2 Corinthians 8:10-15 “And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.'”
The apostle is writing about giving one’s own money to other Christians. That is one of the distinguishing marks of a believer. The Corinthians were not doing their part. They had made promises and had begun well, but an early enthusiasm had waned. A whole year had been wasted with just a few more pennies added to the fund for starving persecuted believers. To them new priorities for their finances always seemed to emerge and push into the background the needs of poverty stricken Christians. Giving had become the Cinderella of their graces in Corinth. Circumstances alone will never be an encouragement or the safest guide to Christian stewardship. Circumstances are the stuff the charities of the world thrive on. That is how they operate: the spin doctors will touch people’s emotions with their photographs of children in need and an appeal is made to raw emotion backed by music and reward and fun. You make a donation, feel good about it and then get on with your life without Christ. But the kingdom of God operates by different criteria, by Christians giving steadily and thoughtfully throughout their lives whatever their personal circumstances may be. The Macedonians in northern Greece had learned that lesson. Periods of great affliction and deep poverty had entered their lives, and though some might have been tempted to say, “God can’t expect us to think of others and give to others at times like these,” yet, when God’s grace was mixed with their poverty and persecution, the result was abundant joy and generosity.
So one of the reasons Paul is writing these two chapters is in order to encourage the joy of believers. He is helping them to experience the truth of Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” It was that blessedness to which the Corinthian Christians were strangers. If the element of joy is missing in your own life then have you ever thought that there’s a connection between Christian generosity and blessedness? Have you examined your giving? Should any church member go on through life as a ‘born-again’ Scrooge he will remain a stranger to joy. The most joyful Christians – the most self-integrated and all round personalities whom I have met – have been generous people. I had salmon sandwiches and all the cakes I could eat on Wednesday afternoon in Londonderry at the home of an 84 year-old man called Willie and his wife Sarah, and I did not leave his house without his giving me three books and two tapes. Every Saturday he goes out in his car to surrounding towns and villages with a dozen tracts, booklets and cassettes praying earnestly that the Lord will lead him into conversations or to notice boards or into church buildings so that he does not return home with them. He is a happy Christian.
1. CHRISTIAN JOY IS ACHIEVED BY COMPLETING WHAT IS STARTED.
“Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means” (vv. 10&11). Beginning is always easy. The annual school cross country race in which the boys of the top three forms were all expected to run some miles across muddy fields and freezing brooks always began heroically. Over 300 teenage boys charged down a quiet road into the isthmus of the narrow path to the moors. That first hundred yards was a sprint and a whoop but how quickly did the early enthusiasm flag. There followed the long gasping aching run with a stitch in your side back to the school yard finishing line and walking back muddy legged and red-faced to the showers (which ran cold for the late arrivals) through the gauntlet of the jeering junior forms. It was another way Welsh grammar schools for boys spread a sense of failure through every form.
When religion becomes fashionable how large the numbers who are attracted. But cross bearing, and self-denial, and cutting off the right arm and plucking out the right eye in one’s battle with sin, and loving Jesus Christ more than husband and wife and parents, and not loving the world or the things of the world, and loving God with all one’s heart through such trials as a divorce, cancer and deaths – all such normal aspects of the Christian life quickly introduce followers of Jesus to the realities of the marathon of following a crucified Saviour. The Lord Jesus plainly told his disciples that if the world had hated him then it would certainly hate them if they lived like him.
So this familiar pattern was evident in Corinth; there was an early zeal in giving to the fund set up to help their brothers and sisters in need in Judea – but it gave way to apathy. They discovered other priorities and the constant needs of the Jerusalem poor became a bit of a nuisance. The church in Corinth had been the first Greek congregation to give. Good for them! They were the first to speak up and say “We want to give help to our fellow believers in need.” Good on you Corinthians! But, unenviably, they had also become the first Greek church to fizzle out and stop giving. Many have been like them throughout the history of the people of God; Gideon started so well, but he ended badly. He made an ephod of gold and the people began to worship it. It was a snare to his whole family. What a disastrous end after that blessed beginning. Samson began with such zeal and gifts but he ended ill. Elijah had a time in his life when he ran from the land of promise and collapsed almost suicidal under a juniper tree in the wilderness. The church at Galatia had revival and many conversions. But what happened? They dropped behind. Paul wrote to them: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Gals. 5:7). Nothing is more common than for Christians to drop behind in giving, in attendance at the Prayer Meeting, in personal devotions, in bearing witness to their Saviour, in love for their brethren. God is saying to us here, Reckon on it! Where are you? Are you living up to your initial promise? Are you pressing on in the stewardship of your gifts? Are you growing in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? God’s great word to you today is “Finish the work!” (v.11).
Remember when the Lord Jesus called disciples he instructed them carefully about the cost of following him. So half-hearted people, unwilling to make the commitment, did not respond. The Lord actually turned away those who were reluctant to pay the price. There was a man we call the “rich young ruler.” Imagine the excitement in any church when a man like that starts attending, showing interest, running along to church on a Sunday, putting his gold in the collection plate and asking the biggest questions. Wouldn’t any church be tempted to lower all its hedges to allow such a man into membership? What a prize to have him baptized! But Jesus turned the man away from following him on the grounds of that man’s own standards. He had to deal with his covetousness and mortify it before Jesus would allow him to follow him. The man went away from Jesus a sad man. He had wanted to hang on to his love of money as well as his love for Jesus, but the Saviour said he had to make a choice. He was typical of many who saw the miracles and heard the teaching and were initially enthusiastic to follow Christ. The Lord warned them to count the cost carefully. In Luke 14:28-30 he said, “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost, to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.'”
Isn’t the Christian landscape strewn with the wreckage of derelict half-built towers – the ruins of those who began to build and were unable to finish? These were people who were encouraged by all the positive delights of being a Christian who yet were not told of the cost of following the Lord Jesus. So there are churches who have wide open doors that let anyone into all their privileges – baptism, the table, membership and office – without any instruction about the nature of true discipleship. John Stott describes the scandal of nominal Christianity: “large numbers of people have covered themselves with a decent, but thin, veneer of Christianity. They have allowed themselves to become somewhat involved; enough to be respectable but not enough to be uncomfortable. Their religion is a great, soft cushion. It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life, while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience. No wonder the cynics speak of hypocrites in the church and dismiss religion as escapism” (John R. W. Stott, “Basic Christianity,” IVP, 1958, p.108).
A Christian is not someone who is buying fire insurance, who puts down his name just in order to avoid an unpleasant afterlife. A Christian is one who follows the Lamb of God wherever the Lamb takes him. His basic desire is to please God always. Whenever he falls and fails he confesses it to God and keeps moving forward. That is the spirit and direction of his life. The Christian life is one of total dedication. It is full commitment with nothing knowingly held back. No one can come to Christ on any other terms, and stewardship is part of following Christ. The Christian recognises that he always has brothers and sisters in need and he is never going to stop giving to them.
“Finish the work you began!” Hear the words of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Every one therefore who shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my father who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven … He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and who has lost his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:32-39). There is a call to us to be eager about finishing our lives of discipleship. You read the biography of Dr Lloyd-Jones and how in the last years of his life he is thankful that he finished the course which God set out for him, that he didn’t stray, didn’t leave his first love, didn’t get involved in gimmicks, but kept going on. How can that also become your blessedness? Paul tells us here. By “eager willingness to do it … according to your means” (v.11). It is a priority for the Christian to finish what he began not according to the means that God gave to Luther, or Daniel Rowland, or Spurgeon but according to the means God has given to me – the Bible that I have, the preachers that the Spirit brings to me, the friends that encourage me, the books I read, the intelligence the Lord has blessed me with, the devotions that I have before the throne of grace. Finish the work which God began according to your means.
When Wesley was preaching in Dublin there was a great response, but he had seen enthusiasm many times before and when he returned to those areas he would see just how many were going on. He wrote curtly in his journal that night, “Not all blossom results in fruit.” That is what he was looking for. Spurgeon said, “By perseverance the snail reached the ark.” That is the hallmark of a genuine interest in Christ.
2. GOD ACCEPTS OUR GIFTS ACCORDING TO WHAT WE HAVE.
“For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (v.12). Again this is a principle that is true for the grace of giving, but it is true for every grace that a Christian has. Let us begin with the grace of stewardship. Simply speaking, Christian giving should be done in accordance with our means. Put in another way Paul is saying that you should give in proportion to what God has given you. He said it this way in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “each of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper.” This means at least two things: (1) since we are all supposed to give proportionately, those who have more money are expected to give more (and we who are particularly blessed materially must remember this), and (2) the Lord never asks us to give what we do not have. So we are being tested at this juncture as to whether we are really giving in proportion to the material blessing that the Lord has given us?
Consider again the incident of the Lord Jesus noticing the widow giving her two mites. A penny, or a denarius, was normally a working man’s daily wage. Two mites was one sixtieth of that amount. That was all the widow had and she gave it all to the Lord, and the Almighty Creator God actually took from a widow everything she gave him. He had no need of it. God has no needs whatsoever. He does not need our mites or our pennies. In a sense money is quite immaterial to him. How easily for so omnipotent a Being to smile condescendingly at our little gifts – “Do you think that I need this?” Why does God tell us to give offerings to him? God says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (Haggai 2:8). If you could give God 300 tons of gold and 600 tons of silver plus sacks full of precious gems, you wouldn’t be giving God anything that wasn’t already his. In fact, when King David was gathering materials for his son Solomon to build the temple of the Lord, David and other leading officials really did give that much in gold, silver and jewels, and they gave “freely and wholeheartedly to the Lord.”
When all these gifts came in, David prayed with wonder, saying, “Wealth and honour come from you; you are the ruler of all things…. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand” (I Chrons. 29: 9, 12-14). That should be the prayer of all God’s children in offering gifts to the Lord: “We have returned you only what comes from your hand.” Let’s never think God needs our gifts or that we’re doing God a huge favour. We’re merely giving back to God a little of what God has given to us. We’re like little children who can’t afford to buy their father a present on his birthday unless he first gives them the money to do it. Whenever we put money in the collection box it is God’s own wealth that we are returning to him.
But Almighty God actually accepts the widow’s mite with joy. Like a father will receive a painting that his four year old child has done in school and will pin it up in his workplace for everyone to see. It is not a Van Gogh but it means so much to the father because his son painted it for him. Thus it was when this widow – a daughter of the Highest – brought all she could – two mites – and gave it with doxology to God. It was very acceptable to him indeed. God loves a cheerful giver. The mites showed such faith and love in the heart of this woman and that made the tiny gift acceptable. God the Son was deeply affected at the sight of that widow putting in what she had. He loved her much before she threw her coins in the treasury but now he loved her more.
God accepts 300 tons of gold. He does not disdain a great gift as too splashy. God accepts two mites. he does not disdain it as too mean. Then you can accept gifts given to you, great or small. You must not frown and take them with reluctance, and say that the person giving “shouldn’t do it” that you have everything, and immediately find something to give back in return. Are you greater than God? He accepts gifts great and small, but you do not have that grace? It is a sin not to be benevolent and it is a sin not to receive a benevolence with thanks. All the Christian faith is about gifts given and received. God gives Son and Spirit and eternal life through Christ. We give ourselves to him and our love to one another. Learn to give and receive gifts.
Mary of Bethany had more than two mites. She had a jar of precious fragrant oil worth a year’s wages. It seems to me – by a slight use of a calculator – that Mary’s oil was worth 22,000 times more than the widow’s portion. But Mary gave it all to the Lord, but it was acceptable, not because it was much more than the widow’s gift, but because Mary was also willing to give all she had to the Lord.
“Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.”
I had food on Tuesday night this week at another home in that church where I have been taking a conference on the sovereignty of God. The husband and wife in the second home were wealthier than Willie and his wife (who gave me the books and cassettes), but the four of them were fellow believers and friends in the same congregation. In the second home the wife had recently 150,000 pounds to the erection of a new church building in memory of her first husband. Of course they did not disclose that amount to me. The pastor had told me the actual sum of money. My point is that the willingness to give was there in both homes, and the giving from both was acceptable to God according to what each had the power to give. The Lord does not judge Willie for not giving 150,000 pounds because he does not have that sort of money. But God would judge the second family if the sum of money they gave to the church was a mere two mites.
God’s judgment is according to the willingness, the intention of the heart, not according to the actual amount of money. There may be much money in the hand that puts the gift in the offering, but God sees only the gift in the heart, and God records only the gift in the heart, and that may be far less than the money going into the offering. There were once a couple who were going off on vacation directly after a Sunday evening service, and during the announcements the husband gave to his wife the envelope with the money they had set aside for holiday expenses for her to put in her handbag. She, however, thought that it was the offering money and when the deacons came around with the plate she put the lot in the church collection. Now when a mistake like that happens it is natural enough for you to go to the deacons afterwards and explain that you have made an error and put in the wrong envelope, and get your money back, but this young couple said, “Well, we gave it to the Lord and he keeps the record.” But the pastor was not impressed and urged them to take that money back. “How much did you intend to give?” he asked them, and when they told him he said, “That is the sum the Lord recorded.” God sees the proportion, not the portion, and if we would long to give more and are not able then the Lord records that too.
Let us broaden this principle: “the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (v. 12). The congregation depends on its members’ spiritual gifts for its very survival. The church is made up of spiritual people in a spiritual temple. Its members are not all wealthy and intelligent and beautiful and mighty and noble. The church also contains the unlearned and the poor and the weak and the ordinary. They can save one another – and the world around them – only in the power of the Spirit who confers on them spiritual gifts such as wisdom, knowledge, teaching, counselling, liberality and administration. These are as vital today as they were in the first century.
Of course a minister must have gifts especially the gift of knowledge and the gift of communication. These are not matters of mere book-learning – though this is not to be despised, for Paul had his parchments. They were and are matters of spiritual insight. The gifted teacher so sees the truth that he loves it. He sees it in its practical bearings and in its pastoral relevance. His gift is not mere knowledge of the truth but skill in applying it to the needs of the people of God so that they are comforted, admonished and inspired. The preacher has communicative skills and these are a gift of the Holy Spirit. They are not identical with those of the professional journalist, the politician or the advertiser. Paul disowns all of them as ‘the wisdom of the world.’
The preacher presents his gift to God and the gift is acceptable according to what he has. His name is not ‘Jonathan Edwards’ nor ‘John Wesley’. He does not have their gifts and he can’t present another’s gifts to God. So if he preaches their sermons the gift is not acceptable. But if God accepts his gift then his preaching will be in the demonstration and power of the Spirit, and be preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. That is the sign that his gift is acceptable to God. His words must be from the Spirit – “words which the Holy Spirit teaches.” The impact must be from the Spirit – “whose heart the Lord opened.” When the Holy Ghost is present then that is the evidence that our willing use of the gift of preaching is acceptable to God. When God accepts the sermon then the message will be from him, the words are the Spirit’s, the boldness is the Spirit’s, the wisdom is the Spirit’s, above all the power is the Spirit’s. He shows he has accepted the gift of the sermon by giving the message cogency, pricking the conscience, causing men to tremble, overriding their prejudices, winning the consent of their intellects and opening their hearts to Christ. But when the gift is not accepted because of error, or pride, or abuse of some kind then all a man’s oratory and passion, his logic and profundity have no more hope of success than a farm hand sowing seed on the M4. The gift is acceptable according to what one has – if the willingness is there.
But every single believer has a distinctive gift with which to serve the body of Christ. All do not have the same gifts, either as to number or as to eminence. God distributes to each according to his sovereign will. Not one of us is having to work according to the standard of the gifts which others possess. I will not be judged because I am not feeding all the orphans and street people of Aberystwyth. My name is not George Muller. I do not have his gift of faith. I will not be judged for refusing to go to China to preach. My name is not Hudson Taylor. I do not have his missionary zeal. I will not be judged for not preaching to thousands in the open air. My name is not George Whitefield. I do not have his gift of evangelism. One’s own gift is acceptable as Paul says, “according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (v.12).
But lest I let us off too easily with this truth and make that the last word so that we all begin to settle down in a warm glow of self-satisfaction, excusing our lack of zeal and faith and praying, I must hasten to add this. What if I have far more intelligence than I am stretching at the present, more ability to memorise Scripture, more time to develop a assured interpretation of the verses of the entire Bible, more courage to bring the Word of God to bear on men and women, more of a spirit of devotion, more energy in Christian activity, more creativity and more time than I am using for God at present? What if I have an abundance of such gifts from God – and what Christians will say that they do not – and we are not using our gifts as we should be? We have them on loan and as a stewardship from God, and is it not the case that too many talents we are burying and accusing God of being a harsh man reaping where he has not sown? But God has sown in everyone’s heart today much wisdom and talents and strength and vision, and one is going to be judged “according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (v.12).
The whole congregation is poorer as a result of us not using our gifts. The body needs the help, the liberality, the compassion, the encouragement, the intercession, the private counsel or whatever help it is that God has conferred on you for the sake of the church. Every member needs the gifts of all the others. Not even the most honourable can say to any of the rest, “I have no need of you” (I Cor. 12:21). Some Christians live lives of dreadful isolation. As a result they deprive themselves of the countless little services which others have to offer by way of encouragement, rebuke, company, down-to-earth words that demolish humbug and pretentiousness. To pretend to self-sufficiency, emotionally and otherwise, is to risk warping our own personalities and ending up in foul spiritual deformity.
3. GOD’S DESIRE IS THAT THERE MIGHT BE EQUALITY.
“Our desire is not that others might be reli eved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” (vv. 13-15). Paul tells them that his purpose in urging them to send money to Judea is not to impoverish them in order to meet the needs of others. There are wild approaches to giving, protracted appeals sending the buckets around again, and again! All kinds of pressure are brought to bear on the congregation suggesting that if they were truly saved by the Lord who had given their life for them they would be keeping nothing back. These excruciating appeals seek to squeeze the last penny out of a person’s pocket. Some people who attend these big meetings, expecting this brainwashing, and knowing how susceptible they were to these appeals, would deliberately leave all their high currency notes home on the sideboard rather than empty their pockets in gesture stewardship because of the manipulations of the demagogue on the platform!
Paul’s aims are far more modest, saying here that all he is seeking to do is to give them some “advice about what is best in the matter” (v.10) by levelling things out a little. Corinth was one of the wealthiest towns in the world, while Judea was suffering famine and persecution. His desire was “that there might be equality” (v.13) by the rich Corinthians sending some of their money to Jerusalem Christians. Right after the memorable feast of Pentecost the Spirit-filled growing church in Jerusalem showed this concern to abolish poverty in a congregation: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Again, a little later, we read, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had … There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:32 & 34). So Paul is applying that to Christians who were separated by a thousand miles of ocean, that Gentile Christians ought to ensure that there were no needy Jewish Christians. There ought to be material equality so that those who have been blessed with a surplus should willingly share with those who lack the necessities of life. That is what God wants from us now.
We are told by some that this is a primitive form of communism – or at least that it is New Labour! These passages were much debated in radical Wales after the first world war. Should every true Christian be a socialist? The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote his book on Christian socialism in 1942 and it was an extraordinary best seller. He claimed that “socialism is the economic realisation of the Christian gospel.” Was he right? Let me lay down a few principles from this passage:
i] All Christian giving was voluntary. What Paul was telling them was ‘advice’. A man’s property is his own. It is within his own power to retain it or to give it away; and if he gives then it is his prerogative to decide whether it shall be all of the money he has realised on the sale or a part. When Ananias and Sapphira decided to sell a piece of property they could make up their own minds how much of the money they were going to give to the church. Peter said to Ananias, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). But Ananias and Sapphira lied in claiming that they had brought the entire sum of money to lay at the feet of the apostles. That was their sin – deceit within the church itself.
Giving must be voluntary. It is the fruit of love. Of course it is obligatory as a moral duty, and if a man sees his brother in need and refuses to help him the church may question whether the love of God dwells in him. But it is one of those duties the performance of which cannot be enforced as a right by heavy shepherds in the congregation. It is at your discretion. It is a Christian’s free moral choice, and there is a certain beauty about such giving. Caesar cannot ennoble a whole community when he increases their taxes on penalty of removing their liberty if they refuse. That is smoking gun charity! When men say that “a community has made a moral choice” what they really mean is that individuals who are in power have made a moral choice and by using the community’s institutions have imposed it on the others. But the Christian freely chooses to love God and his neighbour by his personal generosity.
The Bible encourages both spontaneity and discipline in giving. Ananias and his wife could decide to sell a property and give the proceeds to their brothers and sisters in the faith. That is the one way of a one-off donation. The usual approach is a disciplined, regular and proportioned way: “On the first day of every week each of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper” (I Cors. 16:2). I would urge you to build this regularity and priority into your giving. Many Christians tithe their income to the Lord. But no church may discipline the members who do not tithe, because giving is voluntary.
There is, however, nothing in the New Testament about the church speaking up and being organised to bring civil pressures to bear on Caesar to tax the rich in some draconian way – “until the pips squeak” one Chancellor of the Exchequer said – and distribute their wealth to the poor. A party may choose to propagate that policy and some Christians may vote for it, but others may not and may in fact earnestly oppose that policy seeing it as the road to serfdom. Christians certainly are committed to the right of private property and possessions. God’s commandment is, “Thou shalt not steal,” and Caesar is as much under that commandment as anyone else. God obviously defended Naboth’s right to refuse to sell his vineyard to Ahab and Jezebel. Merely because they were the monarchs they had no right to commandeer what belongs to the little people.
ii] We give to relieve the necessities of the poor. So, what is in mind? Not an equality of the property which Christians live in. That certainly does not work in communist societies. Many Russians existed in bleak grey concrete apartment blocks while the Party apparatchik lived in his luxury dacha in the forest by the lake. The New Testament concern is rather that no brother or sister in the congregation should be in need. There should be equal relief for the burden of want. “At the present time,” says Paul to these wealthy Greeks, “your plenty will supply what they need” (v.14). There might come a future time when the boot is on the other foot and the Christians in Judea will be able to help you.
You understand that my needs have been virtually dependent upon your generosity for the last 36 years. One consequence of this is that I should not live in a luxurious lifestyle from the money you give to me, for the simple reason that no Christian should live in a luxurious lifestyle, but I should be relieved from want or destitution so that I can give myself to the word of God and prayer. So that is the second point, that we give to relieve the necessities of the poor.
iii] Fellow believers have the first claim on our giving. We give to all people, to Muslims and atheists and paedophiles and even our enemies. We give to the poor as poor asking no questions for conscience sake. They are all a proper object of our affection. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Without such love I am nothing. But Christians have a special obligation to help fellow believers: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us go good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gals. 6:10). Believers are related to Christ. He died for them. He prays for them. He supplies their need through the other members of his kingdom. What we do to them we actually do to Christ himself. The good we do to them has a purity about it. They wont take advantage of the money we give to them and abuse our kindness. It wont make them lazy or sluggards. They will tell us what their true state is. We can give to them through fellow believers and so their superintendence will see that it is fairly distributed. It will go from our tables to their tables. Giving needs Christian oversight. Some of the Jesus people in California in the 1960s would pass the big plate around during the offering and the members of the congregation could give, or if they were in need, could help themselves to dollar bills. It was a recipe for disaster. What temptation this put in the minds of everyone at that time. The seed of stealing is in every heart. The rationalisation of need because of ill discipline and poor stewardship and laziness would encourage any Christian into justifying taking $50. Far better if charity came through the deacons who knew the people concerned. That leads us to the final point.
iv] Poor Christians have no right to depend on the generosity of rich Christians. This same apostle, so zealous that the Gentiles should remember the Jews in their hour of need, also writes, “Even when we were with you, we gave you this rule, ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat'” (2 Thess. 3:10). Paul goes on to urge men not to be idle but to settle down and earn the bread they eat.
So Christians avoid the destructive evils of communism by recognising the right of property and making giving to others voluntary. The Christian encourages the poor to self-support to the extent of their own ability, “with quietness to work, and to eat their own bread.” It is a great standard which would banish poverty and idleness amongst the churches.
Paul ends this exhortation about giving by referring to an incident in the Old Testament when the Israelites were passing through the desert and God supplied manna to meet their needs. Some people were fit and strong and could gather a large quantity each morning but they distributed what was surplus to their own needs to the blind and arthritic and elderly. A couple of litres (one omer) was enough for each person, and if anyone tried to stockpile any more than that quantity then the extra manna would putrefy. So no one suffered any want at all. “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little” (v.15). The quotation is taken from Exodus 16:18.
Paul takes that passage and he applies it to the Corinthian Christians to encourage them to act like those Old Testament Messiahists. God in the exodus from Egypt was supplying all their need, and so those who had abundance helped those who had little. Some had skill, health, and diligence and they were eminently successful in life. They made it their morning priority to gather the manna and take it to the feeble and aged. Such activity is a privilege, giving to others less favoured than ourselves. This giving and receiving binds the church together. The constant exercise of benevolence encourages daily blessings. Poverty was kept out of the camp and so were the snares of a superabundance. No one in the wilderness became a millionaire through cornering the manna market. Wealth is like manna: if you hang on to it then it corrupts. It must be used to meet the needs of others. The blessings of the gospel message in the lives of God’s people – Christ’s rest and peace – must be everywhere diffused by our prosperity. That is the blessed goal to come from Christian generosity.
21st October 2001 GEOFF THOMAS