For much of this letter, Paul has been writing to defend himself and his ministry because it seems that some of the members of the church in Corinth had begun to have their doubts about Paul and his ministry. They were saying Paul couldn’t be trusted because he kept changing his travel plans. They were saying he wasn’t as impressive as the new preachers who had come to Corinth. And so, Paul wrote to defend himself and his ministry, not because he cared about his own reputation, but because the gospel was at stake and the new preachers who had come to Corinth were false teachers, who would only lead the people astray. So, for much of this letter, Paul has been dealing with that.
However, in the passage we studied last week, it was as if Paul turned his attention to another group in the congregation who had responded positively to the previous letter Paul had sent them. That letter is now lost, but from what we know of it, it seems Paul wrote to urge the congregation to exercise church discipline. There was someone in the congregation who was guilty of some kind of public, scandalous sin. And instead of taking action, the congregation had done nothing about it and were tolerating this sin in their midst. So, Paul wrote to them to urge them to take action. And it seems that some of the congregation responded positively to Paul’s letter. Although at first his letter made them sorrowful, their sorrow led to repentance, which is always a good thing, because repentance leads us to God for forgiveness. And so, in last week’s passage Paul wrote about how encouraged he was and how joyful he felt because of them. And the passage ended last week with Paul saying to those people in the congregation:
I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.
He was worried about some of the believers in Corinth, because they were in danger of going astray. But he was glad about others in the congregation, because now he had complete confidence in them because of the way they had responded to his previous letter and had turned from their sins and turned back to God for forgiveness. And that leads us on to today’s passage, because he wants to talk to them about money — although he doesn’t ever mention money, but we know that’s what he’s talking about. And often we don’t like talking about money. But Paul now has complete confidence in these people. And so, he knows that he can raise this matter with them and that they’ll pay attention to what he has to say about it.
And the background to today’s passage was Paul’s desire to raise money to support needy believers in Jerusalem. He refers to this collection in two others places in his letters. So, he mentions it in Romans 15 where he wrote:
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.
And he mentioned it in 1 Corinthians 16:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.
And then he went on to give instructions on how to collect the money. And when we studied that passage in 2018 I explained that it seems that Christians in Jerusalem were struggling financially. We’re not sure why. It might have been because of the persecution which broke out in Jerusalem in the early days of the church. Or it might have been because of famine: in Acts 11, the prophet Agabus had prophesied that a severe famine was coming; and there were many other famines in those days. And so, the church in Jerusalem may have been suffering because of a famine. But whatever the reason, the believers in Jerusalem were struggling financially; and Paul expected churches elsewhere to give generously to support their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
And so, that’s what today’s passage is about. In verses 1 to 5 he uses the example of the Macedonians to encourage his readers in Corinth to give generously. In verses 6 to 9 he uses the example of the Lord Jesus to encourage them to give generously. And then, in verses 10 to 15, he gives them his advice on this matter.
Verses 1 to 5
And so, he begins in verse 1 by saying that he wants his readers in Corinth to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Macedonia was in northern Greece and the churches there included Thessalonica and Philippi and Berea. And Paul is saying to his readers: Listen to this. Pay attention to this. Let me tell you about these churches in Macedonia. And more specifically, he wants to tell them about God’s grace in connection with those churches.
Now, the word ‘grace’ can be used in different ways. It can refer to God’s kindness to sinners by which he freely pardons us for our sins and gives us the free gift of eternal life for the sake of Christ who died and was raised for us. And so, we say that we’re justified — pardoned and accepted — by grace alone. That is, we’re saved because of God’s kindness to us. But then it can also refer to the way God works in his people. For instance, when we talk about the means of grace, we’re referring to the way God works through the preaching of his word and through the sacraments and through prayer to help believers grow in faith and love. Or the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus about God’s grace which teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. God graciously works in our lives to change us into his likeness. The first meaning of grace refers to God’s kindness towards sinners. The second meaning of grace refers to the way God works in our lives. Here, in verse 1, Paul is using the word ‘grace’ with the second meaning to refer to the way God worked in the lives of the believers in Macedonia to enable them to give generously.
And in the verses which follow, Paul describes their generous giving. And their generosity really was remarkable, wasn’t it? Look what Paul says about it. First, he mentions the circumstances and how they were undergoing a severe trial. We don’t know what the believers in Macedonia were suffering, but they were afflicted in some extreme way. He also refers to their extreme poverty. So, they were suffering because of a severe trial and because of extreme poverty: not a mild trial and a little poverty, but a severe trial and extreme poverty. One of the commentators refers to rock-bottom poverty: the kind of poverty you suffer when you’ve reached rock bottom and you can’t fall any further. When Paul visited those churches, that’s what he found. And very often, when we’re suffering, we stop thinking about other people and we focus on ourselves. Perhaps I’ll visit someone who is sick, and that’s all they want to talk about and they’re not interested in anyone else. Or they’re worried about something, and that’s all they talk about and they’re not interested in other things. But the believers in Macedonia were different. Though they were suffering because of a severe trial, and though they were suffering rock-bottom poverty, they wanted to help the believers in Jerusalem.
In fact they gave joyfully and extravagantly. Do you see that? Paul’s refers to their overflowing joy. And he refers to their rich generosity. Instead of holding on to what little they had, they wanted to give what they had to help others. And look now at verse 3 where Paul says that they gave as much as they were able. In fact, they gave more than that. They gave beyond their ability. They gave beyond their means. In other words, they themselves did without in order to give more away. I can cut back on what I spend on myself so that I can give more to help them. That’s what their attitude was. And look at verse 4 which is really remarkable. It’s as if Paul, when he saw how they were afflicted, decided not to ask them to help. They had enough problems of their own. But entirely on their own, unprompted by me, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. They begged me to let them contribute to the collection. We’re used to people begging us for money. But the believers in Macedonia were begging Paul to take their money. It’s remarkable, isn’t it? And sometimes when we’re asked for money, or when we contribute to some fund, it’s a burden to us. We don’t really want to do it, but we feel obligated to do it. But the believers in Macedonia wanted to do it, because they saw it as a privilege to be allowed to serve their brothers and sisters in the Lord in Jerusalem.
And according to verse 5 they did this as part of their service to the Lord. In fact, when Paul says they gave themselves first to the Lord, he means that their devotion to the Lord came first. Their first priority was to serve the Lord; and therefore they regarded what they were doing for the believers in Jerusalem as part of their service to him. Doesn’t that fit with the Lord’s words in Matthew 25 where he describes the righteous on the day of judgment and how they will be commended for what they have done for the Lord Jesus: feeding him, clothing him, visiting him, tending to him. ‘When did we do those things for you?’ they asked. And the Lord replied that whatever they did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. One of the ways we serve the Lord Jesus is by loving and serving his people. And that’s what the believers in Macedonia were doing for the believers in Jerusalem.
And all of this was evidence of God’s grace. That was Paul’s point in verse 1, where he said that he wanted the believers in Corinth to know about the grace of God that has been given to the the churches in Macedonia. God had been graciously at work in those believers to enable them to forget about themselves and their own trials and poverty and to do what they could to help their fellow believers in Jerusalem. In that way, they were serving the Lord. And just as we’re to rely on God’s gracious help to grow in faith, so we’re to rely on God’s gracious help to grow in love. And God works in us graciously as we come to church and give our attention to the reading and preaching of his word and as we take part in the sacraments and the prayers, because these are the means of grace, the means by which God works in our lives to change us. God was at work in the Corinthians through Paul’s preaching. And God is at work in you through the preaching of his word today. God has come to you today in the preaching of his word to remind us of his will for you which is that you should love and serve your fellow believers.
Verses 6 to 9
And in verse 6 Paul refers to Titus. Do you remember Titus? Paul sent his last letter to the Corinthians by the hand of Titus. And then he waited for Titus to return to see how they responded to his letter. And it seems from what he says in verse 6 that he’s sending Titus back to the Corinthians to bring to completion what they had already begun. So, they had begun to raise funds for the believers in Jerusalem. And now Paul wanted Titus to go back to Corinth to complete the collection. And just as the believers in Corinth excelled in many things, Paul encourages them to excel in this too.
‘I am not commanding you’, he says in verse 8. Nevertheless, he’s hoping that by responding to what he says and by giving generously to the believers in Jerusalem, it will demonstrate the sincerity of their love. So, it’s one thing to say that we love our fellow believers, but the sincerity of our love, the genuineness of our love, is demonstrated not by our words, but by our deeds. And so, Paul is hoping that the believers in Corinth will do what they said they will do and they’ll give generously to help their fellow believers.
And having already given them the example of the Macedonians, Paul goes on to give them another example to follow. And it’s the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says to them: You know about his grace, don’t you? You know about his kindness. You know about his love. You have benefitted from his kindness, haven’t you? He was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor. When he says that Lord Jesus was rich, he’s referring to his existence before the incarnation, when he was with God the Father and God the Spirit, and together they dwelt in the glory of heaven, surrounded by worshipping angels, who were there to do their bidding. And as the Eternal Son of God he possessed everything, because he made all things and he ruled over all things and all things existed for him and his glory. He was rich.
And for our sake, for the sake of our salvation, he was prepared to leave behind the glory of heaven and to come to earth as a man. And when he came, he did not live in a palace and he was not surrounded by servants, who were there to do his bidding. No, he was born in a stable and he lived in poverty and grew up in obscurity. And often he was tired and he was hungry and he was thirsty and he did not have a home of his own, but travelled from place to place. He was rich, but he became poor.
And he did not come to be served, but to serve us by giving up his life on the cross. And so, not only did he give up the glory of heaven for us, but he gave up his life for us. And so, he died and was buried in a borrowed grave. He was rich and yet he became poor.
And he became poor for us, so that through his poverty we might become rich. And we are rich, aren’t we? We who believe are rich, because he has poured out upon us one spiritual blessing after another. He gives to those who believe justification so that we’re pardoned and accepted by God. And he gives us sanctification, so that we are renewed in his image more and more and become more and more willing and able to obey him. And he gives us adoption, so that we’re adopted into God’s family and can call God ‘our Father’ and God now regards us as his children. And he gives us peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit and assurance of God’s love and growth in grace and perseverance to enable us to keep believing. Once we were dead in our trespasses and sins. But God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. And he has poured out upon us all of these good things. We don’t deserve any of them, because we’re sinners who deserve to be condemned. But because of Christ, who was rich, but who became poor for us, we receive all of these good things in this life. And we can look forward to receiving even more when we die, because when we die, he will make us perfect in holiness and will bring us into glory, while our bodies will rest in their graves. And at the resurrection, he’ll raise our bodies and give us everlasting life in his presence, where we’ll enjoy that fullness of joy and those pleasures forevermore that he has prepared for all his people. He was rich and yet he became poor for us and for our salvation so that we might receive all of these good things in this life and in the life to come.
And not only has he saved us, but he’s left us an example to follow. Christ was willing to give up what he had for our sake. And so, he left us a pattern to follow, that we too might be willing to give up what we have for the sake of others.
And so, there you have Paul’s approach in this passage. He refers in the first place to the example of the believers in Macedonia who gave generously despite their great poverty and affliction. And he refers in the second place to the example of our Saviour who was willing to give up what he had for us and for our salvation. And Paul is calling on his readers — and that includes us — to follow their example and to demonstrate the sincerity of our love by giving generously to our needy brothers and sisters. And the point of an example is not to admire the example, but to follow the example.
Verses 10 to 15
And in verses 10 to 15 Paul gives his advice on this matter. And he first advises them to finish what they started. So, he says to the Corinthians that last year they were not only the first to give, but they were the first to want to give. That’s great. But now you need to finish what you started. Many of us are guilty of starting something, but not finishing it. At the start of the year, we decide we’re going to get fit. And we go out running and we go out to the gym for a few weeks, and then give up. We take up a new hobby and buy all the gear, but soon we give up. We start a DIY project around the house, but it never gets finished. Many of us are guilty of starting something, and not finishing it. The Corinthians had started to raise funds for Jerusalem. But something happened and the giving petered out. Well, now’s the time to finish what you started, said Paul.
Secondly, he advises them to give according to their means. That’s at the end of verse 11. The Macedonians were unusual. They were an exception. They gave beyond their means. They went without so that they could give more to Jerusalem. That was exceptional. But you don’t have to do that, Paul says. Give according to your means. We often talk about tithing in the church. Giving ten per cent of our income to the church. Now, the people of Israel in Old Testament times were commanded by God to give a tithe of their produce to the priests and Levites because that was the way they supported the priests and Levites in those days. And so, the tithe was connected to the temple and to the Old Testament sacrificial system. With the coming of Christ, we no longer worship at a temple and we no longer have priests and Levites. All of those Old Testament rules and regulations have been brought to an end. And so, in the New Testament, believers are not commanded to tithe their income, but we’re commanded to give according to our means. And so, some of us can afford to give more, while some of us can afford to give less. Some can afford more than a tenth and come can afford less than a tenth. And how much we can give can vary depending on the stage of life we’re in. A retired person with a good pension and few expenses or a working single person who is still living at home may be able to give more than someone with lots of children to support or someone who is still in school or college. And so, we’re to give according to our means.
Sometimes we’re reluctant to give, because whatever gift we give is so small. ‘That’s not going to make a difference’, we think. ‘I’d be embarrassed to give so little.’ And so, we give nothing rather than give a little. And whenever we hear that we’re to give generously, we interpret that to mean we have to give a lot. But giving generously doesn’t mean giving a lot, it means giving what we can afford, whether it’s a lot or a little. And giving what we can afford, says Paul in verse 12, is what makes a gift acceptable.
Thirdly, he advises them in verses 13 to 15 that the aim of all this is equality. That is, we’re to help one another in such a way that everyone has enough. When Paul was writing, the Corinthians had plenty; and so they were able to help the believers in Jerusalem. But Paul envisages a time in the future when the Corinthians might be in need. At that time, they can expect help from Jerusalem. And so, just as it was in the wilderness, when God gave the Israelites manna for food, and everyone had enough, so when God’s people help and support one another, everyone will have enough, because one believer’s wealth will relieve another believer’s poverty.
When I preached on this same subject from 1 Corinthians 16, I made the point that Paul is not talking here about the weekly offering in church, which is normally used to support the work of the church and to pay the bills. And that weekly offering is, of course, vital for the church. Unless we can pay the bills, we can’t meet. But Paul is not referring to that here. He’s referring to another kind of collection. He’s writing about collecting money for the benefit of believers who were not part of the congregation in Corinth. Sometimes people refer to this kind of collection as a love offering, because it’s a way to demonstrate our love for other believers by giving what we can to help them. And so, when we hear of an appeal for needy believers, we should be ready to follow the example of the Macedonians and the example of our Lord and give what we can for the benefit of others, because this is the will of the Lord for his people and, in this way, we demonstrate that our love is genuine.
And no doubt in these days there are many needs around the world among believers because of Covid-19. And in many countries of the world, where believers are persecuted, they do not receive the same help and support as other people. And so, we should do what we can to help. Organisations which support the persecuted church may need our funds. And I’ve always been impressed with MERF, who not only support the work of evangelism and church planting in the middle east, but who also provide practical and financial help to needy believers. The PCI also has special collections from time to time to help believers overseas. And, of course, there may be believers known to you who need help. And if that’s the case, then you too can help them according to your means.
Our church’s Confession of Faith is helpful here in reminding us of our duty. In the chapter on the communion of the saints, it says:
All saints are united to Jesus Christ, their head, by his Spirit and by faith, and have fellowship with him in his grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory. United to one another in love, the saints have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are under obligation to perform such duties, public and private, as promote their mutual good, in both spiritual and temporal concerns.
Every believer shares in all of Christ’s benefits. because we’re united to him by his Spirit and through faith. But we’re also united to our fellow believers in love. And so, we’re to share with one another and we’re to help one another, not only in spiritual matters, but also in temporal matters. That is, in matters relating to this life.
And so, God is speaking to you today through the preaching of his word to remind you that this is his will for you, that you give what you can for the benefit of others. And in loving and serving needy believers we are loving and serving our Saviour who though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich and inherit eternal life.