Social action is important to Adventists, who believe that Christ will come soon to rescue us from the problems in society.
Have you ever been told that the Adventist mission really doesn’t include helping the homeless? Or have you been given the feeling that community service is a low priority compared to verbal proclamation of the message? What if you have been asked to be the community services director or inner-city coordinator or health ministries leader for your local church? Or, what if you are a believer who feels strongly that faithfulness to Jesus Christ includes compassion for the poor and the victims of injustice?
What does the Bible really teach about social concern and ministry? In Luke 4:17-19 Jesus makes His first public statement of what His life and ministry are all about. Verse 17 records that “he found the place,”1
so this was not an accidental selection. Verses 18 and 19 claim divine anointing of His work, and then state several purposes or goals: “to preach the gospel to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
Often we have heard preachers “spiritualize” this text, declaring that the poverty mentioned here is spiritual, not economic; that the prisoner and oppressed mentioned here are under the oppression of sin. The original Greek language in this text is very clear, however. Christ is speaking of real low-income people, real people in real prisons, real people suffering from real disease, disability, and discrimination. Jesus is reading from Isaiah 61. The first four verses of that chapter will show you where He turned. It is clearly a passage that refers to God’s intention to establish a kingdom for His people in which there will be no more poverty, injustice, violence, disease, unhappiness, and despair.
This same promise is repeated in Revelation 21 at the end of the Bible. It is the “bottom line” to the entire Bible story. Throughout the Bible God expresses a special concern for the poor, the alien, women, and children. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:18, the covenant between God and His people identifies God as the one who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien” (NIV).
The Old Testament prophets repeatedly warn in God’s name: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, . . . to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Isa. 10:1, 2, NIV). And in the New Testament, Christ identifies Himself very clearly with the poor, as do His followers (Acts 2:44, 45). In fact, the only two major things God’s people get in serious trouble for throughout the Old Testament are idolatry (including Sabbath-breaking) and social injustice. A huge majority of prophetic rebukes are on this very subject.
God has given very specific commands to His people to stand up for social justice. “'If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him. . . . Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit” (Lev. 25:35-37).
In fact, the Bible connects the Christian obligation to work for social justice to Sabbath-keeping. Isaiah 58 is a chapter that Ellen White urges Adventists to read regularly. It is addressed to people who are devout believers, who, God says, “are eager to know my
ways” (v. 2, NIV), who fast and pray (v. 3). But God condemns them for “breaking the Sabbath” (v. 13, NIV) because they exploit their workers, quarrel, and seek their own selfish advantage. God says that the kind of worship He demands is “to loose the chains of injustice . . . to set the oppressed free . . . to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (vss. 6, 7, NIV). He promises that “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (v. 10, NIV).
Jesus even chooses to perform many of His healings on Sabbath, against much opposition at the time. In Matthew 24 and 25 we find Christ’s most extensive teaching about His second coming. At the beginning of the passage, the disciples want to know, “ ‘when . . . and what will be the sign of your coming?’ ” (Matt. 24:3). Jesus takes several steps and many verses throughout the two chapters to answer this question, beginning with, “ ‘Take heed that no one deceives you’ ” (v. 4).
Christ brings His teaching to a climax by giving us a picture of the great, final judgment.
In it He portrays God as deciding whom to save on the basis of whether or not His followers fed the hungry, housed the homeless, cared for the poor, treated the sick, and helped the alien and the prisoner. Those who are lost are quoted as saying that they did not see that this was part of what God wanted and this is why they ignored the problems of poverty, justice, and hunger. God condemns them by saying, “ ‘inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me’ ” (25:45).
Why is social action so important to Adventists, who believe that Christ will come soon to rescue us from the problems in society? Because it is a living witness to our soon-returning Lord. When we take a stand for justice, compassion, and healing, we demonstrate the values of the coming Kingdom.2