The Grace of Generosity

Passage : 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Probably the best measures of spiritual health in a Christian believer or church in London is prayer & giving – for time and money are precious – but prayer requires a sacrifice of time and giving a sacrifice of money. For financial support is part of being a church member – so our summary description of being a member at DD is that loving God, loving each another and loving our neighbour results in ACTAttending church & small group, Contributing our ministry & money and Talking to one another & unbelievers: contributing money is throughout the Bible and throughout the Christian world, considered basic to being a member of a church. In this passage the Apostle Paul outlines some motivations for giving for a reluctant church:

‘And now… the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches’ (1)

Paul, Christ’s appointed “Apostle to the gentiles”, wrote this letter to the churches of Corinth in Southern Greece in AD55, to explain his change of plans to visit and to defend his gospel teaching ministry from scornful criticism, and his personal integrity from malicious slander, spread by some unscrupulous false teachers who’d arrived in Corinth. He’s explained “the word in weakness is our way” motivated by deep love for them. In chapter seven, Paul has just described his joy – after being forced by rioting out of Ephesus in Turkey to travel across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia in N. Greece – when his colleague Titus arrived with encouraging news that the Corinthians have accepted his rebukes in a tough letter he’d sent; having defended his ministry in chapters 2-7 he now begins to prepare the Corinthians for his intended visit by addressing an increasingly embarrassing problem. Back in 1 Cor. 16 we read of Paul organising a huge collection from the churches he’d planted in Turkey and Greece for the poverty-stricken believers of Jerusalem. This gift from gentile churches to Jewish churches was a powerful demonstration of the love that the Spirit of God creates in his people across racial and cultural. His joy is diminished by distressing news from Titus that the Corinthian collection has collapsed. So here in chapters 8-9, Paul explains why and how Christians will always want to be generous and sacrificial in supporting other Christians in gospel ministry. The Bible’s teaching about using our wealth for God can be summarised under three principles:

We hear that some among you are idle…such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thess.3) – correcting a culture of dependency so wherever possible, we shouldn’t rely on the state or other Christians but earn a living to support ourselves; our families – ‘If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Tim 5:8) so Christians should try to care for our families and especially for aging parents; and our governments – Jesus said, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ and Paul says, ‘This is why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants’ (Mark 12; Rom.13) – so while we may debate or challenge the wisdom of particular taxation policies we should be glad to pay tax to fund public services;

Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages’ (Gal.6; 1 Tim.5) – so while Paul sometimes went without financial support to avoid the impression of being influenced by patronage (and insisted overseers mustn’t be lovers of money) he was glad to earn money and to raise financial support for gospel workers, declaring (in words I shared at a fund-raising dinner for potential Co-Mission patrons on Thursday) ‘by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words of our Lord Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20). So Christians will want to earn as much as we can to save as much as we can to give as much as we can to support gospel work – first for our church to grow our ministry team to reach our community, then for Co-Mission as we try to plant and strengthen 60 diverse gospel churches to reach London, and then for supporting our mission partners abroad: here at DD all that is done with what we give to church with 5% for planting and 17% for mission partners;

the O.T. law said, ‘do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your poor brother’ (Dt. 15) and encouraged generosity to poor believers by giving a tenth of all produce to support the clergy, foreign asylum-seekers, orphans and widows; in the N.T. we read that the newly spirit-filled church in Acts 2, ‘had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need’; the apostles agreed ‘we should continue to remember the poor’ (Gal 2); Paul commands the wealthy of Ephesus, “to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim.6) and James warns against being those who have ‘hoarded wealth in the last days’ (James 5); the standard of living we consider appropriate is a matter of prayerful freedom, so we mustn’t judge one another – but the Biblical principle seems to be moderation: ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches but give me only my daily bread’ (Pr.30) combined with sacrificial generosity. John writes, ‘If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him’ (1 Jn.3); in responding to the needs of the unbelieving poor, rather than be paralysed by the immensity of global need, Jesus teaches us in his parable of the Good Samaritan to help the neighbour we come across in any way we can, especially with the gospel that alleviates eternal suffering. In summary, we should support ourselves, our families and our governments, support gospel workers in our church and beyond, and give to the needy, especially our Christian brothers and sisters (I’ve printed copies of a short sermon on James and my booklet on wealth, “Better to be a camel” available at the back). Of course we need everyone at DD to get involved in financial support which we can do on-line because we are currently operating at a loss since so many maxed out supporting our Building project (though we want to expand our ministry team for our new building) – so if we haven’t been giving to DD before, we really should get involved! But when it comes to money, it’s all motivation: WHY would we want to give? There’s been a spectacular tradition of sacrificial generosity over the years at this church (e.g. finishing the factory) but WHY? Paul urges the cosmopolitan Corinthians to get involved by comparing their reluctance with the generosity of the Macedonian churches …which in v.1 he calls, ‘the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches’ for giving is a gift from God:

Their joy and poverty welled up in rich generosity! (2-5)

V.2 – ‘In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity’ – in the midst of persecution, which had serious economic consequences for the Christians, (presumably because unbelievers no longer wanted to trade with them – which is the primary form of persecution across the world today) – their ‘overflowing joy’ in being saved by Jesus from the misery of idolatry for the delights of knowing Jesus, when combined with their extreme poverty, welled up, lit. overflowed in extravagant generosity – presumably evident not in the amount (for they had little) but in the percentage – like the poor widow Jesus observed putting two copper coins into the temple treasury who was giving all she had! Perhaps the Macedonians’ experience of persecution and poverty made them feel a compassionate empathy for the suffering believers in Jerusalem, but their primary motivation was overflowing joy in salvation! Paul continues, v.3, ‘For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability’ – their generosity exceeded Paul’s estimate of what was possible – indeed, v.3 ‘Entirely on their own’, without any suggestion or pressure from Paul because they were so poverty-stricken, v.4, ‘they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints’ i.e. they begged to be involved in what they considered a great honour, of sharing with other churches in Paul’s support ministry for the ‘saints’ – God’s holy people in Jerusalem; notice they pleaded – unlike the Corinthians who had to be chased; they realised that financial support is a ministry to God’s people which is something we can all share in (and often makes sense of the crazy hours we have to work in London) – something they could share in and not leave for others to struggle with (unlike the Corinthians who were famously well off like London); in fact, v.5, ‘they exceeded our expectations: they gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God to us’ – this is the kind of generosity Paul must have longed for – they understood that sacrificial giving begins with giving themselves to be Christ’s possession bought with his blood, and then gave themselves to support Paul’s gospel; it’s tempting for wealthier people in Corinth then and in London now, to give some money to pay our dues (or generously back our own projects (which isn’t really giving) and be done with the Lord’s claim upon us – but God wants us to first give ourselves to him and then give for others to use in gospel ministry; the central truth those poverty-stricken Macedonian churches still teach us today is that, far from resenting giving as a heavy burden dumped upon us by manipulative clergy, giving is the privilege of voluntarily sharing in a ministry to God’s people motivated by the overflowing joy of those who’ve first given themselves to the Lord! E.g. one elder asked to give. Paul will shortly remind us of why the Lord motivates Christian sacrificial generosity like this! Now Paul turns to the Corinthians…

We urged Titus to help you excel in this grace of giving! (6-7)

Paul calls financial support, ‘this grace of giving’, because being voluntarily generous is a gift given from God’s grace – not the price or tax for attending church; although he’s urging them to take the opportunity to contribute, he isn’t commanding them or us: giving is a grace, fuelled by the grace of God toward us…

V.6 – ‘So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part’ – Titus will be carrying this letter back to Corinth – and one reason for sending Titus is that Titus had previously begun the collection which has now collapsed (and explains why Paul has told the Corinthians at the end of the previous chapter how much Titus appreciated the refreshment of their hospitality); Paul is planning to come south to Corinth soon with some brothers from the Macedonian churches in the north – and he doesn’t want the embarrassment of having ‘bigged’ up the Corinthians only to find they still haven’t organised their giving; so he appeals to their city church pride in excellence… 

V.7 – ‘But since you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in yousee that you also excel in this grace of giving’ – the original word translated ‘excel’ is again the word overflow – to draw a deliberate and pointed contrast between the overflow of joy resulting in generosity in the poor Macedonians with the overflow in Corinth of gifts listed in 1 Cor.12 that was focussed on themselves: they’re glad to overflow with faith that prays for miracles, speech expressed in ecstatic tongues and knowledge of God that impressed their friends – but Paul invites them to seek God’s gift of overflowing generosity that benefits other believers and churches;

– while spiritual gifts come from God, it is a choice we make whether to pray for them and invest energies in them; this is important for us at DD – we’re not so fascinated by the charismata of tongues as the Corinthians were, or as many Charismatic churches in London today would be, but we do like to think that our faith in God’s word is strong and our speech in teaching is excellent and our knowledge of God from the Bible is impressive – we are pleased our church services are becoming more exciting, especially in a new building – but do we excel in the grace of giving? I think the answer is mixed – some of us have been giving incredibly generously for many years – to the gospel ministries of this church, and for our ten church plants and now Co-Mission network, and for our international partners; some have giving with amazing self-sacrificial generosity e.g. our Elders who financed the Factory; but not all of us are generous – some of our church members haven’t started to give yet? Paul was asking the Corinthians to excel in giving – could we do the same: Now Paul reminds us of WHY

Remember the grace of our Lord who became poor so we can be rich! (8-9)

V.8 – ‘I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others’ – Paul has no command from the risen Christ to pass on to them, so their involvement in the collection is entirely optional – as our involvement in funding the ministries of our church must be optional and voluntary; but that doesn’t mean Paul has no reason to encourage them to get involved. He wants to test the sincerity of their love for God and his peoplefor what we give, not the amount but the level of sacrifice, is a very good practical measure of their love – for real love is never just sentimental feelings or words – if we mean what we pray and sing and have on our church strapline about loving God, loving other people and loving our neighbour, we will give generously and sacrificially to the gospel ministries of our church; indeed, without setting up any competitive rivalry, Paul says it is helpful to compare their giving with the Macedonians: at present the wealthier Corinthians were giving far less sacrificially than their poor brothers and sisters in Macedonia (which I gather is usually the case – wealthier Christians tend to give proportionally less than poorer Christians; but now Paul reminds them of the heart-felt motivation for giving in all believers…

‘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 through his poverty might become rich’ – consider the grace, the undeserved sacrificial generosity of our Lord Jesus towards each of us – he was ‘rich’, fabulously wealthy in the glorious comforts of heaven in eternity past – but for your sake, for your salvation, he became poor – born into a poor tradesman’s family who were refugees to Egypt before returning to the northern town of Nazareth; Jesus became a poor itinerant preacher with no-where to lay his head, having no property or income to rely on, before being arrested, unjustly tried, tortured and then crucified for us in degradation and pain – in the poverty of our hell because he loves us; and why? So that we might become rich in his wealth, enjoying his blessings e.g. the film ‘Trading places’ like Dan Ackroyd and Eddy Murphy

We are now spiritually fabulously rich cf. meeting the partners of my old law firm

Complete your commitment according to your means! (10-12)

v.10 – ‘And here is my judgement about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.’

Finish the work – don’t just think and talk about it – actually do it!

According to your means – don’t over commit – no law (though in most countries Christians assume 10%) perhaps start at 5% and increase by 1% each year! 

V.13 – ‘Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard-pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, 15 as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’

More about the author :

Richard Coekin

Richard is married to Sian and they have five grown-up Children and a dog called Hudson. He is the Senior Pastor of Dundonald Church and CEO of Co-Mission Church planting initiative in London and has a Bible teaching ministry in parliament. He is the author of several books most recently, Ephesians for You, the reluctant Evangelist, Faith for Life and has a Bible Ministry in Parliament. He is passionate about Jesus Christ, rugby, ski-ing, and the moment when Julia Roberts says “indefinitely” in the film Notting Hill (in that order).

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