptures are clear on this, but we often forget the reality of living as an exile for Jesus because of the pressure to conform to the world’s culture or because of the hardening of our hearts by sin and unbelief.
Nevertheless, we are exiles by God’s choosing and we must press on to live true to that calling. But what does it mean to be an exile? Why are we described as such and how does it impact our decisions and actions here and now? In case you are like myself and have a tendency to forget that our true home is in heaven with God, I encourage you to read on. It is my hope that this article, which explores this topic in greater detail, will help to confirm our calling as exiles for Christ and strengthen our resolve to live as such until He returns or calls us home.
Why are we exiles?
Christians are exiles by nature and by necessity.
The term “exile” is often translated also as “alien”, “stranger,” or “sojourner” to depict the fact that for Christians, the world is a foreign place for us. Of course, in some sense, it is not foreign; we still use intelligible forms of communication, utilize and exchange currency, and share a common history with other human beings. But make no mistake that—in a spiritual sense—when one comes to Christ, there is an immediate chasm that forms in your life between your “flesh” and “spirit.”
We see this in Colossians 1:13 for example, where we read that God delivered us “from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” Before our deliverance, we lived “by the flesh” in the domain of darkness; we were his “enemy” (Romans 5:10) and we were “dead in our trespasses” (Ephesians 2:1). After God delivers us, we live “by the Spirit” in the kingdom of Jesus. Consequently, having the Spirit of the living God dwelling in us means that our very nature is wholly transformed. This new nature inexorably sets us apart from this perishing world and therefore makes us strangers to it. As the apostle Paul says, “your citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20); again, we are exiles by nature.
That our citizenship is in heaven is truly a wonderful reality and hope, but the sobering reality is that we live here. We live in the world—this decaying, wretched, and confusing dominion of darkness. In fact, in his high priestly prayer, Jesus prays that we are not taken out of the world but instead are kept from the evil one (John 17:15). Furthermore, in 1 Peter 1:1-2, he says that our exile is elected according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. There seems to be a purposeful designation for Christians to remain in this perishing world, even though their new nature would allow them passage to heaven. We see God’s reasoning in a few verses later in Jesus' prayer when He prays, “I do not ask [for sanctification] for these only [Christians already saved], but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). In other words, God has given us citizenship in heaven but is choosing to leave us as exiles in this world that we may be a necessary partner in his redemptive plan for the world. To clarify, as exiles, we are not doing the saving, but we are, ”through [our] word” —our testimony of the gospel—pointing the world to Jesus, who saves to the uttermost.
We are exiles then by necessity. Again, we are not necessary for the salvation of others because Jesus is the satisfactory atonement for sin and it is the Holy Spirit who opens eyes and imparts the gift of faith. But God has chosen that the church would necessarily be the conduits through which the Holy Spirit helps others to believe in Jesus as they hear the gospel (Romans 10:14). Furthermore, our exile is necessary for our own spiritual growth in the sense that our exile is to be lived “in the sanctification of the Spirit” and “for obedience to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2). The following verses in 1 Peter 1 confirms this by stating that our exile is necessary for the “testing of the genuineness of [our] faith” so that when we persevere by His strength, there is “praise and glory” when Jesus returns (1 Peter 1:7).
In summary, our exile is a present reality because we have been transferred from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of Jesus (nature) and because of our call to advance this kingdom by participating as an essential part of God’s redemptive plan for the world (necessity). Being an exile for Christ, therefore, is a wonderful thing. Not only do exiles not fear death because their eternity is secure with their citizenship already in heaven, but their purpose in life during the present is clear: “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). As C.S. Lewis writes in the Screwtape Letters,
“[God] would therefore have [Christians] continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on [our] eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”
My hope is that, as Christians, we can see beauty in our exile. For it is far better for us to be a beggar, a lowly servant, and yes, even an exile, in the kingdom of Jesus than to be the prosperous and the powerful in the domain of darkness which is currently and surely passing away.