When Paul met with the original apostles, they agreed to divide the mission field — Paul would focus on the gentiles, and they would focus on the Jews (Gal. 2:9). But they did make one request of Paul: that he remember that many believers in Jerusalem needed financial help (2:10).
Paul was happy to remember these needs, for it gave gentile believers an opportunity to have some involvement with Jewish believers. Since the gospel began among the Jews, it was appropriate for gentile Christians to acknowledge and be thankful for the Jewish people. They could do this by sharing some of their material blessings.
Therefore, as part of his work with the gentile churches, Paul coordinated an offering for the saints in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-28; 1 Cor. 16:1 etc.). He described the importance of this offering in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.
Poverty and generosity
He began by describing how generous the believers in northern Greece had been: “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (8:1-2). Although they were very poor, they were very generous, and Paul attributes this to the grace of God. God had given them the willingness to give what little they had, and to do it with joy.
“For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” (8:3-4). Since the Macedonians were poor themselves, Paul did not ask them to give anything to the poor in Jerusalem, but they learned about the collection and wanted to help. They gave more than Paul thought they could. (We can read Paul’s thank-you in his letter to the Philippians.)
“And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us” (8:5). Why did they give? Because they gave themselves to Christ, which would include a willingness to use all that they had to further his work. As they submitted themselves to Christ, they wanted to participate in this offering.
Paul no doubt wanted the Corinthians to follow this example. The Macedonians showed that spiritual maturity leads to material generosity. The Corinthians had more money and should be even more generous.
Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians
“So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part” (8:6). Titus had apparently begun the work of collecting the offering in Corinth, so Paul asked him to finish it. By calling the collection an act of grace, Paul connected it with the gospel and suggested voluntary generosity.
Paul then appealed to the tendency of the Corinthian Christians to think of themselves as better than others. “Since as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” (8:7). Some of the Corinthians boasted about superior faith, speech and knowledge. Paul says they should also strive to be sincere, loving and generous. They should demonstrate their faith by the way they live.
“I am not commanding you,” Paul says, “but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others” (8:8). Paul did not tell them how much to give, but he would know how much they gave, and their quantity would be a reflection of their quality.
Many people today do not want to be compared to others, especially when it comes to donations, but Paul apparently felt that Corinth would be helped by a comparison. Their contributions showed their sincerity.
Paul then used the supreme example, Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (8:9). Although Jesus enjoyed equality with God, he willingly gave it up to save us (Phil. 2:5-8). He became a curse for us so that we might escape the curse and be blessed instead (Gal. 3:13).
Through Christ’s willingness to give, we share in his riches. Grace is not an abstract theory — it is practical. It had physical results in the life of Jesus, and it should have physical results in our lives, too.
According to ability
Paul then appealed to the Corinthians’ previous generosity: “And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it” (8:10-11). In other words, keep up the good work.
Paul then added a qualification: “according to your means” (8:11). Give according to your ability, for God looks on the heart, on the willingness, not the amount. “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have” (8:12).
Paul did not want the Corinthians to impoverish themselves (there was probably little risk of that), but for them to share some of their material blessings. “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (8:13). If the wealthy Corinthians aimed for equality and gave according to their ability, their gift would be generous.
At that time, they had plenty and could share. But the time might come when they would be needy, and other Christians would then give to them. “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (8:14).
Paul then adds a quote: “As it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little’” (8:15; Ex. 16:18). This quote is from the story of gathering manna in the wilderness; it is not about people sharing with one another. Paul quotes it not as a proof, but as a proverbial saying that illustrates equality.
Three trustworthy men
To help the Corinthians be confident that their offering would be used in the right way, Paul put in a few good words for Titus, who would accompany the offering: “Thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative” (8:16-17).
Titus was concerned not only for the offering, but for the Corinthians themselves. He volunteered to travel to Corinth and serve as a security guard for the collection.
Paul then mentions a second person, whom he does not name: “And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel. What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help” (8:18-19).
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians also served as a letter of commendation for the couriers he sent. He expresses his confidence in them, so that the Corinthians can also be confident that these people were trustworthy. Here, Paul mentions that the churches chose this man to accompany the offering to Jerusalem — and Paul reminds them that his own motivation is to serve the Lord and to help his people.
“We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man” (8:20-21). Paul had been accused of improper motives when he preached the gospel; he was even more likely to be accused when taking up a collection. So he took precautions, much as we today might use an auditor to verify that the offerings are being used for the purpose for which they were collected.
Paul then mentions a third man: “In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you” (8:22). Paul commends this man in terms of his attitude to God and in his attitude toward the Corinthians; both are important in this offering.
Paul closed this chapter by praising the men again: “As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker among you; as for our brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ. Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it” (8:23-24).
We are proud of you, Paul says, so please give the kind of generous offering we know you are capable of. This will show the sincerity of your love not only to these three men, but will also be an example to other churches. Just as we told you of the Macedonians’ generosity, we will tell others about you.
Fund-raising is often a thankless job, but it is essential. In order for the people who have an abundance to share with those who have need, church leaders must communicate those needs, and must encourage people to be generous. Paul used several methods of persuasion: his own relationship with the givers, their relationship with God, their reputation with others, their desire to excel and prove themselves, the example of Christ, the example of others, and assurances of faithful handling of the offering.
Why would Paul, who focused on the cross of Christ, use so much of his letter asking for donations? Because he understood that there is a logical and spiritual connection between the cross and Christian behavior.
Jesus’ willingness to give is an example that believers are to follow. Our priority in life is not our own comfort — it is service, and we are to serve Christ by serving others. His grace toward us should be reflected in our grace toward others — grace not only in forgiveness, but also in the material blessings we have been given and should share.
Our attitude about offerings has spiritual significance. Paul says it is evidence of our love — our concern for others. We all need to excel in the grace of giving.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2001, 2013