Jesus and Those in Need
A mong other reasons for His incarnation, Jesus came to show us what God is like. He did this by His teaching, by His sacrifice, and by His life; that is, by how He interacted with ordinary people. Many of His actions made immediate, real-world changes in the lives of others.
This aspect of the Messiah’s ministry had been predicted by the Old Testament prophets, by Jesus’ mother, Mary, and even by Jesus Himself when He defined His mission in His first recorded sermon (Luke 4).
In addition, the Gospel writers often used the language of the Old Testament prophets to explain what Jesus was doing as they narrated His story. In this way, Jesus’ life was seen clearly in the tradition of these prophets, including their compassion for the poor and oppressed.
The religious leaders, however, perceived Jesus as a threat. In a horrible example of injustice and cruelty, they had Jesus arrested, unjustly tried, and crucified. In Jesus, God knows what injustice feels like—and, in His death, He exposed the horror of evil. In His resurrection, though, He triumphed for life, goodness, and salvation.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 17.
Imagine the scene: Mary had received a message from the angel Gabriel just a few days earlier. He had told her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, the Son of the Most High. She has not yet told anyone but goes to visit Elizabeth, her older relative, who also is expecting a miracle baby. With spiritual insight Elizabeth recognizes Mary’s news before Mary has a chance to say anything, and together they celebrate the promises and goodness of God.
This is a remarkable song that could fit well among the psalms or in the writings of the Hebrew prophets. Mary is overflowing with a sense of wonder and gratitude to God. She has obviously seen God working in her own life, but she also is well aware of the larger implications of God’s plan for her nation and for the human race.
But in Mary’s understanding, not only is God powerful and praiseworthy, He also is merciful and seems to have a particular regard for the humble, the downtrodden, and the poor. The angel had barely left after announcing the “good news” of the impending birth to Mary before she was singing the following: “ ‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty’ ” (Luke 1:52, 53, NIV).
Right at the beginning of the story of Jesus’ life on earth, He is introduced as a ruler (see Luke 1:43)—but as the ruler of a different kind of kingdom. As many commentators have described it, the kingdom of God that Jesus came to inaugurate and establish was to be an “upsidedown kingdom” when compared to the usual social ordering of the kingdoms of this world. In the descriptions we have of Jesus’ kingdom, the powerful and wealthy of this world are the least, and the poor and oppressed are liberated, “filled,” and lifted up.
Whether it was the prescribed reading for the day or whether Jesus intentionally found the relevant verses (Isa. 61:1, 2) in the scroll He was given to read, it was no coincidence these verses were the text for His first public sermon. Neither is it a coincidence that the story of Jesus’ short sermon in Luke 4:16–21—“ ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ ” (Luke 4:21, NIV)—begins Luke’s record of Jesus’ public ministry.
Jesus seemed to be picking up the tune from Mary’s song of an “upside-down kingdom” and beginning to put it into effect in His ministry. Jesus—and Luke in his retelling of Jesus’ story—used the prophecy of Isaiah to explain what Jesus was doing and was about to do, but it also was another way of expressing what Mary had described 30 years earlier. The poor, the hurting, and the oppressed are the special focus and recipients of the good news that Jesus was bringing.
Jesus adopted these verses from Isaiah 61 as His mission statement. His ministry and mission were to be both spiritual and practical, and He would demonstrate that the spiritual and practical are not as far apart as we sometimes assume. For Jesus and His disciples, caring for people physically and practically were at least part of caring for them spiritually.
When Jesus sent out His disciples, the commission He gave to them also was in accord with this mission. While they were to announce that “ ‘ “the kingdom of heaven has come near” ’ ” (Matt. 10:7, NIV), Jesus’ further instructions to His disciples were to “ ‘heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give’ ” (Matt. 10:8, NIV). Their ministry in His name was to reflect and enact the values and principles of Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom He invited people to. The disciples, too, were to join with Jesus in His mission to lift up the last, the least, and the lost.
The Gospels are peppered with the stories of Jesus’ miracles, particularly those of healing. As Isaiah had prophesied, He healed the blind and released those who had been held captive by disease, sometimes after many years of suffering (see, for example, Mark 5:24–34, John 5:1–15). But He did more than this: He made the lame walk again; He healed lepers—not just by word but by touching them, “unclean” though they were; He confronted demons who were possessing people’s minds and bodies; and He even raised the dead.
We might expect these miracles to have been about attracting crowds and proving His powers to His many doubters and critics. But this was not always the case. Instead, often Jesus gave instructions to the person healed not to tell anyone about it. While it seems the just-healed people were unlikely to follow these instructions and keep their wonderful news to themselves, Jesus was trying to show that His miracles were about something more significant than a spectacle. The ultimate goal, of course, was for the people to receive salvation in Him.
Yet, the healing miracles of Jesus were an expression of His compassion. For example, in the lead-up to the feeding of the 5,000, Matthew narrates, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14, NIV). Jesus felt the pain of those who were hurting and did what He could for the people He came into contact with to help them and lift them up.
“Every miracle that Christ performed was a sign of His divinity. He was doing the very work that had been foretold of the Messiah; but to the Pharisees these works of mercy were a positive offense. The Jewish leaders looked with heartless indifference on human suffering. In many cases their selfishness and oppression had caused the affliction that Christ relieved. Thus His miracles were to them a reproach.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 406.
Jesus’ healing miracles were acts of compassion and justice. But in all cases, they were not an end in and of themselves. Ultimately all that Christ did was for the purpose of leading people to eternal life (see John 17:3).
When we read the stories of Jesus in the Gospels, we are often attracted to the gentle images of Jesus—His care for the sick and for children, His stories of searching for the lost, and His talk about the kingdom of God. This might be why other stories in which we see Him acting forcefully and bluntly—particularly against the religious leaders of His day and some of their practices—can take us by surprise.
It is hardly surprising that this incident is included in each of the Gospels. It is a story filled with drama, action, and passion. Jesus was obviously concerned about the use of the temple in this way and about the replacement of true worship with the sale of sacrificial animals. What a desecration of all that those sacrifices were to represent, which was His substitutionary death for the sins of the world!
Such direct action fits well in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. This point is suggested in each of the Gospel accounts by either Jesus or the Gospel writers quoting from Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Psalms to explain what was happening in this story. The people recognized Jesus as a prophet (see Matt. 21:11) and came to Him as He healed and taught in the temple court after He had driven out the merchants and money changers. It was the people who found healing in His touch and hope growing in their hearts as they listened to His teaching.
The religious leaders also recognized Jesus as a prophet—as someone who was dangerous to their power and the stability of their social order—and went away to plot to kill Jesus, in the same way as their predecessors had plotted against the prophets in previous centuries (see this contrast in Luke 19:47, 48).
That God is a God who sees and hears the cries of the poor and oppressed is comforting. That God is a God who, in Jesus, has experienced and endured the worst of our world’s inhumanity, oppression, and injustice is astounding. Despite all the compassion and goodness Jesus demonstrated in His life and ministry, His death came as a result of hatred, jealousy, and injustice.
From Jesus’ anguished prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane to His arrest, “trials,” torture, mocking, crucifixion, and death, He endured a grueling ordeal of pain, cruelty, evil, and oppressive power. All of this was exacerbated by the innocence, purity, and goodness of the One who suffered it: “He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:7, 8, NIV). Through the lens of salvation’s story, we see the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, but we should not forget the brutality of the suffering and injustice He experienced.
In Jesus, God knows what it feels like to be a victim of evil and injustice. The execution of an innocent man is an outrage; the murder of God more so. God has so identified Himself with us in our broken and fallen condition that we cannot doubt His empathy, compassion, and faithfulness: “For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Heb. 4:15, NIV). What a revelation of the character of our God! How do we even begin to wrap our minds around the good news about God that the Cross represents?
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “In the Footsteps of the Master,” pp. 117–124, in Welfare Ministry; “Days of Ministry,” pp. 29–50, in The Ministry of Healing; “The Temple Cleansed Again,” pp. 589–600; “In Pilate’s Judgment Hall,” pp. 723–740, in The Desire of Ages.
“God has given in His word decisive evidence that He will punish the transgressors of His law. Those who flatter themselves that He is too merciful to execute justice upon the sinner, have only to look to the cross of Calvary. The death of the spotless Son of God testifies that ‘the wages of sin is death,’ that every violation of God’s law must receive its just retribution. Christ the sinless became sin for man. He bore the guilt of transgression, and the hiding of His Father’s face, until His heart was broken and His life crushed out. All this sacrifice was made that sinners might be redeemed. In no other way could man be freed from the penalty of sin. And every soul that refuses to become a partaker of the atonement provided at such a cost must bear in his own person the guilt and punishment of transgression.”—Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 539, 540.
Summary: In the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry is introduced and explained with reference to the work of the Old Testament prophets. Good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, and healing for the broken were proclaimed as markers of the Messiah—and something Jesus demonstrated throughout His ministry. Yet, in His death, He also suffered the brunt of injustice and ultimately overcame the worst of fallen humanity and inhumanity. Thanks to His unjust death in our behalf, our sins can be forgiven, and we have the promise of eternal life.