Dispelling the Murk of Immigration Theology

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. Matthew 25:31, 32
Much debate surrounding immigration within evangelical churches focuses on compassion as the spiritual motivating force to accept most, if not all, people desiring to enter the USA.  According to a recent international Gallup poll (2013) there are more than 138,000,000 people who desire to live in America. We know there about one million people that immigrate legally each year and another one million or more that enter illegally. A recent study estimates at least 22 million currently living here illegally (Yale University 2018). So how do we approach the immigration and national borders from a scriptural perspective? I posted my scriptural perspective of the Biblical principle of national borders and sovereign nations previously.  Now I move to another aspect of this issue.

A centerpiece of scriptural debate around the subject of compassion toward people, especially in the immigration context, is Matthew 25:31-46. This section of scripture is often cited by proponents of open national borders to advocate we embrace and bring in any and all people who may have fewer material possessions or more difficult life circumstances than found in Western culture, especially American culture. So, let’s focus on that issue today.

This section of scripture in Matthew is the closing piece of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount; a powerful message primarily focused on end time events.  A key point in His sermon is found in verse 31, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory." The majority of Biblical theologians agree this verse establishes the time frame context for the rest of the sermon…the return of Christ after the seven years of tribulation. This event is on earth, not in heaven; therefore it does not take place during the time of the final judgements that occur in heaven, i.e. the judgement seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:12-15) which is only for believer’s rewards, and the white throne judgement (Rev. 20:11-15) where the lost are judged.  The timing is immediately at the end of the tribulation and the beginning of the millennial reign of Christ on earth. This is a specific judgement of nations/peoples existing during the tribulation. Therefore, applying this scripture specifically to immigration policy today ignores the context of Jesus’ message and the whole counsel of scripture

Next Jesus says in verse 32, "All the nations will be gathered before Him." The context is that the nations existing on earth at that time will be gathered before Him upon His arrival. This will be a mega-event, not a conference room meeting! The nations will be primarily gentile since that is the common understanding throughout the New Testament, i.e. non-Jewish nations. In those nations will be the saved and unsaved people living at the end of the tribulation. But the nation of Israel will be also be present and, most believe, will have accepted the returning Messiah who appears in glory. Israel will declare Jesus as Messiah before Jesus appears in Jerusalem. They will do this in accord with Luke 13:34, 35 when Jesus spoke to the Jews in Jerusalem, ‘I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ’blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord'.

Then Jesus goes on to say in verse 32 and 33, ‘He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.’ Now begins a judgement that separates those in the nations before Him. He already knows which ones are sheep and which ones are goats. The sheep will be the saved ones and the goats the unsaved. 

Now Jesus declares a basis for this specific judgement, ‘Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘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.’  He is separating them based upon the evidence of their faith in Him, even though they did not physically see Him when they did good things for the ‘stranger’. They were already ‘blessed of My Father’ indicating a relationship with Him before this event. Because of faith in Him the sheep displayed compassion toward the ‘stranger’.  

Some people use these words,  ‘I was a stranger and you took Me in’ as the primary basis for an ‘open borders’ policy for all nations and acceptance of all ‘strangers’.  The word for stranger is ‘xenos’. From this word we hear the allegation of being ‘xenophobic’ applied to those who support limited immigration. Xenophobic means irrational fear of strangers as it applies to immigration. However, the Church familiar with the Word of God has neither fear nor irrational thinking on the immigration question. To be discerning and apply wisdom to immigration policy is quite rational and reveals a more complete Biblical world view. To endure the scorn of having and declaring a Biblical worldview is to be fearless in the face of persecution!

Now, another pivotal point. Jesus says in verse 40, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ The key question and the foundation upon which He is judging is how His brothers were treated! Who are the brethren? Three reliable resources I consulted for this post agree that ‘brethren’ are His Jewish brothers, the Root of Jessie, the Jews from the lineage of Jacob…Israel! Understanding Matthew 25:31-46 hinges upon this context of the time frame and recognizing the brethren to whom Jesus was referring.

There will be great persecution, executions, and terrible troubles during the tribulation. Some individual gentiles and Jews will choose to believe in Jesus before His arrival, but much of this evil will be directed towards the nation of Israel. Israel will be a target of the massive invasion of Satan’s forces during the tribulation. But Israel will embrace Jesus as Lord as stated above. The judgement in Matthew 25 is based upon how those alive treat Israel in the worst of times; when they are naked, hungry, surrounded, strangers in the world. Who embraced them, fed them, supported them, and took them in when they fled persecution? The goats are the unbelievers who did NOT help the believers, especially the nation of Israel, during the tribulation.  

Jesus then says, "And these (goats) will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous (sheep) into eternal life.”  The end result of Jesus’ judgement is clear. These goats (un-believers) are the first fruits of what other non-believers will experience at the resurrection of the dead at the white throne judgement.

This specific judgement at the end of the tribulation is narrowly defined in context and in timeframe.  We must not overreach the intent of this scripture to create doctrine for immigration, or worse, a new doctrine for salvation. We live in the dispensation of grace. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8, 9). Rather, let us recognize that how we treat Israel is important to God!

Click here to read more from Harvey on theology and immigration.