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One of the great heroes of the missionary movement of the eighteenth century was a man named Robert Lamb. Lamb wanted to be a missionary since the day of his salvation. When he received mercy from Christ his savior, he wanted to show that kind of mercy in the name of Christ. He decided that the way he would do it would be to serve as a medical doctor in the New Hebrides, as it was called at the time. 

 

Lamb trained to be a medical doctor, but in the process, he wrecked his own health. By the time he got to the mission field, he was in his forties, which turned out to be near the end of his life. He served for a short time and then returned to Australia determined to show mercy to the end of his days, even in his weakened condition. Lamb looked around him for the people in need and he noticed those called "swagmen." They were the transporters of the day. They carried heavy burdens along the footpath from one place to another, enabling the commerce to go forward. He saw a bend in the road where there was a cemetery, and he decided his opportunity was there. He planted himself on a log there each day and filled one pocket with food and the other with New Testaments. As the swagmen would come by that bend in the road, he would invite them to sit on the vacant part of the log with him and he would give them some refreshment and a word from scripture. 

 

Lamb died not long afterwards. He gave direction for his headstone to be placed there at the corner of that cemetery. On the approaching side of the headstone, he put his name and the names of his twins who had predeceased him. On the main part of the headstone at the bend in the road, he put "come to me all you who are weary" (Matthew 11:28). His widow received word years later that some had come to Christ just by that headstone. 

 

Robert Lamb did this because of the mercy he had received. He was so compelled by it that he wanted to show that same mercy to others. If Christ is your savior, you have also received mercy. God expends incalculable stores of mercy on you and me every day. In view of God's mercy, we must look for ways to show mercy. 

 

Biblical Thinking

We do this first of all by biblical thinking. That's what Agabus was doing. Agabus was one named a prophet. A prophet in the Bible could not be so named until he had made prophecy that had a short-term fulfillment. He is proved to be a prophet by the Holy Spirit revealing something to him something that will come in the future, so the New Testament church could survive in their mission and serve others mercifully in the name of Christ. So Agabus foretold the coming famine. A prophet was also one proven to be so because they preached God's word. The only Bible he had at the time was the Old Testament and he was preaching Christ from the Old Testament. He was preaching to these Antiochian Christians the gospel from the Old Testament. In the course of his mind being saturated by God's word, the Spirit spoke to him and presented him with a problem as well as the church's responsibility to respond mercifully to the needs of those around them. 

 

Agabus would have known this from places like Job 29 when Job stated that the proof of his righteousness was that his heart beat after God's. He stood up for the needy; his hand was not stingy to those were hungry; and he advocated for the poor. He would have also known it from Proverbs 19:17, "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord." This is God's priority. 


God's priority is not only for the poor materially but also to the poor in spirit. That is, those who are in any sense poor: broken in their relationship with God, each other, within themselves, or the material world. It is God's priority for us to look for the merciful, materials needs of our neighbors. 

 

The second thing I want you to notice is that mercy is not based on merit. Someone has said that we are Calvinists in regard to our own salvation and need for mercy and we are Pelagian in regard to everyone else's. That is, we are always open to God's grace for ourselves, but when it comes to another person, we tend to withhold our grace or mercy until we think merit has been demonstrated. But this is not gospel logic. Gospel logic is to respond to every need the way God responds to our own needs. God doesn't wait to show us mercy until we prove we deserve it, he shows us mercy because he is merciful. 

 

God demonstrated this in his mercy in the garden. He came looking for Adam and Eve who were hiding. "who told you that you were naked?" he asks. And then, before they even repent God covers their shame with clothing. Derek Kidner says, "this special action by God could not have been an earlier or more elaborate and exotic display of the inauguration of mercy ministry."[1] 

 

We must look for opportunities where we can show in very practical ways the mercy of God.

 

Practical

We must do mercy ministry practically. Agabus prophesied a coming famine, so they began taking up money and visiting the churches to take up an offering. Every material need or occasion of poverty is not a burden on the church. It is an opportunity to demonstrate the good news of the gospel. 

 

This kind of ministry is effective even evangelistically. Scholars have been forced to recognize that the church has grown this way throughout history. This is the way Christianity became known in the Roman empire. Abortion and infanticide, which were decimating pagan society were forbidden to Christians as the equivalent of murder. In many instances Christians rescued exposed infants from trash cans. They baptized them and brought them up with the aid of a community fund. Here is what Will Durant says about these acts of mercy:

 

There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.[2]

 

Other historians like Alvin Schmidt and Paul Meyer say the same thing. It was Christians who fought for the family; it was Christians who fought for freedom and dignity and high regard for women and children; it was Christians who started hospitals; it was Christians who abolished slavery. There are those who identify themselves as Christians today, even evangelical who do not represent these kinds of emphases. Don't let them distract you. We are those who have been known throughout history as those who find needs, especially those of people whom others deem unworthy, and we minister practical help in the name of Christ. It is what has led people like Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks to praise Christians publicly. 

 

Presbyterians have been known for their practicality in addressing mercy ministry. Thomas Chalmers - one of our heroes from the nineteenth century in Scotland - looked at his church with 2,000 families which was living in an impoverished area and decided to get organized. So he divided the city into 25 districts and he appointed an elder and a deacon in each of those districts (sometimes called parishes) and he gave them responsibility over the people that district. Those elders and deacons were to share their faith and address the needs of those in poverty. In four years, the poverty of that city decreased by 80%. 

 

Personally

We also address mercy ministry by getting our hands dirty. We become enmeshed. We see how these apostles do this in Acts 11. We also see it in 2 Corinthians 8. The Macedonians answered this call to mercy ministry as well. The Macedonians were in need just like their brothers and sisters but out of their poverty they viewed it as a grace to give. They gave as an act of worship. They gave themselves first to God, Paul says. They begged Paul for the privilege of giving to the needy. They gave themselves first to God, and then they gave themselves to the others. 

In the third century, a plague came on Alexandria. It was a widespread disease killing thousands. Pagan worshippers blamed those who died for their own death. They thought they were dying because they hadn't worshipped God properly. Christians didn't withhold mercy for these people due to their illness. They drew near to them to help them, often contracting the illness themselves. In doing so, they gained a new name for themselves. Christians by their acts of mercy, became known as "risk-takers." May God give us the grace to be known as risk-takers - those who plunge into need, not worrying about our own preservation. 

 

Accountable

This passage also shows us that mercy ministry is to be accountable. We see that the gift is given through the elders through the hand of Barnabas and Paul. Other references in scripture tell us that Paul and Barnabas wanted to make sure that everything was accounted for. 

 

We are at times tempted to think that we cannot participate in mercy ministry because we need mercy ourselves. We are all in need of mercy and it is especially those who recognize their own need that are motivated to show mercy to others. 

 

Robert Robinson is one of our favorite hymn writers. He was a minister in the eighteenth century, and at some point in his ministry he departed from the faith, at least he started acting like he wasn't a Christian. We don't know what he did, but he viewed himself as being immoral, a prodigal. He left England and was at a party one night in France in the company of a woman who had just become a Christian. She had just begun reading Christian poetry and she shared with him one she had recently read called "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." Robinson began to weep. She was confused. This seemed to be a happy poem to her. He told her that he was weeping because he wrote it. However, Robinson believed it was no longer for him, thinking he had sinned beyond grace. 

 

This new Christian assured him that his need was answered in his own poem:

 

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,

tune my heart to sing thy grace;

streams of mercy, never ceasing,

call for songs of loudest praise.

 

God's cup overflows with mercy so that he always has enough to give to us. In that knowledge, let us seek to pour it out on others.

 

 

[1] Derek Kidner, Genesis, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 77.

[2] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 3, chapter 30, part 1, p. 652 (1944).