This is a multi-part series written in response to the recent ELCA Churchwide decision to be a “sanctuary” denomination. You can read the previous three post at the links below:
Today, in part 4, we’ll briefly examine sanctuary in the New Testament. I’ll start outside of the Gospels.
First, it’s important to take note of a few themes that run throughout the New Testament. These will have an impact on the idea of sanctuary.
Two of Paul’s letters are a good summation of how people are to be treated because of our faith in Jesus.
Galatians 3:28 states – “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is not longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
And Romans 8:38-39 – “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
These two verses become consistent theme for most of Paul’s writings. In sum, for Paul, because of Jesus, divisions between people cease to exist. Keep that in mind when it comes to the idea of sanctuary. Sanctuary makes sense, in consideration of Paul’s writings, because all one is doing is treating someone as an equal. It is the fulfillment of the second great command – to love your neighbor as yourself.
We see this most clearly in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It’s a short letter, but the whole message of this letter is summed up very nicely in the Lutheran Study Bible, “The purpose of this letter is to ask Philemon, and perhaps his wife, Apphia, and other members of his household and church, to welcome back Onesimus, who was Philemon’s slave. Onesimus had apparently wronged Philemon in some way, probably by running away as a fugitive and perhaps by stealing from his master as well. In the Roman Empire, where slavery was common, slave owners had the right to punish severely and even put to death a slave who had been caught after running away. During Paul’s time in prison, Onesimus had become a believer in Christ and had begun to work with Paul in some way. However, Paul felt it necessary to send Onesimus back to Philemon, and wrote this letter to ask Philemon to welcome Onesimus ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.’ (Philemon vs. 16)” (Pg. 1969)
Based on this, Paul is writing to Philemon to ask that he offer sanctuary for his own slave instead of the punishment that the law would allow.
Paul, himself, would experience sanctuary throughout his ministry. It starts at his conversion, as recorded in Acts 9:1-19. In this passage of Scripture, we read about Ananias, who we are told is a disciple in Damascus. Ananias is told by God to go to Saul (Paul). Ananias is frightened since he knows Saul’s reputation for persecuting the church. But he goes anyway. in vs. 17-18 we are told that Ananias “laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.”
Ananias is following God’s order to go to Saul. He is hesitant, rightfully so. I would imagine there would have been faithful disciples from the church who would have been angry with Ananias for going. Or there may have been some who want to kill Saul as revenge for the killing of the faithful. Ananias’ act of going in peace and laying his hands on Saul in a healing act was, at it’s core, an act of sanctuary.
Soon after this episode in Ch. 9, we read about Saul preaching in Damascus. Needless to say, his preaching upsets the powers that be. So much so that we read the following, “After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill [Saul], but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowing him in a basket.” (Acts 9:23-25).
In other words Saul’s disciples offer him sanctuary to escape the punishment that is waiting for him.
Another significant discussion about sanctuary in the New Testament is Revelation 4-5 which talks about the heavenly sanctuary and worship. This is more about the place of sanctuary, rather than the idea of providing sanctuary.
Next time, we’ll briefly look at the idea of sanctuary in the Gospels and with Jesus.