Grace Giving (2 Cor. 8:1-2)
It almost seems that people in ministry today either rarely talk about money or rarely talk about anything else! The former are afraid of sounding greedy and manipulative while the latter consider wealth a spiritual birthright of all Christians. For the one, money is an enemy, for the other, an entitlement.
The apostle Paul would take issue with both groups. He is unashamed to issue what amounts to a passionate and persistent appeal to the Corinthians that they contribute generously to the impoverished church in Jerusalem. In doing so, he provides us with profound insight into the nature of God’s grace, our giving, and the joy that is found in the convergence of the two in the life of the church.
As I said, his appeal was provoked by the crisis that had befallen the church in Jerusalem (cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-27). The reasons for this grave situation are numerous: in addition to overpopulation, there was social and economic ostracism, disinheritance following conversion, disruption of family ties, persecution, and the lingering effects of the famine of a.d. 46 (cf. Acts 11:27-30).
Paul's effort to raise money for their support was consistent with his stated resolve in Galatians 2:10. There he wrote that “they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” By pointing to the example of sacrificial giving set by the Macedonians (i.e., the Christians in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea), Paul hopes to stimulate the Corinthians to complete their efforts at contributing to their poverty-stricken brethren in Jerusalem (cf. 8:10-11).
As we turn our attention to these two crucial chapters in 2 Corinthians, I want to begin by taking note of the foundational role of divine grace in all that was achieved. This, in fact, is the focal point of Paul’s entire message:
“We want you to know, brothers, 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” (2 Cor. 8:1-2).
From a strictly human point of view, the odds were stacked against the Macedonians from the start. Common sense would tell us that such folk were hardly the sort who could be expected to alleviate anyone’s suffering. Their own “severe test of affliction” and “extreme poverty” would appear to excuse them from participation in any fund-raising venture, except perhaps one that would serve to improve their own pitiful condition.
I’ll have more to say on this in a subsequent meditation, but here I draw your attention to the operation of divine grace in their midst. This grace had been “given” or bestowed or poured out on the churches of Macedonia and that alone, ultimately speaking, accounts for their remarkable generosity toward their brethren in Jerusalem.
Yes, Paul appeals to what believers in Macedonia had done. But he is quick to acknowledge that what they did in serving their brethren is the fruit of what God had done in serving them! If the Macedonians “gave themselves first to the Lord” in this ministry (v. 5), it is because God had first “given” his grace (v. 1) to them. Whatever achievement on their part is praised, whatever example they may have set for others to follow, it is ultimately attributed to the antecedent activity of divine grace (this is the principle Paul articulated in Philippians 2:12-13).
This is a beautiful example of the harmony between the antecedent presence of divine grace and the moral accountability of human decisions. In v. 3 Paul says they gave “of their own free will,” while in v. 1 their willingness is traced to the grace of God! The same principle is found in vv. 16-17 where Paul says God put an “earnest care” in the heart of Titus, who in turn, “of his own accord,” went to the Corinthians.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of dynamic interplay between divine grace and human response. In 1 Chronicles 29:10-19 David describes the remarkable fund-raising campaign that eventually subsidized the building of Solomon’s temple. In v. 12 David says of God that “both riches and honor come from you.” God is not a usurper of things not rightfully his. From a purely human point of view, the money and wealth given for the building of the temple seem to come from the work and energy and savings and investments of the people. Perhaps some of them had profited from shrewd business transactions. Perhaps a few had turned an incredible profit on the sale of some land. But no matter, David says that all riches come from God! Whatever anyone worked for, earned, invested, sold and then gave, they first got it from God.
Again in v. 12, David asserts that it lies in God's hand “to make great and to give strength to all.” Whatever energy or accomplishments may be traceable to the people that accounted for what and why they gave, all of it ultimately came from God. Power, influence, ingenuity, success, commitment, whatever it might be, are the result of the gracious and kind operation of a benevolent and giving God working in and through his people for their welfare and his own glory.
David then asks: “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly?” This is David's way of saying that God is the one who enables us to do what we do not deserve help to do. Who are we, asks David, that we should receive the help of God that would mobilize us to produce this wealth and then stir our hearts to give it away? We are sinners. We deserve nothing but judgment.
But perhaps the most instructive thing David says comes in v. 14. “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” I actually prefer the translation of the NASB, “from Thy hand we have given Thee.” He doesn't say “To Thy hand,” as if it originated with us and ended with God. Rather, it is “from Thy hand.” In other words, whatever they gave they first received. He says much the same thing in v. 16. declaring that “all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.” All giving is but a reflex of God's giving.
As if that weren’t enough, in v. 18 he declares that it is God who gives us the willingness to give! It isn’t simply that God makes it possible for us to work hard or that he bestows riches on whomever he pleases, but that he initiates and sustains in the hearts of his people the very desire to give. Yes, says David, the people did the giving (v. 9). They gave willingly, of their own accord, and with joy. It was genuine giving, freely chosen, joyfully engaged. They made decisions. Real decisions. Sacrificial decisions. Decisions that make a difference. Decisions without which the temple would not have been built. But mysteriously, in ways that you and I will never fully understand, beneath and behind these choices was the gracious, enabling work of God.
This is the same principle we see at work in the Macedonians and the overwhelming generosity they displayed in contributing to the saints in Jerusalem.
I can’t conclude without directing our attention to the use of the word charis, “grace”, throughout this section of 2 Corinthians. It is used in 8:1,4,6,7,9,16,19; 9:8,14,15, with a wide range of meaning, from divine enablement to human privilege to a monetary gift to a word of gratitude to divine favor. This should remind us that grace is more than an attitude or disposition in the divine nature. It is surely that, but if thought of only as an abstract and static principle, it is deprived of its deeper implications.
The grace of God, for example, is the power of God's Spirit converting the soul. It is the activity or movement of God whereby he saves and justifies the individual through faith (see esp. Rom. 3:24; 5:15,17). Therefore, grace is not something in which we merely believe; it is something we experience as well.
Grace, however, is not only the divine act by which God initiates our spiritual life, but also the very power by which we are sustained in, nourished, and proceed through that life. The energizing and sanctifying work of the indwelling Spirit is the grace of God (as we will later see, for example, in 2 Corinthians 12:9 in regard to Paul’s struggle with his thorn in the flesh).
Grace, then, is a dynamic and experiential reality that empowers the human heart to look beyond its limitations and accomplish things that defy rational explanation. Grace is the power that enables impoverished and suffering saints to give when, by all accounts, they should be the ones to get. Such was the operation of grace in the giving of these Macedonian believers. And such ought to be its operation in us as well.