Start by reading Acts 3:1-20, the story of Peter and John helping a lame beggar outside the temple.
This passage offers some powerful insights about Christian mission, the nature of salvation, the way we proclaim salvation, and how we pursue our mission among the lost and broken. We must recapture the biblical understanding of these issues and recognize that many of our churches are not pursuing the mission God has given them. As a result, broken, needy people reject God and dismiss self-absorbed churches as worse than irrelevant. The mission of God suffers and lost souls are not restored because we have settled for a half-truth about salvation.
There is no way to unpack all of this in a blog post, of course, but let’s start with a bullet list of observations:
— The man was brought to the temple gate by others, on whom he was dependent.
— Begging at the gate was his custom / habit / way of life.
— His meager hope was to receive small amounts of money to help him survive.
— He had no realistic hope or expectation of experiencing life transformation.
— Peter, now that he had received the Spirit at Pentecost, understood Jesus’ teaching better than he did when he was walking with Jesus.
— Like Jesus, Peter now had the ability to see what the Father was doing in situations. — Peter had the boldness to join God in something that would require a miracle.
— Peter gave the man the proverbial “hand up, not a handout.”
— The miracle of healing occurred as the man exercised his faith and tried to stand.
— The result was that both the man and the crowd were filled with awe and praised God joyfully.
— Peter explained that the point of the healing was that God would bring glory to Jesus.
— Peter called on the crowd to turn from their sins and turn to God.
— The promise of turning to God was that “wonderful times of refreshment” would follow, “from the presence of the Lord” and that God would send Messiah Jesus to them again.
— The final restoration “of all things” awaits Jesus’ return.
The passage brings these questions to my mind:
— How many times, in the Gospels, do you see Jesus calling people to spiritual salvation by putting their faith in him?
— How often do you see Jesus bringing salvation to a person by meeting a desperate need?
— Are there any implications in that for the way we proclaim salvation and pursue our mission among God’s lost and broken children?
Notice that for Peter and John in this story, as with Jesus in the Gospels, salvation comes to a person all wrapped up with meeting a serious physical need. Peter and John’s beggar is transformed as the healing power of God explodes through his body. Peter doesn’t share a “plan of salvation” with him and invite the beggar to be saved, like he does in preaching to the crowd afterward.
There always is a place in our mission for calling people to turn from sin and to God so they can experience “wonderful times of refreshment” from the Lord. However, the example of Jesus — and of Peter and John in this instance — says salvation comes to people as the life-changing power of God is brought to bear on their need. The miracle of spiritual transformation comes along with physical transformation — bound up together because each of us is bound up in a unified whole.
In the Bible, a person is a soul — an inseparable whole — in contrast to the Greek idea that the soul/spirit is the immortal part of a human being that lives in a physical shell. ‘Soul’ designates the entire human being in its physical life. A person does not have a soul; a person is a soul. [An excellent complete discussion of this may be found in the Holman Bible Dictionary.]
It is not a mistake to preach repentance and salvation apart from physical restoration. In this passage, Peter did not have to heal each person in the crowd for them to decide to follow Jesus. It is a serious mistake, however, to think of salvation only in terms of spiritual transformation. When a person faces an overwhelming physical need, the witness of the New Testament is that God uses that need as the point of contact for a broken soul to begin experiencing transformation. What you don’t see in the New Testament is people in dire need merely being told to repent of their sins and turn to God.
The epistle of James condemns Christians who don’t meet the desperate needs of others, simply telling them, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” (James 2:16) In context, James is talking about helping fellow Christians who are in need, but the principle also is true of lost souls with serious physical needs. God’s love for us is expressed to us as souls — whole people with both physical and spiritual needs. In fact, it is impossible to cleanly separate physical needs from spiritual needs. Because the soul is a unity, people experience needs along a spectrum from physical to spiritual. The physical affects the spiritual, and vice versa. Lostness leads us into behaviors that harm our bodies and minds; mortal illness can throw a Christian into a crisis of faith.
When a person faces an overwhelming “physical” need, we must address that need with the good news of God’s love as much as we do the “spiritual” need. If we fail to minister to the whole person, we place ourselves in the “faith without works is dead” category that James condemns.
THE EVIL ‘CHURCH’
Many Christians and churches today never experience the awe and joy that comes when God’s miraculous power transforms lost souls into new creatures. One reason is that many are practicing an empty “faith without works is dead” Christian religion. We call on a badly broken person to “get saved,” without focusing on how God wants to transform his entire being in every aspect of life. As a result, our churches are filled with still-broken — in many cases, still-lost — souls who think their “physical” lives have nothing to do with their “spiritual salvation.”
Another result is that lost souls in desperate need think God doesn’t love them because the most they ever hear from Christians is “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” Church members go through their everyday lives with a “business as usual” attitude, oblivious to the dire needs in people’s lives and missing the miracles of transformation God wants to perform through them. The church abdicates its mission of giving a hand up to people in need, leaving them to government programs that can only give a handout. The attitudes of lost, broken souls toward God become hardened, to the point that when someone suggests a political party’s platform ought to at least mention God, the crowd boos. The community slides further into a Romans 1:21-32 mindset. They see the church as not just irrelevant, but evil.
They are right.
Wrong teaching about the nature of salvation leads a church to proclaim a message of salvation that is spiritual only. That allows a church to think its assignment is to speak only to the issue of spiritual salvation. The church thinks it can accomplish its mission without doing any more for needy people than handing out token food baskets at Thanksgiving or giving someone money to buy gas or pay utilities. It allows a church and its members to become self-absorbed, and a self-absorbed church is evil. In a society focused so much on acquiring and consuming things, a self-absorbed church does not reflect the spirit of Christ. In fact, it models the spirit that opposes Christ.
This wrong-headed notion of salvation not only allows people to think God’s plan of salvation is just spiritual, but also that it is individualistic and only people-oriented.
The Scripture says, in fact, that all of creation is waiting eagerly for the day when it will, along with God’s children, experience glorious freedom from death and decay. Peter points out in Acts 3 that Jesus’ return will bring the “final” restoration “of all things.” Jesus’ return will bring about the re-creation of both heaven and earth — restored to the way God originally created it to be — just as salvation brings new creation to “all things” in a person’s life. Our mission is to bring God’s restoration, not just to individuals, but to communities, cities, schools, civic organizations, political parties, even to a natural world being polluted and destroyed by evil men who care only about making money. I am not saying social structures and spotted owls can be “saved,” but if we ignore our responsibility as stewards of creation and God’s plan for restoring “all things,” how are we faithfully fulfilling our mission?
IN THE MEANTIME …
The restoration Jesus brings will be the final one, but for now his followers have been sent on a mission of bringing “in the meantime” restoration to lost, broken, desperately needy souls.
God’s kingdom is both among us today and is yet to come — “already, but not yet.” While we wait for Jesus to bring the final restoration, the time for entering the Kingdom and beginning to experience restoration is now. The eternal life God wants to give us is new life, abundant life, eternal life — and it begins today for anyone who hears God’s call and will respond. God has appointed Jesus’ followers as ambassadors and sent us with a message that echoes the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
We must recapture the biblical understanding about the wholeness of man and recalibrate our understanding of salvation to whole-life transformation, and not just “spiritual” rebirth. Salvation brings people freedom from all the ways the enemy holds us captive. Salvation brings us healing for the brokenness and crippling we suffer. Salvation brings us restoration of the shalom wholeness for which we were created.
We must declare that God’s love offers redemption, the re-creation of our entire lives — and he offers it today and not just “in the great by and by.” We must enlarge our vision of the change God wants to bring through us to people’s lives and our world. We must take responsibility for giving a hand up to needy people — crippled physically as well as spiritually — diagnosing their “all things” needs and helping them get the comprehensive help required to bring them to restoration. We must launch out among desperately needy people and listen to the Father about what he wants to do to bring miraculous restoration to their entire lives.
When we are attentive and obedient to the Lord, when we are “experiencing God” and helping the crippled beggar outside the temple, we will enjoy “wonderful times of refreshment … from the presence of the Lord” and see his power displayed in healing broken people. We will see crowds in awe of God and praising Jesus. We will live in the strength that comes from knowing that, whatever setbacks, trials or persecution we endure today, God will send Messiah Jesus to us again — when the time is right for the final restoration of all things.