Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 CORINTHIANS 8:1
We have been discussing some very practical matters in these studies, but it is hard to imagine a more practical matter than our giving to God, specifically giving money to support spiritual causes. Most Christians understand they are to do this. But what might be surprising to most is associating giving with grace, which is what this chapter is about. The duty of giving is understood, perhaps even the satisfaction or joy of giving. But “the grace of giving”? That combination of words probably seems strange to most persons.
Three things are implied by this title. First, giving is a privilege given to Christians by God — a privilege, because it is a way in which we become partners with God in assuring that the gospel and its benefits are made known to other people.
Second, the disposition to give to spiritual causes is itself a grace-gift from God. Left to ourselves, we would never have this
desire. But when God begins to work in our lives to make us like Jesus Christ, one thing he does is begin to make us generous with our money, knowing that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also (cf. Matthew 6:21).
Third, giving is a natural response of gratitude to God’s prior grace toward us in Christ and the gospel.
Each of these ideas lies behind or is explicitly stated in the eighth and ninth chapters of 2 Corinthians, two chapters that contain the most extensive treatment in the Bible of the principles that should govern Christian giving. Paul repeatedly mentions grace in these chapters. He does so at the start of chapter 8: “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches” (2 Cor. 8:1). That is his introduction to the subject. He continues, “So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part” (v. 6). He concludes with the challenge: “See that you also excel in this grace of God.
But then the word is also used of Jesus Christ and his gift of himself for us: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (v. 9). At the end of chapter 9 Paul speaks in the same way of “the surpassing grace God has given you,” by which he means God’s gift of Jesus to be our Savior (2 Cor. 9:14).
Finally, Paul is also speaking of giving in the middle of chapter 9 when he says, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’ ” (vv. 8-9).
In these two important chapters on giving the word grace occurs six times.
The Churches of Macedonia and Corinth
The background to these chapters is important for understanding them. Famine had come to lands lying at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, and the Christians in Jerusalem were suffering because of it. Paul was not there. He was traveling among the Gentiles in order to plant churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. But he saw the need of the Jerusalem church as an opportunity to demonstrate the unity of all believers in Christ. He decided to do this by receiving an offering for the Jerusalem church from the Gentiles. We learn from 1 Corinthians 16 that he began this project in Galatia, and from 2 Corinthians 8 we learn that he had pursued it in among the poverty-stricken churches of Macedonia.
In 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8-9, he is urging participation in this offering by the Christians at Corinth.
The problem was that the Corinthians had not followed through on their original early commitment to share in this offering. They seemed to have been willing at first. But like many of us, they had let the matter of their giving to God’s work slide. Now Paul was sending Titus, one of his faithful fellow-workers and companions, along with two other unnamed brothers to receive this offering, and he was writing to assure that the Corinthians would actually take the offering and have it waiting when Titus and his companions arrived.
Anyone who has ever tried to get someone else to give to religious or charitable causes knows how difficult motivating another person can be. So we are wise to ask: How does Paul move the Corinthians to be faithful in this area? It is noteworthy that he does not nag, scold, beg, or plead. But neither is he against using some very direct motivation. If we read the chapters carefully, we will find him appealing to the need for personal consecration on the Corinthians’ part, the example of Christ, the
love and grace of God for us, and even to a bit of proper pride and self-interest.
The chief element in Paul’s attempt to motivate the Corinthians to great giving was the example of the poorer churches of Macedonia. Paul had visited this area on his second missionary journey, when he had founded churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and other cities. The members of these churches had been generous. Years later, when he wrote to the Philippian Christians, Paul acknowledged that “when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need” (Philippians 4:15-16). This means that the Christians in Philippi had given to his support at least four times: once when he started out; twice when he was in Thessalonica; and a fourth time when he was in Rome, since the letter to the Philippians was written in part to thank them for it. We know from 2 Corinthians 11:9 that the Macedonians also gave at least once more when Paul first came to Corinth.
So Paul is seeking to motivate by another’s good example, and his first example of generous giving is the churches of Macedonia.
God’s Formula for Great Giving
But these were poor churches, as I said a moment ago. Corinth was a thriving, prosperous place by comparison. How is it that the poorer Macedonian churches had been able to set such a good example for the church at Corinth? The first answer to this question is in 2 Corinthians 8:2. I call it “God’s Formula for Great Giving.” It says, “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Here are three elements: (1) a severe trial, (2) overflowing joy,
and (3) extreme poverty. Combined, says Paul, they produced generosity of a rich and exemplary kind.
1. A severe trial.
We do not know what this severe trial was. It may have been persecution. It may have been the poverty Paul openly acknowledges to have been theirs. Whatever it was, it represented less than ideal circumstances we might call very grim in nature.
Isn’t it strange that this should be a factor in the extraordinary giving of these churches? It is not the way we would expect things to be. We usually think the opposite. We think that if a person is going through some trial, his or her attention should rightly be directed to that problem and not to the needs of other people. This is how we would expect to react ourselves. But here, as in so many areas of life, Christian experience is entirely different from what we would expect. Unlike other people, when Christians go through trials they think about others who are also suffering, and they reach out to them.
Do we need an example? The best example is Jesus, who, when he was hanging on the cross, was not thinking about himself first. He thought of the soldiers (“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34), his mother (“Dear woman, here is your son,” John 19:26) and the dying thief (“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43).
2. Overflowing joy.
In what were the Macedonian Christians joyful? Paul does not say, but we may suppose their joy came from several things. They would have had joy in salvation itself, for Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians how the believers there welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:6). Before the
coming of the gospel they were lost in heathen darkness and were, like Paul describes the Ephesians to have been before their conversion, “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). After they had believed, they were conscious of having found God and of having passed out of darkness into light. In the second chapter of 1 Thessalonians Paul speaks of the Thessalonians being his “hope,” “joy,” and “crown” (v. 19) and in the next verse as his “glory and joy” (v. 20). We may assume that the Thessalonians thought of him that way too.
Similarly, in Philippians Paul speaks explicitly of the believers’ “joy in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:26), and he urges them to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4), that is, to continue as they were doing. Commentators have often observed that joy is a dominant note in this letter.
Every Christian should be joyful. But we are concerned with the link between joy and giving, and one thing joy must indicate in this context is that the giving of the Macedonians was unconstrained. That is, it was of their own free will, and that is why it was joyful. As long as our giving is constrained, as it is when we give our taxes to the government, it is a burden and is frequently coupled with resentment. But when we give freely, as we ought to do for Christian causes, we give joyfully and our joy is enhanced by the giving.
I think here of Frances Ridley Havergal, who wrote lines we often sing with little understanding or commitment:
Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Those lines were autobiographical. That is, Frances Havergal did what she described. We know from her writings that at the time she wrote those words she sent to the Church Missionary Society all her gold and silver jewelry, including a jewel chest that she described as being fit for a countess. She wrote to a close
friend, “I don’t need to tell you that I never packed a box with such pleasure.” That is a joy generous Christians recognize. They know that joy leads to generous giving, as our text in 2 Corinthians teaches, and that it is enhanced by it.
3. Extreme poverty.
The third element in this formula for generous giving is poverty, indeed, extreme poverty. Again, what an utterly contrary principle from what the world teaches! If you are trying to raise large sums of money for a secular charity and if you hire a fund-raising organization to assist in the campaign, you will be told that the first third of the goal must be raised by advance gifts from large donors, the second third by nearly as large gifts from wealthy people, and only the last third from your organization’s regular constituency. Or, depending on the cause, the expectations may be even more disproportionate. Sometimes the gifts from large donors are supposed to be at least 80 percent of the whole.
That is not how it is in Christian circles. Large gifts have their place, perhaps to launch a new project or pay for a special need. But by and large, the work of the church is sustained, and sustained very well, by the regular small gifts of those who are not wealthy. In fact, in many places the spreading of the gospel is underwritten mostly by the very poor.
Some time ago I came across some statistics that showed that giving among the very poor is remarkable. In the United States those below the poverty line give about 5 percent of their income to charitable causes. Those who are in the middle income brackets give slightly more, about 7 percent, because they have more from which to give. But when people move into the higher brackets, that is, above $100,000 per year, the rate falls back to only 2 percent. So, statistically, it is usually not the rich who give generously but those who are not nearly so well off.
The Macedonians were poor. Paul says they were in “extreme poverty.” Therefore, their giving must have been sacrificial, as all truly great giving is.
Don’t you think that the giving of the poor widow whom Jesus saw casting two very small copper coins into the temple treasury was sacrificial? Of course, it was! Jesus said of her, “This poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4). Do not think that she was unhappy doing it. Jesus did not mention her joy. He was speaking of how God evaluated the gift. But even though he did not mention it, we can be sure that the widow was a joyful giver.
Here is another example. Gordon, the English general, was a godly man who attributed his military success to God. When the British government wanted to honor him he declined all money and titles. The only thing he accepted was a gold medal that had been inscribed with a record of his thirty-three military campaigns. It was his most prized possession. After his death this famous medal could not be found. Where was it? Eventually it was learned that Gordon had sent it to the city of Manchester during a severe famine so it could be melted down and the gold used to buy food for those who were starving. In his diary under the date on which he mailed the medal were the words: “The last earthly thing I had in this world that I valued I have given to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The result of this unusual combination of circumstances was great giving. It was according to the formula: A severe trial plus overflowing joy plus extreme poverty equals rich generosity. How does that add up? Isn’t that like saying, “Minus one, plus minus fifteen, plus minus three equals a million”? Yes, it is. But that is God’s arithmetic, strange as it may seem to us. It is the grace of giving, and it works.
The Secret of Great Giving (2 Cor. 8:5)
Verse 5 adds a further explanation of the remarkable giving of the Macedonian Christians: “And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.” I call this a further explanation of the grace of giving because, as we well know, trials and poverty do not in themselves produce great giving, not even among Christians necessarily. In fact, they sometimes do the opposite. They sometimes produce bitterness in people who thereby become self-centered, mean, tight-fisted, and greedy.
In this verse Paul explains that the Macedonian Christians had: (1) first given themselves to the Lord, and (2) then given themselves to himself and the missionary team that came with him.
1. Given to the Lord.
It is hard to emphasize this too much because in the fullest sense everything in the Christian life begins, continues, and ends with this necessity. It begins here because this is what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to surrender oneself to Jesus Christ, repenting of sin, believing on him, and beginning to follow him as one’s Master. It continues here because Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, which means serving him as Lord of our entire life. It ends here because Christians must persevere in their original calling to the very end.
Some years ago I heard a prominent member of a board of directors of an organization say, “To be a good board member you should be able to give one of three things: time, talent, or wealth.” That is good worldly wisdom. But a Christian will do better. A Christian will give everything he or she is or has to Jesus Christ.
Right here is why so many believers know so little about the
grace of giving. They know the gospel. They believe it. But they have not really given themselves to God, at least not wholeheartedly. They are like Jacob when he stood on the banks of the Jabbok on the edge of Esau’s territory. Twenty years earlier he had cheated his brother out of his father Isaac’s blessing. Esau had threatened to kill him, and he had been forced to flee across the desert to live with his uncle Laban. As the twenty years passed, he gradually forgot about Esau’s threats. But when he finally left Laban to return home and was getting close to where Esau lived, he began to remember Esau and became very afraid. What if Esau had not forgotten? What if he was still determined to kill him?
When Jacob got to the edge of Esau’s territory, he decided to send a servant ahead of him to tell Esau he was coming and get a feeling for how he would most likely be received. The servant came back with the report, “Esau … is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (Gen. 32:6). To Jacob this was a vast army, and he could only assume the worst. He had to believe that Esau was going to attack him and his small band of servants. So he divided his company into two parts, saying, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape” (v. 8).
Ah, but what if he was in the group Esau attacked?
As Jacob thought it over he decided that something more drastic was necessary. He decided to appease Esau with gifts. He took two hundred female goats and sent them ahead of him across the barren terrain toward Esau and his approaching army. He put a servant in charge of the goats and gave him these instructions: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us’ ” (vv. 17-18).
After he had sent the servant with the female goats, Jacob sent another servant with twenty male goats, giving him the same instructions. He said to himself, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead” (v. 20).
After that he sent:
thirty female camels with their young, followed by forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys, and ten male donkeys.
Each of these groups of animals was tended by a servant who was to tell Esau that the animals were a present from Jacob to him. It was a hilarious picture, all the possessions of Jacob strung out across the desert in groups moving toward Esau.
He went even further. After he had dispatched the animals, he sent his family ahead, choosing Leah, the least favored wife, to go first together with her children, then Rachel, the favored wife, with her children. And there at last, with his family and possessions sent ahead of him across the desert toward Esau, was Jacob. He was standing on the edge of the Jabbok, all alone and trembling.
I suppose that if he had known the hymn Christians used to sing some years ago, he might have sung, “I surrender all … all the goats, all the sheep, all the camels, all the cows, all the bulls, all the donkeys, even my wives and children.” But he had not surrendered himself. The text says, “So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp” (v. 21).
That night the angel of God came and wrestled with him and brought him to the point of personal surrender.
Maybe the angel needs to wrestle with you. You have been stingy in your support of the Lord’s work, giving only as much as you felt compelled to give. When the Lord pressed the claims of
his work upon you, you responded by giving up a few goats. When he pressed you further you gave him a few sheep, then camels, then cows. You sang, “I surrender all the donkeys.” You were even willing to give your wife or husband or children. But you have never surrendered yourself. If you have not done that, you need to do it. You need to do it now. There is no substitute for giving yourself to the Lord. You will never know the joy of the grace of giving (or any other grace) until you do.
2. Given to Paul and his team.
The second thing Paul says in order to explain the extraordinary giving of the Macedonians is that, having first given themselves to the Lord, they then also gave themselves to him and his missionary team. But that is not really a great additional achievement. It is something that follows naturally from having first given ourselves to the Lord. It is an inevitable sequence. If we give ourselves to God, we will give ourselves to others. This is because we will want to serve God with our whole selves, and the only way to serve God is by serving other people.
The Greatest Example of Great Giving
When I began to write about the giving of the churches of Macedonia I said that this was Paul’s first motivating example of great giving. It was a good one, as you can see. But there is also a second great example of great giving, and that is the giving by Jesus of himself to be our Savior. Paul writes of it in 2 Corinthians 8:9 when he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
The giving of the Macedonians was great, but the giving of the Lord Jesus Christ was greater still, and we can be sure that it
was the example of his giving that motivated them, as it has so many Christians.
There are four stages in this verse, two that concern the Lord Jesus and two that concern ourselves. Stage number one: Christ’s riches. Before the Incarnation, when he was in the presence of the Father in heaven, Jesus was rich with all the riches of the Godhead. Everything in heaven and earth was his. Stage number two: Christ’s poverty. Jesus laid all this aside in order to become a man and die on the cross for our salvation. Paul describes his sacrifice in classic language in Philippians.
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
Never in the entire history of the universe did anyone abandon so much in order to become so poor for so many.
But it was not for nothing, for the third and fourth stages of verse 9 explain how we have benefited from Christ’s giving. Stage number three: Our poverty. We possess nothing of any spiritual value. We have nothing in ourselves that can commend us to God. In fact, we are guilty of the precise opposite. There is much to condemn us. But then, stage number four: Our riches. Because of Jesus’ gift of himself, we who have nothing and are nothing are lifted from the depths of our sin and misery and are made objects of God’s great grace and coheirs with Jesus Christ of God’s riches.
Shouldn’t the example of Jesus, who freely gave himself for us, move us to great giving for others? It should, or we do not understand the gospel.
I heard of a man who was on a pulpit committee who did not understand it. He was sent to hear a man who was a candidate for the empty pulpit of his church, and afterward he reported back to the committee: “The candidate had a three-point sermon on stewardship. The points were: (1) Earn all you can, (2) Save all you can, (3) Give all you can.”
“How was the message?” the other members of the committee asked him.
“The first two points were excellent, but the third point spoiled it all,” he replied.
Great giving is motivated above all by the Cross of Christ. Early in the nineteenth century King Frederick William III of Prussia was carrying on expensive wars intended to make a great nation of the Prussian people. He did not have enough money for his campaigns. So he hit upon this idea. He asked the women of Prussia to bring their gold and silver jewelry to be melted down and made into money so their country could buy instruments of war. At the same time Frederick determined that for each gift of gold or silver he would give in return an iron decoration bearing the inscription, “I gave gold for iron, 1813.”
The response was overwhelming, and the people who received their gifts from the king prized them even more than their former possessions. In fact, for a time it became fashionable for women to wear no jewelry at all. They wore their iron decorations instead. So it was that the Order of the Iron Cross, the most exalted decoration of the German people, was established. Those who are members of this order wear no other decorations, only this cross.
We need a generation of people who have become members of the Order of the Cross of Jesus Christ, people who have given everything to him because he first loved us and gave himself for us. It will be these people who will have received the grace of giving.