If we are going to use modern terms on the ancient world, let’s at least use the terms correctly. Refugee has specific legal and political meanings in the modern world that would not apply to Jesus.
Jesus was a “so-called illegal immigrant,” or Jesus was a refugee. These are common refrains among progressives. However, neither is true. Both refugee and illegal immigrant are modern terms that should only be applied to modern nation-states. However, even if we anachronistically applied illegal immigrant or refugee to antiquity, Jesus would meet neither modern category. Why? For one simple reason: Jesus never left the land of his sovereign—his move between parts of the Roman Empire is roughly analogous to moves between Alabama and Florida in the US or Portugal and Germany in the European Union.
In a blog post October 14, 2019, J.D. Greear claimed Jesus was a refugee. Greear wrote, “Heaven on earth is the church, in all its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural glory, worshiping a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern refugee who showed us that the gospel is for everyone.”
What is a refugee?
Jesus wasn’t a refugee. Refugee is a legal and political term. It is carefully defined in international law. Evangelical leaders know this, but abuse the term in their rush to please progressive, open-borders advocates.
According to the UN Conventions, a refugee is someone forced outside the land of their sovereign. This is based on the United Nations Protocol on The Treatment of Refugees ratified by 146 countries in 1967. The Treaty declares a refugee to be a person, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
This is how Greear and other evangelicals abuse language. They ignore the legal meaning of refugee and exploit biblical ignorance. Some Christians think Jesus fled into Egypt and assume it was a move between sovereign states. However, these were parts of the Roman Empire under Roman rule. Aegpytus was ruled directly by Caesar, and Judea, Galilee and other areas of Syria were annexed under Pompey in conquests ending about 63 B.C. This area was assigned and supervised by the Senate. Roughly, the province of Judea, “included the territories of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Dan, Simeon, and part of Ephraim. Under the Romans it was a part of the province of Syria, and was governed by a procurator.”
Someone might counter, “But, Herod was a king. He ruled a client kingdom.”
This misunderstands Roman terminology and control.
Professor A.N. Sherwin-White noted a “tendency” on the part of everyone from scholars to the public to treat Judea as something outside the Roman Empire. Perhaps, this results from the use of client kingdoms and odd quirks or Roman terminology, but in any case, Sherwin-White explained that Judaea met key tests for being part of the Roman Empire: “permanent military occupation, regular taxation and Roman supervision of public order.”
Professor James K. Hoffmeier in his book, The Immigration Crisis: Immigrants, Aliens and the Bible, points out an important fact about the New Testament’s discussion of refugees and immigrants despite Jesus’ flight into Egypt. He wrote, “Despite this episode in his life, Jesus never directly spoke about aliens or refugees and how they should be treated. In fact, the New Testament is conspicuously silent on the matter.”
However, the New Testament spends a great deal of time talking about how the Christ overcomes matters of division—like ethnicity and political separation—and makes a new reality for believers:
“So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household.”
Why then do so many evangelical leaders focus intensely on matters of diversity? Why are they making an idol out of the ethnic composition of the local church? Go back to the Greear quote for a moment. He wrote, “Heaven on earth is the church, in all its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural glory.” That’s the universal church. It is not necessarily true of every local church. One must expect the local church to have the characteristics of its locality. It will reflect the worship preferences and practices of its cultural setting.
That means not every church will be a shining beacon of multi-cultural glory. Rather, whether a church is diverse or homogenous, it will be a reflection of God’s sovereign direction of the world.
After all, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.”
Even the places we live and the communities we inhabit are part of God’s salvific plan.
We must be careful to avoid legalistic pronouncements about the church and how it should be composed.
We must also temper our political pronouncements about Jesus as an illegal immigrant or refugee. We must only speak what the New Testament speaks, and it does not teach Jesus as a refugee as modern people use the term.
All of this raises an important question: Since the New Testament is silent on the issue of immigration and refugees, why are so many evangelicals obsessed with this issue?
Politics is driving their theology.
It really should be the reverse.
 A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament: The Sarum Lectures 1960-1961 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004).