August 16 - 22
The Ministry of Generosity
READ FOR THIS WEEK'S STUDY: 2 Cor. 8:1-15.
MEMORY TEXT: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9, NKJV).
KEY THOUGHT: True fulfillment is found in meeting the needs of others.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE AN EAGERLY GIVEN GIFT. Tony Campolo tells the story of Teddy Stallard and his teacher, Miss Thompson. She found Teddy difficult to love even though his records told of his mother's recent death and his father's lack of attention. Teddy's Christmas gift for her came wrapped in brown paper and a maze of Scotch tape. Miss Thompson opened it to find a partly used bottle of cheap perfume. She silenced the giggles of the other children by putting some of it on and asking, "Doesn't it smell lovely?" Teddy lingered after school that day to say softly, "Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother." Miss Thompson's heart broke. She became more committed to her students, especially the slower ones and most especially Teddy Stallard. By the end of the year, his performance had improved dramatically. And years later, when Teddy Stallard, M.D., married, Miss Thompson sat in his mother's place.
As Paul urges the Corinthians to be generous, he shares important concepts with us. Among them is the thought that the size of a gift is not nearly as important as the eagerness in the heart that gives it.
Early in his missionary career, what did the Jerusalem church leaders ask of Paul? Gal. 2:10.
"The Collection for the Saints," which is the focus of 2 Corinthians 8, 9, is an overlooked feature of Paul's ministry. On his visit to Jerusalem, reflected in Galatians 2, Paul is asked to "remember the poor," something he was "eager to do" (Gal. 2:10, NRSV). So eager was he to fulfill the request that "the collection" may be described as "Paul's obsession for nearly two decades."S. McKnight, "Collection for the Saints," Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, editors, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, 111. & Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 143.
Paul deals with "the collection" in two other passages, one written before and the other after 2 Corinthians 8, 9. What does each passage add concerning this project?
1 Cor. 16:1-4 _______________________________________________________
Rom. 15:22-33 ______________________________________________________
In Acts, we discover that Paul's final trip to Jerusalem was to deliver "the collection." After his arrest, Paul told Felix he had come to Jerusalem "to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings" (Acts 24:17, NIV). Paul seems to have collected funds for the project from all of his churches. And the sum of money was probably quite large. Aside from Corinth, donations came from Derbe and Lystra (Acts 20:4), Berea, Thessalonica and Philippi in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1-5; Acts 20:4, 6), Ephesus, Troas, and probably other cites, as well. This was an international effort, directed by Paul, to relieve the needs of poor Christians in Jerusalem.
It also provided an opportunity for Paul to exercise his "ministry of reconciliation." He hoped the collection would testify to the unity of the church, made up as it was of both Jews and Gentiles. He hoped, too, it would show that Gentile Christians recognized the debt of gratitude they owed to Jewish Christians. "For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings" (Rom. 15:27, NIV).
|To whom do you "owe" spiritual and material blessings, and what do you plan to do about it? To what projects can I dedicate some of my time/money/talents so the gospel of Christ may be concretely illustrated?|
In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7, Paul points out the example of generosity provided by believers in Macedonia. Macedonia was not a wealthy province. The Christians there were probably worse off than others because they had been persecuted for their faith (1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 3:1-5; Phil. 1:29, 30).
Study the following principles of generosity identified in 2 Corinthians 8:1-7. What other principles can you find here? Which is most important for our own time and why?
1. Generosity is a divine gift. We cannot generate it ourselves (verse 1).
2. The poor and afflicted as well as the rich and famous can be generous (verse 2).
3. Generosity is voluntary, not forced. It looks for opportunities to give (verses 3, 4).
4. Christian generosity is based on totally giving oneself to God. It is not only gifts of money that may serve to soothe a selfish spirit. True generosity flows from a committed life (verse 5).
5. Just as they strive to excel in other virtues and gifts, Christians should seek excellence in generosity (verse 7).
How can we recapture the spirit of generosity and sacrificial giving so evident in the lives of the Macedonian Christians? On a scale of 1-10, how sacrificial would you say your giving habits have been during the past six months?
Why not try one of the following? (1) Have your family choose a person or family who has an obvious material need and begin a "collection" to fill it. (2) Lead your Sabbath School class in adopting an ADRA project that would stretch the class's resources.
|Lord, the pull toward materialism and self-centeredness is strong. We never seem to acquire quite enough for our own "needs." We imagine ourselves contributing our time, talents, and money someday. Please grant us the gift of generosity today.|
In sharing with them the example of the Macedonian Christians' sacrificial giving, Paul has challenged the Corinthians to be generous. Before turning to the grandest Example of generosity, Paul shares his strategy in verse 8.
Reflect on the incarnation of Jesus in light of 2 Corinthians 8:9. Compare Philippians 2:5-8. How did Christ make Himself poor for you? How does your own generosity meet the "test" of Christ's sacrifice?
Philip Yancey writes, "I learned about incarnation when I kept a salt-water aquarium. Management of a marine aquarium, I discovered, is no easy task. I had to run a portable chemical laboratory to monitor the nitrate levels and the ammonia content. I pumped in vitamins and antibiotics and sulfa drugs and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filtered the water through glass fibers and charcoal, and exposed it to ultraviolet light. You would think, in view of all the energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed above the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one 'emotion' only: fear. Although I opened the lid and dropped in food on a regular schedule, three times a day, the), responded to each visit as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. I could not convince them of my true concern.
"To my fish I was deity. I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My acts of mercy they saw as cruelty; my attempts at healing they viewed as destruction. To change their perceptions, I began to see, would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and 'speak' to them in a language they could understand.
"A human being becoming a fish is nothing compared to God becoming a baby. And yet according to the Gospels that is what happened at Bethlehem. The God who created matter took shape within it, as an artist might become a spot on a painting or a playwright a character within his own play. God wrote a story, only using real characters, on the pages of real history. The Word became flesh." The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 38, 39.
|Have you laid claim to that vast wealth that is yours as a gift from Christ, the One who was willingly, impoverished? If not, why not?|
How does God judge a gift? 2 Cor. 8:12. Consider the stories in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. How do they illustrate Paul's principle?
Aside from the incomparable gift of God in Christ, the widow's memorable act is the case study of generosity in the Bible. During the last week before His crucifixion, Jesus is tangled in controversies in the temple. But somehow fie manages to slip away from the strife and sit opposite the temple treasury. It contains a group of thirteen collection boxes called "The Trumpets" because each is shaped like a ram's horn trumpet. Each of the thirteen is labeled with an "account" name. Worshipers put an offering into the account, or container, of their choice.
After a while, she slips in, an island of poverty in a sea of pride. She slinks along the wall, fearing someone will notice her. Except for shy glances to this offering container, then that one, her eyes are glued to the floor. She is alone. Her clothes are worn, betraying the miserable status of an impoverished widow. Her face is scarred with hardship and scored with misfortune. With no time or resources for luxuries, she is hardly an example of personal hygiene. She is a lament for a system gone astray.
She finds the container. What was its label? Perhaps thinking of someone even more destitute, she chooses the one marked "Poor Fund." She slips a shaking hand into a bare-threaded robe. Jesus leans forward. The glint of two copper coins reaches His eyetwo leptathe smallest coin minted. The name means "thin one." Jesus knows this woman has only two "thin ones" to her name. Her hand still quivers. But her will is firm. With reckless generosity and astounding faith, she casts, not one, but both coins into the temple treasury. Jesus is so moved, He calls to His disciples. He points out to them this special woman, and says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on" (Mark 12:43, 44, NRSV).
|Compare and contrast your giving style with that of the widow's. What does her spirit of generosity teach you about your own experience? Do you give out of your abundance or out of your necessity? Do you give expecting some benefit in return or out of love to God and others?|
What do we learn about "generosity" or "liberality" from Romans 12:3-8?
In Romans 8, Paul regards generosity as a spiritual gift. He implies the same view in 2 Corinthians, as well: "Now as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking" (verse 7, NRSV).
Paul does not want his readers to think that the generosity he talks about is merely a humane quality, a feature of civilized life. He wants, instead, to challenge them with the thought that generosity must itself be a gift from God.
What additional principles of generosity may be found in 2 Corinthians 8:10-15?
[Continuing the list from Monday's lesson]
6. If we make a pledge (either formally or in our hearts) to contribute our resources (money, time, talents, etc.) to God's cause, we should follow through (verses 10, 11). The Corinthians had, at an earlier point ("last year," verse 10, NIV), agreed in principle to contribute to "the collection for the saints." And they had, apparently, begun to raise the promised funds. Paul now encourages them to renew their interest in the project and fulfill their earlier pledge.
7. God does not require of us what we do not possess. He invites us to contribute what He has first given to us. It is not the size of the gift that is the essential element. Our "eagerness" or "willingness" (verses 11, 12) is the standard by which our generosity is measured.
8. Paul uses Exodus 16:18 to underline another principle of generosity-its goal-that is, a "fair balance." If we are experiencing "abundance," we should be prepared to minister to those in "need" (verses 13-15, NRSV). That God gave the manna in a way that supplied the needs of all is a model for our own generosity.
|If others knew the level of your giving, would you provide a model for them to follow? If not, how can God help you in this area?|
FURTHER STUDY: God's Word promises that if we dare to follow heaven's rules of generosity, we will prosper, Study Proverbs 3:9, 10, 27, 28; 11:24, 25; 28:8.
Read The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 32, "A Liberal Church," pp. 335-345.
"The Lord has claims upon every living soul, and those whom He blesses with means should help those who are not thus blessed. 'For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes, he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.' The followers of Jesus are required to practice self-denial, to cultivate the same beneficent spirit that characterized our Lord. They are to remember the poor, and be kind and sympathetic to the sorrowing, and thus show that they are following in the footsteps of Jesus." Ellen G. White, Review and Herald, June 26, 1894.
SUMMARY: The eagerness of the Macedonians to give despite their extreme povertyand the willingness of Jesus to exchange divine splendor for human povertyshould inspire us to seek after God's gift of generosity.
Blessing in Blindness, Part 1
Four-year-old Yi Yuen peeked shyly from behind her mother's skirt and whispered, an xi ri kuai le [ahn shee ri KWEYE luh], "happy day of rest," the Chinese believers' Sabbath greeting. Chen did not see her daughter's smile. Chen is blind.
"I was seven years old when my eyes began bothering me," Chen recounted. "My parents took me to many doctors, but they all said my disease was incurable; I would gradually lose my eyesight."
At first Chen tried to pretend that nothing was wrong. But at night, alone in her dark room, it was easy to imagine what blindness was like. Often she hid her face in her blanket and wept.
Chen's eyesight gradually grew weaker. By age 13, she could no longer see what the teacher wrote on the board; she was legally blind. She enrolled in a school for the blind to learn Braille.
Chen's growing blindness frustrated her. She poured her heartache into music, sometimes practicing 10 hours a day. She mastered several musical instruments. She allowed herself to dream of a musical career, but her blindness prevented her from enrolling in a music conservatory.
One door after another closed for Chen. Eventually she was forced to quit school and take work in a factory for blind workers. Frustrated and lonely, she yearned for happiness and fulfillment.
Chen's mother became a Christian and shared her faith with Chen. The two attended the official Three-Self Church together. There Chen accepted Jesus as her Saviour. Then she met a kind young man and fell in love. The two were married, and Chen felt that at last she was happy. A year later their daughter was born, and Chen could almost forget the pain blindness had caused her.
Chen's mother left China, and Chen began visiting other Three-Self churches. But with her quick mind, Chen was bored by shallow preaching. Chen began searching for greater spiritual fulfillment.
One day Chen met Li, a friend of her mother. When Chen expressed her disappointment in the churches she had attended, Li invited her to attend a Bible study group at her church. But Chen felt she already knew more than most ministers. Li challenged her friend to answer the questions on a Bible study form. Chen realized that she could not answer any of the questions. "What church teaches the Bible in this much detail?" Chen asked.
(continued next week)
Chen and her family live in Shanghai, China. Charlotte Ishkanian is editor of the Mission quarterlies.
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