From 361 to 363 AD, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustuswas the Emperor of Rome. He is widely known today as either “Julian” or “Julian the Apostate.” This latter appellation is because he abandoned Christianity, the faith in which he was raised, and sought instead a revival of the old pagan religions of Rome to counter the rising tide of Christianity. He sought to have the pagan temples restored and the pagan priests put back to work. It was, in many ways, a frustrating venture for Julian. At one point, in a fit of frustration, Julian wrote the following to one of the pagan priests: “It is a disgrace that these impious Galilaeans [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”
What a telling statement! Julian the Apostate was irritated at the Christians’ undeniably impressive care for the poor in Rome. More than that, he marveled and chafed at the realization that the Christians not only cared for the Christian poor but also for the pagan poor. Historian and theologian David Bentley Hart writes this of the early church’s care for the poor:
Even pagan critics of the church were aware of the astonishing range of Christians’ exertions on behalf of others…Ultimately…one finds nothing in pagan society remotely comparable in magnitude to the Christian willingness to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old, free and bound alike. Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.
From the first century through the fourth, I think one can fairly say, no single aspect of Christian moral teaching was more consistent or more urgent than this law of charity. In the surviving Christian literature of the first five centuries, both before and after the church’s transformation into the imperial cult, the refrain is ceaseless, and is most poignantly audible in the admonitions of the great church fathers of the post-Constantinian period-Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom-to rich Christians: to follow Christ, one must love the poor and give to them without reserve or preference. At its very best, the Christian pursuit of charity, both before and after Constantine’s conversion, was marked by a quality of the supererogatory that pagan religious ideas could simply never have inspired…And, as I say, even committed pagans acknowledged the peculiar virtues of the Galilaeans. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, who admired Julian and who harbored no rosy illusions regarding the church, still commended the faith of the Christians as a “gentle” creed, essentially just in its principles and its acts.”
Caring for the poor and the needy has long been a key concern and focus of the Christian Church. In fact, it seems to have been one of the dominant concerns of the church. William Barclay has given another example of this reality.
In the East it was the custom for beggars to sit begging at the entrance to a temple or a shrine. Such a place was, and still is, considered the best of all stances because, when people are on their way to worship God, they are disposed to be generous to their fellow men. W.H. Davies, the tramp poet, tells how one of his vagrant friends told him that, whenever he came into a new town, he looked for a church spire with a cross on the top, and began to beg in that area, because there, from experience, he found people most generous.
Yes, with all of the church’s problems throughout history, and all of its failures to care for the poor as it ought, there is something about Christianity in particular that has special care and concern for the poor and the needy. Our covenant expresses this concern and priority under the final section, “the reaching of the nations”
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives,
embracing the whole counsel of God.
We covenant to bring glory to God by
gathering for worship faithfully,
singing to the glory of God,
joining together in fervent prayer,
doing good works to the Father’s glory,
living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,
giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.
We covenant to reach the nations by
sharing the gospel with those around us,
reaching out to the poor and the needy
Of all of the numerous concerns that the church should have, why mention this one, “reaching out to the poor and the needy”?
The poor have a special place in God’s heart.
“For God so loved the world” establishes God’s love for all people. Even so, the scriptures are filled with evidence that the poor have a special place in the heart of God. In Luke 4, for instance, we read of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue when He returned to His home town. Consider what happened there:
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The first point that Jesus made in His sermon is, in the words of Isaiah that He quoted, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” And His concluding and scandalous statement that the words of Isaiah were “today…fulfilled” in the person of Jesus makes the point especially clear: the coming of Jesus heralds good news to the poor in a way that nothing else ever had or could!
Jesus makes the same point in Luke 7 in responding to some of John the Baptist’s disciples who brought a query from John asking whether or not He, Jesus, was the promised One.
22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”
“Are you the Christ?” asked John.
“The poor have good news preached to them!” answered Jesus.
Care for the poor, then, was an evidence of Christ’s true identity as God-with-us. The poor have a special place in God’s heart!
In fact, in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul reminded the Corinthian believers that when Jesus took on human flesh, He took on the poverty of humanity.
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Think of it: the Son of God set aside the glories and grandeur of Heaven to step into human suffering and misery. He who had everything willingly set it aside and became poor for us! There is great hope in this for us all. In Bonaventure’s The Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure quotes Francis of Assisi as saying:
When you see a poor man, my brother, an image of the Lord and his poor mother is being placed before you. Likewise in the case of the sick, consider the physical weakness which the Lord took upon himself.
Yes, the poor Jesus gives hope to the poor and places a calling on us all to love and care for those in need. At other times Jesus’ special concern for the poor is even more explicit. In Luke 6 we find Luke’s version of the beatitudes.
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
See here the love of God for the poor! See here the concern of Jesus for the poor and the amazing hope He offers them. He has come for the outcast and the despised, for the poor and the downtrodden. This reality is also reflected in the life of the early church. In Galatians 2, Paul recounts how he met with Peter, James, and John and received a vote of approval for them. It is fascinating to observe the one thing that Peter, James, and John asked of Paul:
9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
“Remember the poor.” Church, remember the poor! Why? Because God remembers the poor and because Jesus took on poverty Himself and identified with the poor.
We all approach the gates of the Kingdom as beggars.
But there is another reality at play here, and it is this: we are all poor and impoverished in our lostness! You may have money in the bank and all of your material needs met, but I ask you this: what are you without Jesus Christ? Jonathan Edwards put it beautifully when he wrote:
They who truly come to God for mercy, come as beggars, and not as creditors: they come for mere mercy, for sovereign grace, and not for any thing that is due.
This fact of our spiritual poverty outside of Christ is communicated powerfully in Christ’s words to the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3.
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. 15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
We find in these verses the true nature of life outside of Christ. Outside of Christ we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” We have nothing outside of Christ! We all approach the gates of the Kingdom as beggars! We all come with hats in hand hoping for mercy! The Laodiceans had money in the bank but were destitute of soul. They had temporal wealth but spiritual poverty. Christ’s call is a call to realize our position of need outside of His grace, our position of poverty outside of His mercy. If you are saved today you have been made rich in the economy of God regardless of the state of your bank account, and this is purely of God’s grace! For this reason it is utterly unacceptable when Christians show favoritism to the wealthy. Nowhere is this more powerfully articulated than in James 2.
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
How can we who were poor and wretched in our sins and trespasses, who bring nothing to the table but our own spiritual poverty and lostness, who have been saved purely by the free grace of Jesus Christ and the gift of His love, turn around and treat those who have nothing as if they are less important than those who have much? How can beggars like us whose very lives are dependent upon the benevolent kindness of our great God now turn around and shame those who are in a position of material want or need?
Our spiritual poverty and destitution outside of Jesus Christ was worse than any physical poverty we may encounter today. What is more, thanks to the grace and mercy of Jesus, the poor man who has Jesus is infinitely wealthier than the rich man who does not! The scandal of the church showing favoritism to the wealthy is a scandal of regression and blindness: how can we go back to the old ways of assuming that the surface wealthy are truly wealthy while the surface poor are truly poor? No, true wealth is found in Christ, regardless of the status of one’s bank account, and true poverty is found outside of Jesus Christ, regardless of the status of one’s bank account. Even so, God’s people should strive to alleviate the physical want of those around us.
The church should be out of the game of trying to win the favor of the wealthy. We thank God for Christians who have means. The church throughout the ages has been blessed with numerous wealthy people who have used their money for good, who have done great good with what God has given them. But wealthy Christians who are following Jesus will themselves be the first to tell you that they are not to be treated as better or more important than the poor. They are not. We are all on level ground at the foot of the cross, and anything that threatens our grasp of that fact must be rejected. Shane Clairborne has pointed to the great Ambrose of Milan as an example of one who understood this fact:
Ambrose, on becoming bishop of Milan, melted all of the objects of gold in the temple, saying, “The church has gold not to store up but to lay out and spend on those in need, for would not the Lord himself say: why didst thou suffer so many to die of hunger?”
Church, we all approach Jesus as beggars in need of bread! We all approach the gates of the Kingdom as beggars! For this reason, because we know what it is to be without, we should have special concern for the poor and the need. Why? Because they are our brothers and sisters. Because we know what it is to have been given a great gift to alleviate our want, indeed, the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ!
It is for this reason that Christians throughout the ages have oftentimes been at the forefront of care for the poor. I would like to end with some encouragement, with some examples of how the church of yesteryear was often exemplary in its care for the poor. I do not offer this in an effort to gloss over the church’s failures. Not at all. The church has oftentimes failed miserably to care for the poor as we should! Even so, hear now how the church has oftentimes gotten care for the poor and the needy right and be inspired to go and do likewise today. The following examples are direct quotes from David Bentley Hart’s amazing book, Atheist Delusions.
- Ephraim the Syrian (A.D. c. 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to all who were afflicted.
- Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not disdain to nurse with his own hands.
- Benedict of Nursia (A.D. c. 480-c. c. 547) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of his monks.
- In Rome, the Christian noblewoman and scholar St. Fabiola (d. A.D. c. 399) established the first public hospital in Western Europe and-despite her wealth and position-often ventured out into the streets personally to seek out those who needed care.
- John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), while patriarch of Constantinople, used his influence to fund several such institutions in the city; and in the diakoniai of Constantinople, for centuries, many rich members of the laity labored to care for the poor and ill, bathing the sick, ministering to their needs, assisting them with alms.
- During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals in Western Europe.
- The twelfth century was particularly remarkable in this regard, especially wherever the Knights of St. John-the Hospitallers-were active. At Montpellier in 1145, for example, the great Hospital of the Holy Spirit was founded, soon becoming a center of medical training and, in 1221, of Montpellier’s faculty of medicine. And, in addition to medical care, these hospitals provided food for the hungry, cared for widows and orphans, and distributed alms to all who came in need. I could go on…
- Thus, in the late second century, Tertullian could justly boast that whereas the money donated to the temples of the old gods was squandered on feasts and drink, with their momentary pleasures, the money given to the churches was used to care for the impoverished and the abandoned, to grant even the poorest decent burials, and to provide for the needs of the elderly.”
- TheDidascalia, a fascinating Christian document of the third century, describes the duties of a bishop as encompassing responsibility for the education of orphans, aid to poor widows, and the purchase of food and firewood for the destitute, as well as strict vigilance over the money flowing through the church, lest it issue from men guilty of injustice or of the abuse of slaves, or lest it find its way into the hands of persons not genuinely in need.
- In 251 the church in Rome alone had more than fifteen hundred dependents on its rolls, and even small local churches kept storerooms of provisions for the poor, such as oil, wine, and clothing (especially, tellingly enough, women’s clothing).
- During the great pandemic plague of 251-266, for instance, at least if the perfectly credible accounts of the bishops Dionysius of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage are to be believed, Christians in the two great North African cities, clergy and laity alike, distinguished themselves by their willingness to care for the ill and to bury the dead, even at the cost of their own lives. 
Church, we have a long pedigree of care for the poor and the needy. These noble early efforts arose out of an understanding of the implications of the presence of Jesus in our midst. God’s heart for the poor must likewise be our heart! We must love as He loved and reach as He reached!
Whatever we do, let us not fail to love and reach out to the poor and the needy!
David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies(Kindle Locations 642-644). Kindle Edition.
Ibid., Kindle Locations 2179-2186, 2196-2204.
William Barclay, The Acts of The Apostles (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1969), p.28.
Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis (San Fancisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), p.83.
Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol II (Woodstock, Ontario: Devoted Publishing, 2017), p.177.
Shane Clairborne, The Irresistible Revolution(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p.327.
Hart, Kindle Locations 426-438, 2178-2205.