You know how sometimes a particular book of the Bible, or even just a section or passage keeps coming up in your life time and time again? You’ll hear sermons preached on it, see articles referring to it, have conversations centering around it, and even find references to it in random books. The passage doing that for me at the moment is Genesis chapters 1 to 3. I can’t get away from them; they’re everywhere! It seems like God must be trying to teach me something through them, but the odd thing is, the messages I’m hearing, while all related, all have a completely different focus, so for almost any question, the answer seems to be ‘Genesis 1-3’!
Yesterday I half overheard a sermon on the passage, the central point of the bit I heard being that we have a compelling vision – to be fruitful and increase in number, and to fill the earth and subdue it/rule over it. The fruitfulness part involved both reproducing ourselves physically and, as Christians, having a fruitful ministry of disciple-making. As I mentioned in my first post in the ‘Body or Soul?’ category, this is what I have traditionally understood the duty of Christians to be. But what about the clear imperative elsewhere to tend to the physical needs of the people around us?
The preacher suggested that that is part of ruling over the earth. If we’re to take care of ‘every living creature’ surely that includes humans? I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by that – it seems to me to be blurring the line that we would otherwise be at great pains to emphasise – that human beings are different from animals – we’re not just slightly more highly developed monkeys, but a special creation, with a special relationship with and responsibility to our maker. So is there an early mandate, built into this foundational section of the Bible, for caring for the physical needs of humans?
Thankfully, help was at hand. Another of the books I’m currently reading – yes, there are several! – is Ministries of Mercy by Tim Keller. Before the Fall, Keller notes, there was no need for acts of mercy, since there was no suffering or need, but as soon as sin entered the world, man’s relationship with God was shattered, and that also caused fragmentation in his human relationships. “The first act of mercy ministry,” Keller states, “immediately follows the fall: God clothes Adam and Eve with animal skins (Gen. 3:21).”
He acknowledges that this is often used – rightly – as a foreshadowing of Christ ‘covering’ our sins by his sacrifice, but believes that this is not the only message God was sending.
Man now needs protection from a hostile environment. By God’s action, Derek Kidner says, “Social action could not have had an earlier or more exalted inauguration.”
So it’s not, after all, an either-or. By God’s act of ‘mercy ministry’ he was both providing for an immediate physical need and providing Adam and Eve with a graphic illustration of the spiritual need they now had, and the source to which they should turn for a solution.
When Jesus talked to the woman at the well about water, he used her physical need to point to her spiritual need. When Wilberforce and co fought to release slaves from their chains, they pointed to the need all humans have for freedom – from both physical and spiritual bondage. When we meet the physical needs of others, we must remember it’s not just to give them a warm bed, a hot meal, or a sense of dignity, it is to point them towards the one who can supply their spiritual coldness, hunger and despair.