The exile of the cross
I remember being away from home, without my parents, for the first time. It was a week-long trip to Pendine with school and promised an assortment of amazing experiences like abseiling, archery, endless hours of football and so on. Like a lot of the children there, I felt unsettled. My stomach felt tight, I had no appetite and everyone was speaking nothing but Welsh – a language I’d never really learnt. For the first few hours at least, all I wanted to do was to get back home.
Being ‘away from home’ is one of the big, overarching themes of the Scriptures. Almost every character and story involves it in some way or another and we usually refer to it as exile.
Exile has a purpose
When we hear the word ‘exile’ we normally associate it with judgment or punishment – as in the ‘Exile’ of Israel during the Babylonian captivity. Or, in the opening chapters of Genesis, as a result of the fall and banishment from the garden. But even in those instances, reducing the experience to purely punishment is far too simplistic.
In all the stories of exile (of which, did I mention, there are many!) there is a far more foundational element that binds them all together. Not judgement or punishment, but God achieving his purpose by sending people ‘away from home.’
A chief example of this, which will serve to augment our understanding of exile, is the story of Joseph in Egypt. Here is a man ‘away from home’ and no matter how you try to spin it his experience cannot be categorised as punishment. And yet, when all is said and done, he utters this wonderful verdict about his exile:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Gen. 50:20).
Of course, the exile of the nation certainly was as a result of God’s judgement on centuries of rebellion against him and his covenant. Yet, when we reduce it wholly to disciplining, we miss the wonderful mission which God is accomplishing through it; the mission of increasing his glory and fame to the ends of the earth.
In the book of Daniel, we read some of the greatest declarations of God’s rule, reign and majesty found anywhere in Scripture and those declarations come from the mouths of two Babylonian kings!
Daniel chapter 4 verses 1-3 read:
To the nations and peoples of every language, who live in all the earth: May you prosper greatly!
It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.
How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders!
His kingdom is an eternal kingdom;
his dominion endures from generation to generation.
While the nation of Israel had failed in its task of being a light to the nations, here, during the exile God is accomplishing that very thing! Surely this is more than just judgement?
Again, in chapter 6 verses 25 to 27 we hear:
King Darius wrote to all the nations and peoples of every language in all the earth:
‘May you prosper greatly! I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.
For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.’
I find these verses utterly breathtaking. Whilst God was realising his reproof on the wayward people, he was still achieving his great purpose. The truth about God was that, through sending his people ‘away from home’ he enabled them to reach all the nations, peoples and languages on earth.
The greatest exile
It is precisely this fuller notion of exile we should have in mind when we consider the events of Easter. For it is the greatest exile of them all.
Christ’s coming was an exile for sure. The old Philippian hymn found in Philippians 2 speaks of it. Paul, encouraging the Corinthian church towards gospel generosity in 2 Corinthians 8 hinges his argument on it. But it is perhaps understood most fully in the first chapter of John’s gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (v1).
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind (v4).
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (vv9-11).
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (v14).
Jesus, the eternal, the one and only Son, moved away from his home in Heaven and exiled himself here on earth. Not as a punishment but with a purpose. In his own words he would describe the objective of his exile: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:10).
Since the very first exile in Genesis 3 and the banishment from God’s presence in the garden, humanity has remained ‘away from home.’ Though earth is where we are supposed to be, it is not the plan for us to be shut out from God’s presence and glory. Christ left the garden in order to bring us home.
His own exile culminates with the cross and death. If you were plotting the journey, this would be his furthest point from home yet precisely the point at which God was accomplishing his greatest purpose. At the cross, bearing the weight of our rebellion which led to our separation, Jesus was in his exile undoing our own. Jesus was signing the papers in his own blood allowing us to finally return. ‘While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son’ (Rom. 5:12).
Living as exiles
By faith, living after Christ’s exile on our behalf, we are granted citizenship in his Kingdom meaning that we are exiles here and now. As such we will often have that nagging sense of being away from home. But that should not discourage us.
For one thing, we recognise that God accomplishes magnificent things when he purposefully places his people away from their home. Think of Joseph in Egypt or Israel in Babylon. So we can rightly surmise that God must be up to something even among us as we sojourn. How exciting!
But more importantly, we can know for certain that because of Christ’s own exile and return, our future lies elsewhere too. Somewhere far greater than our current climes. With certain hope, we can look forward to our own return home; to the garden and life once more in God’s presence. There we will be free of the brokenness and bitterness that so often nags at us and tells us we aren’t quite home yet.