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God Cares About People:
A Pentecostal Perspective from Luke/Acts

By Craig S. Keener

Everett and Esther Cook were retired Pentecostal church planters from the western United States. I met them when they were running Springfield (Missouri) Victory Mission, using Brother Cook’s retirement income. They mentored some Central Bible College students, including me. I assisted at the mission, putting into practice what I was learning from my Bible and from works like Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.

Ministry to the poor has always been an important Pentecostal emphasis — starting from the Day of Pentecost. After the first outpouring of God’s Spirit and Peter’s Pentecostal preaching, the Christians began to live in a Spirit-empowered way (Acts 2:41–47). This included not only signs and wonders, corporate prayer, and devotion to the apostles’ teaching, but a radically new lifestyle of serving and sharing. Because these Christians loved their fellow Christians more than they loved their possessions, they were willing to part with their possessions to meet others’ needs (Acts 2:44). Whenever someone was in need, those who had more than what they needed to live on sold what was beyond their own needs to meet the needs of others (2:45). When we read about koinonia ("fellowship") in Acts 2:42, we sometimes think only of chatting after a church service (pleasant as that is), but the earliest Christians’ "fellowship" went beyond mere chatting to getting involved deeply in each others’ lives and needs. The Greek term koinonia appears in ancient business documents for economic partnerships or sharing, and sometimes carries this meaning in the New Testament as well (2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13). Paul usually used the related verb with this meaning (Romans 12:13; 15:27; Galatians 6:6; Philippians 4:15).

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After the Church, facing persecution, prayed for God to grant boldness by giving them signs and wonders, God poured out His Spirit afresh. One of the results of this outpouring was again Christians caring for the needy among them (4:31–37). This pattern of caring for the poor continued in the Book of Acts (e.g., 9:36,39), eventually crossing cultural boundaries to serve other groups of needy Christians in the same city (6:1–6) and geographic boundaries to serve needy churches in other locations (11:29,30; 24:17). Such ministry continued beyond the conclusion of the Book of Acts and continued beyond concern only for fellow Christians (e.g., James 5:4,5; cf. Amos 2:1), though it necessarily had to begin there. By the second century, wealthy pagans began to mock Christians for caring not only for their own poor, but that of the pagan world as well. While the rich pagans complained, the church was converting the impoverished majority of their empire out from under them.

Where did the earliest Christians learn to serve one another in this way? The Spirit gave them the power to sacrifice for the Kingdom. The most prominent aspect of His fruit in our lives is love (Galatians 5:22). But Jesus’ teaching and example showed them how love should be concretely expressed, and the Gospel of Luke presents this teaching in great detail. Because Luke wrote his Gospel and the Book of Acts to be read together, we can best understand the first Pentecostal church’s radical lifestyle of service by examining the Gospel’s teaching which led up to it.

Jesus’ Mission for the Poor

Ancient writers, like modern ones, often stated their central thesis and summarized their main points early in their work. Most scholars regard Luke 4:18–27 as the programmatic sermon of the Gospel of Luke, the way Acts 1:8 and 2:17–21 lay out the themes to be treated in the Book of Acts. The themes of this passage (such as Jesus being anointed by the Spirit, Acts 4:27; 10:38) recur later in Luke-Acts. Jesus’ mention of earlier prophets’ ministry to a foreign widow and leper prefigure not only His own ministry to widows and lepers in the Gospel (e.g., Luke 5:12,13; 7:12), but also the church’s ministry to Gentiles in the Book of Acts. Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s promise that He will preach good news to the poor (Luke 6:20–25) and later told John that the signs of the Kingdom include the poor hearing the good news (Luke 7:22).

How does Jesus’ mission in the Gospel of Luke affect us? Because Jesus’ baptism in the Spirit and mission in Luke’s Gospel prefigure the experience and ministry of the church in Acts, His model and mission remain valid for His followers. Although the focus in Luke’s second volume is especially Spirit-empowered cross-cultural evangelism (missions; Acts 1:8), the ministry to the poor that followed outpourings of the Spirit demonstrates that this emphasis in the Gospel remains valid for today’s church as well (Acts 2:44,45; 4:32,34). We are called first and foremost to evangelize the world; but we are also called to care about the world we are evangelizing.

Jesus announced His mission based on a Scripture text from Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1,2 in Luke 4:18,19). His hearers would know the Book of Isaiah well, hence they would be familiar with Isaiah’s emphasis on caring for the poor and establishing justice in society. If Israel neglected these concerns, its religious rituals would not impress God at all, and He would not heed their prayers (Isaiah 1:11–17; 58:5–7). Isaiah denounced those who were oppressing the poor (e.g., Isaiah 10:2), concerned only with accumulating more for themselves (Isaiah 5:8); he held society’s leaders, who should have established justice, most responsible (Isaiah 3:14,15). Other prophets also demanded justice, including one of Isaiah’s contemporaries, Amos (e.g., Amos 2:6,7). Like Isaiah, Amos claimed that sacrifices and outward religion were pointless unless we work to transform society morally, establishing justice for those who are being mistreated (Amos 5:21–24). Like Jesus’ first audience, we are familiar with other relevant passages in the prophets; for example, standing for the rights of the needy is intrinsic to our relationship with God (Jeremiah 22:16); among Sodom’s sins was ignoring the poor (Ezekiel 16:49); and even a pagan kingdom could extend its longevity by showing mercy toward the needy (Daniel 4:27).

Jesus’ audience in the synagogue was also familiar with an earlier passage in the Law to which Isaiah himself may have been alluding. Isaiah’s "liberty for captives" and "year of the Lord" (Isaiah 61:1,2) might echo biblical teaching about the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). Because ancient Israel’s economy was a farm economy based on land ownership, only those with land could hope to make a living for themselves. When some people in the ancient world proved unable to support themselves, they were sold as slaves to cover their debts, or the land on which they depended was sold. While Israel had much the same system, God had a special plan of justice for them: Once in every generation all debts were released. What this meant was that every generation could start anew and everyone would begin with the same basis for earning a living. Poverty did not become an intergenerational cycle that kept an entire class of people locked into a permanent underclass. We do not live in an agrarian society; for many people today education, computer literacy, and other resources are often more relevant for earning a living than land is. But the basic principles of seeking justice for our neighbor remain the same.

Jesus quoted this text because it accurately described His mission. Isaiah spoke of one anointed by the Spirit for His mission, and Jesus had just experienced this anointing. The Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism (Luke 3:21,22) and then led Him into (4:1) and out of (4:14) the wilderness, where He was tested. Jesus also would minister to the sample groups Isaiah listed: the poor, captives (Luke 13:15,16), the blind (7:21,22; 18:35–43), and the downtrodden (including other marginalized groups). Of these groups, the Gospel of Luke focuses especially on the poor. Jesus’ emphasis on caring for the needy in His example and teaching explains why the first Christians after Pentecost knew how to carry out their mission.

Teachings About Sharing Resources In Luke’s Gospel

John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, preached repentance as the way to prepare for the coming Kingdom (Luke 3:3,8), just as Peter would preach on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). What did this repentance involve, in practical terms? When the crowds asked John this very question, he answered that the person with two cloaks must give one to the person who lacked any (Luke 3:10,11). Some peasants who listened to John may have had only one cloak, but many would have had two. We can imagine them feeling uncomfortable with this demand for sacrifice.

Modern readers often interpret the passage as hyperbole (i.e., rhetorical overstatement to reinforce a point). It is in fact possible to read this passage as hyperbole, but only if we also keep in mind that hyperbole’s purpose is to communicate graphically a basic point, not to let us simply dismiss the point by claiming, "That passage is just hyperbole!" The point of John’s preaching is that we need to care for other people more than we care about what we own; and, if we have more than what we need, we must be ready to share it with those who have less than what they need.

In a culture where people advanced by inviting peers or other honorable people to banquets, Jesus emphasized inviting the poor and disabled who could not repay their hosts (Luke 14:13,21). Like resources shared with the needy that laid up treasure in heaven (12:33,34), such dinner invitations looked to a higher reward than available on this earth. Invite those who cannot repay you, Jesus said, and God will repay you at the judgment (14:14). When Jesus sent His followers on their first evangelistic mission, He instructed them to heal the sick and also to travel simply, living as simply as the poor among whom they would be ministering (Luke 9:3; 10:4). (Between 70 and 90 percent of Galileans were impoverished peasants. Fishermen were not technically rich, but they were much better off than most other Galileans.) They were to focus on their service, not on their status or remuneration.

Although Jesus showed great compassion for the needy and welcomed self-confessed sinners, He was much harder on people who were self-satisfied religiously or socially. When I am most satisfied, I am often most complacent and need the firmest words to seize my attention. I suspect that most other people, then as well as today, are similarly endangered when life becomes comfortable. Happily, Jesus did not spare the sort of words that would shake hearers free from complacency. He told of a rich fool who hoarded goods instead of caring for others’ needs; instead of laying up treasure for himself in heaven, he left behind his wealth when he went to hell (Luke 12:16–21). Jesus does not tell us exactly why another rich man went to hell (Luke 16:23), but if He offers any clue it is that the man let Lazarus starve to death at his doorstep (verse 25). Jesus addressed the parable to some unsaved religious people who "loved money" (16:14). That no one so poor starves at our doorstep does not necessarily let us off the hook. Our society is too sophisticated to let the mortally poor near our doorsteps, but, if we know of such needs, we remain responsible.

Jesus’ warnings about caring for the poor do not imply that we are justified by works; the Bible is clear that we are justified by faith alone. But we know many nominal Christians, people who call themselves Christians yet never demonstrate it by how they live. For all the New Testament writers, genuine saving faith, like genuine Christian compassion, must be expressed in concrete ways. James warns that faith that is not accompanied by concrete action is not genuine saving faith (James 2:14). He then illustrates this truth by asking, "If a brother or sister lacks clothes to wear or food to eat, and one of you says, ’May it go well with you, may you be warmed with clothes and satisfied with food,’ but provides no practical assistance, what concrete help have you given? Just so, faith without works to demonstrate it is lifeless" (James 2:15–17, my paraphrase).

Nor does Jesus’ preaching mean that He was against the rich. The issue was not how much money one had, but what one did with what one had. Jesus spent considerable time ministering to tax gatherers. While tax gatherers were socially and morally marginalized, they were not usually economically marginalized. They often took a cut off the top of what Rome or Herod Antipas demanded from the poor, and they were sometimes brutal in collecting funds. Sometimes they were known to beat old ladies to discover where their sons, who were behind on paying taxes, had fled. Their reputation grew so bad that some villages in Egypt, defaulting on their taxes, fled their homes and started new villages somewhere else when they heard that tax collectors were coming. Tax gatherers were among the rich people who oppressed the Galilean peasants to whom Jesus also ministered, but Jesus reached out to the tax collectors, too.

Jesus said that getting a rich person into the Kingdom was like getting a camel through the eye of a needle. (Despite the best efforts of some modern writers to get around it, a needle’s eye meant the same thing back then that it means today; the proposed "needle’s eye" gate in Jerusalem was not built until the Middle Ages.) Jesus probably was speaking hyperbole, however, because some rich people did follow Him. Zaccheus, a rich tax gatherer, gave half his goods to the poor and offered to repay fourfold anyone he wronged (which probably diminished a sizeable proportion of the other half; Luke 19:8). Wealthy Joseph of Arimathea went beyond the commitment of Jesus’ more immediate disciples by directly asking Pilate for Jesus’ body. To publicly identify with someone crucified on the charge of treason (claiming to be "King of the Jews") was to risk one’s life, even if one belonged to the aristocracy.

Jesus’ Demands For All Disciples

Nor should we suppose that Jesus makes demands only of the wealthy. Often we have our ways of reading right past Jesus’ demands without thinking they have anything to say to us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, when Jesus commanded a rich ruler to give all his goods to the poor (Luke 18:22), we often spend more time explaining that Jesus was addressing only that ruler than asking what implications the verse might have for us. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who died for his stand against Hitler. He read the Bible as courageously as he lived, complaining that too often theologians help us get around Jesus’ teachings rather than helping us to obey them.

Contrary to what we often assume, Jesus told not only the rich ruler, but all His disciples, to sell their goods and lay up treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33). Jesus did not think, as some have claimed, that money was evil; rather, it simply had no value compared with the eternal investments we could make with it in other people’s lives (Luke 16:9–13). He promised that God will supply our needs if we seek His kingdom (12:22–32) and invited us to prepare for the Kingdom partly by investing our resources in what matters (12:33–40).

Charles Finney, a 19-century evangelist who led perhaps half a million people to Christ, preached on Luke 14:33 at a wealthy church in Boston. In this passage Jesus, explaining the cost of the Kingdom, warned that no one can be His disciple who does not surrender all possessions (14:33). The pastor, Lyman Beecher, closed Finney’s sermon by assuring his congregation that God would never ask them to give up their possessions; they simply needed to be "willing" to do so. Finney countered that God can demand of us what He wishes; we do not lose all our possessions at the moment of our conversion, but we do lose our ownership of them. Finney understood that if Christ is truly Lord of our life, He is also Lord of everything we have.

Many of us in ministry have, like Jesus’ first fishermen disciples (Luke 5:10,11), left behind potentially lucrative alternative careers to follow God’s call; we have shown that we value the Kingdom above earthly treasure. Still, it is often more comfortable even for us to look the other way rather than painfully confront suffering beyond our immediate spheres of ministry.

According to some statistics, 35,000 children die every day from malnutrition and preventable diseases, but such figures are too numbing and too abstract for us to grapple with emotionally. To put matters in somewhat more graphic perspective, we were rightly enraged at the murder of some 3,000 human beings in New York City’s Twin Towers. But 35,000 is more than ten times that number of children, dying every day. Distance should not diminish compassion; Paul urged the church in one part of the world to care for the church in other parts of the world (Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:13,14).

The statistics are not as dire in our own country, but for hundreds of thousands of homeless people, including teenage runaways often forced into prostitution, the implications here are no less staggering. As useful as statistics are, God’s Word and our engagement with genuine human need will move us more than any amount of statistics can, because God has placed His love in our hearts. Scripture reminds us that Christ laid down His life for us and asks how we can refuse to care for our needy brothers and sisters in Christ (1 John 3:16,17). Earlier years at the mission in Springfield, Missouri, and more recent years of ministry living in impoverished and often drug-infested housing projects, confronted me with faces that I could not ignore as easily as I can hide from statistics.

Jesus calls us to sacrifice our lives for His kingdom; part of what it means to serve His kingdom is to meet human need, because people are what will last forever, whether they are people who are already our brothers and sisters or people that God wants to be (i.e., everyone else; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). From ministries like Teen Challenge to Calcutta’s Mission of Mercy, our works of compassion also reveal Christ in ways that invite the world’s attention to our Master. May the Spirit empower us today, as on the first Pentecost, to reveal His heart to the world.


Craig S. Keener, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Eastern Baptist Seminary, Wynnewood,Pennsylvania, and author of ten books, including two that have won Christianity Todaybook awards: The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament(150,000 copies in print); A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew(Eerdmans).

 

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