In debates with Christian nationalists and “migration critics” there’s one Bible verse that keeps popping up all the time: Acts 17:26. Many use it as a proof text for why our nations shouldn’t receive refugees and for why we should be nationalists and patriots, celebrating our own country.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, my first book in Swedish has just been published! It’s about why Christians should welcome refugees and it has already stirred a lot of controversy among the Christian xenophobic community. Most of those who disagree with us point to Acts 17:26 as the reason for why Christians should be critical to migration. One guy even e-mailed me, providing a link which he said contains “evidence” for why I’m wrong. I clicked it and found a blog post which simply was an angry rant based on one single Bible verse: Acts 17:26.
So let’s take a look at this Bible verse and see if it really says what nationalists want it to say. I actually made a video about Acts 17:26 several months ago as I was in the midst of writing the book. I found the video on my hardrive and published it on YouTube earlier today, so you can both listen to and read my explanation to what the verse is saying. Here it is:
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:26, NIV)
The word that migration critics fall in love with is boundaries, horothesia in Greek, a word that is only used here in the entire New Testament. In Swedish, it’s the same word as “border”, which gets them even more excited. Their interpretation is that since God has appointed the boundaries or borders of nations, man should not try to abolish or cross them. God doesn’t like when many people try to move across His boundaries, He wants every people group to remain where they are even if they can be safer somewhere else.
Now, a text without a context is a pretext. This verse is a portion by an apologetic and evangelistic speech that Paul is holding in Athens, Greece. His point is that the God that he’s preaching is relevant to the Greeks as well as everyone else: the God of Israel is a universal God, the God of all people. Here’s the verse placed in its context:
24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else .26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Verse 27 is of particular significance when trying to understand 26: God appointed the times and boundaries for the nations so that they would seek him and possibly find him. God overwatches all nations with the intended purpose of them finding out who He is.
Now, there are three reasons for why Paul’s point is not that migration is bad. The first one is obvious: Paul is not talking about migration. He’s not arguing against it, he’s not even mentioning it. His point is that God so desperately want a relationship with the Greeks that even the lifetime and size of their nation is in accordance with his divine plan of salvation. Paul’s point is not that Greece should stop receiving immigrants.
Speaking of which, Paul himself is an immigrant by nationalist standards when holding this speech. He was a Jew born in Turkey. This leads us to the second reason why Acts 17:26 isn’t criticizing migration: Paul and other early Christians had no motivation for criticizing migration. Jesus never said that they should be against it, that’s why Christian migration critics never refer to Jesus. On the contrary, the Great Commission to evangelize the whole world is dependent upon migration. And in ancient times, migration was very easy. The strict border control of modern nations is a very recent invention.
The third reason is completely devastating for any xenophobic interpretation of Acts 17:26. Paul’s point about God appointing the boundaries of nations isn’t utopian but realist. That is, he’s not describing how it should be, but how it is. This means that all nations have their lifetime and size appointed by God, no matter what they look like, no matter if they’re nationalist or multicultural, no matter if they have free immigration or a giant Trump wall around them.
Similar to Romans 13, Paul isn’t saying that everything a state does is God-breathed and sinless. No, his point is that God is in ultimate control over the entire world, including the political realm. And His purpose is salvation, not apartheid.
Neither in nature nor in grace, neither in the old creation nor in the new, is there any room for ideas of racial superiority. F. F. BRUCE The book of the Acts – The New international Commentary on the New Testament. (On Acts 17:26)
Those earlier, popular theological interpreters, especially in South Africa and North America, who exploited this text to justify ethnic separatism not only missed its point but succumbed to its negative verdict. All humanity shares a common origin, and the boundaries of peoples and empires are each assigned by Gods sovereignty for certain eras. Far from being prescriptive, these boundaries merely depict the geographic separations established—whether in judgement since Babel or otherwise showing humanity’s limitations—for various seasons, all to be overturned in divinely appointed times. In the same biblical perspective, the more ethnocentric, arrogant empires (e.g., Assyria) had always fallen the hardest. Craig S. Keener. Acts, An Exegetical Commentary, Vol. 3. Page 2651.
While I agree with your overall point, I’m not sure if I would call St. Paul an immigrant as he spent his entire life within the boundaries of the Roman Empire as a Roman citizen. I know there were different local government puppet kings or governors, but it was the same country.
I have the same issue with folks who say that Jesus was an immigrant because his parents moved to Egypt and then back to Galilee. While the local government was different, they were both part of the Roman Empire so technically he wasn’t an immigrant. =/
If you take a closer look I write that he was an immigrant by nationalist standards. Furthermore, Jesus surely was a refugee as a baby, since he and his parents fled from persecution. And technically, one can still talk about migration even if it happens within a country – someone moving from Colorado to Alabama is a migrant in that sense. But since the common usage is migration between countries, some qualification is needed.
What do you mean “by nationalist standards”? I’m not following you on that…
The word “immigrant” by definition is “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” As such, both Paul and Jesus are not immigrants as they moved around within the same country, i.e. the Roman Empire.
Migration, on the other hand, is a broad word talking about the movement of people from one place to another. Being a broad term, it includes immigrants, but is not limited to immigrants. As in, all immigrants migrate, but not all migrates are immigrants.
A refugee, by definition, is someone who “who has been forced to leave a country because of war or for religious or political reasons.” Again, since Jesus and Paul never left the Roman Empire I’m not sure if they could be call a refugee in a technical sense. I know they had to flee due to political/religious reasons…but can really be a refugee if they “flee” Colorado to go to Alabama?
Perhaps I’m being too technical here…it is just that I’m been chewing on the interconnectedness of the Roman Empire lately and how folks moved around within that country. All too often we Christians tend to try 1st century Galilee and Jerusalem as being independent from Rome when in fact it was very connected to and with the rest of the Empire.
Since you are using Roman society to make your point, read Romans 13 which defines what God has established as His will over our, and all, nation(s). Rome was a dictator state not a Constitutional Republic as is the USA – people were allowed to roam about knowing that the heavy thumb of the Roman Empire was upon them constantly – when a Roman citizen broke the law, there was hell to pay. When God established sovereign boundaries (Acts 17:26) for people groups, He also established the laws through national governments who control said boundaries. God made the rule of law paramount on earth. Why? Firstly, the law was intended to hold people accountable – they suffered when they broke the law. Secondly, the law was established for bringing people to Himself through Christ (Gal 3:23-24). Thirdly, borders and laws were intended to protect the citizens of the nations He established – God did not set up a free-for-all that anyone could come and go as they pleased and do as they pleased when it comes to obeying a country’s laws. Far from it as revealed in Romans, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Romans 13. You can continue to preach your gospel of open borders, but you are in direct disobedience to the Lord God and I do not need to reiterate the consequences.
Hi Jerry! You’re mixing up so many things in your comment. Acts 17:26 doesn’t talk about state borders. The Roman Empire wasn’t a nation state with “sovereign boundaries (Acts 17:26) for people groups”, it was a multi-ethnic empire. Paul’s point in Romans 13 is not that we should obey the state thoughtlessly – do you seriously think that’s what Christians in North Korea should do? Paul’s point in both Acts 17 and Romans 13 is that God is in ultimate control, not that whatever the state wants is whatever God wants.
Thanks for wisdom in this tries to deny the most clear message from God in Acts 17:26
s/w “try” in last sentence with “think of” (my fingers didn’t quite work for that part) =P
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Interesting piece. It is quite amazing that anyone would use this scripture passage to support an anti-immigration stance not realising the inherent implications.
A more than cursory look at Acts17:26 with anti-immigration lenses throws up some interesting queries and situations.
Firstly, when did God establish these borders? Was it at the creation of man? Perhaps it was when He dispersed the people at Babel?
If migrating across these borders is against God’s edict, then all migrations that have occurred since the time God made the decree must be wrong. Assuming the decree was already in place at least 2000 yrs ago (when Paul wrote those words), then I suspect that some of the proponents of this argument are currently running foul of God’s decree at their present locations. Particularly in the US where a few hundred years ago, some sailors crossed their boundaries in Europe, migrated across the seas and breached the borders that God had set for the native Indians!
I guess that a closer look at the histories of the peoples of the various nations today would reveal a forebear who breached his original ‘boundaries’
sometime in the past to settle within illegal borders and has now produced progeny who are perpetuating this breach today!
Hebrews 4;12 remains true even when the word of God is being used dubiously. It is still a two edged sword that though can wound others but would in the process certainly cut the one wielding it.