October 21, 2017

The Biblical Approach to Disaster Relief

Gordon A. Dickson

  • On December 26, 2004, the largest earthquake in four decades ruptured the Indian Ocean and produced the deadliest tsunami in history. Fatalities: More than 225,000.
  • August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of Mississippi and Louisiana. Fatalities: 1800.
  • April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, a murderer killed 32 people.
  • February 5–6, 2008, a series of violent tornadoes tore through Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. Fatalities: 55.
  • May 3, 2008, Cyclone Nargis swamped the coast of Myanmar and the city of Yangon. Fatalities: 78,000.
  • May 12, 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck three provinces in western China. Fatalities: 67,000.
  • June 9–18, 2008, the worst flooding on record submerged parts of Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa. Fatalities: 10.
  • August–September 2008, Hurricanes Faye, Gustav, and Ike came ashore in Haiti, Cuba, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Fatalities: Hundreds.
  • Each new temblor in southern California reminds the people that “the Big One” may be only days away.
  • Even now the US government is running public service announcements to warn the population about the history and potential danger of an influenza pandemic.

These printed words seem to groan under the sheer weight of the human tragedies they are forced to convey. The terse descriptions above don’t even begin to address the agonies of the millions of survivors of these disasters. And the three groaning observers of Romans 8:18–26 (creation, Christians, and the Comforter) wordlessly endure these agonies. But the Scriptures portray each new disaster as a meaningful object lesson about eternity. Catastrophic earthly miseries should cause everyone to look at the coming eternal miseries of the lost. Therefore, the New Testament church must prepare to use each new disaster to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Disaster Declaration

The Good News of Jesus Christ must be continually proclaimed, especially with each new disaster. Christ gave the classic example of how to make a “disaster declaration” in Luke 13:1–5.

First, Christ used the story of the disaster to replace human suppositions with God-given authority. The crowd around Him buzzed with the news of a massacre: Pilate had killed several Galileans and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. The people were speculating that the victims must have been very evil. Take note of how Jesus Christ set aside these speculations. He asked, “Suppose ye that these Galilæans were sinners above all the Galilæans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Christ raised their suppositions and set them aside with authority: “I tell you, No!” After every disaster, there will be speculations about the reasons behind the catastrophe. The media “talking heads” will seek the meaning in human tragedies. It is important for the church to respond with Scripture in order to set aside the human suppositions that accompany each new disaster.

Second, Christ used the context of the disaster to remind those who remained about their eternal destinies. He told them that, unless they would repent, they would all “likewise perish.” In so doing, He used a horrible event as an object lesson about the universal human tragedy. This teaches us that we ought to remind those around us that these horrible, earthly miseries point to the eternal miseries in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15). The eternal tragedy is universal—unless every individual will undergo an exceptional reversal: genuine repentance. The right “disaster declaration” is the gospel message of repentance.

Third, Christ used the aftermath of both manmade and “natural” disasters to proclaim the message. According to the speculations today, natural (or “impersonal”) disasters spring from “Mother Earth,” a warmer globe, industrial wastes, overpopulation, etc. Christ marshaled the news of a tower collapse to preach the gospel message of essential, individual repentance. When the next series of floods, tornadoes, or earthquakes strike your area, do you see how you could use the aftermath of that disaster to declare the Good News of Christ? It is not enough to say that you escape without much property damage; it is essential that you help those who are in danger of the ultimate, permanent disaster to escape.

The gospel of Jesus Christ must be continually proclaimed, even in a disaster—especially with each new disaster. How can this be done? Here are some Biblical principles we can learn to apply in evangelistic disaster relief.

A Ministry Model for Disaster Relief

How can the New Testament church passionately prepare to use each new disaster to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ? So far, we have discussed the essential nature of the “disaster declaration.” Now let’s discuss what it means to prepare for such a proclamation.

The Importance of Knowing the Words

In the New Testament, Acts 10 describes the wonderful story of the conversion of the Gentiles. Acts 11 records how the conversion of the Gentiles produced a confrontation with the Jewish believers at Jerusalem. As the apostle Peter was reporting what had happened, he used a truly remarkable quotation to make his point. In Acts 11:14, Peter was quoting from Cornelius who, in turn, was quoting from the angel who appeared to him. What message did the angel deliver to these lost men? The angel said (about Peter), “[He] shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.” For every observer, this highlights the importance of knowing the words! For every believer, this emphasizes the importance of telling others the message of salvation.

The Importance of Planting and Growing Churches

This important reminder helped to fuel the Great Commission efforts found in Acts 11:20. These efforts resulted in the planting of the church at Antioch. Under the leadership of Barnabas (“the son of consolation”), the church at Antioch grew strong in the grace of God. The Word of God, planted upon the soil of their souls, bore fruit to the praise and glory of Christ. In a surprising move Barnabas left Antioch for a time in order to find the teacher who could help them: Saul (Paul) of Tarsus. Verse 26 records the historic greatness of that ministry: “And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” Here we see the vibrant power of the teaching and preaching of the Word of God in the church. The church at Antioch was acting upon its God-given mandate: fulfilling the Great Commission in the power of the Spirit. There can be no effective “disaster relief” unless it is built upon the foundational emphasis of planting and growing churches.

The Importance of Responding to Disasters

For the purposes of this article, it’s important to study what happened next, in Acts 11:27–30. The church became aware of an impending disaster that would be worldwide in scope. For a moment, put yourself in their place. How would you respond to the news of an impending worldwide disaster? Most disasters are regional or local in scope, but this one would be a worldwide famine. So how would your church, for instance, respond to news of an impending worldwide influenza pandemic?

Since the church at Antioch couldn’t meet the needs of the whole world, they chose to do what they could do: focus their efforts in one local area. They chose to help the believers in Judea. If your church chooses to organize relief efforts in the face of a widespread disaster, you will have to make these same choices. You are not trying to be exclusive, but effective. The church at Antioch focused their efforts on a limited area and concentrated on helping specific people. They probably chose the persecuted Judean believers because they knew that they had no other human recourse for help. In so doing, they enabled those churches to continue to evangelize their neighbors in the crisis. Antioch’s disaster relief is the classic example of churches helping churches. Verse 30 shows that they gave careful thought to the responsibility for these relief funds as well.

It Is Voluntary, Not Mandatory

It is important to note that the church at Antioch was not following a specific command to be involved in relief efforts. These efforts were not directly mandated by the Great Commission. They were an example of Christian compassion in a voluntary application of the command to love one’s neighbors—part of the “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” This relief effort was voluntary and given in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 8:8–21. As you know, many relief organizations began with Christian motives. But over the years, these organizations have emphasized relief methods without the message of redemption. Among many relief organizations with “Christian” names, one hears nothing of the urgency of sharing the Good News of Christ with the lost. If you choose to act in the face of an impending disaster, you must be guided by careful stewardship of the Great Commission.

Specific Principles of Disaster Relief

If you are called upon to respond to an impending or actual disaster, here are some Biblical principles to consider.

1. Good works can break down barriers for a gospel witness.

In Matthew 5:16, Jesus Christ commanded, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Evangelism itself is a good work, but other compassionate good works can break down barriers for the gospel witness (cf. John 10:32). Believers must be equipped to do the good works that can draw the attention to the Lord. Like the Good Samaritan, they can take the opportunity to help those who desperately need them.

2. Mature Christians can have a ministry of comfort.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3, 4 we find these words: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” Christians know the comfort of knowing Christ. They know how the Father of Mercies and the God of all comfort has comforted them in their trials. As a result, they know how to use God’s comfort to reach out to those who experience disasters. We dare not place our personal comforts above our desire to reach those who face a potential disaster (e.g., Jonah 4).

3. Christians should work to meet the needs of others.

By his life (Acts 20:32–35), the apostle Paul modeled the truth of Ephesians 4:28: “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.” This is how each disciple of Antioch was able to respond “according to his ability” (Acts 11:29)—by practicing good stewardship. Believers should plan their personal finances in such a way that they can help to meet the needs of others. If the treasure of the gospel makes us faithful “debtors” (Rom. 1:13–17), then we cannot allow financial debt to disable our ministry.

4. We seek to help all men, especially Christians.

Galatians 6:10 states this plainly: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” In the words of Galatians 2:10, “Remember the poor.” As noted earlier, this is a personal choice to obey Christ’s command to love your neighbors as yourself. In the words of 1 John 3:16–18, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”

5. Disaster relief can be a “boomerang” of blessing.

With all the needs of your church, you may wonder why your church should help another church. Paul explained this in 2 Corinthians 8:14: “But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality:” The day may come when your church will experience a disaster or “a time of want.” When that day comes, won’t you be glad that your church helped other churches in their time of need? Experience has shown that those who have received help are the first ones to offer help when the crisis comes. When your disaster strikes, prepared churches can help you share the Good News of Christ in your own disaster zone.

The New Testament church must prepare to use each new disaster to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ. In so doing, we can show a lost world the comfort of Christ to deliver souls from the ultimate, eternal disaster.


Gordon Dickson is the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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