Chapel at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary never disappoints. It is my fill-up time after pouring out to students in my classes. While IMB President Paul Chitwood was serving as the executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, he preached a chapel sermon that had us on the edge of our seats. His closing illustration pictured the way the gospel liberates people from sin and brings them into God’s family as adopted children.
When Chitwood shared how he and his wife, Michelle, have adopted children, I felt an instant kinship with him. His story was lively, animated, authentic—exhibiting what my wife and I have experienced through expanding our family through adoption. At the time of Chitwood’s visit to MBTS, I was starting to write a book about the strategic nature of orphan-care ministries in the life of the local church. I wanted readers to know how foster care and adoption expand the church’s horizons to see the needs in their neighborhoods and the world.
In my research process, I interviewed Christian leaders who had also observed the way orphan care can stimulate a local church’s participation in the Great Commission. Chitwood shared how God helped him to see the connection between orphan care and the Great Commission. The Chitwoods were concluding a missions trip in South America where their team had been working in the slums outside of Rio de Janeiro.
No matter the activity, a particular nine-year-old girl attached herself to Michelle. The mission trip concluded with a celebration night, at which the girl’s mother appeared for the first time. This woman frantically spoke to the Chitwoods and pleaded, “Take my little girl! There’s no hope for her here!” She begged the Chitwoods, “Please take her!”
Though the Chitwoods were unable to honor the woman’s request, that event was indelibly imprinted on their hearts. They returned home burdened for kids like this girl—but even more so, for kids who had no parents at all. Several years later, the Chitwoods adopted a girl from China, providing their two biological children with a younger sibling. While Chitwood led the Kentucky Baptist Convention, one of his goals was to get more churches to think about fostering or adopting children right in their own state. In 2015, the Lord led the Chitwoods to become foster parents of a daughter they have since adopted.
‘I Will Not Leave You as Orphans’
In John 14:18, Jesus showed his heart for the vulnerable—for us. He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (ESV hereafter). It’s important to understand that Jesus’s statement is not a proof-text for orphan-care ministries. Jesus was acknowledging how his disciples felt as he was explaining God’s plan, which was unfolding before their very eyes. In effect, Jesus was saying, “I know what I’m saying may cause you to feel abandoned, like orphans, but do not worry!” Why? Because Jesus’s departure was the very act that would ensure they were not orphaned, spiritually speaking.
Orphanhood reflects the plight of lost humanity. Because of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden in Genesis 3, every human is estranged (orphaned) from God. So there is a sense of irony when Jesus told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans.” He was talking in the context of his farewell address, which took place in the upper room on the Thursday night before his crucifixion.
Here the apostle John recorded what may have been Jesus’s most intimate teaching to his disciples. John began this section by showing Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13 and following it with his prayer for them and the church in John 17. Jesus’s promise, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18), is the second of three references related to the orphan metaphor in John 14.
“Orphanhood reflects the plight of lost humanity.”
Jesus began John 14 by speaking about his Father’s house. This house, Jesus stated, has many dwelling places. The purpose of Jesus’s departure was to go and prepare a place for the disciples to be with him. His upcoming death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven provides all believers access to God’s presence and guarantees a dwelling place with God for eternity.
He told them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). The disciples felt like orphans, left alone. But throughout John 14, Jesus was teaching the disciples that his departure to the Father guaranteed that they would not be spiritual orphans.
The final reference to the orphan metaphor in is John 14:23: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The presence of a loving father and a dwelling place are exactly what every orphan needs and wants. Jesus assured his followers not only that they would have God as their Father but also that he and the Father would make their home with those who love Jesus. This is the reversal of the orphan condition in the grandest scale!
Orphan Care Near and Far
In John 14, Jesus uses the condition of orphans as a metaphor to empathize with how his disciples would feel upon hearing the news of his departure. The irony of Jesus’s message is the fact that the only way for them or any human to escape spiritual orphanhood was for him to finish his mission of death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. The Great Commission was given because of humanity’s orphaned condition.
“The Great Commission was given because of humanity’s orphaned condition.”
Orphan-care ministries will require us to cross boundaries of some kind. Whether you sense God’s call to care for vulnerable kids in your city or recognize the needs of orphans in Europe and Asia, you will likely have to overcome social, financial, and familial opposition. But know that if God has called you to foster or adopt, he will supply you with grace necessary to go beyond your natural abilities and cultural preferences. Whatever continents take up residence in your home, you will be reflecting God’s heart.
Let’s refuse to leave the world’s children as orphans, as Jesus said.