Pastors’ Blog


Categories: Biblical Justice

God’s heart for the poor is seen just as clearly in the New Testament as it is in the Old. Of course, the Old Testament gives us the theological background for the New Testament, so this should hardly surprise us. The Gospels show us clearly that God cares for the poor, and the fact that God’s people should give to the poor is assumed (e.g., Matt 6:1-3). The Gospel that shows us this most clearly is Luke. In her hymn of praise, Mary recognized God’s heart to the poor: “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). As a peasant girl from Nazareth, this aspect of God would have been very meaningful to her.

Luke 2:8-20 tells us about the shepherds who were the first witnesses to the birth of Christ. Some modern-day readers might not realize that shepherds were outcasts in Israel at this time (ironically enough, cf. Psalm 23:1). God chose this group specially to show that Jesus was a Messiah for everyone, even the most outcast.  In the first synagogue address in Nazareth, Jesus first statement said that the Spirit of the Living God had anointed him to preach the good news to the poor (Luke 4:18, cf., Isa 61:1-2). While there is a spiritual dimension of the poor as those who are lost in sin and needing God’s salvation, we cannot limit Jesus’ meaning to that. Darrell Bock explains:

Luke’s use of the term poor in chapter 1 and beyond makes it clear this is not only a socioeconomic reference. On the other hand, neither is class excluded from Jesus’ concerns. In 1:50–53, the reference to “the humble” is surrounded by descriptions that indicate the spiritually sensitive character of the poor. Luke 6:20–23, too, compares the trouble the poor face in this world to the experience the prophets of old faced. So the text Jesus reads is not a carte blanche endorsement of the poor, nor is it a political manifesto. This hope extends only to the spiritually sensitive poor, to the responsive. The passage recognizes that often it is the poor who respond to God’s message and embrace it with humility (1 Cor 1:26–29; Jas 2:5).[1]

Luke 11 tells of a story when a Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him. Now, the Pharisees were very big on rules and regulations. They lived in great wealth and opulence, often at the expense of the poor and needy, but they carefully observed an intricate set of religious rules (Matthew 23:13-26; Mark 7:1-23). Jesus violated one of these rules when he dined at the house of the Pharisee, He did not wash his hands according to ritual. The Pharisee did not say anything. He probably made a disapproving look, but Jesus knew his heart even if He did not. He forced the issue:

“When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. 39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 23:37-41).

In this rebuke, Jesus called out the Pharisees’ crucial problem. They were not generous to the poor. God was not impressed with any cleansing ceremony on the part of one who ignored the needs of needy people.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus was touched on in the last blog, but it is worth reviewing. Jesus had told the crowds that one cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13). The Pharisees were sneering at Him because they loved money (Luke 16:14). This premise was a serious rebuke to the way they lived their lives. Jesus compounded the offense with His direct statement to them: “He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight’” (Luke 16:15). This provides the context for the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. There are many application points in this parable, but one of them is to show that God has a heart for the poor, and the poor are often closer to God than the rich.

Ultimately, when the rich ignore the needs of the poor it shows a lack of genuine relationship with God. One of the interesting features of this parable is that the rich man never specifies what he would like Lazarus to warn his brothers about (Luke 16:27-28). Presumably, he would like him to warn them to care for the poor. Jesus affirms this need because, as we saw in the last blog, Moses and the Prophets were loaded with commands to care for the poor. But it went deeper than that. Wealthy Israelites would have had great access to the Old Testament – Especially the Pharisees, who the rich man and his brothers represent. We would greatly miss the point if we were to read this parable as advocating salvation by good works of charity. The point is not that the brothers could have worked their way to Abraham’s bosom if they obeyed Moses and the Prophets, but that if they had known the God of Moses and the Prophets, they would have loved those He loves. People like Lazarus. Their aversion to true righteousness caused them to reject YHWH incarnate, even when faced with the greatest miracle of all: the miracle of resurrection. The statement  ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31) was a dual fulfillment prophecy: The Pharisees would not believe when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus (certainly why Jesus chose this name for the parable), and they would not believe when Jesus himself was raised).

Modern day believers must take care that we do not let culture shape our view of the poor. Whether by embracing a socialistic dynamic that advocates charity without the deeper implications of sin and the cross, or an overreaction that draws a wedge between the Gospel of Salvation and the heart of God for the poor. We cannot be saved by caring for the poor, but the saved must care for the poor!

The heart of Christ for the poor is further illustrated in his prophecy of the judgment of the sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46). Being a dispensational pre-millennialist, I understand this judgment to be distinct from the Great White Throne, but rather to be a judgment after Christ returns to earth at the end of the tribulation period and prior to the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom.[2] But whatever we do with those details, we see that true faith in Jesus is evidenced by how one cares for the needy (Matthew 25:41-43). The emphasis, of course, is on Jesus’ servants. Probably those who carried out his ministry under severe persecution during the Tribulation period. But, by application, every believer must recognize that faith in Christ is manifested in providing for the hungry, thirsty, and naked.

Our next blog will consider what God’s Word tells us about justice for the poor in the New Testament epistles. We will then discuss some applications of these principles for the contemporary church and the Christian in society.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), Lk 4:16–30.

[2] Many expositors take this to be the same judgment as the Great White Throne Judgment in Revelation 20:11-15. All the relevant exegetical and theological issues represented in this discussion are too much to deal with here. For a defense of the view advocated here see J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981, 409-11.

Author: Pete Vik

Leave a Reply