A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. -Jn 13:34-35
Like many of His counsels, this instruction from Jesus seems counter-intuitive: that in order for the world to know God, we followers of Jesus must demonstrate a love for one another rather than for those outside the family. In an intriguing parallel, I’ve heard it said the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother (and she, him). You would think the first thing would be to show love to the children. And in the case of the lost, the intuitive approach would say that we believers should focus our efforts of love and good works on the lost. Even convert our meager time gathered to a needs-based ministry to the lost. How completely we miss His point.
That isn’t to say that the “people of love” shouldn’t be known by all people as kind and good. Our neighbors, coworkers and friends should regard us as diligent do-gooders. Yet along with Jesus, Paul advises our primary focus should be on serving other believers: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” -Gal 6:10
Interestingly, nowhere in the NT do we see an example of the early church investing finances on ministering to needs of the lost. The three uses of money I can find are:
- Caring for one another (Acts 4:32-35; II Cor 8:8-15);
- Supporting churches (ie, the Christians who live there) in other localities experiencing distress (Acts 11:28-30; I Cor 16:1-3)
- Supporting church planting teams (II Cor 11:8,9; Phil 4:15,16) and possibly local elders (I Tim 5:17,18)
Note: Nor was money accepted from the lost for the labor of the gospel among them (I Thess 2:9; I Cor 9:14,15)
To be fair, perhaps Peter’s response might have been different here if he had a pocketful of money. But would the person seeking alms have preferred money or what he was given? You decide.
“And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple; Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms. And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him with John, said, Look on us. And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something of them. Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. Acts 3:2-6
For me, this begs the question: If all we have to give is money, are we really giving God’s best to those who hurt?
What we owe the lost more than any mere material need is the gospel, and that preached from the platform of transformed communities of faith that are marked by excessive love for one another. There is no “better way” that we can invent. We don’t need strategic planning conferences to discover yet another and yet ever cleverer approaches to doing church or reaching the world. We do, rather, need to trust Jesus’s straightforward strategy: the best thing we can do for those who are not yet believers is to love one another. And, do good to all, be kind in every situation.
Too often we give in to our own ways of thinking, short-circuiting God’s plan, and expend considerable money and manpower ministering to the needs of the lost rather than simply, profoundly, loving one another. In our wisdom, are we failing as surely as if we thought we could “love” our children without first loving the children’s mother and father? (Of course, our culture would advocate exactly that, with the result that a majority of children are raised in single parent families with tragic results for the children.) Truly, the world is desperate for demonstrable, efficacious spiritual truth. That truth is found when they see us love each other sacrificially, joyously, and unconditionally.
What I am not saying is that we should stop ministering to the lost and the poor. I am saying that first and foremost we should be ministering to the Christians who are poor, persecuted, disadvantaged, etc. This lonely, broken world can once again be turned upside down using the strategy given to us by Jesus Christ in His prayer of John 17, particularly Jn 17:21-23.
We may need to think through what loving one another and doing good to one another means (does it mean better church factory facilities or less intra-church competition/contention or better aid to our widows and orphans in the family of faith, and aid to our sick, undereducated, underemployed brothers and sisters, etc.?), but the NT isn’t silent about the fundamental role our relationship with each other plays as THE apologetic for Christianity.