A Biblical view of borders, immigrants, and refugees

by Brent J MacDonald

Nations have been part of God's plan from at least shortly after Noah's flood (Genesis 10:5). Later, God personally separated the descendants of Abraham from the other peoples of the world to make them a nation (Genesis 12:1-2), a people of His own.  This nation was not to be confused with other nations, of which God enabled Abraham also to father many (Genesis 17:4-6).  God later expanded His distinct people by grafting Gentile believers from every nation into Israel, further removing Jewish unbelievers, all to retain a holy nation separate from all other earthly lands (Romans 11:17-22; Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 1 Peter 2:9).

Globalist thought is now promoted as a worldwide ideal, especially in the west.  This opposes a Biblical view of the necessity of nations.  Consider the rise of earthly nations; God engineered the means to assure their continued existence.  During humankind's spread following the flood of Noah's day (Genesis 10), it was God's intentional and dramatic increase of language divisions at the Tower of Babel that brought about a multitude of national people groups and limited empires (Genesis 11:1-9). Subsequently, throughout history, people wanting to join with any specific group had to be willing to adopt, in the least, the language of the people they were joining. The success, or rather lack of success, of empires trying to span language groups, has been a Biblically predictable failure. God determined this linguistic partition to be an effective way of keeping humankind divided, to stop the rise of a supreme worldwide empire (which would inevitably misuse its power in opposition to God).      

In the post-exodus Old Testament nation of Israel, the land included defined boundaries, borders established by God.  Subsequent rulers frequently were unable or unwilling to enforce or maintain those borders against encroachment of other peoples or nations. Yet, even with subsequently reduced borders, these rulers worked to defend their borders and their national populace.  This established and defended periphery didn't stop all cross-border movement. Borders could allow for trade, admitting those traveling for business, plus they could additionally allow for immigrants or refugees by times.  All these exceptions had caveats:

  1. Any time there was national interest to close the borders to any group or individual, the government could (and did) do so.  You can be sure that in the days of David and Saul, with regular Philistines raids (1 Samuel 4:1-2; 7:7; 7:13-14; 14:47, 52), that they closely monitored the borders and restricted Philistine access to Israel's territory. When the Philistines came and settled in Israel's territory during the days of Ahaz, this was considered something bad and not a welcoming of immigrants (2 Chronicles 28:16-21).

  2. All foreign people allowed in the land had to adopt and practice the law of the land.  The law of the land was to never compromise to accommodate outside practices or peoples.  (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:15-16, 29 [also Numbers 9:14; 19:10; 35:15]; Deuteronomy 31:12 [also Deuteronomy 29:10-15]; also Joshua 8:33).

Yes, there are many Old Testament examples showing God's people moving to a new land, either as temporary residents or permanently.  For example; consider Abraham (Genesis 11:31; 12:10; 13:12; 13:18) and later Joseph's family (Genesis 47:6, 11, 27).  In each of these migrations there's no indication their entrance into that foreign land was contrary to the government. Even Abraham's stay in Gerar was by the permission and tolerance of its ruler (Genesis 20:1-15).  With Joseph's family, the text goes out of its way to assure that it was with Pharaoh's permission and under conditions set by him.  Naomi and her husband, who went to Moab in a time of famine, had no intrinsic right to enter Moab (a sometimes enemy of Israel); their admission to this territory would've been by permission of the Moabite government and under their laws (Ruth 1:1).  Likewise foreigner Ruth, returning from Moab with the Israeli national Naomi, had no right to enter Israel apart from governmental sanction and the included obligation that she would follow the laws of Israel (Ruth 1:6-7, 16-18, 22). Ruth's story showed she submitted to the laws and customs of Israel, abandoning those of Moab. 

God's decreed "one law," for outsiders permitted within Israel and the people of Israel, included respect for the ruling authority, the government (Exodus 22:28; Ecclesiastes 10:20).  Rest assured that any foreigner who wanted to enter Israel known for opposition to the ruler and laws of the land wouldn't have been allowed to enter or remain in the land.  Additionally, the foreigner who came to promote false gods, or sell idols on the street, would've been banned or (in the least) ejected upon discovery (Psalms 81:9; Joshua 24:20-23; 1 Samuel 7:3; 2 Chronicles 33:15; Jeremiah 5:19). If cursing the king was tantamount to cursing God (with equal punishment, see Exodus 22:28 and 1 Kings 21:10, 13), consider how serious governing officials would take the actions of someone trying to enter Israel having openly cursed both!

The Old Testament included many places where God instructed His people on how they should treat "foreigners" and the oppressed.  These passages do not contradict or stand opposed to the previously mentioned governmental mandate to protect its people and control its borders.

    Exodus 22:21   "You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. (ESV)

All Old Testament scriptural commands to show mercy to the oppressed (Daniel 4:27), to do no wrong to the resident alien (Jeremiah 22:3), and to judge fairly between citizens and aliens (Deuteronomy 1:16) are predicated on the immigrant being lawfully allowed in the land (not an enemy) and law abiding (honoring the government and God's law).  There's never a hint that God wanted His people to adjust their laws, their government, or their way of life, to accommodate the foreigner; rather the foreigner was welcome wherein they honored the already established laws (Deuteronomy 18:9; 2 Kings 17:15).  For those allowed to enter the borders of the land, God makes clear they are to never be oppressed, that His people are to remember that they once had been lawfully allowed in the land of Egypt, where they were subsequently unjustly oppressed (Exodus 23:9). Unquestionably, the lawful sojourner - especially when poor - must be provided for (Leviticus 19:10; 23:22; Deuteronomy 26:12). This empathy doesn't allow for, or excuse, law breaking by that sojourner.  This compassion by Israel never could celebrate or tolerate actions or words against God in the name of another god (Exodus 23:13).  Yet, even the soldier tasked with protecting the borders of the land was still obligated to show mercy and care for the foreigners lawfully allowed within the land.

    Acts 17:26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.

Did everything change in the New Testament regarding national boundaries?  Beyond teachers who misuse Old Testament passages on sojourners, there are others claiming the church must forget all these Old Testament examples.  They see in Jesus no reason for any earthly divisions, including national ones.  Unquestionably, in Christ's church, there is no division between Jew and Gentile or any other people-group divides (Colossians 3:11; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28).  And yet, nowhere does God command Christians to tear down national boundaries and to ignore or subvert governments or national laws.  Scriptures recognize that God's people are called to Him from out of these nations, presupposing their continued existence (Acts 10:34-25; Acts 17:26; Psalms 22:27; Isaiah 49:6; 60:1-3).  There will be nations until the end of the world (Revelation 20:8). The completed church of God comes "from every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9; also Revelation 7:9)."  Moreover, God demands that people obey and "be subject to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-5 also Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 2 Peter 2:10-11; Jude 8)."  All national governments and authorities are entrusted with protecting and caring for their citizens, for punishing wrongdoing (law breakers) and encouraging good behavior (law keeping). This was true in Old Testament times and it remains true in the New Testament era to present day (Romans 13:1-5). 

Jesus was a refugee.  This phrase is often thrown out as if it's a definitive argument to shut down support for any national controls over immigration.  Since Jesus was a refugee, every person that claims refugee status should be welcome with open arms - doing otherwise is tantamount to rejecting Jesus.  Yes, Jesus was a refugee due to political (and perhaps religious) persecution by Israel's government (Matthew 2:13-15).  The biblical text shows His parents fleeing to Egypt, a country that archaeology and historical records show had defined borders and border security.  We don't see the Bible advocating sneaking around those controls; rather the text infers that Egypt allowed their entry and continued presence within the land. 

Some believe our Christian mission to share the gospel is at odds with borders and national limitations on immigration. To arrive a correct understanding, we need to recognize that government's God-ordained job is not the same as that of His church.  There's no mandate that any government must take care of, protect, or provide for anyone beyond its own citizens. The church, on the other hand, has clear mandate and God-given direction to go to these people and help them wherever the area - spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ as they go.  A government has no requirement to help outsiders, especially to its own possible national detriment. The church is called to serve even if it means persecution, opposition, and personal harm (Luke 6:27-28, 33).  Governments remain God-obligated to protect their own citizens and to treat fairly and equally those they have lawfully allowed within their borders. The church is God-commanded to help everyone regardless of their ethnicity, citizenship, or religious background.  The onus is on the church to go, not to wait for these people to come or somehow be transplanted into their own backyard. The church mustn't use the excuse that people should be brought here to avoid going (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19; Luke 14:21-23).   

    Luke 24:45-47 Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (See also Mark 13:10)

As believers come into contact with people, even people that normally hate or mistreat us, we must speak the truth in love and serve them (consider the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37). From a gospel perspective, nations and people divisions are irrelevant to the gospel.  Believers can never use a person's nationality or citizenship as an excuse to deny aid someone or fail to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them. The church needs to look beyond these things with a goal of many becoming part of God's heavenly nation - and not necessarily the same earthly nation we temporarily reside in (Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16).

If your national government gives opportunity for oppressed and poor to come into your land, then Christians - not the government - should be at the forefront of caring for them. Our welcome of them doesn't excuse their sinfulness, if they are not believers in Jesus Christ; our welcome is purposefully to befriend them, taking opportunity to share the coming judgment of God and their personal need of forgiveness and new life in Jesus (Ephesians 5:16).  If we, God's church, are truly are willing to help and care for these people, we should be petitioning our government to allow their lawful entry without burden to the government or non-believers.

    Hebrews 13:1  Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.

Caring for least of these, including those in prison (Matthew 25:35-40), doesn't mean we demand the government set everyone free or ignore their offense, their law breaking. This would violate clear New Testament scriptures calling for us to honor the government and obey their laws.  Likewise, if our government sets penalties for illegal immigration, we must honor the government's right to do so.  Simultaneously, we can still provide care, company, and provisions, and the gospel, to these same people. And if they are subsequently governmentally excluded from the land, we can aid them wherever they go.   Arguing that it would be easier to care for them if they were allowed to live in your land is not an excuse; God never guaranteed that doing the right thing would be easy or convenient. You don't see the apostle Paul petitioning Israel to allow all the oppressed of every other nation in the Roman world to come into the land (or vice versa).  Yet, at great personal cost (2 Corinthians 11:23-28), he went to the people where they were and encouraged believers to give to help those people where they were (1 Corinthians 16:1-3).

God's royal law includes the high command that we must love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark12:31; Mathew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18).  This Law is not at odds with upholding governmental laws and boundaries. Both concepts were given together with God expecting their coexistence.  Unquestionably, for a government to complete its God-given duty, to foster a peaceful and safe environment for its citizens, it's necessary to enforce borders.  The existence of these borders may inconvenience me in trying to reach an excluded individual with the gospel.  It may demand my going to them instead of their coming to me (perhaps costing me more in time and money).  Yet, for the sake of the safety and peace of my more immediate neighbor, I will rejoice in that lawful use of governmental authority. In the midst of their maintaining border security, I mustn't forget the need to take the gospel and God's love to those kept outside. Standing on the inside decrying lawful action by the government doesn't count as evangelism and missionary endeavor.

Personally, as does all the church, I have an obligation to "rescue those who are being taken away to death" and to "hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter (Proverbs 24:11)." This I must do by whatever means God has given me and through the lawful opportunities He has set before me.  If I can do so personally, I should.  If I can only petition those with greater resources and opportunities to help, I should (and this may include the government in some instances).  Wherein it's within my power I must "Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; [and] deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalms 82:3)."  If this is not within my direct power, I can still call out on their behalf to those who do have the power and resources - I must not be silent (Isaiah 1:17).

    Proverbs 31:8-9  Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

From an earthly perspective, the gospel partially negates the God-ordained effect of Babel (Genesis 11:9). Believers in Jesus Christ, while still hampered with language division in earthly communication, are bound together as one people composed of believers from every tribe, people group, earthly nation and language.  We long for the day when, with one voice and language, we will be together able to praise our Lord and Savior. This everlasting spiritual people will finally see Babel's restriction lifted.  There will only be one people, one nation, and one language. God's final people, inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, are free to come and go (shown by open gates in Revelation 21:25). Yet there's still control on who can enter. Showing His protection of those within, there's still walls with gates (Revelation 21:17-22) - God-ordained borders. These eternally open gates don't equal unprotected ones.  All who would harm His people, or commit unlawful acts, are forever prevented from entering (Revelation 21:27). This is God's everlasting border control.

For the record, I'm a sojourner in a foreign land, now a citizen, here by the lawful acceptance of the governing authorities.  Our family came to bring the gospel.  My initial applications to stay in this land were repeated rejected.  We were weeks away from the deadline authorities set for us to leave. Many encouraged us to ignore these lawful rules because they thought them unjust.  Even a prominent politician (lawmaker?) said the same.  As I publicly and repeatedly stated at the time, I must honor the lawful commands of the authorities that God placed over this land.  I can't pick and choose.  In God's grace and provision, at the last minute, those authorities granted our petition.  Had they not, we would've returned to our former land.  Even in that land, though a citizen, I was still a sojourner.  In the big picture, this doesn't change.  No matter what earthly land I'm live in, citizen or not, I'm a temporary resident here. No matter what land I visit I'm just passing through - and ready to move on if persecuted for my faith (Matthew 10:23).  I long for that eternal city with walls guarded by God (Hebrews 11:13-16; Revelation 21:9-27).  There, as a citizen of the Holy City, I'll finally be home.  With that uncountable everlasting multicultural, multinational, polylingual, multitude (Revelation 7:9) I'll sing in praise of our Lord Jesus Christ...

    Revelation 5:9b "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation"

(c) 2017 Brent MacDonald, LTM/DTI - Cottage Cove Urban Ministries