Mixing metaphors is bad grammar. But for Christian vocation, it’s essential.
Otherwise, our lives go astray.
One of the most influential metaphors in Christianity—especially among English-speaking Christians—is the pilgrim.
From Pilgrim’s Progress to the Pilgrims of the Mayflower to Christian songs like “This World is Not My Home,” we constantly hear this idea. One recent Christian pop song put it this way:
This world is not my home
I'm here but for a moment.
This is biblical—as far as it goes. The Bible describes Sarah, Abraham and other faithful patriarchs as “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). During the Exodus, Moses and the Israelites were pilgrims. And even after Christ’s resurrection, the Apostle Peter likened Christians to “sojourners and pilgrims”—or, as the English Standard Version renders it—“sojourners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11).
But is this all Christians are here on earth? Are we fighting sin, making disciples and, otherwise, marking time until Christ returns?
Thinking of ourselves as merely pilgrims or exiles almost inevitably leads to such a narrow view of Christian life.
The Bible, however, gives us another group of metaphors for Christian vocation—all related to the reality that we are servants in Christ’s kingdom.
Christ’s Worldwide Kingdom
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but it is in this world, right now. Christ works through people to sustain all that exists and save all the elect, to bring aid to those in need and bring glory to God.
Christ’s rule extends to literally everything—spiritual and physical, Christian and non-Christian—that exists in this world (Matt. 28:18, 1 Cor. 15:27, Eph. 1:22, Heb. 2:8). And as kingdom servants, we are called to labor in all those sectors of this world.
To help us do that, the Bible gives us three kingdom-related images: soldiers, executives and patriots.
The Apostle Paul repeatedly compared Christians to soldiers, from his “Armor of God” discourse in Ephesians 6:10-20, to his commands to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12) and “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3).
Of course, we as Christians do not fight with physical weapons and do not attack physical foes. Rather, Paul says, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
But we battle against far more than sin in our own hearts. Being a solider in Christ means fighting against the larger forces of evil that afflict the whole world—“against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
In short, Christians are volunteers in Christ’s army and He uses us to help expose and undo the lies of Satan that hold so many people captive, preventing them from enjoying Jesus as their true king.
Abraham was a pilgrim in the Promised Land, yet he was also, more or less, the CEO of a substantial commercial enterprise. He had more than 300 men working for him (Gen. 14:14) and was “very rich in livestock, silver and in gold” (Gen. 13:2).
Joseph became the chief operating officer of the Egyptian empire, directing its resources wisely in order to help others survive a famine.
Even today, Christians are called to be leaders—even business leaders—to faithfully cultivate the creation and steward the world’s resources.
Daniel was an exile in Babylon, yet he also became a top political adviser to the kings of Babylon, helping that government operate the best it could.
Nehemiah did something similar. Even though he was an exile, he served as the cupbearer to the Persian king, helping by his trustworthiness to protect the king from murderous plots.
Daniel and Nehemiah lived out what Jeremiah told the Israelites to do, when they were taken to Babylon: “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” (Jer. 29:7).
This is still a good rule for modern Christians. We usually live in societies and under governments that do not recognize Christ as their ruler. Yet as servants of Christ, we are still called to help our societies work better than they would, left to themselves.
Melding the Metaphors
We are not to be soldiers, executives or patriots in the typical human way. Soldiers in this world fight with physical weapons for the goal of physical dominion. Executives in this world are often driven by personal ambition. Patriots in this world tend to exalt politics above all else.
Instead, Christians are to be Sojourner-Soldiers, fighting spiritual battles in a physical world, not to gain dominion here, but to help people see that Christ already rules over them.
We are to be Exile-Executives, taking on the burdens of leadership for the good of others, not to exalt or enrich ourselves.
We are to be Pilgrim-Patriots, laboring for the good of this world while we are here, but knowing that all our earthly plans are, at best, tiny parts of Christ’s much greater and more glorious plan.
Only when we meld the Bible’s metaphors in this way are we able to perform our work rightly in this world—neither idolizing it nor evading it. Christians are called to live out the Bible's entire mix of metaphors.