This World is Not My Home
Dec 3, 2014
This post is the last in what the English satirist, Douglas Adams, would call ‘a trilogy in five parts’! These reflections on what it means for Christians to be ‘aliens and strangers’ on this earth were never meant to run beyond three parts, but they did and I’m not quite sure what the five-part equivalent of ‘trilogy’ is, so ‘trilogy’ will have to do!
We started in the Garden of Eden and have traced out how Adam forfeited the perfect home he had been given by God because he rebelled against God. We saw too that the divine judgement pronounced on Adam’s son, Cain, after his sin of fratricide – that he would thereafter be ‘a restless wanderer on the earth’ (Ge 4.12) – encapsulates the tragic reality of what Adam brought upon himself, his family and ultimately the entire human race. Man is alienated from God, from his fellow man, from his environment and even from himself. Regardless of how deeply he (or she) tries to sink his (or her) roots in this world, we cannot escape the overwhelming sense of futility that haunts our existence here.
What is fascinating, however, is the way that even those who find the new life promised in the gospel that comes through being reconciled to God and reunited with him in living union and communion through his Son, that restlessness remains. And it does so in a way that Christ himself embraced as a necessary element of his existence in this fallen world as the new head and representative of our race.
Our goal in this final study is to see how this theme is further developed and explained in the rest of the New Testament and how it can only have its denouement and resolution in the new world which Christ himself will usher in upon his return.
The apostle Paul was deeply conscious of the tension Christians experience in this life in what Geerhardus Vos calls ‘the already, but not yet’ component of the Christian life. The ‘already’ aspect of that lies in the fact that in Christ we already have one foot firmly planted in heaven. As Paul reminds the Ephesians, we are already ‘seated together with Christ in the heavenlies’ (2.6) and are already ‘blessed with all spiritual blessings’ in him (1.3). We hold title to all Christ came to secure for his people through redemption.
But at the same time we are ‘not yet’ what we ought to be. God has ‘begun a good work’ in us, but it is not yet completed (Php 1.6). We live in a world that is hostile to God and to his people – one in which we ‘are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake’ (2Co 4.11). Like Paul we find ourselves being torn between wanting to depart this world and be with Christ, which is ‘better by far’ (Php 1.23) and remaining in this world to serve him. Later on in Philippians, playing on the fact it was a Roman colony, he says, ‘…but our citizenship is in heaven’ (3.20). Yes, we may have a passport for whatever nation into which we were born, or which we chose to adopt; but that is not where our real citizenship is located.
Arthur Edward Brumley captured this thought somewhat quaintly, but in a way that has struck a chord with many Christians, in the words of the gospel song:
This world is not my home I’m just passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore
For Brumley, these words were penned out of the context of his upbringing in the poverty of Mid-America in the 1920’s and the Great Depression that followed. His Christian faith gave him a different perspective on the hardships that surrounded him and the hope of that better world that God has promised to his people.
In the General Epistles, some of which were written against the backdrop of the Christian Diaspora that resulted from waves of Jewish and Roman persecutions, that thought is presented with an even greater poignancy. As we saw in an earlier article, Peter uses the language of displaced persons when he addresses the scattered believers of his day as those who are ‘strangers in the world’ scattered throughout the Roman Provinces (1Pe 1.1). Later he calls them to live like ‘aliens and strangers’ in this world as they consciously abstain from the corrupt behaviour that is its hallmark (1Pe 2.11) – saying, in effect, ‘we don’t belong here!’
It is, however, the book of Hebrews that captures the deepest sense in which every true Christian lives with tension so long as they remain in this world. Summing up how we as Christians are to cope with the exigencies of the life of faith in the here and now he says, ‘For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (13.14). Like our spiritual ancestors cited in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, we are ‘looking for a better country – a heavenly one’ (11.16) for ‘…the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (11.10).
There is a solidity to the prospect of the everlasting home Christ is preparing for his people that has too often been lost in evangelical preaching. The notion of ‘heaven’ as our everlasting home for many Christians has been one of a disembodied existence in an ethereal world. But that is far-removed from what we find in Scripture. Peter encourages his readers by saying that although ‘the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare’ (2Pe 3.10), ‘in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (3.13). And that new world order will be every bit as tangible and colourful as the broken order we have left behind.
So, therein lies the ultimate journey that takes us, in the words of John Milton, from ‘Paradise Lost’ to ‘Paradise Regained’. And the essence of this paradise is ‘at-home-ness’ – something that is infinitely more than just having somewhere to live; but, wherever we live, to have a ‘house’ turned into a ‘home’ because of who we share it with. Man was never made to be ‘alone’ – not just because of his need of a human counterpart and companion; but ultimately because he was made by God and for God to ever live in fellowship with God. That’s why Moses so eloquently states, ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout countless generations’ (Ps 90.1).
But what about the home that Christ is preparing for his people – this paradise he has promised for their future? Will it just be a reinstatement of what Adam lost in Eden? The answer to that is ‘No!’ As Isaac Watts puts it in his rendition of Psalm 72,
Where He [Christ] displays His healing power,
Death and the curse are known no more:
In Him the tribes of Adam boast
More blessings than their father lost
The ‘more blessings than our father lost’ of which he speaks points to the fact we will not be on probation in heaven – living under a huge question mark of whether or not we will be allowed to stay. Why? – Because just as Adam was acting not merely for himself, but others also; so too was Jesus. And he has fulfilled all righteousness for all his people and he has accomplished all that was required to secure that everlasting home for all who trust him. For those of us who have done so, let us rejoice. For those who have yet to do so, hear the words of Jesus: ‘Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11.28). He calls us to come home forever!