2 Corinthians 8:1-5
Before we focus in on our text we are going to refresh our memories about some of the historical background and occasion of 2 Corinthians. And to do that we are going to back up and consider the call and commissioning of the apostle Paul and then the historical occasion for the writing of this letter and specifically the writing of this section of the letter.
Paul is Saved and Commissioned
Recall that Saul of Tarsus had been an extremely zealous keeper of the Mosaic law; a young and energetic Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin; a shining example of the best that the law could produce.
But God poured out His grace and rescued Saul from his self-righteousness and ignorance about God’s righteousness and brought him to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul, called Paul, had been so zealous for the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant and the traditions of the fathers that he was compelled to persecute Christ’s church. But now having come to understand God’s promises and plan of redemption in Christ Jesus he became a powerful gatherer and builder and lover of Christ’s church.
Paul learned as he was confronted with the truth gospel that the Law of Moses was never designed to solve the problem of our sin, nor was it designed to establish our own righteousness. The Law was designed to display God’s perfect righteousness and our pervasive sinfulness.
And so as Paul learned of Christ he learned that our sin could always only be dealt with by and through the promised seed and suffering servant, Jesus Christ the God-man. It was only through Jesus’ death in our place that our sin could be taken away from us and paid for by Jesus. And righteousness, the perfect righteousness that God requires, could always only be counted to us by faith in God’s promises which all find their amen in Jesus Christ.
Paul was confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, that God has demonstrated His love for the world in this way: in the first century AD God gave His only Son, so that the ones believing in Him might not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God the Father, put the God the Son forward to fulfill all righteousness and to die in the place of sinners, being rejected but the Jews and crucified under Pontus, so that all who truth Him would be forgiven and have God as their God from every tribe tongue and nation. And God demonstrated that Jesus’ life and dead has been sufficient by raising Him from the grave – the first fruits of a new creation, the old having passed away, the new has come.
Paul was chosen by God to be a herald, sent out to proclaim this good news to those outside the Jewish people – he was an apostle to the Gentiles. So Paul traveled throughout the Gentile world proclaiming the gospel to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles from city to city – and churches were established.
Paul’s own testimony was, ”…I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20-21) and describing his one goal, “… I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
And so Paul preached and those who had believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ thought the Middle East in the first century were gathered into local bodies. And so it was in Corinth, a city of many idols and sinful practices and false religions. Paul came preaching Christ and many in that city came to believe upon the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. So Paul was the church’s father in the faith and founder of the church.
Issues in the Church in Corinth
But from the beginning of this church’s life there had been issues and concerns to be addressed and growth that needed to happen – like all churches. But Paul never abandoned his love for this assembly that had been called out of darkness and into light.
He wrote what we call 1 Corinthians and we discover from that letter that within the church divisions, pride and arrogance, a lack of love, sexual immorality, people threatening to bring each other to court, the wealthy in the church humiliating the poor, etc. But in that letter Paul patiently appeals to them to live in a manner consistent with the gospel they confess.
A Painful Visit
Well, at some point Paul makes a visit to the church and it proves to be a painful visit. Apparently, Paul’s authority and apostleship was being undermined by some, his motives and character were being questioned, and sin was being allowed to continue unchallenged in the community of Christ’s people.
So Paul had planned to come back in person to continue helping the Corinthian church work through and deal with these issues in a God-honoring way. But after reflection, it seems, Paul decided to write a letter instead, delivered by the hand of his fellow worker Titus. It was a difficult letter, as we saw last week, one that pained Paul to write and pained the Corinthians to receive. It was a letter calling them to repent and deal with the sin that they had allowed to go on in their midst. But they did received it and responded with godly grief which led to repentance and obedience.
And when Paul hears or their response he is thrilled, even as there are still other issues to be dealt with – here was evidence of the work of God in there midst, and so this letter that we call 2 Corinthians is dealing with certain concerning issues like Paul’s defense of Himself as a genuine minster of Christ and the New Covenant, while it also addresses the fact that the Corinthian church had evidenced genuine faith by responding well to Paul’s severe letter.
Collection for the Saints
But as we will see this week and in the next few weeks this letter also deals with another issue that is on Paul’s heart – and that is the Corinthians’ faithfulness to love and support their brothers and sisters as they had promised to do.
The background to this promise goes like this: there was apparently a particularly severe poverty among the saints in Jerusalem that could not be relieved by local means. And a broad effort throughout the larger community of believers had been organized to bring relief to these poor brother and sisters in Jerusalem. Paul had made this effort known to many local churches throughout the Middle East where the gospel has spread and local churches had been established and the church in Corinth had been among those local congregation that had agreed to make a collection, a contribution to help with this need.
But for whatever reason that collection had been left unfinished and incomplete. The Corinthians had not delivered on what they had said they would do for the suffering saints in Jerusalem.
So as we come to the first words of chapter 8 we understand that when Paul says, “we want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…” his desire is to teach them and call them and spur them on to love and good works, to faithfulness to their promise of helping their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem, by setting forth for them the example of the Macedonian believers.
And what we have in chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians are what the Lord has preserved for each of us, as members of the Christ’s redeemed people, some 20 centuries later, to teach us and to spur us on to love and good works by setting forth for us this example of the Macedonian believers.
2 Corinthians 8:1-5
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
So let’s walk through verses 1 to 5 and listen for the Lord’s instruction to each of us personally.
To Those In Christ
First of all, focus in on how Paul addresses the Corinthian church. He calls them ‘brothers,’ that is brethren, brothers and sisters. Let’s not rush past this designation too quickly.
In chapter 6 we saw that those of us who are believing in the Lord Jesus Christ are the promised eschatological temple of the living God. Paul told the Corinthians, “we are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16). We who are in Christ by faith are God’s dwelling place (6:16). We are living stones and a spiritual house(1 Peter 2:5). We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the Almighty God who is now our Abba, Father, through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 6:18, Romans 8:15). We are heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17) and though our outer selves are wasting away, our inner self, because of the resurrection and our spiritual union to Christ by faith, is alive and is being renewed day by day and our hope is an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Corinthians 4:16-17) and we are those who look forward, because of our union with Christ and His victory over sin and death, we look forward to being resurrected to everlasting, never failing, gloried bodies and to being presented to the Lord Jesus for judgment and everlasting joy (2 Corinthians 4:14; 5:10; see also Psalm 16:11). All of this undergirds and adds an incredible richness to this designation of brothers and sisters.
There is a bond that ties true believers together that is stronger than any earthly bond or any earthly relationship. We share in the Spirit of Christ as living stones in the true temple of the living God. We are of the everlasting new creation. Do we, in this local church, realize who we are, into whose family we have been included, and the bond that now ties us together?
The local church is not in its essence a social club for meeting new people – we are not here primarily to socialize, or a charity to help the poor, or a rehab center for the addicted, or a soup kitchen for the hungry, or a volunteer clean-up or building crew, or a school for educating youth – those are all things the new creation people of God might do in this world as those activities contribute to Christ’s mission, but those are not who we are.
We are sons and daughters of God, members of His house hold, heirs with Christ through faith in Christ, and so we are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God.
Paul, wants his dear brothers and sisters in Christ to know something. And what is it?
God’s Potent Favor
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…”
Paul is going to tell us about the grace of God that has been given among our family members over in Macedonia some 2000 years ago. God had been at work in the local congregations in Macedonia and Paul wants to tell the family of God in Corinth (and now God wants to inform us) about the work of our Father among the family of God in Macedonia.
And what God has been up to over there is the giving of grace.
What is grace? Very often you will hear that God’s grace is God’s favor (a favor that is unmerited and undeserved by us) – and this is absolutely true. But as we will see, God’s grace (His undeserved favor) is more than God’s favorable tendency toward us.
He is not like that friend from college that you never talk to anymore, who, when they happen to think about you, have good memories of your friendship – they have a favorable disposition toward you, but it means very little in their current interaction with you. God’s grace, described here, is not like that. It’s not a passive disposition.
God’s grace is potent and powerful, not passive. When Paul talks about God’s grace being given he is not saying that God has been merely favorably inclined toward those churches, instead he is saying that he has been actively engaged for their good.
Along with this, we need to recognize that Paul uses the form of the verb that emphasizes the on-going result of this grace that has been given. Paul says, ‘I want to tell you about the potent, not passive, favor of God, that has been given and has ongoing results in the lives of your brothers and sisters in Macedonia.”
In other words, God did not give the Macedonians one of those gifts that you’re not sure what to do with, (like a new pair of oven mitts, when you already have 5 pairs you never use) so you put them in an upstairs closet and forget about them until spring cleaning – that gift has no ongoing impact in your life (except to clutter a closet).
Instead, the verb Paul uses here tells us that the potent grace that God gave to this church is more like if your heart failed and you had a heart transplant. That gift of a new heart has on-going impact in your life – even if you don’t recognize it, it does.
So Paul wants his brothers and sisters to know about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia. The potent favor of God came down to God’s sons and daughters and is having an impact in their lives and Paul wants to tell us about it. And that is what he does.
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for,” he says, “in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”
Now, we are going to unpack this carefully because Paul is describing some people in these churches of Macedonia that are behaving in very ‘unnatural’ ways. And he is describing them for our instruction and to spur us on to be like them in love and good deeds. God wants us to know about His powerful favor (grace) among those churches and the on-going result of that powerful favor so that we might learn what it looks like when God’s grace comes down upon a people.
So what does it look like?
Grace Came Down in the Context of Affliction
First, notice that the Macedonians were experiencing a severe test of affliction.
Now, if you don’t know, Macedonia is that region in which Thessalonica, Philippi, and Berea were found. And, it is significant to note that theses cities where not inherently centers of poverty or squalor. The economies of these cities, though not perhaps at the level of the two port city of Corinth, would not typically be classified as poor.
But for the people of God living in these cities at this time, it’s another matter. It seems to be that the churches in Macedonia, the saints of God living in Macedonia, were experiencing severe affliction because of their faith.
We read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that he encourages them to let their manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, standing firm together in one spirit, striving side by side for the sake of the gospel and to not be frightened in anything by their opponents, and he reminds them that it had been granted to them for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake (Phil 1:27-30). Likewise, we learn from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians that they received the word in much affliction (1 Thess 1:6) and suffered at the hands of their own countrymen (1 Thess 2:14).
So we see that to be a Christian in at least some parts of the region of Macedonia meant being persecuted for your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And this persecution, this severe test of affliction, it seems, resulted in what Paul describes as ‘extreme poverty’ for these believers.
Extreme Poverty and Abundant Joy and a Wealth of Generosity
So it is in the midst of this severe test of affliction that the grace of God is given.
And if we were coming from a worldly point of view we would assume that when the grace of God, that is the powerful favor of God, comes down and is poured out on His people it would relieve the affliction; it would stop the persecution; it would lift His people out of poverty and gives them comfort and earthly security. But this is not at all what Paul describes.
“…in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.“
So, let’s get this straight: these sons and daughters of the Almighty, united to Jesus Christ by faith, are suffering severely – God then pours out grace and what happens? Abundant joy and extreme poverty.
So, whatever God’s powerful grace did, it did not relieve their suffering in poverty.
So God’s powerful favor poured out does not necessarily mean any change to our earthly situation.
Now, I will be so bold as to say that none (or maybe very few) of us here knows what extreme poverty feels like. But, the potential is there for all of us. And we do face various trials and sufferings. And in those sufferings we often pray for God’s grace to be out poured out. We cry, “Father, I know you are powerfully for me in Jesus Christ and so help me in this test of affliction!” But what are we thinking of when we pray for grace?
Cure the cancer?
Help me get a raise?
Take away the pain?
Help me by protecting my savings?
Help me find a one-in-a-million deal on that new vehicle?
Help me not suffer here?
But when then doesn’t happen, and your circumstances don’t change, or they get worse, much worse, perhaps extreme suffering, extreme, poverty – is God for us or not? Has God’s grace shown up or not?
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
In this case, God’s grace poured out on them does not even touch their eternal circumstances. But something powerful did happen in abundance: joy and generosity on their part.
God’s grace is poured out, circumstances remain unchanged, but joy is multiplied; joy is increased; joy becomes abundant and their abundant joy overflows, Paul says, in a wealth of generosity on their part. So as Piper summarizes: “Grace comes down, joy rises up, generosity flows out.”
And it has nothing to do with external circumstances. Paul is describing what it looks like when God’s grace is poured out on a people: they are filled up with joy and out of their hearts flows a wealth of generosity.
But Paul goes on to unpack this generosity,
For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord (freely), begging us earnestly for the favor (undeserved privilege) of taking part in the relief of the saints—
What does it mean to give according to your means? What does it mean to give beyond your means?
I am reminded of our Lord’s words in he sat watching people putting in money into the offering box. Mark 12:41-44 (see also Luke 21:1-4),
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Note the difference between giving out of our abundance vs. giving out of our poverty/want/need. There is generous and there is generous. What Paul is describing in 2 Corinthians 8 is poor widow generous. A wealth of generosity. They begged Paul earnestly for the favor, the undeserved privilege of taking part in the relief of the saints.
There is obviously great cost involved in their contributing to the needs of others – they gave beyond their means. It cost them personally to give. But you can hear that they didn’t see this as a burden. They gave of their own accord, there was not cohesion, no threat, no force making them do what they ought to do. And they viewed this as a an undeserved privilege to be a part of relieving the burdens of God’s people – they wanted to do this, no one was making them do it.
Something powerful happened to the churches in Macedonia – God’s grace had been given. They were not wealthy. They were extremely poor. They were not popular among their neighbors. They were severely afflicted. But God was at work in them. And what welled up was joy overflowing into a wealth of incredible self-sacrificing generosity for the good of God’s people.
But Paul is not done describing the giving of grace among these brothers and sisters in Macedonia. In verse 5 Paul continues telling us about the coming of God’s grace and the result of that coming, but in verse 5 he describes the result differently than he described it in verse 1-4. God’s grace comes down, and in verse 2 we saw abundant joy rising up and generosity overflowing. In verse 5 Paul describes the result of God’s grace coming down in this way,
“— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”
God’s grace is poured out on a people, and what happens first and as the foundation is that they give themselves to the Lord. They entrusted themselves to His care. They decided to live upon Him, rather than money – they gave themselves to the Lord. And then they were freed to give themselves to the people that God loves.
Now, I think if we hold these two descriptions of the result of God’s grace being given side by side we have grace coming down, joy rising up and a people giving themselves, devoting and entrusting themselves to the Lord and that joy and devotion then overflows in generosity and devotion to those loved by God.
The Source of Radical Godliness
These brothers and sisters have been freed from fearful hoarding and stingy self-interest and freed to joy and rest in Christ and an eager desire to love His people even at great cost to themselves.
How? Where do people like this come from? What freed them from fear and selfishness and the cares of this world? Where did their abundant joy come from and their devotion to Jesus which welled up into a wealth of generosity toward Christ’s people at great cost to themselves? What freed these brothers and sister to devote themselves to God’s family and to see it as a privilege to take part in meeting their needs even at great cost to themselves?
I hope we can all see that Paul is describing what happens when the potent favor of God in poured out in our lives. The reason their joy rose in abundance and generosity followed out and the reason they entrusted and devoted themselves to God and then to His people was because God’s favor had been powerfully given among them.
This joy and generosity was the fruit of the Spirit of God. This devotion to God and His people was the fruit produced by God’s Spirit in them.
This kind of fruitfulness cannot and will not be produced by dead trees, by dry bones. It is only produced by trees coursing with the sap of God’s Spirit – people born of God’s own Spirit, raised to spiritual life. This joy is joy in the Lord. These are not people who dutifully and miserably do what God demands, hating every minute of it.
No, these are people who are abounding in joy because of all that God is and all that God has promised and all that God has done and all that they know God will do for them in Christ Jesus.
This is an eager and joyful devotion to their strong, wise, faithful God who sent His only Son Jesus Christ and super abundantly forgive, restored, and blessed unworthy rebels. They love God because He first loved them. They are abounding in joy because of all that He is for them through Jesus Christ. These are people whose eyes have been opened to see and savor, behold and delight in the strength and wisdom and goodness of God – displayed fully in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When God’s grace is poured out on someone, this is the kind of fruit that is produced. Love for and faith in God, joy in Christ, peace with God, a living upon Him as our all in all, and these overflow in love for God’s people.
How About Us?
Paul is telling the Corinthians about the grace of God given among the churches of Macedonia to spur them on to love and good works. The Corinthians claimed to be among the family of God, born of His Spirit, stones in his eschatological temple. And they had given some evidence that this was indeed the case in dealing with sin in their assembly in a Christ honoring way. But what about their promise to support God’s suffering people in Jerusalem? Would they prove faithful in this as well?
And what about us? Has the grace of God been poured out here among us? Has the powerful, active factor of God been poured out here? And is it evident in the abundant joy that is rising up in our hearts and the evident living upon Christ as our all in all and then generosity overflowing out toward God’s beloved people? Is there an evident, growing devotion and love for and trust in our God who has loved us and will without fail super abundantly bless us in Christ Jesus and is there an evident, growing devotion and love for His people, the church?
A Lack of Fruitfulness
Before we finish, I think it is so important we address one more question: What if we hear this description designed to spur us on and excite our desire for the Lord and for His people, but what is stirred up in us instead is a kind of fearful guilt? “There is so little joy in Jesus in my life. There is so little freedom from fear or the cares of this world. I fear to hold money and possessions loosely. There is so little true generosity – this kind of generosity in my life, so little care for the people of God. So little of this kind of Macedonian fruitfulness. I want to be among those who flourish and are fruitful! But there is so little of it in my life. What do I do?”
This is where how you understand the Old and New Covenant will really matter. There is a way to look at this passage and assume Old Covenant categories and principles. We see that we must have abundant joy and be overflowing with generosity and be devoted to Jesus and be devoted to His people. And we assume the threats of the law are pressing down upon us and it is upon our shoulders to do this and live. And so we beat ourselves and beat and threaten each other – do it or else – God will be against you! But this is to miss what Paul has said. That is not what Paul is describing. Paul is describing the power of the New Covenant in which God gives what is required.
As a poem from the 1600 or 1700’s says so well,
Run, John, run the law demands,
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far greater news the gospel brings,
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
(Some attribute this poem to John Bunyan (1628-1688), some to an adaptation from Ralph Erksine’s poem (1685-1752), some to John Berridge (1716-1793)).
We cannot meet the law’s demands, we certainly cannot fly as the gospel bids us, we cannot bear the fruit described in this passage if we are dead trees. God must be powerfully for us and at work in us – which is exactly what the gospel purchased.
So what are we to do? How are we to grow and reflect more and more the Macedonians in whom the Lord was at work?
- Meditate on the gospel – Look, behold, study, learn of Christ! From Christ flows all we need. It is as we consider God’s kind intention toward us in Christ Jesus that we will be strengthened, encouraged, granted faith, and fruitfulness. Acts 20:32 records that as Paul was leaving the Ephesian elders for what he believed was the last time he said “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” Are you filling your heart with the word of His grace in Jesus Christ? That is where we meet with God and are built up by Him.
- Spur one another on with the gospel to love and good works! – God uses means. Hebrews 10:23-25 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” One of the reasons church attendance and involvement is so important is that your brothers and sisters need your encouragement and you need theirs. We do not gather for the purposes of talking about the Olympics, or football, or politics, or work – we gather to help one another get our eyes upon Jesus.
- Pray that God would pour out His grace here!
As Paul prayed for the Ephesians church so we ought to pray for one another: Ephesians 1:15-20 – “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead…”
Learn of Christ! Spur one another on in Christ! Pray for God’s grace!