What Does the Bible Teach about the Poor and Oppressed?

In the Bible, God speaks often of the poor and needy and how He cares for them. One example is His provision for the poor through “gleanings” from the corners of the field (Lev. 23:22). The Bible also contains stern warnings against those who oppress the poor (Isa. 10:1-3; James 5:1-6). As believers, we are instructed to give to the needs of the poor and speak up for the oppressed (Prov. 31:8-9, 3:27-28). However, though the care of the poor and defense of the oppressed are biblical responsibilities they should never usurp our highest priority.

The highest priority of the church is to glorify God by making disciples of Jesus Christ; that is, the chief priority is gospel-focused, Christ-centered disciple making. We are called to bring the saving gospel to the lost and to edify the church. Therefore, two basic principles apply to what we may call mercy ministry.

First, we have a biblical responsibility to care for other believers, which is a priority over giving to the poor in general. The Old Testament law directed the covenant community of Israel to care for her own who were oppressed (E.g. Ps 10, 69). The priority of believers caring for one another is also taught in the New Testament and modeled in the early church (Acts 4:32-35; Gal. 6:10; 1 John 3:18).

Second, mercy ministry is a practical outworking of the transformative power of the gospel and, therefore, we should strive to keep compassionate ministry to the poor connected to its proclamation wherever possible. This practical fruit of love is a good work that glorifies God and serves as part of the church’s witness to the world (Matt. 5:16, Jn 13:35). Without the gospel, a poor man’s stomach may be filled, but he remains destined for the eternal hell. Therefore, we must remember to keep the main thing the main thing, which is the preaching of the gospel.

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