Immigration is a divisive and hotly debated social and political issue of our day. Understanding the Bible’s teaching on immigration and applying it to current immigration issues is also complicated to say the least.
I am often times torn when it comes to this issue knowing that I am to respect and follow the laws of the land, but at the same time have compassion on those who are trying to come into our country in order to escape injustice and even genocide.
In other words, there exists a conflict between justice and mercy.
The prophet Micah brings out this dichotomy saying, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
This brings to light where the differences lay in the overall debate between what is the government’s role, and how as Christians we are to respond given the biblical mandates found within the Bible.
We find ourselves caught between obedience to our country’s laws, or civil authority, and obedience to God’s word as individuals.
The classic teaching of obedience to government authority is found in both the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and what the Apostle Peter said in this first letter.
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1).
“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
Here it is clear that God has given these laws through our governing authorities, which would then include immigration, and whom the Lord has appointed to administer justice.
A classic teaching on extending mercy comes in Luke 6:27-31. “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”
As an act of mercy, nations will allow foreigners to enter as temporary or permanent residents, depending on their circumstances when they find it impossible to live because of the danger and threat. This is usually because of warfare, political and/or religious persecution, genocide, or some sort of natural disaster forcing them to flee their homes and land.
Perhaps the most notable biblical example of such a flight is when Mary and Joseph fled Israel to Egypt with the baby Jesus. They fled King Herod’s decree to kill all male Hebrew children under age two.
Their flight to Egypt, however, did not constitute illegal immigration. Nothing indicates they broke any Egyptian laws. Their intent was to find temporary relief and shelter, paying for this relief and shelter from the gifts they received from the magi, or wise men. Further, they only stayed until they could safely return to Israel and their hometown of Nazareth.
So, when we look at this issue of immigration, there needs to be a balance in our approach, which I believe the Bible spells out for us.
What I have found interesting in the current debate is how those who don’t believe in the Bible as God’s word, and don’t believe it needs to be followed, especially by the government, are quick to site biblical passages to support their viewpoint. Unfortunately they do so with little understanding of context and wording.
These people quote verses like Deuteronomy 10:19 saying, “Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Or the verse in Leviticus that says, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born 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).
Yet, the word stranger in these passages is just one of several words given to describe immigrants.
There’s a delineation between the word for a stranger who resides within the land, and that of a foreigner. The Hebrew word for stranger is “ger,” while the word for foreigner is “nekhar,” or “zar. There is also the word “toshab,” which refers to a “sojourner,” a temporary landless wage earner whose status was more of a servant or hired hand. And so, there is a difference between the various types of immigrants, and then how the Jewish nation and Israelis were to react to them.
The “stranger,” or “ger” in the Israelite society could receive social benefits such as the right to glean what remains in the fields after the harvest along with the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Or they could receive part of the tithes given at the city gates along with the Levite, fatherless, and widow (Deuteronomy 26:12-13).
They were to be treated as legal citizens in regard to the law, where there isn’t to be one law for the stranger, “ger,” and another law for a citizen (Numbers 15:15-16). There also wasn’t supposed to be a different wage scale for the stranger and the citizen. They were to be paid the same wages (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
These passages reveal that aliens or strangers, “ger,” received all the benefits and protections of a citizen, whereas the foreigner, “nekhar,” or “zar” did not. The reason is that the stranger had some sort of legal status while the foreigner did not.
The foreigner not having legal status is brought out in the release of debt in the seventh year.
“At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the Lord’s release. Of a foreigner you may require it; but you shall give up your claim to what is owed by your brother” (Deuteronomy 15:1-3).
In a sense, strangers, or “ger” were not just aliens to whom social and legal protections were offered, but they were also considered citizens, which is equivalent to those who have enter a nation legally, are then in the process of becoming naturalize citizens, and who are then expected to obey and keep the law of the land.
Such a stipulation is in the law of the Sabbath found in the Ten Commandments. The stranger was to follow the law of doing no work on this day, along with the rest of Israel (Exodus 20:10).
Some say that the Bible doesn’t speak directly to this issue, but it really does. And while the Scriptures don’t speak directly for or against any nation’s immigration policy, it is filled with stories of immigrants and how God’s people were to treat them.
These stories and other verses within the Bible then frame our response as Christians. And so, while there are disagreements over a nation’s immigration policy, the role of Christians in this issue is clear, where a balance needs to exist between justice and mercy as we humbly walk before God (Micah 6:8).
What we see within the Bible are stories of migration, or immigration, by some of the main characters.
Abraham leaves his homeland, the land of Ur, and through God’s instruction travels with his family to the land of Canaan, which would become the land of Israel. He later crosses the borders of both Egypt and Gerar in search of food during times of famine. He was permitted entrance, but when he transgressed their laws, he was asked to leave, or “deported.”
The Jewish people under Jacob, left Canaan as well and traveled to Egypt to escape famine, and they were granted permission to reside in the land of Goshen.
David flees the violence of King Saul and seeks asylum among the Philistines, which was granted by the Philistine king, Achish, even giving David and His men the city of Ziglag.
Even Jesus and His parents were forced to flee when He was a small child, escaping to Egypt as refugees when Herod threatened the lives of all baby boys in Bethlehem.
As we then can see that while moving from one country, and/or city-state, into another there was an understanding of permission. They were also expected to follow the rules and laws of that country, and not institute their own.
The immigration experience impacted the way the nation and people were to respond to those who had come in as strangers, “ger,” and because they accepted the laws and customs of the land, entering with the intent of becoming citizens, the Jewish people weren’t to mistreat them, but to love them as themselves, because they were also strangers in Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34).
Why this admonition? Because when they entered into Egypt they did so legally requesting permission directly from Pharaoh.
“They said to Pharaoh, ‘Your servants are shepherds, both we and also our fathers.’ And they said to Pharaoh, ‘We have come to dwell in the land, because your servants have no pasture for their flocks, for the famine is severe in the land of Canaan. Now therefore, please let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen.’ Then Pharaoh spoke to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father and your brothers have come to you. The land of Egypt is before you. Have your father and brothers dwell in the best of the land; let them dwell in the land of Goshen’” (Genesis 47:3-6).
This means that the Jewish people, though foreigners, were residing in Egypt as legal residents, “gers.” But later, after Joseph’s death, the Egyptians began to mistreat them and made them into slaves.
This is why they were commanded not to mistreat the strangers, “gers,” because of the danger of making them into second-class citizens, or worse, slaves.
But what should be a country and government’s role in the immigration debate?
Clearly from both Paul’s admonition to the church in Rome, and Peter’s first letter to the church, we see that God gives government and its civil rulers the authority to preserve order, protect its citizens, and adminster justice (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). But even more, Paul and Peter make it clear that we are to obey the laws of the land, even if we disagree, especially when there is no clear biblical injunction against these laws. In other words, we are to obey the laws of the land when there is no clear conflict or violation of God’s law.
Therefore to place a set of procedures for those wishing to enter our country does not violate Biblical law or precedence.
Further, should borders be maintained, or left open?
The idea that God sets borders, or boundaries is seen in His division of the lands to the nations, and the land of Jacob as Israel’s inheritance.
“When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:8).
The Apostle Paul confirmed God’s setting up of boundaries for the nations to dwell within saying that God has “determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord” (Acts 17:26-27a).
But for Israel, they were to watch out who, and then what, they let across their borders and into their country. They weren’t to accept or adopt the cultures, religions, or their practices of those entering, because of the inherent corruption that would come from it.
“When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9; see also Leviticus 18:24-30 and Deuteronomy 12:28-32).
Therefore, God set restrictions on immigration, and when violated, and false gods were introduced, they led Israel astray and directly into God’s judgment, even to the expulsion from the land itself, when God deported them for a time and a season as they were taken into captivity by the nations surrounding them.
And so, for those who enter the country in the way prescribed by law, the Bible makes it clear that they are to be respected and not mistreated.
What we also see in God’s word is how God gave instructions that immigrants were to live by the same standards as those who were native born to the land (Exodus 12:49; Numbers 9:14). What this means is that they were to respect God’s laws, all the while extending them the same protections under the law.
Further, because there is not a direct violation of God’s law in setting up these laws and procedures, a country has the right to make laws and policies surrounding immigration.
Christians are called to be compassionate and merciful towards the immigrant (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:33-34). In fact, we are to help those who are hungry, thirsty, and strangers, as if we were helping Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:35).
However, the question is whether it is wrong to violate a nation’s borders and transgress it’s laws, and in this instance, immigration laws.
The Bible clearly reveals in Romans 13:1-7 that God expects us to obey the laws of the land or nation in which we reside and/or enter into. In fact, to transgress these laws is to transgress God’s law of obedience (Romans 13:2).
There is an exception to this, and it is when the law of the land directly conflicts with the law of God, as Peter answered the Jewish governing authority saying, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
A biblical example of this is when Daniel refused to obey the law not to pray to the Lord God, but rather pray only to king Darius. Instead, Daniel kept his custom to pray three times a day towards Jerusalem. He broke the law of the land in order to keep the very first law of God in what is known as the Ten Commandments (Leviticus 26:1).
And while people try to insert our need to be merciful, which I fully agree with, there is nothing within the Scriptures that prevents a nation from having and enforcing immigration laws and policies, and the Bible doesn’t give permission to violate these laws, even if they seem unjust or unfair.
Even when people cross a nation’s borders to gain a better life for themselves and their families, to escape oppression and even poverty, it isn’t biblical to violate a nation’s law to achieve these goals.
Since immigration laws, that is, laws that allow people to legally come into a country, and laws that prevent people coming in illegally, do not specifically violate God’s word, it is wrong to violate or trespass them.
Now, this is not looking at what a Christian’s responsibility towards these illegal immigrants should be; instead it deals with violating a law that God had set in motion through the governing authorities.
Yes, the Christian need to care for those who are poor and oppressed, but not to violate the law in how it is done. We can care for those who are suffering due to their own actions in violating the law, but we should not support or enable illegal immigration, because by doing so we are violating God’s word, as seen in Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-14.
The Bible says that not only those who practice or commit the sin is guilty before God, but also those who approve of those who actually practice or commit them are just as guilty in the eyes of God (Romans 1:28-32).
If the laws are unjust, then a Christian can seek to change the law through legal means and channels, through the courts and government, and especially through prayer. But let our actions be Christ honoring.
I think it all boils down to having hearts to help, but at the same time not enable!
God Cares For The Immigrant
God cares for the immigrants and those most vulnerable, the orphans and widows. We see this in a law God puts in Deuteronomy 24:19-21, where He tells the Israelites to go through and harvest their wheat fields, olive groves and vineyards just one time, and “leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.”
We also see God’s compassion for the immigrant throughout God’s Word.
“Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19).
“The Lord watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked He turns upside down” (Psalm 146:9).
“Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow” (Jeremiah 22:3).
“Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother” (Zechariah 7:10).
The prophet Malachi announces God’s judgment against those “who exploit wage earners and widows and orphans, and against those who turn away an alien” (Malachi 3:5).
God’s love and concern for the immigrant is unchanging in that God shows no partiality.
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
These commands to love and show mercy to the immigrant demonstrate His own character and concern for those who are in need.
Seeing then this command, we then need to turn to what is our response as Christians to those who are immigrants.
The Christian Response
Right after we learn about the impartially of God, and how He cares and love the immigrant, He gives us what our response should be.
“Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
We do have an obligation to obey the law, but we also have an obligation to be compassionate and care for the immigrant and refugees, whether they’re here legally or not.
It comes down once again to our need to do justly, and to love mercy, and walk humbly before God (Micah 6:8).
It comes down to what Jesus said we should do if we want to hear the words, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
Jesus made it clear that when we do these acts of compassion to the least, then we are doing it for and to Jesus Himself.
“‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was 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, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And (He) will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-40).
As we have seen, there are layers of complexities when it comes to issue of immigration that center around the obedience to the laws of the land, and God’s desire to care for those that are in need.
The answer lies in taking the whole issue in and finding the balance of God’s word regarding immigration.
We are to obey the laws of the land, that has been made clear, and if we enable and encourage these laws to be broken, then God holds us just as responsible as those who break the law (Romans 1:28-32).
Yet, while not breaking the law, or approving those who do, we are to love and care for those who are in need, as if we were loving and caring for Jesus, who identified with those who are the most vulnerable (Matthew 1:34-40).
I think that with both of these at work in our lives it is then we can fulfill what God then requires of us.
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
A lot is being mentioned and laws enacted by various cities in the United States to be sanctuary cities, but there is a definite misunderstanding as to the purpose of a sanctuary city as outline within the Bible, from which they are using in setting these cities up.
In the Bible, sanctuary cities were for a person’s protection when there was a loss of life due to their actions. The reason is so that justice could be properly meted out so the family of the victim does not kill them before their side of the story is heard.
The sanctuary city wasn’t to be a permanent location; rather it was a temporary place of reprieve while the courts or judges heard the case. If innocent they were allowed to stay, but if guilty of the crime, they were handed over for punishment.
Copyright © 2019 by Dennis Lee
Hot Topics: “Immigration”
by Dennis Lee
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quotations are taken from the New King James Version (NKJV). Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.