On Being a Stranger

In studying Peter’s first letter, I noticed that the word stranger occurs often:

To God’s elect, strangers in the world.—

Live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.—

I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires.—

When I looked up this word in a concordance I was surprised to find how often it is used throughout the Bible. Abraham is called a stranger—”By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country” (Hebrews 11:9). And God told him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).

After these four hundred years of slavery, when the Jews left Egypt on their way to Canaan, God told them this about the land promised to them: “The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). Even in Canaan he wanted them to live as strangers by faith.

But they failed to live this way, so centuries later God sent them as captives to Babylon to be strangers again.

The spiritual significance of being a stranger is shown in Hebrews 11:13-16, where we read that the heroes of faith “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.” They were strangers here because “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”

Strangers bring tension to those around them. We’ve experienced this throughout Western Europe as people from foreign nationalities have joined the labor force. Here in the Netherlands the Dutch must sometimes wait longer for new housing because the families of foreign workers need houses too. These “strangers” receive government social benefits that would otherwise be available to nationals. Some schools have a high percentage of students who are children of foreigners, perhaps slowing the education process for the others. All this sometimes alarms the Dutch. Strangers do indeed cause tension and irritation.

Since, as the Bible says, believers in Christ are strangers on the earth, we too will cause certain tensions in our environment.

A stranger is someone who belongs to a different people, a different culture. He speaks a different language, and has different values and ethical standards. Believers in Jesus Christ, rather than belonging to the dark world around them, are “a people belonging to God” who have been called “out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). They have different values and standards. This difference is attractive to some of those around them, but to others it can be tremendously irritating.

Usually strangers will adapt slowly but surely to their new environment. They learn a new language and change their customs so they don’t seem so “strange.” But those who follow Christ must become increasingly different. “You have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do” (1 Peter 4:3). The man or woman who chooses to suffer for Christ “does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2).

This can surprise those around us, and may lead to our persecution: “They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you” (1 Peter 4:4).

These warnings from Peter should be increasingly relevant for us as worldly thinking becomes less and less biblical on matters such as marriage and family life, honesty, and issues of authority and submission. The difference in thinking and ways of living between believers and unbelievers will become steadily greater, bringing increased tension and irritation.

Yet our King has commanded us not only to live differently from those around us, but also to influence them. We must try to persuade them to also become strangers on earth, and to start living under the blessings and rule of God’s kingdom.

G. Doornenbal

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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