Mark Vowels, CGO Director
One of the essential questions that must be answered by anyone seeking to engage in gospel outreach is, “What exactly is our responsibility toward people who are not Christians?” Are we sent by the Lord to serve humanity or to proclaim the Gospel, or both? And if both, what is the relationship between the two?
Many evangelicals today point to the great command, “love God and love your neighbor” (Luke 10:27) as being essentially equivalent to “Go and make disciples among all people” (Matthew 28:19). The question is not whether they are both important, or both essential. Jesus commanded us to do both. The question is are they the same?
Is loving my neighbor by providing humanitarian relief, medical care, social justice, agricultural assistance, environmental improvement or any other act of human kindness a fulfillment of the Great Commission?
My answer is no.
Some historically conservative Christians, or fundamentalists, in reaction to what they perceived in past generations as an over emphasis by non-evangelicals on service to humanity, claimed that their only obligation to the lost was to proclaim the gospel. They emphasized Jesus’ teaching in passages like Luke 4:43, where Jesus states that He was sent to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, or Luke 19:10 where He says that He came to seek and to save the lost. They highlighted that the Apostle Paul gave little focus to the physical welfare of the lost, but incessantly prioritized the proclamation of the gospel (Romans 10:1, 14; 15:20; 2 Timothy 4:17). To be clear, I agree that both Jesus and Paul did prioritize the proclamation of the Gospel above all else, and therefore we too should be prioritists.
Frankly, however, that does answer the questions, because both Jesus and Paul demonstrated compassion for the physical well-being of non-Christians. Both capitalized on opportunities to help people who were hurting. So it is not legitimate to ignore people’s needs while saying that we only focus on proclaiming the Gospel.
We cannot say to those whom we could help (but maybe don’t want to), “be warmed and filled” in the name of prioritism. We must seek to help those that we can, because Jesus commanded it (Matthew 5:42) and modeled it (Matthew 9:35).
Those who focus predominantly on providing physical aid sometimes emphasize Luke 4:16-21, where Jesus claimed to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah. They point out that much of that passage speaks of social or physical deliverance, so this must have been part of Jesus’ earthly mission, and therefore directs our earthly mission as well (John 20:21). That’s fair, but much of what was prophesied by Isaiah was not fulfilled by Jesus during His earthly sojourn and apparently awaits a future Messianic reign. (That discussion goes beyond the point of this blog post.)
My burden here is to convey the fact that nowhere does the New Testament encourage the idea that mercy ministry is the fulfillment of or equivalent to the Lord’s commission to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples. Any holistic approach to ministry which places man’s physical need on a higher, or even equal level with his spiritual need goes beyond what is written in the New Testament. Any teaching that places the Great Commandment and the Great Commission in an either/or relationship is flawed.
That brings us back to the original questions. What exactly is our responsibility toward people who are not Christians? Are we sent by the Lord to serve humanity or to proclaim the Gospel? The answer is that we should do – we must do - both. We must do both because Jesus commanded both. We must do both because Jesus did both. We must do both, not because Gospel proclamation does not take priority, but because Gospel proclamation demands both speaking Christ’s words and imitating Christ’s life.
 This passage refutes the notion that Jesus only healed as a Messianic sign. Matthew is specific that Jesus went to all the cities and villages of Galilee, both to proclaim the Gospel and to heal every disease and affliction. It is hardly necessary to provide physical relief to every hurting human being in an entire geographic region simply to make a theological point.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.