When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This week at Bethlehem is being called Urban and Mercy Ministries Focus. It’s a good time to step back and clarify the place of urban and mercy ministries in the larger vision of the church. That’s what I would like to do. My aim is not that everyone be involved in hands-on urban ministry, but that everyone—on both campuses, North and Downtown—be a lover and supporter and promoter of urban ministry, and that active mercy, especially toward the poor, be one of the beautiful Christlike marks of your life—everybody’s life. In other words, I pray that we would be a church vigorously committed to urban ministries corporately with everybody saying a joyful Yes! to urban ministries, with prayer and giving and encouraging and celebrating, while a growing army of people are engaged hands-on. And that the suffering in the world, especially (but not only!) among the poorest of the poor will touch every heart at Bethlehem with compassion and move all of us to some kind of practical, suffering-relieving ministry (anywhere!).
What Is Urban Ministry?
So what is urban ministry? Here is my stab at a definition. And I am glad we can be about it in whatever way possible even before we nail down a definition. But here’s my long, complicated, dense, and, I hope, helpful definition.
Urban ministry is:
The effort in the name of Christ,
by the strength of Christ,
for the glory of Christ,
to waken in people of all ethnic groups
transforming faith in Christ
and the fruit of obedience to Christ,
by proclaiming Christ in the gospel
and by showing Christ in acts of
in the face of the peculiar concentration of pain
that all come together in the urban centers of the world,
including the Twin Cities.
What Are Ministries of Mercy?
And what are ministries of mercy? Of course, in one sense all true ministry is mercy. None of us deserves anything good. But we are using the term “ministries of mercy” for practical, Christ-dependent, Christ-exalting steps to relieve suffering now and forever through Christ, especially among those who have the fewest resources.
The word mercy is meant to point us with compassion to people’s felt miseries. We know that it is merciful to point a rich person to Christ as his true treasure. We must do that. Yes. Amen. But we are not using the term “ministries of mercy” for Bible studies among the well-to-do. We are using it, for the sake of clarity, to refer to practical relief and ongoing help for those who are suffering and have little that they can do about it without help. And we don’t mean to limit that to the urban core of our cities. That can be very rural and sometimes very suburban. The key thing about mercy ministries is that they are a response to conscious misery or suffering.
So you can see that they these two overlap but are not synonymous: urban ministries and ministries of mercy. So we are taking them together and asking now: What is their place in the larger vision of our church?
Let’s go first to some published documents that define us as a church and then to the Bible that is the basis for those documents.
Right now the vision that is governing the strategic thinking of the elders and staff, and informing the prayer of many of you, is the vision called Treasuring Christ Together. When we spelled it out last fall in an eight-page handout we defined Treasuring Christ Together like this:
It is a multiplying movement of congregations, campuses, and churches defined and united by their common Mission and Biblical Life and Doctrine. The Mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.1 The Biblical Life and Doctrine is The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elders Affirmation of Faith.
In other words, Bethlehem is driven to spread a passion for God by a Bible-based, Bible-saturated, doctrinally rigorous, joy-pursing vision of God. Biblical truth—truth about God and truth about Christ and truth about the way of salvation and the spiritual life—is what we mean to spread, because passion for God without it is vague and unstable and in the end, not God-exalting. All our urban ministry and ministries of mercy are based on biblical truth and aim to spread biblical truth. As Jonathan Edwards said:
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.2
Then last spring as the new North Campus was becoming a reality, two other documents emerged to refine the vision of Treasuring Christ Together. One was called “The Next Step: The North Campus Vision and Expansion Funding Plan” (March 23, 2004). In it was this sentence: “This mission to spread a passion for the supremacy of God happens by words of truth and deeds of mercy, as we make ourselves the servants of other people’s joy.” In other words, mercy ministries was brought forward alongside the ministry of the Word. This is very biblical: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Deeds rooted in truth.
This commitment to mercy ministries near the center of Treasuring Christ Together exploded in the Global Diaconate at the end of April. The church approved a redefinition of Treasuring Christ together:
Treasuring Christ Together
is a vision for
new churches, and
a Global Diaconate
as a means of
spreading a passion
for the supremacy of God in all things
for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
The Global Diaconate means that 10% of all the money given toward the vision of Treasuring Christ Together will go to relieve the suffering of the poorest of the poor. That document approved said,
While Bethlehem has an aggressive commitment to unreached peoples and the wider missionary movement, we have not made global ministries of mercy, a tangible, measurable priority in our giving (with some wonderful exceptions). We believe it would be a biblical and beautiful thing to do. It would “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). One very appealing way to do it would be to make a percentage of our TCT giving go for major efforts among the poorest of the poor and those who are suffering.
That happened with a very strong church vote. Since last April the church has given something approaching a million and a half dollars toward the three-pronged vision of Treasuring Christ Together, 10% of which now waits strategic use in Christ-exalting ministries of mercy around the world. (In two weeks the elders will act on the final process for releasing that money and bring it to you for ratification.)
The importance of urban ministry was explicitly in the document that the church approved on April 28. It said:
One of the most effective ways to address the crisis of the urban poverty and suffering is by planting indigenous churches. Churches can provide a more holistic context for relational ministry than some programs. Therefore, we see urban church planting as one important way of helping the poor and needy near at home. (Deuteronomy 15:11, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”)
The clear implication of saying that church planting is one way we should tackle the peculiar challenges of the city, is that there are other ways. That is what this week is about. We are a church in the city. We don’t need to be planted. We were planted 133 years ago. We are here. And to be somewhere is to be responsible. That’s the point of the parable of the good Samaritan. That’s what this week is about: All the ways we can dream of to be a blessing to the urban reality of the Twin Cities, and to the suffering near and far.
So I conclude from our guiding documents and from the overarching vision of Treasuring Christ Together that urban ministries and ministries of mercy near and far are a crucial part of who we are. It’s what we are committed to. It grows out of our mission to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. May the Lord make it more and more a reality.
The Biblical Foundation
Now we turn to the biblical foundation.
Here I want to make two points. One is that we are drawn to show mercy to some people because they are Christians. The other is that we are drawn to show mercy to some people because they are not Christians. We are drawn to show mercy to Christians because we see Christ in them, and we are drawn to show mercy to unbelievers because we want to see Christ in them. We help suffering believers because they bear the name of Christ. And we help suffering unbelievers in the hope that they will come to bear the name of Christ.
Galatians 6:10 puts it like this: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” The “especially” is because there is the added delight of affirming in them what God has already done in saving them. So in the complexities of urban trouble and ministries of mercy we are carried by two motives: on the one hand, the desire to confirm and honor the Christ-exalting faith of a brother or sister who is suffering by giving them relief and help; and on the other hand, the desire to waken Christ-exalting faith in suffering unbelievers by giving them relief and help in Jesus’ name and with Jesus’ gospel.
Ministries of Mercy to Believers
Consider two teachings of Jesus. First, the teaching of Matthew 25:31-46, the great judgment when Jesus comes and separates the sheep and the goats and sends one group of people to hell and the other to heaven. Verse 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
What’s the difference between these two groups? The difference Jesus focuses on is how they treated his brothers, that is his disciples. And the issue is ministries of mercy, most of which are concentrated in the urban centers of the world: Verse 35ff: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger [refugee] and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then in verse 40 Jesus explains how they were touching him: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.’”
His brothers are his disciples. This is not everybody. This is not every suffering person. Jesus does not call his enemies his brothers. Matthew 12:49-50, “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” When Jesus says in Matthew 25:40 that doing ministries of mercy to the least, namely, his brothers, is doing them to him, he means, doing them to his disciples is doing them to him.
We see the very same teaching in Mathew 10:42, “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” In other words, Jesus says that true Christians do ministries of mercy to Christians because they are Christians. And that’s one of the main ways that your Christianity is shown to be real—which is why heaven and hell hang on it.
James explains how this fits with faith as the way of salvation: James 2:15-17, “If a brother or sister [a disciple!] is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what goodis that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” If we don’t ever bear the fruit of practical love toward brothers and sisters—the least of them—our faith is dead and we are not saved. That’s Jesus’ point.
So ministries of mercy—many of which are concentrated in the city—must flow toward Christians because they are Christians, or we are self-deceived.
Ministries of Mercy to Unbelievers
Does that mean then, that unbelievers should not get our mercy? No. In fact Jesus was very strong on this matter. He said that if we only love those who love us, if we only do good to those who do good to us, we are no different than unbelievers. So yes, show mercy to your brothers and sisters when they suffer. This is what true families do. But if you only love your family, if you only sacrifice to relieve the suffering of your family, you are no better than an unbeliever.
Listen to Luke 6:27ff where Jesus says,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. 32 If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . . 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
So I conclude: If we are a true church, if we are true disciples of Jesus, then we will be drawn to show mercy to some suffering people precisely because they are Christians. And we will be drawn to show mercy to other suffering people because they are not Christians. We will be like our Heavenly Father, when we love his children and love our enemies. And that love means “doing good” to them.
It is not always easy to know what the good is in complexities of urban pain, or what mercy should look like in Haiti or Florida or Sudan or your loved one’s hospice. But Christ never said it would be easy. He simply said, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And then he died and rose again to cover all our sin and make mercy possible..
1 Essential for understanding this statement is our assumption that it is a definition of love. We believe the essence of a loving relationship is humble, sacrificial, self-giving interaction that helps people treasure Christ above all things. In other words, love seeks, at whatever cost, to spread into the heart of the beloved a joyful passion for God’s supreme value in all things through Jesus Christ. People are most loved not when they are made much of, but when they are helped to enjoy making much of God forever. For a fuller explanation of the mission statement, see the sermon from October 1, 1995, “A Passion for the Supremacy of God for the Joy of All Peoples Unpacking the Master Planning Team Document.”
2 Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, ed. C. Goen (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972), 387.