When talk turns to exile, Christians ought to understand the full sense of that term. God’s kingdom does not advance despite opposition from the world, but as a result of it. The church is experiencing her own exilic quality in many parts of the world, and the American church should not think she is exempt from such an experience as well. The experience of exile, however, should not inspire a generation of worried hand-wringers but a community of humble commitment.
I wrote last fall about the idea of the American church entering into a time of cultural exile. Since that time the issue has been revisited by several public voices (and here and here), and debate has arisen over or exactly what sort of exile this current situation would entail. I do not think that there is a typological distinction to be made between the Babylonian exile of the Old Testament and the exile to which the Apostle Peter speaks in 1 Pet 1:1-2, though some have made that distinction.
The exile of the people of God in the Old Testament was a result of their sin and need for sanctification (Ezek 39:21-29*), which is why the prophets from Moses to Jeremiah prophesied that it would come to an end when the people repented (Lev 26:40; Deut 30:1-3; Jer 29:13). At that point, the Davidic king would be established (Isa 9:1-7), the great war would end with the engrafting of the Gentile nations into the people of God (Isa 42:15; 66:18; Jer 16:19; Rom 11:11-24), and the final perfect rule of God would be established all over the face of the earth as the cosmos are renewed (Isa 55:17-25; 2 Pet 3:13). According to the apostolic witness, this restoration begins with the ministry of Jesus Christ, the light in the darkness (Isa 9:1-3), the glory of Israel and the light of the Gentiles (Luke 2:32).
That restoration, however, is not completed in Jesus’ first advent, but, to use the term common to biblical theologians, the restoration is inaugurated. In Christ, the kingdom of God is truly at hand and established in Christ’s ministry (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15), his death, resurrection, and ascension to where he now reigns in the most prestigious position of the heavenly court, but full restoration has not yet been effected.
The church now operates according to an already/not yet dynamic between exile and restoration. Though the nations are being grafted into the people of God through the work of the church responding to the Great Commission, that engrafting is not yet complete, and everyone has not yet repented (2 Pet 3:9). Similarly, though the “new man” lives within everyone who is in Christ (2 Cor 5:17), the full renewal of resurrection is something yet to be grasped (1 Cor 15:12-49). When these conditions obtain by God’s good pleasure, we can anticipate that the full consummation of the kingdom of God will take place over the face of the earth. According to Peter, this time in between the inauguration and the consummation is a time that is marked by God's grace so that all may be brought in to the kingdom before the second coming of Christ.
So there is a sense in which we are both “more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37) as well as strangers and exiles (1 Pet 1:1).
The Experience of Exile
That is not to say that there are not times when we may experience our exile more acutely than the victory we have in Christ, just as there are times when we may experience our victory more acutely than our exile. In fact, one would not be off the mark to say that we are entering into a time of cultural exile at any particular point in history. This may be a true statement, even if we are similarly cognizant of the fact that, in a sense, we are always in a state of exile simply by virtue of being regenerated individuals in search of resurrection.
In those moments when the church acutely experiences that state of exile, she can confidently search the Scriptures for those accounts that speak to this situation of God's people in exile. She can feel solidarity with the ancient witnesses who persevered, pursued repentance, and chased after the welfare of the cities into which they had been placed (Jer 29:7). The church might be surprised to find that nowhere in the Scriptures does exile require a retreat from loving our neighbor or seeking to fill and care for the earth, preaching the gospel and discipling the nations (Matt 28:18-20).
Fellow Penitent Strangers
In the Bible, exile always means engagement with those around us for the betterment of others made in the image of God and for the benefit of the societies in which we have been placed. These are the double blessings of exile: when we are in exile we have the opportunity to both repent and engage, not bemoan and withdraw. We are called to be penitent strangers, serving our communities while longing for our home.
The prophet Daniel, the Judahite Esther, as well as the restoration community leaders Ezra and Nehemiah, all provide helpful Old Testament exemplars for service in exile. Each remained faithful to the covenantal requirements they found in the Scriptures while also acting tirelessly to pursue the betterment of the societies in which they served according to those societies' structures and forms. Of course doing so recognizes that the societies’ structures and forms are themselves fallen and therefore in need of wise and faithful influence. There is no question in the biblical witness about the need in the call for the people of God to be engaged in the public sphere in a way that is at once hopeful, realistic, and sincere.
So be a joyful exile, a penitent stranger, as your ancestors of the faith were before you, and in doing so lay hold of your identity in Christ.
* These citations are meant to be merely representative of biblical texts and the imagery used therein to describe such events. They are by no means exhaustive.