Preparing to be An Exile

Published January 19, 2021

By Reed Waggoner, MDiv

How can one prepare for persecution? The question is becoming increasingly pertinent to Christians in America. The cultural landscape of 21st century America makes persecution not only look possible but perhaps imminent. Is there any way that believers can prepare themselves for persecution before it comes? I believe that one way Christians can prepare for persecution is by adopting the biblical mindset of an exile.

The Mindset of an Exile

The book of 1 Peter encourages its readers to view themselves as exiles on earth. Paul Achtemeier is right when he states, “It was precisely the precarious legal status of foreigners that provided the closest analogy to the kind of treatment Christians could expect from the hostile culture in which they lived.” [1]

The church is a foreign entity dwelling in a hostile land. What should exiled believers expect from the world? Jesus had warned His disciples that the world would hate them just as it had hated Him (Jn 15:18-25). As exiles and pilgrims, they should not “be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pt 4:12-13).

This reality is often overlooked. In practical experience, we think of ourselves first as Americans and only second as Christians; the very opposite of how the Bible instructs us to think. Our lives are so often entangled in the things of the world. We make ourselves quite comfortable in our temporary home. Our thoughts and attention are mostly directed toward maintaining and improving life in our tent. We are more at home in this world than we ought to be.

J. Sidlow Baxter notes that our “strong tendency today is to live as settlers rather than pilgrims, as owners rather than stewards, and according to human standards of citizenship, employment, and wedlock, rather than according to the Divine ideals.” [2] We view ourselves more as residents than pilgrims in the world. But such thinking does not lend itself to faithfulness in persecution.

Peter knew this was the case. His audience was already experiencing the heat of persecution, with more suffering on the way. If they viewed themselves primarily as citizens of their respective nations and not as citizens of heaven, they would be ill-equipped to endure discrimination and suffering. Their focus and expectations would be skewed.
We must learn to view ourselves as exiles and aliens in this world. The mindset of an alien is vastly different from that of a resident. The resident makes himself comfortable in his new home. He tries his best to fit in and adapt himself to the customs of his surroundings. He learns the language of his neighbors. He does his best to imitate the way of life of those around him.

In contrast, the pilgrim is not intending to make the place of his sojourn into a home. He is simply passing through. He makes no attempt to put down roots. He is not overly concerned with winning the approval of society or conforming to the pattern of life and practice carried on by the world around him. He expects no special treatment and receives none. He is often viewed with suspicion or contempt by the surrounding culture.

What Does it Mean to be an Exile?

The designation “exile” hardly sounds like a positive designation. While not the life one would choose for himself, the life of an exile is the reality for God’s people.

Peter begins his letter on the theme of exile. The address of the letter is to “exiles of the dispersion.” Throughout the book, the readers are addressed as strangers, aliens, pilgrims, exiles, and sojourners. They are displaced people; not in the sense of being uprooted by wars or famine. They are displaced on earth.

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

Peter calls his readers “elect pilgrims” or “chosen exiles.” Rather than identify the audience exactly, Peter refers to their spiritual identity as strangers on earth. Though I have been using the word “exiles,” a brief survey of English translations reveals that there is more than one way to translate the term. Various English translations render the word “foreigners, exiles, sojourners, aliens, strangers, pilgrims, and temporary residents.”

The word “exiles” in 1 Peter 1:1 is the Greek word parepidemos. The word refers to a person who resides temporarily in a land that is not his own. [3] Later in 1 Peter 2:11, the same word “exile” is coupled with the Greek term paroikos. The two synonyms are typically translated as “foreigners and exiles.”

D. Edmond Hiebert recognizes that the two nouns “foreigners” and “exiles” together describe the position of believers in the world. The first indicates they are living in a foreign country without the rights afforded to citizens. The second indicates they are living alongside people to whom they do not belong. He writes, “The doubling of the nouns emphasizes the ‘foreignness’ of believers in this Christ-rejecting world; they are citizens of a heavenly country.” [4]

Alienation from the world and their heavenly citizenship is at the heart of Peter’s identification of his readers. Peter calls them “elect exiles.” The title alludes to their dual identity. In relation to God, they are chosen (elect); in relation to the world, they are strangers.

In identifying his audience this way, Peter is telling them how to think of themselves. They ought to view themselves as God’s people who are temporary residents of earth. They ought not think of this world as their home. Peter’s audience belonged to God, but they were strangers on the earth. By their very nature, strangers do not fit in.

The Concept of Exile in the Old Testament

The concept of exile is found in two striking examples from the Old Testament. The first is found in the life of Abraham. Abraham was a sojourner in the land of promise. Though God had promised him the land of Canaan, he did not have a square inch of soil he could call his own. When Abraham’s wife Sarah died, Abraham was forced to barter for a grave plot in which to lay her. In that context, he refers to himself as a “foreigner and a stranger” in their sight (Gen. 23:4 NIV).

Abraham’s entire life was lived as an exile and stranger. Regarding his life, the author of Hebrews writes, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone 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 for them a city” (Heb. 11:13-16). Those who embrace their identification as exiles on the earth declare their hope in a new and better country. Only such a mindset can equip a Christian for the abuse and rejection they will receive from the world.

The other example of exile in the Old Testament concerned the entire nation of Israel. After years of disobedience and sin, God judged Israel by sending them into captivity in Babylon. Men and women were taken away from their homeland into a land they did not know. Perhaps Peter’s allusion to Babylon at the end of the epistle is meant to associate the position of Christians with Israel in exile (1 Pet. 5:13). The position of believers in the world in some way reflects the experience of the Hebrews in pagan lands.

Our Home is Not our “Home”

Peter’s audience differed from the Jews taken into Babylon. They had not been forcibly deported to a foreign land. They felt no foreignness is their surroundings. Wayne Grudem notes that some of them had probably lived in the same cities their entire lives. [5] Their “physical address” is given in verse 1: Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia—regions in Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey. For the readers, this was home. But not according to Peter. They were aliens in their own homes. The place where they had been born was secondary to the citizenship they had received when they were born again.

A natural born citizen expects certain rights and treatment that a stranger would not dare assume for himself. As an American citizen, I can insist on my rights as an American. But the mindset of an exile expects nothing from the country where he dwells. That should be the outlook of chosen exiles. They expect no special treatment. They are not disappointed or disillusioned when treated as strangers and aliens because that is what they were.

The Treatment of Exiles

It is no surprise that Peter addresses his audience as “aliens and strangers” (1 Pt 2:11). He highlights their foreignness and estrangement from the culture around them. Rather than existing in the mainstream of society, they had been pushed to the side, outside of any power or influence. To be an exile is to belong to a marginalized group. Rather than finding ease and comfort in conformity, Christians would stand out as misfits. Life as strangers and pilgrims invites distrust and dislike. Aliens are easy to vilify since they do not fit into culture. Thomas Schreiner acknowledges that, “Believers are exiles because they suffer for their faith in a world that finds their faith off-putting and strange.” [6]

The New Testament church was “off-putting and strange” in a culture where religion was woven into the fabric of public and private life. In the Roman empire, many public events required participants to burn incense to the gods or declare that Caesar was Lord. Christians could not, in good conscience, acknowledge the lordship of Caesar or recognize the reality of false gods. Their stance would have made them outcasts, a magnet for all kinds of ridicule, and open them up to the charge that they were not only disrespecting the gods but undermining the entire Roman way of life. As church historian Bruce Shelly states, “the early Christian was almost bound to divorce himself from the social and economic life of his time—if he wanted to be true to his Lord.” [7] Because of their denial of polytheism, Christians throughout the Roman empire were unfairly branded as “atheists.” Some pagan apologists called them “haters of humankind.” [8]

While Christianity has enjoyed many privileges in America, times are changing. More and more the voice of biblical Christianity is being pushed out of the public square and relegated to a place of insignificance. Those who espouse a Christian worldview will be viewed as strange, or worse, as bigots. It has already begun. John Dickerson notes that for most Americans under forty years of age, “the evangelical understanding of homosexuality is hateful, small-minded, backward, and extremist. The stuff of cavemen and racists. . . increasingly, anyone who is not an ‘ally’ and fighting alongside the LGBT community is seen as a hateful bigot.” [9]

Unless persons are willing to support same-sex marriage, there will be no room for them in the political functions of government or in the halls of education. It is quickly becoming a social dogma that must be affirmed for full participation. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in his dissenting opinion to the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, warned that those who held biblical views concerning homosexuality would “be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.” [10]

The only way the church in America can survive is by embracing their biblical identity as exiles.

Our Inheritance is in Heaven

There are two halves to the title “chosen exiles.” In relation to this world, we are strangers and aliens. We are looking toward the city whose maker and builder is God. But in relation to God we are elect, His beloved children.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pt 1:3-5).

Since we are exiles in this world, our inheritance is not found in this world but in our home. Being chosen means being a recipient of God’s abundant mercy. This mercy is expressed in the new birth of regeneration. Believers have been graced with a “living hope.” They have a vibrant and glowing expectation of the future. Their future is bright with the glory of God, through the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

What hope do they have? They have an inheritance in heaven. The inheritance is modified by four descriptors: (1) imperishable, (2) undefiled, (3) unfading, and (4) kept in heaven for you. The following clause: “kept by the power of God” and “ready to be revealed” refers not to the inheritance but to the believer himself.

Though strangers on earth with no place to call home and no privileged position, believers have a glorious inheritance awaiting them in heaven. All our hope is bound up in our heavenly home. Our inheritance is guaranteed since it is an uncorruptible inheritance and we are preserved for it.

Conclusion

Chosen exiles have their home and inheritance in heaven. We must embrace the mindset of an exile if we are going to endure persecution in this life. So long as we view this world as our home and our inheritance on earth, we will never withstand the flames. We must embrace the life of exile.

But the mindset of an exile is not one of joyless resolve. It welcomes its role as salt and light in world of darkness (Mt 5:13-16). It also looks forward to the inheritance promised to those who are strangers and pilgrims on earth.

END NOTES

1 Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A Commentary on First Peter, Hemeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 174.

2 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, Six Volumes in One (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), 6:299-300.

3 Danker, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and William Arndt. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 775.

4 D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 155.

5 Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, TNTC (Downers Grove: IVP, 1988), 53.

6 Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, NAC 37 (Nashville, IN: B&H, 2003), 50.

7 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 40.

8 Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

9 John S. Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 24.

10 Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U. S. ____ (2015) Alito, J., dissenting, 7.

BIO
Reed Waggoner has served as the pastor of Sycamore Bible Church in Trafalgar, Indiana since September 2016. Reed earned his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree from Shepherds Theological Seminary in 2016.