The Gospel, the Social Gospel, and Gospel-Only-ism, Part 2: “Gospel to the Poor”

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As discussed in PART 1, the “gospel,” according to the Scripture, appears to be a much fuller concept than the mere facts of Christ’s death for sin and resurrection, though these are certainly of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Beginning with the New Testament epistles, we saw that the gospel also includes the certainty of impartial judgement on the Last Day, contradicts a host of both personal and social sins, dictates who we ought to eat with, and is actually something to be “obeyed.” Going back to the beginning, it became clear that the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 promised a restoration of all that was lost in the fall; that is, it promised resurrection of both body and soul, return to original righteousness, renewal of mankind’s natural habitation, and the restoration of society with both God and man (and in each case, much more than the original). The Apostle Paul calls this message of the Seed the “gospel” (preached to Abraham), and the author of Hebrews calls the promise of entrance into God’s seventh day rest the “gospel” as well (preached to the Israelites in the Wilderness), both drawing on Garden evangel themes.

“Gospel to the Poor”

Moving on, the New Testament begins with the birth of this promised Seed, our Lord Jesus Christ. His public ministry begins with His baptism, anointing of the Holy Spirit, and declaration that He is both suffering servant and Son of God. The Spirit straight away drives Jesus into the Wilderness. At the close of forty days of fasting, Christ recapitulates the Garden test of Adam, though now in a sin-cursed anti-Garden, and emerges victorious over the Serpent’s wiles—the crushing has begun. In the Lukan account, the very next scene we encounter is Jesus in the Synagogue taking up the scroll of Isaiah, finding the appropriate passage, and reading to those assembled:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news [gospel; Euangelisasthai] to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

He continues,

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4:18-21)

Having been anointed by the Spirit (He is “upon” Him), Jesus publicly declares His mission to “proclaim the gospel to the poor.” When Christ later delivers His so-called Sermon on the Mount, He opens it with a corresponding description of the Blessed, beginning with,

“Blessed are you who are poor [in spirit (Mt. 5:3)], for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 6:20)

In the very next chapter, we encounter the “gospel to the poor” yet again. In this context, the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask whether Jesus is indeed the Messiah that would come. In answer, Jesus points to the works of His ministry:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good gospel preached to them.” (Lk. 7:22)

How do we know He is the Christ? Through Him, “the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

According to Jesus, evidently, the gospel is “to the poor” and is good news intended for “the poor.” Therefore, I’d argue, if we are going to understand what the gospel is, we must understand why “to the poor” is so essential to its significance.

Gospel to the Metaphorically Poor?

Adherents of the Social Gospel famously absolutize this teaching into a materialist claim that the “good news” is entirely focused on human flourishing and well-being in this life. On the other hand, adherents of Gospel-Only-ism (for lack of a better term) absolutize Jesus’s claim into a nearly Gnostic metaphor. For example, I was astonished to read Norval Geldenhuys spiritualize every aspect of Luke 4:18:

God sent Him to heal those who were broken-hearted and found themselves in spiritual distress; to proclaim deliverance to those who were captives to the power of sin and spiritual wretchedness; to give back to the spiritually blind the power of sight; to cause those who were downcast and inwardly bruised to go forward in triumph; and thus to “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,”[…]. (The Gospel of Luke [NIV Commentary Series], p. 168)

This, in my experience, seems to be the most common evangelical interpretation of these passages.

But this is by no means a simple move, even if we rightly desire to reject the Social Gospel interpretation. To begin with, how do we sidestep Christ’s words to John’s disciples, quoted above (Lk. 7:22)? He healed the sick, the blind, cast out demons, etc., not just “spiritually,” but physically and with visible results. Was it the poor alone that received only “spiritual,” metaphorical, good news? Further, following the Beatitudes delivered in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, He declares a corresponding set of “woes” intended for those not receiving the Kingdom. Parallel to “Blessed are you who are poor,” we read, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk. 6:24). Are these the “spiritually” rich? And what is their consolation? Did they receive a “spiritual” consolation in this life?

Further, Christ showed very real concern for the poor throughout His ministry. He was “moved with compassion” even for the temporarily hungry (Mt. 15:32); He often commanded His disciples to (literally) care for the (literal) poor (Lk. 12:32-33; 14:13-14); and He distinguishes the sheep from the goats on judgement day in large part by their treatment of the poor, likening them to Himself:

“‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 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.’” (Mt. 25:41-43)

And last, and probably most definitive, we have an inspired application of Christ’s words—”Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20)—in the Epistle of James:

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (Jas. 2:5-9)

None of this makes any sense if only the “spiritually,” metaphorically, poor are in view. In short, a merely “spiritual,” or metaphorical, interpretation of Luke 4:18 is a difficult leap, at best.

The Oppressor vs. the Poor

But does this mean that Christ opened His public ministry with a “gospel” of merely filling empty bank accounts or “expanding the middle class”? How would that comport with the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 and all that it entails? I believe the Biblical answer is much fuller, like the gospel itself.

According to Reformed theologian Herman Ridderbos,

These “poor” or “poor in spirit” … represent the socially oppressed, those who suffer from the power of injustice and are harassed by those who only consider their own advantage and influence. (The Kingdom of God, p. 188)

The “poor,” we might say, are the oppressed, suffering the injustices of the worldly enfranchised. This theme of the “oppressor” vs. the “poor” is advanced throughout the book of Isaiah, from which Christ Himself drew the opening words of His ministry, declaring thereby His identity. For example,

The Lord has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
The Lord will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the Lord God of hosts. (Isa. 3:13-15)

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
and the writers who keep writing oppression,
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to rob the poor of my people of their right[…]. (10:1-2)

But of “the Branch”—the coming Messiah—we read:

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth[…]. (11:3-4)

The poor are promised justice, and the meek a favorable decision. The Psalms are likewise rife with this theme. For example, of the “royal son,” we read:

[H]e delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
and precious is their blood in his sight. (Ps. 72:12-14)

Further, Mary, the mother of our Lord, hymns to God along the same theme:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
[…] He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Lk. 1:46-48, 51-53)

Last, the theme of the “oppressor” vs. the “poor” features prominently throughout Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes describe those to whom the Kingdom belongs as the poor, the now hungry, the now weeping, and the persecuted (Lk. 6:20-22), all in contrast to those who already have their consolation, viz., the rich, the full, the laughing, and the well-spoken-of (6:24-26). (Not to mention all the “first will be last and the last will be first” passages.)

Why the Poor?

Though this contrast is inescapable in the Scripture, the intent is not to idealize poverty or deify the poor. The Mathean account includes meekness, thirst for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, and peacemaking among the attributes of these blessed poor (in spirit). To be sure, though made of cheaper materials, the poor also have their idols (Isa. 40:20). Rather, the contrast is between those who enjoy the full benefits of this fallen age, its power, its wealth, and its rule—under the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), the Serpent who had on offer all the kingdoms of the earth (Mt. 4:8-9)—and those who have suffered under the tyranny of these worldly powers, their wealth, and their oppressions.

As such, the blessed poor “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt. 5:6)—not so much in the sense of personal or imputed holiness (though included), but more-so in the sense of Jeremiah’s own prophesy of the “Branch,” the coming Messiah:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” (Jer. 23:5-6)

Again, the point is justice. As Ridderbos argues, the “righteousness” of Matthew 5:6

[…]must not be understood in the Pauline sense of imputed forensic righteousness, but as the kingly justice which will be brought to light one day for the salvation of the oppressed and the outcasts, and which will be executed especially by the Messiah (for this complex of thoughts cf., e.g., 2 Sam 14:5ff; 2 Kings 6:26ff; Jer. 23:6; 33:6, etc.). (p. 190)

That is,

The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

Why?

For the ruthless shall come to nothing
and the scoffer cease,
and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off[.] (Is. 29:19-20)

This is good news indeed, a true gospel to the poor. And as should be evident by now, this gospel is that of the Kingdom and its King; to which we will turn next.

To Be Continued…

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