What do you get when you mix severe affliction, extreme poverty, and some joy? Answer: Overflowing generosity. Sounds strange, right? But this is what happened in about 52 AD in Macedonia.
How was it possible that some of the poorest and most persecuted churches in the New Testament became the most generous, even to the point of abounding in generosity? Grace from God gave them opportunity, joy, and even resources, because they were willing, even pleading to take part in the collections for their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem.
Let’s back up to about two years before this happened. In Acts 16:6-10, the Apostle Paul had stopped for the night in Troas, on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea. His travel plans to visit churches in Asia were interrupted by a vision. A man from Macedonia was imploring him, “Come to Macedonia and help us.” The Holy Spirit wasn’t allowing Paul and his travel companions to go anywhere else, but this way opened up, so they left Troas.
They sailed across the Aegean Sea and began planting churches around Macedonia in cities with names you will recognize. Macedonia became home to a number of the early churches Paul writes and mentions in his letters – Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea.
These young churches were sorely persecuted from the time they came to faith, and it had left them financially bereft. The Bible says they were experiencing “down to the depths” poverty (2 Corinthians 8:2), yet their compassion for the persecuted Jewish believers in Jerusalem, and their willingness to act on it, became an example of generosity to the whole body of churches.
More remarkable than the gift they made was the way it happened. Paul writes about it as a special “grace” given by God (verse 1).
The Macedonians’ pockets were empty, but their hearts were full. They were overwhelmed with gratitude to the believers in Jerusalem who had thrown off their distaste for the Gentiles in order to bring them into the family of God. In fact, the Macedonians may have seen the support they were sending to Jerusalem as something they owed (Romans 15:25-27). The Jews had given the Macedonians the most precious thing they had – the gospel. Now the Macedonians were eager to help the Jews in return.
So they gave.
First they gave everything they were able … and then they gave more than they were able:
For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints – 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 8:3-5
Look at that closely. You’ve heard of people living beyond their means? Wasteful, right? But the Macedonians were giving beyond their means. The implication is that they were giving away things they knew they needed. But (this is key) they gave themselves to God first, demonstrating an incredible level of trust in God’s provision for them.
God has his own economy
What follows the story of the Macedonians’ amazing generosity is Paul’s equally amazing treatise on giving that follows. It starts with plain common sense (2 Corinthians 9:6) and expands like the Fibonacci sequence.
The Creator God, who created this world with incredible mathematical complexity, doesn’t play by his own mathematical rules. In our world, 10 – 1 = 9. If we needed all 10 of something, there would be a problem in giving one away. But in God’s economy – the economy that fed 5,000 with five small loaves of bread and two fishes, 10 – 1 = 10+. When we give something to God, we don’t lose. We gain something – the privilege of participating in his work, the sheer joy of giving, and, ultimately, the blessing of fellowship in eternity with those who benefitted from our gifts.
What we need to remember is that all the resources in the world belong to God, he is generous, and he desires not only to provide for our needs (Matthew 6:31-33), but even to reward our generosity with the ability to be more generous. What God calls us to do (even when it’s giving), he also empowers us to do:
For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
When Paul explains the Macedonian story to the Corinthian church, he explains a principle to them: Sow generously, and you will reap generously. That’s simple. But then he goes on: Give more than is easy to give to God’s purposes, and you will likely be able to do it again. The grace God gave to the Macedonians? He has more of it (2 Corinthians 9:8). And he frequently gives it to those who live life with an open hand:
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.
–2 Corinthians 9:10-11
Want to be more generous than you already are? Ask God to make you able, but remember that the purpose of him giving more is to fulfill your desire to be generous, to increase the amount of people who see Jesus because of your giving, to produce thanksgiving, bringing praise to his name, and filling hearts with joy.
This welling up of generosity (8:2) is a pattern. We saw it with King David and his people (1 Chronicles 29), and we see it in the Macedonian church. It spread to the other churches in the first century. Maybe it could spread to, and then through, us as well.
Our understanding of 2 Corinthians 9 has to be backed with some good theology. God makes us some amazing promises, and he invites us on a journey of learning to trust him and share with others. But we should be wise.
Recent research by Lifeway shows that the false teaching called the “prosperity gospel” is proclaimed in four out of 10 churches in America. This teaching takes promises like the ones in 2 Corinthians 9 (and others) too far, and it mixes them with some further misunderstandings of Scripture.
To be clear, the idea that we give in order to receive material blessings from God is completely wrong, and it’s dangerous. If this is our motivation, we are misled. We have missed the point of verse 11, which says that we are given more so that we can give more: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way …”
God has promised to meet our needs, to provide for us and bless us. But he did not promise to make or keep any of us financially rich so that we could keep more for ourselves. We will never be able to give so much to God that he becomes indebted to us. Aside from material wealth, we have already been given a gift so great we can never come close to repaying it (John 3:16).
Anyone can be generous
Proverbs 19:17 shows the principle that, when we show kindness to the poor, we are actually showing kindness to God. In Matthew 25:40, Jesus says that what we do for the people who are considered to be “least” among men, we are actually doing for him. When we desire to give, this comes from a heart of compassion, longing to love those Jesus loves and ultimately loving Jesus himself.
And anyone can do it. The Macedonians were what we would call “dirt poor,” yet they were still able to give. God fulfilled their desire. If you are eager to give more, he may just fulfill your desire too. We pray, along with the author of Hebrews.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.