Part 1 of 11
I don’t necessarily like to be around people who don’t have consistent access to showers. I feel uneasy around those who may say the wrong thing at the worst possible moment. I don’t seek out the hungry and offer them food, or the fatherless and give them guidance and instruction. I don’t make it a consistent practice to meet the needs of the widow or clothe those subject to exposure. I prefer the company of those who make me feel comfortable – those who are comfortable themselves – people who are clothed well and well fed. I may hand money to a needy person as they approach me in a parking lot or a gas station, but I do not actively seek out those in need and care for them. It is not popular to associate with the needy; probably never has been. As I read portions of Scripture I am forced to ask: do I share God’s disposition toward the needy, or have I adopted the culture’s attitude toward those in wont? One such section of Scripture which addresses this well is Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46. Please see here Christ’s description of judgment; it has everything to do with how we respond to the needy. In these verses we have a description – Christ’s description – of the final judgment.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46, ESV throughout).
What is God’s disposition toward the needy? As we see here, the very basis for the final judgment is how each of us treated those who were in need. Indeed, when we get right down to it, the very basis for judgment is whether or not we obeyed God’s commandments – all of which are summed up in the one: Love your neighbor as yourself. In Proverbs – turning back to the Old Testament, where we find many statements which are repeated in the New – we find both a negative and a positive statement concerning giving to the poor: in Proverbs 19:17 a positive statement; in 21:13 a negative statement. Proverbs 19:17 reads: “One favoring the poor lends to Jehovah, and for his dealings Jehovah will reward him.” Proverbs 21:13 reads: “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be answered.”
So, what is God’s disposition toward the needy? Do we share His attitude toward them? The way we treat the needy – whether or not we actively reach out to them – is at the root of our Christianity.
What about me? the one who doesn’t necessarily like being around those in need? Do you share this struggle with me? Am I one who looks at the perfect Law as if looking at my face in the mirror, and then forgets what I saw – what kind of person I am – as soon as I walk away? Am I like the one James speaks about in his letter?
Consider James 1:21-2:17: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
So we see again in James, as we did in Matthew, how important it is to God that the needy are cared for: that they be loved and not despised. At the root of both of these sections of Scripture is the emphasis that there not be an incongruity between what we say we believe and how we live. John Murray has summed this up well in his book entitled Christian Baptism: “To divorce faith and assurance of faith from faithfulness to our covenant responsibilities is to be guilty of an abstraction which does not exist in God’s arrangements. And faith exercised in such abstraction is not the faith of God’s elect but the presumption that will at the end receive the rebuke of disillusionment: ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; Depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ (Luke 13:27).”
Now for those who tend to get concerned when discussions concerning saving faith arise, let us not think that James, or John Murray, is critiquing faith-alone salvation, as if he is in conflict with Paul when Paul says that it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and not through works.
See also the words of I John 3:13-24: “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”
So, as we consider what Jesus says, and James, and John, we see this: that the type of faith that the Bible talks about and the type of love that the Bible talks about, are active.
As I have considered these ideas a thought keeps reoccurring: as local churches we have been placed by God in the middle of a community of people who are in desperate need of God’s grace. Not only the beautiful common grace of God which allows them to live and move and have their being, but the special saving grace of God which comes through the preaching of His gospel, and this they must hear from those who are sent.
May we never be subject to the rebuke which Jesus gave the Pharisees when He told them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). Or the rebuke of God given to the Israelites through Amos: “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
There is one other section of Scripture that I would like you to consider: the Gospel of John and the fifteenth chapter, one through 17. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
In the following posts we will look at: the necessity and power of persistent prayer, God’s sovereign rule over all things, the will of man, the necessary connection between sound theology and charity, precept-breaking human agency, freedom found in agreement with God’s perfect will, and others.