I recently had the privilege of teaching on a biblical theology of pilgrims, sojourners, and exiles. While my focus was on how Christians are spiritual sojourners as citizens of heaven living on earth, I was struck again by how much the Bible speaks to the situation of sojourners today (immigrants and refugees). Think about how much of the Bible is written about or to people on the move: whether exiles, sojourners, wanderers in the wilderness, or people on a pilgrimage. This wealth of biblical material provides insight into how we might think about, treat, and care for immigrants and refugees (sojourners) today. (A sojourner in the Bible was one residing in or traveling through a country not their own. This is why some translations use “immigrant” for sojourner.)
Christians can and will disagree on which policies—locally or nationally—best preserve order for its citizens while promoting justice for immigrants and refugees. Christians can disagree on the best ways to welcome and love immigrants and refugees locally through ministries and organizations, churches, and as families and individuals. The issues are complex. But our starting point as Christians must be studying God’s Word and seeking to be faithful to it. We begin with Scriptural principles and move to practices and policies; not vice versa. And the Bible is not silent on how God’s people should view the sojourner, immigrant, or refugee. As I wrote in “‘That’s A Political Issue’ and Other Conversation Killers”, though every issue might relate to politics, that does not make them a “political issue.” The Church cannot hand over such significant matters to politics alone. They are first a moral, biblical issue and then they can be applied at various levels, including the civil realm.
This issue needs studied in much more depth than I can do below. A book like Christians at the Border by Daniel Carroll or Generous Justice by Tim Keller is a good place to start. What I seek to do below is summarize a few over-arching categories for wrestling with the issue and then list some of the related biblical references.
Our heart and treatment of immigrants and refugees is rooted in and reflects God’s heart for the vulnerable.
Scripture describes God’s heart as going out in compassion and help for the weak, lowly, marginalized, and outcast. He loves to help the helpless. He draws near to those who are otherwise neglected, defenseless, or alone. God declares he will be a husband to the widow, a father to the fatherless, a provider to the poor, and a gracious host to the stranger. The most vulnerable in society are often the most prone to ignore, misuse, or abuse, and God will have none of it. As we’ll see, he desires and expects his people to reflect his heart in how they treat others.
Tim Keller writes, “It is striking to see how often God is introduced as the defender of these vulnerable groups…This is one of the main things he does in the world. He identifies with the powerless, he takes up their cause…The God of the Bible stood out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.”
Nicholas Wolterstoff refers to the “quartet of the vulnerable” repeated throughout Scripture. These aren’t the only vulnerable people groups—and the list could be expanded in our day—but these four groups are often mentioned together throughout the Old Testament as those God loves and who his people are to love.
“The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless.” (Ps. 146:9)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zech. 7:9–10)
“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:18-19)
“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow.” (Jer. 7:5–6)
See also Deut. 14:29; 24:7; Job 29:12-17; Jer. 22:3; Mal. 3:5; Ruth.
God’s heart for the hurting and those in need of help is the starting point for how we view sojourners, immigrants, and refugees.
God’s people treat the sojourner like God has treated them.
God roots his commands for how Israel is to treat the sojourner in the fact that Israel was herself a sojourner. Because they were sojourners welcomed and loved by God, they should empathetically feel for the sojourner, welcoming and loving them. Just as God graciously cared for Israel in her wandering, so Israel is to reflect God in how they care for and love the sojourner.
“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Ex. 22:21; Ex. 23:9)
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 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.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)
See also Ex. 23:9; Lev. 25:23; Dt. 26:5.
God tells Israel to remember they were sojourners as motivation to love sojourners. God even calls them stewards of his land, and as stewards they are to reflect the priorities of the owner, in this case, hospitality to sojourners (Lev. 25:23).
Christ models these same concerns, commanding us to welcome the sojourner like Jesus welcomed us (Matt. 25:35-46). The NT reiterates this, first in how Jesus reveals the heart of the Father in his love for the vulnerable, and second, in commanding hospitality to sojourners (Heb. 13:2). We reflect to others the grace, hospitality, and kindness we’ve received from God. We have empathy for physical sojourners as those who understand we are sojourners in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11).
God not only wants Israel to show grace and work for justice, but he commands it and builds it into the national laws of Israel.
Caring for the sojourner was not a “nice thing” to do; it was required. Justice and protection for the sojourner were built into Israel’s laws. Though it would have been easy for an Israelite to take advantage of sojourners for personal gain, God forbids it. God knows the temptation to look out for ourselves, our family, and for those like us, and how tempted we are to distance ourselves and be unconcerned with those unlike us. This is especially true when it might cost us or when we have to sacrifice something—security, wealth or resources, comfort, time—for others. But God builds justice, protection, care, and many of the same privileges and responsibilities for sojourners into the laws of Israel.
“There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Ex 12:49)
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zech. 7:9-10)
See also Ex. 22:21; Lev. 16:29; 18:26; 24:22; 25:35-38; Num. 9:14; Dt. 24:14; 26:12-13; Josh. 8:35; 2 Chron. 30:25; Jer. 22:3; Ezek. 47:22.
Another example of this is the gleaning system, for “the poor and the sojourner” (Lev. 19:10). Landowners couldn’t harvest their entire field but must leave a portion (the edges) for sojourners and the poor. This cost landowners, but it was one way God looked out for sojourners and the poor through his people.
“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 23:22)
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Dt. 24:19-21)
See also Ruth 2:2-3; Ex. 23:10-11.
How someone treated a sojourner revealed their righteousness or unrighteousness.
Throughout the Old Testament, how someone treated an immigrant or refugee played a big part in whether God deemed them righteous or unrighteous. In other words, how a person related to a sojourner (and other vulnerable people) determined how God relates to them. Those who welcome sojourners as God commands them to do will be welcomed and blessed by God, but those who oppress and reject the sojourner will be cut off by God. God sets a curse or judgment on anyone who withholds justice from the sojourner. Not caring for the sojourner is not just neglecting a noble thing, it’s unrighteousness before God. It falls short of what reflects him and what he requires of his people.
“They [the wicked] kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless.” (Ps. 94:6)
“The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice…31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God.” (Ezek. 22:29, 31)
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal. 3:5)
“Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” (Dt. 27:19)
See also Jer. 22:3-5; Ezek. 22:5-7; Zech. 7:9-14.
While withholding justice from the sojourner or oppressing them leads to judgment and demonstrates a person’s unrighteousness, the righteous one is described by how they welcome and care for the sojourner, immigrant, and refugee. They are blessed by God rather than cursed by him.
“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.” (Jer. 7:5-7)
“Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. 4 For if you will indeed obey this word, then there shall enter the gates of this house kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants and their people. 5 But if you will not obey these words, I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.” (Jer. 22:3-5)
See also Job 29:16; 31:32; Boaz in Ruth.
This Old Testament principle of connecting a person’s righteousness or unrighteousness based on their hospitality to sojourners continues in the New Testament’s hospitality commands.
While not held to Israel’s national laws, we see this idea echoed in the NT as a righteous person—or a true believer—is defined by how they hospitably welcome the sojourner, while the unrighteous person is described by not caring for the sojourner. This is also evident in how hospitality—which was often directed to strangers and sojourners—in the NT is a marker of godliness and a requirement of leaders.
The person who loves their neighbor (Luke 10:29ff) is the person who loves God with all their heart, mind, and soul (Luke 10:27). When Jesus describes this kind of person—one who loves God by loving their neighbor—he points to one who shows a costly hospitality to a stranger. The OT social-ethic toward sojourners looks different in the NT, but it clearly continues on.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:2)
Jesus said, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (Matt. 25:34-36; see also 25:37-46)
See also Luke 10:29-37; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9; Rom. 12:13; 15:7; 3 John 5.
In his incarnation, Jesus provides a model for us and reveals the same heart of God for the vulnerable.
Jesus’ story of his incarnation and birth is the story of a sojourner. Mary and Joseph have no place to stay for Jesus’ birth, and likely are outcasts in society (as a pregnant, unwed Jewish woman). This couple was on a journey to Bethlehem when Jesus is born. Rather than a noble birth or even being welcomed in (Luke 2:7), he is born in a manger, on the run, in humble conditions. He immediately experiences life as a refugee, being forced to flee into Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15; cf. Hos. 2:15) and live there—anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. After some time, when the situation de-escalates and danger is less imminent, they take a pilgrimage back to Israel, specifically Nazareth (Matt. 2:23). Later, Jesus refers to himself as having no earthly home (Matt. 8:20; Luke 8:59), and throughout his ministry we see him journey from place to place. He is regularly forced to flee on foot or boat because of persecution and danger. He experiences and knows all the hardships of sojourners today.
The heart of Jesus throughout his ministry echoes the heart of God throughout Scripture as one who cares for the vulnerable and hurting, including the widow, orphan, poor, immigrant, disabled, unclean, and outcast (Luke 5:12-16, 17-26, 27-32). The attitudes and actions God wanted to see Israel display—which results in judgment when they fail—are beautifully displayed in the life of Jesus.
Those considered unlovable and neglected by society are often the ones Jesus heals and speaks to. Jesus comes not for the healthy but the sick, not for the strong but for the weak (Luke 5:31; 4:18-19). He models a gracious hospitality—even without a home—by welcoming people in grace, love, and with truth. In his own sojourning, he encounters vulnerable ones and other sojourners along the way (Matt. 3:13-17; John 4; Luke 4:18-19). Many of his stories feature sojourners, outcasts, and strangers, calling on God’s people to welcome them and love them (Luke 10:25-37; 15:11-32). He boldly states that those of God’s kingdom are the ones who feed the hungry and welcome the “stranger,” since how we treat these people is how we treat Jesus (Matt. 25:35). He tells us not to invite the wealthy and respectable who can repay us or help us move up in life, but to invite in and love on those of little account so our reward is not in this earth (Luke 14:13-14). Jesus is not only a friend of sinners, he’s also a friend of sojourners.
An Abiding Principle through Changing Contexts
As we read through the many verses related to the sojourner, and pay attention to the themes connected to them, I think we see that how we view, treat, and care for immigrants and refugees matters to God. It’s not a random command tucked away once or twice in Israel’s ceremonial laws, but it’s an ongoing and pervasive theme near to God’s heart. Though the way it’s carried out changes in various contexts, the principle of welcoming and loving the sojourner abides. The more our heart reflects the heart of God, the more we will take up the cause for and care for sojourners.
While the abiding principle is that God wants us to care and seek justice for the sojourner, how that plays itself out today is less clear. We need to think through what it looks like for us as individuals, families, churches, local governments, and as a nation. We will likely disagree about some of the best policies to seek the good of the sojourner. I’m not suggesting there is one political party or one policy we must adopt to faithfully live out the biblical teaching on loving the sojourner. But what I am arguing is we can’t dismiss the dozens of verses and commands on the topic. We must take these Scriptures seriously, and the abiding principle must be obeyed somehow.
As we seek to reflect God’s heart for the sojourner, we should discuss how we best love, protect, and welcome the sojourner, and the place to begin is biblical teaching on the topic. We must take it serious and study it to determine how we think it should be applied. Though this might lead to disagreement at the level of policy and practices, we should find some unity and agreement when it comes to the abiding principle to start from: love and welcome the sojourner as you have been welcomed and loved by God.
Starting at the Right Spot
This is the starting point for believers, wrestling with Scripture rather than ignoring it or assuming our pre-conceived notions are correct. We must listen to and learn from another so our blind-spots can be exposed and we can see more clearly. We don’t begin with our political parties, our personal history, our national hopes or fears, the agenda-driven stories we hear on the news or the click-bait headlines we see on social media, and then interpret the Bible to fit them. We begin with the Bible, and once we’ve spent adequate time in Scripture, we apply it to these areas and submit those other voices to God’s authoritative Word. But Scripture must be the driver, authority, and anchor. Most of us need to turn up the volume of the Bible in our life and turn down the volume on news and social media.
“We have seen a number of ways in which the social justice legislation of the Old Testament has abiding validity, yet we must recognize that everything I have just outlined is inferential. The Bible has many very direct and clear ethical prescriptions for human life. But when we come to the Old Testament social legislation, the application must be done with care and it will always be subject to debate.”
There are tough questions when it comes to applying these passages in our day. Questions like, “Do these verses—both OT and NT verses—apply to our nation or city, the local church, or individual Christians?” And there are tough questions about how we protect order, safety, and justice for the citizens as a whole while welcoming and protecting sojourners. Christians can and will disagree when it comes to public policies about how to best promote justice, care for, and receive sojourners through national or local legislation, but within those disagreements we must be governed by Scripture. We apply the Bible to politics; we don’t let politics alter our interpretation of the Bible.
While our views on immigration and refugees have social and political consequences, it’s first and foremost a theological and moral issue. Start there. Christians need this to be a personal issue before it’s a political issue. How can my beliefs, actions, attitudes, interactions, and civic involvement best line up with all of these biblical texts about God’s care and concern for the sojourner, the immigrant and refugee? How do I take small steps to reflect God’s heart for the sojourner, not theoretically but in practice?
- Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller
- Christians at the Border by Daniel Carroll and The Bible and Borders (forthcoming); Seeking Refuge by Stephen Bauman
- The Immigration Coalition, theimmigrationcoalition.com, has a number of helpful resources.
- “Immigration and the Gospel” by Russell Moore at russellmoore.com
- “Showing the Heart of the Sojourner to Refugees” by Jason Hagen at ca.thegospelcoalition.org
- “3 Reasons to Love the Sojourner” podcast by Afshin Ziafat at thegospelcoalition.org
- “Our Refugee Moment” sermon by David Platt at thegospelcoalition.org
- See erlc.com topic index on either “immigration” or “refugees”
- “Strategic Hospitality” by John Piper at desiringgod.org
- “A Scrappy Network of Christians Welcomes Congolese Asylum Seekers” by Bekah McNeel at christianitytoday.com, 11/22/2019
 “if you look at every place the word [mishpat, or justice] is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called ‘the quartet of the vulnerable.’…Today this quartet would be expanded to include the refugee, the migrant worker, the homeless, and the many single parents and elderly people.” Tim Keller, Generous Justice (New York: Dutton, 2010), 4.
 Keller, Generous Justice, 6.
 “Here is the same care for the vulnerable that characterizes the heart of God. While clearly Jesus was preaching the good news to all, he showed throughout his ministry the particular interest in the poor and the downtrodden that God has always had.” Keller, Generous Justice, 44.
 This is not teaching a works-based righteousness in either the OT or NT, but our actions indicate where our heart is. We’re not justified by our works, but our works are fruit of someone who is justified.
 Keller, Generous Justice, 31.