With Thanksgiving officially in the rear-view mirror, it seems it’s not too soon to begin anticipating Christmas. The stores have changed their seasonal displays, the radio stations have put Christmas music on loop, many of you have begun setting up decorations, and the Christmas shopping lists have begun to be formulated. And that last one is especially appropriate, because Christmas, after all, is the season of giving. And though the world has done its best to make that giving about consumerism and selfishness, as Christians, we celebrate Christmas as the season of giving because it is in the incarnation of God the Son that the Triune God has given the greatest gift ever given. In the God-man, the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, fallen humanity is given a perfectly sufficient, perfectly suitable Savior from sin and judgment. Fully man, and therefore able to stand man’s place, both to bear man’s punishment and accomplish man’s righteousness. And yet at the same time fully God, and therefore able to bear the wrath of God without perishing eternally, and able to bestow His infinite merit upon the innumerable sinners who come to Him in repentance and faith.
Christmas is the season of giving because Christmas is when God gave man the world’s greatest gift. And we who are Christians give gifts to one another in order to magnify the beauty of that greatest gift—because our hearts are satisfied and made glad by the bountiful grace of God, and so we desire to imitate that grace in generous giving.
Well as we turn to the Book of 2 Corinthians, chapters 8 and 9, we find the Apostle Paul taken up with this very theme: Christian giving, as fueled and shaped by the grace of God displayed in the Gospel, whereby we have been gifted with the precious Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ! In fact, these two chapters are shaped by two, what we might call, Christmas texts. In chapter 8 verse 9, Paul captures the glory of the incarnation in an economy of words when he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” And then in the final verse of chapter 9, verse 15, Paul closes this section on giving with the exclamation, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” The incarnation of the Son of God—whereby He who was rich for our sakes became poor—is God’s indescribable gift to us. And that Gospel grace is to fundamentally drive and shape our own giving.
Now, the historical setting for this instruction on giving is the Apostle Paul’s administration of a financial collection for the saints who belong to the church in Jerusalem. Because of persecution and other circumstances orchestrated by divine providence, the believers in Jerusalem are unable to provide themselves with the basic necessities of life. And so Paul has arranged to take up an offering from the various Gentile churches to offer them relief. And he writes these two chapters to stir up the Corinthians to bring to completion the offering that they had begun in the last year, so that when Paul comes again to Corinth he can receive their offering and transport it to Jerusalem.
And the directives that Paul issues in these two chapters concerning this 2,000 year-old offering become to us, and to Christians of all ages, the closest thing to a systematic theology of Christian giving that is found anywhere in Scripture. And as these chapters are rooted in and shaped by the two “Christmas texts” of chapter 8 verse 9 and chapter 9 verse 15, we find that this portion of Scripture outlines timeless principles for giving that is produced by grace, that is shaped by the Gospel, and that is glorifying to God. And in our series expositions so far, we have gleaned several such principles.
Last time, we turned to verses 16 to 24 of chapter 8, where Paul writes something of a letter of commendation for a three-man delegation consisting of Titus and two unnamed brothers, whom Paul decides to send to Corinth ahead of him. These three men will assist the Corinthian church with the logistics of taking up the collection for Jerusalem, and set things in order in preparation for Paul’s arrival. And Paul urges the Corinthians to receive these men as messengers of the churches, and to follow their directives for the offering.
Well, as we come to the first five verses of chapter 9, we really have a continuation of Paul’s thoughts concerning Titus and his team. In particular, he goes on explaining precisely why he finds it necessary to send this three-man delegation ahead of him. Let’s read our passage for this morning. 2 Corinthians 9, verses 1 to 5: “For it is superfluous for me to write to you about this ministry to the saints; 2for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the Macedonians, namely, that Achaia has been prepared since last year, and your zeal has stirred up most of them. 3But I have sent the brethren, in order that our boasting about you may not be made empty in this case, so that, as I was saying, you may be prepared; 4otherwise if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we—not to speak of you—will be put to shame by this confidence. 5So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, so that the same would be ready as a bountiful gift and not affected by covetousness.”
And once again, in the practical matters of this 2,000 year-old collection for a church on the other side of the world, the Holy Spirit so superintends the pen of the Apostle Paul as to teach us several lessons concerning our own giving to the Lord and to His people. And because we understand that our giving is first and foremost an act of worship to the Lord Himself, and because we desire that our worship be acceptable and well-pleasing to Him, we must be concerned to learn the lessons He Himself teaches us in His Word for how His people must give to His work.
And 2 Corinthians 9:1–5 provides us with five lessons that ought to inform and shape the way we think about the faithful stewardship of the resources God has blessed us with, and that also teach us how we ought to think about Christian obedience and pastoral oversight in general. And as we move through this passage, we’ll seek to learn those five lessons.
I. Giving is Ministry (v. 1)
The first lesson we find in verse 1. And that is that giving is ministry. Paul says, “For it is superfluous for me to write to you about this ministry to the saints.”
Throughout our exposition of the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians, I repeated in almost every sermon what I believe to be the theme of the letter—namely, joyful, enduring ministry in the midst of affliction. Throughout Paul’s defense of his own apostolic authenticity against the attacks of the false apostles, he has taken pains to extensively define New Covenant Gospel ministry. And one of the reasons I chose to preach through a book dominated by the theme of enduring ministry, is because I wanted to unmistakably instill into your minds that ministry is not something that is left to the professionals. It’s not that pastors and elders and professors and missionaries are called to ministry, and the believer in Jesus who works a secular job does something else in church.
No, one of the great lessons of the New Testament in general, and of 2 Corinthians in particular, is that every Christian is called to ministry! Chapter 3 verse 6: if God has called you to salvation by the New Covenant, He has called to you to be a minister of the New Covenant. And chapter 5 verses 18 and 19: if you have been saved through the message of reconciliation, you have been entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. And as Ephesians 4:11–12 says, Christ has given His Church pastors and teachers, not: to do all the ministry so that the saints just sit by and watch as spectators or consumers! No, He’s given pastors and teachers “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, to the building up of the body of Christ.” And so we are all called to New Covenant, Gospel ministry! We are to preach the Gospel of reconciliation by which we ourselves were reconciled to God to those who yet remain God’s enemies. And we are to minister to one another in the body of Christ, so that we might be built up and grow into greater and greater maturity in Christ. We are all called to ministry!
But then we come to chapters 8 and 9 and it seems like Paul has transitioned away from his main theme. In fact, liberal scholars have observed the seeming disjunction of chapters 8 and 9, and concluded they’re not part of the original letter at all—that they’re an interpolation from another piece of correspondence. But when we recognize that giving is ministry, it’s plain that Paul hasn’t deviated from his theme in the least. This collection that Paul is administrating is described in verse 1 as “this ministry to the saints.” In chapter 8 verse 4, the NAS translates this same exact phrase as “the support of the saints,” but it is literally, “the ministry to the saints.”
And over in chapter 9 verse 12, Paul calls this collection, “the ministry of this service,” adding this term leitourgia—from which we get the English word “liturgy” and “liturgical”—which was a technical term for the priestly temple service of the Old Testament. And what was the ministry of the priests and Levites in the temple? It was to offer sacrifices. And so in Philippians 4:18, when Paul receives from Epaphroditus the financial support given by the Philippian church, he speaks of their gift in the language of Old Testament sacrifice. He says, “I received what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.” “It was as if my physical needs were an altar, and your gift was the sacrifice laid upon that altar. And because it came from a heart made glad and eager to give by the grace of God, when Epaphroditus set those coins before me to meet my needs, a soothing aroma wafted into heaven. God smelled the sweet-smelling aroma of a spiritual sacrifice, and He was pleased.” And he’s saying the same thing to the Corinthians: “When the needs of the saints in Jerusalem are fully supplied by your gifts, this offering will be shown to be what it always was: the ministry of spiritual sacrifices to God by means of serving His people.”
Giving financial resources to give aid to fellow Christians who are in need is ministry, friends. And when we engage in the ministry of this service, we are acting as the very kingdom of priests that Scripture says we are. That we are, 1 Peter 2:5, “a holy priesthood, [offering] up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Sharing our resources in order to meet the needs of the saints is the ministry of New Covenant sacrifices, by New Covenant priests. And that describes each and every one of us.
So are you looking for a way to serve in the New Covenant ministry to which you’ve been called? Consider that the giving of your financial resources to give aid to fellow Christians who are in need is ministry! Romans 12:8 speaks of giving as a spiritual gift, right alongside service, teaching, exhortation, leadership, and mercy. Just as some of us teach and preach, just as each of us seeks to speak the Word of God to one another to build one another up, just as we counsel one another from the Scriptures, just as we offer loving reproof and admonition that every man might be presented complete in Christ, just as we pray for one another, just as we meet practical needs like bringing meals to one another and helping one another with home repairs or yardwork or any number of things— so also do we give to one another to meet legitimate financial burdens. And so as you seek to engage in the ministry of the New Covenant to which you have all been called as priests, when you learn that your brothers and sisters have a legitimate financial need—not one born of laziness or sinful waste, but a legitimate need—prayerfully consider that the way the Lord might employ you in ministry in that situation is to give generously to meet those needs.
II. Giving is Chiefly a Matter of the Heart (vv. 1–2a)
A second lesson that we learn from this text comes in verses one and two. And that is, number two, that Christian obedience in general, and giving in particular, is chiefly a matter of the heart. And this is a bit of a subtle point, but note it carefully in verse 1 and the first part of verse 2: “For it is superfluous for me to write to you about this ministry to the saints; for I know your readiness.”
Now, in the final verses of chapter 8, Paul has commended Titus and the two unnamed brothers to the Corinthians, and urged them to receive them and give sacrificially according to their direction. And then he says, “It’s superfluous for me to keep writing to you about this. I don’t have to keep repeating myself, here.” And why’s that? Verse 2: “For I know your readiness.” I don’t need to write any further about this, for—because—I know that you are ready to participate!
This word, readiness, is a word Paul uses several times in these two chapters. Prothumia. It speaks of an intense willingness, a forwardness of disposition, an eagerness to do something. The only other place this form of the word is used in the New Testament is in Acts 17:11, where Luke tells us that the Bereans “were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” And when you hear that you picture a congregation chomping at the bit to get a hold of the Word of God, eagerly shuffling through its pages with excitement to discover its teaching! This is not a group of saints who have to be constantly nudged and cajoled into searching the Scriptures, but those who are internally driven by their own disposition and love for truth!
Well this is how the Apostle Paul describes the Corinthians. They were ready to participate in this offering for Jerusalem. He’s already said this about them. Back in chapter 8 verses 10 and 11 he says, “You were the first to begin a year ago not only to do this, but also to desire to do it. But now finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also completion.” They genuinely desired to meet this need! Their hearts were in it!
And so Paul says, “I don’t need to write any further, because your hearts are already engaged to obey spontaneously!” You see, pastoral instruction is unnecessary when the people of God are ready to obey from the heart. And if that’s true, that means that the purpose of pastoral instruction is to ready the hearts of the people of God for obedience. Do you see that from the text? If Paul doesn’t need to give further instruction because the Corinthians are ready to obey, then the purpose of pastoral instruction is to so affect the hearts of the people of God that they are moved—by God’s grace, through God’s Word—to obey willingly and eagerly.
And so I say that Christian obedience in general, and giving in particular, is chiefly a matter of the heart. Both with respect to giving, and with respect to all other aspects of Christian obedience, sanctification does not consist merely in external behaviors. It consists first of all in such a change in the state of the heart that the regenerated believer loves what God loves and hates what God hates, and acts in accordance with that renewed heart. You see, genuine Christian obedience—and genuine Christian generosity in particular—can’t be fabricated! It can’t be counterfeited by moralists who merely clean the outside of the cup! Why? Because God cares not only about our doing, but also our readiness to do! He commands us to be in such a frame of heart as not only to perform righteousness, but to love righteousness! not only to give, but to be ready to give—to give cheerfully, verse 7, and to give from a motive of willing generosity and not covetousness, verse 5.
And that means that we need to examine ourselves, friends. Because we can write large checks and put copious amounts of cash into the offering plate, and know nothing of genuine Christian generosity! Because genuine generosity is not a matter of what passes through your hands, most fundamentally; it’s a matter of what is in your heart—whether your heart is a possessed of a readiness, of an eagerness, of a cheerful willingness to give of your own resources in order to bless the people of God! And so that means we need to prepare our hearts. We need to labor to get ourselves in the proper frame of heart, so that our gifts won’t be given from covetousness, but from the bountiful freedom of Christian love. And we’ll have more to say about this as we come to verse 5. But for now, let us learn that Christian obedience, and Christian giving in particular, is chiefly a matter of the heart.