November 8/9, 2014
Jason Meyer | 2 Corinthians 8:8-9
I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 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.—2 Corinthians 8:8–9
This is the second week of a four week series entitled “Funding the Filling: Part 1.” We are calling for a one time sacrificial gift to radically reduce our current mortgage as preparation for launching a South-Campus building program. You should see an insert in your bulletins that says, “As God pours out grace, I gladly intend to give a sacrificial gift on or before December 31, 2014, toward reducing Bethlehem’s current mortgage of $5.6 million. This gift will be over and above my regular proportional giving to Bethlehem. After giving myself first to the Lord, the amount I prayerfully intend to give is $_________________.”
I would like you to take this insert home with you and pray over it. Make it a week of serious and joyous reflection. We are called to glad giving, but “glad” does not mean breezy, light, and chipper. The call to glad giving is a serious joy—gravity and gladness together. That point about gravity and gladness just landed on me this week with a wallop—like a grace uppercut. It was Wednesday afternoon. I thought I knew what the text was saying. I went through the logic. I observed that the word for connects verse 9 back to verse 8. It made sense that there would be arelationship between the sacrificial giving of the Corinthians and the sacrifice of Christ. Then I tried to immerse myself in Paul’s mind, which by the wonder of inspiration, is really an immersion into the mind of Christ.
The for in verse 9 shows that something in verse 9 serves as the foundation that holds up something in verse 8. If verse 9 were not true, then verse 8 would come crashing to the ground in a heap of falsehood. So what is it that would fall to the ground in verse 8 without the support of verse 9 holding it up?
Here is what I thought it was at first reading: Our giving must be genuine (willing and voluntary, not coerced) because Jesus gave himself willingly and voluntarily. I thought of other verses that back that up like John 10:18.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.—John 10:18.
But then I took a long look at the word prove in v. 8, and it changed everything. Suddenly the text took on a whole new light. I tasted serious joy. Here is what Paul is saying: The opportunity to give offers the Christian a chance to test or prove our claim to know Christ and his grace. It was an “Oh my” moment. You can’t claim to know the cross and fail the generosity test at the same time. Failing one means you fail the other. They stand or fall together. They stand or fall together because the cross is the foundational standard for all generosity. It is the sacrificial gift that inspires all other sacrificial gifts. So here is the main point: giving is the proof (v. 8) of gospel grace (v. 9). In other words, gospel grace is the root and generous giving is the fruit that grows on the vine of the saving grace of Christ.
Here are the two points: Generous Giving is Proof (v. 8) and Gospel Grace is the Ground (v. 9).
I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.
Getting the point of this text requires the reader to see the importance of this word prove. It means “testing in order to form a judgment or conclusion.” A person’s claim is tested and approved if they pass the test or disproved if they fail the test. This word carries a mega-ton of meaning in the flow of 2 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians is something of an old-fashioned duel in which both parties (Paul and the Corinthians) think that they are testing the other. The Corinthians thought they were “testing” or “proving” Paul. Paul makes this emphatically clear at the end of the letter.
I warned those who sinned before and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not spare them—since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me.—2 Corinthians 13:2–3
The climactic moment after they both walked ten paces is when it comes time to draw. Paul sent his tearful letter as his test to “prove” the genuineness of the Corinthians.
For this is why I wrote, that I might testyou and know whether you are obedient in everything.—2 Corinthians 2:9
The majority of the Corinthians have repented and been reconciled to Paul. Paul returns to the unrepentant minority in chapters 10–13. He closes his appeal with these words to them.
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!—2 Corinthians 13:5
The majority of the Corinthians have proven that they are for him and with him and thus on the Lord’s side. Now he gives them a follow-up test. The opportunity to give is a test of the Corinthians.
Last week’s text said that the Macedonians also had a test and that they passed it by the grace of God. Grace came down so that an abundance of joy overflowed out of a severe test (the noun form of the verb in verse 8)of affliction (v. 2).
Therefore, Paul simply shares with the Corinthians how the Macedonians passed the test. It is now time for the Corinthians to take the test. But Paul says more. Paul is not the only one watching. The proof is not for Paul alone—it will take place before all the churches.
So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men.—2 Corinthians 8:24
The Jerusalem church will also be part of the proof that results in praise and thanksgiving to God.
By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!—2 Corinthians 9:13–15
How does Paul think they will do on the test? Is he filled with doubt or confidence? He gives the answer in the next verse: they will pass because they know the grace of Christ.
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.
I want to make three observations. First, Paul affirms that they already “know” the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Second, Paul makes a stunning connection between grace and giving. Third, Paul shows how spiritual beggars become rich.
First, Paul confidently affirms that the Corinthians knew this gospel grace. It may sound like Paul is suspicious of them, but it is actually the opposite. He is affirming them. That is the point of the word for. You will pass because you know the grace of our Lord Jesus. When you read the context, this confidence comes through more clearly. The verse right before these two verses is a statement of affirmation. They excel “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you,” so now he wants them to “excel in this act of grace also” (v. 7). When you look back at chapter 7, you see that the depth and sincerity of their repentance has convinced Paul that the majority of the Corinthians really do know the grace of Christ. He has joyful confidence in them (2 Corinthians 7:15–16).
Now read the beginning of the next chapter. Paul goes on record again and says that they will pass the test. He has been boasting about them on this very point.
Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year.—2 Corinthians 9:1–2
Second, Paul makes a stunning connection between gospel grace and giving. The grace of our Lord Jesus is his self-giving. Notice the connection between grace and giving when it comes to Christ. This text is already magnificent as it stands in the current translation in the ESV. The translators take it as a concessive: even though he was rich. In other words, despite the fact that he was rich, he became poor so that they might become rich.
But I think the connection is even more glorious than that. Paul uses the participle “being rich” in the original language. A participle can be taken in many different senses. The two that fit best here are either concessive like the ESV or causal. Concessive means that despite the fact that he was rich, he become poor so that you could become rich. I take it as causal. Listen to this: “because he was rich, for your sake he became poor so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
This is stunning in that it puts grace into perspective. Why does God give grace? He is the God of all grace. He doesn’t just give grace once in a while; God’s essence is to give grace. When we come right here to the heart of the gospel, we see the heart of God. God is a giver, not a hoarder. That is what Jesus shows us about God on the cross. As the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his nature, Jesus shows us that God is a gloriously extravagant giver, not a tightwad or a hoarder.
The same issue came up last December as we looked at Philippians 2:6–8.
... who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.—Philippians 2:6–8.
The ESV once again chose to translate the participle as a concessive “even though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” It is a contrast. Despite who he was, he had a certain mindset. Let me be clear that this is an acceptable translation. But it is not the best translation because it misses something massively glorious in what Paul is teaching us about Christ. The causal translation shows us that he is not a grabbing God, but a giving God. “because of who he was, he did not regard equality with God as a thing to use for his own advantage.” It is the very nature of God to be giving, not grasping. God has no needs. He does not wait for people to wait on him hand and foot. He is overflowing as an all-sufficient, inexhaustible fountain. What do inexhaustible fountains do? They overflow! Listen to Scripture exult over who God is and how utterly unlike any other being he is.
From of old no one has heard
or perceived by the ear,
no eye has seen a God besides you,
who acts for those who wait for him.—Isaiah 64:4
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.—Acts 17:24–25
Do you know the heart of God as expressed in Christ? Because he was rich, he became poor so that by his poverty you might become rich. The heart of the gospel is the greatest display of the heart of our God.
Third, Paul shows how spiritual beggars become rich. He says that we become rich “by his [Christ’s] poverty.” What does it mean “by his poverty”? Why not say, “By his riches you may become rich”? Paul is making a profound point about how they come to God. God does not appear to them in a way that appeals to their refined sense of pride. God does not have to try to impress proud humanity with a dazzling display of strength and riches. Humanity’s pride needs to be humbled, not catered to and encouraged. Therefore, Christ comes in the weakness of the incarnation and the disgrace of the cross. This is the scandal and offense of the cross. It looks so weak and so unimpressive. He is not putting his riches on display for them to see as if he were throwing an extravagant party to wow them. He does not dress up in refined riches to cater to their sense of dignity and inflated importance.
Jesus does not lose his riches. He does not stop being God over all and blessed forever. His riches are hidden behind his poverty. The poverty on display is actually their poverty. It is a mirror image. He is their substitute. Some are repulsed by this picture of weakness and poverty. They don’t like what they see, so they turn away from Christ in disgust. They don’t see the royal gown because it is hidden behind the servant’s towel.
This is what Luther called the “theology of the cross.” It defines God’s approach to us and our approach to God. It is the only way God comes to humans because it is the only way humans can come to God. They must first see their true spiritual state. They must be humbled to the dust and see that they are spiritual beggars. They don’t have any spiritual riches to commend them to God. They are spiritually bankrupt, and now they come to God empty-handed. We don’t bring God our good works as a payment for eternal life. We don’t bring our works and ask if it is enough.
We have nothing to offer. Sin means we are spiritually bankrupt and justly condemned. Our only hope is if someone else could pay our debt. So how do spiritually bankrupt sinners receive riches? There is a transfer or exchange in view here. Christ has entered into our poverty on the cross. He has taken on our sin as a substitute. In my place, condemned he stood. He is not suffering for his sin. God punishes Christ as if he were a sinner because he is being punished in our place as our substitute. He takes on our outstanding debt and fully pays it. Spiritually bankrupt sinners rejoice when they look at the cross and it says that debt was paid in full. He not only pays the debt that he didn’t owe and we couldn’t pay, but then he gives us the riches of his righteousness. We have a right standing with God. The riches of his righteousness are the means to receiving the riches of reconciliation with God.
Does this sound familiar? It is simply the gospel message of 2 Corinthians 5:20–21.
We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.—2 Corinthians 5:20–21.
He knew no sin—he was sinless. Yet he took the penalty for our failing score so that we could receive his perfect score. Or you could say it in financial terms: He took on the infinite debt we could not pay with the infinite cost of his life so that we could receive the windfall of his infinite wealth. This is staggering, over-the-top, ridiculous grace.
Giving is the proof of grace. Are you ready for the “gotcha moment”? If we are Christians, we are in Christ, and we represent Christ. That is what being a Christian is. We have the name of Christ, and we represent him on earth. If we represent Christ, then our giving will reflect his giving.
That is why Paul doesn’t want to command the Corinthians to give. He wants to see what is really in their hearts. Trying to pry giving out would miss the whole point and mess up the whole test. Instead, he wants to let it come out in an unforced way. That is why Paul will say later that he doesn’t care about what is given as much as how it was given—the heart behind the gift. Was it willing, or was it forced? Was it cheerful or resentful?
An opportunity to give is like taking a pregnancy test. It will show whether or not you are pregnant—there’s nothing in between. The same dynamic is at work in an opportunity to give. If you can know the grace of Christ and don’t give, then you don’t know him at all. 1 John 3:14–18 makes the same point about love.
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death ... By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.—1 John 3:14–18
Christians represent Christ and thus should reflect him. When the chance to give comes, can you imagine Christ closing his heart and giving nothing? Preposterous. Look at what he gave! How can you claim to know him and represent him if you close your hearts and fail the test? If you have the world’s goods and see your brothers in Jerusalem in need and then close your heart, how can you say that you know the grace of Christ?
We have the same test in front of us that the Corinthians did. It is a sober moment of serious joy. Our giving is a test of whether we really know gospel grace. Jesus taught the same thing over and over. He taught that we can’t divorce faith and finances. Money and possessions are a central part of our faith. Consider just three examples.
First, when people ask about what true repentance looks like, John the Baptist gives three financial examples: Everyone will share their food and clothes with the poor (Luke 3:11), tax collectors will not pocket extra money (Luke 3:13), and soldiers should be content with their wages and not extort money (Luke 3:14).
Second, when Zacchaeus the tax collector is converted, he says, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Jesus says in verse 9 that “today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). In other words, what Zacchaeus gave did not save him—it simply proved he was saved.
The gospel shape of giving in the new covenant connects sacrificial giving with the sacrificial gift of Christ. No New Testament text commands believers to give ten percent of their income to the church. Jesus, living under the old covenant, is the last person to talk about it in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23). The tithe commandment came from a paradigm relating to the twelve tribes of Israel. Nehemiah 13:10-12 highlights an example of how much the Levites depended upon the tithe. The Levites did not own land like the rest of the eleven tribes, and thus the tithe was an essential part of ensuring that they could continue to survive and minister.
A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.—Leviticus 27:30
The Christian lives under a new paradigm. Paul addresses financial themes frequently, but he never specifies an amount or percentage. He calls the Corinthians to set something aside to give “in keeping with how he prospers” (1 Corinthians 16:2). But Paul does not make reference here to a new paradigm. What is the standard of giving? The most sustained exposition of stewardship in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 8–9) says that the grace of Christ’s sacrifice is the new point of reference.
The Macedonians went well beyond a tithe. They gave sacrificially, “beyond their ability” (v. 3) and willingly, “on their own” (v. 2) despite “deep poverty” and a “severe testing by affliction” (v. 2). Paul declares that “grace” (v. 1) came down and produced “abundance of joy” in the Macedonians (v. 2). God’s grace comes first, and then joy springs up in the heart and overflows in “the wealth of their generosity” (v. 2). Seven verses later, he comments further on this “grace.” Sacrificial giving is grounded in the “grace” of Christ’s sacrifice, which is spelled out in financial imagery.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.—2 Corinthians 8:9
All giving is recalibrated around the new paradigm of Christ’s sacrifice.
Gospel grace will first change our proportional giving. The tithe is a good place to start. God even speaks his encouragement as an offer to test him and prove him.
Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.—Malachi 3:7–10
When you tithe, do you count your income before taxes or after taxes? I believe you should measure a percentage of your gross income before taxes, 401k, etc. This is the first fruits principle.
“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.”—Proverbs 3:9
In his excellent book The Treasure Principle, Randy Alcorn says we should think of the tithe not as a ceiling for giving, but as the ground floor. It where you start as a minimum. Ten percent is like training wheels. God is like the parent saying, “Go ahead, I am with you. You won’t fall off the bike.”
Alcorn asks an excellent question that we must search our hearts about: Does God expect less of new covenant Christians here today—who live in one of the richest societies in all of human history and who are saved and indwelt by the Spirit—than he demanded of the Israelites, many of whom were poor and unsaved? I want to call you to moving beyond the old Covenant minimum (10%) to the new Covenant generosity (much more).
Gospel grace will also change our sacrificial giving. The tithe to the church often puts us on the path of generosity. Now when needs come up, we can begin to give over and above our normal giving. That means over and above our normal joy. We encourage you to give to great causes outside the church and missions budget like missionaries, BCS, BUI, Campus Outreach, and other ministries. Giving to these ministries should be over and above your proportional giving to the church and missions budget.
This call for sacrificial giving is for a special need in our church family. We are trying to make the need clear and then have no gimmicks and no commands and no guilt trips.
It is a call for serious joy. Sacrificial giving hurts a little more than proportional giving. It is a little bit like going to the gym. Sacrificial giving means that you feel the cost—it probably hurts—but you feel much more joy later. Going to the gym doesn’t always sound appealing, but afterwards it is jolting and joyful. Have families consider ways to participate by denying themselves and using that money in order to give more, perhaps limiting things like Christmas presents, Starbucks purchases, or vacations. We have some elders who are looking at their possessions and asking what they can sell. I am looking to sell my baseball cards and my comic book collection and some money from a writing project.
How has gospel grace changed you?
Can you say that you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Zacchaeus is one example. An example closer to our time is Sam Houston (1793–1863). He was a colorful soldier and politician and is best known for his role of bringing Texas into the United States. He surprised everyone when he became a Christian. He surprised everyone even more when, after his baptism, he said he wanted to pay half of the local minister’s salary. When someone asked him why, he responded, “My pocketbook was baptized, too.” The conversion of our wallets should be included in our conversion to Christ. All talk of giving must take us back to the cross, the gift that inspires all other gifts.
But this has to be connected to the joy of God’s sacrifice of Christ. The Bible presents grace often in terms of incalculable, immeasurable riches. What has gripped your heart: money or Christ? You can’t serve both. The heart is the control center of our life, and when money lays siege to the heart, our finances will follow. We become enthralled by what we can buy with money or the security that money affords us. But when the riches of Christ capture the heart, money can go back to being money. It is no longer a god, so we can give it away to God’s work.
Money did not die for us and save us. It did not pay the purchase price for our salvation. We are so much more impressed by his sacrifice that we can give our money away so that others can know about his sacrifice.