The Role of Humanitarian Aid in Building the Kingdom: A Study of John 6
One of the most effective tools of the Evil One is the tool of substituting the “good thing” for the “core thing.” And as he breeds confusion about priorities within the Lord’s church, a splintering of the church occurs. The resultant handicap in effective Gospel witness, no doubt, brings great delight to the one who is determined to destroy the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus.
The substitutions of which I speak are placed gradually, unconsciously. They are often imposed by cultural demands, by current philosophical bents, by shifts in personal gratifications, even by political expediency. So it behooves us to return frequently to the Scriptures, to look at the Saviour, to study His life and teachings, as well as the Apostles, and to evaluate our lives and ministries in light of our Lord Jesus.
In this article, let us look at the role of humanitarian aid in building the Kingdom of our Lord. And we will focus on Jesus’ evaluation of the spiritual effectiveness of humanitarian aid.
First, let us define the Kingdom. My personal definition is this:
The Kingdom is composed of those people who are characterized by two things: First, they have heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and have embraced the salvation it offers. Second, they have been taught the teachings of Jesus as Lord and have a heart of willing obedience to those teachings (Matt. 28:19-20).
So the Kingdom is not the development of a religious organization, with its hierarchy of authority. The Kingdom is not in any way related to financial markers, budget, and cash flows. The Kingdom is not a listing of projects. The Kingdom cannot be measured in terms of hands raised, aisles walked, or donations made. Its members are not rated by educational degrees attained, rankings obtained, or memberships granted.
The Kingdom is a spiritual, hidden, unseen thing. But it is not an exclusively spiritual, hidden, unseen thing.
Jesus said the Kingdom is within us. He did not mean that we have within us any spiritual life of our own, that somehow we must reach for that “life” and fan its embers into full expression. No, Scripture is clear that in us dwells no good thing, that we are spiritually dead apart from Jesus. Rather, He meant that the Spirit of the Living God is within each believer, and that Spirit is working out the Kingdom on a personal level as Time marches toward the return of the King. So although the Kingdom is purely spiritual, its evidence is clearly seen, and so it is not exclusively spiritual.
In trying to explain the Kingdom to Nicodemus, a very educated man, Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind. We cannot have wind without the movement of tree leaves; it is impossible. But just because we have the movement of tree leaves does not mean we have wind. Many things can make leaves shake – perhaps someone is climbing the tree, perhaps the tree is being felled, perhaps a truck has passed nearby, perhaps an animal is reaching for a branch to eat its leaves. So shaking leaves are not caused exclusively by a wind, but wind will always cause shaking leaves.
And so it is with Humanitarian Aid.
Let us define Humanitarian Aid. This is a broad term. In this day and age, with extensive communications and large budgets, I have this working definition:
Humanitarian Aid is large-scale, organized projects designed to relieve the human condition, in which there is a great disconnect between those funding the relief, those administering the relief, and those receiving the relief.
I compare Humanitarian Aid with Charity.
Charity is relief of the human condition that is done on a personal scale, whereby those being relieved have a direct relationship with those doing the relief.
According to these definitions, Humanitarian Aid is done by organizations, governments, and agencies, whereas Charity is done by individuals or perhaps by small groups of individuals. Humanitarian Aid is done on a large scale and is largely devoid of relationship; its purposes, agendas, motivations are largely hidden and multi-faceted. Charity, on the other hand, is largely done person to person, or family to family, or small group to small group; it is done within the context of a relationship, and the motivations are fairly easy to determine by the recipient.
Although all of Scripture is God-written, and although all the apostles did the work of the Kingdom, the life and teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul are most clearly set before us. We have more details about their thinking and doings and instructions.
So let us look at the life of Jesus. The vast majority of the Gospels reference His acts of charity, telling story after story of His personal encounter with the distressing situations of individuals. The Centurion’s son, the widow’s child, the paralyzed man, the blind men, the lepers – in each case, Jesus encountered these individuals in the normal course of His travels and doings. And as their lives dovetailed with His, He offered to them charity – relief on a personal scale, within the context of a relationship, covered with discussion of spiritual things and personal admonition or encouragement. In each case the recipient of Jesus’ charity eventually went the way of all mankind, dying from some cause. But for a moment in time, kindness had been shown; Life had touched them. And for a period of time, they were encouraged and renewed physically and greatly challenged to change spiritually.
There is a time when we see Jesus doing Humanitarian Aid – relief of suffering on a mass, impersonal scale. It is found in John 6. The setting is this: a very large group, involving thousands of people, is physically following Jesus because they had heard of or seen the miracles (acts of charity) He had been doing. They were caught up in the phenomenon; something unusual was occurring; God was visiting people in their personal settings. Because of these miracles, thousands of people were following Jesus everywhere He went.
So Jesus came to a mountain, and sitting with His disciples He noticed the huge crowd of people following Him up the mountain. The national Passover feast was coming soon. These people should have been home preparing for this feast but instead they were following Jesus in the countryside.
As Jesus looked at the people He saw hunger. He asked His disciples about the possibility of feeding such a large crowd; this questioning cemented in their minds the utter impossibility of the task.
In vv. 10-13 we see that Jesus did a miracle by feeding the thousands of hungry people. This miracle meets the definition above of Humanitarian Aid: it was designed to meet a mass condition, with little relationship between Jesus personally and the average person being fed; it was administered by His disciples and assistants; it was organized; and a great distance separated the One funding the project (Jesus) and the person receiving the benefit of the project (the average person on the hillside).
And what was the spiritual response to this Humanitarian Aid? In v. 14 the Scriptures clearly state the people’s response: “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.” And they determined to take Jesus by force, to make Him a king over them.
If you and I had been there, we would have said to ourselves “Look! What a great spiritual harvest is occurring! Helping these people with their hunger has caused them to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy! Their spiritual eyes are opened because they have been fed!”
But we see in the following verses that this was not the conclusion of the matter; this was not Jesus’ evaluation of the spiritual response to His aid.
Jesus slipped through the crowd; He escaped to be by Himself. Darkness came. The disciples returned back down the mountain, got into a boat at the side of the lake, and began to row toward the town of Capernaum, which was the home place of the Disciple Simon Peter (vv. 15-17).
While on the water, in the middle of the night, Jesus joined them. As soon as He stepped into the boat, the ship arrived at Capernaum (vv. 17-21).
As the sun rose on the new day, the people awoke from their sleep back on the mountainside (v. 22). And they discovered that during the night, Jesus and His disciples had disappeared. Immediately they also rushed to Capernaum, their single motive being to find Jesus (v. 24).
Again, if you and I had been there, we would doubtless have thought, “Wow! Look at their dedication to Jesus! They truly are saved! They are leaving their homes and families and following Jesus! What a great harvest of souls is being reaped because of addressing their physical hunger!”
But Jesus did not share our enthusiasm. He understood that this was not a spiritual harvest; He understood that it was merely a social harvest. In v. 26 He calls it what it is: “Truly, truly…You seek me, not because you saw the miracles, but because you did eat of the loaves and were filled.” In other words, it was for their own personal comfort and convenience that these people were following Jesus.
This conclusion about their motivation for following Jesus is amplified in the discussion that followed between Jesus and these people. In vv. 28-40 we have a long discussion. Notice that the people keep saying, “How can we get this God-power so that we can have bread?” They were continuing to think on the level of personal betterment. They wanted an easy life; they wanted bread to satisfy them; they wanted things of a physical nature.
Today the masses of people want the same thing. They want food; they want education; they want choices (control). They want the good things, and they are willing to follow any religion, any government, any person or organization that will give them those things. This is a human trait and its tendency resides in all of us.
But Jesus refused to accommodate the masses of His day. He kept bringing them back to the Truth. And what is the Truth? Over and over He explains that physical bread is temporary, short-lived, earthly. But He Himself is the Bread that satisfies the soul, that survives into eternity, that comes directly from Heaven.
Jesus is saying that there is a big wall between the earthly and the heavenly. We must not confuse the two. Each realm has its purpose. Jesus did not deny the hunger of the masses; He fed them. But He had realistic expectations of the spiritual benefit of His feeding. We cannot expect spiritual benefit from earthly things.
Consistently, over and over again, we see in the Gospels that Jesus’ approach to building the Kingdom was two-pronged: to touch the hearts of people, and to teach the minds of people. He touched the hearts with His personal, uncomplicated, untangled, honest love for them. His was a love that was willing to cross barriers and give of Himself to meet a need. It did not matter if the need was for social acceptance/respect, or healing, or empathy, or feeding; it mattered not the need of the individual. He was willing to give of Himself to meet that need in order to touch their heart with Love. But Jesus was always concomitantly teaching Truth. He did not separate the touching of the heart and the teaching of the mind. It was the same exercise, in the same space of time, in the same venue, under the same circumstances. The two were always together.
Except in the case of the mass feeding of John 6. This exercise of Humanitarian Aid was a dismal failure in terms of building the Kingdom. What was its final spiritual reward?
Read v. 41: Jesus was rejected as the Bread of Heaven!
The people could not make the transition from personal benefit to personal Lord. “How dare you exalt Yourself above us!” they murmured. “You are no better than us!”
Jesus continued to declare the Truth. You and I would doubtless have said, “Let’s feed them another meal; they’re just angry. If we feed them more, they will be won to the Saviour. After all, remember how delighted they were after the meal on the mountain? Let us do what we can to return to their good graces. Let us delay Truth until we are again on positive social terms with them.”
But this was not Jesus’ way. He kept telling Truth: only in HIM is true Life found! Only in Him personally is there salvation from the human condition!
Clearly, Jesus’ way is not the way of most humanitarian thrusts by mission or church organizations. He insisted on pushing the Truth forward. He kept feeding the Truth, making it as clear as possible, within the context of the discussion.
He deals honestly with the people. He tells them their true motives. He then shows them a better way, a heavenly way, the way of the Saviour Himself instead of the way of institutional/project benefit. When they reject the idea of the Saviour as being any better than they, He continues to explain that not only is He as Saviour a better way, He is the only way! And to follow Him meant to join Him in suffering!
And when presented with this exclusive claim, this ultimate Truth, and with the reality that to follow Jesus is to also share His suffering, the people forgot their fixation on the physical realm. Feeding or not, they wanted nothing of this Man who claimed a complete authority over them and who would require them to suffer for Him. That was entirely too much cost. No physical benefit was worth that cost!
Not only did the masses forsake Him at this point, but many of His own disciples questioned and forsook Him (see vv. 60, 66).
Let us now summarize the emphatic points that Jesus makes in His teaching to the masses that were fed on the mountain:
1) v. 27: “labor not for meat which perishes, but for the Meat which endures unto everlasting life.”
2) vv. 35, 47-51: “I am the bread of life; he that comes to me shall never hunger, and he that believes on me shall never thirst.”
3) vv. 37-40, 43-46, 65: “All that the Father gives me shall come to Me.”
4) vv. 53-58: “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him.”
5) vv. 61-63: “It is the spirit that quickens [makes alive]; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”
And what is the end of this episode in Jesus’ life? The masses disappeared; many disciples fell away. When fed, they were happy to follow Jesus, even to make Him King, so that their meals of the future would be secured. But when challenged with Truth, with the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus, with the suffering that comes with salvation, with the power of God in choosing His own – these truths were not palatable. They were distasteful to the life the people wanted, so they rejected Jesus.
“Then said Jesus onto the twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ Then Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (vv. 67-68).
Simon Peter hit the nail on the head. He saw that life is apart from food: it is in the words of Jesus. Perhaps Peter remembered what Jesus had said before in Matt. 6:24-31: “No man can serve two masters…take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, drink, or wear…isn’t Life more than these things…your Father knows about your needs…but seek the Kingdom, seek His righteousness…and the needs of your life will be met by the Father.”
Ultimately the decision is a matter of choosing masters. Do we strive in our ministry for material things? Do we pursue the praise of the masses? Do we aim for the blessing of governments? Or do we pursue the Commission that salvation is to be offered through Jesus alone to each individual, and His way taught so that the life is changed to the Savior’s. What is our focus?
The Evil One has been substituting his way for a very long time. He cares not what the substitute is. In fact, often good things make better substitutes; people go to sleep spiritually if they are involved in doing and funding good things.
Perhaps the Spirit put the passage of John 6 in the Gospels to warn us. Humanitarian Aid yields very little in terms of the Kingdom. Beware!
January 2, 2008