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Bible openThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

2 Corinthians 8:1-7

Encouragement to Give Generously

We want you to know, brothers,[a] about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 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. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor[b] of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you[c]—see that you excel in this act of grace also.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s instruction to not associate with unbelievers in a profound way because it is akin to linking Christ with Satan.

The first verses of 2 Corinthians 8 concern the donation he has been collecting from the Gentile churches for the poor church of Jerusalem, including Judea.

Acts 4 tells us that, after the first Pentecost, the members of the church in Jerusalem pooled together all their resources — money, property sales and so forth — for their mutual benefit. Many pilgrims to Jerusalem who witnessed the first Pentecost never returned to their Gentile homelands. The church there was spiritually dynamic, with the Apostles having been invested with the gifts of preaching and healing, so miracles were taking place regularly. Who would not want to stay and witness these joyful experiences?

However, money is a finite resource, and what started out as a financially healthy church became an impoverished one. The Christian converts could not find work, either, with Jerusalem being the capital of Judaism. The Jews did not want followers of Jesus working for them.

John MacArthur tells us (emphases mine):

It wasn’t very many years until the rich weren’t rich, until it was just a whole bunch of poor people because they had all given it away.  It was so overwhelming for them, then, to try to sustain the needs of that church as persecution elevated and escalated And as pilgrims now stayed and couldn’t find work, of course, that Paul took upon himself the burden He understood it.  He even classifies himself in 2 Corinthians 6:10 as one of the poor. 

And, occasionally, in his life that’s how it was and he was dependent on the gifts of others many times in his life when he was not able to work.  So when he began his third missionary journey, he determined that he was going to collect money for the poor in Jerusalem because they had no more resources left So as he goes on his third missionary journey, this high priority of collecting the money is on his heart He wants to collect it from the Gentile churches and take it back to the poor in Jerusalem.

Furthermore, Jerusalem and the rest of the Roman empire outside of Rome was impoverished. The taxes the Romans collected were largely spent on Rome:

The economy of Jerusalem and the area around Jerusalem, the area of Palestine was as poor as any part of the Roman Empire And don’t for a minute think that the Roman Empire was wealthy.  Rome was fine, but the Empire was poor, very poor.  And it was made even poorer by the Romans who managed to extract everything out of all of the territories they occupied for their own aggrandizement.  

Paul’s plan was to create Christian unity between Gentile and Jew:

It wasn’t only economics; it was also spiritual love that he wanted demonstrated Do you remember that in Ephesians chapter 2, Paul said that the Jew and the Gentile were separated by a wall, but in Christ the wall had come down and they had been made one new man in Christ Well, racial bitterness and racial animosity and racial hatred run real deep, even in converted people.  Even in converted people.  And there was still lots of latent hostility between Jew and Gentile

And Paul knew there needed to be a real reconciliation and that what had happened spiritually needed to happen personally And so he knew that if he could collect money from Gentile churches and bring it as a love gift to the Jews in Jerusalem, it would go a long way to elicit a mutual affection It would express the spiritual unity of the church which is the true body of Christ It would also afford tangible evidence to a watching world that that middle wall of partition had been shattered and the Jew and the Gentile had come together It would also be a dramatic setback to the Judaizers and it would be a dramatic setback for the Hellenizers, both of which wanted to perpetuate the division.

Paul also wanted the Corinthians to continue to build their donations to this fund, something they had already started a year earlier. He refers to the ‘grace of God’ — the donations — from the churches in Macedonia (verse 1). More on this follows.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

The apostle takes occasion from the good example of the churches of Macedonia, that is, of Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and others in the region of Macedonia, to exhort the Corinthians and the Christians in Achaia to the good work of charity

He certainly means the charitable gifts of these churches, which are called the grace or gifts of God, either because they were very large, or rather because their charity to the poor saints did proceed from God as the author, and was accompanied with true love to God, which also was manifested this way. The grace of God must be owned as the root and fountain of all the good that is in us, or done by us, at any time; and it is great grace and favour from God, and bestowed on us, if we are made useful to others, and are forward to any good work.

Paul says that, despite severe affliction affecting those churches — similarly poor and persecuted — their joyfulness, poverty notwithstanding, produced a wealth of generosity (verse 2).

Henry says:

(1.) They were but in a low condition, and themselves in distress, yet they contributed to the relief of others. They were in great tribulation and deep poverty,2 Corinthians 8:2; 2 Corinthians 8:2. It was a time of great affliction with them, as may be seen, Acts 18:17. The Christians in these parts met with ill treatment, which had reduced them to deep poverty; yet, as they had abundance of joy in the midst of tribulation, they abounded in their liberality; they gave out of a little, trusting in God to provide for them, and make it up to them. (2.) They gave very largely, with the riches of liberality (2 Corinthians 8:2; 2 Corinthians 8:2), that is, as liberally as if they had been rich.

Paul says he can testify that they gave willingly, within their means and beyond their means (verse 3).

MacArthur says this was because the grace of God was at work in them:

The primary motive of their generosity was not human kindness.  The primary motive was not human philanthropy.  It wasn’t a desire to sort of satisfy their conscience.  It wasn’t a desire to do well, to share the milk of human kindness.  What motivated them was the grace of God at work in their hearts producing this generosity And listen, this kind of giving which we will see the Macedonians did is not normal It is not just human giving

It is prompted by something far beyond anything that you can find in the noble character of the human heart made in the image of God.  And I would agree that though man is fallen there are still vestiges of the image of God in him, and there is still a knowledge of right and wrong and still a conscience excusing or accusing.  Man can still do something that is humanly good, but at its highest level, human good will not reach the proportions of that goodness and that righteousness prompted by the transforming grace of God And that is true in giving as well.

MacArthur also points out that there is no New Covenant mandate to give a certain percentage of what we have:

God does not expect you to give what you don’t have.  He expects you to give what you have.  That’s all God asks is that you give according to your ability Giving is to be proportionate

This sets no fixed amount It sets no fixed percentage It isn’t a tenth.  It isn’t 15 percent.  It isn’t 5 percent.  It indicates no fixed figure.  It simply says they gave according to their ability.  And everybody certainly was different.

MacArthur says that it was the Corinthians who inspired the Macedonians to donate so generously:

It was the zeal of the Corinthians that stirred up the Macedonians originally Now, remember what we have here.  As Paul is writing 2 Corinthians, we told you that it is a year that has passed since he first told the … Corinthians about giving.  He mentions that. 

A year ago he had told the Corinthians about giving and they had started to give.  We saw that right there in chapter 8.  They had already begun to give as much as a year before.  Apparently, it was their initial interest in responding to Paul and giving that the Macedonians heard about.  When Paul told the Macedonians about the generosity of the Corinthians, it stirred up the Macedonians to want to give

So we could suggest then that the Macedonians were following the example of the Corinthians, who started a year before, and that the Corinthian generosity, initially motivated the Macedonians and then they just ran with it.  And maybe Paul never really overtly asked them to give knowing how poor they were They volunteered it.  Based upon the pattern of the Corinthians, they wanted to get involved

That would fit with verse 4. Not only did they give, Paul says they begged to give, considering it a privilege — favour — to help relieve the plight of the saints in Jerusalem.

MacArthur says:

That, too, might indicate that Paul was reluctant to ask them for anything because they had so little but they were begging to be able to participate.  They volunteered It was right out of their hearts.  They were freely, voluntarily, willingly giving from the heart.

The Macedonians, Paul observes, gave in an unexpected manner: giving themselves unto the Lord first, then, by God’s will to Paul (verse 5) and perhaps Titus and Timothy.

Henry gives us a practical application for our own use:

This, it seems, exceeded the expectation of the apostle; it was more than he hoped for, to see such warm and pious affections shining in these Macedonians, and this good work performed with so much devotion and solemnity. They solemnly, jointly, and unanimously, made a fresh surrender of themselves, and all they had, unto the Lord Jesus Christ. They had done this before, and now they do it again upon this occasion; sanctifying their contributions to God’s honour, by first giving themselves to the Lord. Note, [1.] We should give ourselves to God; we cannot bestow ourselves better. [2.] When we give ourselves to the Lord, we then give him all we have, to be called for and disposed of according to his will. [3.] Whatever we use or lay out for God, it is only giving to him what is his own. [4.] What we give or bestow for charitable uses will not be accepted of God, nor turn to our advantage, unless we first give ourselves to the Lord.

Paul explains that, as Titus began the collection in Corinth, he should complete this act of grace, meaning the donation (verse 6). That would have meant during the previous year, when Titus was first there.

MacArthur says now that the Corinthians are improving their behaviour as a congregation, Paul feels more comfortable in the reminder about the donation:

The relationship has been restored now and Paul wants to reaffirm his emphasis on the giving Through the restoration and reconciliation, Paul feels the freedom now Even though the relationship, admittedly, is still fragile, as we’ll find out in later chapters, he wants to reaffirm the pastoral authority over their need to follow the Macedonian example and continue their giving Get back on track with your giving.

Then, even though he has corrected them severely via letter, he commends them by saying they ‘excel’ in many things, therefore, they should excel equally in this act of grace (verse 7).

MacArthur expands on Paul’s compliment:

In verse 7, he says, “But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also.”  It’s not giving in a vacuum.  It’s not giving in isolation.  It’s not giving contrary to what’s in your heart.  This kind of giving is in perfect harmony with other Christian virtues.  You find me a heart filled with faith and utterance and knowledge and earnestness and love and I’ll show you a generous heart It’s in combination; it’s a network.

He says, “Just as you abound in everything”  Now, that’s a very complimentary statement to these vacillating Corinthians But back in chapter 1, verse 4, he said…chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians, verse 4, “I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus that everything you were enriched in Him.”  He says, “From the beginning you had everything that the grace of God could give.  You had it all.  God gave it all to you.” 

Here he says, “I’m starting to see it abound in you just as you abound in everything, faith…”  What is that?  Strong trust in God, a saving, securing, sanctifying trust in the Lord.  And “utterance.”  What is that?  It’s the Greek word logos It really means doctrine.  It’s used for the word of truth, the word of righteousness, the word of Christ, sound word.  You have doctrine You have faith.  And then knowledge.  You have understanding of how doctrine applies, how divine truth applies.  And you have earnestness There’s that word spoud We’ve seen it earlier in chapter 7.  It means eagerness, it means energy, vigor, diligence, spiritual passion.

And he adds, “You have love, agape, the love we inspired in you.”  How did he inspire it?  By example, by teaching, by preaching.  “You abound in these things, in faith and doctrine and knowledge and passion and love; see that you abound in this gracious work also.”  See that your giving is in concert and harmony with these other Christian virtues You overflow in these others, overflow in this one.  It should go right along with everything else.

In closing, MacArthur touches on the reason for the lack of giving in churches:

A little footnote here.  Whenever people in a church become disillusioned about their leaders, their giving drops And it happened in Corinth and it happens today.  It always happens.  It’s happened in our church when people have spread lies and rumors and untruths about leadership in this church.  It has an immediate effect on people’s giving because where they have confusion and chaos or anxiety or distrust at the level of leadership, they are hard-pressed to be generous

I can confirm that is true. Many years ago, we had a vicar whose faith I wondered about. In the pulpit, he sometimes sounded as if he were agnostic, possibly atheistic. Outside of Sunday contributions, I stopped giving regularly to the annual fund drive. Since then, we have had better vicars, and I have resumed my annual contribution.

Next week’s post will be about Paul’s commendation of Titus to the Corinthians.

Next time — 2 Corinthians 7:16-24

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