Compassionate Christ, Compassionate Church
Compassion played a crucial role in the ministries of Christ and the New Testament church. Should it not play a crucial role in our ministries as well?
By George O. Wood with George Paul Wood
Have you ever lost sleep worrying about a matter of principle? On Thursday, August 6, 2009, I experienced such a sleepless night. That afternoon, at the General Council meeting in Orlando, Florida, delegates debated a resolution to amend our Constitution and make compassion1 the Assemblies of God’s fourth reason for being. (The first three are evangelism, worship, and discipleship.) After debate, the delegates voted, and the resolution lost.
That night I could not sleep. Here we are, a compassionate Movement telling the world we are not compassionate, I thought. This does not add up. This does not make sense.
I determined in the early morning hours of Friday, August 7, that I was going to yield the chair during the next business session, go to the floor, and appeal to the delegates to reconsider Thursday’s action and adopt the resolution. One of the most satisfying moments in my life came when the delegates did just that.
Some feared that adding compassion as a reason for being would dilute our Fellowship’s historic resolve to do “the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen.”2 Others worried that adding compassion would lead us down the slippery slope to the “Social Gospel” our fathers and mothers in the faith explicitly rejected. These are understandable concerns. I do not want to be part of any Christian movement that discounts evangelism or disregards orthodoxy in favor of mere social or political action. But I do not fear that adding compassion to our reasons for being will do either. Instead, I worry that discounting or disregarding compassion will result in a less-than-biblical form of ministry. Compassion played a crucial role in the ministries of Christ and the New Testament church. Should it not play a crucial role in our ministries as well?
The Paradigm of Jesus’ Ministry
Let me begin with Jesus’ ministry. Luke 4:14–30 tells about Jesus preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth, His hometown. Jesus read Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6: “ ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ ” Then He said, “ ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ ” (Luke 4:18,19,21).
Notice four things about Jesus’ use of these passages.
First, Jesus provides a paradigm that describes the essence of His ministry. Later, when an imprisoned John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether He was the Messiah, Jesus pointed to His healings and exorcisms and said, “ ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’ ” (Luke 7:22, emphasis added). Similarly, when Peter preached to Cornelius, he alluded to these passages, saying, “ ‘God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and…he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him’ ” (Acts 10:38, emphasis added). Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6 prophesy the essence of Jesus’ ministry.
Second, Jesus’ use of these passages focuses on the power of the Holy Spirit. “ ‘The Spirit of the Lord,’ ” Jesus said, “ ‘anointed me,’ ” a reference to Jesus’ baptism when “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:22).
According to Luke, the Spirit was intimately involved with Jesus’ life and ministry. Mary became pregnant with Jesus through the Holy Spirit (1:35). The Spirit moved Simeon to testify that Jesus was “your [i.e., God’s] salvation,” “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (2:25ff.). After His baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for His contest with the devil (4:1ff.). Following that, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” and began His teaching ministry (4:14,15).
When Jesus commissioned the 72 for ministry, and they returned, Jesus was “full of joy through the Holy Spirit” and praised His Father for working through “little children” (10:21). Jesus promised His disciples that “ ‘your Father in heaven [will] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him’ ” (11:13). He promised His persecuted disciples that “ ‘the Holy Spirit will teach you at the time what you should say’ ” (12:12). At every stage of Jesus’ life and ministry the Holy Spirit was present and active.
Third, Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6 focuses on the role of proclamation in His ministry. The Spirit anointed Jesus: “to proclaim good news to the poor,” “to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,” and “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18,19). Underlying the infinitive “to proclaim” are two Greek verbs: euangelisasthai (from which we get the word evangelize) and chēruxai. The words are more or less synonymous and sometimes used in tandem (e.g., Luke 8:1; 9:2,6). Luke summarizes Jesus’ ministry through Galilee this way: “But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news [euangelisasthai] of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’ And he kept on preaching [kēryssōn] in the synagogues of Judea” (4:43,44). What message did Jesus proclaim?
- “good news to the poor” (4:18)
- “freedom for the prisoners” and “recovery of sight for the blind” (4:18)
- “the kingdom of God” (4:43; 8:1; 16:16; cf. 9:2,6, where Jesus commissioned the 72 to proclaim the same message)
- “repentance for forgiveness of sins … in his name” (24:47)
- “peace” (Acts 10:36)
Given the prominence that the kingdom of God plays in Jesus’ ministry, we might summarize His proclamation this way: Jesus announced the establishment of the kingdom of God, which resulted in forgiveness, healing, and peace for those who repented and trusted in Him, especially the poor among them.
Fourth, Jesus performed the kingdom of God. He did not just talk about forgiveness or healing, He forgave and healed. His words are examples of what philosophers call “performative utterances.” Performative utterances do not describe the world; they change it. In Luke 5:17–26, Jesus said to the lame man, “ ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’ ” He proved that He had authority to forgive this man’s sins by healing him. When Jesus said, “ ‘get up, take your mat, and go home,’ ” Luke reports, “Immediately, [the man] stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (emphasis added). In 18:35–43, when Jesus said to a blind man, “ ‘Receive your sight; your faith has healed you,’ ” Luke reports, “Immediately he received his sight” (emphasis added). Jesus’ miracles demonstrated the truth and relevance of His proclamation. He told His critics, “if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20; cf. Matthew 12:28, where “the Spirit of God” replaces “the finger of God”).
In summary, Jesus Christ proclaimed and performed the kingdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Humanity’s Three Needs
What needs did Jesus’ proclamation and performance of the Kingdom meet in the lives of His hearers? Jesus’ use of Isaiah 61:1,2 and 58:6 speak of proclamation:
- “to the poor”
- of “freedom for prisoners”
- of “recovery of sight for the blind”
- “to set free the oppressed”
- and “of the year of the Lord’s favor”
These five items speak to the spiritual, physical, and socioeconomic needs of humanity. When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, He proclaimed it to the whole person. The gospel touches every aspect of a person’s existence.
Spiritual need: forgiveness
First, the kingdom of God meets humanity’s spiritual need for forgiveness. Luke 4:18 uses the phrases “freedom for the prisoners” and “to set the oppressed free.” In their original context, Isaiah 61:1 and 58:6 reflect the covenantal connection between obedience and freedom and disobedience and oppression (Deuteronomy 28). Israel’s disobedience resulted in Babylonian exile, but its repentance resulted in freedom from exile and return to the Promised Land. Freedom and forgiveness went hand in glove.
We can see the connection between freedom and forgiveness in the way Luke uses the Greek noun aphesis. In Luke 4:18, aphesis means “freedom.” Elsewhere, however, it means “forgiveness,” specifically the forgiveness of sins (1:77; 3:3; 24:47; cf. Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18). Luke often uses the verbaphiēmi with the similar meaning, “to forgive sins” (Luke 5:20–24; 7:47–49; 11:4; 12:10; 17:3,4; 23:34; cf. Acts 8:22). Jesus’ two references to freedom in Luke 4:18 refer to forgiveness of sins.
Interestingly, Jesus stopped His reading of Isaiah 61:2 halfway through the verse. The verse in full reads: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God” (emphasis added). By quoting only the first half of the verse, Jesus strongly and strategically implied that His ministry in this age was one of love and forgiveness rather than law and judgment.
Physical need: healing
Second, the kingdom of God meets humanity’s physical need for the healing of their bodies. Jesus declared that the Spirit anointed Him to proclaim “recovery of sight for the blind” (Luke 4:18; 18:35–43). His healing miracles proved that He was “Son of God” (4:40,41) and “the one who is to come,” that is, the Messiah (7:19–23).
Luke groups Jesus’ exorcism of demons among Jesus’ healing miracles. These exorcisms prove that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20). He summarizes Jesus’ whole ministry this way: “[Jesus] … spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing” (9:11). Jesus commissioned His disciples and the 72 to do the same (9:2; 10:9). Jesus’ miracles of healing prove His concern for the wellbeing of people’s bodies. The Assemblies of God enshrined this concern in Article 12 of our Statement of Fundamental Truths: “Divine healing is an integral part of the gospel. Deliverance from sickness is provided for in the atonement, and is the privilege of all believers.”3
Socioeconomic need: provision and inclusion
Third, the kingdom of God meets humanity’s socioeconomic needs for provision and inclusion. The Spirit anointed Jesus “to proclaim good news to the poor.” Poverty can be spiritual (e.g., “poor in Spirit” [Matthew 5:3]). But in Luke and Acts, the word poor (Greek, ptōchos) is primarily socioeconomic. How is Jesus’ kingdom ministry good news for the poor? At the level of proclamation, Jesus assures the poor who believe in Him that their fortunes in this age will be reversed in the age to come (Luke 6:20,21). By contrast, Jesus said to the rich and well fed: “ ‘Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry’ ” (6:24,25).
Jesus taught a similar lesson about the reversal of fortune in His Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19–31). Jesus also dignified the poor by praising their quiet sacrificial generosity (21:1–4) in contrast to the ostentatious but nonsacrificial gifts of the rich.
But Jesus’ ministry went beyond the proclamation of the Kingdom to its performance. He fundamentally reoriented the way His disciples felt about and used their wealth. He taught His disciples to eschew the accumulation of goods and practice generosity to the poor. End-times judgment “will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God” (12:21). Disciples need not worry about acquiring food or clothing; instead, they should “seek [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to [them] as well” (12:31). Because God would give His disciples the Kingdom, Jesus commanded His disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail” (12:32,33, cf. 18:22). Jesus taught His disciples to include the poor in their communal meals (14:13). When Zacchaeus the tax collector repented of his financial dishonesty and gave half his possessions to the poor, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:1–10).
Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 58:6 and 61:2 strengthens this point about His disciples’ newfound relationship to wealth. In Isaiah 58:6–8, the prophet criticized Israel’s religious fasting because it failed to change their relationship with the poor. Speaking for God, the prophet asked a series of rhetorical questions: “ ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear.’ ”
Similarly, when Jesus spoke of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), His words had socioeconomic overtones. That year was the Jubilee Year, during which God commanded the Israelites to forgive their countrymen’s debts, return them to their ancestral land, and — if they had become enslaved — emancipate them (Leviticus 25:8–55).
True religion — according to Isaiah and Jesus — provides for the poor. We cannot spiritualize the meaning of these passages about money. To do so will explain them away.
The New Testament Church
Did the New Testament church pattern its ministry after that of Jesus? Yes. They proclaimed and performed the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit. They ministered to people’s spiritual, physical, and socioeconomic needs.
We see this immediately in the Book of Acts. Acts 1:8 is the programmatic Scripture for the entire book. Jesus fulfilled His promise of power in Acts 2, and the immediate effect of the Holy Spirit upon them was speech — miraculous tongues (2:4,11) and evangelistic sermons (2:14–39). Throughout Acts, the Spirit empowered Jesus’ disciples for a ministry of proclaiming the gospel: Peter before the Sanhedrin (4:8), Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26,29), Peter at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:19,44–48), and Barnabas and Saul on the eve of their first missionary journey (13:2).
The disciples also performed miracles: healing the lame (3:1–10; 9:32–36; 14:8–10), the sick (5:12–16; 19:11,12), the demonized (8:7; 16:16–18), the blind (9:17–19), and the dead (9:36–43; 20:7–12). Pentecostals expect “signs and wonders” to follow their evangelistic ministries as well, for this was the pattern in the Book of Acts (2:22,43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6,13; 14:3; 15:12).
Have we overlooked how the first Christians performed the Kingdom with regard to the poor? Acts 2:42–47 describes the life of the church after Pentecost. Verses 44,45 describe their socioeconomic practices. Acts 4:32–35 says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. … God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
The first Christians formed the office of deacon to make sure these poor funds were distributed in an equitable way (6:1–7). Luke describes Dorcas as “always doing good and helping the poor” (9:36). The Antioch church sent famine relief to the Jerusalem church through Barnabas and Saul (11:27–30).
Some argue that these examples show that the church’s compassion ministries extend only to poor believers. They think that the church should evangelize outsiders and care for insiders. There is some truth to this. So I ask: Do you teach financial stewardship to your church members so their tithes and offerings include benevolence funds for poor members, along the lines of Acts 4:34,35? Does your church have a deacon ministry that ministers to poor members of your church in a systematic, organized way, along the lines of Acts 6:1–7? Does your church contribute to compassion ministries that bring relief to poor Assemblies of God brothers and sisters nationally and internationally, along the lines of Acts 11:27–30? If not, why not?
I want to challenge the idea that we must limit our compassion ministries to those inside the church. When Jesus preached in His hometown synagogue, He detected a doubting tone in His audience’s response to Him. So He reminded them, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown,” and He cited the examples of Elijah’s ministry to the widow in Zarephath and Elisha’s ministry to Naaman to prove His point (Luke 4:24–27). Just as the prophets ministered to “outsiders” by healing them and providing their socioeconomic needs, so — Jesus seems to imply — will He. Similarly, Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) to help an “insider” understand that loving one’s neighbor transcends distinctions between “insiders” (Jews) and “outsiders” (Samaritans).
Finally, Jesus commanded His disciples: “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (6:35,36, emphasis added). Jesus linked financial generosity toward those in need, enemies — the ultimate “outsiders,” with God’s kindness and mercy. These passages question the notion that we should minister compassionately only toward “insiders.” Instead, they exemplify what Paul said in Galatians 6:10: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
Just as Jesus proclaimed and performed the Kingdom in the power of the Holy Spirit, so too the New Testament church proclaimed the King and performed “signs and wonders” and good works in the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as He ministered to humanity’s spiritual, physical, and socioeconomic need, so did they. And so should we.4
The Assemblies of God practices compassion for several pragmatic reasons. It opens doors into the community for evangelism and discipleship, both nationally and internationally. In the late 80s and early 90s, my cousin, David Plymire, and I returned to the area of northwest China where our parents had been missionaries. We raised money to outfit a regional hospital with up-to-date medical equipment, and we included the local pastors in our presentation of the gifts. These gifts resulted in the government treating the churches favorably and also refuted the longtime Communist lie that Christians do not care about the physical and material needs of people. Today, Assemblies of God missionaries serve in approximately 80 countries as leaders of compassion ministries. Those compassion ministries open doors for the gospel in countries that do not allow traditional evangelistic ministries.
But there is a principled reason, too. We practice compassion because a compassionate Christ demands a compassionate church. Evangelism has a priority to it that healing and help for the poor do not. We do no favors to people if we fill their bellies but don’t save their souls. But we never have to choose between evangelism and healing or evangelism and compassion. The Spirit of Jesus Christ empowers us to do them all. That kind of empowered ministry — for evangelism, worship, discipleship, and compassion — is our reason for being.
1. Compassion means “care for the poor and needy of the world” and “meeting human need” (Statement of Fundamental Truths, Articles 10, “The Church and Its Mission” and Article 11, “The Ministry”) http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_short.cfm.
2. “As a Council, ... we commit ourselves and the Movement to Him for the greatest evangelism that the world has ever seen.” Minutes of the November 1914 General Council.
3. Statement of Fundamental Truths, Article 12, “Divine Healing” http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_short.cfm.
4. Influence Resources has an excellent resource that can help your church develop a compassion ministry that complements your evangelistic ministry: Scott Wilson, Act Normal: Moving Your Church from Niche to Norm.