Light and Darkness

May 23, 2014

Consider some of the images of light and darkness in Scripture:

  •  Genesis 1:1-4  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. . . .  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.
  • John 1:1-5, 9-12  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

In verse 2 of Genesis 1, darkness covers the world. There is no light. There is no life. Then God speaks, and light shines in the darkness, penetrating the darkness, overcoming the darkness.

In John 1, the physical darkness at the beginning of Genesis 1 becomes a picture of spiritual darkness in a world opposed to Christ. He is the light – the only light – of men. He shines in the spiritual darkness, bringing the light of true life into the world, and, as in Genesis, the darkness cannot overcome Him.

Yet the darkness does oppose Him. The very world created through Him, the very people chosen as His own, reject Him. Indeed, they crucify Him. Darkness seems, indeed, to have overcome Him. We see this again and again in the book of John:

  • And this is the judgment (or “condemnation”): the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19)
  • When about to heal a man who has never seen light, Jesus Himself says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:4-5)
  • In His last public statement before His arrest, Jesus says, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake (this is the same Greek word translated “overcome” in John 1:5) you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.  While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. (John 12:35-36)
  • When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John tells us, “And it was night” (John 13:30)

There is thus a battle between light and darkness. Darkness is trying to overtake, to overcome those listening to Jesus. He is there, He is the light, He is shining in the darkness, He is opening blind eyes so that they might see the light – but those who do not want their works exposed, those who love the darkness – that is, those who think they are in control, who think they know where they are going – reject the light, and thus remain lost, without hope, without true life.

Indeed, the serpent’s temptation to Eve in Genesis 3 is an invitation to come out of the darkness, out of her supposed blindness, into light, so that she might truly see: “God knows that when you eat of [the forbidden fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Satan, a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44), calls darkness light, and light darkness. Thus the battle began, and thus the battle rages to this day.

But the outcome of the battle is certain. In Revelation, as John describes the future kingdom, the new Jerusalem, he tells us, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).

So where are you? You were created by the One Who is the Light of the World. In that light is life – and nowhere else. Are you holding on to the darkness, thinking that what you know is safe and secure? Are your eyes accustomed to the darkness, so that you find the Light painful? Do you think you have the spiritual equivalent of night vision goggles, so that you don’t need the true Light?

There is only one light. All else is darkness. All else is condemnation. All else is death. Jesus said, I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).

Believe in Him! Receive Him! And you will be sons of light, children of God, who will shine for all eternity as the Light of the world shines through you.

 

 

Entering the Kingdom of Heaven

May 23, 2014

Who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks explicitly five times about entering the Kingdom. Let’s look at these verses plus some context to help us answer the question.

Matthew 5:17-20, 48  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . [Jesus then elaborates on the true meaning of the Law. He concludes this section:] 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 7:21-23  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Matthew 18:3 “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 19:23-26   And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.  24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”  26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Matthew 23:13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The Pharisees expected the promised Kingdom to come, in which their Messiah would reign (Luke 17:20). They rejected Jesus as that Messiah – but they believed they would be in the coming Kingdom.

In these verses, Jesus makes at least 11 points about entering the Kingdom:

1)      “Salvation” and “entering the Kingdom” are at least very similar concepts – perhaps identical, according to Jesus (Matthew 19:23-26).

2)      Those in the Kingdom do not rejoice in shutting out others (Matthew 23:13).

3)      Entrance to the Kingdom does not come about through external obedience to a set of rules. The Pharisees were experts at such obedience (Matthew 5:20).

4)      Nor does the entrance to the Kingdom come about through calling Jesus ‘Lord,’ or through speaking in His name, or through performing great deeds in His name (Matthew 7:21-23).

5)      The rich have no special access to the Kingdom – on the contrary, there are tremendous barriers blocking their entrance, seemingly impossible to overcome (Matthew 19:23-24).

6)      Jesus is the ultimate arbiter of who enters the Kingdom (Matthew 7:23).

7)      Anyone can enter the Kingdom (Matthew 19:25-26).

8)      Entrance into the Kingdom is a result of God’s work, not ours (Matthew 19:26).

9)      We must humble ourselves like children if we are to enter the Kingdom. We cannot think we deserve to enter, or that we can earn the Kingdom if we just work a little harder. We must look to Jesus as our hope, our joy, and long for relationship with Him (Matthew 18:3).

10)   Thus, Jesus’ conception of the Kingdom is markedly different from the Pharisees’ conception, and if they continue in their ways, they have no hope of entering the true Kingdom (Matthew 23:13). Jesus teaches that we enter into the Kingdom by God’s grace through coming to our Savior humbly, confessing our sin and seeking His favor.

11)   The Law is a reflection of the character of God – and if we are citizens of His Kingdom, if we are His children, we are to take on this character through being transformed by His power (Matthew 5:17-48, in light of Romans 8:29).

So: Enter the Kingdom!

Invite others to join you in the Kingdom!

The invitation is to all. The joy is for all.

The glory is all His.

What Do You Want More Than Anything Else?

May 23, 2014

What do you want more than anything else?

Consider these Scriptures. What do they say we should want more than anything else?

Proverbs 2:1-5: My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.

Do all this: and you will know God!

Isaiah 55:1-3a Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live.

Real life. True life. Rich life. Satisfying life – given as a free gift when we come to God to accept His feast.

Psalm 119:14, 15, 72 In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.  . . .
The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.

God’s testimonies, His precepts, His ways, His law – all these display God’s character, what He is like. Through these, we come to know Him.

So these Scriptures tell us we should want to know God, and to desire like with Him, life in relationship to Him.

That, according to the Scriptures, is the greatest joy, the greatest fulfillment possible – worth more than the greatest fortune.

Do you believe that?

Scripture states that – over and over and over. Do you believe it?

It’s not easy to believe.

The world around us invites us to find joy and fulfillment elsewhere:

  • In money, in accomplishment,
  • In sex, in drugs
  • In fame, in power
  • In self, in pride

But 1 John 5:4 tells us:

Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.
And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.

Our faith. Our belief in God and in His revealed word.

We must conquer the world and its lies.

We must fight the good fight of faith – the good fight to believe.

And when we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, when we hold on to that truth and apply it to every attitude, every thought, every action, every feeling – when we see all around us in light of the truth:

  • That God reigns
  • That we are rebels
  • That God sent His Son to die on our behalf so that we rebels might be reconciled to Him and so that He might simultaneously fulfill His perfect justice

Then we are in God’s family – we have an identity. Then we have all security. Then we have all joy. Then we have eternal life – not just life without end, but what Proverbs 2 and Isaiah 55 and Psalm 119 hold out as the greatest joy: knowing the only true God.

So: What do you want more than anything else? To know God? That is: To have eternal life?

Take hold of that eternal life – today!

Fight the good fight to believe!

That’s the message of our text this morning, 1 Timothy 6:5-19. And that’s the concluding message in this sermon series, Where Do You Find Identity, Security, and Joy? A Scriptural Understanding of Money, Giving, and Material Possessions

Let’s turn to the passage to see how it beautifully summarizes and extends the truths we have learned these last four months.

1) Fight the Good Fight to Believe

The title of this first section comes from verse 12: Fight the good fight of faith. That is: Fight the good fight to believe that what God says is true.

What does God say in verses 5-11 that Timothy – and we! – must fight to believe?

Three main points:
 a) Believe that Awesome Respect for God is the Greatest Means of Gain

Verse 5 concludes with Paul discussing false teachers who imagine “that godliness is a means of gain.  Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment.”

What is the Apostle Paul saying here?

To answer that, we need to know what he means by three words or phrases:

  • Contentment
  • Godliness
  • Gain/means of gain

We spent an entire sermon examining contentment, seeing that it means we are not self-sufficient but “God-sufficient.” We know that God gives us identity, security, and joy. Thus if have Him, we have all that we need.

The second word is “godliness.” The Greek word doesn’t mean what it sounds like, “taking on the character of God.” Rather it means having the right and proper response and attitude to God, given His revealed character. The most authoritative Greek lexicon renders this word, “Awesome respect accorded to God, devoutness, piety.”

One Greek word is translated “means of gain” in verse 5 and “gain” in verse 6. The usual meaning of the word is “means of gain;” I think it makes most sense to translate the word the same way in both verses.

So with that understanding, let’s now try to paraphrase what the Apostle is saying:

These false teachers try to use their fake devotion to God as a means to gain money. The irony is that true devotion – genuine, awesome respect for God – combined with complete satisfaction in Who He is – is indeed the greatest means of gain – not in the currency of money but in a much more valuable currency.

We’ve seen Paul use this idea of different currencies when we looked at 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. The false teachers are using their supposed piety to gain money. We need to see that what we have from God when He is all to us is far, far more valuable than money – so that devotion to Him is the greatest means of gain.

b) Believe that Money Isn’t the Greatest Means of Gain – So Flee from Love of Money!

Paul then explains why money and material possessions cannot be the greatest means of gain.

He makes three arguments to establish these points:

i) “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (verse 7).

That is: You are going to leave this world the same way you entered it: Naked, owning nothing.

And more than that: You will live on after your death in this world. You are an eternal being. The great, great majority of your life will be after your life in this world. So the greatest means of gain must yield eternal benefits, not only benefits in this life. Thus, money cannot be the greatest means of gain, for you are eternal, and money is not.

ii) We see the second part of Paul’s argument in verse 8: “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

As long as we are in this world, we need enough food to keep us alive. We also need some protection from elements. But if we have these plus God – that’s enough. We can then be content, “God-sufficient.” Thus money cannot be the greatest means of gain because we don’t need it for true contentment, we don’t need it for true happiness even in this life.

So we could summarize the first two parts of Paul’s argument like this:

  • Money can’t buy happiness eternally.
  • Money is not necessary for happiness even in this life.

iii) Paul’s third argument: When the desire for money controls us, there are horrible consequences.

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.  (verses 9-10)

Paul points out that love of money has negative consequences in this life. We see that all the time, don’t we? Consider former Charlotte mayor Patrick Cannon who became corrupt, violated trust – and has now fallen from his high position to what will certainly be many years in prison. But such dangers are common. Think of the many husbands who, desiring money, have become workaholics, destroying their marriages and neglecting their children – all in the name of providing for their wives and children. That is why the love of money is such a trap, such a snare.

But the greatest danger from loving money is eternal. If the love of money leads you to wander away from the faith, you will suffer for all time. You will remain under God’s wrath. You will have no hope.

So we must understand that money and material possessions are not the greatest means of gain. We must fight to believe that, even though we constantly receive messages to the contrary.

c) With Great Effort Put Your Belief into Practice

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith. (verses 11-12a)

First note the way Paul underlines the great effort involved. The word translated “fight” is an athletic term (we get our word “agonize” from this word). Paul is saying, “Make your supreme effort to believe these truths.”

He then tells us how to do that. We make that effort by running away from the love of money, and running after the virtues he then lists. We won’t look at them one by one today.  Just note that they are either aspects of God’s character that we take on (the fruit of the Holy Spirit that Paul describes in Galatians 5:22-23), or our right response to God’s character (such as godliness and faith).

How do you conduct this fight?

  • Through the Word
  • Through worship
  • Through practice
  • Through prayer
  • Through the help of others, through community

This is a key part of living the Christian life: Fighting the fight to believe that what God says is true.

2) Take Hold of Eternal Life

Paul has said “Fight the fight to believe.” Now he says: “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.” He is saying, in part, “Live out those beliefs.” But he’s saying more than that. He is also saying,

This is true life. This is true joy. So grasp that today. Jesus came so that you might have life, and have it abundantly. So live out that abundant, eternal life today, as you walk with your Savior and Lord.

We’ll note three ways Paul highlights this:

a) You’ve Professed It

Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

God called you to this. – to participate in this eternal life now. And you have acknowledged that calling. You have professed faith in Christ. You have said that you were lost, without hope, justly under God’s wrath because of yr rebellion against the holy God. And yet while you were in this state, God showed his love by sending His Son. And not just sending His Son as a messenger, but sending Him to suffer and die on your behalf. He paid the penalty you deserved – and God raised Him from the dead, showing the penalty paid was sufficient. He sits today at God the Father’s right hand. And He will come again to usher in His eternal kingdom. Having professed that Christ died for you and that you are thus God’s beloved child, take hold of that life today! Remember what you have professed!  Continue in it! Persevere!

b) Live It Out Until Jesus Returns!

So, Paul says, keep holding on to that promise until Jesus appears:

I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession,  to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,  which he will display at the proper time–he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,  who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.  (verses 13-16)

Paul charges Timothy. What is Paul’s charge?

“Keep the commandment.”

What commandment?

Surely, “Fight the good fight of faith.” Surely, “Take hold of eternal life.”  But really all the imperatives of Christian life are included here. Paul is saying: Follow Christ. Be conformed to the image of Christ. Take on His character. Love with His love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. For this is eternal life. This is the greatest joy. God is the giver of life– so you will only find life in following Him.

Jesus made that good confession just like you – and He suffered for it. But He is at Father’s right hand and will reign forever. You too, act like Jesus: Remain steadfast even through trials, until His return. God will bring that about at exactly the right time. He is the only Ruler, the true Sovereign, the only blessed One, the One who will never die. He is so pure and brilliant we can’t imagine approaching Him – and yet He says, “Boldly approach Me through my Son!” All honor and might are His and His alone, forever.

This is who God the Father is. So how can you ever think that true life would come from anyone or anything else?

Jesus is coming back. And then faith will be sight. We will not have to fight to believe. We will not have to work to take hold of eternal life. It will be perfectly obvious Who the King is, and what He is like.

But until then: You and I can live out eternal life. As author of Hebrews says: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

c) Use Your Riches as a Means of Taking Hold of True Life

Having begun by pointing out that money cannot satisfy, and that the love of money leads to all kinds of evil, Paul concludes by saying: Money can be used to help you take hold of true life.

Note the last clause in v19, which gives the purpose for the entire 3 verses: “so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” Since eternal life is true life, this is the same idea we saw in verse 12: “Take hold of the eternal life.”

Remember, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). So Paul here is specifically helping those who are rich to know how they can avoid the negative effects of money, and to take hold of eternal life.

Don’t forget: As we have noted before, by the standards of Jesus’ day, of Paul’s day, all of us are incredibly rich. So know that Paul here is speaking about you.

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share,  thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Paul tells Timothy to give the rich two negative commands, five positive commands, with one result, all working to one goal, one purpose.

We’ve spent time looking at parts of these verses earlier in this series, so we will now just note the flow of Paul’s argument, and then highlight the result and the purpose.

First negative command: Do not be haughty or arrogant because you are richer than others. This is related to Paul’s statement in Romans 12:3: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” Because we rich people have more than others, it is easy to imagine that we deserve more than others. We must take care to avoid that temptation.

Second negative command: Don’t set your hope on the uncertainty of riches. As we saw in the sermon on security, Paul highlights the foolishness of setting your hope on an uncertainty. And all riches are uncertain.

So now the five positive commands:

First positive command: Set your hope on God. He is the solid rock. He is your hope, your strength. And He is always providing for us, doing good for us: He “richly provides us with all things unto enjoyment.” (We spent an entire sermon considering that phrase.)

Second positive command: We rich are to do good. That is, we are to act like the one who richly provides for us.

Third positive command: We are To be rich in good works, not only rich in assets. Here Paul uses the idea of currency again. Wealth in one currency – money, material possessions – makes it easier for us to be rich in another currency – good works. And as Jesus says, our light is to shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Fourth positive command: To be generous. I think the third positive command emphasizes time – since we rich don’t have to spend all our time providing for our basic necessities, we can spend time doing good works – while this fourth positive command emphasizes giving money and material goods.

Last positive command: To be “willing to share.” That phrase is one word in Greek. Like the previous word, it can be translated “generous.” The difference is that this second word seems to be concerned more with the inner attitude. This word shares a root with a Greek word many of you know, koinonia, “partnership for a common purpose.” Think of this word, then, as “characterized by koinonia.” That is, “See your fellow believers as your partners, and live out that partnership, so that you use the grant God has given you to help advance God’s purposes among your brothers and sisters who have fewer resources.”

So those are the two negative commands and the five positive commands.

The Result: We see this in the first part of verse 19. The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates this quite well (and is similar to the King James and New American Standard): “Storing up for themselves a good foundation for the age to come.”

I think the point is this: When we obey these seven commands, we are displaying the character of God. We are taking on His character. We are thereby knowing God better. And this is eternal life – that we may know Him (John 17:3). This is our joy for all eternity, the purpose of eternal life: To know more and more of His infinite goodness and excellence.

So do you see how this is a foundation for the age to come? Become like Him today. Thereby know Him better now. And that’s the joyful foundation for what you will do for all eternity.

That then leads us to the purpose: To take hold of the life that is truly life. To live out eternal life today – to know Him, to live with Him, to love Him, to be loved by Him.

Conclusion

So: What do you want more than anything else?

O, that you would desire to know God! That you would take hold of the eternal life that is knowing God the Father, and Jesus Christ whom He sent!

O, that you would be free from the snare of the love of money, and its consequent ruin and destruction.

O, that you and I might live out what we profess:

  • That we are His children purely by grace through the sacrifice of our Lord
  • That apart from this mercy we would be without hope, objects of wrath
  • That instead we are loved with a love beyond imagining
  • That we are held secure in His arms, and He will never leave us nor forsake us
  • That we have the deepest possible joy – totally apart from any material goods

May we live out this profession through generous giving to God’s glory motivated by sincere concern.

May we – in our interactions with one another, in our interactions with the world – display God’s mercy, grace, and tender care.

May we thereby take hold of the life that is truly life.

 

Giving? How?

May 1, 2014

How much money should a Christian give away?

Some Bible teachers argue that we are obligated to give God a tenth, a tithe of our income. These teachers say that Christians should give that much away. They may give more; above that is voluntary.

In this present series – Where Do You Find Identity, Security, and Joy? A Scriptural Understanding of Money, Giving, and Material Possessions – we’ve seen that biblical teaching on money goes far beyond the percentage of our income that we give away. Indeed, we’ve noted several times that we can give away 100% of our income and assets and still be disobedient:

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)

So surely we can give away 10% of our income and be disobedient.

Consider in this regard the rich young ruler, in the story told in Mark 10 as well as in the other gospels. He runs up to Jesus and asks. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says he lacks one thing: He is to go, sell all his assets, give the proceeds to the poor, and come, follow Him.

And the rich young ruler walks away.

This man was outwardly following all the Old Testament Law. He certainly was tithing. He probably was giving away 25% or more of his income. And yet he valued his possessions more than he valued Jesus, more than he valued eternal life.

Thus, the answer to the question, “How much should a Christian give away?” has to be more complex, more nuanced, than “10% of his income.” If that’s the teaching you hear, it’s easy to give a tithe, and think, “I’m ok with God now – I’ve fulfilled my obligation,” when all the time you’re just like the rich young ruler, with a wrong attitude toward your possessions.

So let’s turn again to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 to learn more about true Christian giving. We’ll first review what we’ve already learned about giving from this passage, then highlight five lessons from 2 Corinthians 8:10-9:15, and finally discuss how to become a true Christian giver.

True Christian Giving: A Review of Earlier Lessons

We first looked at this passage in a sermon on contentment. 2 Corinthians 9:8 includes the phrase, “having all sufficiency in all things at all times.” The Greek word translated “sufficiency” actually implies an inner attitude of contentment: knowing that however much or little you may have, you have enough. You can be content.

If we know our identity as Christians – children of God, adopted into His intimate family, heirs of God; if we know that He will never leave us nor forsake us, that the sovereign, loving God will hold us secure in His hands;  if we see Him as the greatest joy, and thus see that nothing can ever take away our supreme joy – then we are content. Then we are satisfied. Then our circumstances do not determine our attitude.

In our second look at this passage, we focused on the word translated “generosity.” We saw that the word focuses not primarily on the amount given, but on the inner attitude that motivates the giving. That inner attitude is one of sincere concern or love.

The Macedonians exemplify this attitude:

For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity (sincere concern) 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. (2 Corinthians 8:2-5)

What is the main motive for this type of generosity, this type of sincere concern?

  • The main motive is not gratefulness to God
  • The main motive is not to do some great work for God
  • The main motive is not to build up an institution
  • The main motive is not to get recognition, such has having a building named after you
  • The main motive is not that you will receive more money in return

The main motive is joy in God – the Macedonians gave out of their joy, after giving themselves to God, after receiving His grace.

In giving, we are displaying the gracious character of God that we have as His children.

Just like the Macedonians, we are to cultivate such joy, we are to beg for such sincere concern for others, to beg for the privilege of giving.

Then, we saw in chapter 9 three results that this sincere concern leads to:

  • It leads to thanksgiving to God – not primarily thanksgiving to us
  • It leads to recipients glorifying God, as they see that these Gentiles are truly believers in Jesus, are truly their brothers and sisters, in partnership with them
  • It leads to love from the church in Jerusalem toward the givers. This is the currency that the givers receive in return.

Thus, money is the vehicle used for the gift, but money is secondary to all that is going on. The Macedonians and Corinthians are not thinking, “Ok, I need to give certain percentage of my income – now, what will I do with it?” Instead, their giving is the result of having their hearts transformed by God. Their Identity, security, and joy are in Him. They are content in Him. And so they delight to live to His glory – whatever that may entail.

In the most recent sermon that considered this passage, we looked at 2 Corinthians 8:1-9. We emphasized again that

1)      True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God

2)      True Christian giving is motivated by sincere concern/love

Then we added:

3)      True Christian giving results from grace given by God

4)      True Christian giving begins not with giving money but by giving yourself to God

5)      True Christian giving results from taking on the character of Jesus

Because Jesus was rich in his relationship to the Father, He made Himself poor in His becoming man, in His suffering, so that we through that poverty might become rich in relationship to the Father.

We are to be like that: Knowing we have relational riches in being loved by God, being in His family, being secure in Him, we give out of that abundance, out of sincere concern for others.

So, true Christian giving is not an obligation you have to an institution. It is not a requirement you have to fulfill in order to maintain membership. It is not even primarily a budgeting decision.

Rather, as Romans 8:29 says, if you are in Christ, God predestined you to be conformed to the image of His Son. True Christian giving is a result of that work – the result of a life transformed by God, a life conformed to the image of Christ, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Five Further Lessons from 2 Corinthians 8:10-9:15

These five lessons flow directly out of what we’ve already discussed:

1) True Christian Giving is Individual

That is: No one pattern will hold for everyone. Look first at a phrase in 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart.” That necessarily implies a difference the Corinthians both in the amount they give and in the percentage they give. All right giving will be the result of God’s grace – but that grace will manifest itself in different ways. God’s grace led the Macedonians to give way beyond their means, beyond what Paul had any reason to expect (8:3). But Paul doesn’t expect the Corinthians to do the same. As he says in verse 12:

For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.

Because of this verse, some teachers, including me in the past, have said giving is to be proportionate to our income. I no longer think that’s the most accurate word to use. Paul is not telling the Corinthians to give the same proportion of their income as the Macedonians gave. Instead, they are to consider the generous giving of others, including the Macedonians, and use that to inspire them, to help them imagine what God might do. But they are not competing with the Macedonians to see who can give the most. Rather, they are to follow the Macedonians example of Christlikeness, not necessarily their example in terms of the proportion of their income they gave.

If we have sincere concern, if we are giving out of joy in God, if we are giving like Jesus – then we will give generously, and our giving will be biblical. We should expect that such biblical giving will manifest itself differently in different churches, and in different individuals.

So true Christian giving is individual. There is no set amount, no set percentage, that will characterize all Christian giving.

2) True Christian Giving is handled with honor in the sight of men

In 2 Corinthians 8:19-21 Paul describes his plans for taking the gift to Jerusalem. Paul is careful not even to give the appearance of impropriety. He arranges matters so that no one could possibly accuse him of absconding with the money, or misusing it for personal gain. He says, “We aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2 Corinthians 8:21).

We well know that money can cause divisions in the church. We know that money has often been misused by churches and pastors. We must handle it carefully, and have procedures and mechanisms in place that make clear to any observer that the money given to the church is used appropriately.

3) True Christian Giving is not forced

Paul writes:

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction. (2 Corinthians 9:5)

Where the ESV has “not as an exaction,” the NET reads “[not] something you feel forced to do,” and the Holman Christian Standard reads “not an extortion.”

Note that Paul asks for all the money to be collected before he arrives. This is exactly the opposite of how many churches and parachurch organizations in the US tend to raise money. We often bring in a well-known person to draw and crowd and raise a lot of money. But Paul implies that he will not operate in that way. It seems he thinks his presence could be seen as forcing people, embarrassing people into giving, and he doesn’t want people giving out of that wrong motivation.

Verse 7 elaborates on the idea. We are not to give reluctantly (or, in other translations, “grudgingly,” “under compulsion,” “out of necessity”). Thus, we are not to raise money by manipulating emotions, or by promising financial returns, or by shaming people into giving, or by highlighting tax advantages. True Christian giving is never forced, in any sense.

4) The True Christian Giver gives blessings

We have to delve a bit into translation to see this point.

In 2 Corinthians 9:5, the word translated “willing gift” is the normal word for “blessing.” Then in the next verse, Paul uses the same word again in the plural. The ESV here translates it “bountifully.” The translators use that word because Paul is drawing a contrast with giving “sparingly.” But the English reader then misses both the link with verse 5 and the connotation of the gift as a blessing from God. As we saw in the previous sermon in this series, in this passage Paul emphasizes again and again the different currencies of giving and receiving. The primary currency here is blessings.

So let’s re-read verses 5 and 6, using “bountiful blessing” for this Greek word:

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a bountiful blessing, not as an extortion. The point is this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows with bountiful blessings will also reap with bountiful blessings.

The point is this: God has given you a grant to be used for His glory. You are to be a conduit of God’s blessing to others. You are to be a means that God uses to bless others. If you are not sowing blessings from God, you will reap no blessings of joy, of love, of prayers for you.

The true Christian giver gives blessings.

5) The True Christian Giver is cheerful

The rest of chapter 9 elaborates on and supports this idea.

We could draw this conclusion from the first few verses of chapter 8: If the Macedonians are giving out of their overflow of joy in God, if they beg Paul for the privilege of participating in this partnership with the church in Jerusalem, if they are taking on the character of Jesus, loving with His love, sowing His blessings, all the while glorifying God, then surely they are giving cheerfully. But Paul highlights this point in 2 Corinthians 9:7:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Then in verse 8 Paul says God will make all grace abound to them – and that must include the grace of giving (8:1) – so that they can abound in every good work. So we will have whatever we need to be conformed to image of Jesus outwardly as well as inwardly.

In verse 9, the Apostle quotes Psalm 112:9. Note that “he” refers not to God but to the blessed man:

He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.

The key phrase, repeated in the psalm, is “his righteousness endures forever.” That is, using New Testament terminology: “What he does in conformity with the character of Jesus will have an eternal impact.” Who is this true of? Verse 1 of the psalm tells us: “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in His commandments.” This is the person who knows who he is before God because of the work of Christ, who finds his identity, security, and joy in God.

I encourage you to read the psalm in its entirety, and to look for ways that the psalmist makes clear that the “blessed man” has his identity, security, and joy in God. For our purposes today, however, it is sufficient to see that Paul quotes the psalm because the blessed man has great joy as he sees his giving as part of God’s plan of blessing.

Turn now to verse 10:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.

Paul here alludes to Isaiah 55:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

God supplies both the inputs into the production process – seed – and the outputs of that process – not just wheat, but what the wheat becomes after it is dried, ground, kneaded, and baked. Just so, He will give you what you need in order to glorify Him, and will see to it that He is indeed glorified as you give of yourself, your time, and your resources in accord with the character of Christ. Your righteousness will endure forever, to God’s glory among the peoples.

Then verse 11 in 2 Corinthians 9:

You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

That is: You will be enriched in every necessary currency so that you can show sincere concern in every way. And this, as we have seen, produces thanksgiving to God, glory to God, and love for the givers (verses 13 and 14).

Paul then concludes in verse 15: “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift.” This is what all Christian giving is about. We are showing what God is like, as Jesus showed us what God is like. This is the source of our joy. This is why we can give cheerfully. We are displaying His character. We are accomplishing His purposes. We are actualizing what our Creator intends us to be.

Becoming a True Christian Giver

You may say: “OK, Coty, I’ve understand the conceptual point: My identity, security, and joy must be in God. The greatest gift is indeed His gift to us. And I realize that even my giving is a grace from Him. So, with all confidence in His future grace, I must give myself to God first, and then take on the character of Jesus and cheerfully give blessings to others. Furthermore, from the sermon on spending, I understand that I must set aside for giving a portion of all I receive up front, before I spend anything else, so that I am not giving out of my excess, but out of all that comes in. And I even get the idea that giving must be individual – I know you can’t tell me to give certain percentage or a certain dollar amount.

“But still: I have to decide. I have to budget. What do I give? Everything? A tithe? If so, a tithe of what? Of my Income? Of my assets? You’ve said that biblical teaching has to be more nuanced than ‘give 10% of your income.’ Well, it’s time for some nuance.”

That’s a good question. Here are my suggestions, built on what we have seen in Scripture:

  • First: Consider and meditate on the question in the sermon series title: Where do you find identity, security, and joy? Repent of dependence on anything other than God in these areas.
  • Second: Acknowledge to God verbally and, if it helps you, in writing, that all you have – your income as well as your assets, your Iphone as well as your home equity – is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
  • Third: Consider the institutions and people around you – around you locally, and around you across this globe. Think of the many opportunities you have to glorify God, to display Jesus, to spread the Gospel, the spur church planting movements among the unreached, through giving of time, money, and love.
  • Fourth: Pray, asking God, “What percent of my income should I commit to giving for the next few months?” And pray specifically, “Should I give more than I have been giving?”
  • Fifth: Decide. Designate that amount for giving as soon as you receive any income.
  • Sixth:  When you have given away all that you have planned and other needs arise, don’t immediately say no to those needs. Pray again. It may be right to take money out of other budget categories to meet this need. Indeed, some of us set aside another percentage of our income specifically to be able to respond more rapidly to such unforeseen opportunities.
  • Seventh: A few months later, prayerfully reconsider what has happened since the last time you determined how much you would give. If you increased your giving, ask: What has God done with that additional amount? And ask again: Should I commit to more, to a higher percentage? Should I include giving from my assets?
  • Eighth: Repeat this regularly for the rest of your life.

Do you see how this relates to tithing? Tithing is one small part of this process, only relevant in steps four and five. If you are not tithing now, certainly do pray specifically: Should I begin to give 10% of my income now? Many people think they cannot possibly give that much. But as Randy Alcorn asks: If your income went down by 10%, would you die? If the answer to that is “no,” then you can indeed tithe.

So if you’re not tithing, that can be a good place to begin. Consider that. But if you have been giving very little, and you faithfully go through these steps, and you decide to give 6% of your income – praise God! Be faithful to that commitment. I am confident that when you get to step seven, you will have such joy in God that you will increase your giving further.

Just so, if you are already tithing, don’t think you’re exempt from this process. Keep going through the steps. If we all do this, I am sure the great majority of us will end up giving much more than a tithe.

For each of us must always remember:

God has made all grace abound to you. He created you for His glory. But you – and indeed all humanity – turned your back on Him, thinking you knew better than He how to arrange your life, how to obtain joy and fulfillment.   Having rejected the very purpose of your creation, you deserve God’s punishment.

But God showered you, and all of us, with grace by the sending of His Son into this world to live as man. He lived the life you and I should have lived. He died a horrible death on the cross on your behalf. He rose victoriously, and now always lives to make intercession for us. And He will come again to usher in His Kingdom.

This risen Christ calls out to you, rebel that you are: Come be part of My bride. Come be my joint heir. Come, be reconciled to your Creator, and He will be your loving Father forever.

So give yourself to Him.

Follow hard after Him.

Know who you are, what He promises now and in the future.

And so live as to show who He is – through your love, through your sincere concern, and through your giving of money, of time, and of yourself.

Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!