Recently I read Hebrews 11 as part of my daily Bible reading schedule. I paused to think about the word pilgrims in Hebrews 11:13:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. (NKJV)
Something about the time of the year as we approach the U.S. Thanksgiving (Canada celebrates a Thanksgiving holiday much earlier) caused me to pause. No doubt, also, our disturbing election started me thinking about what it means to be a “pilgrim” in today’s world.
Meaning of Pilgrim
According to Barnes Notes on the New Testament,
The Greek word means a by-resident; one who lives by another or among a people not his own. This is the idea here. It is not that they confessed themselves to be wanderers, or that they had left their home to visit a holy place, but that they resided as mere sojourners in a country that was not theirs. What might be their ultimate destination, or their purpose, is not implied in the meaning of the word. They were such as reside awhile among another people, but have no permanent home there.
Sometimes the word is translated “sojourner” (YLT), “stranger” (NIV), “exile” (NASB and ESV), or even “transients” (MSG). It “implies a sense of transitoriness, as of one who passes by to something beyond.”
I ran across a wonderful quote from the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus, an apologetic letter (Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament). The author describes Christians as those who,
inhabit their own country, but as sojourners: they take part in all things as citizens, and endure all things as aliens: every foreign country is theirs, and every country is foreign.
When Pilgrims Received the Title
I dug more into the “Pilgrim” story. I learned that the group of religious dissidents that founded the Plymouth colony may have thought of themselves as “pilgrims.” However, the term used to describe them didn’t come into general use until much later.
According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilgrim_Fathers):
The first use of the word pilgrims for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford‘s Of Plymouth Plantation. As he finished recounting his group’s July 1620 departure from Leiden, Bradford used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13–16 about Old Testament “strangers and pilgrims” who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country. Bradford wrote:
So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.
There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth’s founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, except when quoting Bradford. When the Mayflower’s story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), both paraphrased Bradford’s passage and used Bradford’s word pilgrims. At Plymouth’s Forefathers’ Day observance in 1793, Rev. Chandler Robbins recited this passage from Bradford.
The Pilgrim Paradox
They knew that they were pilgrims. But they did much more than apply the “pilgrim” concept to leaving Leiden and journeying to the New World. Instead, they applied the “pilgrim” thinking to leaving the comforts of Leiden and to all the hardships they endured in their new country. They were pilgrims in both the Old World and the New. They lived the pilgrim paradox between the effort they made to establish themselves in the new world and the way they held so lightly to it. And the reality of being a pilgrim in the Hebrews 11:13 sense enabled them to endure unbelievable hardships met at Plymouth Colony. They endured as more than half their number died in the first year. Their dearest country truly was heaven.
Modern Day Pilgrims
Village Missionaries, as we approach this Thanksgiving season, I am so thankful that you are pilgrims. You have willingly left family and friends to travel to a different land. Sometimes you have encountered spiritual hardships and sometimes you have felt like a “sojourner,” a “stranger, and even an “exile.”
But that is not why you are a pilgrim. You are a pilgrim because you are citizens of a heavenly country and you would be a pilgrim in any location. That is who you are and you know it. So, you follow your heavenly King and work for His Kingdom. You see hardships not considering the “here and now” but, just like Abraham, in the light of the “there and then.” You live the paradox of devoting yourself to service on this earth because you see eternity ahead.
And no matter who wins an election you are thankful for the role God has given you in His government.