2. Corinthians 8 – The shared wealth and need of believers
Read or listen the Second Epistle to the Corinthians - chapter 8 online (ESV, Bible Gateway)
Helping the church in Jerusalem
In chapters 8 and 9, Paul speaks of helping the church in Jerusalem. To understand the meaning of this fundraising, we must first have a look at the early days of missionary work to the Gentiles.
When Paul and Barnabas returned from their first missionary journey (Acts 15:27-28), the Christians of Antioch in Syria received with joy the news that also Gentiles converted to Christianity. But after a time, perhaps because of messages that had reached Jerusalem, some Christians from Judea came to Antioch and demanded that the Christians who had converted from paganism obey the Law of Moses – requiring circumcision (Acts 15:1) meant to require obedience to the whole law. As the controversy that arose could not be settled in Antioch, it was decided that the dispute should be resolved in Jerusalem (Acts 15:2).
About ten years before the Second Corinthians was written – apparently in AD 48 – a meeting of the apostles was held in Jerusalem. Their decision was: those who converted from paganism to Christianity do not have to become Jews (Acts 15:19-21). This meant that Christianity was separated from Judaism. If the view of those emphasizing the law had won, Christianity would probably have become just a sect of Judaism and would soon have disappeared. After the destruction of Jerusalem (in 70 AD), Pharisees remained the only movement within Judaism, other groups disappeared.
Paul interpreted the decision of the meeting (Acts 15:20) as merely to prevent disputes between Christians of Jewish background and those of pagan background in “mixed churches.” Christians with pagan background had to give up certain things in the common interest. Where the churches were entirely of pagan background, Paul does not seem to have demanded compliance with the decision of the Jerusalem meeting.
The Judaists – who were Paul’s opponents in Corinth - interpreted the decision the opposite way: it was the beginning of a future development. Now only the core thing was required, but soon the time would come when also circumcision and compliance with the whole law would be required.
So, Paul and the law-free gospel gained victory at the Jerusalem meeting. However, the victory was accompanied by an “additional protocol”: Gentile Christians were expected to help the poor church in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10). The fundraising was also a sign of unity: the Gentiles acknowledged not only their connection to the early church in Jerusalem, but also that the Christian faith originated in Jerusalem.
Thus, the gift also had theological dimensions. That is why Paul himself wanted to take it to Jerusalem (Rom. 15:25-27). Then no one could say that Paul had not fulfilled his part in the decisions of the Jerusalem meeting. This way Paul also acknowledged that the gospel and the Christian faith had set out from Jerusalem.
Why was the church in Jerusalem so poor? There were several reasons. Although the Old Testament speaks very highly about the Promised Land (Deut. 8:7-11), Palestine was quite a poor region during the time of the apostles. “Pilgrims” from other parts of Christendom also came to Jerusalem, and some of them remained there permanently. Those who converted from Judaism lost the support of the synagogue and relatives. It also became difficult for many (e.g., merchants) to practice their profession because the Jews considered them heretics, or working became altogether impossible (e.g., priests, Acts 6:7).
The example of Macedonia – 2 Cor. 8:1-5
It is worth remembering that Paul had previously emphasized that he was not "selling" the word of God, he did not seek to get financial gain from it (2 Cor. 2:17). Talk about collecting money was prone to misunderstandings and accusations. That is why Paul writes cautiously and chooses his words carefully.
In Chapter 8, Paul uses the Greek word kharis in many senses. The word is usually translated ‘grace’, and a ‘gift of grace’ (charisma) is also close to it:
• grace, verse 1
• favour, verse 4 (‘begging us earnestly for the’)
• act of grace, verses 6, 7 and 19
• thanks, verse 16
We often have a very narrow understanding of ‘the gifts of grace’ i.e., the gifts of the Spirit: prophesy, healing, and speaking in tongues. But if we read Paul’s lists of the spiritual gifts – for example, 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 and Romans 12:4-8 – we find several gifts of the Spirit there, some of which are rather “peculiar”: teaching, encouraging, administering, giving.
Despite their poverty, the Christians in Macedonia had volunteered to help the church in Jerusalem (verses 2-4, cf. Luke 21:1-4, the widow's mite). Note, however, verse 5: God is not interested in the quantity of the gift but in the quality. The Macedonians gave the greatest gift possible: themselves.
We who are accustomed to the modern-day fast travel do not understand how very far Jerusalem and its Christians were from the Macedonia of that time. In those days, they did not watch television news from around the world. But their Christian faith had created a connection that transcended all distances.
Paul had established three churches in Macedonia: Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (Acts 16:16-17:15). Paul praises the generosity of the Philippian Christians also in the Epistle to the Philippines (Phil. 4:10-20).
That there may be fairness – 2 Cor. 8:6-15
The churches in Macedonia were poor. The Corinthians were rich compared to them. However, Paul does not appeal to the Corinthians for their wealth but takes up the example of Christ (verse 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."
Notice once again a characteristic of Paul: he is stating great religious truths which may go quite unnoticed. "He was rich" speaks of the pre-existence of Christ with God before Christ was born as a human being (in greater detail: Phil. 2:5-11). Although Paul never speaks in his letters about the birth of Christ, Paul certainly did not think that Jesus ever was just an ordinary human child. Since his birth, Jesus was a human and the Son of God.
The Corinthians had already started raising money the previous year (verse 10, 2 Cor. 9:2), but it had been interrupted, probably because of problems that arose in the church. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul gave instructions for organizing the collection. On the day after each Sabbath – that is, Sunday – some money had to be set aside weekly. A collection was also organized in Galatia and probably in all the churches founded by Paul.
It seems that Paul was not sure whether the Corinthians would start collecting money again for the poor of Jerusalem (verse 8, cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-4). Paul does not want to give authoritative instructions on this matter either (cf. 2 Cor. 1:24), he only gives a piece of advice (verse 10).
God is not interested in what we do not have, but in what we have (verse 12). Neither should we think, "Then when I have this and that, I will do this and that." We should not live in the future and in hopes but in the present and reality.
Paul does not want to make demands but hopes that from within the Corinthians there will rise a desire to help. Love cannot be forced (verse 8). The one who contributes is advised to give “in generosity” (Rom. 12:8) and cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:6-8).
Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, written a little later, reveals that Paul did succeed in getting the Corinthians to participate in the joint collection by the Gentile churches (Rom. 15:26).
In conclusion, Paul refers to the manna miracle in the wilderness. Even though people gathered different quantities of manna, everyone got enough, and no one had too much (Exodus 16:18).
Joint responsibility and solidarity
In the past years, the trade union movement has been calling for solidarity. However, a senior union leader once said what he had noticed: "When solidarity takes the first coin from your own pay packet, the talk of solidarity dries up!"
In Finland, and in the Nordic countries in general, people increasingly think that it is the task of society to take care of the weak. The well-off should pay the expenses through taxes, but there is no desire for that either. Everyone would like to be in the recipient’s and not the payer’s role.
When responsibility for something is shared with many people, it often means that no one takes responsibility for it. As Christians, we must not escape our responsibility by saying that society should take care of that. (Matt. 25:31-46).
Paul's letter of recommendation – 2 Corinthians 8:16-24
Paul understood that a collection bringing in a lot of money (verse 20) would also cast doubt on whether all the funds would go to the right place. To prevent evil speech and gossip, Paul did not carry out the task by himself, but Titus acted as his representative. Titus was accompanied by two brothers chosen by the churches of Macedonia (verse 23).
Verse 19 describes the choosing of trustees in the churches. Paul uses a word that meant ‘voting’, raising your hand as a sign to show your choice. From the beginning, there have been office holders in the churches, such as Paul and Titus, who worked full time for the kingdom of God, and besides them, there were trustees, who did the work of the gospel in addition to their own work. The use of money for spiritual causes must be particularly accurate. We are accountable to both the donors and to God. We must not give cause for unnecessary rumours and slander. "For we aim at what is honourable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man" (verse 21). How the church uses money must also stand up to scrutiny by the world.
I once asked an American professor of theology his thoughts on television preachers in the United States. He replied, "Most of them began with spreading the gospel. But after a while, many noticed what a good way it is to make money. And so, everything focused on money."
Everyone is attracted by money. Therefore, the church must manage its finances in such a way that there will be no opportunities for the abuse of money.