There is a passage in the book of Acts where Paul is saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders, and he is getting ready to head off to Rome where he will die in prison. He says his final thoughts and final words, and he quotes Jesus in Acts 20:35 saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Do you believe this is true? It is good and fun to be on the receiving end of good gifts. This verse reminds us that it is actually better to be on the giving side. It is better to be generous than to receive gifts. There is something deep within all of us that knows this is true. We have a desire inside of us to be generous. It comes for being formed in the image of God because God is incredibly generous. Probably the most famous passage in the Bible is John 3:16, which says, “ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Woven deep into the fabric of our being is a desire to be generous, just as God was generous in giving his Son.
Unfortunately, many Christians are not generous, and some cannot be. They are struggling to be generous because of different barriers in their lives. One of the biggest barriers is the way our world is set up. Everything revolves around us, and everything in our lives is set up to serve us and make our experiences of life just right. This can be very damaging to the soul because our souls were created to give and to be generous. As we get older and become more influenced by the world, we tend to give less. An economist named H.F. Clark has talked about the “Twenty-five percent rule.” He has done extensive research on this topic. His research led him to believe that no matter what their level of income, on average people want 25 percent more than what they have right now. And when people get that extra 25 percent, then they still want 25 percent more than they already have at that moment. We have this discontent built into us that comes from our culture. Deep inside, however, we have a desire for generosity. The American version of generosity goes something like this: You take care of yourself first, and then when you get to a certain position in life and have all of your affairs taken care of, then you can finally be charitable. This is not the Biblical definition of generosity at all!
I want to look at a passage of scripture where Paul actually holds up what you could call “Heroes of Generosity.” He holds up the Macedonian churches as examples to everyone about how true generosity should appear. It is in 2 Corinthians 8. First, let us look at the context of this passage. Paul was a missionary to the Gentiles. He would meet with the church elders. Christianity at this point has been a Jewish religion. Peter, James, and John and the church elders were stationed there in Jerusalem, and they began planting churches there. Paul came to them and said he believed God was calling him to go to the Gentiles–to go out into the rest of the world and to reach them with the Gospel. There was disagreement there about what should happen. In the end, the church elders sent Paul out of Jerusalem to go reach the Gentiles in the world. The Gentile world was in varying degrees of disconnect with Jerusalem. There were some enemies out there that were Gentiles. They sent Paul anyway to meet these people. He went to modern day Greece and to Turkey and to Macedonia on his journey. Paul would go to these areas and plant churches. One of his goals was to teach the churches to be generous by collecting an offering to send back to the Jerusalem church, which was in a state of struggle. This was a radical idea at the time. The Jerusalem church was in poverty and in persecution. In 1 Corinthians 16 Paul first talks about this collection saying, “Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your 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.” Six months later when Paul writes the book of 2 Corinthians, the offerings still hadn’t really come through. Paul ends up using one of the oldest tricks in the book. He compares the churches of Macedonia with the churches in Corinth in terms of giving. In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 Paul holds up the “Heroes of Generosity”:
“And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But since you excel in everything —in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
How can we excel in generosity and giving like the Macedonian churches? Generosity is one of the keys to financial maturity as a Christian. One of the marks of a fully devoted follower of Jesus is to be a person of rich generosity. We are going to take a few moments to walk through the first five verses of the passage above.
Verse 1: The Macedonian churches’ generosity was a result of the grace of God. It was an outflow. They knew that just when grace was desperately needed, it was given to them because of what Jesus did at the cross. Think of the open hands of Jesus on the cross to receive the nails. It was a kind of prediction of what would happen in His people. It is what happens to our hands when our hearts get changed. One of the evidences of God’s grace in our lives is to become generous with our stuff. If you feel you are not as generous as you should be right now, just go back to the grace of God and what God did for you to rescue you. When we understand this grace, it begins to open our hands in generosity.
Verse 2: Their generosity trascended their circumstances. The Macedonian churches were in severe trial and extreme poverty. In many ways, the grace of Christ brought more trials to these people because they were now all of sudden receiving persecution for their faith in Jesus. Grace does not just remove trouble; grace sometimes brings it. Sometimes when we become Christians our lives become more difficult than they were beforehand. This goes against what our culture preaches today. Instead of removing their trial and poverty, God made these poor people radically generous people. He didn’t change their finances; He changed their hearts. When you and I go through any kind of severe trial, we tend to become incredibly self absorbed. Not only this, but we also have a tendency to question God. We tend to shut everyone else out and focus on ourselves and getting ourselves out of our circumstances. What the Macedonian churches did was the complete opposite. This is the upside down nature of the Gospel. Instead of turning inward, they turned outward. In the midst of it all, they had overflowing joy that welled up in rich generosity. Their joy was not rooted in their circumstances. Their joy was not rooted in their financial situation. Their joy was rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ. Have you ever noticed that generous people are not grouchy people? They have joy and happiness that comes from giving. There is a principle in the Bible that says that whatever we do with a little we will do with a lot. If you are foolish with a little, than you will be foolish if given more. The time to be generous is wherever you are at right now.
Verse 3: Their generosity raised eyebrows. We have a tendency to spend beyond our ability on ourselves. The Macedonian churches gave beyond their means despite their severe trial and their poverty. When was the last time you gave beyond your means to someone else? If you are in a heap of debt right now, this is not a calling to go further into debt. If you have a plan to get out of debt, please follow it. You can find other ways other than with your finances to be generous. There are others of you reading this that need to take a step. There are times when Christians need to display exorbitant generosity. Why? Because the world is supposed to look at the generosity of believers of Jesus Christ and scratch their heads wondering what in the world is going on there. They will want to be a part of it too. The generosity of churches and believers should make the world stop and take notice. In the world, money is God. If we can take money and put it in its rightful place by making it subservient to Jesus Christ, making it work for the kingdom instead of us working for it, and making it a slave instead of our master than the world will watch in wonder. They will probably say, “I have never seen anything like this before!” The generosity Jesus is talking about is counterculture. Remember that there is something radical and unprecedented going on here in this passage and really in the whole early church. People were not clinging tightly to their possessions. They were sharing freely with anyone who had need. The world had never experienced this before. This is what happened when a community of people were gripped by the presence and the way of Jesus. Our idea of counterculture today is pretty shallow. It goes as far as wearing T-shirts with a saying on them, putting bumper stickers on our cars, and/or wearing a cross or a Jesus fish around our necks. True counterculture doesn’t happen through these ridiculous ways; it happens when we take the God of our culture–money–and break its back. We can demonstrate that money is just a tool in the hands of an Almighty God. We as His followers don’t hoard it, get selfish about it, abuse people to get more of it, or keep score with it–we freely give it!
Verse 4: Their generosity was persistent. Imagine the scene: Paul and Timothy were taking this collection among all of these churches, and they reached the Macedonian churches, and seeing their extreme poverty, they try to talk these people out of giving. The people, this verse says, urgently pleaded for the privilege of being generous. How many of us have ever had a generous thought of something we could or should do that we just never got around to seeing through? We have all done it. We see someone and think, “I need to write them a note.” Or we see a family with a lot of kids that could use a break and think, “I need to watch their kids for a night.” Or we see someone with a need and think, “I need to send them some resources.” But we never get around to it. This is not generosity. It is tricky because we can convince ourselves that thinking about generosity is the same as actually being generous. This verse says that generosity is persistent and active. It is not simply a feeling. It actually does something.
Verse 5: Their generosity was rightly motivated. They gave themselves to God first. They had a deep trust and deep relationship with God. This passage says that they were at the center of God’s will. When God told them to give, they gave because they knew the money belonged to God. There was partnership going on between God and the Macedonian churches. They were motivated out of the will of God. Motivation is important, however, there are all kinds of wrong motives. They could have been giving to earn brownie points with the mother church and because they felt it was important to be in good standing with the Jerusalem church. They could have given out of obligation because everyone else was giving. They could have given out of guilt or to look good to other people, but their generosity was rightly motivated. Can you say the same about your motivation to give? Ultimately, generosity is not a financial issue; it is a heart issue. This is why it can be present when there is no money. Are you giving yourself first to God? Are you and God deciding together what to do with the money that He has entrusted to you?
How can we foster a more generous heart? The Bible says that where our treasure is, our heart will also be. We often think that if we get our hearts right first, then we will be more generous people. What this passage says is that our wallets actually have the ability to lead our hearts. Our treasures can go first. Another way to say this is to say that where our treasure goes, there our hearts will follow. We have the ability to lead our hearts in the right direction with our wallets.
This challenge today is about your maturity, your Christ-likeness, your growth. There are different levels of generosity. There are some people who figure it cost something to keep the lights and heat on at church, so they feel obligated to give something. This is basic, entry-level generosity. There are some who give because of a particular need or cause. This is a great thing, however giving in this way can be kind of sporadic instead of a way of life. It is something that ebbs and flows. Beyond this, people will move off to a level of systematic obedience. Paul mentioned setting aside a portion of our income every week to give away. There is something about being systematic with our generosity that forces our wallets to lead our hearts. It is not an end all or a guarantee of generosity, but it is certainly a step when we set aside a portion of our income to give away and to spend on someone or something other than ourselves. All we have is a gift from God, and a portion should go back to Him first. This is what we call tithing, which involves making a decision to make generosity a priority. God wants every part of us–100 percent. Tithing is like a floor, not a ceiling. It is a starting point rather than an ending place in terms of how much of our resources we give away. The final level of giving is Spirit-directed generosity. Generosity can bring us joy. The scripture tells us that when we give generously, God supplies all of our needs. It is not a way to get rich; it is a way to get Jesus! When we are generous our hearts are more like Jesus.
There are many people stuck at the first two levels. I want to challenge you to take the next step. Giving is one of the areas in scripture that challenges us to put God to the test. Take a “90-day challenge” to be generous with your resources. Tithe or take a step of some kind. Imagine if all of God’s people took this challenge. It would release millions of dollars for God’s work! It would open up the floodgates of heaven and freedom and joy in our congregations and the communities beyond us. One day we will all stand before God who generously gives, and we will be held accountable for the resources He has sent our way during our lifetimes. He invites us all to live a life of generosity. Will God be able to say of you someday that you sincerely accepted this invitation to live generously? Hopefully He will say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”