Every healing action of Jesus was a full expression of His interest in this world and of the power and hope of the kingdom of heaven
By Felix H. Cortez
In a Perspective Digest article published last year, Jacques Doukhan argued that our name, “Seventh‑day Adventist” not only describes “the components of our faith,” but also “carries also a tension that is in fact the essence of our identity.”1 Thus, the “Seventh‑day” part of our name roots us in Creation. It forces us to value and embrace concrete, earthly existence and to care for our planet and our bodies and to work for social justice. It defines us as “human, real, and present in this world.”2
Thus, Adventists promote health and education and operate a large network of hospitals and schools around the world. We have created and run the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which seeks to relieve human need around the globe. And we have a strong advocacy for religious liberty, not only for us, but for all. These are not public-relations strategies or tactics to impress others, to win their favor, or to gain access for the gospel. They are simply an inherent part of our theology. They are an essential part of who we are.
The “Adventist” part of our name, on the other hand, separates us from this world—and other religions—by maintaining that salvation does not occur in the encounter with the divine in the sentimental or existential realm in the present, or in the personal subjective moment of translation at death, but requires the creation of a new world, a new body, and a new community in the future. It defines us as “holy and different in this world, . . . [and] as witnesses to the other city.”3
Thus, we believe in a heavenly sanctuary, in the resurrection of the dead, and in a creation of a new world. We have a high view of Scripture and reject the historical-critical methods of interpretation that deny Scripture’s power to predict the future. We preach about Daniel and Revelation and try to evangelize the world before the end.
Similarly, George R. Knight noted the tension that exists between mission and academic vision in Adventist education.4 He argues that Adventist colleges were instituted to train missionaries. Nevertheless, Adventist education has struggled from the very beginning and throughout its history to find a balance between, on the one hand, the academic ideal of teaching the sciences and the liberal arts to prepare professionals recognized by society and secular institutions and, on the other hand, the teaching of the Bible and religion to prepare missionaries to advance God’s cause. He also noted that most non‑Adventist Christian colleges and universities that were created with similar missional purposes later succumbed to the pressure and solved the tension by distancing themselves from their churches.
Knight also argued later that the church experiences the same tension in the form of a polarity between the church’s apocalyptic vision and its social mission. Thus, a sector of the church focuses on preaching the beasts of Daniel and Revelation and the final events while another focuses on preaching a gospel of love and relieving the needs of those around them. He also notes that in its current situation, Adventism is distancing itself dangerously from its apocalyptic vision, trying to remain relevant to society around us by ministering to its needs. He has argued that this could have the same damaging effect that it had in mainline Christian religions who gave up their distinctive message and, ironically, lost their relevance.5
Doukhan and Knight study Adventism from different perspectives and use different language to describe its tensions, but arrive at the same conclusion. In their view, Adventism should not seek to solve the tension between an orientation toward the future and the world to come and an orientation to the present world and its needs. This may be uncomfortable or counterintuitive. But Adventists should not try to create a synthesis out of these elements or forge a compromise. Synthesis would be unacceptable because it would imply the destruction of the essential characteristics of both elements in order to create a third element that is different—just as the synthesis of highly flammable hydrogen and toxic oxygen produces water, which is neither flammable nor toxic.
A compromise would not be an option either, because it would limit and restrain both elements through the political demands of making concessions. Synthesis destroys the uniqueness of the elements and compromise suppresses them. Following this logic, it may be assumed that Doukhan would even oppose finding a balance between these two elements because this would imply the neutralization of their forces.
In Doukhan’s view, Seventh‑day Adventists should focus both on this world and the solution to its problems, and in the world to come and the proclamation of its glories. The uniqueness and force of these two tendencies should not be destroyed through a process of synthesis, restrained through negotiation, or neutralized in the search for a balance. In the words of Doukhan: “the two dimensions have to be carried together and totally, because they are both categories of revelation.”6 Thus, “the Seventh-day Adventist Church should not be defined to the right or to the left or even to the center; it should only be defined in tension [as its name indicates], as “Seventh-day Adventist.’”7
Is this possible? Can Seventh‑day Adventists be focused at the same time in this world and on the world to come? Do not the constrains of time and money demand negotiation and the search for balance? A fresh look at Paul’s mission practices will provide important insights on how we can live this tension in our mission.
Paul is an interesting example because there has been a longstanding perception that he was not really interested in the poor. It is commonly suggested that the apostle did not care much for the poor because he was expecting the imminent coming of Jesus. This is what L. J. Hoppe and Peter Davids argue: “Paul’s attitude toward the poor was probably colored by his expectations regarding the imminent return of Christ. The apostle’s belief that Christ’s return was near made dealing with socioeconomic problems at any great length unnecessary.”8 “When Paul discusses wealth and charity, . . . [he] lacks the sharp note of prophetic denunciation [that characterizes other figures of the Jesus‑movement]. . . . This may be due to the fact that . . . [his] imminent eschatology made social issues less important.”9
Another suggestion has been that Paul raised a collection only for the poor in Jerusalem because of political reasons (Gal. 2:10). Thus, he considered the participation of believers in this collection as voluntary and, therefore, not essential to the gospel. Loader argues, for example, that Paul’s real concern was neglect of the community’s members, “not the needs of the poor in general.” And that Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem was driven primarily by “theological political reasons,” rather than a genuine concern to meet the needs of the poor as a result of the gospel of the Jesus‑followers. In Loader’s estimate, “Paul gives no indication that addressing human poverty. . . was central to the gospel message.”10
This assessment of Paul’s practice raises some questions for Adventists. Does the imminence of Jesus’ return make the work for the poor unnecessary or irrelevant? Do we engage in social work for political reasons? That is to say, is our charity work a public-relations strategy? Is it our purpose in doing charity simply to gain a favorable view from the public around us, obtaining a favorable access for our message? Is addressing human need essential to the Adventist understanding of the gospel or ancillary to it?
In a fresh analysis of Paul’s relationship to the poor, as evidenced in his Epistles, Bruce W. Longenecker has suggested that addressing human need was in fact essential to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. He suggests that Paul always promoted doing good to all, not only to fellow Christians, and that addressing human need was an evidence of true religion.
Paul’s Appeals to Care for the Poor
First, there are evidences that Paul’s collection for the poor in Jerusalem was not the only such offering or effort in his ministry. “The ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others” (2 Cor. 9:12, 13, italics supplied).11
The first thing to note here is the fact that for Paul, the Corinthians’ generous contribution was an external evidence, a concretization, of their “confession of the gospel of Christ.” Thus, he considered “supplying the needs” an essential expression of the gospel. A second element worth noting is that the last phrase of the verse suggests that the Corinthians had contributed not only for this offering, but also for others.
Galatians 6:10 is another important verse in this regard: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (italics supplied).
Four aspects are important to note in this passage.
First, this passage climaxes Paul’s theological argument in the letter. It represents the ultimate outcome of his reflections. Paul frequently uses transitional particles, “so then” to signal the conclusion or main point of a discussion (e.g., Rom. 5:18; 14:12, 19; Eph. 2:19; Thess. 2:15). In this case, verse 10 is the conclusion for what has been said from Galatians 5:13 to 6:10.
Second, the expression “let us do good” was virtually a “technical terminology in the ancient world for bestowing material benefits on others.”12 Paul is not referring here to a spiritual service for others, but to a material one.
Third, the expression translated “as we have opportunity,” whether indicative or subjunctive, may be understood eschatologically (“as long as we have time”) or existentially (“whenever we have time”). The language in verses 6 to 9 of sowing and reaping on the one hand and corruption and eternal life on the other, suggests that the author is intending the phrase in an eschatological sense: as long as we have time, let us do good to all. Thus, doing good to the one who teaches would be a sowing that would result in the eschatological harvest of eternal life in the one who is taught (vs. 6).
Fourth, the author explicitly states that we should do good to all. This is an expression of the gospel. Paul has argued throughout the letter that the redemption in Christ is for “all” regardless of national, ethnic, sexual, cultural, social, and even some religious distinctions (Gal. 2:16; 3:8, 22, 26–28). Therefore, since the gospel does not show partiality, its expression in good works should not show partiality but be extended to all.
Similar exhortations to philanthropy are found toward the end of most of the Pauline letters. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul exhorts the readers to “help the weak.” The weak probably refers to those who are “economically vulnerable,” which was the result in many cases of physical infirmities. In Romans 12:13, Paul exhorts believers to “contribute to the needs of the saints.” The word “needs” refers to material needs as the exhortation to hospitality suggests. In 2 Thessalonians 3:11 to 15, Paul argues that even the abuse of the generosity of believers should not be used as an excuse for discontinuing acts of benevolence. Similarly, Paul exhorts the rich (1 Tim. 6:18) to be “rich in good works” and Christians in general to “devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:14). Finally, in Acts 20:35, as he speaks to the elders in Ephesus, he reminds them of Jesus’ saying that “‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” So Paul normally includes an appeal to do good at the end of his letters.
The Centrality of Caring for the Poor in the Gospel
Probably the most important passage regarding Paul’s views on charity is his response to the request of the apostles in Jerusalem, whom he calls “pillars,” in Galatians 2:9, 10. The passage reads in the following way: “When James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”
In his analysis of this passage, Longenecker has shown that four important aspects of this passage have been misread. First, it is thought that the request to “remember the poor” had no real significance, but was an additional request unrelated to the main points of the debate. Second, the expression “the poor” refers specifically to believers in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26). Third, Paul fulfills the request by raising a collection for the poor that is attested in the Corinthian and Roman correspondence. Finally, it is from this request that Paul begins to take care of the poor in his own communities. In summary, it is considered that the request in Galatians 2:10 to “remember the poor” was not central to the gospel that Paul is careful to defend but an additional petition that Paul is willing to fulfill because it was politically expedient. Longenecker lays a strong challenge to this reading.
“The Poor” a Reference to More Than the Church in Jerusalem
It is not necessarily the case that Galatians 2:10 consists in a request of financial help for believers in Jerusalem. It is true that the expression “the poor” in early Judaism referred not only to persons in precarious financial situations, but also carried nuances of humility, obedience, and piety. Qumran covenanters often referred to themselves as “the community of the poor,” and a branch of Jewish Christians would later call themselves “Ebionites,” which literally means “poor ones.” Ephrem the Syrian (A.D. 306–373), Jerome (A.D. 329–420), and John Chrysostom (A.D. 349–407) understood this passage as referring to financial help to believers in Judea or Jerusalem. Nevertheless, this understanding evident in the fourth and fifth centuries was not attested in previous references to Galatians 2:10 in early Christian literature. Tertullian does not see allusions here to a specific group in a specific location but a practice benefitting the poor in general as God did in His laws in the Old Testament. Similarly, Origen cites Galatians 2:10 as referring to caring for the poor in general, and Athanasius refers to it as a general admonition to Christians in general. Furthermore, the claim that the Ebionites represented the line of a group or the group of Jewish Christian in Jerusalem that called themselves “the poor” has been effectively contested by Leander E. Keck and Richard Bauckham.13 The Ebionites were, in fact, followers of a heretic named Ebion who later claimed to be the inheritors of Jesus’ earliest movement.
The Continuing Request to Care for the Poor
It is most unlikely that Paul began to take care of the poor as a result of the request of the pillars of Jerusalem. The Greek construction of the passage suggests that the request made to Paul was that they continued to remember the poor, acknowledging Paul’s previous actions of care for them. The verb remember is in the present tense, which in this case probably should be translated “that we should continue to remember the poor” (italics supplied).14 Note that Luke mentions how Barnabas had already sold a field to help those in need (Acts 4:36, 37). The multiple exhortations to care for the needs of others in Paul’s letters suggests that caring for the poor was an essential part of his ministry. It is also possible that the request of these pillars was in the visit in which Paul and Barnabas brought relief to Jerusalem during the famine in the time of Claudius (Acts 11:26–30).
Our understanding of the meaning of the verb remember is intimately connected to our understanding of the last clause of Galatians 2:10: “which I also was eager to do” (NKJV). Thus, this passage could mean that Paul was—or became—eager to help the poor (disposition) or that he had been diligently doing it. The syntax allows both translations. The context suggests, however, that the meaning intended is the latter one: Paul had already been diligently remembering the poor15; otherwise, it could be said that the pillars had “added” the “remembrance of the poor” to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. But Paul is adamant that they added “nothing” to his gospel (vs. 6).
An Essential Response of Faith
For Paul, the request to remember the poor was not a final unrelated request, but intimately connected to the argument about the gospel.
Galatians 2:6 to 10 is a single, very complex sentence. It seems clear, however, that verse 10 completes the thought begun in verse 6: “from those who seemed to be influential . . . added nothing to me” (ESV), “only that we should remember the poor” (vs. 10, NKJV). In this sense, verses 7 to 9 are parenthetical statements that explain the main idea that the leaders of Jerusalem added nothing to Paul’s gospel and mission. The emphasis made in verses 7 to 9, that Peter should go to the circumcision and Paul to the Gentiles, explains the concern of the pillars of Jerusalem. Why this concern?
Provision for the poor was essential to the identity of Judaism and Christianity. As Dunn asserts, “Almsgiving was widely understood within Judaism as a central and crucial expression of covenant righteousness.”16 Indeed, it is possible in some cases to consider “almsgiving” and “righteousness” as synonymous.
Thus, it seems that the insistence of the Jerusalem pillars on this point was necessary as a defense of the integrity of the gospel. Thus, Dunn suggests, “What the ‘pillars’ asked for was that an obligation characteristically understood as a primary expression of Jewish covenant piety should be given high priority by Paul and Barnabas. And if they were indeed being treated as responsible for the Gentiles (see on 2:9), that would also imply that Paul and Barnabas should ensure that their Gentile converts shared the same concern.”17
Concern for and help to the poor, however, was not important for the Greco‑Roman world. Gillian Clark has asserted that, “no Roman cult groups, not even those that were primarily mutual groups, . . . looked after strangers and people in need. . . . Provision for the poor was not an ethical priority in Roman culture.”18
Thus, concern for the poor was an essential evidence of the authenticity of the conversion of the Gentiles. It should have been difficult to dispute that their generosity was fulfilling the vision of Isaiah 58: “If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail” (vss. 10, 11, NKJV).
It is not strange, then, that the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, had been praised among Jews for giving alms to the people (Acts 10:2), and that the offering that Paul would bring to Jerusalem (21:19, 20) would also call forth expressions of praise among Jews. Caring for the poor was important for both Christian and non‑Christian Jews as a solid evidence of genuine acceptance of the gospel by the Gentiles.
It is most likely, then, that Paul considered caring for the poor as being essential to the experience of the gospel. There was no dilemma in his mind regarding the relationship between social relief and mission. Emphasis on one aspect did not detract from the other. Paul could conceive that emphasizing both was possible because he did not consider them as separate issues.
As Doukhan and Knight suggest, there is no dilemma to solve today between mission and charity. Instead, we need to focus on both. Adventist interpretation should not try to ameliorate this apparent tension, but to faithfully reflect it.
Jesus’ ministry was a perfect expression of this dual emphasis. He healed, taught, and did good, but also preached the kingdom of God. There was no compromise in His purposes. Every healing action of Jesus was both a full expression of His interest in this world and a pure expression of the power and hope of the kingdom of heaven.
Likewise, John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, came preaching, “‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 3:2). Then he explained, “‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise’” (Luke 3:11). Both Jesus and John the Baptist show that the hope in the kingdom of heaven is uncompromising in its concern for the world here and now.
Thus, if we follow the example of Jesus and John the Baptist, an identity of tension means that everything we preach and proclaim about the coming world should have an impact on our audience in a better way of life, better education, better health, better family and human relations, and better quality of life here and now. In this sense, every disconnection between our theology and our care for the world around us should be considered a betrayal of the essence of the gospel.
On the other hand, every act of relief of human need, of care for social suffering, of interest in enhancing the quality of life around us should be just as much a part of our interest in their ultimate well‑being and in the restoration of their relationship with the Creator of the universe. In this sense, any disconnection between our care for human need and an interest in restoring the ruptured relationships with the Creator of the world would be considered a betrayal of the essence of love. The church should not be either a social welfare agency or a theological education program, but a transforming force that begins in theology and culminates in life.
In the same way, when it comes to Christian life, we do not believe in a compromise between faith and works, but in a life fully committed to faith, dependent on grace, and entirely and unapologetically expressed in works. This is a tension, we believe, that should never be solved.
Felix H. Cortez is an Assistant Professor of New Testament Literature at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES