The Biblical Notion of Need
A compilation of articles and responses to the
problem of benevolent acts within the church proper
James A. Sterling, D. Min.
May 24, 2017
Within the Scriptures, a model is clearly established for God’s defining, application and ultimate purpose for need in a broken world. Cries of pain and grief are common throughout Scripture as the beginning of a process to the understanding of a genuine, personal need. Yet, this is quite different to the modern concept of simply realizing one’s desires and melding it to an actual need. Thus, society has entrenched us in the secular idea that want constitutes need. This has leaked into the assembly of Christ and surfaces ever so frequently in the name of ministry, outreach, and otherwise.
In the Bible, people who finally realized their separation from His Holiness could only cry out for mercy and pardon. In doing so, they would decisively turn from the sinful lifestyles and worldviews in which they were participating. This included, but was not limited to, idol worship and those who continued to willingly participate in wickedness. Additionally, scriptural references show us that meeting the need of an individual was the prelude to introducing them to their real need: salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. The only direction for the truly needy person to turn is toward a radically different life of worship. This includes a dismantling of the old lifestyle and a creation of a new life.
Thus, we face a modern dilemma of true needs verses ‘false’ needs, which will also be referenced as ‘wants’. From whence lies the difference? Consider if it is a factual statement in that ‘real’ needs first call mankind to humility, faith and prayer, then a ‘false’ need in any cloak will do exactly the opposite. False needs have no call to faith, no call to prayer, and no desire to consult the Lord. The desire becomes an unjustified declaration of “I / we want” fallaciously stated as “I / we need.”
Noted scholar and apologist Oz Guinness has approached the subject of the “abandonment of evangelism for social justice.” While statements have been made concerning ‘building huge churches’ yet, neglecting the poor, it is acknowledgeable that some of the larger congregations have generously funded programs for seeing to the poor within their communities, as well as overseas projects. Yet what is most often neglected is the theology regarding seeing to the poor in biblical actuality. Consider how God used severe need to turn His people’s faces back to Him. Moreover, it was the same God who used extreme need to push Jacob and his clan towards Egypt as a crucial part of His plan to set the stage for the Exodus to come years later.
However, if one is to be transparently honest with oneself, he must lay out his pre-suppositional baggage on the table. Even though one may think emotion has had no effect on his responses, having ‘needs’ in one’s past can be memories of a particular nature with powerful consequences when it comes to discernment. Couple this with an active engagement to benevolence ministry and one may find himself crippled in assessing biblical need with a tainted lens of action based on sympathy invoked strictly by feelings. There are specific reasons why certain television commercials utilize shocking pictures of extreme suffering in efforts to collect funds. Emotive responses seldom have been filtered through logical discernment, let alone biblical purposes.
On the other hand, examples given by a person who will be referred to as “Mr. Smith” had been actively involved with and in multiple benevolence programs. Mr. Smith reported being abused and stolen from while volunteering at distribution locations. Not only was the church building broken into in the particular area where the distributions would take place, but his truck toolbox was stolen from, ironically after assisting one of the recipients with starting their vehicle. In one particular situation, a person received 2 full paper sacks of groceries. After leaving with the goods, the individual returned to the location with the sacks, still full, and slammed them on a table exclaiming in expletive language that he disapproved of the contents therein. Mr. Smith also reported that at the food and clothing pantries where he served, an estimated 80-90% of persons were monthly (in some cases, bi-monthly) ‘regulars’. He stated that many would have practiced and polished heart-wrenching stories that would periodically include their children, parading about barefooted, filthy, and crying, so as to get more money, goods, and services. Mr. Smith confirmed that a portion of these same families were ‘professionals’, working a circuit in a tri-state region, selling and trading much of the items they were accepting. He stated being most disturbed that they were training their children for the deception and discovering how they networked and communicated with others who did the same.
Thus, working in such benevolence programs is a double-edged sword. When one witnessed the despairing faces, whether genuine or learned behaviorisms, it pierces the heart through. In the same notion, it also sets the stage for being abused. Understanding then that the situation is ripe for subjective management and manipulation, Christians must rightfully turn to the Scriptures looking for directives and answers.
Thus, the next challenge is before the church. Debates held within and between denominations over what the Scriptures actually state concerning ‘need’ pendulum from having no concerns to feeding the world. The problem then is largely misconstrued to being one of whether or not to be benevolent, instead of focusing on the actual direction of the Word of where benevolence ministry energies should be applied.
Consider if one were to say something along the lines of, “I really hate it when mom and dad are constantly trying to tell me what to do with my life,” and later on a person who had been listening in, later told one’s parents that it was said, “I hate my mother and father.” The person who made in the initial statement would likely be outraged for being misrepresented. Yet, in subtler (and sometimes not so subtle) ways, the church is commonly attempting to do this very thing with Scripture. This is the source of many denominational schisms.
One passage that is commonly quoted as “hard to misinterpret,” is Matthew 25:31-46. Yet, the typical hermeneutic applied is one that ignores the primary rule of context for understanding any passage. Broadening the scope of the passage will give perspective to the intent of not only the writer, but the Speaker quoted as well. In going back to chapter 25:1, the essential ‘title’ of this local context is found. It is found in the first 5 words, “Then the kingdom of heaven.” Therefore, the context of this section of Scripture given largely in parabolic form is about the kingdom of heaven. This is affirmed in the statement given in verse 34, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” To attempt to ignore this is to ensure a fatal hermeneutical error.
Paragraphs in contemporary translations are subheadings of the contextual theme. Verse 14 is such a subheading, which illustrates an emphasis to ‘be ready’ and to have a proper attitude of stewardship, which ultimately makes the point that these things are connected to grand context of ‘the kingdom of heaven’. This is demonstrated in verse 29, which states another emphasis on being faithful with the task at hand, because it concerns a distinct connection to how one will conduct one’s self in the kingdom of heaven. Confirmation to this contextual observation is in following sentence, verse 30. It is the particular regard of an ultimate separation of those who will be in (the kingdom of) heaven and those who will not.
Verse 31 and following picks on the continuing theme Jesus is presenting about the kingdom of heaven and then addresses that it will be broader than His listeners think. Here, Jesus shifts from the parable to a metaphor with simile applied. This is revealed in the actuality of a coming judgment, for both Gentiles and those of Jewish descent. The Jews have been primarily raised on the notion that all Gentiles will be ultimately excluded from the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus says to those ‘on His right’ in verse 34, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”
Verses 35 and following made by Messiah are not referring to the world in need. Rather, He is referring to Himself, as most translations do justice by capitalizing the pronoun. Christ is referring to Himself as the ‘stranger’. Any remote suggestion that this is a reference to the lost of the world is not merely a stretch. It borders pantheism. In a classical sense of the reversive, Jesus flips the point back to those listening and addresses them as the ‘righteous’. So in this sub-point of the context, the ‘nations’ (Gentiles) will consist of some saved people who genuinely came to Christ – and the ‘righteous’ (Jews) will have some that will be rejected, as they rejected Him.
Again, the context is consistent, because the ‘saved’ are in the kingdom of heaven and all others are not. Then, even more explicitly, Jesus describes the separation in verses 41-45.
However, there is one key element in this widely quoted passage that unilaterally defeats an argument for unequivocal form of benevolence to all suffering people. It is found in the ‘least of these/them’ of the group that Jesus makes reference. Aside from the context previously stating an exclusive reference to ‘the kingdom of heaven’ in verse 40, Jesus defines the ‘least of these/them’ as ‘brothers of Mine’. This phrase is repeated in verse 45.
As the first rule of any sound hermeneutical practice is exegetical context, the second rule to interpretation is to allow Scripture to literally interpret itself. Thus, the question is demanded, who are these ‘brothers of Mine’ and the ‘least of’ persons? Within the same gospel account in chapter 10:14-17, and more explicitly, verses 40-42, the answer is derived in that it is those who have received Christ. Therefore, this passage does not support the notion of non-arbitrary benevolent application to any person or persons exhibiting need, whether slight or severe. In the facts presented, it is the reverse. These are not merely nondiscriminatory benevolent acts; rather, they are direct, specific reactions to the disciples of Jesus, His brethren. In the contemporary context, it is the body of Christ as found in the true church.
Unfortunately, the western contemporary church has a tendency polarize over basic biblical principles and simply shout at any who disagree with their premise. Christians can hold deep-seated grudges against those who hold views contrary to their own and sever all ties where they can. Classical debate has been lost in discussing matters with any form of argument as seen to be hostile. This is especially prevalent in the benevolent-welfare industry. If one seeks a biblical definition in regards to the poor and seeing to the needs thereof, judgmental assertions are sure to follow accusing the questioner as one who rejects all forms or caring for the needy. Yet such extremism is unmerited and should be rejected on the basis that Scripture gives concise direction on the matter.
The prior biblical example given Matthew 25 demonstrated a common and fatal exegetical mistake used in benevolent assessment. Another passage used is found in John 12:8, which states, “for the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.” Though commonly used as an overgeneralized inclusion for all people who are in need, this particular passage, in its context, technically does not have anything to do with an expected location where the poor exist, local or otherwise. Jesus was merely correcting the pseudo-concern Judas Iscariot expressed for the expensive perfume being used by Mary. Ironically, Judas was claiming that he wanted to use the value of the perfume to give to the poor, while Jesus points to a more important purpose within the moment. Therefore, this passage technically has nothing to do with the biblical assertion of Christians being obligated to see to the wants and needs of the world, local or otherwise.
Another argument is also given from the book of Acts as giving examples of how Christians should be responding, as none are to be in need. This is an obvious reference to Acts 2:45; 4:34, 35. However, this is not a generic statement for providing for all needs for all people, nor for those living locally. The context in both passages is strictly within the “congregation of those who believed.” The primary responsibility of the Christian community is to the ‘kingdom’ of Christ and these particular chapters of Acts leave no doubt as to the contextual address. The ‘none in need’ are only applicable here to the church proper, as chapter 2 is the incipient congregation of “about 3,000 souls” and chapter 4 is the “congregation of those who believed.” There is a meeting of needs and removing of social barriers in Acts that is in response to the shear numbers of people responding and the differing cultures of nations coming to Christ as represented by His kingdom. It is not a generic application of benevolence to the rest of the world outside of the body of Christ.
Understanding these specifics, what then is the biblical definition of ‘need’? As stated prior, the modern cry for need seldom depicts an accurate picture of what true need actually encompasses. Our current system has a tendency to cultivate need into a standard for society as opposed to something of an actuality. In other words, being needy becomes status quo; or more easily said, being needy becomes normal. A brief examination of socialistic structures reveals systems, which built themselves on the growing of a needs-based generation. Ultimately, people would become dependent on something other than God, such as a governing authority, and subsequently surrender their freedom.
However, the ‘need’ that the Bible addresses is far from this. God’s word, when properly applied, takes the needy person from the abnormal and brings them up into the normal. Albeit there are some exceptions such as physical disabilities, mental disorders, etc., where there will always be some essential need involved, the predominant issue of man’s problem is a heart matter that must ultimately be addressed. Therefore, the physical deficit is that which points mankind to his spiritual necessity.
Still, an argument persists that in only serving needy Christians, a lost and hungry world is left unreachable. A common statement is that a person cannot hear the words of Jesus on an empty stomach. This is either a serious misunderstanding of the Scriptures or a straw-man argument used to pacify consciences. Insofar as the biblical Word states, one did not necessarily have to be converted in order to receive aid, financial loans, or even general hospitality, which in reverse is fortunate for the family of Jacob. However, the Law states that there is to be one statute for the nation of Israel, which constitutes the people of God, and the alien who sojourns with them. The difference between the biblical example as opposed to the contemporary is that Israelites were instructed to draw others to come into the camp of YHWH. Today, Christians are directed to go out with goods and supplies, even to places and nations that are hostile to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The irony is, even when some countries are in desperate need, their laws against Christianity trump any acceptance of benevolent aid. In other words, church congregations may bring money, food, medicine, and even laborers to help. But the gospel of Jesus Christ, either spoken or written, is forbidden and punishable even to death.
Even so, there appears to be little, if any consideration what God may be doing in the lives of the lost that are faced with dire circumstances. If God used critical need to obtain the attention of His people who already profess His name, how much more then might He use the same to reach the lost? Even in terms of the fall of humanity, had Adam and Eve not been driven from the Tree of Life, they would have never known the true need to be saved, thus, needing a savior. In this desperate circumstance, God points mankind to Himself in Christ Jesus, to “draw all men” to Himself.
Moreover, believers are also given the account of Job, who, at the permission of God, suffers tremendous loss for what appears to primarily be an example of faithfulness in needful circumstances. Had Job not experienced such dire need, there would have been no testimony. If Israel had never been captive in Egypt, there would have been no demonstration of deliverance in the Exodus, which was a foreshadowing of Christ to come and His act of salvation. If Assyria and Babylon had not been used as tools of discipline and punishment, the Israelites would have continued in their depravity. If the logic holds true then for the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why is it not considered applicable in the present tense for a world seen experiencing great need and suffering?
In light of YHWH’s acts to draw His errant people to Himself through need, Scripture also demonstrates His mission in drawing the nations likewise. More pointedly, God states that the nations will specifically “come to” Him. While in the ancient passages, this entails a specific geographical location encompassed within the borders of Israel, in particular, the temple. It is there that YHWH determined that He would “meet” man. Since the advent of Christ Jesus, man comes to know God through the body of Christ, as is known to be the church proper. If the theology of the nations being drawn to the temple during the ancient period holds true, then the theology of “all men” being drawn to Him is likewise authoritative. To ignore the historical example of God using need to gain the attention of mankind is at the peril of interfering with His plan and purpose. While some areas may appear grey in defining the communication of His gospel while seeing to the needs of those who are lost, in all cases the minimum charge for the church is to testify to Jehovah Jireh as source for all provision. As the nations were to be drawn to the Lord God in His temple, the world is to be drawn to the church. If the church convinces itself to see to the needs of the suffering in spite of this, hearts may be temporarily pacified, but it becomes a classic co-dependent and enabler of lives separated from God.
God demonstrates the reverse of a secular attitude towards neediness, as well as the pervasive contemporary form of charity in the western church. He also sees the great potential in every human being to be all that He has intended for them in the imago Dei. Biblical need sharpens the focus of man’s need for God more than the need for his stomach. Thus, as need has always been a tool of the Lord to turn the faces of people towards Him, it is in one’s dire sense of hardship that man ultimately will look to Him for help. The key element that the church often fails to acknowledge in this case is to wait for the needy to first turn towards God. If not, it would be similar to forcing baptismal water onto the lost before they come to the question, “What shall we do?”
Moreover, when a needy person is properly ministered to, they not only cease being dependent and a burden to others, but they potentially become co-disciples in kingdom labor. This is the essence of a truly benevolent heart. The biblical notion of need must be understood in that it turns man’s attention from self-reliance and resolutely sets his face towards God. It is in a needful statement that Jesus says, “If anyone is thirsty.” His directive is, “let him come to Me and drink.”
 Bob Paulson, “Hostility on the College Campus, A Conversation With Oz Guinness,” Decision Magazine, 27 May 2016, https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/june-2016/hostility-on-the-college-campus-a-conversation-with-os-guiness/ (accessed 10 May 2016).
 Jefferson Bethke, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” YouTube, 10 January 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=1IAhDGYlpqY#! (accessed 25, January 2012).
 Some doctrinal variations of Messianic Jew and Christians of Hebraic roots interpret all application of the word e[qnh (eth-nay – nations / Gentiles) as those who are not of Messiah. This interpretation will have no effect on the contextual point given regarding ‘the kingdom of heaven’.
 Here, it may also be seen, in a post-facto sense, that ‘He’ will ultimately be revealed as the ‘body of Christ’, as found in the Church (cf. Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12).
 Pantheism in the sense that all persons, saved or otherwise, would be a part of the constitution of God, as a whole.
 James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars (BasicBooks, HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 52-57.
 New American Standard Version Bible
 Acts 4:32; New American Standard Version
 Matthew 4; ibid; Jesus fasted 40 days and nights and affirmed the Word before Satan.
 Deuteronomy 23:20, ibid
 Hospitality during the Judaistic period could be limited in many circumstances to those who were considered ‘clean’, albeit with certain exceptions and changes of contact (Acts 10).
 Genesis 42-47; ibid; Understanding that the written Law, nor the nation of Israel had yet been established, the family of Jacob and Egypt were still considered ‘foreign’ to one another.
 Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:14-16; ibid; Note the inclusion of burnt offerings by the alien and sojourner.
 Isaiah 11:10-12; 42:6; 49:6, 22; 60:3; 66:18-20, ibid
 Micah 4:1ff; Habakkuk 2:5; Zechariah 8:18, 23; Malachi 3:12; ibid
 Ephesians 4:28; ibid; The principle carries in Paul’s teaching not to steal and to work ‘in order that’ one may have something to share with him who has need; once again, in the context of the church. The antecedent is evident in verse 25.