March 24, 2016
If you could become any one of these four people, which would you choose?
- (a) The richest, most successful businessman in the world;
- (b) The most popular, most attractive movie star in the world;
- (c) The president of the United States;
- (d) An aids orphan in a slum.
Which do you choose?
Some of us might have a hard time choosing between a, b, and c; but would anyone pick d?
Let me change the question: You now have the same four choices, except: if you choose a, b, or c, you do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you’re the aids orphan, you do.
Which do you choose now?
Is the choice hard?
Do you see what I’m asking? How much is Jesus worth? Is knowing him worth more than all of Bill Gates’ fortune? Is knowing Him worth more than all the fame or power of a movie star or a president?
This is the central theme of Mark 14:1-25: How much do we value Jesus? The passage is like a play: there are four main characters or groups of characters, all revolving around Jesus, all assessing Jesus’ worth. The characters are:
- The chief priests and their associates
- An unnamed woman
- The other disciples
The passage divides itself into five scenes. We’ll briefly clarify or elaborate on a few points in each scene, then compare and contrast some of these characters, drawing out lessons for ourselves.
Scene 1: Mark 14:1-2. The Chief Priests and Associates
At this time, Passover was the most widely-attended Jewish festival. At least a few hundred thousand Jews came from afar to celebrate. The chief priests want to arrest Jesus, but since many of these attendees thought highly of Jesus, they want to move on the sly, stealthily, and to take Him into custody after the feast.
Scene 2: Mark 14:3-9, Jesus, the Disciples, and a Woman
Picture the scene: Jesus and his disciples, possibly with other guests are eating at the home of Simon the Leper — presumably a former leper whom Jesus had healed. This house is in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem, where Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live. As is the custom in this time and place, they are not sitting down to eat but reclining, lying with their feet away from the table, resting on their left arms, using their right hands to eat. The table is short, perhaps a foot high.
During the meal a woman enters the room carrying an incredibly expensive jar of perfume. She not only opens the jar, but breaks it, filling the room with its aroma. Then, rather than putting a small amount on Jesus, she pours the entire jar on him.
John tells us the identity of the woman: Mary, the sister of Lazarus. He also tells us that she does not stop at his head, but pours the perfume on his feet, and wipes those feet with her hair.
The plant that produces nard was grown only in the Himalayas, and so the perfume is very expensive. If the stated value of three hundred denarii is accurate, this would be about $15,000 in the US today. Nard was literally a gift for a king.
Some rebuke Mary for this “waste,” saying the profits from its sale could have been given to the poor. But Jesus accepts this offering, saying it prepares His body for burial.
Scene 3: Mark 14:10-11, Judas and the Chief Priests
Judas goes to the chief priests, and offers to betray Jesus. They are delighted. Judas can help them find Jesus in a private place, so they can arrest Him where there are no crowds to start a riot.
Matthew tells us the amount of money they offered him: 30 pieces of silver, likely worth about $5000 for us. The chief priests pay Judas about one-third of the value of the nard Mary poured out on Jesus.
Scene 4: Mark 14:12-16, Jesus and the Disciples, Preparing for the Last Supper
With all the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, finding a place to eat the celebratory meal is a real problem. Although they have been in Jerusalem almost a week, the disciples have made no arrangements for a room.
Jesus, however, had graciously prepared details ahead of time. Presumably during His last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus made arrangements for a room to be available for this special meal. He then works miraculously, arranging that when the designated disciples arrive in the city they will see a man carrying a jar of water (an unusual event in these times). They do so, and prepare for the meal.
Scene 5: Mark 14:17-25, Jesus and His Disciples: The Last Supper
Jesus and the disciples wait until they can move under the cover of darkness to the upper room. Here, while they are eating, Jesus breaks the news that one of the twelve disciples will betray Him. Twice before — in Mark 9:31 and 10:33 — Jesus has said that He will be betrayed. But the disciples had not understood, and clearly did not think that one of the twelve would be the betraying agent. They cannot believe this – clearly the eleven have no suspicions of Judas – and each one asks Jesus if he is the betrayer.
In this culture, to be betrayed by one “who is eating with me,” who “dips with me in the bowl” was considered particularly treacherous. To eat with someone implied friendship, trust, and an obligation to help and protect. So by speaking of their eating together, and saying that the betrayer is “one of the twelve,” Jesus is emphasizing the enormity of the evil of what is happening.
Jesus then institutes the Lord’s Supper, saying the bread is His body, and the cup is the blood of the covenant.
The Characters: Jesus
Now let’s turn our attention to the characters. We will look first at Jesus, and then draw some comparisons and contrasts with the others.
Mark clearly presents Jesus as in control of the situation. Jesus is not surprised by anything that happens. The chief priests are trying to move secretly, on the sly, but Jesus knows their plans and arranges matters so that His arrest does not take place until He has finished His other work. Judas thinks he is fooling the others – and he succeeds in fooling his fellow disciples. But Jesus knows of the betrayal, and lets Judas know that He knows. Jesus is well-prepared for this momentous last meal, making arrangements ahead of time.
But most importantly, Jesus presents Himself as precious through the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There are two aspects his preciousness to unpack here. First:
(1) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus pays the penalty for our sins
When offering the cup, Jesus says “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” Jesus here identifies himself Old Testament sacrifices, whose blood, we are told in Leviticus 17:11, was poured out on the altar “to make atonement for your souls.” Paul later makes an explicit parallel between Jesus and the Passover lamb, stating “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
What does this mean? As the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” God is a just God; He is the moral authority in the universe. He makes sure that every wrong is paid for, exactly as it deserves. And each of us sins in many ways. Most fundamentally, each of us fails to praise God as we He deserves; instead, we dishonor Him by our actions, our inaction, our thoughts, and our words. But Jesus, the perfect, unblemished lamb, offers His life to pay the penalty for all our sins, enabling us to enter God’s presence spotless and pure. This is what we act out and celebrate when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. This is how precious Jesus is.
But there’s even more:
(2) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus lives within you
Given that Jesus pays the penalty for all our sins, we should respond by living out lives that honor and glorify Him. But how can we do that, since we are so prone to selfishness, self-centeredness, and other forms of evil?
Jesus says the cup is His “blood of the covenant.” Jeremiah prophesied that, in the new covenant, God would put His law within His people, on their heart (Jeremiah 31:33). So God’s law will not be something external, rules that His people will have to live up to. No. His law will be on their heart, within them, and they will have true intimacy with Him.
So Jesus gives us this wonderful picture: We are to eat His flesh, and drink His blood; we are to have His life within us, always. Remember, God had commanded the Israelites not to drink any blood of any kind, and to drain all the blood from an animal prior to cooking its meat. For the life is in the blood, and that serves to make atonement for their souls (Leviticus 17:11). So when Jesus tells us to drink His blood, He tells us to have His life within us. Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). So by the power of the living Christ within us, we not only can stand before God with our sins paid for; we also are transformed eventually into His likeness, as He lives out His life in us.
So we are to drink up Jesus’ life, we are to consume Him, for, as Jesus says in John 6:55, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” This is the lesson for us: Feed on Him, devour Him, get all our sustenance from Him, value Him above all else, desire Him more than anything, glorify Him with our money, our time, all that we are. Jesus is the most precious of all.
Reactions to Jesus by the Other Characters
How do the other characters react to this most precious One? The woman, Mary, is central here. All others are in contrast to her.
Mary vs the Chief Priests
The chief priests pay money to destroy Jesus; Mary gives much more money to anoint Jesus for burial.
Mary vs the Disciples
The disciples have had much more instruction from Jesus than Mary ever had. Jesus had even prophesied to them about His death at least three times. Nevertheless, they act completely unprepared for His death. They do not act as if they expect anything to happen; they don’t even make any preparations for their last Passover meal together.
On the other hand, Mary surely does not understand all that is happening, but knows that she will not have Jesus with her much longer. Despite not having heard Jesus’ prophecies about His death, she knows that He will die, and knows that Jesus is more precious than anything else imaginable. So she gives up what is most valuable to her – this jar of nard, perhaps a family heirloom – to prepare His body for burial. She demeans herself even to the point of rubbing His feet with her hair, knowing that Jesus is the most precious of all.
Mary vs Judas
Judas is one of these disciples, one of the intimate circle that Jesus has loved and taught. Judas has traveled with Jesus for three years, and has heard those prophecies about His death. Judas has even been empowered by Jesus to perform miracles when He sent the disciples out two by two. But now, Judas sells the most precious person in the world. For $5000, Judas gave up the source of all true life.
Mary has had much less contact with Jesus, but values Him above all else. She gives up three times what Judas received for betraying Him, in order to honor Him and acknowledge Him as precious.
But there’s another contrast between Judas and Mary. In Mark 14:21, Jesus says, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” This verse proclaims both God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability. God is sovereign; He foretold Judas’ betrayal 1000 years previously. And He arranged events so that all would take place according to His good, perfect, and wise plan. God is in control.
Yet Judas chooses to betray Jesus, and is responsible for that choice. For what he does, the name “Judas” becomes the name of a traitor.
What is the contrast with Mary? She too was part of God’s plan, acting out the preciousness of Jesus for all the world to see. She too made a choice. Her name too will live for all time: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).
So why are these scenes together? Why does Mark put the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus right next to the story of the Last Supper?
Mary lives out the picture of the Lord’s Supper. Mary is feeding on Jesus, showing that she values Him above all else – and this is what Jesus pictures for us in the Lord’s Supper.
Are you sold out to God? Or are you just sold out? Mary was sold out to God. Judas was sold out. Just as Esau sold his inheritance for lentil stew, Judas sold his soul for $5000.
That seems incredible to us — but what’s your price? Do you have a price?
- Physical punishment for yourself?
- Physical punishment for your family?
While many of our brothers and sisters around the world and in the history of the church have to ask that question, for us the prospect of physical punishment or death for proclaiming the preciousness of Jesus seems abstract, unreal. So ask yourself this question: Is your price a steady job and a nice income and a nice house and a nice car and college for the kids?
Good things, all: But are you devoting yourself to these goals more than you are devoting yourself to following Jesus? Is the pursuit of these things, is your plan to achieve all these things, standing in the way of your making a radical, life-changing commitment to God? Standing in the way of your expressing you wholehearted devotion to Jesus, like Mary?
Instead, are you more like Simon’s dinner guests: calculating, “Oh, that’s too much to give to Jesus! We’ll give him our worship on Sunday, and a tenth of our income (maybe); that should be enough. But, Hey! What I do with the rest of my money and the rest of my time, that’s up to me.”
Are you sold out to Jesus and the gospel? Or are you only playing at church?
You don’t owe Jesus only a tenth of your income. You don’t owe him only your worship on Sunday. You owe him everything! You owe Him your entire life!
But this is not some onerous debt you have to repay, which hurts each time you make a payment! For when you yield to him, when you give up these pseudo-successes and pseudo-pleasures the world offers, when instead you feed on Him, and drink Him up – you find the real love, joy, and peace the world so much longs for. You get to know the most precious, the most beautiful, the most loving person in the world. And as you get to know Him, and as you see Him and learn more and more of Him, as you drink Him up, you become like Him.
So do that! Drink him up! Feed on him!
Taste and see the goodness of the Lord – and enter in to the joy of His presence.
So, yes, I would rather be a poor aids orphan in a slum – and know Jesus – than the richest man in the world, and not know Him. I know that that’s the right choice. I don’t always act consistently with that knowledge, but I know it’s right.
What about you? Is Jesus more precious to you than anything in this world?
[This devotion is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached July 30, 2000. You can read the entire sermon here.]
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:
- 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.”
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.
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.
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
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!
April 23, 2014
Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
What does He mean by that?
How does He exemplify that?
Consider what He says to His disciples in Mark 10:29-30. Jesus has just told the rich young ruler to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor, to have riches in heaven, and to come and follow Him. The ruler instead walks away. Peter, astounded that poor fishermen are more obedient than this rich man, has just said, “We have left everything and followed you.”
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).
What does He mean?
There are those who say, “Just read it to see what it means: ‘100 times more in this life.’ So if you give $1000, you will get $100,000.” Then, when you give the $1000 and don’t receive the $100,000, they will suppose that there is some sin in your life, or some lack of faith, that keeps God from fulfilling His promise.
But we only have to look at these disciples listening to Jesus to know He could not have meant, “Give in one currency and you will be sure to receive a hundred times more in the same currency.” James, for example, gave up all to follow Jesus, as Peter just said. But one of the Herods kills James (Acts 12:2). He never received a hundred times more goods than he gave up.
- When I give, what am I giving?
- When I receive, what am I receiving?
- Why is giving so blessed?
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is very helpful on this point. We’ll see that when we give, we are not primarily giving money. When we receive, we are not primarily receiving money.
Indeed, this mistaken conception of giving as primarily concerning money or material goods distorts much of our thinking. For we tend to think that the person who has an excess of money is the person who is able to give the most. He’s not losing much proportionately. He doesn’t have to give up much else in order to give to others. That is, the opportunity cost of giving is lower for him. So such a person can give with joy. But if I’m just barely paying my bills, I can’t give much of anything – I have nothing to spare! It would be too costly for me to give. So I can’t give with joy.
That view is not Scriptural view at all. Of the many errors in those thoughts, we’ll highlight one today: It misunderstands the currency of giving and receiving.
About fifteen years ago I was in the Philippines on a business trip. This was when ATMs first became available for foreign transactions in southeast Asia. I inserted my card, and magically Philippine pesos came out. The machine then gave me the option of checking my balance. Curious to see how much Beth had spent in my absence, I punched the button. The machine gave the balance: about 200,000.
Startled, I wondered: Where did all this money come from? I even checked the account number to see if perchance the ATM had linked me to the wrong account. After seeing that it was indeed my own account, I finally realized that the machine was giving me my balance not in terms of US dollars but in terms of Philippine pesos. And at the time, the exchange rate of pesos to dollars was about 40-1, which made the balance of the account not $200,000 but $5,000; about what I had expected.
If you’re checking your bank balance, you need to know the currency of the balance. Just so: In every biblical passage that concerns giving and receiving, you need to know the currency the author is speaking of. Indeed, even within one verse, sometimes different currencies are used.
With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 8. Recall that at this time, the church in Jerusalem was quite poor, partly as a result of persecution, and partly as a result of a famine and economic downturn in the region. So in general, the new Christians in Greece and in what is now Turkey were better off financially than the believers in Jerusalem. So the Apostle Paul arranges to collect money from these new, Gentile believers for the Jerusalem church. He mentions this collection in 1 Corinthians 16, asking them to set aside money on the first of every week. Evidently that collection started well but then slowed down. Here in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 he asks the church to complete “this grace.” His wider discussion is invaluable for understanding true Christian giving.
True Christian Giving: Four Observations
Let’s read the passage in a literal, rather wooden translation, which I hope will help you to follow Paul’s argument. I’ve used English words with the same root when Paul uses Greek words with the same root. Note also that I’ve translated a Greek word you may know, koinonia, as “partnership.” Because verse 8 is something of a parenthesis, I’ve left it out here:
We make known to you, brothers, the grace of God given in the churches of Macedonia, for in the midst of a great testing of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their sincere concern. For according to their power and, I bear witness, beyond their power of their own accord with strong appeal they begged us for the grace and partnership of ministry to the saints. And they went beyond what we had even hoped: They gave themselves first to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we appealed to Titus, that just as he started, just so he might complete this grace among you. But just as you abound in all things – in faith and in word and in knowledge and in all diligence and in our love for you – abound in this grace also. . . . For you know the grace of our lord Jesus, that for you he became poor, being rich, in order that you by his poverty might become rich.
For our purposes, the biggest difference with common English translations is found in verse 9. Virtually all English translations render this, “Though he was rich, he became poor for you.” The Greek has no word for “though,” instead just using a participle, as rendered above: “being rich, he became poor.” We’ll consider below the common translation, “though he was rich,” and suggest an alternative, which is equally possible grammatically, “Because He was rich.”
But first, four observations on true Christian giving from verses 1 to 7:
1) What is the first gift Paul mentions?
Not the gift the Macedonians give to the church in Jerusalem. Instead, the grace given by God to the Macedonians. They received grace from God and then they gave. After verse 1, Paul repeats the word “grace” in verses 3, 6, 7, and 9. Look at verse 7. What does Paul want the Corinthians to excel in? “This grace.” (Note that the words “act of” are added by the ESV, and the words “of giving” are added by the NIV).
So the first observation: True Christian giving results from grace given by God. True Christian giving is the result of God working in us – not the result of pressure tactics, of emotional appeals, or of making people feel guilty.
2) Did the Macedonians give out of their abundance?
Be careful here! The answer is both yes and no.
In financial terms, they gave out of their poverty, not out of their abundance. They did not have an excess, and then decide to give that extra since they didn’t need it. Paul even says they gave out of their “extreme poverty.”
But they did give out of an abundance – an abundance of what? Verse 2: An abundance of joy! Their identity was in God, their security was in God, their joy was in God – and so they gave generously of their meager resources. So the second observation: True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God.
3) What overflowed from this abundance?
Be careful again. Look at verse 2. Paul does not say, “Their abundance of joy overflowed with their giving lots of money.” Verse 3 implies they gave more money than Paul ever thought possible. But his main point is not the amount of money. What did overflow? In the ESV: “A wealth of generosity.” Two months ago we looked in detail at the meaning of the word the ESV translates “generosity,” and saw that it has rather different connotations from the English word. If a billionaire gave $100,000 to DGCC, that would certainly be a generous act according to the definition of the English word. But we would have to discern the inner motivation for the gift in order to apply the Greek word to the act. We saw that the Greek word here means, “sincere concern, with no ulterior motives.” The word is thus related to love. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
So the third observation: True Christian giving is motivated by sincere concern, by love. We are not giving in order to get out of an awkward situation; we are not giving in order to get our names on a building or to impress others. We are motivated by sincere concern.
4) What did the Macedonians give first? Again, the answer is not “money.” Verse 5: The gave themselves first. They gave up their own selfish, individualistic goals. They offered their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. They were transformed through the renewing of their minds. Thus, their identity, security, and joy were in God and in His work. They were so completely devoted to Him, that they begged Paul for the privilege of being a part of God’s work.
So four key principles:
- True Christian giving is a grace of God.
- True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God.
- True Christian giving is motivated by love, by sincere concern.
- True Christian giving begins by giving yourself to God.
Again and again Paul goes out of his way to emphasize he is not primarily talking about money.
There are other currencies of giving and receiving here, other interactions between believers and other believers, between believers and God.
Jesus’ Example of Giving
Now let’s walk through verse 9 more slowly to understand what Paul says here. We’ll do this in four steps:
1) How does verse 9 support Paul’s command in verse 7?
Verse 9 begins with the word “for,” indicating Paul is supporting an earlier statement – the command that concludes verse 7, “Abound in this grace also.” However we interpret verse 9, it has to answer the question: Why should the Corinthians abound in this grace?
2) Jesus’s poverty
Paul says that we become rich through Jesus’ poverty. What aspect of Jesus’ poverty makes us rich?
Not His material poverty. He was poor materially – but we don’t have riches because He owned very little. Rather, we benefit because He humbled Himself – He became man, He was mocked and beaten, He was crucified dead and buried. That aspect of Jesus’ poverty makes us rich.
3) Our riches
What kind of riches does Jesus gain for us?
There is a sense in which we gain material riches; the New Testament calls us heirs of the world! But the emphasis in the New Testament is never on those material riches. Yes, the streets of the New Jerusalem are said to be paved with gold – but who ever pays attention to the pavement, as long as it supports you? What is central in the New Jerusalem is God dwelling with His people in their midst.
So the riches Jesus gains for us are relational riches – the riches of being adopted into His family, of being His beloved children. Even when we think of ourselves as heirs, the emphasis is not on, “Oh, boy, I’m an heir – think of all the material goods I will inherit!” but rather, “I am so loved by Him that He provides an abundance of all things for my good.”
And there is more: We have the relational riches of being God’s children, and the relational riches of being united with all those in the body of Christ. He has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility.” He has made one those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
We saw this in microcosm last night as we said goodbye to our friends Sunil and Jerlin. There were close to fifty people present, from seven different countries; fewer than one-third of us were white Americans. And, as all present will attest, there was real relational richness in that room.
So now let’s take what we’ve learned, and apply these lessons to verse 9, substituting these ideas into the verse:
For you know the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, that for you he became poor – in becoming man, suffering, dying on cross . . . in order that you by his poverty might become rich relationally: that is, so that you might be adopted into God’s family, so that He might be Abba, Father to you, so that you might be His heir, so that you might have relational riches with others as part of His body.
That seems to make sense. We seem to be on the right track.
There’s one more point we need to investigate to fill out the verse.
4) The link between Jesus’ riches and His poverty
In what sense is Jesus rich?
Of course, all things are His!
But what means most to him? What constitutes His true riches?
Surely the primary answer is: His relationship with the Father. And the secondary answer is: His relationship with His Bride, the church.
That is, Jesus’ riches are in the same currency as ours: Relational riches with God the Father, and relational riches with His people.
So what is the link between Jesus’ riches and His poverty? That is, what is verse 9 saying?
Let’s consider the traditional translation of the verse. That is, for “being rich” substitute “though He was rich.” But then substitute what we’ve seen about Jesus’ riches and poverty: His riches are relational, and His poverty is becoming man and dying on the cross:
Though Jesus was loved by His Father, he humbled himself and died on the cross, so that we by that act might be loved by the Father.
That doesn’t make any sense. “Though” is not an appropriate way to understand the participle when you substitute what type of riches Jesus has, and what type of poverty makes us rich.
“Though” makes sense if His riches and poverty are in the same currency, since we don’t expect a rich man to give away all his money and become poor. But when we see that Jesus’ riches and poverty in this verse must be in different currencies, the translation “though” makes no sense.
Furthermore, “though” makes no sense as an explanation for why the Corinthians should strive to “abound in this grace” (verse 7).
But now think of the command at the end of verse 7 together with verse 9. And let’s substitute “because” for “though. ”
We’ll do this in two stages. First, let’s just add the idea of different currencies:
Abound in this grace also. . . . For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for you he became poor [in one currency] because he was rich [in another currency], so that you by his poverty might become rich [in that same currency].
Now that makes sense. Paul tells the Corinthians to abound in the grace that is so clearly manifest among the Macedonians, the same grace that we see manifest in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So now let’s replace simply the idea of different currencies with the currencies of Jesus’ riches and poverty that we’ve already identified. Paul tells the Corinthians:
Abound in this grace also. . . . For you know the grace of our lord Jesus, that because He was loved by the Father, he became man and died on the cross for you, so that you thereby might be loved by the Father.
So do you see how verse 9 supports Paul’s command? Paul is saying: “Be like Jesus! Be full of grace! Show sincere concern!”
That is: Know who you are in Christ! Know you have all joy in Him. United with Him, you are rich relationally, so give yourselves first completely to God, and then give of yourselves out of sincere concern for others. Give like Jesus – knowing that even if you give away all you have, even if you give up all your time, even if you give up all your emotional energy, you always have the Father, you are always His child, you are always in his intimate family.
Lessons for True Christian Giving
Clearly Paul’s main point to the Corinthians and to us is not, “Give more money” or “give more time.” We may need to end up doing so. But that’s not his main point.
We’ve already noted the four observations from verses 1 to 7:
- True Christian giving is a grace of God.
- True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God.
- True Christian giving is motivated by love, by sincere concern.
- True Christian giving begins by giving yourself to God.
What lessons can we draw particularly from verse 9?
True Christian giving results from our taking on the character of Christ.
True Christian giving is one aspect of becoming Christlike. Like Jesus, we are to have such confidence in our identity in Christ, in our security in Him, we are to have so much joy in Him, God’s surpassing grace is to be so manifest in our lives, that we love, we have sincere concern, and so we give.
True Christian giving is not an obligation you have to an institution. It is not a requirement laid on you to maintain membership in an organization. It is not 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.
Thus, clearly true Christian giving concerns not only money, not even primarily money, but love.
Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
And He says:
No one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, . . . will not receive a hundredfold now in this time.
What then is the currency of giving?
On the surface, giving may be in the currencies of money, of goods, or of time.
But underneath, true Christian giving is always in the currency of grace, of love.
What then is the currency of our receiving?
No, we don’t give $1000 and have a guarantee that we will then receive $100,000. Instead, we receive something much more valuable than $100,000 – we receive returns in a much more valuable currency.
We receive joy. When we give material goods, we receive at least 100 times more joy than we would have received by selfishly holding on to those goods. We receive love. We receive relational riches. We receive our identity in Christ.
This is the Gospel, my friends. We had none of that. We rebelled against our Creator, and, separated from Him, we were strangers to all true joy. But Jesus – because He was rich relationally with His Father – became poor. That is, He humbled Himself, He submitted to mocking, scourging, and crucifixion. He died, taking on Himself the penalty you and I deserve, so that you by that poverty might become rich. You, by His work on the cross, might become what God created you to be: Filled with His joy. Conformed to the image of Christ. A giver of grace – like Jesus.
We’re not here to tell you, “Give more so we can build a building. Give more so we can increase our budget.”
God the Father offers you relational riches and joy beyond imagining through Jesus. Come to Him! Give yourself first to Him!
And then: Live out what He is like – to His glory and for Your joy.
April 11, 2014
What is the great commandment, according to Jesus?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
When are we to love God in this way? During a Sunday morning worship service? Yes, but not only then. Surely Jesus means, “Love God with all your being every minute of every day.”
The Apostle Paul commands us, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What is to be done to the glory of God? All that we do – even mundane, daily, seemingly trivial activities like eating and drinking. All is to be done to the glory of God.
Love God with all your being every minute of every day. Do everything to His glory – from eating toast to studying math to working at the office.
With those imperatives in mind, consider these questions:
- How do I love God with all my being while watching Kentucky play UConn, or while watching Downton Abbey?
- How do I climb Crowders Mountain to the glory of God?
- How do I sit on my back porch, enjoying the cool evening to the glory of God?
The Apostle Paul tells Timothy, “God richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Isn’t it then good, right, and proper for us to enjoy what God has given us?
The answer is “yes – but.” We’ll look at both the strong Scriptural support for enjoying God’s good gifts, and the accompanying Scriptural qualifications.
In this series, “Where Do You Find Identity, Security, and Joy: A Scriptural Understanding of Money, Giving, and Material Possessions,” we’ve seen that all we have, including every possession, every skill, every ability, even every minute of time, is a grant from God to be used for His glory. If this is so:
- Should I buy a flatscreen TV?
- Should I buy new car?
- Should I buy tickets to Panthers game?
- Should I watch the NCAA basketball men’s championship game tomorrow night?
- Should I hike Crowders Mountain?
- Should I sit on the porch and enjoy the evening?
As we’ve said time and again, you can’t possibly get the right answers unless you ask the right questions. I aim here to help you ask the right questions, and thus to be able to answer questions such as those above for yourself.
1) God Richly Provides Us With Everything
Let’s begin by considering more closely the Apostle’s phrase from 1 Timothy 6:17: “God richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” What does “richly provide” mean?
It means, in part, that He provides us with an abundance. In particular, He provides us with much, much more than we deserve – for we deserve death. He instead gives us:
- Life itself
- The ability to work
- Whatever material possessions we have
- Most of all, He gives us the Gospel, the invitation to be reconciled to Him forever, to find our true identity as His children, His heirs.
But “richly provide” means more than “to provide an abundance.” He provides this abundance to a good end.
Consider these passages:
- Psalm 103:5 [God] satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
- Matthew 7:11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
- James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
To provide for us richly is to provide abundantly, for our good. Thus we can say with David:
My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:5b-6 NAS)
So that is what it means. But why does God do it? What does He intend to accomplish by providing for us richly?
First, He rejoices to do His children good. God rejoices in our joy in receiving His gift.
We see some of this in our own families. Those of you who are parents of older children, think back to Christmases with a four-year-old. Such Christmases are always delightful. The child has enough memory of the previous Christmas to be really excited about it, but these memories are vague and shadowy enough that everything is sparklingly fresh. Beth and I had great joy those six Christmases in sharing the joy of our four-year-olds.
Scripture speaks specifically of God’s great joy in doing good for His people. Of the many passages we could look at, let’s turn to Jeremiah 32. The book of Jeremiah as a whole emphasizes the coming destruction of Jerusalem because of the hard-hearted disobedience of the people. Yet God promises that He will bring the people back to the Land – and, even more than that, He promises in chapter 31 that He will establish a New Covenant in which He will write His Law on the hearts of His people. Chapter 32 echoes these New Covenant promises:
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul (Jeremiah 32:38-41, emphasis added).
God richly provides us with all things to enjoy because He rejoices in doing us good
Pause there. That may seem obvious. But let it sink in.
The God of the universe, the Creator of the vast expanse of the heavens, the Creator of the 7 billion people alive today, delights to do you good. He not only does you good. He rejoices to do so.
Before we look at other reasons God has for His rich provision, consider briefly one way God does us good: He restores our energy. He refreshes us. Again, as Psalm 23 tells us: “He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”
This has implications for the questions we posed at the outset. For while God may restore our energy through the Scriptures, or through a wonderful time of prayer, He may also do that through some form of enjoyment or recreation: Reading a good book, watching a movie, going on a hike, going out to dinner.
A second reason that God provides for us richly is to spark gratitude and thankfulness. The Apostle writes Timothy:
Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).
Everything God created can and should spark thanksgiving on our part. The same Apostle tells us elsewhere that we eat in honor of the Lord – that is, to the glory of the Lord – when we truly give thanks to Him for the food (Romans 14:6).
Jesus Himself lived this out. He consistently gave thanks to the Father. Nine verses in the New Testament refer to Jesus giving thanks for food.
So we have part of the answer to the question: How do we eat and drink to the glory of God? We acknowledge that everything morsel we eat is a good gift from Him, that we are completely dependent on Him for life and every provision, and so we give thanks.
A third reason that God provides for us richly is to spark adoration and praise. He gives to us so that we might praise Him.
Now, we must be careful here. Scripture does not say, “He gives to us so that we might adore Him instead of enjoying the gift.” Rather, the Bible emphasizes time and again that there is no conflict between our joy and our adoring Him. Indeed, the two are closely intertwined. As the psalmist says,
The peoples must praise you, O God,
all the peoples must praise you.
The nations must be glad and sing for joy. (Psalm 67:3-4a, own translation)
Psalm 35 is especially helpful here”
Let those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad and say evermore, “Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant!” 28 Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all the day long (Psalm 35:27-28).
When we recognize that God Himself delights in our welfare, we rejoice in what He has done, and we rejoice in Who He is – we tell of His praise all the day long.
So C.S. Lewis, reflecting on such biblical truths, writes:
I have tried . . . to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. . . .
Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says: “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations [that is, flashes of light] are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” (Letters to Malcolm, p.89-90)
Think of these first three reasons for God’s rich provision together: God rejoices to do us good, He richly provides to spur thanksgiving, and He provides so that we might praise and adore Him. A key dynamic in moving from His gifts to our right response is to see everything good in our lives as tokens of His love.
Here is my wedding ring. It has some value simply because it is made from gold. I could take it to one of these shops offering to buy gold, and they would give me some money in exchange for it.
But I’m not tempted to do that! Why not?
For me, the value of the ring is far, far greater than the value of the gold it’s made of. The ring is a token of Beth’s love for me, a picture of 34 years of her faithfulness to our marriage covenant, a reminder of who she is and how deeply she loves me.
Just so with all pleasures, with all God’s good gifts. Yes, each has some value in and of itself. Sitting on the porch on a spring evening is a joy! But the value of that pleasure is far, far greater when we see it as a token of God’s love, as a gift from Him symbolizing His lovingkindness, and all that entails.
The fourth reason God provides for us richly is a bit more challenging to see: Our joy itself can be adoration of Him.
To flesh this out, and to distinguish this fourth reason from the third, imagine sitting on my porch this evening. There’s a light breeze. The birds are chirping. We’re enjoying a beautiful sunset.
If we then subsequently think, “God is behind all this. This evening, these chairs, the breeze, the birds, the sunset are gifts from Him for us! What type of God grants such gifts to His children!” That’s an example of the third reason. The pleasure leads to adoration of Him.
The fourth reason is different. Lewis argues that ideally the adoration should be automatic: Not, “The sunset is startling beautiful,” and then, “I adore you God for creating such a joy.” Rather, he compares the right response to reading: I look at a printed page and observe the word “cat.” I am not at all conscious of a series of thoughts such as, “This pattern of dots is pronounced C A T,” and only then, “That stands for a furry, quasi-domesticated animal one of which I have owned for 17 years.” That’s not how it works. Instead, I see “cat” and immediately think of the animal – indeed, I immediately think of Madison jumping up into my lap.
Something similar should happen whenever we experience pleasure, suggests Lewis. Adoration of God is to become so natural to us that we adore Him as we experience any pleasure. Thus he writes:
This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany [that is, the tiny experience of God] is itself to adore. (Letters to Malcolm, p. 90)
I believe Lewis is right. While I can’t point to a verse of Scripture that says this explicitly, I encourage you: Read the Gospels with this idea in mind. In particular, look at Jesus. Consider the way He lived. Note His consistent adoration of God the Father. I think Lewis has captured a key element of Jesus’ life.
Indeed, this is a key part of what it means to do all to the glory of God, what it means to love God with all our being: To be so wired that we see God’s hand behind even the simplest joys, and so to adore Him in every experience.
So God richly provides us with all things to enjoy. He delights to do us good. We are to respond with thanksgiving, adoration, and praise.
2) The Pleasure Trap
But pleasure often does not prompt thanksgiving, adoration, and praise to God. Instead, pleasure can be a dangerous trap. The very gifts God provides to generate thanksgiving and adoration can turn our hearts away from Him, away from our greatest good.
Let’s consider four ways that pleasure can work to our detriment instead of to our good.
First, pleasure can be a distraction.
Pleasure, entertainment, amusement obviously can dominate our spending, and thus lead us not to save enough, not to give enough, not to provide enough for our families. That is a form of distraction.
But also, pleasure can distract us from the reality of the world around us. Astute cultural observers have commented on this danger from a secular viewpoint for decades. George Orwell in 1984 and Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 both imagine societies in which the government seduces large segments of the population with amusements so that they don’t recognize their slavery and rebel. In non-fiction, Neil Postman’s prophetic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death highlights factors which have only grown stronger in the last two decades.
We see similar points in Scripture. For example, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes:
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure. . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
We do this, don’t we? We experience sorrow, and we try to distract ourselves from that painful reality. Through amusements or drink , we pretend the events didn’t really happen, and succeed in fooling ourselves for a time.
The most important distraction is away from God Himself. There is an irony here, for as we have seen God intends all pleasures to point to Him. Yet one way we often avoid thinking about God, about eternity, about our obligations to Him, about our status before Him, is to distract ourselves with pleasures: a video game, a sporting event, a novel, a movie, a TV show.
Pleasures can be a distraction from reality.
Second, pleasure can lead to nothing else.
We’ve seen that our pleasures should be pointers to God, tokens of his love, leading to thanksgiving and adoration. But often they do not. We easily become so enamored with the pleasure, we miss what the pleasure should point to. We, in effect, delight in looking at our wedding rings – rejoicing in the gold, in the shape, in the sparkle – and forget all about our spouses.
This myopia, this forgetfulness, is characteristic of children. When receiving gifts, it is easy for kids to delight in the gift itself, forgetting even to give thanks to the giver. Children often need to be trained to be thankful. Just so, we need to leave such childish ways behind, recognizing the One behind every pleasure.
Third, pleasure can lead to dissatisfaction.
This trap comes about when, instead of rejoicing in the moment, thanking and adoring the God behind the gift, we long for more of the same, and worry that we won’t have it in the future. We considered this lack of contentment a few weeks ago, citing Ecclesiastes 5:10 among others:
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income (NIV).
Finally, even seeing the God behind every pleasure can lead to the trap of spiritual pride.
I can sit on my porch, rejoicing in the day, thinking, “These fresh smells of spring, that light breeze on my cheek, lead me to praise God. Isn’t that wonderful! I am so much more spiritually attuned than those around me!” Such pride is a close kin to that exhibited by the Pharisee in Jesus’ story about him and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
3) Pleasure to the Glory of God: Asking the Right Questions
Here, then, are questions to ask yourself to help you to make the right use of the pleasures in your life, while avoiding the traps:
- How can I cultivate from every pleasure thanksgiving to God and adoration of God? Do I recognize every pleasure as a gift I don’t deserve from the One who loves me more than I can imagine?
- Have I used pleasure and entertainment as distractions from reality, even from God Himself? Can I instead plan enjoyable events that will ground me in reality, and serve other purposes God has for my life?
For example, if I tend to live in a Christian bubble, having little contact with non-Christians, can I spend some of my time devoted to recreation doing what I enjoy with non-Christians?
Or, if I am having a hard time finding time to be with my children, can I share some of my recreation or exercise time with them?
- The budgeting question: How much time and money am I spending on pleasure and entertainment? Is that overall amount consistent with what the Bible teaches? Do I really believe Jesus’ statement, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and does my budget reflect that?Is the way I’m spending that budgeted amount the most effective at prompting thanksgiving and adoration, building up my relationships with family and friends, and restoring my energy so that I can effectively serve where God placed me
Beware of cultural pressures and expectations in this area, especially when planning big events like weddings and graduations. Entire industries exist to try to get you to spend lots of money when you are not considering the opportunity cost of those expenditures. In such situations, don’t worry about the expectations others may have. Decide what would be important and meaningful to you, what will help you to make lifelong memories, and spend money in those areas. Then save in other areas.
The point is not necessarily, “Spend less on entertainment.” Rather, spend your entertainment budget wisely.
Close your eyes. Think of some specific pleasure you experienced in the last couple of days. Acknowledge that that pleasure was completely undeserved. For Scripture tells us that God created us for His glory, yet we turned our backs on Him. Indeed, the first sin, the most fundamental sin, was thinking we know better than God how we can find joy, fulfillment, and pleasure. And wages of that sin – the just response to the sin we all have committed – is death, the absence of everything good. Yet God in His mercy gives us life, breath, and everything – including that recent, undeserved pleasure.
So thank Him for that pleasure. Adore the One who created and offered you that pleasure.
Then respond to His invitation. For He calls you:
- “Come to Me, where you will find pleasures forevermore.
- “Come to Me: And you will find right now, in this life, in relationship to me, more joy than you ever thought possible.
- “Come to me via the sacrifice of my Son on the cross, and His death will pay the penalty for all your sins, so that you can be the object of my delight. And I will rejoice to do you good forevermore.”
That’s the God we have.
That’s the God we are to love with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.
That’s the God we are to glorify in all that we do, even in eating and drinking.
So come to Him – and may every joy then lead to – and be – adoration of Him.
April 4, 2014
[This Sunday we consider Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 6:17 that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” No one has influenced my understanding of this phrase more than C.S. Lewis. What follows are excerpts from chapter 17 of his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (if this sounds familiar, I included about two-thirds of these excerpts in a post last fall honoring Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his death). Ponder these ideas – and then make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. – Coty]
It’s comical that you, of all people, should ask my views about prayer as worship or adoration. On this subject you yourself taught me nearly all I know. . . .
You first taught me the great principle, “Begin where you are.” I had thought one had to start by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and “all the blessings of this life.” You turned to the brook and once more splashed your burning face and hands in the little waterfall and said, “Why not begin with this?”
And it worked. Apparently you have never guessed how much. That cushiony moss, that coldness and sound and dancing light were no doubt very minor blessings compared with “the means of grace and the hope of glory.” But then they were manifest. So far as they were concerned, sight had replaced faith. They were not the hope of glory; they were an exposition of the glory itself.
Yet you were not – or so it seemed to me – telling me that “Nature,” or “the beauties of Nature,” manifest the glory. No such abstraction as “Nature” comes into it. I was learning the far more secret doctrine that pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility. As it impinges on our will or our understanding, we give it different names-goodness or truth or the like. But its flash upon our senses and mood is pleasure.
But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them “bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean “pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.” It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.
I have tried, since that moment, to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I mean something different. How shall I put it?
We can’t – or I can’t – hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably-just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore.
Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says: “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.
If I could always be what I aim at being, no pleasure would be too ordinary or too usual for such reception; from the first taste of the air when I look out of the window–one’s whole cheek becomes a sort of palate – down to one’s soft slippers at bedtime.
I don’t always achieve it. One obstacle is inattention. Another is the wrong kind of attention. One could, if one practised, hear simply a roar and not the roaring-of-the-wind. In the same way, only far too easily, one can concentrate on the pleasure as an event in one’s own nervous system—subjectify it—and ignore the smell of Deity that hangs about it. A third obstacle is greed. Instead of saying, “This also is Thou,” one may say the fatal word Encore. There is also conceit: the dangerous reflection that not everyone can find God in a plain slice of bread and butter, or that others would condemn as simply “grey” the sky in which I am delightedly observing such delicacies of pearl and dove and silver. . . .
One must learn to walk before one can run. So here. We-or at least I-shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.” Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience. . . .
I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this “valley of tears,” cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. . . . It is only in our “hours-off,” only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy [to the joys of heaven]. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for “down here” is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.
From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963-64), chapter 17, p. 88-93. Italics are in the original; boldface is my emphasis.
March 21, 2014
Imagine that you are 18 years old, and have just graduated from high school. You are part of a loving family, and have great respect for your parents.
You father comes to you and says, “Your mother and I have decided we’re going to change our plans for the next four years. As you know, we planned to spend $30,000 per year on college to prepare you for the future. But we’ve decided instead to give you a grant of that amount: $120,000. This grant is for you to use over the next four years or longer to set yourself up for the future. You may choose to attend the college we planned on. But if you think there is a better way to prepare yourself, choose it. With this money, you can travel. You can start a business. You can pay your expenses while you work as an intern in a business. You’re welcome to seek my counsel along the way if you wish, but I won’t require that. I only ask that whenever you pay more than a hundred dollars for something, you let me know what you spent it one. But the money is completely under your control. Indeed, I’ve already transferred it to your account. If you like, you can spend it all today on a (used) Ferrari. I can’t stop you.”
Put aside whether or not the father would be acting wisely. Just ask yourself: If you were in that position, if your father said that to you, how would you make decisions? What would spend the money on? Would you buy the Ferrari?
What God has done for us is somewhat similar to what the father in the story did for his child. All we have is a grant from Him to be used for a purpose. But the purpose in this case is to glorify His Name. He created us for His glory. And we are most satisfied when we fulfill that purpose.
Like the child in the story, we now have a grant, given to us for a purpose. So we’re faced with a question: How do we decide how to spend it? What does Scripture tell us?
The Biblical Motivation for Spending
Let’s look first at possible motivations for spending – both unbiblical and biblical. We’ll see that the key concepts we’ve focused on throughout this series – identity, security, and joy – should motivate and guide our spending.
a) Don’t spend in order to establish your identity
That is: Don’t spend:
- To keep up with others
- To show off
- To assuage your guilt
- So that others think you are something you are not
- To make you feel important or loved
Why not? Because if you are in Christ, you have an identity. You are adopted in to God’s family, you are His child, His heir. And you need do nothing to establish your identity. It is already granted to you.
b) So: Spend in a way that is consistent with that identity
Spend as a beloved child of God, as joint heir with Christ, in ways that show who God is and what He is to you.
c) Don’t spend in order to establish your security
- Don’t save to establish your financial security,
- Don’t enter the lottery in an attempt to gain financial security,
- Don’t fail to give in order to maintain your financial security.
Why not? Because if you are in Christ, you are secure already. God will never leave you nor forsake you. Nothing will separate you from the love of God that is yours in Christ Jesus.
d) Instead: Use the money God puts in your care wisely and prudently
Guard it and protect it not to establish financial security but because it belongs to someone else. It is His.
e) Don’t think you must spend money on _______ in order to have joy.
Don’t ever think, “If only I could buy a car or a house or the latest fashions or a college education or some piece of sports equipment I would be happy.”
Why not? “In His presence is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). If you are in Christ, already have the greatest joy possible.
f) Instead, cultivate joy in the privilege of being a conduit of God’s blessings, in spending in such as way as to deepen your joy in God, others’ joy in God, joy in one another, joy in your family.
Thus, we spend out of contentment rather than in order to gain contentment. As we saw several weeks ago, the Apostle Paul writes:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)
Satisfied with God now, confident in God’s continued watchcare over us tomorrow, having all our needs met in Him, we can spend for His glory out of sincere concern for our families and for those around us.
Four Key Ideas That Govern Biblical Spending
With those biblical motivations, we will spend to God’s glory. Four key ideas help to channel that spending rightly. The first is an idea we’ve already mentioned:
a) All you have is a grant from God
This truth colors every spending decision. The money in my possession is not mine to use any way I choose. As in the opening story, God has put in my control for a specific purpose. And that purpose is the glory of His Name. That does not necessarily mean we should give away all that we have – though it might mean that for specific individuals. But having our identity, security, and joy in God, knowing what we have is a grant from Him, we hold loosely what God has given us. Furthermore, knowing that it all belongs to Him, we guard it carefully. We protect it. We don’t waste it, we don’t squander it, we protect it from thieves.
b) Opportunity Cost
While this term comes from economics, the underlying Idea is simple. Think back to the opening example. If the child in the story buys the Ferrari, how much will he have left to spend on anything else? Nothing. So the cost of the Ferrari is not just the sticker price. The cost is also the joy, the education, the experience he gives up by not spending those dollars on something else.
So if I give $100 to missions, I give up the opportunity to spend that money on food. The opportunity cost is (at a minimum) the joy and satisfaction of eating $100 worth of food. If I spend $100 on clothes, I give up the opportunity to give that $100 to a friend in need. The opportunity cost is (at a minimum) the joy I would receive from giving, and the joy my friend would get from receiving the gift and filling his needs.
Every expenditure has an opportunity cost, because money is limited. If every time I snapped my fingers a $100 bill would appear in my hand, my expenditures would have no opportunity cost. I could replace whatever I spend immediately by creating more cash. But as long as our income and assets are limited, every expenditure has an opportunity cost.
c) Budgeting & Monitoring Spending
Because there is an opportunity cost of every expenditure, we have an allocation problem. God has given us a grant to be used for His glory. How much should we give away? How much should we spend on housing? How much should we spend on food? Presumably more than zero!
If every time you make a purchase, you have to ask yourself, “Is this best way to glorify God?” you’ll drive yourself crazy. How then can me make these tradeoffs between categories of spending so that we glorify God with our grant?
That’s the role of a budget. A budget is a tool to help you glorify God with your money without driving yourself crazy. Once you have decided on those major tradeoffs between categories, you have freedom to spend up to your budgeted limit, without having to ask questions about every five dollar purchase.
How do you set up a budget to glorify God with your grant?
The first step of budgeting is to keep track of what you are spending now. The budget does you no good unless you monitor what you spend, and abide by your budget limits. Decide on a set of major categories of spending, and track your spending in those categories.
The next step is to pray. Ask God for wisdom concerning how best to use His grant for His glory.
Then plan ahead for the next six months to a year. In light of the opportunity costs of spending in different categories, decide how much you will spend in each, so that you glorify God through what you spend on food, on clothing, through what you give away.
After keeping track of your spending and living within your budget for a while, reassess it. How can you adjust it so that you use this grant for God’s glory even more effectively?
Now, we can’t say there is a biblical mandate to have budget and live within it. But personally I can’t see how I could use the grant God has given Beth and me for His glory without one.
In the weeks ahead, we will discuss helpful tools to use in this regard, and will post some of those on the blog.
In deciding how to spend money, we all share some similarities:
- All of us receive a grant from God to be used for His glory
- All of us have to decide how to best use this grant for God’s glory
- All of us are faced with opportunity costs for every purchase we make
But in other ways, we are quite different. God calls some to give away all they have. Others follow Him wholeheartedly and give away much less.
For example, in Mark 10 and parallel passages, a man runs up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus eventually tells him, “Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor (you will have treasures in Heaven) and come, follow me.” Note that Jesus tells not only to give away all his income; He also tells him to give away all his assets.
But in Luke 19 Zaccheus comes to faith, and immediately gives away half of his assets. Jesus then says, “Salvation has come to this house” even though Zaccheus has not done what Jesus asked the rich man in Mark 10 to do.
And then the Apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 6:17-19, speaking to the rich, tells them not to set their hope on the uncertainty of riches, to be generous and ready to share – but he does not tell them that they must give away all or half of their assets; he doesn’t even tell them to give away a certain percentage of their income.
Personally, I have known people who regularly gave away more than 80% of their income. I’ve never done that myself – I’ve never come close to that.
The point is this: We are different. God calls us in different ways. Our love for Him and His glory will be manifested in different ways.
So be careful here. Don’t be proud if God calls you to some extraordinary step of giving, and you obey. Don’t look down your nose at those who haven’t done something similar. Don’t assume that simply because someone else is spending much more than you, that he is immature, or not a genuine believer.
In light, then, of the biblical motivation for spending and these four key ideas, let’s consider four areas of spending:
How Much If Any Should I Spend On:
We will consider giving in more detail in the weeks ahead. But from what we have said so far, it is clear that, if we are to glorify God with the grant He has given us, we will give away a considerable proportion of our income, and perhaps a considerable proportion of our assets too.
Giving cannot be an afterthought. It cannot be the result of having a little left over this month, and then giving that excess away. We must decide upfront the minimum from our income that we will give away, and budget that amount before we spend on anything else.
As we have seen, we are to find joy in God, to be satisfied with Him. We are not to think, “If only I could buy that iphone I could be happy!” So it might seem as if we are not to consider our joy when making spending decisions.
However, Paul says that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). One way I glory God is by enjoying the good gifts He has given me. That’s a true, biblical statement. Yet it’s also quite a dangerous statement, that can be, and has been, misused. So we will examine this issue also in more detail later. But for now, simply note: A normal Christian’s budget will include spending on enjoyment.
Some have argued: If my security is in God, why should I buy insurance?
Insurance as we know it did not exist in biblical times, so there is no explicit command in this regard. But there is in Scripture the general command to be careful with the assets you have, to be prudent in guarding them and managing them.
Consider in this regard Proverbs 22:3. Though this verse doesn’t refer directly to money, it is in the middle of a longer passage that predominantly discusses money and finances.
A sensible person sees danger and takes cover, but the inexperienced keep going and are punished. (HCSB)
Insurance is one way to live that out. We see the possible danger to God’s grant from calamity, disease, or death, and sensibly guard against the possibility of loss through paying a relatively small premium for insurance.
Now, we certainly can have wrong motivations in purchasing insurance (as we can have in purchasing any other good or service). Our security must not be in our insurance. Our hope must not be in our ability to guard against loss. But it can be wise, prudent, and sensible for us to insure God’s grant against loss – even while other believers, in the diversity of God’s church, may decide they will not spend on insurance, but are called to trust God even for such protection.
d) Saving and Investments
We said every expenditure on one item has an opportunity cost of not spending on another item. That same idea holds across time. Every dollar I spend today is a dollar I won’t be able to spend tomorrow. Indeed, the cost is more than a dollar, since I can invest the dollar or put it in an interest bearing account, and have more than a dollar to spend in the future.
So in the opening story, you, the child, have the option of buying a used Ferrari today for $120,000. You also have the option of spending $30,000 on your education and living expenses this year, and then next year having more than $90,000 to spend, if you properly and safely invest the $90,000.
Furthermore, the education itself can work in a similar way: If that education makes me a more valuable and productive worker, or a more effective entrepreneur, I will be able to make more income in the future than I would have had I spent that money on the Ferrari.
Just so with the grant God has given me. I can give it away and spend all of it now, or I can invest it and get more to use for His glory tomorrow.
As with insurance, in biblical times there were no banks as we know them today; there was no stock market. However, people did save and make investments. Consider the owner of a vineyard who gets income through selling grapes and wine. He can spend and give away all of that income now, or he can take some of that income, and use it to plan grapevines on more of his land. Then he can do what the man did in Jesus’ parable recorded in Mark 12: “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower.” That looks a lot different than buying a mutual fund, but the underlying idea is the same: It’s an investment, taking money that could be spent today, and instead using it in such a way that it will generate a greater amount in income in the future.
Throughout history, including in biblical times, people have saved and invested. Such saving and investment is part of biblical stories; it is normal human activity.
The decision of how much, if any, to save or invest is similar to all other budgeting decisions. The question is one of opportunity cost: Is there a compelling use for God’s glory now for all of the grant God has given me, or should I save and invest part of that grant so that there will be more money available in the future to be used for God’s glory.
Once again, we need to remind ourselves of the key ideas that govern our spending. We are diverse. God will call some to invest much. Others, equally with God’s glory in mind, will invest none. So don’t assume that those who make different decisions than you are unwise an imprudent, or are failing to trust God and are finding security in their investments.
And, once again, we must check our own motivations: Are we saying that we are investing so that we might have more to spend for God’s glory in the future – but in reality we do find security in those investments?
God has given you a grant to be used for His glory among the nations.
- That grant does not lead to security – He is your security.
- That grant does not lead to joy – He is your joy.
- That grant should not be the source of your identity – you find your identity as His child.
We by nature are objects of His wrath, having rejected Him. But if we are in Christ, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
This is our security, our joy, our identity. And God gives us this identity for a purpose: “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”
We are God’s people, God’s family. We were in darkness. But by His grace He forgives us through the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. He call us to Himself and gives us this grant of time, of life, of money, so that we might proclaim and display His excellencies, so that we might glorify the One who called us out of darkness.
How will you do that – with money? It’s all under your control. The grant is in your hand. And it’s all given to you for a purpose.
How will you fulfill that purpose?
March 12, 2014
We pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.” How does God answer that prayer? How does God provide the bread?
A friend is sick. We pray, “Father, heal this loved one.” How does God answer the prayer?
We pray, asking God to give us children. How does God answer the prayer?
Paul commands us to pray for government authorities, in order that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2-3). How does God answer those prayers?
- God answers the prayers for government authorities by working through their passing and enforcing laws.
- God answers prayers for children by working through the husband and wife, or through an adoption agency, to bring children into the family.
- God answers prayer for healing by working through physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and researchers.
- God answers prayer for daily bread by working through farmers and millers and bakers and truck drivers and supermarket workers.
God usually answers prayer through the work of human agents.
God is not limited in any of these ways:
- He can stop the actions of criminals in their tracks.
- He can create a child out of the dust of the ground.
- He can heal any disease in a split second.
- He can make enough bread to feed 5000 from five loaves.
- He can daily provide enough manna from heaven to feed more than 2 million people.
But He usually answers our prayers by His working through human work.
Note that: God works through our work. As Martin Luther said, God is masked, or hidden in our work. That makes our work – all our work – sacred.
We glorify God in our work as we fulfill the role He gives us in our work life.
Let’s begin our examination of the importance of our work by going back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden.
The True Workers’ Paradise
What comes to your mind when you think of the Garden of Eden?
- Delicious fruit to eat right off the trees – from every tree but one?
- Walking with God in the cool of the evening, being in an intimate relationship with Him?
- Having a perfect, loving, respectful relationship between husband and wife – with nothing to hide, no sin, no shame?
That’s all true. But we’re leaving out something important.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)
Note: This is before the Fall. Before sin entered the world. Adam worked – in paradise.
Who else is said to have worked? God Himself!
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. (Genesis 2:2)
Man’s work is one aspect of being made in the image of God.
In His work, God takes what is formless and void and orders it and fills it. In his work, Man – made in God’s image – takes what God has ordered and filled, and protects it, sustains it. Furthermore, using his God-given creativity, man orders it further.
- Man in the Garden does not work because he is hungry.
- He does not work in order to establish his identity – He knows who He is.
- He does not work in order to enhance his security – He is perfectly secure.
- He does not try to make up for a lack of joy in the rest of his life by finding joy in his work.
He works at God’s command for his own good and for God’s glory. It is fulfilling work, as he accomplishes an important purpose.
The Fall and Work
But then all changes.
The man and woman doubt God’s goodness and despise God’s command. They turn their backs on the One who has given them everything, arrogantly assuming they know better than God what is in their own best interest. So they eat the fruit God had warned them about.
Consider the results:
- The close relationship between God and man is broken.
- The close relationship between the man and the woman is broken – as they try to hide from each other (why else would they cover themselves with leaves?), and as Adam blames his wife when God asks him if he’s eaten the fruit.
In addition, the shame they feel indicates that their sense of identity is marred. They no longer see themselves as beloved of God, as the apex of God’s creation. We might say their relationship with themselves is broken (see When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert, p. 56-62).
Furthermore, note that a key result of the fall is frustration in work:
To Adam [God] said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
We might call this a breakdown in the relationship between man and the created order. What was fulfilling is now frustrating. What was done out of joyful obedience is now done out of painful necessity.
With work difficult, poverty now enters the world:
- Material poverty – hunger, want, starvation,
- And the shame, the humiliation, the sense of worthlessness, and the marred sense of identity that so often accompanies material poverty.
We rich people often think of poverty only in material terms. Listen to these quotes from poor people in order to understand the importance of other aspects of poverty:
- From Guinea Bissau: When I don’t have any [food to bring my family], I borrow, mainly from neighbors and friends. I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.
- From Moldova: For a poor person everything is terrible illness, humiliation, shame.
We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of. (Quotes are from Brian Fikkert)
Do you hear the shame of being of no use to anyone, of being dependent, of not being able to offer anything? “We are like garbage.” A marred identity. No security. No joy.
But it is not only the materially poor who suffer from the Fall. Even for those who don’t end up materially poor, the fall leads to common work-related sins.
The first such sin is laziness. Work is hard, so we are tempted to be lazy. The temptation is so powerful Scripture must encourage us time and again to fight against it. Indeed, the book of Proverbs warns us 14 times not to be sluggards. For example:
The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing. (Proverbs 20:4)
The lazy person, the sluggard, doesn’t have joy – and tries to find joy in not working, in avoiding work.
Then there’s the opposite type of sin: The sin of being a workaholic. The workaholic doesn’t have joy, and tries to find joy (or identity or security) through working. He tries to get people to look up to him, to respect him, or tries to find fulfillment in what he can build or accomplish.
Consider again Proverbs 23:4-5, which we quoted first under security:
Don’t wear yourself out to get rich; stop giving your attention to it. As soon as your eyes fly to it, it disappears, for it makes wings for itself and flies like an eagle to the sky. (HCSB)
And remember what Jesus said: One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15).
So the Fall leads to a lack of joy, a lack of security, a lack of identity. It leads to spiritual poverty for all, material poverty for many. Regarding work, it leads to the twin sins of the sluggard on the one hand, and the workaholic on the other.
Work in Today’s Fallen World
That’s where we find ourselves today: In a fallen world where work can be frustrating, and at the same time can be all-absorbing.
But in this fallen world, God is implementing and fulfilling His eternal plan of redemption. He is redeeming us – and He is redeeming work.
How can we work today in a way most like Adam in the Garden, most like what will be our eternal work in new heavens and the new earth?
What to Avoid
If we are to work like that, we must avoid the effects of the Fall: Being workaholics or being sluggards.
As we’ve seen, both sins result from working or avoiding work in order to find security, identity, and joy.
Now, we don’t normally admit, “I’m working on a PhD in order to find my identity,” or “I’m being lazy because I think that’s the way to happiness.” Indeed, most lazy people don’t even realize they are lazy.
So what are the clues that we are trying to find identity, security, or joy in work or laziness?
- When money is my main motivation
- When pleasing my boss is my main motivation
- When promotion is my main motivation
- If the thought of losing my job makes me feel sick
- If I’m depressed about missing out on a promotion
- If I stay late even when I know of important needs at home
All these point to aspects of being a workaholic, of finding your security, joy or (especially) your identity in work.
Here are other clues:
- If I regularly procrastinate when I have much to do
- If I work much harder when my supervisor is present
- If I continually watch the clock
- If I try my best to extend breaks
- If I regularly arrive late
These are signs of laziness, of being a sluggard.
What to Pursue: Seven Exhortations
We are to avoid those temptations. What are we to pursue?
At one level, the answer is obvious: Find your identity, security, and joy in God!
But how do we do that in the realm of work? What does that look like?
Consider these seven biblical exhortations. The first three come from Colossians 3:17, 22-24:
17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. . . .
22 Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
1) Serve God in your work
Verse 17 tells us to do everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” That is, we are to do all things to His glory, not to my own.
Verse 23 tells us we are to work “as for the Lord;” verse 24 says we serving (or “slaving for”) the Lord Christ.
Note what type of work Paul is talking about. He is speaking to slaves. Now, slaves in the Roman Empire could be highly educated and skilled; they were sometimes artists or teachers. But many, of course, were manual laborers. Paul here is speaking to all of them, regardless of what type of work they do.
Thus we must conclude that all work – what we call secular as well as the work of the church, what we call skilled as well as what we call unskilled – is to be done to the Lord.
- As I pastor I am to do my work as to the Lord, I am to serve the Lord
- As a mechanic Rick is to do his work as to the Lord, he is to serve the Lord
- As a homeschooling mom, Julia is to do her work as to the Lord, she is to serve the Lord
- As a nurse, Julie is to do her work as to the Lord, she is to serve the Lord
- As an engineer, Karl is to do his work as to the Lord, he is to serve the Lord
- The artist, the musician, the landscape designer – all are to do their work as to the Lord
Whatever your work is – and it can be any honest labor – you can, you must glorify God in it.
As stated in the introduction, God is masked, He is hidden in our work. God works through our normal, everyday labors. It is all sacred. So do it to the Lord
Note here: Work does give us an entree into the lives of others. As we share work experience with unbelievers, we have an opportunity to share the Gospel with them. That is a command. That is a way to glorify God.
But that’s not our point this morning.
Rather: You glorify God in your work when you do it well, when you serve God in the work itself. So, yes, use those relationships to glorify God through bearing witness to the Gospel to your co-workers, and use your work itself to glorify God through the way that you work, as you do it unto Him.
2) See your eternal inheritance as more than sufficient remuneration
Again, Paul is speaking here to slaves. Many probably felt they weren’t receiving a fair share of what they produced. And they were most likely right. But Paul says in verse 24, “From the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”
Take care here. We must interpret Scripture with Scripture. Paul is not saying, “By working unto God you will earn your eternal inheritance.”That would contradict much of the rest of Paul’s teaching, even in this book of Colossians.
Rather, Paul is saying: “If you are in Christ, God is giving you all things. You will live for eternity in a perfected creation. You will see God face to face. You will be His delight. You will have fulfilling work, stretching your every ability and skill. However poor you may be now, however unfair your pay here might be, you will received a hundredfold, a millionfold in the new heavens and new earth.”
You work for God now. And you always receive from Him far, far more than you deserve.
3) Work diligently.
Verse 23 tells us to “work heartily,” or, as the NET puts it, “work at it with enthusiasm.”
This, rather than being a workaholic, is the biblical opposite of being a sluggard.
In Christ, we have an established identity. We are secure in God. We have great joy in God. We work for Him– and thus, unlike the sluggard, we work whether the boss watches or not. And unlike the workaholic, we stop work when it is time to serve God in other parts of our lives.
Note again: We work diligently primarily because we are working for the Lord. Diligent work may enhance your reputation. It may lead to your boss being happy with you. It may lead to promotion. And all of those are good. But the main motivation for our diligent work should be God, the One we work for. So we will work diligently even if no one notices, even if the boss is a pain in the neck, even if there is no chance of further promotion.
4) Work so as not to be dependent
Don’t misunderstand: All of us are dependent on God for everything – including what we earn through work. We are to delight in our dependence on God. Furthermore, we are to help one another, and to receive such help with thanksgiving (as Paul does in Philippians 4).
But if we are physically and mentally able, we should with rare exceptions work to support ourselves and our families.
Paul exhorts the church in Thessalonica in this regard. Evidently, this church was sharing resources with the poor, like the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2 and 4). But some who were perfectly able to work were being sluggards. They were receiving handouts intended for the poor, and then not working, trying to find joy in avoiding work. So Paul writes a mild exhortation in his first letter:
Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)
Evidently the laziness remained, or even increased. So in his second letter, the Apostle is much more direct:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12)
Paul reminds the Thessalonians of the example he set among them. Though he had a right to be supported financially, he didn’t use that right. He worked to support his own ministry, night and day.
The Apostle then commands: Don’t give any support to such people. If there’s work available, and they’re not willing to do it – if they are able to work but simply prefer not to work – don’t provide anything to them. They are to glorify God through supporting themselves and their families. If they are unwilling to do so – let them go hungry, for hunger may prompt them to do what will be to God’s glory and to their own good.
On the other hand, if they are unable to work, or no work is to be found, the church is to provide support. And they should feel no shame in receiving such assistance. Don’t lose your sense of identity in God, your security in God, your joy in God when you need help. Graciously accept it.
But do all in your power to find work. Unless you can’t work, such help should be temporary.
The fifth exhortation is a corollary, a consequence of first four:
5) Encourage others to work.
We are to help others to work diligently so as not to be dependent. This exhortation is particularly important for parents. We are to teach our children the value of work, and to teach them a biblical view of work.
When we provide support to others, we are to avoid giving in ways that undermine work, in ways that make work seem worthless. For when our giving undermines work, we are hurting the recipients, not helping them.
Furthermore, on a public policy level, we should not support government policies that undermine work. Now, often it is difficult to know which policies do that. For example, that has been part of the debate about extending unemployment benefits. Most agree that some short term unemployment benefits encourage work; most agree that never-ending unemployment benefits would undermine work. But at what point does the negative incentive kick in?
But in some cases, it is obvious that government policies undermine work. When even the advocates of a law agree that many people will choose not to work because of the law, that’s a serious problem.
6) Work in order to give
We’ve seen that we are to have sincere concern for one another, and thus are to give generously. In the next several weeks we’ll talk much more about giving. But for today, simply note: Giving is one motivation for work. We work, in part, so that we might display the image of God by giving:
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)
Instead of taking what is not his, the thief is to work so that he might freely give what is rightly his.
In Acts 20 Paul speaks of his own example in this regard:
You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:34-35)
We who are able must help the weak. Giving is an obligation – but giving is also a blessing, a joy. As we saw when speaking of generosity, out of the overflow of joy in God, the Macedonians begged Paul for the privilege of giving. We have the great privilege of displaying the love of Christ, of being one way He answers prayer. So we display Jesus when we work to Him – and we display Jesus when we take the proceeds of work and give them away.
7) Know the outcomes of godly work
Often, but not always, godly work leads to recognition in this life:
Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men. (Proverbs 22:29)
This may mean, “He will be recognized by kings,” but more likely it means, “He will be brought into the palace to serve kings.”
Good employers are always looking for diligent laborers. Often they will recognize and promote such workers. If you work heartily, as to the Lord, you may benefit in that way.
That’s a general rule, not a promise. However, one outcome is assured:
- Godly work always leads to the glory of God
- Godly work always accomplishes God’s purposes
- Godly work always displays something of God’s image
Think again of Colossians 3:17:
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
When we do everything in His Name, to His glory, we fulfill the purpose of our creation. We find and fulfill our identity. And this leads to the greatest joy.
Work is a gift from God. God chooses to work through our hands, through our work, to answer prayer, to display His glory.
How are you working?
Examine your attitude:
- Are you tempted to laziness? Are you tempted to find joy in avoiding work, unless someone is watching over you?
- Or are you tempted to being a workaholic – to find identity, security, and joy in the work itself?
(It’s even possible for the same person to be tempted both ways.)
Remember: You are serving the Lord Jesus. All your work is to Him! All your work is for Him!
So work diligently. And stop working at the hour when He has other responsibilities for you to fulfill.
- Work is a gift.
- Work is a privilege.
- Work is an imitation of God.
- Work is sacred.
But realize: He has done the work you can never do. He has sent His Son to live the life you should have lived, to die in your place on your account, and to bring you by grace into the eternal joy of His presence.
You don’t earn that. You can’t earn that. You could never merit that.
So find your identity, your security, and your joy in the work God has done on your behalf.
And then, out of that identity – work to the glory of God.
February 28, 2014
Why do you own anything?
Consider what you own:
- Shirts, dresses, and pants,
- Dress coats, rain coats, and fleeces,
- Exercise shoes, casual shoes, and dress shoes
- Beds, mattresses, and sheets,
- Houses, stoves, and refrigerators,
- Gardens, patios, and pools,
- Cars, bikes, and scooters,
- Computers, cell phones, and watches,
- bank accts, 401k’s, and IRAs
- health insurance, car insurance, and life insurance:
You own a lot.
Indeed, you are rich. If you have:
- Indoor plumbing,
- Water readily available in your house that is fit for drinking
- More than 1 change of clothes,
- Enough money or food all year long to know you won’t go hungry,
- Access to medical care that can actually keep sick children from dying,
then you are richer than the vast majority of humanity in all recorded history, and far, far richer than virtually everyone in Jesus’ day.
You own a lot.
But why do you own anything?
Consider emphasizing two different words in that question:
Why do you own anything? That is: Where did what you own come from? How did you get it? Do you deserve it?
Second: Why do you own anything? That is: For what purpose – to what end – do you own anything? How are you to use what you own?
Those two aspects of the question constitute our outline.
Why Do You Own Anything?
Consider two different answers to this question:
1) The Marxist answer, also given by a number of cultures:
“You personally don’t own anything. All you have and all you earn belongs to the state (or the ethnic group or the village).” This idea is well summarized in a phrase popularized by Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
2) An answer common among American citizens:
“Whatever I own, I deserve. I worked hard for it, or made smart investments to get it (or my parents and ancestors worked hard for it). Sure, I’m willing to pay a reasonable tax rate to fund necessary government services, and I choose to give some away to good causes, including my church. But I deserve what I own. It’s mine.”
Is either of these the biblical view?
Some have argued that the Marxist view is biblical, taking as strongest evidence the behavior of the early church in Acts chapters 2 and 4. Let’s look briefly at these chapters – and chapter 5 as well – to see if the actions of the early church can be described in this way.
Acts 2 and 4 tell us how the church helped the needy among them:
Acts 2:45: They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Acts 4:34-35: There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Chapter 4 goes on to tell us that Barnabas was one who sold a field and gave the entire value to the apostles.
Then in chapter 5 we learn of Ananias and Saphira. This couple also sells a field. They too give a substantial amount to the church to distribute to the poor. But they tell the church a lie, saying that they gave the entire value of the sale.
Peter then speaks to Ananias:
Acts 5:4: “While [the field] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
Peter’s statement shows that the early church recognized private property. The early church did not force believers to sell all their possessions and turn them over to the collective. The sales and giving were voluntary.
Note that Peter doesn’t upbraid Ananias for withholding part of purchase price. Peter makes clear: Ananias didn’t have to sell the field, and having sold it, he didn’t have to give all the proceeds to the church. Had Ananias sold the field and given half the proceeds – and had they been honest about it – Peter’s response would have been similar to Jesus’ when Zaccheus gave half of his goods to the poor: Great joy! (Luke 19:8-10)
So Ananias and Saphira’s sin was not withholding part of the purchase price. Instead, the sin consisted of:
- The lie itself: Peter says they lied not only to the church but also to the Holy Spirit.
- The motivation for lying: Desiring the praise of men more than the praise of God. Ananias and Saphira wanted the accolades that were accruing to Barnabas and others, while not doing what Barnabas had done.
- Most importantly, they participated in an attack on the witness and purity of the church. Satan had persecuted the church externally, and the church only got stronger. At this point, Ananias effectively cooperates with Satan to attack the church internally – to take the institution that should exist to God’s glory, and make it like any other human institution, as its members strive for self-exaltation and recognition. (For more details, see this sermon).
But for our purposes today, the main point is this: Even in the context of great sharing, Peter affirms that Ananias and Saphira have the right to use the proceeds of the sale as they see fit.
So, no, the Bible does not argue that all you have belongs to the church, must less to the state.
What about the second answer to the question, “Why do you own anything?” – what I called the common American view?
Do you deserve what you have?
Think about what you have. Where did it come from?
All you have came as a gift, as inheritance, or from your work (for our purposes today, let’s consider government transfer payments as gifts, and include investment income under the gains from work).
You clearly did nothing to merit what you received through gifts or inheritance. What about your earnings from work? Do you deserve what you worked for, what you earned through investments?
Next week we’ll look more closely at the biblical view of work. We’ll see that work itself is God-ordained, that we are to work hard, as to the Lord, and that we are not to be lazy.
But no matter how hard we work, the Bible claims that even what we earn is really a gift from God:
Deuteronomy 8:17-18: Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power [NIV “ability”] to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
Listen to that carefully. This common American attitude is explicitly anti-biblical. The passage warns, “Do not say in your heart, ‘my power has gotten me this wealth.’” That is, “Do not say in your heart, ‘I worked hard and earned every penny I own.’” Do not pat yourself on the back and say, “I was smart, I bought Apple in 1985 for less than $2 per share. I deserve all those capital gains.”
Instead: Remember! Remember it is the Lord your God who gives you ability to get wealth. He gives you all your ability: Your education, your health, your intuition, your people skills, your looks, your diligence. Everything you use to make money is a gift from God. Every penny you make is to be used by God to confirm His covenant.
Work itself is gift of God. So all you own is undeserved: whether earned through labor, earned through investments, inherited, or received as a gift.
As Paul says: “He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). Your ability to absorb oxygen from the air and to transfer it into your red blood cells is a gift of God. Apart from that, you are dead. And then what do you earn?
Indeed, biblically the only thing we earn in this life through our actions, the only thing we merit, is death. Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, and every man and woman since born in the normal way has joined them in that rebellion. Death is the wages of sin, the right, just, and fair remuneration for sin. But God graciously grants us forgiveness in Christ, adoption, inheritance, security, joy – by faith, not by works, not by merit. There is redemption for all who believe, not redemption for all who are smart, wise, and hardworking. We are saved by looking away from ourselves, by looking away from our merit, and looking solely to Christ. So Paul writes:
What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Why do you own anything?
- The Marxist view is unbiblical.
- And the common American view is unbiblical.
All you have is a gift from God – even what you earned as wages, or from your business. All is undeserved. He gives us the ability to work, to serve.
Why Do You Own Anything?
For what purpose – if any – do you own anything? How are you to use what you own?
God has given you the gift of your material resources for a purpose:
- The same purpose for which He does everything,
- The same purpose for which He created the world,
- The same purpose for which He sent Jesus into the world, to the cross,
- The same purpose for which He forgives you.
God has given you all you own – for the glory of His Name. All you have is a grant from God – to be used for His glory.
There are hundreds of text we could consider to substantiate this point. But let’s look at Romans 11:35-36.
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
In verse 35, the Apostle Paul quotes Job 41:11. God is speaking to Job:
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.
This verse undercuts the foundation of most manmade religion. All of paganism – and, indeed, much unbiblical Christianity – is based on our giving something to God, putting Him in our debt. Then we draw down that debt when we need help.
We’re all tempted to think this way: “I have resources, time, energy, and abilities. If I use these in ways God wants, He then will have to pay me back. He’ll do what I want Him to do.”
Isn’t that way many, many people think? Haven’t you been tempted to think that way?
- “If I tithe . . .
- “If I attend church services . . .
- “If I pray regularly . . .
- “If I read the Bible daily . . .
- “If I fast . . .
- “If I do good deeds for others . . .
God will be in my debt, and then He’ll be obligated to give me what I want.”
But that’s ridiculous. That’s fundamentally pagan thinking.
Scripture tells us: All things are from Him. He already owns everything. Whatever goods, abilities, or skills you have are from Him. Anything you give to God belonged to Him before you gave it!
Imagine that 8-year-old Megan went to her daddy and asked, “May I have $10?”
He replies, “What will you use it for?”
She says, “I want to buy you a birthday present!”
So he gives her $10, and she buys him a lovely purple tie with pink polka dots that says “It’s My Birthday!” on it.
He opens the present and exclaims, “Oh! A tie! How lovely!”
Is he better off because he received the gift? He surely appreciates the thought, the desire to give. But you’d be hard-pressed to argue that he gained through that transaction. And receiving a gift for which he provided the money surely doesn’t put him in Megan’s debt.
That’s true of all we give to God- whether time or money or energy. All things are from Him. “Whatever is under the whole heaven” is His! So whatever you give to Him was His already.
In Romans 11, after Paul says “all things are from Him,” he goes on to say: “All things are through Him.” That is: He is the means by which all things are accomplished. Just as we said, even the work we do, we accomplish by His grace.
Then, third, Paul answers our question. He tells us the purpose of all that we have: “To Him are all things! So to Him be the glory forever!”
All creation – and thus all you are and have – exists to display His glory, to show what He is like. So He gives and gives and gives so that He might share His bounteous goodness with us, and so that we, in turn, might display to others Who He is.
That is true of all things, so that is true of all things that you own.
All you own is from Him, through Him, and to Him. All you own is a grant from God, which you are to use for His glory.
You deserve nothing; rather, You deserve condemnation. But instead, if you are in Christ, God has granted you life – and more than life: He has granted you material goods, He has granted you time, He has granted you energy. And all this grant is for the purpose of glorifying His Name.
Recognizing this truth leads to a profound change in attitude toward “your” possessions.
In the early nineties I was conducting an economic research project in Kenya and Tanzania. I received a grant of $250,000 from USAID to assist with project costs. I had to account for how I spent each dollar. Now, I had flexibility; I could move the budget among line items as needs arose, as the project turned out differently than I had planned. But I had to justify each expenditure by how it fulfilled the goals of the research project. And if I had reported that I spent $3000 for a party for my employees at the most expensive Nairobi hotel, the accountants at USAID would have said, “That’s not allowable. You can’t spend the grant that way. That violates the purpose of the grant!”
Just so, all you have is not yours to use however you decide to use it. All you have is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
So how does that change your mindset?
Think about what you own:
- My house is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My car is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My computer is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My job is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My health is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My weekend is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My vacation is a grant from God to be used for His glory.
- My savings accounts, my 401k’s, my college savings are grants from God to be used for His glory.
- My income and my assets are grants from God to be used for His glory.
Is your reaction: “God can’t take all that from me! What’s left for me?”
That’s a natural reaction. I feel that in myself.
And there’s a word for that reaction: Sin.
Why? Why is that reaction sinful?
Consider: What attitude underlies that reaction?
When we react that way, our attitude is: “If it’s for God’s glory, it must not be for my joy! I don’t mind giving some to God – but I need to reserve some for myself to be sure I get what I need!”
Is that the attitude of someone whose identity, security, and joy are in God?
Is that the attitude of someone who is content with God?
Indeed, what underlies that attitude?
This thought underlies the attitude: “I know better than God what is in my own best interest. He won’t really look out for me. He doesn’t really have my best interests at heart. I’ve got to look out for myself.”
And that was Eve’s attitude when she chose to eat the forbidden fruit.
My friends: God loves you with an everlasting love. He gives you the greatest joy imaginable. As Paul says in Romans 8:32:
He who did not spare His Son but gave Him up for us all – how will He not along with Him freely give us all things?”
You see? Putting Jesus on the cross was the hardest gift of all for God to give. He did that – for you! Having done that: Won’t He give you what is much, much easier?
Think of it this way: Those of you who have loving parents, think of what they’ve done for you.
- They stayed up long hours at night when you were an infant.
- They stayed up long hours at night when you were a teen.
- They cooked and cleaned for you.
- They counseled and taught you.
- They drove you to practices and plays.
- They prayed for you and played with you.
- They cried with you and comforted you.
- They taught you to drive and drove you to excel.
Now: Your dad drops you off at the airport. You say goodbye, and go to check in. You get to the counter and the agent says, “Sorry, Your flight is canceled. We can’t get you out until tomorrow morning.”
Do you then think: “Oh, no! I can’t call dad back. He just drove me to the airport! He won’t come back to pick me up!”
Could you really think that? After all he’s done that’s so much harder – he won’t come and pick you up?
That’s nonsense. He’s done what is hard. He’ll do this little thing.
Just so with God. After giving us Jesus – after sending Him to the cross – won’t He provide whatever we need for our good and His glory? That is: Won’t He provide whatever we need
- to sustain us through trials,
- to conform us to the likeness of His Son,
- and to bring us safely to His heavenly kingdom?
You are rich. And all you own is from God. All you own is to God, to be used for His glory.
There’s much to explore in weeks ahead concerning how to live this out: What should be our attitude towards work? How do we live out this truth through our budgeting and spending? How do we use all we have for God’s glory? We’ll consider entertainment, saving, giving, and borrowing.
But for now: Think of what you own or have: Material goods. Skills and abilities. Interests. Blocks of time. Pray to God, acknowledging that these are His. And tell Him you want Him to use it for His glory – whatever that may mean. Pray, “We offer our bodies, ourselves, all we have as sacrifices for Your glory.”
May He bring that about – for our great joy.
February 28, 2014
When you hear the word “generous” what comes to mind?
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 and 9:10-15, “generous” and “generosity” appear three times. What did the Apostle Paul mean by those terms?
Suppose you are returning to Charlotte by air, and to your surprise are upgraded to first class. You sit next to a well-dressed man, and strike up a conversation. Eventually you share your story of what God has done in your life; you share Jesus’ story, the Gospel; you tell him of your growing in Christ while at DGCC.
Your seatmate is cordial, and asks good questions. But he makes clear that he is not interested in following Jesus. But after the announcement that you’ll be on the ground in fifteen minutes, he says, “I’ve enjoyed our conversation. I admire you for what you’ve said. I think churches play an important role in our community, and yours sounds like a good one. Would you please accept this check made out to your church for $100,000?”
Would that be generous?
One dictionary defines “generous” as “showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected.” On that definition, your seatmate’s action is certainly generous.
But as you know, the New Testament was written in Greek. The Greek word translated “generous” in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 would not apply to that act.
Paul is talking about a different form of generosity – a form so different from the normal meaning of the English word that the word “generous” can be misleading. Seeing this distinction is key for understanding the inner attitude Scripture commends toward others. That is: What should be going on inside us as we encounter people who have needs?
Background of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9
When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, the church in Jerusalem was hurting. They were persecuted both by the religious leaders and by their families – often being disowned and disinherited once they came to faith in Jesus. Furthermore, the entirety of Judea had suffered a famine in recent years, and in the aftermath there was still considerable poverty. So in general, the new, Gentile believers scattered around the Roman Empire were better off financially than believers in Jerusalem.
So Paul arranges for a collection from the churches in Greece, Macedonia, and Galatia (now central Turkey) to the church in Jerusalem. He refers to this collection in a number of his letters:
- In Galatians 2, Peter, John, and James (Jesus’ half brother) ask Paul and Barnabas, as ministers to the Gentiles, to remember the poor in Jerusalem. Paul says that was “the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
- In 1 Corinthians 16 he instructs the church to set aside money for this collection on the first day of every week. Evidently the church had made an encouraging beginning in raising funds, but then not much happened.
- Here in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 he encourages them to complete this grace that they have begun.
- In Romans 15, he writes that the collection is now complete, and he will be taking it to Jerusalem.
What Does “Generous” Mean
We’ve seen the normal definition of the English word “generous.” But we know that Paul does not mean “showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected” in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. We see this by looking at his first letter to the same church:
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)
To give away all I have certainly would be generous in the English sense of the word. That would be showing readiness to give more than is expected. But if that generous act is done apart from love, Paul says it is of no value.
That should prompt our curiosity about what Paul means by “generous” in this passage. So let’s briefly turn our attention to the Greek word he uses.
The word is used nine times in the New Testament, and three of those occurrences are in today’s text. The lexicon of New Testament Greek widely regarded as most authoritative defines this word generally as “personal integrity expressed in word or action ([as in] our colloq[uial expression] ‘what you see is what you get’) simplicity, sincerity, uprightness, frankness. Then when referring directly to today’s passage, the lexicon says the word concerns
“simple goodness, which gives itself without reserve, ‘without strings attached’, ‘without hidden agendas’ . . . ingenuousness” (Danker and Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, University of Chicago Press, 2001).
That doesn’t much sound like giving a $100,000 check.
The lexicon acknowledges that some want to use the English word “generosity” for the meaning of the word in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, but that usage “is in dispute, and it is probable that [the meaning] sincere concern, simple goodness is sufficient for all these pass[ages].”
So we have a word with a disputed meaning.
These different understandings of the meaning of the word come out in the translation of Romans 12:8. Compare the ESV and the NET (including the beginning of the sentence from verse 6):
ESV: Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: . . 8 the one who contributes, in generosity.
NET: And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. . . 8 if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity.
The two translations sound very different to our English ears – it sounds as if there is no overlap in the command. The ESV seems to say, “If by God’s grace you have the gift of giving, give a lot!” The NET, however, seems to say, “If by God’s grace you have the gift of giving, give out of genuine concern, with no ulterior motive.”
Now, Paul may intend to make both of these statements: “Give a lot, and give it out of sincere concern.” But he does not mean only “give a lot.”
So as we read “generous” and “generosity” in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, we must broaden the meaning of the English word. We need to examine the context closely, seeing what information that gives us, and consider that the word may mean “sincere concern.”
In examining the context, we’ll particularly focus on where Paul says generosity comes from, and what, according to Paul, it leads to.
Where Does This “Generosity” Come From?
The chapter begins in this way:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1)
Notice first that this generosity is a free gift of God. It is a grace of God. It is not earned. It is not self-generated. It is not the result of an emotional appeal, or a leader’s manipulation. Nor is it the result of someone begging for money. It is a gift of grace.
Now verse 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.
The Macedonians gave out of joy. They did not give out of an abundance of material goods they had owned for a long time (as in the airplane example). Nor did they give the excess out of a short term windfall. Quite the contrary. They are afflicted. They live in extreme poverty. But because they have joy, they gave. Out of the overflow of their joy, they gave.
So we begin to see the link between this passage and the earlier sermons in this series: We can have a biblical attitude towards possessions if and only if we find our identity, security, and joy in God.
Verses 3 to 5 tell us more about this joy:
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.
Verse 3 says that they did give generously in the English sense – given their poverty, they gave much more than Paul expected. But then the Apostle goes on to explain more about the joy they had that overflowed in this gift.
Look at verse 5 first: This monetary giving results from them first giving themselves (emphatic in the Greek) to the Lord. That is, their joy is joy in God. Their giving is first and foremost a giving of themselves to God. Their contribution to the saints in Jerusalem is an overflow of that joy. They have such joy in God – as His adopted children, as His heirs, as those protected and guarded by Him – that out of the overflow of that joy they give.
But Paul’s statement is even stronger. Note in verse 4 that they have such joy in God they beg to give. Paul didn’t beg them to give. Rather, they begged Paul for the “favor” – literally, the “grace” – of contributing to this effort.
Continuing in verse 4: “begging us earnestly for the favor/grace of taking part.” “Taking part” is a loose rendering of a Greek word many of you know: “Koinonia.” Often translated “fellowship,” it means “partnership in a common purpose.”
So the Macedonians are saying something like this:
“Please Paul – don’t exclude us from this contribution just because we are poor. God has changed us! We have full joy in Him. We know how to be content when we are lacking material goods. We want to live out the partnership in the Gospel we have with our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. We want to display the gracious character of God that we have as His children. There is nothing we would rather do with this money. This is to our joy– so don’t leave us out!”
This type of generosity is a grace of God, a gift of God, that comes from the overflow of joy in God.
So, working from this passage and 1 Corinthians 13, John Piper defines Christian love as “the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others.”
What Does This “Generosity” Lead to?
2 Corinthians 9:11-12 helps us define this type of generosity by showing us what it leads to. Let’s begin in 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.You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.
First, note that this generosity leads to thanksgiving to God. Why “to God” rather than “to you Corinthians”? Because those in Jerusalem know that the generosity is itself a grace of God, a gift of God! They know that joy in God prompted the giving. They know that those giving the support first gave themselves to God.
All true Christian giving results in thanksgiving primarily to God. If our giving results in thanksgiving primarily to us, that’s a problem. We’re not handling our giving correctly in that case.
Verse 13 tells us more about what this generosity leads to (we’ll quote the NET translation here):
Through the evidence of this service they will glorify God because of your obedience to your confession in the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your sharing with them and with everyone.
So, second, this generosity leads to those in Jerusalem to glorifying God. They praise Him. Why? By this generosity, God gives proof that the Corinthians are genuinely in Christ, are genuinely transformed by the Gospel. Through the “generosity of your sharing” they see evidence that these Gentiles are partners in the common purpose of the Kingdom of God. Their sincere concern as partners in the Gospel proves that God is at work among them, thereby showing that the Gentiles are joint heirs with their Jewish brethren, one family, with one common purpose. This leads those in Jerusalem to praise the God of the Gospel – the God who breaks down the “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
We see the third result of this generosity in verse 14 (returning now to the English Standard Version):
while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.
This generosity leads to love for those giving! Prayers on their behalf! And thus a deeper partnership in the advance of the Gospel among their own people, as God’s church is united that much more across cultural differences.
So, yes, Paul is saying the Corinthians will benefit from giving. But the benefit is not a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel promise, “Give $1,000, and God will make sure that you receive $10,000.” Rather, they will receive love. They will receive prayers. They will deepen their fellowship, their partnership with the wider Church of Jesus Christ.
So now let’s step back and consider what we have seen:
- This type of generosity comes from God; it is a gift.
- This type of generosity is the overflow of joy in God.
- This type of generosity leads to thanksgiving to God.
- This type of generosity leads to praise of God.
- This type of generosity results in love and prayers for those giving, and unity in the Gospel across the wider Church.
Note how all of this is God-centered, Gospel-centered. This generosity is prompted by God, and redounds to His glory and to the advance of His Gospel purposes. Man is not the center – either in receiving praise as the giver or in receiving support as the recipient.
Furthermore, note that money is secondary to all that is going on. Money is the vehicle used to display the overflow of joy in God. And to those receiving, money meets their material needs, but much more importantly unites them in heart in Christ with those giving.
- Prior to Paul preaching the Gospel in Corinth and Macedonia, these Gentiles gave not a whit about the Jews in Jerusalem. Now by grace of God, they care. Because of their joy in God, they have sincere concern. They beg for the grace of giving.
- Prior to Pentecost, the Jews in Jerusalem looked down on all those unclean Gentiles. They wouldn’t eat with them. They wouldn’t even enter their houses. Now, they long for them, they pray for them, they thank God for them, they praise the God who has welcomed into His family these, their former enemies.
That’s true, biblical generosity. It comes from God. It results in thanks and praise to God. It displays and deepens the impact of the Gospel.
How Then Can We Be “Generous”?
We want to be “generous” in this sense. We don’t want to be like those that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13:3, who give away all they have to no gain. We want to be like these Macedonian believers. We want to obey Paul’s injunctions to the believers in Corinth.
How do we do that?
Our inner attitudes are key: Our inner attitude toward God, and our inner attitude toward persons in need.
If we are to be truly generous,
- we can’t give primarily to build up an institution.
- We certainly can’t give to get recognition for ourselves, or to get influence for ourselves, or expecting more money for ourselves through giving.
- We can’t give primarily out of gratefulness to God.
- We can’t even give in order to accomplish some great work for God.
Instead, Paul tells us our main motive must be joy in God. Our genuine generosity, our sincere concern, must overflow from a deep joy in the One who saved as, who adopted us.
So if we are to be generous, we must seek this grace from Him. We must cultivate this joy in God daily.
We do this in part by meditating daily on the Gospel itself:
God created you, He created all of humanity to glorify Him by enjoying Him forever. He provided for our every need. Yet all of us have turned our backs on Him, have rejected Him, finding joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction elsewhere. We have arrogantly called into question His goodness, His love, His provision, His power, even His existence. Having rejected the very purpose of our creation, we deserve His rejection of us; we deserve to be cut off from the source of every good and perfect gift. And yet in His mercy and grace, God sent His Son into the world as Man to live the life each of us should have lived: To love Him with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength every minute of every day, to love each person He encountered as He loved Himself. Just as all of us reject God the Father, the authorities of His day rejected Him, and put Him to death, nailing Him to a cross. But God, through that evil act, placed on Him the iniquity of all who would trust in Him; Jesus took on Himself the punishment, the rejection, that you and I deserve. And on the third day, God raised Him from the dead, displaying that the penalty paid was more than sufficient. And He now calls all men everywhere to repent, to come to a restored relationship with Him by confessing their sin and believing and Jesus is their Savior, their Lord – indeed, the greatest treasure imaginable.
Remind yourself of these truths every morning, every afternoon, every evening. You are in Christ by grace! You are reconciled to the Father by His demonstrated love! You are being conformed to the image of Christ because of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Thus, cultivate joy in God through meditating on the Gospel, that you may be truly generous.
Furthermore, meditate on what the Gospel says about those in need.
- If those in need are not believers in Jesus: We are to love them as we love ourselves. And as we help with their physical needs, we may well have the opportunity to speak to their yet greater spiritual needs.
- If those in need are believers in Jesus: We can expect the results we’ve seen from 2 Corinthians 9: Thanks to God, praise of God, the progress of the Gospel, and love and prayers for ourselves.
So beg God that you may have such sincere concern in your heart. Beg God for the privilege of giving time, money, and your very self to those in need.
By God’s grace you can be truly generous, biblically generous. May He grant us that grace more and more.
But know: He has already granted us that grace in part.
- Who has ministered the Gospel to you?
- Who has counseled you, comforted you, and even upbraided you when necessary?
- Who has brought you meals?
- Who has cared for or taught your children?
- Who has honored God through serving this church in the background, in roles which are often unseen?
- Who has smiled at you when you were down and depressed and hurting?
- Who has prayed for you ?
- And, yes, who has supplied for your material needs when you experienced loss or poverty?
All these are expressions of sincere concern.
All these are expressions of this type of generosity.
All these are given by God, and the result of the overflow of joy in God.
So praise God, thank Him, and express your love and prayers for one another – even using the words of 2 Corinthians 9:14 “I love you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.”
Paul closes 2 Corinthians 9 by saying, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”
- He is the ultimate giver.
- He is the one truly showing sincere concern.
- He is the source of all biblical generosity.
So, may we express love and prayers for one another – and may all praise, glory, and honor be unto Him.