New Testament Perspectives on Charity and Giving
John 3 v 16 is one of the most famous verses in the Bible and it is in the response of the church and of individuals to this gift of God, and the sacrifice made by Christ, that the subject of charity and giving in the New Testament should be viewed. James 1 v 17 ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above.’ In verse 22 of the same chapter Christians are told that they are not merely to hear the good news but to live it out in their daily lives. John Stott in his 1958 book ‘Basis Christianity’ ( page 107) entitles his passage ‘Counting the Cost’ and says that believing that Jesus is the Son of God, or even that he died to redeem us, is not what makes Christians . What does, he says, is the individual’s response to such love. So dramatic was the response of the 1st century church that we are told in Acts 17 v 6 ‘these men have caused trouble all over the world’ – words rendered by other translators, such as the writers of the King James Bible, as ‘turning the world upside down’.
Christ as portrayed in the Gospels was a man of few possessions. He had no money to give away, yet reading the gospels quickly reveals charity in his day by day actions as well of course in his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. He made no differentiation between people, whether male or female, poor or rich, sinner or righteous. There are numerous examples such as in John 3, where Christ explains to the law abiding Nicodemus his need to be born again, but later explains with just as much care to the adulterous Samaritan woman at the well as recorded in John 4. One of the charges brought against him by the Jewish authorities was that he ate with publicans and sinners. We have too the stories that he told, some taken from real life as in the case of the widow’s mite. This narrative takes place only days before the crucifixion and he points out to the disciples the widow who gives all that she has in contrast to the rich people who gave larger amounts , but only gave a tiny portion of what they possessed. From around the same time we have John’s account of the anointing at Bethany ( John 12) where Mary is recorded as pouring a very large amount of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, an action which was perceived by others, Judas in particular, as being an over extravagant deed, but which Christ commends. The history of the church, both in the Bible and later is full of other such deeds in response to the presence of Christ in someone’s life.
In his parables Jesus taught his followers that they should pursue what was of real value in life. Matthew 13 v 45 tells of the merchant who sold all that he owned in order to possess the really valuable pearl. They were told in the story of the house upon the sand and the one built on firm foundations ( Matthew 27 v 4 ff) that they must base their faith and their lives on lasting values. Not every one who heard such stories was able to make that kind of commitment. In Luke 9 v 57 -62 there are recorded examples of those who made excuses, but Jesus makes it very clear in that passage that total commitment to him and his message is the only viable option.
Another aspect of the subject would be based upon Christ’s words in Matthew 5 v 17.’Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfil them’. In the Old Testament there are many instances of laws stating exactly what should be given, when and how e.g. in Numbers 29 we find details of offerings to be made at the Feast of Trumpets and that of Tabernacles, on which day of the feast they are to be offered and exact numbers and types of sacrifices.. In the New Testament church sacrifices of this sort are no longer made – and indeed became impossible after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. Instead we have several references to the law being fulfilled e.g James 2 v 8 where he tells his readers “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture,’ Love your neighbour as yourself ‘ you are doing right.” It is not just a matter of giving alms, but also includes many other things as Paul makes clear in Galatians 6 where he speaks of supporting sinners, giving spiritual comfort, supporting one another and easing the problems of those in need. In this way he tells the Galatians that they were fulfilling the law of Christ. Dr Knox Chamlin in his commentary on Matthew 5 v 17 says that Jesus by his actions completes the law. ‘Fulfil’ doesn’t refer to the fulfilment of prophecies, but to a sense of completion. The era when the law ruled had been superseded by the coming of the Messiah. In Romans 13 v 8 Paul tells the Romans that it is love of fellow men that is important and in chapter 5 verse 5 of the same letter he tells how such love has been poured out upon Christians by the Holy Spirit. It is a matter of giving not just money, but of really getting involved – giving healing, spiritual nurturing and teaching.
This we see illustrated many times throughout the book of Acts. Acts 4 v 29 ff reports the prayers of Peter and John on behalf of the new community. Acts 5 v 12 to 16 mentions many acts of healing. Acts 5v 42 ‘They never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ’. Alan Richardson says ( page 303) in ‘An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament’ that ‘The church is ministerial because Christ is Servant’ Right from the beginning it wasn’t just about the mutual support of church members, but extended to the wider community as is recorded in Acts 5.
Christ himself saw his purpose in terms of service, Mark 10 v 45 ‘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.’ The word used here is ‘diacon’ from which we get the modern English ‘deacon’ as in Luke 22 v 27 ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ This links back to Old Testament passages such as the Servant Songs of Isaiah e.g. Isaiah 42 v 1- 4 which refers to the servant having the Spirit of God upon him and of his bringing justice to all. This mission of the servant is to be carried out by bearing the sin of others. Jesus taught his followers that they were to be servants by doing so himself – e.g in the foot washing incident described by John in John 13. The word used refers to menial work and in Ephesians 6 verse 5 – 7 even slaves are told to carry out their work not just because they must obey, but as if serving God himself. Paul often refers to himself and his fellow workers as ‘servants’ as in Philippians 1 v 1, and in Revelations 7 v 3 the saved are referred to as ‘the servants of our God.’ In Romans 12, where Paul urges his readers to offer themselves as living sacrifices ( Romans 12 v 1), he describes as an act of sacrificial worship. The word used is ‘latreia’ which refers to hired labor. Not slavery, but voluntary work. I t means to serve, but just as one’s life work is what one spends one’s life doing, it also means that to which a man gives himself, to which he is dedicated. He begins this passage ‘therefore’, thus placing it in the context of all that had gone before it i.e. such things as justification by faith (chapter 4), the faithfulness of God (chapter 3) and death to sin and new life in Christ ( chapter 6). The testing and approving of what is God’s will is for an individual Christian to work out in his daily life. What is asked of one is not the same as is asked of another, for the church is made up of many different people with varied gifts and callings as Paul emphasises in several places in his letters. Ernest Best says of these verses in ‘The Cambridge Bible Commentary’ that the pattern of living must be changed and that the lives of believers must reflect that change ( page 139)
In Ist Corinthians 12 Paul makes a great list of spiritual gifts, knowledge, healing and prophecy and so on. These, he makes clear, are given for the purpose of serving the church as a whole. In verse 13 he refers to baptism , the means of entry into the church, as being baptized into the Spirit of Christ – i.e. taking on the servant role – v 27 speaks of them all being part of the body of Christ.
There follows of course the 13th chapter of Ist Corinthians which speaks of love as the context in which they are to serve. It speaks of an ideal love, one which has no thought of self and one which never fails. This loving attitude is to be constant and all pervading. The subject is continued in the next chapter where the reader is exhorted to ‘follow the way of love’.
In his second letter to Timothy Paul exhorts the younger man to pursue Christian virtues rather than evil desires, and the same emphasis can be seen elsewhere as in Colossians 3, and in several places Paul includes the very practical exhortation to those that are strong to bear the problems of those that are weaker and not to please themselves, in Romans 14 for instance.
The New Testament church had no conception of a laity without a ministry. The passage in I Corinthians12 makes it very clear that service in the church is not just for a designated few, but a ministry of all believers. Verse 7 of that chapter tells us that the Spirit is given to everyone, although it may manifest itself in different ways.
Love in the New Testament sense is made up of two parts – love of God and love of man, including oneself. The word used specifically to refers to love originating from God himself. It is love in action. The more frequently found word for love in the New Testament is ‘agape’ used instead of the commoner word ‘eros’ which the Greeks used to describe sexual love. ‘Agape’ refers to love between God and man and between Christians and is the word that in some translations of the Bible is rendered as ‘charity’. Another word sometimes rendered as love is ‘philo’ which rather has the meaning of ‘like’ as in ‘I like country music.’ Old Testament laws referred to taking care of the stranger, but people were expected to carry out these laws simply because they were the law, but in the New Testament, although there is still emphasis on caring for others, the reasoning is different. It is based on ‘agape’ love, rather than mere obedience and duty. No earthly rewards, but heavenly ones as mentioned in Romans 6 v 22 and 23, where Paul talks of eternal life as being the ultimate reward. Service, both to God and man, must be inspired by gratitude for what has been done in the sacrifice of Christ, other wise it is merely duty.
This emphasis on the love of God is still an important one for the modern church as can be seen by the fact that the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI begins ‘Deus Caritas Est’ – ‘God is love’. He takes the words directly from the scriptures, I John 4 v 16, but of course is using Latin rather than the original Greek. Reverend Raymond de Souza says , speaking of the encyclical, that a first encyclical of a pope’s reign indicates the general direction that the new pontiff wishes the church to take. Christian love is needed as much as it ever was.
With regard to giving money, in the Old Testament there are references to tithing, as in Numbers 18 where Aaron is told that tithes i.e one tenth, from the children of Israel, were to be used for the maintenance of the Levites. In the New Testament we have a very different picture, especially in the early pages of Acts when the church expected Christ to return at any time in the immediate future Here we see a group living as a community, perhaps at first coming together in fear and trembling, but quickly becoming a powerful force for good, sharing all they had with fellow believers, but also dealing with the needs of the people around them. In Matthew 28 verse 19 we have the words of Christ usually referred to as the great commission in which the disciples are instructed to spread the good news of the Gospel throughout the world. Christ will be with them he promises, but the task is theirs. In response to this and following the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost after the ascension of Christ, we are told in Acts 2 how they spent all their time in teaching and fellowship and performed many miracles in Jerusalem. They lived together and had everything in common. Later of course the New Testament church was to spread throughout the Roman empire, where the same charitable attitudes generally prevailed, although as time went on they realized that the return of Christ was not imminent and the emphasis on holding everything in common slackened. But they did continue in charitable works and supported the evangelists. In Philippians 4 v 10 and following Paul thanks the Philippian church for their concern and makes mention of the gifts that they had given already which he describes in the Old Testament words as a fragrant offering and an acceptable sacrifice. In Acts 3 v 6 Peter tells the crippled man that he has no money, yet, in the spirit of Christ gives what he does have, something of infinitely more value and the man is healed.
There are verses in the New Testament that could be taken to mean, if looked at out of context, that faith is the only important thing for a Christian e.g. Romans 3 v 28, which speaks only of faith as being necessary for justification, keeping the law not being necessary, but other verses make it clear that this only refers to keeping archaic laws and not to keeping the full spirit of the new law.
And commitment is to be total. A veneer of Christianity is not enough as Christ made clear in Luke Mark 8 v 34 -38 where he tells the crowd what it means to really follow him. He speaks not just of carrying out tasks or even of suffering for his sake, but of a total commitment. He speaks of giving up life itself. At its simplest the call is just ‘Follow me’ but he makes it clear in this instance what that must involve, a renunciation of sin, repentance and denial of self. It involves allowing Christ to command every aspect of life. Stott tells, on page 13, how the Christian is to learn what God’s purpose is for his life and then to do their utmost to carry it out.
James, in chapter 1 of his letter, tells the church clearly that those who merely listen to the gospel are deceiving themselves. They must live it out. Galatians 3 verse 27 talks of being clothed with Christ. They are to live as Christ would have done.
Although faith in Christ is a spiritual matter the charitable acts that come out of it in response are very practical. Paul we know lived in a world that was dominated, despite Roman military influence, by Greek systems of thought. These would suggest that it was the spirit that mattered above all else. In apposition to this in Romans 12 verse 14 to 21 we have a very practical list of instructions for how the Christians were to act, to use their bodies, in the service of Christ. In Philippians 2 we have what may be an early hymn telling us how Christ took on human form – he used a body in order to carry out the will of God. Paul is telling his readers that they must worship God in everything they do. ‘Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus’ – Philippians 2 verse 5. Paul was well aware of the value that some put on keeping the letter of the law. In Philippians 3 he tells of his own Jewish background, none of it important in comparison to what he gained when he accepted Christ as Savior. He realised that keeping laws was of no avail – it was the spirit in which Christians lived that was important. Human privilege is as nothing in terms of eternity. At the end of that letter (Philippians 4 v 20) Paul talks of riches in a way that is very different from the way that most of the world understood the word. He speaks of God meeting their needs through Christ. This doesn’t necessarily mean providing worldly goods, although that may be included, but is referring to the rewards of eternity.
If we look in the gospels we see that attitude – Matthew 10 verse 42, where followers are told that even the smallest act of charity done for the right reasons will be rewarded.
There has been a tendency among some modern preachers to say ‘Be charitable and you will receive’ in earthly terms, but that isn’t what Christ said.
In Romans 13 Paul deals with the subject of debt. He speaks of official debt – taxes and so on. Commenting on this passage William Barclay in his commentary quotes Origen’ ‘The debt of love remains with us permanently… a debt we both discharge every day and for ever owe’.
In Romans 5 verse 6-11 Paul tells the Romans that Christ, when he died for them, was dying for the ungodly. Through the sacrifice of Christ the status of the Christian is a changed one. They were now in a correct relationship with God, because of God’s love, because of Christ’s sacrifice they were saved. Christian charity must be their response. Hebrews 13 v 16. Having reminded readers of the sacrifice made by Christ, the writer continues ‘Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased’.
For some the task would be a daunting one. How could they hope to live up to the example of Christ and to the task he had given them? In Matthew 5 v 43 and following there are laid out some a difficult commandment – ‘Love your enemies’. It goes on into chapter 6 with other ideas , such as do not trumpet your good deeds, but for most it is ‘love your enemies’ that could be difficult. Not just, ‘be polite’, or even ensure that they are cared for, but ‘love’. Therein is true New Testament charity. In this great discourse describing the kingdom of God we have at the end of chapter 5 the words ‘Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ That word perfect, ’teleioi’ does not mean ‘mature’ for God cannot mature. It rather means ‘completely’, ‘all inclusive’. Love everyone. Christian love, Christian charity, must know no bounds. Christian love must be the kind that caused Christ to come down from the glory of heaven for the sake of every single person in the world.
Christians then are to take the role of servants. But look at John 15 .This new relationship, brought about by the sacrifice of Christ, not only benefits those who are helped, those who are nurtured in the faith, those who are visited, fed and watered for Christ’s sake. It benefits also those willing to be servants of God. John 15 verse 14 ‘You are my friends if you do what I command,’…verse 16 and 17 ‘I chose you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. This is my command. Love one another.’ That fruit is knowledge of God and his purpose in Christ. This unity with Christ is mentioned in Ephesians 3 where we can read that God’s household, the dwelling place of his Spirit, is built upon the work of Christ together with God’s people. This is far more important than the mere giving of alms however helpful that may be. He is asking his disciples to show the love of God by the kind of lives that they will lead from this time forward.
In response to words such as these Frances Ridley Havergal wrote in 1874 as part of her famous hymn ‘Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee’ She goes on to mention material possessions, but it is complete giving over of oneself to Christ’s service that is the true charitable act.
Barclay,W. 1975, The Daily Study Bible, the Letter to the Romans. St Andrews Press, Edinburgh.
Best, E.1967, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible, the Letter of Paul to the Romans. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England
Havergal F.R. 1874 Take my life and let it be. from 1983 Mission Praise .Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Basingstoke, England.
Richardson, A. 1958 , An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament. SCM Press, London,
Stott, J. 1958 ,Basic Christianity. Inter-versity Press, London
The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1986, The International Bible Society, New York
The New Chain Reference Bible, King James’ Version.1957, R.B.Kirkbride Bible Company Ltd, Indianapolis.
Benedict XVI, and De Souza, Reverend R. Deus caritas est. 25th January 2006 retrieved from http://catholiceducation.org/articles/facts/fm0055.html
17th September 2007
Chamblin,K. Commentary on Matthew 5 :17-48. retrieved from http://www.thirdmill.org/newfiles/kno_chamblin/NT.Chamblin.Matt.5.17-48.pdf 17th September 2007