Poverty for Riches
Passage: 2 Corinthians 8:9
We give Jesus our poverty; Jesus gives us his riches.
Katie gives her high school students review packets for their tests. Very often, they will ask, “Do we have to do the whole packet?” Her typical response is, “You get to do the whole packet so that you have practiced a lot before the test.
I’m sure you can relate to the feeling of something you have to do but that you really don’t want to do. We might call these obligations or duties or maybe responsibilities. I don’t really want to pay my taxes, but I have to. I don’t really want to floss, but I have to. What are things we don’t want to do but have to do?
Now think about this: what parts of being a Christian might we do because we feel like we have to do it not because we want to do it?
As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth at Christ, we are doing a 3-week series called The Greatest Gift Exchange. Christmas is a time of gift-giving and our gift-giving is a reflection and reminder of the gift God gave us 2,000 years ago. God so loved the world that he gave his beloved for our salvation. And when we trust in God’s Son, Jesus, a gift exchange takes place between us and Jesus. This series is all about that gift exchange.
This week we are once again in a letter which we call 2 Corinthians which was written to the ancient church of Corinth. The person who wrote this letter was named Paul, who started as an opponent of Jesus' followers but then became one of the greatest evangelists. We saw last week that Paul was reconciled to God through Christ, and now he works on Christ’s behalf as an ambassador to reconcile the world to God. Paul was sent by Jesus as an ambassador to do Jesus’ work in the world. And if you have surrendered to Jesus, this is also your story. We too have been reconciled to God through Christ; he doesn’t count our sins against us. And now we are sent by Christ as his ambassadors to do his work in the world, namely: appealing to people on Christ’s behalf to be reconciled to God.
Last week we were in chapter five of 2 Corinthians and this week we are in chapter 8. There’s a backstory for what Paul says here. For a number of reasons, the believers in Jerusalem, who were mostly Jewish, fell on hard times. Money was scarce, food was hard to come by, and they were being rejected, ridiculed, and persecuted because of their new faith in Jesus. So for a number of years, Paul worked on a collection of aid from other churches to relieve the believers in Jerusalem. One of these churches was the church in Corinth.
About a year earlier, the Corinthians began a collection for the Jerusalem church with willingness and eagerness but didn’t complete it. For some reason it got put on pause, perhaps because they were in conflict with Paul. In this passage, Paul is following up with them: “It’s been a year guys, let’s get this done.”
I really enjoyed studying this passage because I can really relate to why Paul talks to them the way he does. There are many activities that we do as a church that I want you to participate in. But I don’t want you to do it because you feel like you have to do it or because you think you are supposed to do it or because you don’t want to let someone down. No, I want you to want to do these things.
Paul is in that situation. Paul doesn’t want them to feel like they have to do it. He doesn’t want them to do it because they think they are supposed to. Paul wants them to take part in this collection for the believers in Jerusalem because they want to participate in it. And so the way he goes about trying to get them to complete the collection to help the Jerusalem church helps us understand why we should want to do the things we do as Christians. The question it brings us is this: what should be the reason that we do what we do as followers of Jesus? Just think to yourself for a moment: why do you do what you do as a Christian?
Not a Command But a Proof (8:8)
Verse 8 gives us an important starting point in answering this question:
8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. (2 Corinthians 8:8)
Paul makes it clear that participating in this collection is not a command from the Lord (8:8). Commands from Jesus ought to be obeyed whether we feel like it or not. They aren’t optional. They aren’t divine suggestions.
Paul is not commanding them to participate in this collection, but their participation is important for a different reason. Let’s reread verse 8.
8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. (2 Corinthians 8:8)
Paul sees their participation as a proof - a proof that their love for other believers is genuine. The Corinthian church had many gifts and many gifted people, as evidenced by what Paul says in verse 7:
7 But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. (2 Corinthians 8:7)
But one of the problems they faced is that they would use their gifts in a prideful way. They didn’t use them to love others. This is part of the point of 1 Corinthians 13, that famous chapter on love. If you have great gifts but you do not have love, those gifts, no matter how great they may be, are useless.
The tricky thing is that if they participate in this collection because Paul commanded them to and they feel like they have to or are supposed to, then it doesn’t really prove that their love is genuine. As he says later in chapter 9, if they are doing it because they have to, then it’s being extracted from them (9:5), they are giving reluctantly or under compulsion (9:7). Instead, he wants them to give cheerfully (9:7) and willingly (9:5) according to what they have (8:12) as an expression of love (8:8; cf. 8:24). He doesn’t want them to do it when their heart isn’t really in it. He wants it to be genuine and heartfelt. He wants it to be an act of grace, not an act of obligation that they really don’t want to do.
But at the same time, he does want them to do it. He thinks they should. So how does he persuade them without commanding them?
The Reasons They Should Participate
Paul has a number of ways to persuade them to participate without telling them, “You have to do this.” First, he gives them an example for inspiration by telling the story of what the Macedonians did (8:1-5). In some ways, he sees them as an inspiring example. They gave generously and sacrificially and for them it wasn’t “we have to” but “we get to”. Often a story of what someone else has done can be more motivating and inspiring than a command.
Second, he affirms them. In verse 7 he asks them to excel in this area as they do in others. There is evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives and he wants them to excel in this act of grace as well. He expresses what he appreciates about this church and how he already sees God working in them in other ways.
Third, he reminds them of their own desire. They already started their contribution a year ago with willingness and readiness (8:6, 8:10) and so he urges them to finish the work (8:11). Paul even says that he’s boasted about their desire to others (8:24, 9:2, 9:3, 9:4) and it has stirred others to action (9:2). He’s not asking them to do something that they didn’t want to do in the first place.
Fourth, he makes clear what he is asking them to do. Has anyone ever asked you for help and you thought, “I have enough problems of my own”? Paul makes clear that the desired outcome isn’t for them to be burdened so that others are eased (8:13-14). He doesn’t expect them to give what others are giving or to give what they don’t have, but to give according to what they have (8:12).
Fifth, he tells them the purpose. He explains that this is a matter of fairness where one group shares out of their abundance to supply the needs of others (8:13-14). Give according to what you have to relieve the needs of others.
Sixth, he gives them time to prepare. Those collecting the funds won’t be coming immediately. Instead they are sending a group of trusted brothers in advance to prepare the Corinthians’ contribution so that it will be given willingly and not as an extraction (9:1-5). He doesn’t want them to feel pressured or obligated to give because the collectors are holding out the offering basket in front of them.
Seventh, Paul separates himself from the money. He doesn’t want there to even be a chance that someone could say he is going to line his own pockets or take a cut so won’t be the one collecting or dealing with the money directly.
Let me demonstrate all these persuasion tactics together with a pretend scenario for us. Church, we have an opportunity to help some people in need. As you know, last year a tornado went through some towns about 50 miles to the west of us. There was considerable damage and some of the damage was done to the building of a fellow EFCA church. They have been trying to put things back together but it has been tough. LifeSpring Community Church up in Spring Grove has already taken a generous collection of money to help them with their needs. We actually talked about doing a collection last year and some other churches were even inspired by our desire to do this. As a church, we have a genuine spirit of humility, of service, of kindness, of love. And I see this as just one more way we can show how amazing this church is. We talked about doing this a year ago but we didn’t actually get the process going and complete it: let’s finish it now. I want to make it clear that you should give according to what you have. There is no expectation that you give how much others have given or that you are expected to burden yourself by giving to relieve others. I know that many of us have things going on that make life hard and money tight. What we want to do is give out of our abundance to supply someone else’s needs. If we have the ability to help someone else, then we should do that. I want you to be able to give willingly and cheerfully so we aren’t going to take the collection now. If I pass around a basket now, you might feel like you have to give and you might give reluctantly or under compulsion. So we are going to do the collection next week so you can prepare your gift. Brain and Larry will then count what was given, report it to us and take what was given and present it to the church we are helping.
That sounds pretty good, right? But if that is all I said, and if that is all Paul said, the most important part would be left out. Any organization could give this speech. We could be The Lion’s Club or the Moose Lodge. The foundational reason for participating in a collection like this and the reason that motivates all the other reasons is given in verse 9. Let’s reread verses 8 and 9:
8 I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 9 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 by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:8-9)
Participating in this collection will prove that their love is genuine. Why? Because they know the grace of our Lord Jesus. Jesus’ act of grace in their lives will produce acts of grace toward other people. Jesus’ grace for us makes grace flow from us. Jesus’ generous giving to us makes us into generous givers. Jesus’ sacrificial love for us makes us into sacrificial lovers.
When Paul told the story of the Macedonians as an example, he said that they first gave themselves to the Lord and then by the will of God to Paul and those helping with the collection (8:5). Their desire to participate and their generous, sacrificial giving flowed out of their commitment to Jesus.
Jesus is the ultimate example of everything Paul wants to see in the Corinthians. Jesus is the ultimate example of a willing, ready, and eager giver and even of a cheerful giver. Jesus did not give out of compulsion or reluctantly and begrudgingly or as an exaction. And actually, Jesus did give in a way that others were eased and he was burdened. He gave it all so that he became poor and others became rich. He gave until it hurt. We will never outgive Jesus.
Verse 9 says:
9 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 by his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
What sort of riches did Jesus give up? While it’s true that the details of Jesus’ earthly life point to a lack of physical riches, Jesus wasn’t much poorer than the average Israelite and certainly wasn’t as poor as he possibly could be. The gospels show us that Jesus had a humble background, but he was not on the street begging. He came from a small, rural town from the backwoods region of Israel and grew up in a blue collar family. During his ministry years, he relied on the hospitality and generosity of others for his food, lodging, and money.
So this passage is not talking primarily about how much money and stuff Jesus had but his humble, earthly lifestyle does create a contrast with his pre-earthly, heavenly life. This verse points to Jesus’ pre-existence before his birth 2,000 years ago to Mary and Joseph among the animals. It says “though he was rich.” Jesus was never rich on earth, but he was rich in heaven. The Son of God has eternally existed in glory with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. As John 1 says, he was with God in the beginning and all things were made through him (John 1:1-3) and then he took on flesh and dwelt among us (1:14). As Colossians 1 says, he is the image of invisible God and has the privilege and honor of being God’s beloved Son and all things were created by him, through him, and for him and through him all things hold together (Col 1:15-17). As Hebrews 1 says, he has been appointed the heir of all things, through him God created the world, and he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:1-3a). Philippians 2 gives us an in depth picture of what Jesus gave up. I’ll read just a few verses:
Jesus Christ 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [used to his own advantage], 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6-7)
So the first reality 2 Corinthians 8:9 speaks to is the eternal Son of God becoming human, which we call the incarnation. It speaks to Jesus giving up the riches of heaven - the glory and privileges of being the Son of God.
But it also speaks to the crucifixion. Philippians 2 goes on to say:
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)
During his final hours on earth, Jesus suffered betrayal, mocking, beating, shaming, ridicule, and death. But the worst of all is that he suffered the rejection of the Father - he who knew no sin became sin.
The reality is that Jesus gave up spiritual riches in order to give us spiritual riches. Ephesians 1 says we have been given every spiritual blessing in Christ. Jesus gave it all up so that he might give it all to us. Jesus first became poor by becoming a human being 2,000 years ago, leaving behind the riches of heaven. Then he became poorer still by giving up the riches of an unbroken relationship with God, dying on the cross in the place of sinners.
Let’s try to feel this by using physical poverty. Imagine you are in extreme debt: you have a house mortgage, you have a car loan, you have maxed out credit cards. And you don’t have a dollar to your name. There is no way you can pay off any of what you owe or even pay for anything else. Jesus says, “I’ll take on your debt, your bankruptcy, your poverty.” But he not only pays it off. Rather he makes us rich and himself poor. He steps into our life with our bankruptcy, debt, and poverty and we then step into his life with the riches. He trades places with us. He leaves the royal palace to live in the slum and we leave the slum to live in the royal palace.
Jesus took on the spiritual poverty of humanity in order to give us his spiritual riches: righteous in God’s sight, accepted and loved by God, God’s sons and daughters, a bright and glorious future. Jesus freed us from the penalty of sin, he is freeing us from the power of sin, and he will free us from the presence of sin. He took on the poverty of sin in order to free us from it and give us the riches of adoption as God’s sons and daughters, resting in his love and grace.
Without Jesus you are spiritually bankrupt. The problem is we don’t like to admit that, which is why Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Only those who are willing to admit that they are spiritually bankrupt will receive the riches Jesus has to give us.
Here’s one big question this passage brings us to for us to reflect on: Does your life demand a gospel explanation? Does our life as a church demand a gospel explanation? Does my life demand a gospel explanation?
Paul is showing us, as the whole Bible shows us, that we do what we do because of what God has done for us. What we do is a response to what God has already done. Our generosity is a willing response to Christ’s generosity toward us. Our forgiveness is a willing response to God’s forgiveness for us. Our love for others is a willing response to Christ’s sacrificial love toward us.
So, as a Christian, why do you do what you do? Imagine someone asked you, “Why do you go to a church service on Sunday? Why do you help other people when they have a need? Why are you committed to this group of people called a church? Why do you give money to this? Why do you read your Bible? Why do you pray? Why do you get together with your Gospel Community on Thursday nights?” What would you tell them? Would you say: “Well I have to. That’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s what good Christians do.” I want you to seriously and honestly consider: Are there things in your Christian life that you do because you feel you have to do them? I want you to write those things down. This happens to all of us. We forget the deeper “why” behind what we do. It becomes a habit or a tradition. It becomes an obligation or duty.
The reality is that every part of the Christian life is something we get to do. And if you have parts that have become a “have to”, I want you to think about why Jesus is the reason you get to do that. I want you to think about why the gospel is the reason you do that. We want our lives as individuals and as a church to demand a gospel explanation. This is what makes us Good News Church and not “do good things church” or “keep the traditions going church” or “we do this stuff because it’s what we are supposed to do church”. The reason that we want to make a difference is because Jesus has made a difference for us. Jesus is so much more than a good example that we should want to be like. The difference Jesus makes in our lives goes so much deeper than “I have to do this because I’m supposed to be like him”. The experience of Jesus loving us changes us so that we actually want to be like him.
For those things you feel like you have to do, I want you to consider: why do you feel you have to do it? Because you’ve always done it? Because it’s just what Christians do? Because if you don’t you will let someone down? Because it’s what’s expected of you? Because if you don’t, God will be disappointed with you? Because if you don’t, God won’t love you or bless you?
Once we surrender to Jesus, we can quickly think that God measures how much is in our spiritual bank account and treats us accordingly. The good news is that because of Jesus, your spiritual bank account is already full! You don’t add anything to it. Jesus was rich and became poor so that you may become rich! Our call is to live as spiritually rich people - to live out of the spiritual riches and blessings Jesus came and died to give us. But so often we reverse it, living like we are spiritually poor, trying to put spiritual points in our bank account so that God won’t be mad at us. I had a professor who said, “Some preachers and counselors seem to think that the main part of a pastor's job is telling people to behave. I think it is telling Christians how rich they are” (Lee Eclov, Pastoral Graces, 109).
Jesus, quoting the Old Testament prophets, warns us:
8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15:8)
If we are doing what we do because we have to, or to feel better about ourselves or to avoid disappointing someone or to earn something from God, then we are not pleasing. God wants hearts that are drawing near to him. To be clear, if God commands it we should do it whether we feel like it or not. But we should also consider: why am I resisting this? God wants us to love him and love others as an overflow of his love for us. We love, give, serve, and forgive with an “I get to” love, not an “I have to” love.
We are Good News Church. We are a people who have been changed and who are being changed by the good news of what Jesus has done for us. And the deeper we go into that good news, the more our life will demand a good news explanation. We have been blessed to be a blessing. So the next time someone asks, “Why are you doing that?”, be prepared to give them a “gospel why” - a good news explanation.