There are a number of scripture passages that either directly or indirectly address the responsibility of Christians to minister to other people. The passages that we regard as indirectly addressing this responsibility all focus on demonstrating love for other people, but those passages don’t specifically address the matter of ministering to others. [For a discussion of demonstrating love for others, click on “Are Christians Supposed to Love Everyone?”]
In this article, we will focus on scripture passages that directly address the responsibility of Christians to minister to other people. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
Biblical Teachings Regarding Sharing Possessions with People Who Have Needs
In Matthew 19:16-21, a rich young man came to Jesus Christ asking Him what he needed to do so that he could have eternal life. After Jesus told the man that he needed to keep the Commandments, the man asked Jesus which Commandments he needed to keep. Jesus then mentioned several Commandments including “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then, Jesus added, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:22 have similar wording.)
Note that Jesus did not tell the man that if he wanted eternal life, he should sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Instead, Jesus told him that if he wanted to be perfect, that is what he should do. Strong’s Concordance states that the word that is translated as perfect in Matthew 19:21 means “‘complete,’ conveying the idea of goodness without necessary reference to maturity.” Likewise, Wycliffe Bible Commentary says the word perfect used in this passage means “complete” or “mature.”
However, the context of this incident indicates it is likely that the rich young man’s possessions were essentially an idol to him; i.e., as long as he owned the possessions, they would continue to be more important to him than doing what Jesus Christ wanted him to do. If this is a correct assessment of the situation, it probably is not necessary for everyone who is seeking eternal salvation to sell everything they own, provided that they do not place the importance of their possessions above their commitment to Jesus Christ.
David Platt declares on page 110 of his book entitled Radical,
[W]hile caring for the poor is not the basis of our salvation, this does not mean that our use of wealth is totally disconnected from our salvation. Indeed, caring for the poor (among other things) is evidence of our salvation. The faith in Christ that saves us from our sins involves an internal transformation that has external implications. According to Jesus, you can tell someone is a follower of Christ by the fruit of his or her life, and the writers of the New Testament show us that the fruit of faith in Christ involves material concern for the poor. Caring for the poor is one natural overflow and a necessary evidence of the presence of Christ in our hearts. If there is no sign of caring for the poor in our lives, then there is reason to at least question whether Christ is in our hearts.
With regard to people who have an abundance of possessions, 1 John 3:17 asks, “[W]hosoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” The word brother in this passage may refer just to a person with a common interest or common calling, such as another Christian, or it could refer to any human being who has a need. Whatever the case may be, the inference is that people do not possess God’s love if they have more than ample resources but fail to use their resources to help people who have needs.
In reference to 1 John 3:17, Philip Yancey states on page 236 of his book entitled Reaching for the Invisible God, “Like any human parent, the mature Christian lives not for himself or herself, but for the sake of others.” Yancey goes on to say on page 240,
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” Jesus said about himself [in Mark 10:45]. I know no message more urgent for the wealthy countries of the West, who share a planet with three billion people earning less than two dollars per day, a world in which 40,000 children die each day from malnutrition and easily preventable diseases. . . . [T]he solution to such problems will not come from massive programs administered by international agencies, helpful as they may be; it will come from many individuals who commit themselves in a willing spirit of servant love.
In Luke 6:30a, Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks of you.” [Bold print emphasis is ours.] And, inthe so-called “Parable of the Good Samaritan,” which is found in Luke 10:30-37, Jesus taught that we should show mercy to anyone who has needs, even though that person may not be the type of person with whom we normally would associate.
Likewise, Romans 12:20a, which quotes Proverbs 25:21, makes it clear that Christians should provide at least food and water to anyone with a need, even if they regard that person as their enemy. This passage says, “[I]f your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him a drink. . . .”
Ephesians 4:28 adds an additional dimension to the matter of sharing. This passage instructs, “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.” In other words, Christians who previously had stolen from other people (i.e., they had been thieves before their conversion to Christianity) were instructed to help the needy. This complete about-face would be a strong testimony that their priorities really had changed.
Looking again at Matthew 19:21, note that Jesus did not tell the rich young man to give to the poor all the proceeds from selling everything he owned. Jesus just told him to “give to the poor.” Therefore, the passage seems to teach that committed followers of Jesus (i.e., Christians) should share what they own, but not necessarily everything they own, with people who need assistance.
This perspective is supported by 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, in which the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthian Christians, “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that there may be equality.”
With regard to this passage, Matthew Henry’s Commentary says, “It is the will of God that, by our mutually supplying one another, there should be some sort of equality; not an absolute equality. . . .”
Based on the foregoing considerations, it seems clear that all Christians who have more material possessions than they actually need have a responsibility to share their possessions with other people. Even if Christians have ample possessions, they are not expected to deprive themselves and their family of what they need by giving financially to meet the needs of other people; i.e., they are not asked to help other people to such an extent that their own family would be burdened by needs they could no longer afford to meet. Therefore, it is important for those who are trying to determine how much they will share with others to take into consideration both the current needs and the future needs of their own family before they make a final decision in this regard.
We believe that although the Bible does not teach that most Christians should give all of their possessions to help meet the needs of other people, it does seem to indicate that the rich, in particular, have a responsibility to see that the needs of the poor are met. Ultimately, however, the extent of each Christian’s financial assistance to the needy is a matter between that person and God.
In any case, it is usually wise to provide financial assistance through a charitable organization that can verify genuine needs and respond accordingly. Many people with needs may have them because they have not managed their financial affairs wisely and, therefore, they may need more financial guidance than most individuals are able to provide, but which certain charitable organizations can provide.
[For a discussion of what the Bible says about the use of financial resources, click on “Uncertainties Regarding Proper Use of Money.” And, for a discussion of how to give wisely, click on “Are You Giving Wisely?”]
Biblical Examples of Sharing Possessions with People Who Have Needs
There are several notable examples in the Bible of groups of Christians sharing with other groups of Christians.
Acts 2:44-45 says with regard to the Christians in Jerusalem, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.”
In addressing the reason for this sharing by the Christians in Jerusalem, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes states that there was no “positive command for so doing: it needed not; for love constrained them. It was a natural fruit of that love wherewith each member of the community loved every other as his own soul.”
Although the circumstances are similar to those in the immediately preceding passage, Acts 4:32-35 pertains to a different situation. This passage states,
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.
Another example of group sharing is found in Romans 15:26, whichtells about needy Christians who lived in Jerusalem being helped by Christians living in two other cities. This verse says, “[I]t pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem.”
In light of what we previously mentioned with regard to Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35, it seems reasonable to assume that the number of Christians in Jerusalem with unmet needs was so great that the other Christians in that city could not by themselves meet those needs and, therefore, it was necessary for them to get help from Christians in other cities to do so.
Biblical Teachings Regarding Other Types of Sharing with People Who Have Needs
The sharing of material possessions is not the only type of sharing in which Christians are expected to engage. James 1:27 states, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
With regard to this passage, Matthew Henry’s Commentary asserts,
Compassion and charity to the poor and distressed form a very great and necessary part of true religion. . . . Visiting is here put for all manner of relief which we are capable of giving to others; and fatherless and widows are here particularly mentioned, because they are generally most apt to be neglected or oppressed: but by them we are to understand all who are proper objects of charity, all who are in affliction.
Henry is making two primary points with regard to James 1:27: (1) the meaning of the word visiting is much broader than its usual meaning, and (2) expressions of caring should be shown not only to orphans and widows, but also to other people who have needs.
With regard to ministering to other people, it is the responsibility of every Christian to follow the teachings found in the New Testament. Ephesians 2:10a declares, “For we [i.e., Christians] are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. . . .” This necessitates seeking God’s guidance in determining appropriate ways to minister, and then acting accordingly.
God does not expect every Christian to be actively involved in the same ministries to other people, but He does want every Christian to be actively pursuing some type(s) of ministry. And, God does want every Christian to assist the needy, but we do not all need to assist them in the same manner. Furthermore, although physical needs of other people are certainly important, their spiritual needs are also important. Therefore, we should seek to minister to both types of needs.
Although some types of ministry may seem to be relatively insignificant, any ministry to other people to which God guides us must surely be regarded by Him as an important ministry, as indicated by Jesus Christ in Matthew 25:31-40, in which He says,
When the Son of Man [Jesus Christ] comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the lift. Then the King [Jesus Christ] will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in. I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”