In the Law and the Prophets, the repeatedly stated reasons for the Exile were a lack of faith, idolatry, breaking God’s commandments, and a lack of concern for the poor and vulnerable of society, especially the fatherless, the widows, and the sojourners.
When we read Luke, we find Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, inspired by the Spirit to announce the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom in terms of God’s blessings on the needy.
In Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus announces blessings on the poor and curses on the rich.
In Acts, we find the newly founded church sharing their possessions, food, and homes not only in hospitality but to care for those in need.
(Act 2:44-45 ESV) 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Now, this is not so much a command as a description, and a description given to demonstrate that this newly created church is truly the coming of the Kingdom promised by the prophets. After all, poverty is a curse, and freedom from want is a blessing promised to come with the Kingdom.
And this radical sharing of possessions wasn’t a temporary thing. It continued through Acts 4 and 5 —
(Act 4:34-35 ESV) 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
And while we tend not to focus on this question when we read Paul, Paul actually says quite a lot on the subject —
(Gal 6:9-10 ESV) 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
(Rom 12:13 ESV) 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
(Eph 2:8-10 ESV) 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
(Tit 2:11-14 ESV) For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Notice that Paul routinely assumes that Christians will do “good works,” but he usually doesn’t bother to define the term. Is this cutting the lawn for the church building or giving to the poor or doing missions? Well, when Paul doesn’t define his terms, he is normally assuming that we know our Law and Prophets, that is, the OT background of Christianity.
F. F. Bruce comments,
They are the good works which reflect the character and action of God himself. God gave his people the law that they might be like him: “I am the LORD your God; … you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44–45). Jesus similarly taught his disciples to behave in a manner befitting God’s children, to be merciful as their Father is merciful (Luke 6:35–36). But to live like this, to accomplish the good works prepared for his children by God, the empowering gift of his Spirit is necessary. The good works were promulgated long ago, but thanks to the saving act of God “the righteous requirement of the law” is fulfilled in those who “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). His new creation “in Christ Jesus” is brought into being by the agency of the Spirit, and by the Spirit’s agency the promise of the new covenant is realized when men and women are found “doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 291.
That is, Bruce finds the definition of “good works” in the Torah, viewed through the lens of the character of God as revealed in Jesus. We are enabled to do these by the Spirit, so that we do these works “from the heart” (Eph 6:6), which is yet another allusion to the circumcised hearts of Deu 30:6.
Now, part of the problem we have with applying this teaching is not only our unfamiliarity with the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets, but also the fact that these teachings were largely directed at a theocracy — a nation-state governed by Torah and God’s chosen king.
The Kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:35), and so we’re not talking about worldly welfare and subsidies. The church does not oppress the poor with unjust laws in the same sense that pre-Exile Judah did (and many nations do today). The church has no police force and no legislature. So how do we apply prophetic passages such as —
(Isa 10:1-2 ESV) Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, 2 to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
(Eze 22:6-12 ESV) “Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. 7 Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you. … 12 In you they take bribes to shed blood; you take interest and profit and make gain of your neighbors by extortion; but me you have forgotten, declares the Lord GOD.
— to the church? It’s easy enough for the church to point fingers at the world outside and point out its sins, but the prophets are pointing out the sins of Israel, the predecessor of the Kingdom/church. To do the same thing in the Christian era, modern prophets would have to shine a bright spotlight on church itself and call for the church to return to the heart of Torah.
I’m not saying that the church should stand by silently as the nation-states of the world oppress the weak. Rather, the point is that the primary (but not only) application of these sorts of passages today is the church itself — and, obviously enough, its members.
One simple-enough application is that the church ought to be about helping fellow church members overcome poverty. Our benevolence activities should be targeted first (but not only) toward church members.
We don’t think in these terms because (a) many of our churches are wealthy as a whole, and so the poor within them are invisible, (b) we see benevolence as a way of marketing Christianity to the lost, and so we want to use our giving to the lost to open their hearts to conversion, and (c) we are too embarrassed to admit to our own congregations our need for help. And, frankly, (d) caring for the financial needs of members is a very difficult thing for the church to do. It forces hard decisions: Am I helping or enabling? Is the need real or am I letting God’s church be scammed?
In fact, I’d say that fewer than 1 in 100 congregations has a budget line item for helping out its own members’ financial needs. And yet anyone reading Acts will immediately see that support for the poor within the church was at the heart of the Kingdom.
A few thoughts:
* Some will say that poverty is always due to sin or a lack of hard work or discipline, and that’s just not true. It’s excuse making.
* Some will say that the government handles these things now days — and, in fact, often the church need only help a struggling member get in contact with the right social service agencies to be cared for. But there are many, many holes in the social safety net.
* Some will say that we should hand out help and money with no questions asked. But this is fear of conflict, not real Christianity. It remains true that —
(2Th 3:10-13 ESV) 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
We aren’t allowed to help those who refuse to help themselves, but neither are we allowed to refuse to do good when it’s the right thing to do.
* In fact, our goal should be to help our members be self-sufficient, indeed, able to make enough of a living that they are able to help others —
(Eph 4:28 ESV) 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
It’s not enough to earn your living honestly. You must also share your earnings with others. The goal isn’t self-sufficiency but having enough to help others. This goes all the way back to John the Baptist. This is one meaning of “repent.”
(Luk 3:10-11 ESV) And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”