A Biblical & Missional Look at Migrating Peoples

Jacob Lawrence’s, The ‘Epic Drama’ of Great Migration

It seems that migration is a “hot-topic” these days, whether ideologically, politically, or practically. Everyone seems to have a perspective (that’s correct!). Yet, I would like to propose that migration is more than those things, it is biblical and missional. With regards to that perspective, how should followers of Christ view migration?

First, we should acknowledge that the world is witnessing the largest number of displaced peoples in history,[1] However, we also recognize that people migration is not a new concept. Unfortunately, many Americans, even or especially some evangelicals, have forgotten how the 16th through 18th century migrations of people to this continent helped forge the DNA of this country’s greatness. America became the beacon of hope for the world’s downtrodden—the descendants of all current U.S. citizens.

As a reminder, in 1884, France gifted the United States with the Statue of Liberty. She still stands as a colossal structure that commemorates the United States’ dedication to friendship, opportunity to provide safe harbor to vulnerable peoples of the world, and devotion to those seeking asylum. Emma Lazarus’ words are more than mere poetry; they are forever etched in the bronzed open book of the “Mother of Exiles”:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

While the Statue of Liberty is only one example of welcoming the foreigner, the global movement of peoples is recorded as far back as Genesis 1:28 and the creation of humanity. The Lord commanded the first man and woman, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Of course, humanity rejects God’s mission. God judges the world with a global flood. After the flood, the Lord reinstitutes his mission through Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 9:1). Displacement can occur for a myriad of reasons (war, famine, disease) and it can also occur as part of the mission of God. Whether examining Genesis or the early church’s rejection to fulfill the Great Commission-mission to “make disciples” of all peoples (ethné, Matthew 28:18-20; c.f., Acts 11:19), the migration of peoples is biblical and missional. This article will briefly examine the biblical and missional aspects of migration.


Throughout the Bible, especially within the pages of the Old Testament, migrations are frequently recorded. Whether the movements at the Tower of Babel or Jacob and the first tribes of Israel from their homeland to Egypt, the Sovereign million-person migration of Israel with Moses to the Promised Land, or the conquering and enslaving performed by Tiglath-Pileser III or Nebuchadnezzar, the Scriptures are teeming with accounts of forced and willful migration. We ought not view migration as a contemporary political or ideological construct of a border wall.

Throughout history humanity has been building walls to keep people out and protect people from within. Regardless of one’s views, when war, famine, and disease force people from their home, the people migrating are generally not excited to leave their culture, customs, and land. Everything must be relearned; how to speak, what to eat, where to work, when to worship, and why change is inevitable. Often, migration is terrifying for the migrant.

One notable historic migration movement that is revealed in the New Testament demonstrates the difficulties they cause. Yet, this singular event ended up providing the world with one of the most widely read works—Paul’s letter to the Roman Churches. In Acts 18:1-2, Luke briefly describes how the apostle Paul met Priscilla and Aquila, “Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” As Paul was church planting in Corinth, and because Paul was skilled in leatherworking, he met them as they migrated to that city.

As the account is stated, Emperor Claudius removed all the Jews (Christian Jews, too) from Rome. He disperses them throughout the Empire. But, years later, his successor Nero, with open arms, invites them back. However, the resulting migration of Jewish Christians filtering back into Roman churches caused much turmoil.

Douglas Moo reveals, “[when] the Jewish Christians returned to a church that, in their absence, has become a largely Gentile institution. The situation was ripe for social tension.”[1] The Jews believed that their faith traditions steeped in a Jewish Savior was essential for salvation, while the Gentiles proclaimed that there was no need for the ancient law or ancestral traditions. Turmoil!

Assuredly, the central point of Paul’s letter is to unify and provide the leveling truth of the gospel (no one is righteous), but his work reveals the migration of people to foreign lands and back to their homelands isn’t such an easy task. I’m sure some of the Gentile Christians believed the Jewish believers should “go home to where they belonged.”

While biblically, sometimes migration is viewed as oppressive, confounding, causing division, or otherwise, it is also acknowledged and connected to God’s mission (Missio Dei). The Lord reveals to the prophet Jeremiah, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7). Thus, the exile of God’s people into Babylon was a sovereign migration.


Understanding the missional movements of God is not as easy as it seems. For who can know the mind of God (Rom. 11:34)? Perhaps, missionally speaking, God allows the movements of people to occur due to an inactivity of his church within a region of the world; thereby, calling other people groups to that region that will obediently live out the gospel? Missiologists label these groups diaspora. But, who’s to say? One thing is certain, biblical accounts of migration have demonstrated fulfilling God’s purpose and mission.

While in the Garden, Adam and Eve display disobedience to the mission, and by Genesis 11, the Lord disperses the people throughout the world. The Genesis 11 dispersion is a global migration of epic proportions. The Spirit of God creates new tongues and languages to confound and halt the people from refusing the mission of God (i.e., be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth). In Genesis 11, the writer specifically records the people’s intentions, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (11:4). The last part of the verse provides the context— “lest we be dispersed …”

Thus, the Lord’s dispersion of peoples is foundational to the mission of God and the cultural mandate. The people reject the cultural mandate (i.e., be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth) thus, the Lord missionally migrates them in order to fulfill his plan. Many missiologists (this one included) believe that the Spirit’s infilling at Pentecost is the proverbial reversal of the Tower of Babel (i.e., bringing divine understanding to all people that the mission of God may be fulfilled).

Another recorded missional (and biblical) event sponsored by God was the migration of the early church in Acts 8 and 11. Jesus commanded his church to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). Yet, it seems the Great Commission was placed on the back-burner as the church at Jerusalem was growing. With the martyrdom of Steven, the Bible reader is informed that the church began its dispersion. While we would all agree that Steven’s stoning is not something that the Lord particularly desired, we do know that he was watching and standing in judgement (Acts 7:56). As well, Paul provides a reminder in Romans (i.e., the migration book) that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28).

While there are multiple biblical missional accounts of God’s sovereign hand migrating peoples throughout the world, we must be reminded that the world is in fact, his. Additionally, it’s important to recall that all people are created, “from him and through him and to him” (Rom. 11:36). God allows situations to occur (even evil ones), divinely knowing that he will “bestow on [the oppressed] a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isa. 61:3). While horrific wars, catastrophic weather, disastrous famine, or infectious deadly diseases do not sound like the love of God, assuredly, the Lord can and will utilize calamitous events to bring about eventual good.

Assuredly, the dispersion of the early church during a time of chaotic persecution was horrifying, but the result was surrounding regions received the invitation of the gospel and restoration of souls. Consequently, as modern migration movements occur throughout the world, displacing millions of people, the prayer of the believer is that God is missionally leading the people to safety. May God’s words to Joshua be encouraging, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged” (Deut. 31:8).


How can followers of Jesus come alongside the missional migration movements of God to glorify Him?

What practical steps can you take to promote the welfare of migrants, asylees, or refugees, in order to demonstrate the love of Christ?

Do you have any perceptions or misconceptions that need illuminating by the Spirit of God? If so, seek the Lord with a humble and contrite heart.

Lastly, who can you share this message with?

[1] Douglas J. Moo. Encountering the Book of Romans, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 27.

[1] Refugee Data Finder. https://www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/