2 Corinthians 8:1-24 - Ministerial Encouragement for the Communion of the Saints
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.2 Corinthians 8:9 (NKJV)
The Communion of Saints as Divine Grace (Read 8:1-7)
'What do you understand by the communion of saints?' asks the Heidelberg Catechism.
First, that believers, all and every one, as members of Christ, are partakers of Him and of all His treasures and gifts; second, that every one must know himself bound to employ his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and salvation of other members.QA 55
That is exactly what we'll be considering in this lesson and the next, as we study 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15. This extensive passage contains the apostle Paul's diplomatic and gentle encouragement of the congregation in Corinth to pick up where they had left off in gathering benevolence funds for the Jerusalem church. Although we won't be able to stop for long at individual verses, we will be learning several key principles that apply to Christian, and congregational, giving.
Let's first set the stage: from early on, the congregation in Jerusalem had suffered extreme poverty on account of the faith. Though they numbered in the thousands, these Christ-confessors came to be ostracized socially and economically; ecclesiastically and nationally they were without a name and a place. Imagine the stress put upon business and family, where relationships were torn and roots were severed.
Already in 1 Corinthians, Paul had mentioned plans for organizing a collection for these Jerusalem saints (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). And from the passage we are studying now, it appears that the Macedonian churches (in Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea) had responded generously to his appeal for funds. After writing this epistle, Paul wrote the church in Rome about his intention to bring the gathered collection to Jerusalem, 'for the poor among the saints' (see Romans 15:25-27).
In our passage the apostle deals with the Corinthians' participation in this contribution. From verses 10-11 we learn that though they had begun the project, they had allowed it to lapse, probably under the influence of false apostles interested in diverting the funds to their own pockets.
With pastoral diplomacy, Paul begins by pointing to the example of the Macedonian churches. Here, too, conversion to Christ had resulted in poverty and affliction, as businessmen lost customers and families were fractured. But in spite of meager resources, God had given these believers the grace of open-handed generosity. Divine grace was displayed in their liberality amid crushing poverty and suffering (see v.2). Here we find an important principle for Christian giving: the grace of true generosity is not dependent on adequacy of means. The supreme measure of this generosity is not quantity, but sacrifice. (Question 1)
This is but one more example of the overall theme of our study of 2 Corinthians: 'gospel power magnified through human weakness.' What religion can compare, what lifestyle can match, and what power can approach, the joy-in-suffering and the generosity-amid-poverty described in verse 2?
This Macedonian generosity is characterized further in verses 3-5. These believers gave not simply according to their ability, but even beyond their ability — that is: they gave more than they could really afford! Their giving consisted, we read, in 'the fellowship of the ministering to the saints' (v.4). And because these believers had first given themselves to the Lord and His cause, their financial gifts followed as a natural consequence (v.5). Giving til it hurts ... giving as an exercise of the communion of the saints ... and open hands that proceed from hearts sacrificed to the LORD — these are the principles and characteristics of Christian generosity.
In view of this Macedonian example, Paul had urged his pastoral assistant, Titus, to finish the collection work begun in Corinth. It seems that Titus had visited Corinth twice before the writing of this letter, and that he had started collecting for the Jerusalem relief fund even before 1 Corinthians had been written.
Notice, in verse 6, that the apostle speaks of Titus completing 'this (act of) grace' among the Corinthians as well. Here is another important clue about Christian giving, namely, that as the source of generosity is God's grace, so too the expression of generosity is itself a divine grace. Both are of God! As a demonstration of gratitude, Christian generosity is the return of grace. This spiritual cycle resembles the natural cycle of precipitation and evaporation.
Following Christ in Sacrificing for Others (Read 8:8-15)
Study how the apostle seeks, by means of 'affectionate diplomacy,' to incite the congregation to affectionate generosity. Realizing that sacrifice cannot be compelled, he coaxes them to obedience. (Question 2)
He has explained and praised the example of the Macedonian churches, not to generate a spirit of rivalry or competition, but to spur the Corinthians to self-examination. If exercising the communion of the saints requires benevolence toward fellow-believers, how well are they doing?
But an even better incentive toward liberality is the example of Jesus Christ. It was His self-giving on behalf of rebellious sinners that should convince the Corinthians to give generously. This Jesus Christ emptied Himself, humbled Himself, becoming a servant — more: He was made to be sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) — all of which led Him to the cross (see Philippians 2:6-8).
But the crowning touch of the apostle's pastoral diplomacy appears in the words 'for your sakes.' Jesus Christ didn't renounce wealth and glory in order to make a moral or cultural 'statement.' Rather, He voluntarily entered a state of humiliation — which means, remember, that He was counted guilty before God's law; it does not mean simply that 'He gave up a lot to come down here to be with us' — in order effectively to accomplish the redemption of God's elect. This is part of what Paul means by adding, '...that you through His poverty might become rich' (v.9). Though He became poor, Christ never lost His riches, for His glory and deity were always present in His humanity. Instead, His poverty and self-emptying has enriched believers, for through the shedding of His blood their sins have been atoned for.
Now that he has shown them their Savior as the best example and inducement for giving, Paul doesn't continue 'preaching' at the congregation. With fatherly tone and warm appreciation for what had once flowed from their hearts, he gently prods them to finish the job. A year earlier their desire and readiness had been enthusiastic. Instead of complaining about their lapse, he pushes forward with a kindly nudge: 'Go ahead, now. C'mon, just do it!'
Equality as the Goal of Communion (Read 8:13-15)
Repeatedly the apostle takes great pains to explain his motives and goals to his readers. Verses 13-15 are another example of this apostolic self-explanation. Why does he explain himself so often? Perhaps to answer ahead of time the criticisms that might arise in the congregation from false leaders or questioning church members.
You can imagine the criticisms, can't you? 'What's Paul trying to do — put us in the poor house too? Why should we send our charity away when we could use it right here at home? And besides, who's going to help us when we fall on hard times?'
Sounds like our own day and age, doesn't it!
Another idea that sounds surprisingly modern is Paul's desire for equality among congregations. But don't let the 'sound' fool you. Be very careful at this point not to import into our passage the modern notion that equality means sameness. Paul wants to encourage here not an equalization of property, but the exercise of reciprocal benevolence. It is true that all those in Christ, no matter of what gender or socio-economic class, are one (Galatians 3:28). But they are not thereby the same. Unity should never be confused with uniformity.
This is confirmed by his appeal to the Old Testament example of gathering manna, mentioned in Exodus 16:18: 'So when they measured it by omers, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack. Every man had gathered according to each one's need.' Equality meant sufficiency. This principle, illustrated from the church's Old Testament history, can now spur the saints in Corinth to help those in Jerusalem. Elsewhere Paul put it this way: 'Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith' (Galatians 6:10). (Question 3)
Arrangements for Collecting the Gift (Read 8:16-24)
Fundraising is a delicate business. It requires tact and sensitivity to approach people with the goal of receiving money from them, while convincing them of your care for them.
The person Paul appointed to do this, however, was a missionary-colleague whose love for the Corinthian congregation was as deep as it was open. He volunteered to go fundraising in Corinth, so eager was he to 'prove' their love for the gospel and for fellow-believers.
Titus did not travel alone. Two other brothers, well-attested and respected among the churches, accompanied him on this mission of mercy. From the passage itself we cannot be sure who these two were. Speculations point to no fewer than eleven possibilities! One of these companions was probably Luke, a frequent companion and colleague of Paul.
Maintaining the churches' trust and respect was important, for, as Calvin reminds us, 'there is nothing which is more apt to lay one open to sinister imputations than the handling of public money.' Paul wished to steer clear of any impropriety in the gathering and administering of this gift (see v.20).
In verse 23 the apostle furnishes, as it were, the credentials attesting to the reliability of the fundraising committee. Titus was well-known as Paul's fellow worker. The other two colleagues are
brothers in the faith, and
messengers or representatives of the churches, which churches
bring glory to Christ by their faithful lifestyle and witness.
Finally, in verse 24, the apostle gently appeals to the congregation to make good his boasting about them. 'Show these representatives, and through them, all the churches, your love and generosity by opening your hands and filling theirs.' Show them, in other words, that God's grace can be multiplied and magnified through the exercise of the communion of saints. Know yourselves bound to employ your gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and salvation of other members! (Question 4)
Questions for Reflection and Reply
Mention ways in which this spiritual principle can form your giving habits. Is any Christian ever too poor to give? Discuss giving habits that can be used no matter what income a believer enjoys.
Mention some other virtues or attitudes that cannot be compelled. Why would God rather have us relate to Him as children than as slaves? What is the difference, with respect to our giving? How can we ensure that we give as children rather than as slaves?
'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' This is the slogan of Marxism. How does Paul's discussion of equality differ from the ideals of Marxism or modern socialism?
Review the discussion of 2 Corinthians 8:16-24, and use it to evaluate the fund-raising techniques of institutions, agencies and organizations you are currently supporting. Why are you supporting these rather than others?
Should Christians support para-church organizations (not governed by, or accountable to, any church)? Why (not)?