Thursday, November 16, 2017

Never Equally Returned: 2 Corinthians 9

In Summary:

Whenever we give something away, there is always a concern. What if I need this later? What happens if I run short? This concern may not be completely universal, but it is common enough to see it in action in Corinth. Paul spent 2 Corinthians 8 reminding them about how they should be participating in the offering for the saints in Jerusalem, and now tightens his focus on the motivation for their giving.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that their giving will not go unnoticed. Starting with 2 Corinthians 9:8 and following, he expresses that God is capable of supplying their needs. The Corinthians need not fear that they will not be able to do the work of God if they give in obedience now, because He will take care of their needs.

The Corinthians are also nudged about the idea that a few of the Macedonians are coming with the brethren to carry the offering—and they wouldn’t want the Macedonians to find them unwilling, would they?

A final general note from this chapter: Paul is clearly more concerned in the character of the givers, not the quantity of the gifts. If they are becoming generous and cheerful, then they are doing well. If, on the other hand, large amounts are being given grudgingly and sparsely (in comparison to ability), then they are failing. Keep in mind that a willing, generous dime reflects spiritual maturity better than a grumped million from someone who won’t notice it.

In Focus:

Taking a longer look at 2 Corinthians 9:10, though, there is something important to take note of. Paul uses the image of agriculture to speak of giving. He highlights that the God who provides seed for the sower will also supply the needs of the Corinthians. The concept is that, by giving, the Corinthians are planting a “seed” which God will then multiply into a “harvest.”

Now, if we are not careful, this will go in a very bad direction. What is that direction? The idea of a clear correspondence between the giving of money and the sowing of a harvest in material wealth. It is crucial to read the whole verse in the context of the whole unit (2 Corinthians 9:6-15), and in context of the book and the whole text of Scripture.

The harvest is of righteousness. Paul speaks throughout the passage of the ability to provide for their need for grace (v. 8), good works (v. 8), righteousness (v. 10), thanksgiving (v. 11), and the confession of the gospel (v. 13). While there are areas, such as in 2 Corinthians 9:13, that can (and should) be understood to reference God meeting the material needs of the Corinthians, nowhere does this support a reading that giving some leads to a definite material prosperity. It is instead given that they will be able to grow in generosity—which is not the same as material wealth.

In Practice:

The practical side of this is threefold:

First, the command on the believer is clear: our giving should be cheerful and constant. Just as a farmer does not sow only once in a lifetime, but at all times that the season is right for it, we should give in the appropriate season. When is that? At all times when there is a harvest to reap. What is that harvest? How about the one in Luke 10:2? Here we see that there is a harvest ready immediately—which means it’s time to keep planting.

Second, that the harvest is not automatically of the same category as the seed. Here we depart from the pure agriculture picture: one does not plant rice seed and harvest oak trees, but with God you just may see something like that. One plants, perhaps through financial giving, and then harvests righteousness in your own life, salvation in others, or grace in your growth. From this, we grow onward and are more generous—not only with the same seed but with new seed, drawn from the new harvest.

Third, that it is in God’s good time that we see that harvest. It will be in time to meet the needs He sees.

In Nerdiness:

2 Corinthians 9:7: God loves a “cheerful” giver. Now, with appropriate credit to Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, we need to remember something here. “Cheerful” comes from the Greek word that eventually gives us the word “hilarious.” However, “hilarious” in modern English does not have the same meaning as “cheerful (hilarion)” in the Koine Greek. Therefore, the idea that has popped up from preachers and televangelists, that one should “laugh through their giving” or other nonsense, playing on hilarious, is just wrong. It has no basis in the text. “Cheerful” rather than “morose,” yes, but giving isn’t a knee-slapping manner. It’s one of the clearest ways that the Kingdom of Eternity crashes into the Kingdom of Now, because their economic systems are fundamentally different.

Now, it is easy to try and massage this passage into instructions for the routine, proportional giving that we as believers should be doing to support kingdom work through our local churches. But I don’t see it here—this is about special projects, about tasks beyond the local church. Tithing comes in other places—though we can learn about the character of the generous, the ungenerous, and the God who sees all.

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