What Does the Bible teach us about Refugees?

We all come to the topic of refugees with different influences and assumptions: our own family background, any personal involvement we’ve had with Refugees or lack thereof, the political party we support, the way we listen to the media and who in the media we listen to. And after all, as everyone agrees, this is a complex issue.

It is important though for Christians to begin with the Bible and let God’s word to shape our views about Refugees, although I’d argue that what the Bible teaches is good not only for Christians but for everyone.

The article isn’t short, and partly so to demonstrate how significant a topic refugees is in the Bible.


I want to begin by walking through the Bible and pointing out some principles that relate to our issue. Once we’ve done some work with the Bible let’s try and apply these principles to the current debate about refugees.

What does the Old Testament teach us about Refugees?

We begin at the beginning with Genesis chapter 1 and God saying, 

    “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

All human beings are made in the image of God. Every human being from every nation and language, and who has ever lived, bears the image of God and therefore is to be recognized as fully human and given that dignity.

In the Bible we meet all kinds of people: some people are Jewish, many are not. Some are wealthy, others poor. Some are strong, others are weak. On the pages of Scripture we learn about hundreds of men and women by name, and many millions more are mentioned by their tribe or nation, and among this throng are refugees, normally referred to as aliens or strangers, although not always. The noun alien occurs over 100 times in the OT alone. Sometimes we are told their story without the language of alien being used, but it is nonetheless clear from the context that the person on view is a refugee. We may be surprised to learn how many refugees are spoken of in the Bible and how much teaching there is on this subject. The Bible is not deaf toward Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Let’s turn to Abraham for a minute. Abraham was called by God to leave the land of the Chaldeans and journey to the land he would show him. The land of Canaan was promised to Abraham but he never owned any of the land during his lifetime except one plot, a burial sight for his wife Sarah. Listen to how Abraham describes himself before the Hittites, who the local inhabitants of the land:

     ‘Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, “I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”’

    The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”

    Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”

Abraham defined his status in Canaan as being an alien.  Today we use different words to describe the various peoples moving to Australia – migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and we make distinctions between them. We do so partly out of legal necessity. However, as a far I can tell, the Bible doesn’t make such delineations. Whether a person arrives in a new land because of God’s calling or because they chose to move or because they were forced through persecution or famine, whatever the reason, they are all considered aliens. And all were to be treated the same. Genesis 23 tells us that this is how Abraham saw himself, and we see that the Hittites welcome Abraham, show him respect, and they permit him to buy the burial site (contrary to cases where the Australian Government decided to leave the bodies of refugees in the ocean to rot and be eaten by fish).

Abraham is not the only Bible hero who was an alien:

i. Joseph’s family, and then the whole people of Israel became refugees. Because of famine they were forced to leave Canaan and move to Egypt where they remained 400 years.

ii. Moses became a refugee, fleeing Egypt and living in Midian for 40 years. In Exodus 2 he refers to himself as an alien and named his son ‘gershom’ which means alien in the land.

iii. The book of Ruth is a story about refugees. Naomi’s family moved to Moab, but after the death of her husband and boys she returns to Israel. Ruth, her daughter-in-law goes with her and enters the land as an alien. The book then gives us a detailed account about how the Levitical law is applied to refugees and does so in the most beautiful and tender-hearted way. Ruth of course, belongs to family-line from which Jesus would come.

iv. The prophet Jeremiah was a war refugee. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem Jeremiah and some others escaped to Egypt and remained there until their deaths.

It’s clear from all these examples that being a refugee is not by definition sinful or unacceptable. It is sometimes the right response of the people of God.

The Bible doesn’t only give us stories of refugees, the Bible also provides teaching on how to respond to this issue. The law stipulated how the people of God were to treat non-believers who sought refuge in the land of Israel:

    “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt. ( Exodus 22:21)

    “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

    Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:10)

    When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. (Leviticus 19:33)      

 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:34).

The multitude of verses that speak to this issue should alone communicates to us that this subject is important to God.

To summarise: Israel was not to mistreat or oppress aliens. They were to welcome, to love, to care and provide. There is no sense in which the attitude was, ‘we’ll let you in, but once you’re in you have to fend for yourselves’. There was ongoing relationship and provision.

The constant refrain in Mosaic Law is this, ‘remember you were once aliens’.  How true is this for Australia. 25% of our 22 million Australians were born overseas. That’s 5.5 million of us! I understand that those 5.5 million have migrated to this country under different banners, many were refugees and some came by boat. My point here is that 25% of Australians understand what it is to leave your home country and find a new home.  Not only that, 44% of us were either born overseas or had parents who were born overseas. That’s almost half of the population. And where do we think Aussies with Irish, English or Scottish descend come from? That’s right, from Ireland, England and Scotland, from overseas, and most came by boat!

Back to the Bible, we read that aliens were given similar rights and responsibilities as native born Israelites:

Brian Rosner has written, “strangers were to be treated as native-born Israelites with only a few qualifications. The non-assimilating strangers were not prohibited from eating anything found dead (Deut 14:21; cf. Lev 17:15 which apparently refers to the assimilating stranger). A second difference is more profound: assimilating strangers were not considered Israelites in the full ethnic sense, probably in recognition that their ancestors did not experience the saving events of the Exodus and Passover.”

The aliens had obligations as well, for instance, they were to abide by the law of Israel. ‘You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God.’ (Leviticus 24:22). This law is not only just but it’s sensible. You can’t have one law for one group, and another for a different group. That’s not called a country, that’s called countries!

Welcoming the stranger was integral to living as members of the covenant people:

You loved God by loving the refugee.

Brian Rosner makes this poignant observation: “Most remarkably of all, in the same chapter where the famous and often quoted ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ appears, in Leviticus 19 the Israelites are commanded to ‘love the alien’ (v.34). The definition of the neighbour to be loved extends it seems to the foreign immigrant, without the restriction that they be of the less objectionable assimilating kind.”

It was a covenant issue. It was a godliness issue. It was a justice issue. For example Deuteronomy 27:19 and Malachi 3:5:

    “Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow.” Then  all the people shall say, “Amen!”

    “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers,adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress  the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the  LORD Almighty.

Withholding justice from the alien was sufficient reason for God to judge Israel.

At the same time, we need to keep in mind that the nations were frequently Israel’s and God’s enemies. It’s not as every though Tom, Dick, Harry and Philistine was welcome. If you turned up with a sword in one hand and an idol in the other, there were policies! We mustn’t wrongly conclude that it was free entry into Israel. However, to those who sought refuge, for a variety of reasons, they were permitted stay and live.

What does the New Testament teach us about Refugees?

Come the New Testament we learn that the overall view toward refugees remains the same as in Old Testament. However there is a shift in emphasis.

In the OT the emphasis was Israel being this light that would radiate to the nations and attract people to Israel. That focus changes in the NT; it’s not the nations going to Jerusalem, it’s Jerusalem going to the nations. It’s the people of God moving out into the world, to reach people for Christ.  God’s plan was always to encompass the nations (that’s what the Abrahamic covenant is about), but with Jesus’ coming the command has become, go to the nations.

Having said that, the life and ministry Jesus has things to teach us about treating refugees.

Matthew’s Gospel records the event when Jesus was a young child, and he and his parents were forced to flee not only from Bethlehem, but Judea, and they entered Egypt as Refugees. They fled one country and entered another because of persecution. God’s Son knows what it’s like to be displaced, to face such opposition in your homeland from the Government that the family is forced out, and they traveled, not by a boat, but by foot across a treacherous desert.

Also, in Jesus’ first recorded sermon he says:

    ‘The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

     Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”’ (Luke 4:17-21)

The year of the Lord’s favour is a reference to the Jubilee year. The Jubilee year was a year of reconciliation when were debts paid or released, and when slaves were freed. Jesus is saying that with his coming, this Jubilee has also come. And we see Jesus living this Jubilee year throughout his public ministry: caring for the poor, for the widow, he ministered to people who were outside Israel as a way of showing that God’s plan is for the nations (The Centurion and Samaritan woman for example). Jesus welcomes the stranger and he is even portrayed as the stranger in John 1, ‘he came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’

There are two further texts that need mentioning:

    ‘All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that  they were aliens and strangers on earth’. (Hebrews 11:13)

In the long list of faith heroes from the OT there exhibited a faith in the promises of God, a faith which understood that the promise fulfilled was not a homeland on this earth. These early believers admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.

1 Peter says something similar,

    ‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

    To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the  Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood’

There is a view in the New Testament that I think Christians in Western countries fail to value, and that is, this land is not our home. In fact both Hebrews and 1 Peter are suggesting something stronger than that this is not our land, they are almost debunking nationhood. The posture they argue for certainly guards us from being overly protective about calling anything on earth ours. We are strangers who are passing through; this is a hotel room for a relatively short period. Do we hold on to our property, or national identity, or borders more rigidly than our theology permits us? That’s a question worth asking. I am not suggesting that nationality is irrelevant or that being Australian doesn’t mean something and not hold any significance; the nations are there present and active in the book of Revelation. But I would ask, are our notions of nationhood helps for Gospel work or inhibitors? I suspect it’s a bit of both.

Suggested ways the Gospel can shape our response to the Refugee Crisis:

1. The Gospel way is to welcome and care for the alien.

God has welcomed us into his kingdom; he gave us the rights of sons and daughters, for which we had no claim or right.

2.The Gospel isn’t ignorant of security issues.

Part of loving the other is making sure that our neighbours are safe. It would be irresponsible for us to rashly let anyone into the country and without proper security checks, and therefore put our neighbours at risk. That wouldn’t be Gospel-minded. I don’t know of anyone suggesting we fling the doors open to everyone without discernment, that’s a straw man argument.

3. The Gospel way is also to obey the Government.

We find this principal clearly taught in Romans 13. Sometimes these two things, Gospel and Government, are at odds with one another, certainly the relationship is often tricky. We need wisdom, prayerful wisdom, so that we learn how can we live out the Gospel of grace in this area of society.

4.The Gospel means sacrifice.

Sacrifice is not something we talk about, it is something to practice. Sacrifice is difficult, not only for the general populace, but for Christians also. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about sacrifice, and it provides us not only with the model for sacrifice but the very freedom to do so.

On the ABC this morning, Tim Costello said that, “On a per capita basis, for Australia to be ‘generous’, we’d increase our intake by 215,000”. We now have a figure, one that surpasses the 10,000 or 20,000 that various political parties have proposed. Will it cost us? Yes, but that is the nature of sacrifice, that is the point of love.

From what I hear in the media it sounds as though much of this debate is being framed by fear. I don’t think it’s primarily about racism, though that’s there. I think it’s more to do with fear. People are fearful of change, fearful of the unknown, fearful of what might happen to our standard of living should we welcome more people. The Gospel is not built on fear, but love, and love expressed through compassion and sacrifice. That can be hard. And the reality is, not everyone who migrates to Australia (whether as a refugee or through other avenues) is deserving. Not every one who comes to Australia is grateful for being here. But isn’t that the cost of love? Isn’t that what Jesus did? He absorbed the sin of the world, he took on his himself all our pain and shame, and the world did not receive him. And yet through this act of grace God has welcomed home those who did not formerly belong.


Note about the article: This is an updated version of a blog piece that I published 2 years ago, which is based on notes from a sermon on the same topic. Two years on, people continue to read it everyday, making it one one of the most read articles from the Mentone Baptist blog. In other words, the issue of refugees is never far from the minds of many Australians.

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