Our Exile Heritage

This blog post was written by Pastor Jon Ludovina and Cole Simpson.

1 Peter 1:1-2

"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
     To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:
     May grace and peace be multiplied to you."

The Dispersion:

Dispersion comes from the Greek word ‘Diaspora’ which means “to distribute in foreign lands” or “to scatter abroad.” Historically, it refers to those Israelites who had been exiled into the surrounding lands of Egypt, Babylon and Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) throughout the Old Testament and hadn’t returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel, Ezra or Nehemiah. 
There is some debate as to why exactly Peter uses the term as he greets these Christians in churches scattered throughout Asia Minor. Some scholars argue that these believers were literal exiles from Rome who Peter had ministered to before they were scattered under Caesar Claudius’ non-violent Expulsion in 49 AD. As the Roman Emperor, Claudius found the Jews and the young Christian movement annoying and disruptive. So he had 50,000 Jews and Christians sent into new Roman colonies. 
Others argue that Peter’s use of the term is simply describing Asia Minor as one of the areas that the Israelites in Old Testament exile had been scattered to. 
Regardless of these differing views, what’s agreed upon fundamentally is that Peter understands and wants these Christians to understand that upon receiving new birth in Jesus, God gives us an identity as exiles. We are God’s scattered family of vagabonds. Resident aliens living in a foreign land as an envoy of emissaries (Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11-12). And this concept -- a major theme of Peter’s letter -- has a rich and powerful history amongst God’s peoples.

The First Exiles:

Since the Garden of Eden God’s people have been exiled. Adam and Eve were removed from their garden home after choosing sin over God (Genesis 3:23-24). Following in their footsteps, all of humanity has tasted the curse of sin; the reality of living in a world that is only a temporary home. 

"We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile."
-Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

The Father of an Exile Nation:

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and promises to make him the father of a great nation. But this incredible promise comes with the condition that Abram must leave his homeland and travel to a foreign land. Unlike Adam and Eve who were forced into exile by their sinful lack of faith, Abram chooses to embrace God’s call to live as an exile because he is filled with faith. 

Exiles in Egypt:

Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph becomes an exile in Egypt not because of his sin but because of the sins of his jealous brothers (Genesis 37). And God uses Joseph’s exile to eventually save millions of people from a coming famine. Joseph rises to power and social prominence in the Egyptian empire. His family moves to Egypt and multiplies greatly. 
Then Joseph dies and is forgotten about. 
And the Israelites lose their place of social prominence in Egyptian culture. This movement from the center of society to the fringes quickly turns into violent persecution. Moses is hidden by his parents because the Egyptians were brutally murdering Israelites boys under 2 years of age (Exodus 1-2). He grows up in wealth and power as Pharaoh’s adopted son. Until God leads him to leave this place of centrality and lead God’s people out of slavery. 

Exiles in Babylon:

After God uses Moses to deliver His people out of slavery, they take a long windy road to the Promised Land. Then in 607 BC the reign of  King Nebuchadnezzar II spread throughout the Middle East. Stage by stage the Babylonians conquer and exile the elite Israelites out of Jerusalem and into Babylon. Eventually the Babylonians decimate Jerusalem, destroy the temple, burn the houses, and over 10,000 Israelites are forcibly exiled to Babylon (Daniel 1, Jeremiah 25). 

In Summary: 

God’s people have always been exiles. 

Well, pretty much always. Throughout history, God’s people spend significantly more time in exile than out of it. And they get there in a manner of different ways: because of their own sins (Genesis 3), because of the sins of others (Genesis 37), because of their national idolatry (Jeremiah 25), because of tyrannical empires overtaking them (Daniel 1, 9), and even because of faithful decisions to trust and follow God to a new homeland (Genesis 12). But no matter the reason, God is always in the midst of it, working to save His people and the people around them. He leads His people to embrace their identity as missionary exiles; heaven’s outpost embassy. 

Christians as Exiles:

Peter, raised as a pious Israelite, brings all of this history to account when he calls the Christians in his letter exiles. He’s reminding them that God has continually worked for salvation no matter how painful the circumstances of His people are. He’s reminding them that God is with them, whether they are treated well by their culture or not. No matter the situation that got them into exile in the first place, God has never and will never abandon His people. 

Exiles in the Roman Empire:

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the gospel of grace spread throughout Rome very quickly. Despite the rapid spread, Christians were not well liked in general by Rome. This was largely due to the fact that they held their allegiance to Jesus higher than their allegiance to the Roman Empire. The common cultural perception was that they were at best weird and at worst dangerous. 

Tension also rose between Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God and the new Messianic sect of Jews who did believe he was the son of God (a.k.a. many of the early Christians). This tension resulted in Jews aggressively persecuting Christians all the way to the extreme of death because the Jews believed the Christians were twisting and perverting Judaism. This persecution is seen in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7), Paul’s persecution (Acts 8) and also leads to the martyrdom of James, Jesus’ brother. This conflict also caused riots in the synagogues which ultimately led to Claudius expelling the more than 50,000 Jews and Christians, like we mentioned before.  

However this persecution was not limited to the Jewish Christians. As the church invited in new Jewish and Gentile believers, Gentile Christians were also marginalized and mistreated by their non believing friends because they had turned away from their old ways to the ways of Christ (1 Peter 4:1-6). 

In other words, no matter who you were as a Christian at the time, you were likely to experience some type of exile treatment; from smaller forms of marginalization to more violent forms of persecution. 

Modern Exiles:

Like the Christians Peter wrote to in Asia Minor, we are now called to pick up the mantle of living as exiles for the benefit of the world around us by seeing and knowing and glorifying Jesus. The purpose of God’s people has always been to be a lamppost in the darkness; a city on a hill that proclaims and shows off God’s beauty to the world (Matthew 5:14).  

In America and much of the West, we are culturally approaching the end of a period known as Christendom. As a strong contrast to most of the history of God’s people, Christendom saw Christian values and the church take a central role at the core of society. Many of the effects of this are still seen in the South; people claiming to be Christians with little to no active love or desire to follow Him; networking by putting Christian symbols on business materials, etc. So for many people, moving from Christendom to a more post-Christian will be a rocky transition. 

But as God’s people, our purpose has never been to demand a central role in our society here and now. As God’s people, our purpose is to glorify him in whatever cultural circumstance we find ourselves. We look forward to a coming land where Jesus will be central to all of culture. And we allow that future hope to empower us to live as exile missionaries no matter where we are. Because we know this isn't our home. So we don’t need it to maximize our comfort. Exiles are freed up to love on their neighbors with little demands on what kind of treatment we receive in return. 

Exactly like Jesus came to a foreign land as an exile. 

Exactly like He was mistreated by His neighbors.

And kept on loving them anyway.

So that now we can go from being His enemies to being His friends. From being strangers to being His family. And from being citizens of earth to being citizens of heaven, sent on an exile mission with Jesus, the Exile of all exiles.