Giving to God and to the Poor
J. Wesley Ferguson, Antrim, N. Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The classic New Testament passage on the subject of giving is 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9. These chapters relate to the collection that Paul was organizing among Christians in the Gentile world to send aid to needy believers in Judea, Acts 11. 29- 30. A most important fact which emerges in this context is that Paul’s handling of the activity raises his subject from the level of ‘mere things’ to a ‘spiritual necessity’. How we act in relation to the mundane reveals how we think and feel about the things of God - the vital, spiritual issues.
Can the poor give to God and to other poor people?
Paul’s exposition of the significance of our giving starts with a reference to Christians in Macedonia and how they gave. Now, these Christians were themselves poor, 2 Cor. 8. 1-5. Why then did Paul start his treatment of the subject with them? The basic question we need to ask ourselves about our giving is not how much we give, but what our motive is and how great our potential to give, namely how much we possess.
Take the poor Christians in Macedonia for example
Just consider Paul’s language about these poor Christians in Macedonia. He says they have plenty: they have great experience of persecution, great joy, no lack of poverty, a great store of generosity and a great eagerness to give to others. This is a mixed bag of treasures! When we read Paul’s letters to two of these assemblies, those in Thessalonica and in Philippi, we see why he loved them so deeply. Though persecuted and poor they are marked by faithfulness to God under persecution, active in witnessing to God’s saving grace, consistent in their fellowship with Paul and other servants of the gospel.
And what is the secret of this faithfulness? Paul says, they ‘first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God’. Giving ourselves is the difficult, the more basic part. It is the foundation of the whole process of spiritual giving. It is the opposite of the prevailing spirit in our society. This is the spirit of, ‘What do I get out of this? How can I make more money and so acquire more possessions?’
A remarkable example in the Gospel of Mark
Do the Gospels give us any examples of this kind of giving? We recall the incident when the Lord Jesus came to His Father’s house and looked around the massive building. The passage is Mark chapter 12 verses 41-44. It is the climax of the Lord’s visits to the temple, starting in chapter 11 verse 11. The whole section recalls Malachi’s reference to the Lord coming to His temple, ‘But who may abide the day of his coming? . . . for he is like a refiner’s fire’, Mal. 3. 1-3. We note the repeated references, in Mark’s account, to what He saw, how He ‘looked round about upon all things’.
And then the climax - ‘He beheld how the people cast money into the treasury. And there came a certain poor widow’. He had found it necessary earlier in this narrative to reprove the scribes, the men of long, dignified garments and even longer prayers, all designed to impress men. He accused them of devouring widows’ houses, and here was a poor widow who had probably paid them, and others like them, their dues! But the widow was not preoccupied with the injustice she had suffered, or the inconsistency of men who exploited the poor. This was the Lord’s temple and the Lord’s treasury. So, as before the Lord, unnoticed by any of the people there, except One, she cast in two mites. In financial accounts drawn up by men she would, at best, be subsumed under a heading of ‘sundry donors’, at the bottom of the list. She would be far below the rich who ‘cast in much’.
The way heaven evaluates giving
The One who noticed her, and what she contributed, drew the disciples’ attention to her. He knew what she gave and what she had left. He knew that most people, perhaps like us, gave what was left over after they had made sure to finance all their own needs and pleasures. They gave ‘of their abundance’, part of the riches they did not need. She put in ‘all that she had, even all her living’. Thus was the collection that day weighed in the balance of God’s heavenly sanctuary and not by men in theirs. How precious the two mites, given by a woman unnoticed and unvalued by the leaders of the masses! The Lord did notice and that was the most important thing. Yes, the poor can give, first to the Lord, and then, it may be, to the other poor people. Most important, we know that the Lord sees and evaluates correctly what they give. The principle is important: first we give ourselves, then whatever else we give. This is the secret of being a ‘cheerful giver’. It can be a painful, and far from a cheerful experience, if we only give because our arm has been twisted up our back!
Are we willing givers?
A ‘willingness to give’ is a basic starting point in this matter. Paul says, ‘If there be first a willing mind’, 2 Cor. 8. 12. We should note that in these two chapters Paul is writing to an assembly where the believers had the previous year expressed an interest in helping. This second epistle is not a case of ‘cold calling’; it is a matter of helping the Corinthians to engage in the necessary preparations for giving to meet an already present and pressing need. This is very far from the modern situation in which fundraisers sometimes bully people into giving to causes in which they personally have no real interest. A considerable amount of effort and expense is involved in badgering uninterested people into giving. That is not what Paul is doing here.
Is giving a one-way street?
Paul writes of the need to acknowledge the importance of ‘equality,’ of ‘fairness’, as some translate it, in the matter of giving, 1 Cor. 8. 13. He argues the basic fairness of believers who are financially comfortable helping those who unlike themselves are in financial straits. The expectation thereafter will be that, if the relative prosperity of the two groups is at some time reversed, the flow of aid will also be reversed. We do need to be wary of establishing a dependency culture in which unthinking, paternalistic aid may remove from the needy the incentive to take responsibility for their own support. We need to take account of this risk when planning our aid to worthy causes.
What about the methods and procedures we follow?
The organization of aid must be such as to make it clear to everyone that those who convey the aid are not lining their own pockets. Not only the Lord but also people should know the cleanness of our hands, 1 Cor. 8. 21. This will often mean such arrangements as these: Paul did not carry the aid to the poor, he had with him men trusted by the donors and chosen by them to carry it. Those assemblies and Trusts who use a bank account will insist that, if possible, more than one person signs cheques and we need to keep full records of donations received and furnish acknowledgments and receipts to donors where possible. Large charitable organizations have to be very careful to avoid ‘career structures’ for those giving their time and talents to fund-raising. If a person who had perhaps not been very successful in a professional post were to be appointed to a highly paid post with a charity, the situation would be open to serious question.
We notice, in 2 Corinthians chapter 8, that Paul carefully describes the men to whom the assemblies have entrusted the work of conveying the aid to Judea. Their qualifications are spiritual and moral, rather than intellectual or professional. They need to be dependable and above reproach, in keeping with the holiness of God’s house and the sanctity of the mission in which they are engaged. ‘They are messengers of the churches and the glory of Christ’, he says. What a high calling, v. 23.
Can we afford to give?
Giving is sowing, says Paul in chapter 9 verses 6-10. His text in support of this assertion is Psalm 112 verse 9. If you read the whole psalm you will find it deals with the character of the ‘righteous’ man. We find that his righteousness is linked closely with his generosity. In verse 9 the word ‘scatter’ is used of his giving, a figure from the sowing of seed on a farm. A farmer could, in theory, use all his grain for his own family’s meals and not risk sowing any. But one cannot eat all the grain and sow none; else there will be no grain next year. God makes it grow, so that the farmer and his family can eat and still have enough to sow for the future.
The psalmist insists that a righteous man gives liberally and God sees to it that he can both eat of the harvested grain and have enough to sow for the next year. Paul is teaching the Corinthians that God has given them enough for their own needs and also to sow (or scatter) for the needs of others. The message is clearer if we read, with the RV, ‘And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness’, 2 Cor. 9. 10. Can we afford not to give?
Can we change our money into a better currency?
Spiritual liberality in giving produces spiritual results. The process begins with a need for food and a willingness on the part of others to provide food to meet that need. But see the chain of events that ensues. First, those who receive help thank God, vv. 11-12. This is a spiritual activity that God appreciates; it is a ‘good thing’. Then the needy believers who have been fed give glory to God that the givers’ profession of obedience to the gospel is not a mere theory, but is expressed in practical godliness. Then the needy pray for the donors, and God hears the sincere prayers of the poor. So the benefactors actually gain spiritual benefit too.
So earth’s currencies can be changed into spiritual credit that has validity in heaven! Did not our Lord Himself refer to laying up treasure in heaven? It is a better investment than the money market, and there is no depreciation there. The little hymn puts it this way:
We lose what on ourselves we spend,
We have as treasure without end,
Whatever, Lord, to Thee we lend,
Who givest all.
Where does the behaviour of God Himself fit into this context?
We began with the subject of poor people giving. We saw that this was noted by the Lord and valued. But what gives colour to the whole subject is the truth of God’s character in the subject of liberality.
This whole theme in 2 Corinthians revolves around two verses that we know and love so well, but sometimes think of out of context. These two verses put the theme of giving, and more particularly sacrificial giving, into proper perspective.
The first verse is chapter 8 verse 9, ‘For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich’. This was the richest Giver who ever reached out to the poor, a Giver with infinite riches of eternal character. He gave an infinite gift, for He gave Himself; there was no more that He could give. His poverty on the cross, when He uttered the cry of dereliction and was brought ‘into the dust of death’, is something which we can only dimly understand. He did this to bring us from our poverty of sin into the riches of salvation and eternal life. We are truly rich, and at what a cost! And what an encouragement for us to be cheerful givers!
The other verse is chapter 9 verse 15, ‘Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift’. The immediate context of this verse is the thanks offered to God and to the human donors of aid. God’s gift to us was ‘indescribable’, to put it into modern English. We cannot compute it or put it on a scale to compare it with any other gift. Not only did the Son give Himself for our sins, but also the Father ‘spared not his own Son’. The sacrifice of Calvary involved all the Persons of the Trinity. Praise God for allowing us to contemplate such sacrificial giving! What a context for the subject of providing for the needs of perhaps obscure believers, obscure in the world of selfish men indeed, but precious to a God of amazing grace! We need to remember that.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Wesley Ferguson is in the assembly in Antrim in N. Ireland. He ministers the word throughout the Province and the UK and is the author of numerous magazine articles, and recently authored ‘Genesis’ in the Ritchie series ‘What the Bible Teaches'.