What Does the Bible Say About Refugees?

by | Nov 23, 2015 | Woman

A lot of people are arguing about what to do with Syrian refugees. Many people are afraid of terrorism. Others are horrified by the lack of compassion that fear seems to cause. Many want our government to be open to immigrants. Many want it to be closed. Some people want our nation to reflect Christian values. Others do not. And these lines are not drawn in consistent ways.

One focus I haven’t seen much in recent Christian articles is what the Bible actually says about a believer’s response to refugees and immigrants. I’ve seen memes on the Good Samaritan and sarcastic references to Mary and Joseph as rejected travelers. I’ve seen impassioned pleas by Christians for compassion and others warning against it. But does the Bible actually give us restrictive requirements for a Christian’s response to refugees?

Consider first Old Testament Law.

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, NAS).

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34, ESV).

God commanded His children to show hospitality to and solidarity with refugees and immigrants – basically anyone who wasn’t native to their lands – because they too had been strangers in Egypt and should understand the particular struggle that comes from being displaced from one’s homeland.

But these instructions are from the Old Testament Law, and New Testament believers are no longer under the Law. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul are clear that Jesus fulfilled the Law, and we are no longer restrained by its instructions or the punishments it demands for those who break it. Yet, Christians still don’t believe in murder or lying, adultery or gossip. We still set aside a day to worship the Lord, and we still give a portion of our money to support our churches. Why do such Old Testament ideas linger in New Testament practice? Because these instructions from the Old extend into the New. Even as Jesus says He fulfilled both the righteous instructions in the Law and the punishment for those who break it, He continued to teach what righteousness in the New Covenant looks like, and it sometimes looks very similar to righteousness in the Old.

When Jesus says He fulfilled the Old Testament Law, does He give us any indication of how He wants us to think particularly about aliens/immigrants after His death and resurrection? Does Jesus teach only that we are no longer bound by the Old Testament instructions on aliens/immigrants? Or does He teach that the underlying principle is still binding?

Jesus actually solves this for us quite clearly in the gospels.

“‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me'” (Matthew 25:35-40, NASB).

Jesus seems to intensify the implications for care of strangers. He lifts up the act to something done more than just FOR Him. It’s now something done directly TO Him. He gives a sobering assessment of those who forsake this practice as well:

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me'” (Matt. 25:41-45).

The author of Hebrews reinforces Jesus’ teaching.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV).  

In conclusion, we could argue for compassion toward refugees based on the Greatest Commandment or as an extension of Christian pro-life values. We could argue for treating a refugee the way we would want to be treated using the Golden Rule or make a case for the political value of welcoming refugees as the very undoing of ISIS’ best strategy. But the fact of the matter is that we shouldn’t need to make any such arguments as Christians because we are constrained by something much simpler, the Bible itself. God not only says to care for refugees, He says that when we do it, it is the same as caring directly for Him. That is profound!

The Bible instructs as clearly on treatment of refugees as it does on the murder of babies in the womb. It speaks as clearly about welcoming refugees as it does about fornication, lying, or drunkenness. God’s children obey Him when they care for the displaced, and they disobey Him when they don’t. Thankfully, Christ paid the penalty for the sin of turning away from the refugee and has broken the chains of sin and fear that cause us to ignore these Scriptures. We have now, in Christ, the freedom to obey.

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