Excel in This Act of Grace
2 Corinthians 8:1-15 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 28, 2019 (am)
There are few things to which we’re more committed, instinctively committed, than our money. It is, without question, the primary idol of our age, and probably of every age. What I mean by that is that money is the primary possession that we’re tempted to trust in ahead of God. We can see this in two ways. First, money is the primary thing we believe can take care of us in times of need. It can ensure that both our needs and our wants will be met. In a season of any sort of hardship, money enables a way out. It removes any obstacles to receiving the help we need. If we get sick or have an accident in the car or at home, money gets us the care we need. It repairs the things that are broken. And it replaces whatever we lost. Second, though—and this is the big one—if we lack money, we can find it hard to believe that even God can help us! It’s almost like God can help us spend our money wisely, but earning it is up to us. So, if we lose it for any reason, regardless of whether we’ve been thrifty or lavish, in my experience we’re more inclined to find our own solutions than to ask God for help.
Money is a sensitive topic anywhere, but especially in church. These days many people think that’s all the church wants. And far too often they’re probably right. Many brands of churches put money ahead of ministry in the priorities they pursue; but I don’t believe those are the truest churches. Yet even the churches that don’t do that can often operate the same way we often do in our own households—seeking God to help us spend our money well but believing that filling our coffers is up to us. So, churches hire stewardship services when it comes time for a Project Refresh or a Building for the Glory of God. We’ve tried to set a different pattern here at GCD. That’s part of the reason why our offering boxes are mounted to the walls and not passed through the aisles. We believe that giving is an essential component of our corporate worship but having you give at some time other than during our main worship gathering is an expression of our trust in God as our Provider, not in human methods. This is also why we just mention our financial needs to our whole spiritual family and ask you to pray with us about them, seeking God to answer rather than implementing a fund-raising strategy or, again, hiring an outside agency. We’re not just implementing a different kind of strategy—some kind of toe-in-the-sand approach. And my pointing it out is not attempting to blow our own horn and say: We do it best. We just do it this way so that, as God answers, we’ll all know together that it’s God Who answered, just as He’s faithfully done yet again here at the end of FY2019!
Still, money is a sensitive subject, as we said. So, I’m going to start with a bit of humor this morning just to remember that we’re pretty committed to our money even outside of church, apart from our faith. Morris & Ester were an aging couple who went to the state fair every year. And every year Morris would say to Esther: I’d like to ride in that helicopter. And Esther would always reply: I know Morris, but that helicopter ride is fifty dollars. And fifty dollars is fifty dollars! After many years as they were entering the fair and walking by the helicopter ride, Morris said: Esther, I’m 85 years old. If I don’t ride that helicopter this year, I might never get another chance. And Esther reliably replied: I know, Morris, but that helicopter ride is fifty dollars. And fifty dollars is fifty dollars! But this time the pilot overheard their conversation, and he said: Folks I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take the both of you for a ride. If you can stay quiet the entire time and not say a word, I won’t charge you. But if you say anything, it’s fifty dollars each. Morris and Esther agreed and up they went. The pilot did all kinds of fancy maneuvers, but not a word was heard! He did his daredevil tricks over and over again, but Morris & Ester were silent! When they landed, the pilot turned to Morris and said: I did everything I could to get you to yell out, but you didn’t! I’m really impressed! Morris replied: Well, to tell you the truth, I almost said something when Esther fell out back there. But you know, fifty dollars is fifty dollars!
How we think about money runs deeper than we think. Dave Ramsey says that money is the number one issue married couples fight about and it’s the second leading cause of divorce, behind infidelity. Money holds a very important place in our hearts. And it’s much harder to understand it and manage it well than we’d actually think. Enter 2Co.8-9. I believe these two chapter comprise the most helpful instruction we receive on this topic in all of the Bible. And I believe the Bible is the best resource we have to help us understand and manage our money. Paul has just finished rejoicing over the repentance (7:9) of the majority (2:6) of the church in Corinth. They’ve listened to his instruction. They’ve put it into practice. And even though there are still some hard things they’ll need to hear (cf. cc.10-13), Paul wants to address a very important subject with them first: the collection for the believers in Jerusalem. This is one of four places where Paul brings up this subject (Rom.15:25-32; 1Co.16:1-4; Gal.2:10) and as we listen in on his instruction here, we get a graduate course in Christian giving. We’ll look at it this Sunday and next. Three observations today:
The Amazing Example of the Macedonians – 1-5
1 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia. This was probably not news to the Corinthians any more than it is to us. We’ve heard of these [Macedonians] churches—Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (Hafemann 331)—many times. They were amazing, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty [had] overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. To put it another way, their joy in the Lord was so [abundant] that, even during a season of affliction that was [testing] them [severely]—namely, extreme poverty—their response to the needs of others was an outpouring, a wealth, of generosity on their part. Only God can enable that! Generosity from poverty! 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— that’s the one that get me every time! This is how Paul clarifies what he means by their abundance of joy and a wealth of generosity: they gave beyond their means—more than they could reasonably afford to give—and they were begging… earnestly for the favor, lit. the grace, the privilege, of [giving it]!
So, how did they do it? 5 … [T]hey gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. They belonged to God, and they knew it. They entrusted themselves to God in the midst of their extreme poverty. And they weren’t just willing to give beyond their means, not even just desirous of doing so, they were [joyful] to do so! Their abundance of joy in the Lord utterly outweighed the [distress] of their poverty such that they were confident He would provide for them!
There is no thrill like this! Not even on a helicopter ride! There is no thrill like being in a situation where God must act or all is lost, then seeing God act! And that is in the picture as we move to observation two.
The Earnest Urging of the Corinthians – 6-7, 11-15
In essence, Paul wants the Corinthians to have the same experience the [Macedonians] have had. They had gotten started on this work very willingly (11, 12) a year prior (10) but had been interrupted in it almost certainly by the situation Paul addressed in his painful letter (2:1-4), which was now resolved (2:5-13; 7:2-16). So, Paul was urging them, in the only command that appears in cc.8-9, to finish (11) what they started. 11 So now finish doing it…, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. Finish the good work you started because it was born of the right motive. That’s what Paul meant by readiness: eager willingness (NIV). They were prepped and ready to go in a way that resonated with the Macedonian giving, so they needed to finish that work!
Toward that end, Paul asked Titus to take care of it (6). He had just facilitated their reconciliation, so he could handle the collection as well. And as for the Corinthians: 7 … as [they] excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, the very things he had commended them for at the opening of 1Co., but now also in all earnestness, and in our love for you; they excel in the love Paul has for them!—see that you excel in this act of grace also. Excel in this grace of giving, this gift from God that reflects genuine conversion more clearly than just about any other response to the gospel!
It’s been said that the last part of us that’s converted is our wallet; there’s that idolatry again. But the [Macedonians’] love of God, their joy in the Lord, surpassed their devotion to money such that, even lacking it themselves, they still gave away what they had! The Corinthians were prepared to do something similar, but Paul wanted to clarify a matter first. It wasn’t the [Macedonians] who set the standard for giving. Giving beyond their means was fine so long as it was motivated by love (cf. 1Co.13:1-3). But it was that motivation of love, that condition of the heart, that readiness (11, 12) as Paul talks about it here, that was the key issue. 12 For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable to give according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. The [Macedonians’] example is fine. But the issue is not the size of the gift (Luk.21:1-4); nor is it the amount of sacrifice (3, cf.12). The issue is readiness, the state of the heart. And if the readiness is there, it’s not a requirement that we give beyond our means (12) just because the [Macedonians] did. 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. This is an interesting statement. And to be clear right out of the blocks, Paul is not talking about some first-century form of socialism here. We can see that most easily as we recognize that the abundance that comes back to the Corinthians from those in Jerusalem is not likely money. It’s more likely the inheritance of their faith which is rooted with the Jews.
First, the purpose of the collection is not to relieve the saints in Jerusalem by impoverishing the Corinthians (Hafemann 340). And surely Paul is not just trying to make sure they all have roughly the same amount of financial resources—we learn in Kindergarten that fairness is not everyone getting the same thing, but everyone getting what they need. And that’s just what Paul is talking about here.
So, second, Paul sheds light on what he means here as he talks about this same collection in Rom.15. Referring to the contribution from Macedonia and Achaia to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem, he wrote: 27 … they were pleased to [give] it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. Each were contributing to the other’s best—[loving] the other (cf. 8).
So, he finished with this quote from Exo.16:18: 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” Just as God provided manna in the wilderness such that it met everyone’s need, so it was God who had provided salvation for the Gentiles through the Jews. And on a significantly more practical level, so it was God who had provided the resources the Corinthians enjoyed. And Paul is suggesting that God had done so, at least in part, so that they could help supply the needs in Jerusalem at the present time (14). So, bottom line for the Corinthians: not only is this giving their responsibility and their privilege, their joy, but in God’s economy they need not fear any lack as a result of it! Their giving is a demonstration of the authenticity of their trust in God. And the God Whom they trust will prove trustworthy!
The Enabling Work of Christ on Our Behalf – 8-10
And that is what we see in our final observation. Paul wants the Corinthians to excel in this act of [giving] (7) in order to put their love on display, in order to prove that [it] is genuine (8). And even though it surely helps to look at the [Macedonians] to see how that might work, there is a better example still: Jesus Himself. 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—our example, our power. Ultimately when you give like this, when you love like this, you are imitating not the amazing [Macedonians] but the utterly indescribable, eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity Who existed from eternity past in sweet and loving fellowship with the Father and the Spirit, but Who, now, at the present time (14), has laid down the privilege of His position as God in order to take on flesh for us, and not flesh alone, but death according to the flesh—death which pays in full God’s just penalty for the sins of all who believe, so death in judgment, which means He experiences, on our behalf, the rejection of His eternally beloved Father, as though He were the sinner! From absolute privilege to absolute poverty, that is Jesus’ expression, so that [we] by his poverty might become rich! (9) 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. And Rom.8:32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Rom.12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers [and sisters], Paul wrote to the Romans, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. [Give yourself] first to God and then by [His will] to [the work of ministry] (5). Recognize the grace of God that is yours in Christ, yours by faith alone apart from any form of works! He absorbed your poverty and bestowed upon you His limitless wealth—every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph.1:3)—freeing you to be [generous] with your money, your possessions, your life, your children’s lives, everything!
What the [Macedonians] did that was so exemplary was not primarily given from a place of poverty (2-3) or even begging for the favor of [giving] (4), it was [giving] themselves for to the Lord and then by the will of God to [Paul and gospel work] (5). There is our pathway to freedom from idolizing money, to treasuring it as if it were god. There is our pathway to an abundance of joy in the Lord that can outweigh even extreme poverty and enable us to [overflow] in a wealth of generosity like the [Macedonians]. If we discover that God can be trusted to meet our needs—even financial, especially financial—then I believe the church will break through to an experience of intimacy and trust and faithfulness in their walk with the Lord that will eclipse anything they’ve experienced prior.
Three Summary Observations
The experience is so easy to describe, to express. It’s not at all difficult to understand, or even to imagine what it looks like to excel in this act of grace, of [giving]. Also…
The promises are so clear in God’s Word. Consider the very familiar one in Mat.6 that speaks even of our most basic needs in life: 33 … [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Remember Paul’s reassurance to one of the [Macedonian] churches: Phi.4:19 … [M]y God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Quite evidently they trusted that promise! Do we? So here it is…
The hard part is just trusting God with our money. And that’s why it is so helpful that Paul points us right back to where the power and example truly come from. All that we need to trust God in this area has been provided for us through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. Through His poverty we have become rich—rich in faith such that we if we find ourselves in a severe test of affliction, even something so severe as extreme poverty, it will not be able to touch our abundance of joy or stem the [overflow] of a wealth of generosity from our lives, any more than it did from theirs. The [Macedonians] were not superhuman. They were just forgiven sinners whose weakness was the backdrop for the amazing grace of God, just like ours is!
Trust God; just trust Him and let’s enter into this grace together and see where it leads us!