Volume 14, Number 1, September-October 2010
Should Christians Help the Poor?
by Norman Edwards
Should Christians help the poor? To some the answer is an obvious, “Yes”. Other Christians will cite scriptures about the importance of preaching the gospel to the world, feeding the flock—the church and caring for one’s own household. The scripture teaches these things. But where are the priorities? Do we preach the gospel, feed the flock or take care of our household first and only help the poor if we have something left? Of is it the other way around?
The Bible has a lot to say about the subject. This author studied all of the New Testament Scriptures that he could find—most of which are referenced somewhere in this article. By looking them all up, one can know the Bible’s teaching. This author was surprised to find that the scripture has numerous commands to help, as we are able (Acts 11:29; Gal 6:9; 2Cor 9:7), both poor believers and unbelievers, and that our entry into God’s kingdom is partly based upon that!
Jesus Taught Us to Help the Poor
When Christ began His ministry, there were, of course, no believers yet. But he directed his efforts to the poor, the brokenhearted, the blind and the oppressed.
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18, see also Matt 11:5, Luke 7:22).
In general, the world has been divided into a relatively small group of wealthy people who oppress the larger group of poor people (Jer 22:13-17; Ezk 22:25-29; James 2:5-6). Though not impossible, Christ said it was very difficult for the wealthy to enter into the Kingdom of God. (Matt 19:20-23; Mark 10:23-27; Luke 16:19-25). It was largely the poor who desired and heard Jesus’ message.
Jesus’ primary mission was spiritual. He taught righteousness and proclaimed the Kingdom of God. He did provide for the poor as well, both feeding people by miracle (Matt 14:21; 15:38) and from the bag of money Judas carried for his ministry (John 13:29).
Part of his righteous teaching was that each person was responsible to help others not as well off as themselves. He taught a loving, caring way of life where people should be concerned with not just their own needs, but also the needs of others (Phil 2:4). He gave frequent instruction to help others who are not as well off as we are:
“But rather give alms of such things as you have…” (Luke 11:41).
“But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. 32 “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys (Luke 12:31).
Then He also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. 13 “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. 14 “And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
The Believer does not do these things in order to look good before other people. Indeed, Christ taught that it is simply a Christ-like attitude that causes a person to want to help others—and that God will reward us for it in due time:
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matt 6:1-4, NIV).
“And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. 36 Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:33-36).
Note that God is kind even to those who are unthankful and evil. They receive rain and sunshine as well (Math 5:45). There are also times when they receive nothing, or receive punishment for their sins, but that is more of God’s concern (Rom 12:19). We do not have unlimited capacity as God does, so all of our giving is based upon what we have to give—which at times may not be very much.
While it is easy to think, if we had a lot more, we would give a lot more, the opposite is often true. Those who have the most are the most desirous of holding on to it. Notice this very interesting theological discussion with Jesus about what is required for eternal life:
So He [Christ] said to him,.... But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ 19 ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’“ (Matt 19:17-19).
Jesus cited the ten commandments and the Golden Rule (Lev 19:18). The young man, like so many church-going folk of today, was fairly sure that his doctrine and his practice were correct. So what happened?
The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. 23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:20-23, see also Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22-27).
This man was specifically challenged by Christ to give up all his wealth to be a part of Christ’s ministry. Christ did not command everyone everywhere to do this. But Christ knew that was necessary for this man to live by faith and no longer trust in his possessions. Christ was not asking the man to do anything that He had not done himself. Christ set aside both his power as God and the wealth and universe (Phil 2:6-7) to be poor to help us:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (2Cor 8:9).
The Bible records another case of a rich man who successfully repented and changed. Here was his solution, approved by Christ
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; 10 “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:8-9).
Disciples Continued To Help the Poor
Like Christ’s purpose, the main purpose of the Apostles was not solely to help the poor, physically. In the first days of their ministry, a crippled man asked Peter for money, but received a rather shocking answer:
Then Peter said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. 8 So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them — walking, leaping, and praising God (Acts 3:6).
The twelve Apostles continued the miracles and the message of Christ, but they also continued the teaching of helping people less fortunate than ourselves. Notice the apostle Paul’s account of their teaching when he first met them:
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do (Gal 2:9-10).
The previous verses are about preaching the Gospel, but all the apostles also wanted to provide for the poor. Paul spoke of giving alms himself in Acts 24:16-17. God himself approved of the giving of the first non-Jewish convert, Cornelius:
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, 2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius!” 4 And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, “What is it, lord?” So he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God (Acts 10:1-4).
We conclude this section with a few other quotes showing the continued teaching by our spiritual mentors of the need to help people who need our help:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all… (Gal 6:10).
But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased (Heb 13:16 ).
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world (Jms 1:27 ).
Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well… 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment (Jms 2:5-8, 13).
The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:
And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:9-10).
There is a lot in those verses. Working hard to help others can be tiring especially when they do not appreciate it, and when we have little to show for our efforts. But as we will see below, our efforts are for eternity, not just for this present life. “As we have opportunity” acknowledges we are not able to help everybody or help all the time. It is when we can do it that God expects us to. (If you think you never have opportunity to help anybody, ask God to show you when you can.) “Do good to all” shows our help is not limited to believers, though the “household of faith” deserves special attention.
There are numerous references throughout the New Testament epistles to help the poor brethren in various areas that needed it. There was no particular system for doing it: no tithes, no pledges, no counts of how much was collected or how many people were helped. Just each person giving as they were able and just distribution of the proceeds. The entire chapter of 2 Corinthians 9 is devoted to this. Here are many other interesting short quotes:
Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. 30 This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29-30).
But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. 26 For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem. 27 It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors. For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things (Rom 15:25-27).
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come (1Cor 16:1 -2).
Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: 2 that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. 3 For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, 4 imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints (2Cor 8:1-4).
So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver (2Cor 9:7).
Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need (Eph 4:28 ).
Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. 18 Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share (1Tim 6:17-18).
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (Jms 2:14-17).
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1Jo 3:16, NIV).
Helping the Poor Is Not Always the Most Important
The Bible does contain examples of things that are a higher priority than helping the poor. For example, a person cannot use “giving to others” as an excuse not to help his own family (Mark 7:11-13). Paul taught:
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1Tim 5:8 ).
How much does a person need to provide for his family? How big of a house? How many cars? How much food? The Bible cannot answer all of the specifics. But they certainly will be a matter for judgment. We are told to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we eat $50 dinners and we cannot help a few people get $2 dinners, we have a very different standard for ourselves and our neighbors.
On the other hand, giving physical things to poor people can distract them from the spiritual lessons that they need to learn. Christ ran into this problem.
Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.” 28 Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:26-29)
As one more example, a woman anointed the feet of Jesus with fragrant oil worth almost a year’s wages (Matt 26:6; Mark 14:3-9). Jesus disciples criticized her for not selling it and giving it to the poor, which appears to be their customary use of expensive things. But Jesus said that this act was an anointing for his burial—something that God wanted done. It was her property to use as she pleased, and she pleased God. Giving is something we voluntarily do with our own possessions (Acts 5:4), not with the possessions of another. (We realize that the politicians of our day have not learned this lesson, but that is the subject for another article.) To clarify its importance, Christ said:
“For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always (Mark 14:7).
Indeed, there may be other expensive things that God wants done, so we should not be surprised to see things like that in His Church. On the other hand, there are many people in churches who like expensive things and are willing to spend church money to do them—even when God has not asked for them. We need wisdom, prayer and discernment to know.
Some believers place great emphasis on certain scriptures that they call “commissions” (Matt 24:14; 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-18; Acts 1:8; Rev 14:6-12). They believe that these are given to today’s Church and that the resources of the Church should be used to preach the Gospel according to those commissions—that the millions used for these commissions are like the oil poured on Christ—the money should not be used to help the poor.
But Christ’s example of the expensive oil is a single act, not the continual way of an ongoing ministry. We must realize that the Apostles and New Testament Church also were fulfilling the commissions given to them in the Scriptures and giving to the poor while they were doing it! There commissions were clearly given to them by Christ or in miraculous ways, but they never once said, “we do not help poor people because we are too busy with our commission.” To the contrary, they wrote more verses about helping the poor than they did about commissions. The Christian is never excused from sharing what he has with someone he knows to be in need.
The First Resurrection and Entering the Kingdom
While the Old Testament Law certainly permits a hard-working man to acquire and keep as much wealth as he can honestly earn, Christ set a higher standard. To a rich man who decided to build bigger barns to hold his wealth, Christ said:
... ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ 21 So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).
Christ taught laying up “treasure in heaven” or eternity. We also read the story of the young rich man who was told to sell all he had and follow Christ. Christ again tied that to our Eternal life:
So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30“who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life. 31 “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:29-31)
What is the “first last” and “last first” about? It is about entering the kingdom of God, the order in which one does it. A person who is poor in this life, who learns to trust God for his sustenance and who learns to share what he has with others is soon ready for eternal life. A person who has much in this life and who need not trust God still has things to learn.
Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (Jms 2:5).
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:9-25) shows the judgment of the rich man who did not help the poor:
“But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. (Luke 16:25).
“But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13)
Luke clearly says that helping the poor will be repaid in the “resurrection of the just”. This is the first resurrection, the goal of the Christian:
Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years (Rev 20:6).
Paul also wrote about giving to the poor in the context of the resurrection:
“I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. 16 This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men. 17 “Now after many years I came to bring alms and offerings to my nation (Acts 24:15-17).
Where To Go From Here?
God expects us to help the poor as we are able, both believers and unbelievers. It should be neither a token part nor the only part of our lives, but a significant part of our lives. It is both a benefit to the poor and training for us to live a Christ-like life. It is a determining factor in our Eternal lives.
The best method any one person can use to really help the poor is not always easy to determine. It often requires more time than money—see “How to Help the Poor” in this issue!. Many people want to simply give to a charity and feel their responsibility is complete, but many charities spend more money on themselves than they do on actually helping the poor. When church congregations took up collections, they appointed one of their own members to transport and administer the gift (2Cor 8:16-24). Seeing others give of their time and resources to help those in need is a great witness for Christ. It should be done by Christians who live and teach His ways, not by people simply hired to do the job.
How can one change one’s life to give to those in need more? The answer is simple in concept. Whatever process you use now for budgeting your time and money simply needs to include helping people less fortunate than yourself. For example, when you know you will be needing a new vehicle, you begin setting aside money for it and take time to find out what kind of vehicle you need, what it will cost, and where you can obtain one. If you don’t know enough about it, you get help. If you need to stop some other things you are doing or cut some other expenses, you do.
Helping the poor is very similar. You can look for a way to do it that you have the time and money to expend. If you don’t know how to do it, get help—it may make sense to work with someone. Like the car, you may need to cut out other things in order to do it.
Start with a prayer.
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (1Jn 5:14).
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