What is a sojourner in the Bible?

In English, a "sojourner" is defined as a person who resides temporarily in a place. In the Bible, there are two Hebrew words and two Greek words in the original text that are sometimes translated as "sojourner" in English versions.

In Hebrew, the word towshab is most often translated as sojourner. It refers to someone living in a country where he is not a native citizen or naturalized, a resident foreigner, a lodger, an emigrant, or a stranger. The other Hebrew word, ger, is only sometimes translated as sojourner, more often being rendered as stranger or alien. However, ger means a guest, implying a foreigner. It refers to someone living outside his own country. The Greek word paroikeo is translated as sojourner and means to dwell near or by or to live in a place without citizenship. Finally, the Greek word xenos, referring to a foreigner, stranger, alien, or guest, can also be translated as sojourner. In short, a sojourner is a person who lives as a foreigner temporarily in a place that is not his permanent home.

Scripture teaches that all people are sojourners here on earth. The temporary nature of our lives is expressed in James 4:14 that we are but "a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes." David proclaimed to God in Psalm 39:5, "Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!" A few verses later, he declares, "I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers" (Psalm 39:12).

The author of Hebrews explained that those who trusted God in ancient times as recorded in the Old Testament "acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland… they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:13–16). To the New Testament believers, Peter wrote, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul" (1 Peter 2:11). The believers to whom Peter addressed his letter were "exiles of the Dispersion" (1 Peter 1:1), so were not living in their native land. But that earthly reality served to illustrate the spiritual reality for all believers in Jesus Christ. In Philippians 3:20 we learn that "our citizenship is in heaven."

Believers in both Old and New Testaments viewed themselves as sojourners who were living as temporary guests on earth longing for their permanent and eternal home with God. While many humans acknowledge the fleeting nature of life, believers understand themselves as sojourners perhaps even more. Not only do we know this earthly life is temporary and that eternity with Christ awaits, we do not fit into the strange land of the worldly system (John 15:18–20). Parts of the world may feel very comfortable and familiar to us, but other times we will feel like we are, indeed, strangers living in a strange land. As the common saying goes, we are to be in the world but not of the world (see John 17).

Jesus told His followers, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19–21). As sojourners on earth, we understand that our best investments are those with eternal value (see also 2 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 6:7–10).

Our time as sojourners here is purposeful. While we are on this earth, "we are ambassadors for Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:20), sharing the truth of the gospel with others so that they, too, may be reconciled with God. We live not attached to the things of the world, yet still fully engaged in life. Believers in Jesus are children of God who have been given the privilege of relationship with Him, relationship with other believers, and sharing His love, truth, and light with the world (John 1:12; 13:34–35; Matthew 5:13–16; Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 3:15; Ephesians 4:15). We have much to learn, much to enjoy, and much to share while sojourning here.

Two vivid practical examples of purpose in sojourning are Joseph in Egypt and the Israelites in Babylon. Joseph was sold by his brothers to slave traders. He rose to prominence in Potiphar's house, but then was thrown in jail on a false charge (Genesis 39). Yet as the Lord had been with Joseph in his rise in Potiphar's home, He was with Joseph in prison. The keeper of the prison placed Joseph in charge and "paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph's charge, because the LORD was with him" (Genesis 39:23). Joseph was later released from prison, after interpreting Pharaoh's dream. Pharaoh placed him in charge to prepare the country for the upcoming famine, and Joseph served faithfully (Genesis 40—50). Joseph told his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Joseph's sojourning was pivotal in saving nations—it was immensely purposeful. Joseph saw himself as a servant of the Lord wherever he was placed. He trusted in God's care for him, gave God the glory, and genuinely sought the good of those around him.

Similarly, Daniel, though taken to Babylon as a captive, became a trusted official for impactful leaders in the ancient world. He continued to serve God faithfully and also served the various kings honorably. His sojourning made a difference in the world. Not all sojourners are so obviously linked to influential people in history, but each still makes a difference.

Jeremiah told the Jews in Babylon, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:4–7). The Israelites knew their captivity would last only seventy years, yet God tasked them with making homes and seeking the good of those in the foreign land to which they had been exiled. They were to live with purpose even in their sojourning. God assured His people, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile" (Jeremiah 29:11–14). Sojourning is not merely about waiting or trying to gain purpose through platitudes. It is real life lived in real places with real people in a way that matters both temporally and eternally.

The Bible also speaks specifically about people who live outside their earthly homeland, helping us understand how to treat sojourners and foreigners in the more literal sense. God gave multiple instructions to the Israelites about how they were to treat the sojourners living with them. Deuteronomy 10:18 reveals that God "loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing." He commanded, "You shall not pervert the justice due the sojourner" (Deuteronomy 24:17). Besides justice, the sojourner was to be provided food (Deuteronomy 14:29), be invited to their celebration feasts (Deuteronomy 16:14), and was to be given rest on the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:14). God commanded His people to "love the sojourner, therefore," and then provided a reason "for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Israelites were to identify with the struggles of living in a foreign land because their ancestors had also once lived in a foreign land and suffered the injustices of slavery there. Rather than unfair treatment and neglect, God's people were to act with care and concern for the foreigners living in their midst. In return, the sojourners were to abide by the law of the land. God declared, "there shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you… You and the sojourner shall be alike before the LORD. One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you" (Numbers 15:15–16). When Israel failed to apply the law with justice for the sojourners among them and to treat them with care, God brought His discipline. Ezekiel 22:29–31 states, "The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice… Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them."

Jesus reiterated God's stance on treating everyone with dignity and care, emphasizing the importance of looking after those in need, including strangers living in our midst, in Matthew 25. He stated, "For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Matthew 25:42–45). Just as Jesus identified with those in desperate situations, so too are we to identify with others in their need. As for literal sojourners, we can become more empathetic by remembering that we are living as sojourners in this world, longing for our eternal home as citizens of God's heavenly kingdom.

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