One of the difficulties with listening to sermons, rather than having the opportunity to interact with them, is that it’s easy to fall into the ditch of comfortability and assumption with regard to the meaning and explanation of a passage. For instance, we can become so used to hearing sermons on a passage that we’re familiar with, we simply assume the meaning and never take the time to examine the passage for ourselves. This happens to me as well, but one particular passage recently caused me to take the time to work through on my own.
2 Corinthians 9 is a passage that I’ve had on my list of expositions for awhile and it’s one that is familiar to most church-goers, particularly when its chased with either a push to tithe more or its used to launch a giving campaign. Instead of squirming in our seats at the mention of giving money from pulpit, let’s take a look at the larger situation that warranted the Apostle Paul to write this passage.
This particular chapter is part of a larger section on the collection of a gift from the Corinthian believers. The background actually comes from 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, seen below
1 Corinthians 16:1-4
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. 3 And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.
In this passage, wrought with its own interpretational difficulties, Paul encourages the Corinthians to set aside a gift that would be collected at a later time. Throughout all of the ‘churches’ (ekklesia) that Paul had been a part of, particularly those of Macedonia, there was a collection taking place for Jerusalem. The church at Jerusalem had hit hard times financially, most notably by a famine, but there were other contributing issues as well. In order to meet these needs, these churches were stepping up to help out. There was a specific need that was being met, not a general, nebulous campaign, and none of the collection was kept in-house, 100% of it went to the beneficiaries. To reiterate that, 100% of the collection was going to the needy saints.
Usually, the passage above is used as a proof text for Sunday worship, the first day of the week, and the collection of regular tithing on these days. Without going into a detailed exposition, simply look at the passage again. Is there anything implying that they were meeting on this day? Is there any indication that they were meeting and there was an offering plate being passed around? The answer is clearly no. What was happening, however, is that the Apostle was encouraging them to set aside a regular gift so that when he came to collect it, there wouldn’t be 1. a scramble to find something to give 2. nothing to collect. This is pure, practical wisdom. On the first of the week, before you have a chance to spend all of your money or use all of your goods, set aside some for your gift. It’s neither a proof text for Sunday worship, nor for regular tithing. If anything, its guidance for how to save money up to give to someone in need, being regular and scheduled about it so that when the need arises, your desire to help matches your ability to help. It’s that simple.
After this letter, there was apparently a disagreement between Paul and some Corinthian believers, maybe even to the level that a schism underway. This could have been due, in part, to his rebuke of some who allowed sexual immorality to take place (1 Cor. 5), but there also seems to be something of distrust over money or support. The language that Paul uses in his second letter, seems to support this conclusion, but we’ll see this unfold a little more below.
As we get to the section on giving from 2 Corinthians 8-9, there’s a little more background in chapters 6-7, particularly with the references to Titus and Macedonia, but also as Paul works through the relationship strains that have taken place. When we arrive at chapter 8, the following passage sets the context and tone
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 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. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 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 8:1-5
Here we have some background to the situation, which recalls 1 Cor. 16 mentioned above. The ekklesia’s of Macedonia, who were also suffering from poverty, had taken a collection, above and beyond their means, for those believers who were suffering in Jerusalem. Those that gave weren’t compelled to give to the campaign, they begged to give. Now, Paul has turned to Achaea, a region of which Corinth was a major city, for the collection of their gift. Because of the underlying distrust that had seemingly crept into the minds of some Corinthians, Paul urges Titus to take up the collection
6 Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. 7 But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you[c—see that you excel in this act of grace also.2 Corinthians 8:6-7
It’s significant that Titus oversees the collection for the believers in Jerusalem, as it allows him to complete the task, which is here called an act of grace, begun a year earlier (8:16-24). During the first century, there was a temple tax that was collected annually. While this collection was in no way a tax, it could explain why there was nearly a year between the notification and collection of the gift. Perhaps this was an acceptable period of time to store up extra money or to go through a harvest cycle and store up food, etc. (there’s no reason to think the gift was solely monetary). On the other hand, the allotted time between the notice to set aside a gift and it’s acutal collection may elapsed due to Paul’s other missionary travels, or even delay on the part of Corinth to have the gift ready. Either way, it makes perfect sense that they were encouraged to set aside their gift once a week, on the first day. Travelling with Titus, were other brothers, including one with a solid reputation among other churches. This adds validity and a level of accountability to their collection, avoiding the appearance of misappropriation or of using the collection to fund their own ministries (8:20).
All of this leads us to the request in 2 Corinthians 9, which Paul calls superfluous, or redundant, because they already knew about the cause, and already knew about the collection, he doesn’t need to recite it again. In 9:1-5, Paul is informing them about the arrival of the brothers to collect the gift that he had already prepared them for a year earlier. All of this context, the poverty of Jerusalem, the poverty of Macedonia – yet their willingness to give, the strain and likely financial distrust that Corinth had developed towards Paul (without merit!), and the advanced notice that Paul had given Corinth regarding the collection, all must be carried forward into 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. If it’s not, if we simply import our own meaning into the reading and then preaching of this passage it naturally becomes a spring board to compel people to tithe more to their church or to give over and above for a building/giving campaign. I’ve been there and done that as I’m sure many others have as well. As we’ve seen so far it is absolutely not the context or any reasonable application of the passage.
When we arrive at 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, a section normally entitled “God loves a cheerful giver,” it’s easy to see how common preaching to give more based on this passage can cause someone to become laden with guilt over their lack of giving or through compulsion to give more. After all, if God loves a cheerful giver, then we must give! But toward what exactly?
Typically this is how the scenario plays out: The First Church of Your Town is having trouble meeting the budget, perhaps there has been some unexpected expense or maybe attendance is down so others need to pick up the slack. Or maybe there is a desire to build, add-on, purchase a building, or hire an extra staff member. So the request goes out, using this passage as a basis, to go over and above normal giving.
The problem is, as I mentioned above, 100% of the collection went to the poverty-stricken believers of Jerusalem, it was not for the Corinthians own cause or benefit. They didn’t feed themselves with 90% of the collection and then trickle out a couple bucks to missionaries overseas. There was an identifiable need, a purposeful collection, a participation in unity among believers, and grace experienced by all through the act of giving. They weren’t collecting a tithe to build a youth group wing, nor to purchase a bigger building to meet in. There were people starving and suffering under the affliction of poverty and the area churches were begging to help, even those who were struggling themselves. Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 is not used in order to compel the believers to give, but it is a commendation teaching them God’s principle of giving because they were already compelled to give. This is a critical point.
Here is the application for us today. It is a good, wise, and prudent practice to set aside funds on a regular basis to help those in need. When the need arises, and it will, you will not have to scramble or look for loose change in the couch cushions to help someone out. In the meantime, look for opportunities to give to the needs of the saints. What about giving to the new youth group wing or building campaign? If your conscience has so compelled you to give towards this cause, then give cheerfully. However, consider this, if giving towards something like a building, or to prop up an inflated budget, prevents you from meeting the needs of the suffering saints, reconsider. Finally, our modern practice of giving causes the ‘church’ to act as a financial intermediary who collects the money, facilitates transactions, and sometimes disperses it to whom and how she sees fit. In our passage, there was no middle man, they were just believers giving to other believers who had a need. In this way, thanksgiving was given to God for supplying the gift to the giver and in receiving the gift by the needy.
For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.2 Corinthians 9:12