The Bible has a great deal to say about wealth and a great deal to say about poverty and is tells us that the LORD is sovereign over this as over every other area of human life:
1Sam.2:7 "The LORD makes poor and makes rich;"
Or as the writer of Proverbs put it:
Prov.22:2(NIV) "Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all."
The Bible goes further and shows us that God has a special regard for those who are poor. Psalm 14 tells us that God is a refuge of the poor; Psalm 35 that he delivers the poor; and Is.61 describes the Messiah as coming to bring good news to the poor.
In the laws God gave to his OT people there was a special place reserved for the poor. The LORD required his people to treat the poor with compassion.
When we turn to the NT there is no change in this pattern. The poor are in fact usually presented in a good light whereas it is the rich who are, more often than not, the bad guys. James tells the churches not to show favouritism to the rich adding that they are the very ones who cause the most problem
In Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ we are shown two contrasting example concerning wealth and riches. On the one hand we have Judas who feigned an interest in the poor all the while hoping to line his own pocket:
On the other hand we have Jesus laying aside his wealth in order to make others rich through his poverty!
2Cor.8:9 "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."
Paul took these ministries of compassion seriously. Writing to the church in Galatia he referred to a meeting he had had in Jerusalem with the leaders of the church and the advice they had given him on that occasion:
Gal.2:10 "they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."
By the time Paul wrote that this letter (2Cor.) he had already been involved in bringing financial relief to the poor, viewing such activity as important part of his Christian service:
Acts 12:25 "Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service,"
So now as he moves on in his letter to the Corinthians to write about giving and Christian generosity he does so as an experienced participant.
In fact as Paul moves on he actually returns to a subject that he had broached in his earlier letter to them. We read in 1Cor.16:1-
"Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me."
It would seem from what follows in 2Corinthians that this project had stalled somewhat after an initially positive beginning. Paul returned to the matter with the aim of kickstarting it again. In the process he gives us some considerable insight into the responsibilities, joys and privileges of Christian giving. At the same time he makes it clear what should drive such giving by explaining just what kind of giving God looks for.
The Macedonian Example
In the preceding chapter Paul had been encouraged by the good news that Titus had brought. Paul realised that God had been at work in the lives of the Corinthians and he was glad.
I wonder if you find it encouraging when you hear about the progress of God’s work being made in other Christians’ lives. Surely we ought to. But encouragement is not the only benefit we can draw from seeing how God deals with others it can be a challenge too.
And so, having been encouraged by the Corinthians, Paul wanted them in turn to be both encouraged and challenged by what God was doing in the lives of the Christians in Macedonia. So Paul shared with them just how God had been working in their lives.
What God had done with the Macedonians was truly remarkable – for us to consider their example should also encourage and challenge us.
These Christians in Macedonia were not enjoying lives of ease and plenty and would be poor advocates of any sort of "prosperity gospel". They were instead living out their life of faith in difficult and trying circumstances. They were going through what Paul described as "a severe test of affliction" and they were anything but well-
From a worldly or materialistic point of view these Macedonians looked like prime subjects in need of relief – surely they wouldn’t be able to help anyone else!
And yet in such an unpromising set of circumstances God had poured his grace into their lives and to such an extent that they were full with happiness. In their joy they responded to the news of the needs of others with a remarkable overflowing of generosity.
How was it possible for them to react as they did? Was there something special about the Macedonians themselves? Paul did not attribute their generous reaction to any inherent qualities that they might have possessed themselves but he puts it all down to God’s grace in their lives. This is very important! Had he made out that the Macedonians were a wonderful group of people it might have led to envy or jealousy, bitterness or a sense of unholy rivalry. We don’t always react well when we are confronted with the exemplary behaviour of others – we can all too easily feel threatened and bullied and end up longing to hear of a failure or a fall in their lives.
When Paul attributed the Macedonian behaviour to the unmerited favour of God, Paul avoided such dangers. The Corinthians are not primarily being directed to the Macedonians at all but to the grace of God which made them what they were. The effect of such an approach would cause the Corinthians to reason along this sort of line: "Well, if God could do it for them why shouldn’t he do it with them? If God worked grace in their lives he was capable of working it in theirs too, wasn’t he?"
Sometimes when we read biographies that have been unhelpfully written we are left with the impression that the subject has no faults – but it all reads as too-
The Macedonians were living in poverty, extreme poverty and it would not be surprising to hear of them begging for help that would bring them some relief. Well, they did beg but in a totally different way – they begged Paul to allow them the privilege of participating in the relief of others’ needs!
Is that how we think about giving? A privilege to be enjoyed however costly. Paul was apparently aware of their straightened circumstances and didn’t expect much of them but these Macedonians were insistent – as God’s grace worked out in their lives they realised that to be able to give was a favour and not a burden. They could probably have made a good case for receiving help themselves and quite possibly Paul didn’t expect them to give at all but they were in earnest and gave generously too. They couldn’t give what they didn’t have but they gave according to their means – at least that was how they saw it though Paul looking on wondered whether they weren’t actually giving too much "beyond their means".
God doesn’t look to us to give what we don’t have. It’s no use imagining that we would give loads if only we had more when we don’t give from what we do have!
The financial gift which the Macedonians gave was generously given but it was just a part of a wider, more wholesome response to the grace of God that they had received:
They gave freely, not being constrained to do something that perhaps they really did not want to do
But before they gave their money they gave themselves firstly to God and only then did they give by the will of God to the apostle
What Paul Drew from the Macedonian Example
Having told the Corinthians about what God had done amongst the Macedonians Paul turned to encourage the Corinthians as to how they too might respond. He begins with something of a defence of Titus who, it would appear, had been encouraging the Corinthians to organise of a collection for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem. Perhaps the Corinthians thought that he had acted on his own initiative so Paul explains that, in the light of the Macedonian experience, he had been the one who had encouraged Titus to follow through on this particular matter.
Paul saw involvement in poor relief, indeed all Christian charity, not in terms of a fundraising enterprise but in terms of grace! And so he wanted to stir up the Corinthians not with his eyes fixed exclusively or even primarily upon money but upon grace.
Paul knew that God would be honoured as the Corinthians came to see giving as a grace to be received rather than as a potentially merit-
Paul’s method and motive was so positive: he sought the spiritual progress and well-
As Paul urged the Corinthians forward he didn’t want them to feel that they were being compared with anyone else rather he urged them to continue to make progress in grace – in every grace available to them.
Paul wrote so positively to the Corinthians. He described them in terms of excellence – they were already excelling in a wide range of different areas – but Paul wanted yet more for them. He wanted them to excel in every area possible.
The Corinthians were doing well in their faith, in their ability to speak, in their knowledge, and in their earnestness or zeal. Lest they should feel that Paul was nevertheless being unduly demanding of them he further added that they were right at the top of Paul’s list of people he loves!
And yet they had more progress to make.
It doesn’t matter how far any of us might have advanced in Christian gifts and graces there is always scope to advance further. There is always the possibility of breaking new ground.
If we were to examine our own lives I wonder where we think we need to make more progress in grace.
Perhaps for some of us it would be in this whole area of giving. Maybe we do give and give regularly but perhaps we have settled down comfortably into dutiful yet joyless giving. Yes, we give but we’re no longer challenged by what we give and no-
Perhaps it is in another area entirely. Are we living lives characterised by faith in God? Should we be going to him earnestly asking him to increase our faith? Are our prayers dominated by our faith so that we eagerly expect to see answers? Do we need to step out in faith in fresh ways, perhaps as we used to do but do so no more?
What about our speech? Is our speech seasoned with salt? Does our conversation help and edify others or are we too full of small talk? Do we need to ask for more boldness to speak to fellow Christians about spiritual matters? Do we need to make progress with outsiders, with those who are yet strangers to Jesus Christ?
We may know and understand the basics of the Christian faith but is our grasp growing and deepening? Would a visitor to our church be impressed with our collective knowledge and experience of spiritual truths, would they ever be likely to say about us that we excel in anything, let alone everything?
Earnestness or zeal is another matter where maybe we are flagging. I imagine than most if not all of us will have sung at some time or other the hymn by Elizabeth Ann Head "O BREATH of Life, come sweeping through us". Do you remember the fourth verse?
Revive us, Lord! is zeal abating
while harvest fields are vast and white?
Revive us, Lord, the world is waiting,
equip Your church to spread the light.
Could it be that we are in need of just this kind of revival in our own lives?
The Corinthians were going on well in their spiritual lives and Paul urged them to keep on striving after excellence. He didn’t want them to settle and satisfied with the progress they had already made. Maybe we are in the same situation as they were – maybe we have made good spiritual progress in a range of areas genuinely experiencing God’s grace in our lives. But let’s not act as though there is no room for further progress. Paul in his letter to the Philippians showed that what he was doing just what he encouraged the Corinthians to do:
Refusal to press on like this is serious – it is the one who perseveres to the end who is saved – and churches that stop going forward can lose touch with reality. Do you remember how Jesus’ assessment of the church in Laodicea differed radically from the church’s own self-
But that wasn’t necessarily the end for that particular church because Jesus is remarkably willing to provide the necessary turnaround:
Rev.3:18 "I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see."
So let us all press on seeking to excel in God’s grace – to his glory!