Refugees, Exiles, and You and Me

A friend of mine lived overseas for several weeks earlier this year. Not just overseas anywhere, but in the Middle East—in the land of refugee camps and Mediterranean food and, apparently, cold winters.

While she was in the Middle East, my friend visited refugees often, and told me later about their hospitality and eagerness. Families would regularly invite her and the missionary family she was staying with to eat with them – but would wait until their paycheck came in so they could afford to do so.

That floored me. They waited to get paid so they could turn around and buy food for somebody else? Somebody who didn’t “need” the food—not like they did. Who thinks like that?

3 Things Refugees and Exiles Have in Common

When it comes to our modern-day concept of “refugee,” the closest scriptural equivalent I could think of is “exile.” The word “exile” appears 90 times in the Old Testament, but only six times in the New Testament: once in the “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews 11, twice in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7) before being stoned, and three times in 1 Peter (written to exiled Christians during Nero’s reign).

“And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:17-19, emphasis added).

While “refugee” and “exile” aren’t exact synonyms, they do have similarities:

Refugees and exiles live in a country that isn’t theirs. They understand “not fitting in.” Sometimes they don’t speak the language of the country where they live and they may not understand or adhere to the traditions, customs, holidays, idioms, habits, or worldview of the majority.

Refugees and exiles do not have citizenship. While we easily understand the consequences of this as far as voting rights and political say, for many other cultures, citizenship concerns so much more. For some, their identity is wrapped up in where they live and in the land they call their own. To be outside of the geographical area inhabited by their ancestors is to be in a deeper exile than we Westerners really understand.

Refugees and exiles know this is temporary. At least, that it should be temporary. Living in tents or borrowed and shared real estate is rarely anyone’s long-term plan. In biblical accounts, exiles always knew they would go back to their country as soon as they could—they would not claim this strange land as their home forever. The stories are even harder when these natural hopes are dashed and the months in a refugee camp stretch into years.

We Have Something in Common, Too

It goes without saying that modern-day refugees live a hard life. As we pray for their safety and for the salvation of those who haven’t yet trusted Christ, and as we seek out ways to be the in-the-flesh representation of God’s love for them, we can remember that we are refugees, too. And they have much to teach us about our own spiritual reality.

Maybe the readers of 1 Peter heard Stephen’s last speech (or at least knew of it), and they were likely familiar with the rich Old Testament legacy they were building on as exiles. Peter took that literal reality of first-century exile and folded it into a greater spiritual truth for the rest of time: In a way, we are exiles (or refugees), too.

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God…” (1 Peter 2:11-12, emphasis added).

The difference for us is that we aren’t trying to go back. We don’t want to. We are going forward, on to a Promised Land we have never seen but know is greater than anything we have ever known. We know this earthly country isn’t ours. We don’t stake our hopes on our earthly citizenship. We know this place we call home is only a temporary place to stay for awhile.

“The message of the Bible,” Tim Keller writes in The Prodigal God, “is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home.”

We haven’t been home yet. But our spiritual legacy and the believers who have gone before us show us that the promises of home are greater than everything we’ll face to get there.

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