When Paul was on his very first missionary journey, he endured incredible challenges. It is not surprising, because the Lord told Ananias that he would show Paul how much he would suffer for his name. And suffer Paul did. From the very first step he took on the mission trail, Paul experienced opposition.
When Paul and Barnabas came into Lystra, Paul was stoned and left for dead. Luke records that “when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (Acts 14:20 ESV). When they had gone on to Derbe, they circled back and entered Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
In the midst of hardships, Paul and his companions were strengthening the church, encouraging people to remain faithful, and were appointing elders in every church. This is such an example of what the church could and should be doing! Most people shut down when they are discouraged. It is normal to feel defeated. But what happens when we share our pain and suffering and use that to the glory of God? Luke records that, in those same churches, “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5). God will bless the church when we lean into him and endure hardships together!
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As we’ve been doing a series on caring for the poor, we cannot forget about the foreigner. We are in a political climate where a lot of attention and emotion is being poured out on account of foreigners. Immigration is nothing new. Right now in the United States we have almost 50 million immigrants living among us. These are people who were not born in the United States but are now residents. As Christians, we need to look at what God says about how we welcome and treat foreigners.
In Isaiah 56:1, God reminds Israel to “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.” When foreigners resided in the Promised Land, Israel was commanded to take care of them and instruct them with God’s word. “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people'” (Isaiah 56:3). The godly foreigner shouldn’t live in fear that they will be separated. God grafts them into the holy family.
God is clear that foreigners who obey the commandments are honored: “And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds to my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6-7).
We are commanded to care for the foreigners and sojourners who are in need, just the same as everyone else. With nearly 50 million immigrants living with us, we should consider it an honor to treat them with care.
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The message is clear that there is a great cost of being a disciple of Jesus. Christians are promised persecution and there is so much we need to sacrifice. One of the costs (and great blessings!) is taking care of the poor. With the cost comes reward. Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:32-34 ESV).
The Bible is pregnant with references to caring for the poor–to those in desperate need. Those who are sojourners, poor, oppressed, and destitute, are described in the Bible as our neighbors. We are commanded to love and care for our neighbors, to lend to them and not expect anything in return.
Caring for the poor comes with a cost, but is not meant to be burdensome. In fact, over and over we are told to give joyfully and to lend with an open hand. When we store up treasure in heaven, we do so by helping those in need. Jesus took it so seriously that, in a scathing dialogue, he specifically mentioned the sorting of the sheep and goats by whether they cared for the poor and sick or not. These are not suggestions in the Bible.
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Giving to the poor is all through the Bible. God has a very special place in his heart for the poor. In Acts 2, the Christians sold possessions and gave liberally so that there were no needs. If someone was sick, Jesus and his disciples healed them so they could go back to work and provide.
Jesus told the rich man that, if he wanted to be perfect, he would go sell everything then come back and follow Christ. Poverty was just as real as it is today. There are many people who die of starvation each day. Our homeless population even in the US is out of control.
The idea of storing up treasures in heaven was not a new concept. Nor was Jesus the only one to say it. Paul told Timothy to tell the rich not to put their “hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
The future is important. Jesus doesn’t propose throwing money out. Rather, we should take care of each others’ needs because we’ve been so richly blessed.
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Ezekiel 34 is Ezekiel’s prophecy against the bad shepherds of Israel. When Jesus came as the Good Shepherd (John 10), he was fulfilling Ezekiel 34. “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. . . I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
Over and over again, Jesus intentionally seeks out the distraught–the poor, oppressed, broken hearted, and the outcasts. He temporarily leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for the one who is lost. When Jesus saw the crowd of 5,000 waiting on the shore, he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
This echoes Ezekiel 34:11-24. Ezekiel describes the Lord actively looking for his sheep who were oppressed and abandoned “so they shall no longer be a prey.” The sheep were abused by the shepherds and they “thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad” (Ezekiel 34:21). Jesus immediately recognized who the sheep were that had no shepherd. And he led them as their new shepherd, for God promised: “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken” (Ezekiel 34:24).
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When we think of caring for the poor we probably get a picture of taking up collections and distributing the proceeds to those in need. Certainly this is a biblical concept, as we see it throughout the Bible. Paul took up a collection for the people who were greatly impacted by a famine (1 Cor. 16:1-4, 2 Cor. 8:1-15, Rom. 15:14-32). In Acts 2, Christians were selling possessions and laying the money at the apostles’ feet so that nobody was with need. They broke bread together and ate in each others’ homes.
But there is a deeper aspect to caring for the poor that is often missed. The Bible instructs us to stay connected with one another, to help out, and to pursue justice. Isaiah 1:17 (ESV) says, “. . . learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widows cause.” It wasn’t just about open-fisted giving to the poor. It was about correcting oppressors and shielding the poor and oppressed from people who would wrong them.
Jesus said that the poor you will always have among you. This is not a descriptive statement telling us to resign ourselves to the idea that people will always be poor. No, he was quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11: “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” In the context of Deuteronomy 15, there were poor because the Israelites were unfaithful in caring for the poor. In fact, the latter part of verse 11 says, “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'” Just a few verses before, God says, “But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deut. 15:4).
But caring for the poor was not just giving handouts. In the context of justice, it was about giving people dignity. Israel was expected to provide jobs for people and let them use their skills to bless others. There are people who physically cannot work, and they were to be taken care of. But for the ones who were poor and could work, it was expected that they work. It’s interesting that Jesus never (to our knowledge) gave money to beggars. Instead, he healed them. Why? Because Jesus was just! He was restoring their dignity and their right, honor, and blessing to work. We often only view Jesus’ miracles as a demonstration of his power and revelation. But we’re completely missing the point. He healed people because of justice! He healed people so they could go back to work. He healed them so they could bless other people.
When this godly cycle happens, there are no poor in the land.
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“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
We have many generations of traditions surrounding the Lord’s Table. Most of these traditions are noble, and thankfully we are diligent in remembering Christ at the table. It’s refreshing to know that we hold a high view of communion. Personally, I like to envision sitting with the first Christians who sat around the table, eating, drinking, and sharing what Christ meant to them.
The letter written by the Bithynian governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan around 110 A.D. gives us an early glimpse of what a worship day looked like for early Christians. Pliny was writing Trajan about the “problem” they faced with Christians who permeated the Roman Empire. Trajan’s practice was to give them three chances to “repent,” denouncing Christ, or else they would be executed. He described the “offense” of the Christians this way:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to do some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food.Christian History Institute
We know that the early Christians, even while being persecuted, were devoted to gathering to worship then gathering again for the Lord’s supper. Though we have removed the meal, there are ways that we can reconnect with the communal aspect of the Lord’s supper. We should always strive to rethink and reimagine the table. It was not an isolated, individualistic event. The Christians were united both at and through the table with Jesus as the meal. It was a time to celebrate salvation and to participate in the heavenly table, where all Christians of all cultures and all time gather together!
It is refreshing when we become giving in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the fruit of the vine. We commune with and give to our fellow brothers and sisters. There are many ways to re-envision the Supper. It’s wonderful to think about the depth and meaning of this meal that has been celebrated for thousands of years!