God and Money

God and the Secular (4)

Today we’ve come to the big taboo, the subject that makes everyone squirm: money. This subject makes people squirm in part because in Europe it has so often been abused by the church. The medieval church took advantage of the doctrinally ignorant population (ignorant because only the clergy could read the Bible in Latin!) in order to establish the practice of selling indulgences—making people pay to have their sins forgiven. If it makes you feel any better, the first people to react to this abuse were Christians—the selling of indulgences was what prompted Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. But a bad reputation like that sticks to you like a bad smell, and to this day anytime any church begins talking about money people get very nervous. And I could simply go along with that—things would certainly go more smoothly if we avoided subjects that made us uncomfortable. But I hope you’ll be able to see through the taboo today, because this is a subject the Bible speaks about at great length. I would be doing you a terrible disservice to play into the taboo and avoid this subject the Bible speaks so frequently about.

There are lots of passages I could go to in order to talk about this, but rather than trying to see everything at once, we’re going to stick to one main passage: 2 Corinthians 8. And we’re going there because 2 Corinthians 8 gives us the gospel reason why how we handle our money reflects our faith. So turn to 2 Corinthians 8. As you go there, I just want to remind you of the questions we’re asking ourselves for this series: 1) How does this area of my life contribute to the mission of the church? and 2) How does this area of my life feed my joy in God? And fortunately, Paul answers both of those questions in 2 Corinthians 8.1-15.

1) The Macedonians Gave Out of Joy

Paul begins to address a matter that was going on at the time: a collect for the Christians in Jerusalem. In Romans 15 Paul talks about this as well: he made plans to go visit different churches, to collect aid for poor Christians in Jerusalem, and to bring this help to them there. The kind of giving he’s talking about is not generally giving to those in need—this should be done, but that’s not what he’s addressing here. Rather, he’s talking about giving to build the body of Christ.

So he begins by sharing a testimony of the generosity of the church in Macedonia. V. 1: We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 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.

This is astounding. It is astounding because it is so different from the way most of us would think this works. We would assume that being reconciled to God by faith in Christ would mean less affliction, but here we see this isn’t true: the Macedonian Christians were going through a severe test of affliction. We say that God provides for our needs, so would assume that being reconciled to God by faith in Christ would mean that we would have less poverty, not more. But we see this isn’t true either: they were in a state of extreme poverty. And yet, they were happy in God, filled with an abundance of joy

How could that be? They could only be filled with joy to such an extent if their joy did not depend on the things they had. The only way these Macedonian Christians could have such an abundance of joy in that situation is if their joy came from somewhere besides their comfort, besides their material ease—in other words, in God himself. And because their joy was in God, they saw what little they did have as expendable; because their joy was in God, they naturally loved what he loved—in this case, their brothers and sisters in Christ. They loved them to such an extent that their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. And lest we think that this wealth of generosity was somehow offered out of guilt, or out of obligation, Paul disabuses us of this idea in v. 3-5: 

3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. They gave according to their means—so probably less than other churches that had more. But they didn’t stop there. Giving according to your means means that you look at your budget, you see what you can spare, and you give it. But Paul testifies that they gave beyond their means: they looked at their budget, they saw what they could reasonably spare, and they said, “Let’s give a little more.” And they did this (v. 3) of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. They were under no compulsion, under no obligation—they did it of their own accord, and they wanted to do it, so much that they begged him earnestly to let them take part in the relief of the saints. Because they knew they belonged to the Lord (v. 5: they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us), they saw all their earthly possessions as not belonging to them, so they gave themselves to their brothers and sisters through their giving. 

So now Paul comes back to the Corinthians, saying, “Look at the Macedonians as an example, and let Titus bring your contribution to the church in Jerusalem.” V. 6: 6 Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. 7 But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. 

Now at this point we would start to get nervous. “It’s all fine and well for the Macedonians to do this, but they did it out of their own free will: Paul, you can’t command us to do this.” So Paul makes it clear: 8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. In other words, if you love God, you will love his people and his work. And if you love his people and his work, and you see that those people and that work need help, you will desire to help them. The Macedonian Christians proved their love was genuine not just by giving, but by wanting to give. In other words, if you want a good way to gauge your love for God, look at your bank statement. 

Now I know some of you are going to balk at that, but I beg you to see that’s what Paul’s saying in v. 8. Think of it this way: no one has any problem spending money on things they love. I’m not trying to make you feel guilty here, but just by way of illustration: think of how much money you all spent last year on vacation. Think air fare or train fare, think food while you were on vacation, think souvenirs, think tickets to museums, or whatever else. No one has any trouble spending money to go on vacation. Why? Because we love it! We love rest and relaxation. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, or that you shouldn’t do it, but it does show what you love. Look at your bank statement, and if you remove the essentials, like rent, utilities, food, etc., what you have left over is a good indication of what you love. 

The Macedonian Christians proved their love not just by giving, but by the way they gave. This is the earnestness of others he’s referring to. They proved their love for their brothers and sisters by showing that they loved to give to them! So now, Corinthian Christians, just as the Macedonians proved their love, prove yours! I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.

At this point, Paul knows that we may still not be getting it, so he gives the grounds of everything he’s been saying. 2 Corinthians 8.1-15 works on a kind of pivot: you’ve got v. 1-8 on one side, v. 10-15 on the other side, and v. 9 is the pivot it swings on. It’s the ground for everything that came before, and the reason for everything which comes after:

2) Jesus Lost All to Give Us All

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. We need to take a step back in order to fully understand the weight of this sentence. We need to see why it is so amazing that Christ would become “poor” for us. One of the best places in the Bible where we see this is in the gospel of John. At the very beginning of his gospel, the apostle John writes this (John 1.1): In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In v. 17, John makes it clear that this “Word” he is talking about is Jesus Christ. John will leave no doubt in his readers’ minds that Jesus is a man—he is a physical man who walks, who talks, who eats, who gets tired, who gets thirsty. But he wants to make it abundantly clear, right from the outset, that Jesus is not just a man. This man was “in the beginning”—a clear reference to the very first verse of the Torah, which reads, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. This is no mere rhetorical flourish on John’s part; he’s not simply using biblical language to create an emotional response. He’s saying that when Moses wrote that sentence, he was talking about Jesus. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He makes this point even clearer in v. 3, when he says, 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. This man, Jesus, was in fact the agent of creation in the creation narrative—this man is God himself. 

Why is this important? It’s important because the idea of God existing in the form of a man is absolutely scandalous. If you’ve read the Old Testament you know that the presence of God is a terrifying thing: in the tabernacle, the Most Holy Place was the area where the ark of the covenant was kept, where God’s presence dwelt with his people. Only certain people at certain times could enter it, following very specific rituals to do so. And if anyone were to even set foot in that room without following God’s specific instructions, he would be immediately killed (Exodus 28.35). When Isaiah sees his vision of God in Isaiah 6, he can do nothing but proclaim (Isaiah 6.5), “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In other words, “OK, I’m done—now that I’ve seen the Lord, I’m as good as dead.” John begins his gospel by stating that this Jesus is none other than God himself, and therefore should not be a man. This claim—that God himself, the one who created all things, had become a man—was blasphemous. And that’s exactly the point. When we read the gospels, we are meant to see this jarring contradiction: God, the Almighty, the Creator of all things, the King of the universe, the sovereign Lord of all, had become a man. We’re so familiar with this idea that we don’t feel the full weight of amazement we should feel at this claim. 

Now, let’s say that we’ve dealt with this idea—God became a man, okay. If that were true, what would you assume this man had come to do? If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you would assume that if God were to become a man, it would be in order to rule on earth—to be set up as king. The Jewish people were oppressed; they had gone from exile in Babylon to Roman occupation in Jerusalem. They needed a leader to free them. So if this were true, of course this man would be that kind of leader! But no—how do we see the God-man behaving? He heals people. He teaches people. He serves people. He works first as a carpenter, and then as a homeless, itinerant minister. He renders to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. He does not resist rebuke or persecution or arrest or even death by crucifixion. Although he could destroy all the legions of the Roman army with a single word, although he could literally melt the Pharisees’ faces off like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, he lets the people he himself created lead him to the cross.

The point Paul’s trying to make is this: God does not expect us to do anything he didn’t first do himself. Jesus Christ, though he was rich, became poor. He had the glory of being at the right hand of the Father; he had the glory of being God himself, equal with the Father. But as Paul says in Philippians 2.5-8, Christ didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And why did he do it? V. 9: FOR YOUR SAKE. 

He served us by leaving behind all the richness of the glory he had with the Father and lived a painful, needy, human life in a human body, in which he sweated, in which he bled, in which he became tired, in which he suffered hunger and thirst, in which he was beaten and led by Roman soldiers to a hillside in Jerusalem to be crucified for crimes he didn’t commit. And he didn’t just suffer death; he also suffered a life without sin. None of us can imagine the weight of this—why do we give in to temptation? Because it’s painful to withstand it. So imagine how painful it was for him to withstand every temptation, to the very end. He lived his entire life, knowing every temptation that is common to man, yet without sin (Hebrews 4.15). He lived a perfect life for us, and died a sinner’s death for us—he took our sinful lives upon himself, and suffered the penalty for those sins, and he gave us his perfect holiness, so that we might receive the reward for his holiness. This is better than winning the lottery! This is wealth beyond imagination: we are rewarded with an eternal reward on the basis of someone else’s performance. It’s astonishing.

No one ever gave as Jesus gave. No one ever renounced what Jesus renounced. He gave up everything, made himself nothing, for us: though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. 

This is what the Macedonians understood. This is why their joy was in him, and not in anything they had: he had given up the unimaginable for them—so what was it to them to give up their worldly possessions, small as they were? They understood the weight of what Christ had done for them, so saw their participation in the support of the saints as a joyful service they could render to participate, at least in a small way, in that same kind of generosity. 

3) Corinthians: Give Out of Joy

10 And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. 11 So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. So the Corinthians also had begun doing this work: they had begun living out their generosity, not out of obligation, but because they desired to do it. All Paul is doing here is encouraging them to keep going in that: “Finish the work you started! It’s good that you desire to be generous…but there’s often a gap between wanting to do the right thing and actually doing it. So do it: if you have joy in Christ, complete your joy!” And I love this last part: so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. In other words, the Macedonians gave above and beyond, but this is not a competition. If you can’t give more, then don’t—be wise about it:

12 For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. No one’s going to fault you for not giving what you don’t have. You may desire to do more, but merely be unable to. But if you can, then do it! Imitate your Savior by giving generously, because one day you may well depend on the generosity of others:

13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” This is the way the Christian church should function. Those who have been saved by grace know they have been saved by grace, know all that Christ gave up to save them, and desire to give up what they have in order to serve others. Those who have a lot don’t consider their wealth of any value to themselves, but rather as an opportunity to glorify God by giving to those in need, by giving to those who spread his gospel and make his name known elsewhere. And those who have nothing can count on their brothers and sisters for help, in order to not have to worry about their material need, but rather be able to consecrate themselves fully to the work of glorifying God.

4) Parisians: Complete Your Joy

So Paul begins his argument in v. 1-8 (the Macedonians’ generosity), gives the basis of his argument in v. 9 (For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich), and applies his argument to the Corinthians in v. 10-15 (complete your joy by giving generously and wisely).  I could drum up an application for this message, but as a general rule if the Bible itself provides the application, it’s best to just go with it. So the application for us today is the same as for the Corinthians back then. 

a) Serve and be served.

Remember the questions for our series? First question: How does this domain of the secular—personal finances—serve the mission of the church? 13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 

When we serve the mission of the church, the mission of the church serves us. When you give to your church, or to a church plant, or to a missions organization, you are giving to the work of the gospel. And if you love Christ, if you love the gospel, anything that truly serves the needs of the gospel is in fact a service to you, for as a result the glory of God will shine more brightly, and you’ll have the joy of seeing more and more people come to Christ.

I don’t know if you realize this, but in a very real way, when we read this passage, we are receiving like the church in Jerusalem was. My salary is entirely paid by churches abroad who send us funds to allow me to work full-time for the church. None of my salary comes from Église Connexion. But now, consider the size of our church: it has grown tremendously. We are on the tipping point—the point where a church in need becomes large enough to be able to start taking care of itself and contribute to other church planting efforts elsewhere.

Planting a church is an extraordinarily expensive affair. But it is a profoundly worthwhile affair, for by the planting of new churches, more and more people will have access to the gospel, more and more people will come to know Christ—we will have the opportunity to meet brothers and sisters of whose existence we are as yet unaware. And there are few things in this world more joy-producing than seeing our service result in men and women coming to know Christ.

b) Want to give, and give as you want.

10 And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So one of the “graces” Paul talks about in v. 1 is the desire to take care of those brothers and sisters in need, so that they can be freed from the worry of their material need and dedicate themselves to building up the body and proclaiming the gospel. This desire is not something that is natural—it is something the Spirit did in them, a grace that God showed them. So the generosity we’re speaking of here is not generosity out of obligation—when a kid begs their parents, “Mommy, Daddy, can we please play for ten more minutes?” they’re not asking out of any moral obligation they feel. They want to play, it’s a joy for them to play, so they ask if they can play. This is what’s going on here. It would be easy to guilt you into giving; but the generosity Paul is talking about comes out of a desire to do it. 11 So [he says] now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. If you want to play, if it’s a delight to play, then complete your joy and play

Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have had to say that—no one has to tell us to do what we want to do. But with money it’s not so simple, because there’s fear involved there as well: no matter how much I may want to give, I see the worst case scenarios playing out in my head: What if the heater breaks? What if I lose my job? What if, what if, what if? So Paul is encouraging them: if you desire to do this, then do it—don’t let yourself be held back by fear, as if God won’t take care of you! Remember God’s generosity in sending you Christ, remember Christ’s generosity in giving up everything to save you.

Now, here’s the thing: no one can decide to desire something they don’t desire. If you don’t want to give, you can’t make yourself want to give. Which is why at the very beginning of the chapter, Paul speaks of grace (v. 1): We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 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. Abundance of joy in Christ, and the desire to overflow in a wealth of generosity, is not something that is ultimately in our hands. It is the work of the Spirit in us, a grace that God shows us. So concretely, the very first thing for us to do here as we close is to pray that God would produce this in us. Pray that God would show us the grace to not only desire to give, but to complete our desire out of what we have.

So, Parisians, let us pray. Let us pray to remember the Macedonians. Let us pray to remember their joyful generosity, to which not even extreme poverty was an obstacle. Let us pray to remember the generosity of our Savior. And then, let us complete our joy. Let us pursue contentment in Christ by trusting him to provide for our needs. Let us pursue our joy in him by giving generously to see his glory shine in this city.