By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
1. Physical Ministry to the Lost an Eschatological Sign
All of Jesus’ physical ministry to the suffering around him was described as “signs.” This significant word gives a sense of the limitation of Jesus’ miracles to produce lasting physical effects. The miracles were foretastes of an eschatological reality that the consummation of the Kingdom would usher in: a world where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4).
Until the “final enemy” of death is destroyed, all physical ministry is temporary, a sign of greater things yet to come. For the eyes of the man born blind that Jesus opened in John 9 were closed again through death; the lame beggar that Peter and John healed near the temple gate called Beautiful is paralyzed again by death; the five thousand stomachs Jesus fed on that hill in Galilee are all dissolved in corruption. Lazarus died and was buried a second time. All of Jesus’ miracles were temporary signs of a future reality. Jesus acknowledged the temporary nature of his miracles when he spoke of His ministry of exorcism in Judea and Galilee in Matthew 12:43–45.
Knowing that the Jews were rejecting him despite his signs and wonders, Jesus in effect, said the demons will be back even worse than before He came: “the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation” (Matt 12:45). But the miracles of Jesus are signs pointing ahead to the New Heaven and New Earth, where bodies will be raised perfect and incorruptible.
For me this speaks to the issue of “doing good to the city.” This famous phrase, so significant for urban ministry, was written by Jeremiah in his letter to the Judean exiles: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). Yet amazingly, in the same book of Jeremiah, we find this clear prophesy: “Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals, an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives” (Jer 51:37).
In a similar manner, the “good’ we do to the cities of this world must be seen as merely signs, portending a future consummation when the creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. The stuff we have to work with is part of a cursed physical order that will be consumed in the end, for “the elements will melt with fire!” (2 Pet 3:12).
Thus physical ministry to the poor and marginalized must take on the nature of a sign—not meaning something miraculous, but something pointing ahead to a new reality. A Christian homeless shelter in the center of the city should be clean, beautiful, orderly, well-organized and filled with eschatological hope and the gospel message of the cross of Christ. If vandals should break in and steal valuables and spray obscene graffiti on the walls, the hope-filled ministry should restore it again as an island of eschatological hope in a sea of desperation. But they should do this knowing full well that those walls will all be destroyed in the end.
2. The Soul-Searching Command: “Spend Yourself on Behalf of the Poor”
One final verse stands over me and challenges me both as a man and a pastor. It is a phrase in Isaiah 58:10: “… if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” What hinders me in ministry to the poor and needy is the tendency I have to spare myself, protect myself, save myself.
This verse commands me to spend myself in behalf of the poor and needy. Not just give some of my money … spend MYSELF. Learning to do this is the essence of the Christian journey we call sanctification; to deny myself, take up my cross and follow Jesus. This is how we become conformed to Jesus, the poor man, the man who poured himself out completely in ministry and on the cross.
This is also how we become conformed to the heavenly Father, who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Once I learn to die, utterly die to myself, my possessions, my time, my pleasures, the questions become simpler: how much should go to alleviating suffering among Christians worldwide, how much to ministering to poor non-Christians in my own city, how many of the forms of physical suffering in this life we will seek to address, how long-term we should help a single individual or family, etc.
The same God who gives faith to face these issues will give wisdom to overcome them. And by faith, I will no longer be looking for an air-conditioned bubble or a neat exegetical formula to escape suffering, as I mentioned in part 1 of this series.
To spend myself for the poor and needy, and to lead my congregation to do the same, is at the core of the sanctification journey. Learning to love another person completely—their soul above all, but their body as well—is to be conformed to Christ. And then no one could accuse us of hypocrisy if, while meeting temporal needs, we risk sharing the gospel as well.