Over the course of our series in Corinthians there have been some difficult sermons that perhaps made people a bit uncomfortable. We talked about marriage and our responsibilities to our partners when it comes to intimacy. We talked about divorce; we have talked about conflict and we talked about debated behavioral issues and how to approach them. However, there is probably no subject we resist more than talking about God’s desire that we be people who are financial givers rather than just spenders.
I know why such sermons are distasteful: they make us feel like we are being conned into giving away the hard-earned (and all too little) money that we have. When the Church talks about financial stewardship it starts to sound like every other voice that wants what we have.
I confess this because I want you to know that I know we face an uphill battle today. I can only ask that you listen to what Paul says. I believe that if you will listen and hear, you will discover one of the secrets of life: it is indeed a greater blessing to give than to receive. The happiest people in the world are those who have loosened their attachment to the things of this world so that they will have more to invest in the Kingdom that is to come.
Some will wonder how Paul gets from the lofty teaching of the resurrection and Heaven to talk about an offering (some would say Paul is a “typical preacher”). The connection isn’t hard to see. Paul has argued that the Resurrection should make a practical difference in our lives. He has told us that the Resurrection should cause us to always “give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord.” One of the most obvious ways to do this is in the way we use our money.
Purpose of the Collection
Paul seems to start abruptly talking about “the collection for God’s people.” We must remember the context of this Corinthian letter. Paul is responding to questions that were raised by the Corinthians. The Corinthians were aware of this collection and wanted clarification.
The reason for this collection was actually threefold. First, there was a Great Need. Extreme poverty was very common in the ancient world as it is in many parts of the world today. When the persecution came upon Christians, believers were scattered and those who remained were left somewhat isolated. They were rejected by many of their Jewish neighbors and certainly many were also rejected by their families.
During Paul’s 3rd missionary journey he raised funds from the various Gentile churches to alleviate the suffering of the church in Jerusalem. In the follow-up letter of 2 Corinthians 8 Paul wrote his philosophy,
13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15 as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
In this day when we look to the government to meet all our needs, we must remind ourselves that God wants us to care for each other. God never intended life to be every man for himself. He wanted us to be involved rather than to sit back and wait for someone to do something. He did not want us to feel entitled, he wanted us to feel compassion.
We must certainly give to the local church. We hope that we are meeting spiritual needs through what we do. But we must also think about the other practical needs of people. We must think not only locally but globally. This is why we are involved in missions. Part of your giving to the local church goes toward meeting needs outside of the church and around the world. God calls us to meet needs.
There was a Great Opportunity Paul recognized that the current crisis was a great opportunity to build a bridge between the Gentile and Jewish Christians. The Christians who were raised Jewish found it hard to embrace the Gentile Christians. It was not that they didn’t want people to come to faith but the Gentiles had been seen as the “opposition” for so long that it was hard to embrace them. It would be like a church trying to welcome a tattoo-covered, green haired, liberally pierced person. Hopefully, the church would try hard to reach out to the person but the barriers would be hard to overcome.
Paul saw the crisis in Jerusalem as an opportunity to express love in a very tangible way. Actions do speak louder than words. Paul knew that if the Gentile Christians would stand with their Jewish brothers at this time, a stronger bond would be forged in the church.
When we give we not only show love to the recipient of the gift, we reveal God’s love to the world. The Athenian statesman Aristides wrote the following of Christians living in the second century:
They walk in humility and kindness, and they deal honestly and they love one another. They take care of widows and orphans. He that has much gives to him who has little. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof and treat him like family. When one of their poor passes away from the world and they can’t afford a proper burial, they provide for the burial. If they hear that any of their number is in prison or oppressed for the name of Christ, all of them provide for his needs and seek to get him released if possible. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, they will fast two or three days (go without food themselves) so they may supply the need.
It opened the door to great blessing. As we look at the parallel passage in 2 Corinthians 9 Paul tells us
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:6,7)
In the book of Acts Paul reminded the Ephesians of Jesus’ words that it is more blessed to give than to receive. I think the Bible clearly teaches us that there is a personal blessing that comes from giving to others. We make a mistake however when we focus on material blessing. Some emphasize that if you give generously God will give generously back to you. In other words, if you want more money the secret is to give more. Does that sound like selfishness to you?
Material blessing does often follow the generous person. The Bible tells us that those who are faithful with little will be entrusted with much. However, being faithful means giving to the Lord, not giving in a way that you ultimately hope is going to enrich you!
The true blessing of generosity comes from putting our trust in God and not in our possessions. It comes from the fact that we have become involved with others rather than being indifferent to others. It comes from the fact that there is no greater joy than knowing that you helped someone else.
Take a secular example. At Christmas time many Parents derive a much greater joy picking out gifts for their kids (and others) than they do in getting gifts. The principle is the same here: giving brings us joy and satisfaction.
Principles for Giving
On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem.
There are several good principles here. First, our giving should be systematic or deliberate. Paul tells the people of Corinth that they should set aside their gift on the first day of every week. Most likely this was because the church met on Sunday for worship. Paul told them that the money should be saved up so no collections will have to be made when he arrives. This may mean the people were to bring their money every week to the church so that this “missions money” could be saved up for when Paul arrived.
The point is clear. We must plan to give. There is nothing wrong with giving in response to an urgent appeal but most of us don’t have a lot of discretionary income. We must be deliberate about setting money aside. In practice this means as you budget to pay your utilities and other needs, you should budget to give to the Lord and others. When we do this we find that we can give much more substantially.
Second, our giving should be proportional. The New Testament doesn’t talk about tithing (or the giving of 10%). I happen to think that 10% is a good place to begin when it comes to giving. However, this is not required. The emphasis in the New Testament is on attitude. We are to give willingly and cheerfully. We are to give out of gratitude for what Christ has done rather than give out of a sense of obligation.
Paul does say we should also give proportionally. If you have more, you should give more. He is not merely saying, “We should all give 10% and if you make more money your 10% will be more than the next guy.” Paul is going further than this. He is saying if we have been richly blessed (and most of us have been) we should be willing to give a greater percentage of our income to the work of the Lord in the church and in the lives of others. We should do this because our needs are already adequately cared for.
You know the problem that we have. As we make more money, we feel we have more needs and we take on bigger obligations. Warren Wiersbe makes a great suggestion. He suggests that we find a good standard of living (as opposed to indulgent or extravagant) and live at that level. Once we have found this level we should give the surplus to the things of God.
Pastor J. Vernon McGee relates a conversation he once had,
When I was pastoring a church in Texas, one of my officers owned several Coca-Cola plants, and one of them was in our town. He was a man of means, and he owned a ranch where we used to go to hunt and fish. Often he would ask me why I didn’t preach on tithing. One day I said, “Why should I preach on tithing?” He said, “Because it is the Bible way of giving.” I agreed, “Yes, it was the Old Testament way of giving, but under grace I don’t believe tithing is the way it should be done.” So he asked me, “How do you think it ought to be done?” I took him to this verse: “As God hath prospered him.” Now this was during the depression. If you are as old as I am, you will remember that the depression in the 1930s was a very serious time. So I said to him, “For some strange reason, Coca-Cola is selling, and you are doing very well. However, there are some members in our church who can’t give a tithe right now. I don’t believe God is asking them to give a tenth. There are a few people who are doing well, and they are to give as they have been prospered—and they are not to stop with a tenth. Probably they ought to give a half.” Do you know that this man never again suggested that I preach on tithing! The reason was that he was tithing, but he didn’t want to give as God had prospered him.
William Barclay has observed that, “It is a grim commentary on human nature that, when a man is dreaming of what he would do if he was a millionaire, he almost always begins by thinking what he would buy for himself, and seldom of what he would give away.”
We can understand these concepts but we know in practice it often is something different.
- Some have much and hoard what they have. They focus on how much they can they accumulate. They tend to believe their security is found in their riches.
- Others have much and spend much. They always have something new to buy. Down deep they believe happiness will be found in the things they possess.
- Others live well beyond their means and even though they have been prospered greatly they always feel they have little and so they give little.
The Bible would have us take our eyes off our indulgences and focus on the good we can do with what we have been given. God calls us to contentment and simplicity in our living so that we can use our money as a tool for eternity. Understand that I preach to myself with these words. There is a sense in which we should be giving up the things we could have so that others could have the things they must have.
Fourth, our giving should be managed responsibly. Paul was concerned that the offering be sent with “men you approve”. People who give to the church should have confidence that the funds of the church are being used in a wise and appropriate manner. One of the blights on the Christian community has been discoveries that donor funds have been used to indulge leaders (and in some cases their pets!). Churches and church leaders must make sure that funds are used with wisdom. I believe we have worked hard to erect safeguards to the misuse of funds and we have committees that seek to use the money given in the most responsible way possible. We are God’s stewards and take that responsibility seriously.
I know sermons on giving are uncomfortable. At the same time money plays a significant role in our lives and it only makes sense to seek God’s wisdom in how to use our money. The money we give to the Lord is a significant act. Max Lucado has a great piece illustrating what I mean,
Consider the simple act of writing a check for the offering. First you enter the date. Already you are reminded that you are a time-bound creature and every possession you have will rust or burn. Best to give it while you can.
Then you enter the name of the one to whom you are giving the money. If the bank would cash it, you’d write God. But they won’t, so you write the name of the church or group that has earned your trust.
Next comes the amount. Ahhh, the moment of truth. You’re more than a person with a checkbook. You’re David, placing a stone in the sling. You’re Peter, one foot on the boat, one foot on the lake. You’re a little boy in a big crowd. A picnic lunch is all the Teacher needs, but it’s all you have.
What will you do?
Sling the stone?
Take the step?
Give the meal?
Careful now, don’t move too quickly. You aren’t just entering an amount . . . you are making a confession. A confession that God owns it all anyway.
And then the line in the lower left-hand corner on which you write what the check is for. Hard to know what to put. It’s for light bills and literature. A little bit of outreach. A little bit of salary.
Better yet, it’s partial payment for what the church has done to help you raise your family . . . keep your own priorities sorted out . . . tune you in to his ever-nearness.
Or, perhaps, best yet, it’s for you. For though the gift is to God, the benefit is for you. It’s a moment for you to clip yet another strand from the rope of earth so that when he returns you won’t be tied up.
I have thought about why I don’t like sermons on stewardship. I think the problem is that I understand what God is asking. I see the logic of the reasoning. The problem is that I don’t want to do what He is asking! It is not that I can’t afford to give; it is that I don’t want to submit this part of my life to the Lord. It is not that I can’t help others; it is that I don’t want to. And this is the problem. This whole discussion is not about budgets, salaries and paying bills, it is about our spiritual health and commitment. It reminds us God is not content with half-hearted devotion; He wants us to serve Him in every area of our lives; even with our money. I guess I’m saying that this is a message we need to hear; like it or not.