–by InContext Ministries
For the Church, the story of our present time – the defining point of today’s generation, the issue of our current age, the opportunity of a lifetime – is the 65.3 million refugees/asylum seekers/IDPs (internally displaced people) around the globe who are seeking hope and salvation.
These millions of people are redefining geography, reshaping geopolitics, and reinventing missions. Never before has our generation witnessed so many people on the move, so desperately seeking humanity. According to the UNHCR, there are currently an estimated 65.3 million displaced people around the world as a result of conflict and violence. Of this number, 44 million are internally displaced people (IDPs) and 21.3 million are refugees. Put another way, one in every 113 people worldwide are currently displaced because of violence. If all the refugees lived in one country, it would be the 21st biggest nation in the world – bigger than South Africa, France, or the UK. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria has led to the greatest persecution our generation has witnessed. In the first five months of 2016, at least 3.3 million Iraqis were internally displaced.
South African statistics
In South Africa, there are more than 2.2 million people who were born outside the country – 4.4% of the population. Of these, more than 605 000 are Zimbabweans and nearly 400 000 Mozambicans. According to the Human Sciences Research Council, there are millions of immigrants in the country who are undocumented.
The Church’s response
As ambassador of the Kingdom of God, the Church is facing a tipping point. The ever-increasing global clash of cultures is determining the future of faith, and the way in which the Church responds today will define tomorrow. But when we look at the majority of Christians today and the priorities and goals pursued, there is little evidence of an awareness of our responsibilities. There is a huge gap between the scale of the emergency and the size (and urgency) of the response.
So how do we respond, knowing that radical Islam is likely to attempt to ‘hijack’ the refugee crisis for its own benefit? The Bible is full of lessons, warnings, and guidelines regarding refugees. Many of the men and women featured in Scripture were either refugees, came from refugee families, or lived ‘outside their cultures’. Rahab the Amorite, Ruth the Moabitess, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and many more. In this article we look at three models that provide a ‘Biblical mandate’ regarding our response to this great movement of people in need: a man, a movement, and a Messiah. In some ways, their stories reflect something of the stories of today’s refugees, and may help us to understand what is required of us.
FIRSTLY, THERE WAS A MAN
One of the Old Testament heroes was a man who would be able to identify with many refugees of today. He was the son of a refugee family and lived in a generation of deceit, fear, and death. He was described as ‘one who wholly followed the Lord’, an attribute shared by only two other people in the Bible: David and Joshua.
This is Caleb
Caleb was born outside the covenant people of God; he was not a Jew. At some point, Caleb became a member of the tribe of Judah, and was adopted into one of the families. Whereas apparently he had no family before his adoption – he became a member of the aristocracy, because it was from the tribe of Judah that the kings and great leaders of Israel came.
In modern terms, it could read something like this: Caleb, the German aristocrat, son of a Syrian refugee. A further indication of Caleb’s outcast status was his name, which means “dog”. Since dogs were outcasts in the Eastern culture, it is quite possible that Caleb was in one way or another an outcast in his family – maybe an unwanted child who eventually found his way into the midst of God’s people. Might this not become the ‘trademark’ of many refugees today, if God’s people reach out?
God chose Caleb and blessed him
God went on to use Caleb in a mighty way for His purposes, because Caleb had a “different spirit”. Numbers 14:23-24 says, “Not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated Me with contempt will ever see it. But because My servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows Me wholeheartedly, I will bring Him into the land He went to, and His descendants will inherit it.”
Caleb was blessed by God because he stood out as a “servant with a different spirit” in a generation of fear and suspicion, which became a generation of death. Consider the account given by the ten spies in Numbers 13:27-33 about the state of the Promised Land. Verse 28 constitutes part of the spies’ report: “The people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.” Caleb interrupts their negative report with a reminder that with God, the threat is small compared to the opportunity. But the others continued to spread negativity. “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are. The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
Does any of this sound familiar in today’s context?
Think about some emails that circulate referring to the “Islamic Invasion of Europe” or the “Trojan Horse of Refugees”, and the videos that attempt to depict refugees as a group of ‘rapists, barbarians, and IS fighters’ coming to Islamise the once-Christian continent. These kinds of reports, as in the days of Caleb, are monuments to God’s impotence rather than monuments to His power. They feed a culture of death instead of life.
In reality, the “bad” or “evil” report of the 10 negative spies constituted blatant lies. The spies implied that all the people in the land were giants, but that was not true – only a few people “of great size” were there. And while they correctly assessed it as a place “flowing with milk and honey”, the positives were vastly outweighed by the negatives. They looked at the situation with “eyes of a grasshopper”’ and concluded that they were unable to take the land.
So for 38 years they wandered in the wilderness, and it was there that almost the entire generation perished. If a million people died over the space of 38 years, it would average out to 73 fatalities per day. Understandably, death was on the forefront of people’s minds. But in the midst of this ‘generation of death’, Caleb stood out. He had a different spirit. He looked through ‘God’s glasses’ at opportunities, not through the eyes of a ‘grasshopper’. This attitude should be a hallmark for Christians around the globe today.
Too much fake news about refugees!
Like the bad reports of the 10 spies, many of the negative reports on refugees today are false, based on fear and prejudice. It is up to the Church to respond with a different spirit, trusting that God is bigger than any possible threat, and that He will build His Kingdom among the nations through us if we seek to follow Him wholeheartedly. The one Pastor we met in Lebanon displayed the spirit of Caleb in a very definite way, “If we think about them as refugees, we treat them like refugees and they stay refugees. If we think about them as being created in the image of God, we treat them like children of God and they become children of God.”
SECONDLY, THERE WAS A MOVEMENT
In the New Testament, there was a movement that corresponds closely with the modern refugee movement. It was born in response to religious extremism in the same way that most refugees flee radical Islam today. It took root in persecution that was designed to destroy the Church in the same way that ISIS tries to eradicate every trace of Christianity in Iraq.
This is the early Church
Acts 8:3-4 says, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” The original Greek word for “those who had been scattered” is diaspeirō, which literally means “to sow throughout”. The early disciples were like seed, scattered all over, and those who were ‘sown’ abroad preached the Word as they went. If it wasn’t for these refugees, there would not be a global Church today.
If we comprehend this divine principle, then our whole approach to the refugee crisis will change. If we see Christian refugees (and those from a Muslim background who come to know Christ, as many refugees are doing) as scattered seed, planted by the Lord with immense possibilities of growth and bearing fruit, we will act immediately – and we will act differently.
The modern Church is a result of refugees!
During our recent visit to Lebanon, one pastor shared the following: “We have seen nearly one hundred refugee families come into our Church, be discipled, and eventually sent as church-planters among the Arab communities in Canada, Sweden, Germany, Algeria, and a number of other nations.” At INcontext we receive emails stating that refugees are ‘invading’ Europe as a ‘Trojan horse’ in the hands of radical Islam. We can only assume that there is little understanding of a Biblical principle. They just don’t get it. If it wasn’t for the ‘refugees’ of the early Church there would not be a modern Church.
We need to start evangelising
When Werner Groenewald and his two children were killed in Afghanistan in 2014, someone commented that “Christians are planted, not buried”. We – and the message that we carry – need to be sown like seed and planted wherever God wants to use us, and from His sowing a harvest can be expected. In a recent news report from RT News, accounts were given of thousands of Muslims who have come to know Christ in Europe:
- In the Trinity Church in Berlin, the congregation has grown from a 150 members to 700 – mostly refugee converts.
- In a church in Hamburg, 80 refugees were baptised in one week.
- In a church in Austria, there were 300 applicants for adult baptism in the first three months of 2016 – 70% were refugees.
- The Persian service at the Liverpool Anglican Church is attended by more than 100 people weekly.
This is an opportunity for the Church to grow
For many refugees from a Muslim background, their ‘scattering’ could prove to be the only means through which they hear the Gospel and find the ‘freedom’ to put their faith in Jesus – this might not have been possible in their home countries. For Christian refugees, their ‘scattering’ abroad could eventually transform the secular European communities in which they settle. By the overruling providence of God, the early Church was not eradicated – it was enlarged. In the same way, the global Church could be enlarged through this mass movement of people beyond their borders.
THIRDLY, THERE WAS A MESSIAH
Most importantly, it is critical to understand that all the teachings in the Gospels were given by One who was, at one time, a ‘refugee’. A refugee, according to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, is “a person who is outside their country of citizenship because they have well-founded grounds for fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and is unable to obtain sanctuary from their home country or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.”
This is Jesus!
Matthew 2:13 says, “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill Him.’” Well before the birth of Jesus, God instructed His people about the care of refugees in Deuteronomy 10:17-19, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome . . . who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
And because Christ was part of a refugee community as a boy it was He who was able to interpret this Scripture in a humane and compassionate way. Listen to this later teaching by Jesus in Matthew 25:35-36, “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, I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me.”
Only Christ has ‘refugee status’ as part of His story
Jesus spoke these words as Emmanuel, “God with us”. But He is also God with the refugee, God with the stranger, God with the hungry, God with the naked – not in theory or theology, but in reality.
There is no other deity that can identify with refugees – not Allah, not Krishna, and not Buddha. Only Christ has ‘refugee status’ as part of His story, and there is no doubt that our Saviour’s heart breaks for all those seeking refuge as strangers in foreign countries. Based on this model alone, we have no option but allow our hearts to be filled with the Father’s compassion and to act sacrificially with lives of welcome and generosity.
For more information on how you can be involved, please visit: www.incontextministries.org