The Grace God has Given us
24/01/2010 at 6.30pm
2 Corinthians 8
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by David Holloway
How do you think about money? Many people think that money is a means to happiness. This is quite false according to the consensus of social studies. They find wealth increases happiness only when it lifts people out of abject poverty. But once that happens it has little effect. One typical study used a scale of 1-7 where 1 means “not at all satisfied with my life” and 7 means “completely satisfied”. It found American millionaires were 5.8 while homeless people in Calcutta were 2.9. However, also at 5.8 were the Inuit of northern Greenland with no luxury lifestyle as were the cattle-herding Masai of Kenya, whose dung huts have no electricity or water. And proving the point about abject poverty, slum dwellers in Calcutta – just one economic rung above the homeless – rate themselves at 4.6!
How, then, should you relate to, and think about, money? Well, the Bible doesn’t focus so much on money and happiness. Rather it teaches that how you think about and handle money is a fundamental test of your spiritual state and spiritual health. So a “Giving Review” acts like a spiritual health check. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
19Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6.19-21).A “Giving Review”, therefore, is like a spiritual electro-cardiogram. It tells you about the spiritual state of your heart understood, as it is in the Bible, as the centre of the real you.
Our subject tonight as we look at Paul’s teaching on money and giving for the Corinthians is entitled THE GRACE GOD HAS GIVEN US. And we are going to look at 2 Corinthians 8.1-15.
I have three headings – they all begin with “P”: first, TWO PRESUPPOSITIONS; secondly, FOUR PRECEDENTS; and, thirdly, TWO PROBLEMS.
First, TWO PRESUPPOSITIONS
Paul’s first presupposition is what we have been discussing. Look at verse 8. He writes:
I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.Paul is saying that the response of the Corinthians to his appeal for money is a test of “the sincerity [or genuineness]” of the Corinthians love – for Christ, for others in the church and for himself. The first presupposition, then, is that generosity is an indicator of spiritual health.
His second presupposition is related, namely that in the Church you can have people who are all talk and no reality. And that is why a “test” is needed. In this day and age we have to be careful. There is so much doctrinal and moral confusion in the churches. The Church has always been under threat from people who the Bible calls “false prophets”. This is how Jesus ended the Sermon on the Mount:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them (Mat 7.15).But that is where some people, who are rightly concerned for Christian truth and reject “false prophets” and teachers, switch off. They forget that Jesus immediately then issued a second warning and said:
21Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers' (Matthew 7.21-23)Paul knew that there could be two sorts of people like that in the church at Corinth. There can be in every church ever since. These are not false prophets – these are false professors. Outwardly they seem sound and true. But in reality they are, to use Jesus’ term, “hypocrites” or “play-actors”. So Paul says (to repeat verse 8):
I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.So much for Paul’s presuppositions for the need for a spiritual health check and of the reality of hypocrisy.
Secondly, FOUR PRECEDENTS
Who, then, are to provide the “bench” marks in terms of giving? Who are these “others” in verse 8? Who are the precedents or examples you should follow? There are three in this passage and then I want to mention a fourth. Look at verse 1:
And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.In this verse there are two precedents, or great examples of giving, that you should measure yourself against. The first example of giving is not the churches of Macedonia in northern Greece but God himself. Paul starts with “the grace [literally ‘giving’] which God has given to the Macedonian churches”. Behind the generosity of the Macedonian Christians is the generosity of God. You should test yourself, therefore, against our gracious and generous God, who is at work to make his people generous too. So God the Father is the first precedent or example.
And the second, yes, are the Macedonians, who have been a challenge over the centuries, wherever the Bible has been read. These were the Christians in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. Notice four things about them.
Notice, one, their situation. Look at verse 2:
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.They were experiencing very hard times and incredible poverty. So what did they do? Did they only think about themselves? Did they think, “we must be very careful; so we can’t possibly give for the Jerusalem church.” No! We read in verse 3…
…[their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.] For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.It is a fact that in this country the poor give proportionately more than the rich. A study has found that in terms of charitable giving the poorest fifth of the general population in the UK give three times, proportionately, the amount that the wealthiest one fifth of the population give! Will that be so different in the churches of the UK? Certainly Paul in the first century is challenging the more wealthy Corinthians by this example of the poor Macedonians. Should it not be a challenge to us?
Then, notice, two, that these Macedonians were self-motivated. Look at the last part of verse 3:
Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.Yes, God was working to give them a generous spirit. This is God working sovereignly. But “entirely on their own” they wanted to join in giving money for where it was needed. That is human freedom. There is a mystery in relating the absolute sovereignty of God and human freedom. This will only be fully understood in heaven. But for now as St Augustine well said, centuries ago, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” Certainly these Macedonians “entirely on their own” worked at giving. They didn’t wait for some vision or compelling circumstance. No! They made a straightforward decision to give.
Notice, three, they saw giving as…
the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.Maybe Paul hadn’t spoken much about his collection for the Jerusalem Church. He may have thought they were too poor. But the Macedonians wanted to be involved. Many today treat it a great privilege to be asked by a famous and successful person to help fund, and be partners in, a strategic new secular project. Giving for the kingdom of God and the Church headed by Jesus Christ is a far greater privilege. Secular projects are only for this life and the return is only in this life. Giving for God’s kingdom is an investment that cannot fail and is for ever. So the Macedonians saw giving not as buying their way into God’s kingdom – only Christ could pay that cost. They saw it as “the privilege of sharing in [a] service to the saints”.
And notice, four, verse 5:
they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will.They did not just make a contribution for the Jerusalem Church. No! They took this giving opportunity as a time also for recommitment to Jesus Christ. I believe that is what is needed from all of us here at JPC. The world, Europe and especially Britain is at a Cross Roads. People in government, the media, education and the therapeutic services are more and more directly opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians, therefore, more than ever need to be recommitted to Jesus Christ. So you need to be like the Macedonians who “gave themselves first to the Lord.” You then are more able to respond to modern challenges. And you know where ultimately you are heading in life and where you want to spend your money during this life.
This is particularly relevant to students. Currently there is a crisis over modern secular university education. University education as we know it was founded centuries ago with Christian assumptions and for learning with a capital “L”. So the motto of Oxford University is “The Lord is my light” (Psalm 27 verse1). But now universities, including Oxford, have been secularised. And they are now places to which many go to be trained for a chosen career and in such a way that they will make the most money out of the training. For many students that is a main objective. Do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with what is called “vocational training”. And in this post-modern secular world universities have to be run as businesses. They need to attract students. This they do by offering courses that are (hopefully) gateways to high-earning careers.
But as we have seen, money by itself will not bring you happiness. So John Somerville asks a perceptive question in his recent book (and published by the Oxford University Press) entitled, The decline of the secular university. The gist of the question is this: “where today can you enrol to learn about how to spend all the money you will, very often, be slaving to earn?” Answer, “nowhere”, for secularism has no answer. But because these Macedonians “gave themselves first to the Lord,” they knew how to spend their money. They saw the needs not only of the Jerusalem Church but of Paul’s own missionary work. For we read: “they [also] gave themselves to us [Paul and his friends].” So much for the precedent or example of the Macedonians.
The third and supreme precedent is, of course, right at the heart of the Christian faith. Look at verse 9:
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.Jesus Christ, God the Son, the second person of the divine Trinity, is the one through whom this whole universe was created and in whom it now holds together. So he enjoyed all the inconceivable riches of heaven. But, says Paul, he gave those riches up and “for your sakes … became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
That is immense generosity. Christ’s poverty was not just the poverty of Palestine – a country that regularly faced natural disasters like famines and then economic collapse. Jesus’ poverty also refers to the psychological, traumatic and spiritual poverty of death on an utterly cruel cross for the sin of the world.
And our riches that come through that poverty are more than the wealth in this life that comes (as it does on average) through a Christian lifestyle. These riches refer to salvation with sins forgiven, the new power and life of the Holy Spirit and the wonderful hope and glory of heaven after death and not the despair and degradation of hell. All that should motivate everyone “first to give themselves to the Lord.” Who positively needs to do that tonight and for the first time? As you sit you can pray for Christ to forgive you, to fill you with his Spirit and assure you of heaven. And Christ’s giving of himself for you should then be the supreme motivator in your giving for his kingdom, which of course needs your giving.
So God the Father, the Macedonian Christians and Jesus Christ, God the Son are all precedents, or examples, for you to measure yourself against.
But let me mention a fourth contemporary example.
First look at verse 7:
But just as you excel in everything - in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us --see that you also excel in this grace of giving...By describing here giving as a “grace”, Paul is putting Christian giving or generosity alongside faith, speech, knowledge, zeal (or complete earnestness) and love. Nor is the “grace of giving” some optional extra for a special breed of Christians. The Bible teaches that the grace of giving can be seen as a spiritual gift which some especially have, but all, in some measure, can and should exercise.
Sir John Laing, the Christian builder, seems to have had the gift in that special way. This is the case with many Christians who become rich. For as his income rose, John Laing gave away more and more. His money helped start, among a number of other Christian organizations, the UCCF (formerly the IVF) for work in universities. And he was involved helping with Christian buildings like Coventry Cathedral, where he returned all the profit. Most of Laing’s giving was in secret. This, however, we do know. He presided over a multi-million pound company, yet at his death his estate was valued at a mere £371. But to repeat, a number of God’s gifts are given to some in great measure, for example the gift of faith (as well as the gift of giving with someone like John Laing). At the same time, however, in some measure all Christians have those gifts. Well, so much for the precedents or the examples of givers,
Thirdly, Two PROBLEMS
Look at verses 10-11:
10And here is my advice 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. 11Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.What is the big problem with giving? One problem for many people is just getting round to doing it. The Corinthians had made the right noises about giving but they never completed the task. They may have got out the equivalent of their cheque books but failed to write the cheque. Who is like that in this church when it comes to giving?
A second problem is that some think that Christian giving means you will impoverish yourself in giving. But Paul is talking about giving proportionately – not according to the amount you give. In verse 11 he says it is giving “according to your means”. That is relevant to students but also when you are no longer a student and earning big money. And look at verse 12:
For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.The Jewish tradition stressed the tithe – 10 percent. But some of these Corinthians could no doubt give more than ten percent. It was a wealthy area. 1 Corinthians says not many were influential. It does not say “not many were rich”. It is likely some were. So they needed to hear verses 13-15:
13Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.’I began with some social studies. Let me conclude with one more. Researchers have “found [I quote] that individuals report significantly greater happiness if they spend money ‘pro-socially’ – that is on gifts for others or charitable donations – rather than spending money on themselves.” We should not be surprised. God’s will is always “good, pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12.2). As Jesus also taught on the Sermon on the Mount:
Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6.33).
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