What We Work For

 

Week of March 16, 2014

 

Bible Verses: 2 Corinthians 8:1-9.

 

The Point:Support Godís kingdom work with your income.

 

Wealth of Generosity:2 Corinthians 8:1-2.

 

[1]We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, [2]for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.[ESV]

 

[1-2]ďPaul begins his appeal by informing the Corinthians how the grace of God has been given to the churches in Macedonia, presumably, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. The phrase we want you to know is frequently used as a transition marker in Paulís letters. Grace is a key word that appears ten times throughout these two chapters [8 and 9] with differing nuances. Here it refers to human generosity, which Paul understands to be something given by God. Grace is Godís unconditional benevolence toward us. When people are spontaneously generous toward others, Paul takes it as clear evidence that Godís grace is working in and through them. Attributing their generosity to Godís grace may reflect Paulís marveling over how this project was unfolding without his personal intervention. It is interesting that Paul understands that Godís grace does not lighten the Macedoniansí afflictions nor remove their deep poverty. Instead, it opens their hearts and their purse strings to others. Paul hopes that the Corinthians will take heart from the example of the Macedonians. It may seem that he is playing one church off the other: impoverished churches over against affluent churches, churches from the north versus churches from the south. But Paul is not stooping to any gimmicks in fund raising. He is not trying to raise a larger amount by inciting competition between churches to see who can raise the most. The amount does not matter; the spirit behind the giving does. If the Corinthians want to compete with the Macedonians, they should compete for the most joyful and willing attitude, not over the amount of money contributed. Attitudes of the heart, however, are far more difficult to measure and to compare, so humans tend to resort to flesh categories to evaluate giving and spirituality. By contrast, Paul commends the Macedonians for their overflowing joy and willingness to sacrifice for others in the midst of their own suffering. Paul asserts, however, that the Macedonians can take no credit for this joyful, willing attitude. It all comes from Godís grace given to them. Paul therefore bases his appeal to the Corinthians on the grace of God that continues to be richly poured out in the lives of Christians. Paulís approach to fund-raising is grounded in solid theological principles, and it should lead the Corinthians to ask themselves, ĎWhere is the evidence of the grace of God that has been given to usí? The Macedonians experienced an up welling of generosity during a severe test of affliction. The New Testament evidence suggests that they were no strangers to persecution [see Acts 16:20; 17:50; Phil. 1:29-30; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4]. The word translated test has a different nuance than the word for testing that is related to temptation. It points more to the positive outcome of such a test than to the test itself. The test proved their Christian character. The Macedonians also suffered from poverty that Paul vividly expresses as extreme poverty. Persecution and social ostracism probably caused this rock bottom poverty. Their poverty matches that of the saints in Jerusalem that was also caused by persecution and may have generated their empathy with them. In spite of persecution and poverty, they experienced an abundance of joy, which resulted in a wealth of generosity. In the New Testament the Christianís experience of joy has no correlation to his or her outward circumstances. Paradoxically, Christians can experience joy in the midst of great persecution and personal suffering. Paul holds up the supreme sacrifice of the Macedonianís in the face of extreme poverty as an example for the Corinthians. The Macedoniansí giving to help others who were also beleaguered by persecution and poverty follows the pattern of Jesus Christ mentioned in 8:9 who willingly accepted poverty and turned it into wealth for others.Ē[Garland, pp. 365-368].

 

The Essence of Christian Giving:2 Corinthians 8:3-7.

 

[3]For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, [4]begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints-- [5]and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. [6]Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. [7]But as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you--see that you excel in this act of grace also. [ESV]

 

[3-7]ďPaul says that they gave as much as they were able and beyond what they were able. He did not ask for any specified amount or percentage. The Macedonians had not prospered and given from their surplus. Instead, they gave out of their poverty more than could be expected or even thought wise. Paul emphasizes that they did this of their own accord, even begging Paul for the privilege of participating in the offering for saints in Jerusalem. Paulís primary reason for emphasizing that the Macedonians responded voluntarily is to make clear to the Corinthians that he did not constrain them in any way. The Macedonians did not plea poverty to evade any obligation; they pled with Paul instead to allow them to join in this service. By contrast, Paul has to plead with the more affluent Corinthians to follow through on their first pledge. Paul gives the impression that he was taken aback by the Macedoniansí eagerness and generosity. They gave beyond their means and did so without Paulís encouragement, let alone his insistence. If it comes from grace, then it cannot come from coercion. They gave beyond anything he anticipated because they gave of themselves. The quantity of what they gave does not matter to Paul, but the spirit in which they gave does. In keeping with this divine outlook, Paul never mentions the word money when talking about this project. He cloaks the whole enterprise in language that has both a formal administrative character and a theological character. It is a ministry of taking part, or Ďpartnershipí, Ďsharingí. Here Paul creates a new meaning for the word, koinonia (fellowship). This is the first use of the word for monetary collections. As the Philippians had formed a partnership with Paul in his mission work beyond Philippi [Phil. 1:5; 4:15], all the Macedonian churches want to form a partnership with other Christians in Judea. They beg to participate. Paul does not specifically identify the saints who are the recipients of this ministry. Expressing love for the saints in material ways, whoever they may be, is one measure that Paul uses to gauge the maturity of a churchís or individualís faith. Christians, like young children, need to grow out of their natural self-centeredness and learn to share with others. When they show evidence of this, Paul praises them profusely. The Macedonians gave beyond any reasonable hope. First, they gave themselves to the Lord. This refers to the priority of importance, not to time. They also gave of themselves to us, which means that they dedicated themselves to Paulís project. This phrase betrays that Paul recognizes how important the churchesí relationship to him is to the success of the project. If they are not prepared to give themselves to him, they are not likely to give to the relief fund. The past enmity between Paul and the Corinthians has threatened to suspend their participation. The Macedoniansí eagerness to participate allows Paul to use them as a model for the Corinthians. In doing so he makes clear that this surprising turn of events stemmed entirely from their dedication to the Lord. Paul puts their generosity in the context of their Christian commitment but also brings out their loyalty to him in a subtle way. Again, Paul leaves the Corinthians to draw the proper inferences for themselves. Generosity stems from devotion to Christ. Have the Corinthians surrendered themselves first to the Lord? Paul implies that devotion to Christ will also issue in support for Christís apostle. With the phrase by the will of God Paul makes more specific that the impetus for generosity comes from God and is related to Godís grace. Paul attributes the Macedoniansí generosity neither to his own successful apostolic ministry not to their own selfless action. It is God working in them, just as it will be when the Corinthians have completed their contribution to the fund. Paul now turns from the example of the Macedonians to the Corinthiansí responsibility in this ministry. Their initial zeal for the venture has evidently flagged, and they need more coaxing to insure that they will do what they promised. Their waning commitment to this ministry is attributable to the deteriorating relations between them and Paul that culminated in the painful visit and the painful letter. We do not know exactly what was the cause behind their procrastination, but Paul capitalizes on the renewed good will of the community toward him to raise the issue again. Paul has urged Titus to return to Corinth to help them fulfill their earlier promise, to finish what he and they started. We cannot be sure, but it is most likely that Paul refers to the recent past when Titus delivered the severe letter and remained in Corinth to revive their commitment to Paul. This verse becomes a delicate admonition for the Corinthians to follow through on their initial commitments. Rather than scold the Corinthians for not having finished, Paul instead praises them for their initial enthusiasm. They remain in the beginning stages, however; and he delegates the responsibility for helping them finish it to Titus. His warm reception by the Corinthians makes him the ideal candidate to fulfill the task. Paul continues his affirmation by praising them for excelling in almost everything: faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness, and love. Here he attests to their abundance of gifts and wants them to match it with an equal abundance of generosity. The verb translated excel is used in 8:2 to describe how the Macedoniansí depths of poverty overflowed into a wealth of generosity, The Macedonians overflowed with generosity, and the Corinthians overflowed with spiritual gifts. Paul hopes that these riches in gifts will lead to the same kind of overflowing generosity, literally, in this act of grace. There is some question concerning the correct translation of the last gift Paul mentions: and in our love for you, but see the footnote in the ESV: Ďin your love for usí. Considering the context where Paul is speaking about the gifts of the Corinthians, it would seem odd for Paul then to talk about his love for the Corinthians. In addition, in 8:8 Paul says that he is testing the genuineness of their love. So he must be speaking here about the love they possess for him, rather than the love he has for them (see the KJV and NIV translations). Paul concludes this section with an indirect command: see that you excel in this act of grace also. Paul apparently no longer feels free to make such direct commands as he did earlier [see 1 Cor. 16:1-2]. But he always prefers to lay out principles rather than lay down rules. In these two chapters on the collection, Paul spends most of his time explaining the principles that should motivate generosity rather than ordering the Corinthians to do what he wants. Yet Paul is not shy about telling them that they need to abound in graciousness or charity. It is abundance in the second triad of gifts (earnestness, love, and grace) that determines whether the abundance in the first triad (faith, speech, and knowledge) has any spiritual validity. A deficiency in the second calls into question whether their faith, speech, and knowledge are in any way meaningful to God. Paul has talked about the participation of the Macedonian churches in the collection as a sure sign that Godís grace had been given to them [8:1]. The Corinthiansí participation would reveal that Godís grace is just as active among them.Ē [Garland, pp. 368-375]

 

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ:2 Corinthians 8:8-9.

 

[8]I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. [9]For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.[ESV]

 

[8-9]ďPaul is moving cautiously and does not want to leave the impression that he is giving them orders. He is sensitive to any charges that he domineers over their faith. He also does not want them giving because of some external compulsion. In his letter to Philemon, he deals with his fellow Christian in the same way and does not command him what to do. Paul takes the freedom of Christians seriously. They may choose to take part or not. Their participation is purely voluntary [2 Cor. 9:5,7], and voluntary collections depend on the goodwill of the donors. Consequently, Paul does not command but instead invites, encourages, and lays out divine principles gleaned from Scripture. He hopes that they will respond out of hearts that have been freed by the gospel and fired by Godís grace. This does not mean that he sits by passively in wishful anticipation that they will choose the right thing. He is their spiritual director, and he spends two chapters outlining the reasons why they should participate. He does not want them giving for the wrong reasons. But Paul has the highest expectations that the Corinthians will give for the right reasons, and he offers a theological rationale for why they should give. The life of faith always brings its tests, and Paul equates the collection with a test. He says in 2:9 that he wrote the letter of tears to see if they would stand the test (that he might know their character). They passed that test, submitting to Paulís authority. Now he moves to another test. The Macedonians came through in a severe test of affliction and gave generously. For the Corinthians it is a test to see if their love is genuine, authentic. Paul leaves them with the implied question, What will they do when faced with their test? Paul intends for the Corinthians to show their love for Christ and Christís love for them by showing their love for their fellow Christians. Paul increases the potency of his entreaty by appealing now to the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of the Macedonians for others is one thing; the sacrifice of Christ for others is quite another. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ sums up Godís merciful action toward humanity. When we have been the beneficiaries of such undeserved grace, how can true Christians shut their hearts or purses to brothers and sisters in need or begrudge every penny they may share with others [see 1 John 3:16-20]? Godís lavishness in the gift of grace and the depths of Christís sacrifice requires that Christians be liberal in their giving to others. A halfhearted response ill befits the total sacrifice that Christ made for us. Paul employs a brief Christological confession in the service of his ethical exhortation. Though he was rich means that Christ did not exploit His status for His own advantage. Instead, He relinquished that status to serve others [Phil. 2:6]. His riches describe that estate of the pre-existent Christ which elsewhere in the New Testament is presented as the glory that I had with you before the world existed [John 17:5], or as being in the form of God and having equality with God [Phil. 2:6]. He became poor refers to the incarnation, the state Christ assumed voluntarily in taking on this mortal life. Christ renounced the divine fullness of power in which He dwelt with the Father, abandoned the heavenly glory which was His as the Son of God. He chose the poverty of human existence so that through His poverty He could impart the eternal riches of redemption to the poverty of all for whose sake He became poor. But how does this make us rich? Paul must also be thinking of Christís death on the cross. Christís incarnation climaxed in His death, and the principle of interchange Ė He became poor; we became rich Ė is the same as in 5:21: he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. The riches of salvation are not something that only await us in glory but are spiritual blessings that we can experience right now. The test for the Corinthians will be whether this spiritual enrichment will have any tangible effect on the way they share their economic riches with others. Paul drives home the point in the next chapter that God makes us rich so that we can be generous with others [9:11]. Christís sacrifice becomes the real motive for giving, not trying to copy or to outdo some sibling community. Paul asks them to respond to what Christ has done for them: and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised [5:15]. Thus Paul sets forth Christís self-giving as a model for the self-giving of all Christians Ė including how they should give their money. Yet Paul is not asking the Corinthians to give as Christ has given to them, or even to give of their lives to others in the same way he has as their apostle, nor even to give out of their impoverishment as the Macedonians have. Paul asks them only to give a fair share, a proportion of what they have, and promises that they will receive blessings in return. But he reminds them that Christ did not give His fair share! His gift was way out of proportion. Such unmerited grace from their Lord should inspire the Corinthians to be gracious to others who are in need. From the examples of the Macedonians and Christ the Corinthians can learn the following: (1) True giving requires giving of oneself, not just giving money. The gospel is not about what we can get from God but what God has given to us so that we can give of ourselves to others. (2) One can give out of extreme poverty, and one can give out of measureless riches. Those who are disinclined to be generous when they are poor are not likely to become suddenly generous when they are rich. (3) Giving is related to the grace of God experienced in Christ. The recipients are not required to have done anything to merit the gift except to be in need. The givers are made generous because of Godís grace working on them, in them, and through them.Ē [Garland, pp. 375-379].

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.†††††††† List the terms Paul uses to describe the Macedoniansí participation in the Jerusalem offering. Why did they give? How did they give? Who gets the glory in their giving?

 

2.†††††††† What is Paulís understanding of the essence of Christian giving? What principles of God-honoring giving does Paul emphasize in these verses? How is Jesus Christ an example for how we should give?

 

3.†††††††† Compare your attitude towards your monetary giving to that of the Macedonians. Is there anything that you need to change?

 

References:

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul Barnett, Eerdmans.

2 Corinthians, David Garland, NAC, B & H Publishing..

II Corinthians, Simon Kistemaker, Baker.