Where are chaplains in the Bible? There are no chaplains in the Holy Scriptures, but the great story-line of the Bible naturally produces an activity of the Church that looks like chaplaincy, no matter what you might call it. The church reaches out to bless the world around it, regardless of how people respond to the call of the gospel. We do so because God blesses the world he loves, even if the world doesn’t bless him back. We are merciful, because God is merciful. God’s work of mercy and blessing are the twin foundations of Christian chaplaincy.
The Character of God
We start with the nature of God. God loves the world.
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
In his love, God poured out his life for sinners.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8
Wesleyan Christians believe that Jesus offered the gift of his life on behalf of everyone, even those who ultimately reject it. This is sometimes called the doctrine of Unlimited or Universal Atonement. Jesus did not just die for a subset of humanity chosen for salvation. Jesus died for all. Jesus offered himself for all, knowing that world he loved would nail him to a tree. Out of the depths of his love, God subjected himself to human abuse so that he might save some. This has tremendous implications for how we are to treat the world.
The God of Mercy
God bestows his gift of love not because we deserve it or because we earn it – or even because we will eventually come to our senses and love him back – but simply because of who he is.
One of the words the Bible uses to describe the nature of God is “mercy.” It is in God’s essential character to be merciful.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:36
Throughout the Bible, mercy is not so much a feeling of pity as it is an action to alleviate suffering. To show mercy is to offer help to a person who is in dire need and unable to help themselves.
The story of the Good Samaritan, for example, uses the word mercy in this sense. Jesus and the scholar agree, love for God and love for one’s neighbor both are required to inherit eternal life. And when Jesus tells us the familiar story of the man beaten on the road to Jericho, he concludes like this.
“Which of these three [the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan] do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:36-37
The scholar describes the Samaritan as “having mercy” on the half-dead traveler. The Samaritan dressed his wounds, transported to him to an inn, nursed him and funded his ongoing care. These are actions, not feelings. Jesus commends mercy to the scholar because it is love for one’s neighbor in action.
The church is commanded to be merciful because God is merciful. Once again, we return to the nature of God as our starting point. God’s mercy sets the standard
Jesus demonstrates God’s mercy as he eats with sinners and tax collectors, treating their sin as a physician would treat a disease.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:9-13
“I desire mercy.” Being merciful is part of God’s basic character. In the old Prayer of Humble Access, the church confessed, “But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” Because God is merciful, he looks for his church to be merciful as well. Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.
The God of Blessing
Mercy is God’s gift of deliverance. Blessing is God’s gift of pouring good things into our lives. And just has God has mercy on those who crucified him, so he blesses all people, both the good and bad.
I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:44-48
Blessing his creation is central to God’s character, and central to the whole story of the Bible. God begins the redemption of the world by calling Abraham and Sarah to go where he leads them, and he promises to bless all the world through their family.
[The Lord said to Abram], “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the nations on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:2-3
God promised to use Abraham’s family to bless everyone – people from every nation on earth. And according to the Apostle Paul, the Christian church is involved in fulfilling that promise.
If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:29
As the Book of Genesis progresses, we see God blessing those around Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because God is with them. It is in the story of Jacob’s son Joseph that we start to see the blessing operating on a world-wide scale. God blessed Egypt and the surrounding countries through Joseph’s management of Pharaoh’s household during a great famine. A hint of that blessing comes while Joseph is still serving in the house of the Egyptian official Potiphar.
The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field. Genesis 39:2-5
The Egyptian Potiphar did not belong to Abraham’s extended family. He did not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He served as an official in an empire that would, generations later, greatly oppress God’s chosen ones. Yet God blessed him through Joseph.
Later in the Old Testament, we see a similar dynamic at work in the story of Daniel and his companions.
The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. Daniel 1:19-20
The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem, ransacked the Judean countryside and taken prisoners into exile as slaves. God blessed them anyway, and he used his enslaved people to do it. Think about that for a moment. In fact, through the prophet Jeremiah, God gave all his exiled people some surprising directions.
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. Jeremiah 29:7
God blesses the world even if it doesn’t bless him back.
Jesus Sends His Disciples to Heal and Deliver
The gospels record that during his earthly sojourn Jesus sent his disciples to announce the nearness of the coming kingdom and to perform the same acts of power that Jesus himself performed. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus did this twice, once with the twelve and once with seventy (or seventy-two).
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Luke 9:1-5
“Now go; I’m sending you out like lambs among wolves. Don’t carry a money-bag, traveling bag, or sandals; don’t greet anyone along the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they offer, for the worker is worthy of his wages. Don’t move from house to house. When you enter any town, and they welcome you, eat the things set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you.’” Luke 10:3-9
The acts of power Jesus and his disciples performed were foretastes of the age to come. They healed the sick and cast out demons. And the thing to notice here is that they performed these acts of mercy and blessing even if they would later have to shake the dust of an unbelieving town off their feet. As my New Testament professor put it, “God gives before he demands.” Jesus’ gift of healing and deliverance was not always met with faith and loyalty.
Christian chaplains can draw several important lessons from Jesus’ instructions to his disciples.
- Remember that you are sent under Jesus’ authority
- Demonstrate the depth of God’s sacrificial love and power to change lives
- Depend on God alone
- Truly be with the people you serve
- Leave people free to accept God’s gifts or not
- Don’t take their reactions personally
- Leave the results and the final judgment to God
God Empowers the Church for Service and Mercy
The mission of the church after Jesus’ resurrection is somewhat different than the disciple’s mission before Jesus died. Witness and community are primary. Still, God empowers his church with gifts for ministry that include works of service and mercy.
For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of one’s faith; if service (diakonia), in serving; or the one who teaches, in teaching; or he who exhorts, in exhortation; the one who gives, with liberality; the one who leads, with diligence; the one who performs deeds of mercy (eleos), with cheerfulness. Romans 12:4-8
Works of service and mercy belong within the church, certainly, but the church also offers these gifts to the people beyond its walls. God calls the church to do good to all people, both within and beyond the boundaries of the church.
So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. Galatians 6:10
The early church took this admonition to heart. The Roman emperor Julian was known as the “Apostate” because he tried to return the empire to its pagan roots. As he considered how to revive interest in the ancient gods, he lamented that the post-apostolic church cared for everyone.
“The Christian faith has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” Emperor Julian the Apostate
These reflections expand on the thoughts I expressed in Christian Chaplains and God’s Promise to Abraham. The context I offered there applies here as well. Chaplains are a small part of it all. The whole church – individually and collectively – reflects God’s character of blessing and mercy.
The church expresses God’s character in its common life, in its members living wholesome lives that contribute to the good of society, in acts of mercy and blessing performed by both laity and clergy (both organized and spontaneous), and most of all in proclaiming the story of Jesus so that everyone might “flee the wrath to come” by turning from idols to worship the true and living God.