“The Grace of Giving”
2 Corinthians 8:1-24
June 8, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
In the previous chapter Paul had described his immense relief to have received from Titus such an enthusiastic and positive report concerning the Corinthian Christians and their continuing loyalty to Paul, proved above all by their humble and repentant reaction to Paul’s criticism of their behavior in the first letter. However, Titus had also brought news that there had been little progress in gathering the collection for the poor in Jerusalem.
This “collection,” remember, is referred to several times in Paul’s letters and particularly at the end of 1 Corinthians in 16:1-4. Paul was then on what we call his third missionary journey. On this pass through the Gentile churches he was collecting money for the poor in Jerusalem. This was a way not only to care for the poor in the gospel’s mother church, as he had been asked to do by the other apostles (as we read in Galatians 2:9), but a way also to cement the bond between the Jewish and Gentile churches. That bond, remember, had been strained by judaizers who were spreading rumors about the supposedly lawless character of Paul’s churches. Apparently his approach was the same for every church. Each congregation would not only collect money but select some man or men to take the gift to Jerusalem.
Assured of the Corinthians’ loyalty, Paul now feels free to bring up this matter of the collection. 2 Corinthians was delivered to Corinth by Titus, and as we will read, Paul entrusted him with the task of seeing the collection there through to its completion.
v.2 The example of the Macedonian churches (e.g. Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) was proof that generosity was not the exclusive prerogative of the well-to-do. Christian giving is always measured not in terms of the quantity of the gift but the sacrifice and love that lies behind it. They were suffering persecution themselves, but still saw the need of their brethren in Jerusalem as greater than their own.
v.5 Vv. 3-5 are a single sentence in Paul’s original, a typically run-on Pauline sentence. Nothing is more characteristic of Paul’s writing than his enthusiasm running away with the grammar. These Christians gave so generously not because Paul ordered them to or harangued them until they relented. They wanted to do more than Paul himself had expected and begged him to be able to do so. As Chrysostom puts it, it was they, not Paul, who did the begging. And, as Paul says, their gifts were only the effulgence, the overflow of the gift of themselves to the Lord.
v.6 Titus, carrying this letter back to Corinth, would be charged to oversee the completion of the collection.
v.8 All this about the generosity of the Macedonian believers was, of course, intended to spur the Corinthians on. Do what they did; be like they are. Paul is tactful, but he is not disingenuous. Everyone knows what he meant.
v.9 One of the many statements by the by in the NT that assume the stupendous fact of the incarnation. Jesus did not begin to be when he was conceived in the womb of his mother. He had been rich before, rich beyond our power to conceive. He was the eternal Son of God, or God the Son. Only his manhood began to be. We have the whole doctrine of Jesus Christ here in a nutshell. One person and two natures. We also have the motive that lay behind this greatest thing that ever happened. The incarnation of the Son of God was an act of self-denial, of self-abasement, of becoming poor for us. It was to suffer as a man in our place and so endure the punishment of our sins in our place that he became a man.
v.11 Clearly the Corinthians had begun to gather money for the collection and then had allowed the project to lapse, perhaps under the influence of the false teachers who had come among them. From what Paul says about them it is not a stretch to think that they wanted that money for themselves.
v.12 Paul is not concerned with the amount of their gift. He is concerned with the love in their hearts and the desire to serve the Lord.
v.13 Lest anyone think he cares more for the poor in Jerusalem than for his Gentile converts he hastens to say that he is not interested in easing one group’s burden by impoverishing another. He simply wants those who are enjoying a measure of prosperity to see their responsibility to relieve the pressure on those who are suffering want.
v.15 Paul illustrates the principle of equity by citing Ex. 16:18 where all Israel was commanded to gather manna but each Israelite was to be allotted the same measure. Some, no doubt, young and vigorous, gathered more; others through age and infirmity, less. But each received the same to eat. Anyone who hoarded found that the manna spoiled if kept over. In that way covetousness was condemned and generosity and brotherly love was encouraged. [Hughes, 307-308] This is not economics, by the way, that Paul is talking about; this is Christian love and good works.
v.18 It cannot be known for sure who this other brother is. For a variety of reasons too complicated to mention, Luke is perhaps the most likely choice. It is even possible that we are to read Paul here as saying that Luke’s praise is in the Gospel, that is, he is admired and loved for the Gospel he has written and which was already by that time known in the church.
v.19 Remember, it was Paul’s plan to bring to Jerusalem not only the monetary gift collected from the Gentile Christians but a representative from those churches whose presence would personalize the gift and seal the bond between the Jewish and Gentile parts of the church.
v.21 Having the representatives from the various churches accompany the gift distanced Paul from the money and assured that the collection would be used for the purpose for which it was made and for no other. Paul was well aware how a large sum of money provokes suspicions and was taking extra care that there be none of that regarding this collection. I saw a news magazine story on a prominent TV evangelist and faith-healer not so long ago. The frustration on the part of the reporters was obvious. They suspected malfeasance – because of what they had heard from people who had once been associated with that ministry, because of the amounts of money that were being raked in, millions upon millions, and because of the lifestyle of the minister himself. But they couldn’t come up with the smoking gun because the ministry shrouded its finances in almost total secrecy. No law required them to reveal the numbers and they didn’t. It is the exact reverse of Paul’s policy. Paul wanted complete openness so that there would be no hint of malfeasance associated in any way with the Gospel of Christ. This TV evangelist wanted complete secrecy so that he would not have to account for the huge sums he collected from his followers. Take your pick.
v.22 There was a third man making up the team sent from Paul. Like the second we cannot be sure of his identity.
It is said that confession is good for the soul. Well, I have a confession to make. I don’t like to preach about money or giving. I am enough of a pastor to know how important the subjects are. When surveys tell us that the number one cause of divorce is money, while I don’t believe that for a moment – money is usually a symptom, not a cause – I cannot deny the immense human toll of wrong thinking about money and the wrong use of money. I have seen both and not infrequently: the blessing that a Christian view of money and use of money bestow upon a person or a family and, contrarily, the bitter hardship and the dense cloud of discouragement that are the consequences of a selfish view and use of money. Of the importance of the subject, the importance to the happiness and welfare of everyone, I have no doubt.
But, nevertheless I don’t like to preach about money. I know that if I preach about money or about sex the congregation will pay close attention to what I have to say. In that sense it is easier to preach about money than about other things. But, I still don’t like to do it. I can’t help but think that there is someone here, perhaps a visitor, perhaps someone who has come a few times, who will think, “Well, it didn’t take him long to get to money!” And his or her worst suspicions about Bible Christians will be confirmed. Just like those people on TV who talk about Christ and the Bible but then spend equal amounts of time asking for money. Or, perhaps it only seems like an equal amount of time. In any case, it is something we are well used to. The proclamation of the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ has become something like a PBS pledge drive. That idea, that comparison is repugnant to me, and I’m sure it would have been to the Apostle Paul.
So, let me begin with several disclaimers. Paul here is not talking about collecting money for his own church. He is not talking about a collection of money from which he would derive any financial benefit. He goes out of his way to assure people that the gift is the gift of churches to a church, from Christians to other Christians. He has encouraged the giving and he has organized the process of collection, but the gift will be taken by those who gave it and given by them directly to those for whom it was taken. Given that the result of Paul’s accompanying these men and their gift to Jerusalem resulted in his being imprisoned for two years and then taken to Rome and placed in house arrest, and given that Paul knew in advance that by accompanying this gift to its destination he would place his freedom in jeopardy, we can safely exonerate the great apostle from any mercenary interest whatsoever.
The reason, however, we cannot avoid the subject, is that, as someone has said, the most sensitive nerve in the body is the pocket nerve. Money and the love of money are standing temptations in life and true faith and true loyalty to Christ will require, sooner or later, that a man or woman bring that dimension of life also into submission to him. Here too it remains forever true that a man must lose his life to find it, that the way of the transgressor is hard, and that in keeping the commandments of God there is a great reward. Robert Murray McCheyne, the celebrated 19th century Scottish pastor, spoke more solemnly in his sermons than people are used to nowadays, but no one can read the Bible or hear the sermons of Jesus himself and disagree with McCheyne’s conclusion.
“I fear there are many hearing me who now know well that
they are not Christians because they do not love to give. To
give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new
heart; an old heart would rather part with its life blood than
its money. Oh my friends! You better enjoy your money; make
the most of it; give none of it away; enjoy it quickly; for I can
tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.”
Paul did not want the Corinthians’ money in and for itself. He didn’t give a fig for the totals. He didn’t carry around with him some electronic readerboard that gave a running total of the amount provided by each church. He didn’t distribute pledge cards and he promised no CD or Video for gifts of a certain size. But he very definitely did want for these Christians what he calls “the grace of giving.” That phrase is not precisely what Paul wrote, but it is what he meant. He wrote that they should excel in this “grace,” but he meant by that single word “grace” that they should excel in generous giving to those in need. And it is no accident and it is of chief importance that he called this giving of money to others a grace.
He says that as they abound in other good things: in faith, in speech, and in knowledge, in their zeal and in love, let them also abound in this grace, that of giving generously. In other words, this liberality with one’s money is an important part of the Christian character. But what is meant when Paul calls it a grace? Well, several things.
1. He means that it is God’s work in them, his gift to them. “gift” and “grace” are the same idea. He said in verse 1 that this grace of giving is something that God gives to his people; it is the result of his work in them and his gifts to them. Their giving comes from His giving them the desire to. In other words, it is not a performance for which we might take credit and it is very definitely not a payment we make in hopes of some return. It is a spirit in us, a desire, a conviction, a pleasure, that God has put there.
2. Paul also means that generosity to others is the embodiment of Christ’s incarnation, the greatest act of grace of all. That is Paul’s point in v. 9. Someone becoming poor for others is how our salvation happened. It was through Christ’s self-giving that we come to live forever. No real Christian then can possibly not want that same self-giving to be a characteristic feature of his life. Whether or not we would do it for the sake of some other human being, we must do it for the Lord Jesus himself. It is the most sincere, the most weighty way of all for a Christian to say: “I get it! I get what you did for me, Lord Jesus. I understand what it took. I see how wonderful that self-giving was, how beautiful, how good. And, while I can save no one by my self-giving as you saved me, I can tell the world how much yours means to me by trying to imitate it in my life. To hold to yourself what is yours, to refuse to give to others what you might give when they are in need, is to demonstrate that you have not been touched by Christ’s great gift to you.
3. And, then, Paul says that this giving is a grace because it is another form of love. That is, it comes out of the heart. He says that in v. 8 when he tells the Corinthians that by their giving they prove their love. That is, what makes giving so important is what it reveals about the heart. We all know this is true. No young suitor boasts about how cheaply he bought the diamond ring. No parent regrets the expense when he sees the delight on his child’s face when the present is opened. Love only wishes there were more to give. That is what the Macedonian Christians proved. Had they had more, they would have given that too! For it was love, not duty, not jealousy, not fear that motivated the giving.
In secular finance money is just money. The IRS agent doesn’t give a fig what is in your heart when you send him your tax dollars. He doesn’t immediately call you up to find out if in your heart there was a desire to give even more than what your tax consultant said you owed. The grocery or department store doesn’t really care how you feel when you pay your bill. Money is just money both to them and to you. But for Paul and for every true Christian, the money is not the significant thing. It matters very little, at the last, how much money was given. The money matters only as an index of the love. But where there is love, Christ-motivated and Christ-imitating love, there will always be plenty of money. Love is in its very nature extravagant. It aspires, it reaches for more.
Because it is a grace it has this total lack of calculation in it.
Oswald Chambers, the celebrated Scottish Christian evangelist, preacher, and writer of devotional literature (Chambers died in 1917; his devotional classic, My Utmost for his Highest, was published posthumously in 1927), was one of many Christians throughout the history of the church who were profligate in generosity to others. On one occasion, walking back to his lodgings from the meeting he had conducted that evening, he was accosted by a drunk asking him for money. He listened to the man’s story and told him, “Man, I believe your story is all lies, but my Master tells me to give to everyone who asks, so here is my last shilling.” As he was putting it in the beggar’s hand he realized it wasn’t a shilling, it was a crown, a considerably larger sum and one he could ill afford to part with. It didn’t matter. “There you are, the Lord bless you.” When he got home his landlady chided him for his foolish generosity and he replied, “I believe beggars are sent to test our faith.” They used to say of Chambers that he lived on “nothing a year.”
But what a life, and what riches he left behind him for the generations to come who would read his books and find help in walking with the Lord as he did. A man who gives like that is a man who would write My Utmost for his Highest! Chambers was like the Macedonians. He was concerned about giving extravagantly to the praise of his Savior, he gave to others because he had first given himself to the Lord; he was happy to leave the practicalities to others. Those godly folk in Philippi and Berea, impressed by Christ’s gift to them, just wanted to give in return, to give in a way that would please the Lord. They were happy to leave it to Paul to make sure that the money thus given was handled in the proper way. The giving and the sacrificial giving was their business.
How often in the Lord’s own teaching did this spirit of extravagant generosity surface when he spoke of what constituted the truly good and worthy life, the life that is created by the grace of God in a human heart. Whether it is the good Samaritan, or his telling the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, or the dear woman breaking a year’s worthy of expensive perfume over his feet, the Savior tells us that those who understand his incomparably generous love will inevitably be generous themselves.
Think of the poor widow of Mark 12 to whom Jesus drew the attention of his disciples when she put her two small copper coins into the collection box of the temple in Jerusalem. They had watched others put in substantial sums. She put in two of the smallest of Jewish coins. Those coins were so small that together they amounted to the smallest Roman coin, which, in turn amounted to 1/64th of the denarius, the coin that was the ordinary daily pay for a laborer. She was a widow and, probably, as widows go she was the poorest of the poor. But she loved God and she loved the house of God. And out of her love she gave what she had. The coins were so small that the deacons probably resented having to count them! I remember once in Europe being asked for money on the street and I gave the fellow what I had in my pocket. But the coins were Austrian and I had just come into Germany. And, what is more, they were so small in value that the fellow couldn’t change them. So he gave them back. I gave money to a beggar and he gave it back to me disgusted. My gift was too small to do him any good.
That was how small this woman’s gift was. The temple’s affairs wouldn’t be effected by a gift that small. Why when they reported their numbers, her gift was probably lost in the rounding off. There was no need for her to take care that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. Neither hand would have been impressed. But it was what she had together with the love in her heart. She had seen no one, she had spoken to no one. She went up the great steps, passed by the box and tossed her tiny coins in and went right on to say her prayers, to meet with God, and to offer her heart once more to the one who loved her and saved her from her sins.
She had no idea that Jesus of Nazareth saw what she had done. She had no idea what he said to his disciples about her having given out of her need and how, therefore, she had given more, much more, than those who made much more substantial gifts but did so out of their wealth. I wonder if she yet knows what Jesus saw that day and what he said. What would she think if she knew the great compliment that the Savior of the world had paid to her? What would she think if she knew that God’s people had heard about her through the generations since and that on the other side of the world she was being spoken of today in the year A.D. 2003? And, what would she think if she knew that her two tiniest of copper coins had multiplied through the ages into millions upon millions of gold and silver as God’s people have been inspired by her generosity to be still more generous themselves? And what will she think when her great deed is shouted from the housetops on that great day still to come? And what would you think, if Jesus had said that about you?
We might well think that Jesus, knowing what he knew, would have run to that woman and told her to keep her two copper coins. She needed them much more than the temple did. They wouldn’t be missed at the temple but she would miss them and feel the lack of them. But, no, he would not withhold from that dear woman the grace of giving or the pleasure she found in it or the blessing that would be hers because of it. I tell you, there were many in that Corinthian church who spent the rest of their lives thinking themselves and telling their children how grateful they were that Paul’s letter and that good young man Titus had rescued them from the love of money and restored to them a right mind about the place money should occupy in the heart and the life of a follower of Jesus Christ.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though
he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you
through his poverty might become rich.”
Now there is a philosophy of life! And no one who lives by it will ever regret a moment and certainly never regret a gift. No one ever has.