For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with
him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be
gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place
the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King
will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave
me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you
clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came
to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did
we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And
when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe
you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to
one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.’ 41 “Then he
will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the
eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry
and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe
me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also
will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or
a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’
45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did
not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into
This week at Bethlehem is being called Urban and Mercy Ministries
Focus. It’s a good time to step back and clarify the place of urban
and mercy ministries in the larger vision of the church. That’s what
I would like to do. My aim is not that everyone be involved in hands-on
urban ministry, but that everyone—on both campuses, North and Downtown—be
a lover and supporter and promoter of urban ministry, and that active
mercy, especially toward the poor, be one of the beautiful Christlike
marks of your life—everybody’s life. In other words, I pray that
we would be a church vigorously committed to urban ministries corporately with
everybody saying a joyful Yes! to urban ministries, with
prayer and giving and encouraging and celebrating, while a growing army
of people are engaged hands-on. And that the suffering in the
world, especially (but not only!) among the poorest of the poor will
touch every heart at Bethlehem with compassion and move all of us to
some kind of practical, suffering-relieving ministry (anywhere!).
What Is Urban Ministry?
So what is urban ministry? Here is my stab at a definition. And I
am glad we can be about it in whatever way possible even before we nail
down a definition. But here’s my long, complicated, dense, and, I hope,
Urban ministry is:
The effort in the name of Christ,
the strength of Christ,
the glory of Christ,
to waken in people of all ethnic groups
faith in Christ
the fruit of obedience to Christ,
proclaiming Christ in the gospel
by showing Christ in acts of
in the face of the peculiar concentration of pain
that all come together in the urban centers of the world,
including the Twin Cities.
What Are Ministries of Mercy?
And what are ministries of mercy? Of course, in one sense all true
ministry is mercy. None of us deserves anything good. But we are using
the term “ministries of mercy” for practical, Christ-dependent,
Christ-exalting steps to relieve suffering now and forever through Christ,
especially among those who have the fewest resources.
The word mercy is meant to point us with compassion to people’s
felt miseries. We know that it is merciful to point a rich person to
Christ as his true treasure. We must do that. Yes. Amen. But we are
not using the term “ministries of mercy” for Bible studies among the
well-to-do. We are using it, for the sake of clarity, to refer to practical
relief and ongoing help for those who are suffering and have little
that they can do about it without help. And we don’t mean to limit that
to the urban core of our cities. That can be very rural and sometimes
very suburban. The key thing about mercy ministries is that they are
a response to conscious misery or suffering.
So you can see that they these two overlap but are not synonymous:
urban ministries and ministries of mercy. So we are taking them together
and asking now: What is their place in the larger vision of our church?
Let’s go first to some published documents that define us as a church
and then to the Bible that is the basis for those documents.
Right now the vision that is governing the strategic thinking of
the elders and staff, and informing the prayer of many of you, is the
vision called Treasuring Christ Together. When we spelled it out last
fall in an
eight-page handout we defined Treasuring Christ Together like this:
It is a multiplying movement of congregations, campuses, and churches
defined and united by their common Mission and Biblical
Life and Doctrine. The Mission is to spread a passion
for the supremacy of God
in all things for the joy of all peoples through
Jesus Christ.1 The Biblical
Life and Doctrine is The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elders Affirmation
In other words, Bethlehem is driven to spread a passion for God by
a Bible-based, Bible-saturated, doctrinally rigorous, joy-pursing vision
of God. Biblical truth—truth about God and truth about Christ and truth
about the way of salvation and the spiritual life—is what we mean to
spread, because passion for God without it is vague and unstable and
in the end, not God-exalting. All our urban ministry and ministries
of mercy are based on biblical truth and aim to spread biblical truth.
As Jonathan Edwards said:
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections
of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected
with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable
to the nature of what they are affected with.2
Then last spring as the new North Campus was becoming a reality,
two other documents emerged to refine the vision of Treasuring Christ
Together. One was called “The
Next Step: The North Campus Vision and Expansion Funding Plan” (March
23, 2004). In it was this sentence: “This mission to spread a passion
for the supremacy of God happens by words of truth and deeds of mercy,
as we make ourselves the servants of other people’s joy.” In other words,
mercy ministries was brought forward alongside the ministry of the Word.
This is very biblical: “Little children, let us not love in word or
talk but in deed and in truth”(1 John 3:18). Deeds rooted in truth.
This commitment to mercy ministries near the center of Treasuring
Christ Together exploded in the Global Diaconate at the end of April.
The church approved a redefinition of Treasuring Christ together:
Treasuring Christ Together
is a vision for
new churches, and
a Global Diaconate
as a means of
spreading a passion
for the supremacy of God in all things
for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
The Global Diaconate means that 10% of all the money given toward
the vision of Treasuring Christ Together will go to relieve the suffering
of the poorest of the poor. That document approved said,
While Bethlehem has an aggressive commitment to unreached peoples
and the wider missionary movement, we have not made global ministries
of mercy, a tangible, measurable priority in our giving (with some wonderful
exceptions). We believe it would be a biblical and beautiful thing to
do. It would “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). One
very appealing way to do it would be to make a percentage of our TCT giving
go for major efforts among the poorest of the poor and those who are
That happened with a very strong church vote. Since last April the
church has given something approaching a million and a half dollars
toward the three-pronged vision of Treasuring Christ Together, 10% of
which now waits strategic use in Christ-exalting ministries of mercy
around the world. (In two weeks the elders will act on the final process
for releasing that money and bring it to you for ratification.)
The importance of urban ministry was explicitly in the document that
the church approved on April 28. It said:
One of the most effective ways to address the crisis of the urban
poverty and suffering is by planting indigenous churches. Churches can
provide a more holistic context for relational ministry than some programs.
Therefore, we see urban church planting as one important way of helping
the poor and needy near at home. (Deuteronomy 15:11, “You shall open
wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your
The clear implication of saying that church planting is one way
we should tackle the peculiar challenges of the city, is that there
are other ways. That is what this week is about. We are a church
in the city. We don’t need to be planted. We were planted 133 years
ago. We are here. And to be somewhere is to be responsible. That’s the
point of the parable of the good Samaritan. That’s what this week is
about: All the ways we can dream of to be a blessing to the urban reality
of the Twin Cities, and to the suffering near and far.
So I conclude from our guiding documents and from the overarching
vision of Treasuring Christ Together that urban ministries and ministries
of mercy near and far are a crucial part of who we are. It’s what we
are committed to. It grows out of our mission to spread a passion for
the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through
Jesus Christ. May the Lord make it more and more a reality.
The Biblical Foundation
Now we turn to the biblical foundation.
Here I want to make two points. One is that we are drawn to show
mercy to some people because they are Christians. The other is that
we are drawn to show mercy to some people because they are not Christians.
We are drawn to show mercy to Christians because we see Christ in them,
and we are drawn to show mercy to unbelievers because we want to see
Christ in them. We help suffering believers because they bear the name
of Christ. And we help suffering unbelievers in the hope that they will
come to bear the name of Christ.
Galatians 6:10 puts it like this: “So then, as we have opportunity,
let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household
of faith.” The “especially” is because there is the added delight of
affirming in them what God has already done in saving them. So in the
complexities of urban trouble and ministries of mercy we are carried
by two motives: on the one hand, the desire to confirm and honor the
Christ-exalting faith of a brother or sister who is suffering by giving
them relief and help; and on the other hand, the desire to waken Christ-exalting
faith in suffering unbelievers by giving them relief and help in Jesus’
name and with Jesus’ gospel.
Ministries of Mercy to Believers
Consider two teachings of Jesus. First, the teaching of Matthew 25:31-46,
the great judgment when Jesus comes and separates the sheep and the
goats and sends one group of people to hell and the other to heaven.
Verse 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous
into eternal life.”
What’s the difference between these two groups? The difference Jesus
focuses on is how they treated his brothers, that is his disciples.
And the issue is ministries of mercy, most of which are concentrated
in the urban centers of the world: Verse 35ff: “I was hungry and
you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was
a stranger [refugee] and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and
you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and
you came to me.” Then in verse 40 Jesus explains how they were touching
him: “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did
it to one of the least of these my brothers,you did it to me.’”
His brothers are his disciples. This is not everybody. This is not
every suffering person. Jesus does not call his enemies his brothers.
Matthew 12:49-50, “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples,
he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the
will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” When
Jesus says in Matthew 25:40 that doing ministries of mercy to the least,
namely, his brothers, is doing them to him, he means, doing them to
his disciples is doing them to him.
We see the very same teaching in Mathew 10:42, “Whoever gives one
of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple,
truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” In other
words, Jesus says that true Christians do ministries of mercy to Christians
because they are Christians. And that’s one of the main ways that your
Christianity is shown to be real—which is why heaven and hell hang on
James explains how this fits with faith as the way of salvation:
James 2:15-17, “If a brother or sister [a disciple!] is poorly clothed
and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace,
be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the
body, what goodis that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have
works, is dead.” If we don’t ever bear the fruit of practical love toward
brothers and sisters—the least of them—our faith is dead and we are
not saved. That’s Jesus’ point.
So ministries of mercy—many of which are concentrated in the city—must
flow toward Christians because they are Christians, or we are
Ministries of Mercy to Unbelievers
Does that mean then, that unbelievers should not get our mercy? No.
In fact Jesus was very strong on this matter. He said that if we only
love those who love us, if we only do good to those who do good to us,
we are no different than unbelievers. So yes, show mercy to your brothers
and sisters when they suffer. This is what true families do. But if
you only love your family, if you only sacrifice to relieve the suffering
of your family, you are no better than an unbeliever.
Listen to Luke 6:27ff where Jesus says,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those
who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. . . . 31 And as you wish
that others would do to you, do so to them. 32 If you love those who
love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who
love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit
is that to you? For even sinners do the same. . . . 35 But love your
enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your
reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he
is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your
Father is merciful.
So I conclude: If we are a true church, if we are true disciples
of Jesus, then we will be drawn to show mercy to some suffering people
precisely because they are Christians. And we will be drawn to show
mercy to other suffering people because they are not Christians. We
will be like our Heavenly Father, when we love his children and love
our enemies. And that love means “doing good” to them.
It is not always easy to know what the good is in complexities of
urban pain, or what mercy should look like in Haiti or Florida or Sudan
or your loved one’s hospice. But Christ never said it would be easy.
He simply said, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And then he
died and rose again to cover all our sin and make mercy possible..
1 Essential for understanding
this statement is our assumption that it is a definition of
love. We believe the essence of a loving relationship is humble, sacrificial,
self-giving interaction that helps people treasure Christ above all
things. In other words, love seeks, at whatever cost, to spread into
the heart of the beloved a joyful passion for God’s supreme value in
all things through Jesus Christ. People are most loved not when they
are made much of, but when they are helped to enjoy making much of God
forever. For a fuller explanation of the mission statement, see the
sermon from October 1, 1995, “A
Passion for the Supremacy of God for the Joy of All Peoples Unpacking
the Master Planning Team Document.”
2 Jonathan Edwards, Some
Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards,
vol. 4, ed. C. Goen (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972),