Summary: Abraham is shown to be a spiritual Pilgrim on his journey to the City of God, as seen in his Call to a New Life, his Response by Faith, his Courageous Commitment, his Persistence in Difficulty and in Reaching his Goal.
Istanbul, formerly the historic Constantinople, was an early centre of Christianity. One of the tourist attractions is the huge building called the Aghia Sophia. The guide summarised its history as a church, then a mosque and now a tourist attraction, like this: 800 years dedicated to Christ; 500 years to Allah and 80 years to the god of tourism! I thought this was rather a parable of the spiritual journey of our own lives.
I had been reading the life and journeying of Abraham and how it applied to my own ’Pilgrim’s Progress’. It made me wonder if I was changeable like the Aghia Sophia – a ‘pilgrim’ or merely a ‘tourist’. The writer of the Hebrews draws out lessons for our spiritual instruction in the account of Abraham’s journey of faith (11:8-16). He tells us that Abraham: “… was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham’s life can be summarised in one word – he was a ‘pilgrim’.
The dictionary definition of a pilgrim is “a person regarded as journeying to a future life.” It’s a journey undertaken with an end view, a purpose, as contrasted with the journeying of a tourist. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist; it can enrich our knowledge and perspective of life, but essentially it’s a matter of “Been there, done that, got the tee shirt!”
Our life on Earth can helpfully be seen as a journey but the question is: Are we making it as a “pilgrim” or a “tourist”? The mindset of these categories in a spiritual context is quite different. Being a “pilgrim”: it’s what we become; what we strive to be all the time, not just for a few precious weeks of holiday each year. The “tourist” lives life fairly casually, responding to whims and changing directions.
As tourists we don’t want to be trapped in a place, relationships or situations from which we can’t escape or find uncomfortable. It’s all about our being in control, being in charge and getting our choice. We’ll look at the contrast between the biblical “pilgrim” and “tourist” and see how different they are in the story of Abraham. God calls us to be “pilgrims” under His rules, rather than mere “tourists” doing “our own thing”, in the journey of life.
Abraham’s journeying was at a different level. His was a pilgrimage from the city of mankind to the city of God. We don’t know exactly when or how Abraham came to know God. It’s likely that he heard about Him through stories passed down by word of mouth from his ancestors, aided by seeing the Almighty’s creation and through the stirring of his conscience. But primarily, it was through a personal encounter with the living God. And that’s how anyone becomes a Christian – we hear God’s call.
We’re told by the first martyr, Stephen, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia” (Acts 7:2), that’s ancient Babylon, now Iraq and Iran. Abraham’s contemporaries had a religious culture of worshipping the moon and kneeling before idols, but following this encounter with the one and only true God he was told to distance himself from this city of human arrogance and wickedness. As the story unfolds we see Abraham’s:
CALL TO A NEW LIFE
The Bible’s account makes the point that it wasn’t Abraham who found God; it was God who found Abraham. He received a call to which he had to respond, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (Gen 12:1). Abraham isn’t called simply to adopt a new set of ideas but which would leave his outward life untouched. It was something far more radical; it was to be a crossroad in his life. It was a call to a decisive turning away from the past, a public rejection of his ancestors’ pagan religion.
God is a jealous God who will not allow His followers to have a mixture of old and new gods. Other religions may have high ideals but can’t hope to offer redemption of mankind where “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). It’s only in the atonement of Jesus on the Cross that we have the gift of forgiveness of sins and the life eternal. The call of God to Abraham to a new life was followed by his:
RESPONSE BY FAITH
The commentary in Hebrews tells us that “By faith Abraham obeyed.” He put the past behind him. His response is an example for all of us. But it was no easy matter. The sacrifice must have been enormous. It wasn’t that he was a man without responsibilities. He had an elderly father, his wife and other family members to consider. He left a life of comfort and luxury for one where there were no financial certainties. He left the security of the town where he was a citizen for an unknown destination, for the life of a nomad. He put his entire future into God’s hands without any guarantees.