by Berry Kercheville
Recently, I was asked a question that has become somewhat common: “Shouldn’t we as a church be feeding the poor? After all, we could create opportunities to teach the gospel.”
We Christians are compassionate people. There are simply few works that feel better than helping those in need. As individual Christians we are told to “do good to all men, especially the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10) and “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). These are responsibilities at which Christians have often failed. But the local church, as a collective, is not in that business. Here is the problem: when providing for physical needs comes first, the gospel message is no longer the draw. Those whom we are serving clearly recognize our gifts as a gospel bribe. They are happy to take what we give them and may even give some attention to our words, but food is still the draw. Even on a personal level, when I have Bible studies with people who are poor, I have to be careful not to do very much for them monetarily lest they become “drawn” by the hope of more money. This mistake has been made in third world countries, and it doesn’t work in any better in America.
If you are skeptical, look at the book of Acts. As Luke lays out to Theophilus the picture of the Lord’s kingdom, is community service and meeting physical needs the model you see? There are incidents in which Peter and Paul healed for the purpose of proving their apostolic message, but Luke says nothing about churches serving the needs of the poor, which were far more critical in the Roman world than in the United States. Instead, nineteen of Luke’s twenty-eight chapters describe how disciples were “going everywhere preaching the word” to save souls. That is the model. I am certainly not suggesting that Christians remove themselves from any service to the world. But that should not be the means by which we open the door of the gospel.
Didn’t Jesus Care for the Needy?
Someone might say, “Ah, but look at the times Jesus had compassion on people in their trials and healed them. And when they were hungry, he fed them. Isn’t that our model?” Again, this is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry. There is a common misconception that Jesus went around the countryside constantly feeding the poor. But what passage teaches that principle? First, we never see Jesus entering a town and telling the disciples to divide up the money bag and go through the city feeding the poor. In fact, after the feeding of the 5000 (who were in need in the wilderness after hearing him teach), he rebuked them for coming back for breakfast the next day. His reply to them was, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life…” (Jn. 6:26-27).
Yes, Jesus is absolutely our model, but let’s look more carefully at the model. First, we are talking about the difference between Jesus’ primary work and what he did because he is a loving, compassionate God. Jesus told us his primary mission. Speaking to Zacchaeus he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). When John the baptizer saw Jesus, he said, “Behold he Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Everything Jesus did was directed toward saving souls. Jesus healed people and fed people out of compassion, but he did so primarily to prove he was God who came to save them, not to solve this world’s woes. Did Jesus heal and keep healing everyone who was sick? Was the whole world healed physically because he came? Jesus could have said a word and no one would have ever been sick again or died. Did he constantly feed the poor? Did Jesus solve poverty? Is that the picture of his mission? Yes, Jesus is our model, but solving social ills in order to open the door for the gospel was not his pattern.
In John 6:44-45 Jesus specifically stated, “No one comes to me unless the Father draws him…and they shall all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” The scripture is the “draw,” not food. Jesus had fed them to show that he is “the bread of life.” As his sermon in John six illustrated, if he could multiply food, he could give them the living bread. Feeding the multitudes in the wilderness was hardly Jesus’ method of drawing them to God. Instead, Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn. 6:54-55). Consuming Jesus is the goal so that one’s love and desire is for God.
The Lord sees everything from the standpoint of his glory and man’s salvation. Fixing our spiritual ills is his primary purpose, not giving us a perfect existence on this earth.