The Ministry of Giving
Drew Craig, Belfast, N. Ireland
In 2 Corinthians chapters 8-9 we have the maintenance and movement, succour and support of the churches. These are paragraphs of powerful appeal in a very sensitive letter. We gather from the apostle’s letter to the Roman Christians, Rom. 15. 25-27, and now to the church at Corinth, that he told the believers in Macedonia, Northern Greece, and Achaia, Southern Greece, about the dire straits of the saints in Jerusalem and Judea. The situation was a result of persecution and famine, but their reaction, particularly that of the three Macedonian churches, Berea, Thessalonica and Philippi, was notable.
The chapters before us give a detailed account of the events, reactions and results of that visit. They can be conveniently discussed under four headings.
The plea to be involved
When the apostle saw their ‘affliction’ and ‘deep poverty’, 8. 2, he might have argued that it wouldn’t be reasonable to inflict on them the great need of the practical assistance required. He would wait until he went south to the prosperous church in Corinth and get what was needed there. But it is clear that he told them the situation as it was. Why? Because he saw ‘giving’ as a priestly ministry and part of the church’s worship; he would not deny these believers, impoverished as they were, a share in this ministry. So they ‘beseeched’ the apostle to be involved, and we learn that the result of that involvement was described as ‘abounding unto the riches of their liberality’, first ‘giving their own selves to the Lord’, v. 5. It is quite clear that the apostle is referring to financial gifts yet in the whole narrative the word money does not appear. Instead he expresses its necessity by the use of the following words: ‘this grace’, 8. 7; ‘a cheerful giver’, 9. 7; ‘this bounty’, 8. 20; ‘this service’, 9. 12; ‘your contribution’, 9. 13. Equally, we are given no clue as to the monetary amount that was collected. That is not the point. It was the heart, beating with love to their Lord and their brethren, that motivated them to give ‘beyond their power or ability’, v. 3.
As I consider these verses I have in my mind the situation in May 1984 in Sibiu, Romania. Four hundred believers, in boiling temperatures, crushed into an old factory building were listening to an account of the extreme famine conditions in Ethiopia. First, there were tears, then sobs, and, finally, audible cries of ‘What can we do to help?’ We had come from the ‘West’ with financial help for the suffering and impoverished Romanians, now we were privileged to see the Macedonian plea in action. Before we left an offering was taken for Ethiopia!
We cannot leave these paragraphs without reference to the greatest act of self-sacrifice ever made. All human sacrifice fades and disappears at the profound words, ‘For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich’, v. 9. There can be no doubt that it was this sacrifice that inspired them, the Romanians, and saints down the centuries, to give to those in need. This should be the basis of our giving to the Lord for His people.
The principle of involvement
The next section, chapters 8 verses 12-15 and 9 verses 6-9, can be summarized under the words ‘according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not’, 8. 12. The emphasis is on equality and readiness.
The Apostle almost shows a little impatience as he addresses the Corinthians. They had made a start a year ago. Now, he says, ‘perform the doing of it’, v. 11. It is not the readiness of the will that will complete the transaction. We may think about it and even pray about it but fail to actually do it. The message about equality seems to be that there are times when there is opportunity but not the ability. At such a time, the Lord will exercise others who have the ability to make up the deficit so that the work will not suffer. We must not, however, use this principle as an excuse to do nothing. Surely, the previous teaching will avoid such a dereliction of our Christian duty. It has often been said that what we put in we get out, but in the Lord’s work there can be no thought of returns other than the Lord’s glory and the building up of His people.
In concluding this section, this principle illustrates the transferable teaching of the Old Testament to the New. Exodus chapter 35 verse 5 states, ‘Take ye from among you an offering unto the Lord: whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, an offering of the Lord’. The gifts ranged from gold to wood. This underlines the principles of willingness and ability. In the New Testament there is no reference to a tithe or a tenth. Indeed, it has been said, ‘We should be prepared to give more under grace than what was demanded of them under law’.
A practical example of involvement
The end paragraph of chapter 8, verses 16-24, is a parenthesis. It concerns Titus, the Apostle’s companion and co-worker. He is beside his mentor and knows the intensity and urgency with which he writes. Titus, wondering how he can help, decides that he will make the journey to Corinth to make sure that the gift the apostle requires is ready when he arrives. Chapter 9 verses 1-5 is an interesting insight into Paul’s thinking. He has evidently told the Macedonians about the liberality of the Corinthians and, having committed himself in this way, has now a latent fear that the Corinthians might not rise to the occasion. It is possible that he expressed this fear to Titus and recorded it in his letter. Perhaps we could learn something from this very down-to-earth servant of God in relation to our financial and practical exercises in the advancement of the work of the Lord!
Titus willingly gets involved ‘of his own accord went unto’ them. There are three steps leading to this action:
- he heard the need and became concerned, v. 16;
- he listened to exhortation, v. 17;
- he had the Lord’s glory in view, v. 23.
We do not know what age Titus was when he made this decision to make this journey with all the hardships that it entailed, but it is a stimulant to those of us who have the time, the ability, and the means to travel in the advancement of the Lord’s work. Titus paid his own way, he did not seek subsistence. It would be reward enough to see all in place at Corinth for the arrival of his master. Can or should we have any less of a motive, even in middle or late life, to put ourselves about for the encouragement of others, perhaps a missionary in loneliness and hardship, and, not least, for the praise of the name of Him who called us into His service.
The purpose of the involvement
The climax of the apostle Paul’s exhortation comes in the remaining verses of chapter 9, verses 10-15, where he refers to God four times: ‘thanksgiving to God’, v. 11, see also verses 12 and 15, and, in verse 13, ‘glorify God’. The apostle has been speaking in very plain language about the practicalities involved in God’s work. But the purpose is not for any human advancement or glorification. If it is, it will surely fail!
In this final paragraph there is three-way communication. First, there is a West to East communication, the love-gift going to the saints in Jerusalem and Judea. Then, there is an East to West one, supplications made by the Jewish believers for their Gentile brothers – a miracle in itself. Then, there is the most important communication, the vertical one, between heaven and earth. This is the ultimate!
In conclusion, I mention another visit to a very remote Romanian village assembly in 1987. At the end of a meeting, one of the leaders asked me if I was an American! ‘No’, I replied, ‘I am from Northern Ireland’. He said, ‘I didn’t know there were any Christians there!’ After a brief conversation, by translation, I had convinced him that there were many Christians and many assemblies like the one we had just attended and preached at. I saw tears in his eyes and a smile on his face. He said, ‘today you have brought us much help (West to East) for which we are very grateful. Now that we know there are Christians in Ireland we will pray for you every day’ (East to West). As we drove off into the night, we thanked God for the third and all important dimension, ‘His unspeakable gift’.