Love, Hope, and Trust on Good Friday in the Gospel of Luke

April 14, 2022

Surrounded by people who falsely accused him, mocked him, beat him, divided his last possessions among themselves, and nailed him to a cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing.”

When one of the criminals crucified with Jesus confessed his guilt, recognized the innocence of Jesus, and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom, Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

When darkness covered the whole land and nearing his dying breaths, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (quoting Psalm 31).

If we had been standing before the cross some two thousand years ago, there was nothing about that scene that announced the forgiveness of sins, victory over evil, and trust in God’s good work. We probably would have wondered, as we often do today, where is God in this? Why did God abandon the Messiah to death?

Whatever our reasonings, the Messiah himself sought forgiveness for his persecutors, hoped in the victory his death entailed, and died with a profound trust in the God of Israel. What gives birth to such merciful love, expectant hope, and trusting faith?

I imagine Jesus might say something like, “the God of Israel is my father.” And that was sufficient grace for him during those horrible hours on Good Friday.

Based on a scene in Eighty Days Around the Bible: The Story of God from Creation to New Creation.


2 Corinthians 11:21b-29: Enduring Hardship for the Sake of the Gospel

April 9, 2022

Finally, after preparing his readers for twenty-one verses, Paul begins his foolish boasting.

Paul’s boasting matches, in some way, the “super-apostles” (hyperlian apostolōn; 2 Corinthians 11:8; 12:11). Whatever boasts they may have boldly announced, Paul can match them and more. Just as the “super-apostles” are apparently Hebrews, Israelites, descendants of Abraham, and ministers of Christ, Paul is as well but a “better” (hyper) minister. The “hyper-apostles” are not superior to Paul; moreover, Paul is a “better” (hyper) minister than the “hyper-apostles.” They share the same pedigree, but Paul excels them in the last particular.

  • “Hebrew” may probably means his ethnic purity or perhaps, according to some, his capacity to read/speak Hebrew and his study of the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • “Israelite” identifies Paul with the covenant people of God whom God adopted from among the nations, which speaks to a privileged status in the history of redemption.
  • “Descendent of Abraham” highlights that the promises to Abraham belong to him as much as they do to anyone else.

These first three are saying essentially the same thing with different words. It has the rhetorical effect to say, “I am as much of a Hebrew, Israelite, and descendant of Abraham as anyone, especially these ‘super-apostles’.” The fourth one, however, is where Paul claims “more” than the “super-apostles.”

  • “Minister of Christ” does not refer to all believers in this instance, but presumably to people commissioned as servants of the Messiah in some way as co-workers in the ministry of reconciliation like Epaphras (Colossians 1:7) or Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5).

The “super-apostles” and Paul share a similar identity—they share a heritage, training, and status. But the difference emerges when the nature of their Christian ministry (“ministers of Christ”) is considered. Paul is “better” or “more” (hyper) than the hyper-apostles. But in what way is Paul “more” (hyper)?

Paul’s boasting about his hyper ministry leans into his suffering rather than his success, prosperity, or rhetoric skills. Rather than promoting his authority, success, or gifts, Paul lays out more specifically why he is a “better” minister than the “super-apostles” by noting how his suffering for the ministry of reconciliation is “more” than the “super-apostles.”

This boasting about “more” suffering falls into four nice categories as several commentators have noticed.

  • “More” labors, imprisonments, floggings, and near death experiences.
  • Suffering enumerated in ministry: five lashings, three beatings, one stoning, three shipwrecks, and one day and night in the sea.
  • Risks or dangers in ministry: rivers, bandits, his own people (Jews), Gentiles, cities, wilderness, sea, false brothers and sisters (Christian).
  • Struggles in ministry: in toil and hardship, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, and without food, warmth, and clothing.

If the Corinthians are looking for recommendations, commendations, and credentials, Paul lays out how he is “better” (hyper) than the hyper-apostles. Essentially, he suffers more. He humbles himself to work with his own hands (“toil”) and endures paucity that comes with the way he pursues ministry. His travels put him in constant danger, and his ministry endangers him by the responses he might receive from his own Christian family as well as Jews and Gentiles outside his Christian family. Some of those responses included lashings (a Jewish practice) and beatings (a Roman practice), even a stoning (Acts 14:19-23), as well as the normal hazards of sea-travel (three shipwrecks already and at least one more to come in Acts 27). Paul endures this suffering for the sake of the ministry of reconciliation. The list stresses Paul’s endurance, not his failings.

But most importantly—beyond these moments of suffering as significant as they are—it is his care for the churches that burdens him the most and identifies him as a hyper minister of Christ.

To my mind, this is the most distressful aspect of Paul’s ministry. It is the climax of his boasting about “more.” Indeed, Paul is the one who has the care of the churches at the top of his list in the way he conducts the ministry of reconciliation. In three sentences, he articulates the depth of his commitment, and the Corinthians ought to recognize this when they consider how Paul has lived and served among them.

  • “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
  • “Who is weak, and I am not weak?”
  • “Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?”

Paul’s ministry burdens him—a burden he gladly accepts—with an intense concern for “all the churches.” This anxiety or care (merimna), the only time Paul uses this word, is a legitimate one as there is real danger. The bride of Christ is under attack, and Paul—especially for the Corinthians—feels the burden of a father for his virgin daughter. It is stressful, even distressful. It arises out of his love for the body of Christ, and he willingly carries this weight because he understands how important it is to care for the church.

The second line reminds us that Paul’s ministerial method means that he becomes all things to all people: “to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak” (1 Corinthians 9:22). In relation to weaknesses within the family of God, Paul does not have to run them over and cater only to the strong. Paul, in other words, does not throw the weak under the bus or insist they get off the bus. He ministers to them, loves them, and becomes one of them as he practices the ministry of reconciliation in conformity to the image of Christ who became weak for our sakes (2 Corinthians 13:4).

The third line reveals Paul’s commitment to the weak. When someone is scandalized, Paul becomes angry (or, literally, he burns). When people are scandalized, Paul becomes upset and distressed. Whether it is about eating food offered to idols (as in 1 Corinthians 8:13) or something else, Paul prioritizes the scandalized (the weak). In the context of 2 Corinthians, this may refer to how some have been treated by the “super-apostles” or by other Corinthians who considered themselves strong or thought they knew more or better than others. Scandalization refers to destroy another’s faith such that they are no longer committed believers; it is not about petty feelings or offences (see Romans 14:15).

Paul is working with the theology that shaped the way he encouraged the Corinthians to share generously in 2 Corinthians 8-9. He humbles himself through working with his own hands rather than being a burden to them, becomes weak for the sake of the weak, and he becomes a fool through boasting for the hope of reconciliation. In other words, Paul’s ministry is cruciform; it follows the path of Jesus to the cross. And it lives in the hope of the reconciliation and resurrection.

The style of ministry in the American church, and in other moments in history, is often more shaped by prosperity, success, celebrity pastors, megachurches, popularity, and positions of strength rather than weakness. That is not Paul’s style, nor is it the way Jesus ministered.

When the weak are excluded, ignored, or thrown under the bus, we are called to indignation because we love the church, boast in the cross of Christ, and embrace the goal of reconciliation. When power abuses the weak in our churches, the appropriate responses are tears of grief and indignant confrontation. When arrogant and empowered people abuse the weak, they conform more to the American values of success and public reputation than to the witness of the cross of Christ.

Authentic leaders, conformed to the gospel of Jesus, must bear the burden of care for the church as a parent for their children, become weak for the sake of the weak, and burn with indignation when the weak are abused by the system.

May God give the church such leaders in abundance!


Boasting in Hope and Suffering (Romans 5:1-5)

April 2, 2022

“Therefore, since we have been set right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom we have gained entrance into this grace in which we stand; and we boast in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit whom God has given to us.”

Introduction

Romans 5:1 is the conclusion of Romans 1:18-4:25 (“therefore”). We have been set right (justified) with God and have peace with God.

Romans 5:2-5 summarizes the content of Romans 5:6-8:39 (a la NT Wright). The themes of suffering, hope, and Holy Spirit anticipate chapter 8.

The conclusion serves as the hinge between Romans 1-4 and Romans 5-8, which is “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Two Movements of the Sermon

We boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God.

The Hebraic thought-world shapes Paul’s language:  Messiah, shalom, access (as in temple), and standing (as in the temple). Through Jesus, we are able to enter into the presence of God, that is, we have access to and stand in the grace.  We stand in the presence of God because of restored shalom between God and humanity.

What we have fallen short of (Rom 3:23) and what we were created to be (the glory of God), we now boast in the hope of sharing in the glory of God. We boast in the hope of becoming like God, being fully conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29).

Transition:  we boast in hope (that I understand), but it doesn’t make much sense to “boast in our sufferings” (I usually lament them, complain about them, and protest them).  This is disturbing and counter-intuitive, and it seems to mean that there is some value in suffering and that some how God is doing something in the midst of our suffering.  How do we boast in suffering? Why might we boast in suffering?

2. We boast in our sufferings.

We boast because we know….   Suffering has meaning, value, and even purpose because “we know….”  What do we know?

What is suffering? The word is more like “afflictions” (cf. Rom 8:35). Will “afflictions” separate from the love of God? No! Does “standing in the grace of God” keep us from “afflictions.” No! The “grace of God” does not entail a rose-garden utopian life.

There is something about “affliction” that is profitable. Afflictions do something for us; they produce something. Affliction includes the groaning of creation itself—life’s hardships.

Suffering produces endurance or perseverance. The word means to “stand up under the pressure.” Pressure forms something (cf. Rom 12:12, “endure affictions”). Endurance is produced; it is worked out in life. And it works something!

Perseverance produces character. “Character” does not fully capture the meaning. ASV: “approvedness.”  It is “tested character” or “approved character.”  Test or trial is built into the word. Testing is a motif that runs through the whole narrative of God. God tested Abraham (Gen 22:1), Israel to see what was in their heart (Deut 8:2), Hezekiah (2 Chr 32:31), and Paul (1 Thess 2:4). Affliction tests, probes, forming; it is character formation.

Character produces hope, which is our first boast in this text. Paul comes full circle. We boast in hope because we stand in the grace of God, and suffering, as we stand in that grace, produces hope. We don’t produce this hope on our own.  On the contrary, this hope is possible—and it is co-produced—by the presence of the love of God in our hearts through the power of the indwelling Spirit (Rom 15:13). Hope comes alive through the affliction.

Transition:  If we don’t have a sense of standing in the presence and grace of God, beloved by God, then affliction will deform rather than form; it will destroy rather than produce character. The problem with affliction is not the affliction; the problem with affliction is where we are standing. When we are beloved, affliction has a positive value—it produces hope!

  • Christological Move

Jesus suffered with us and for us, and when we suffer, we suffer with Christ (Rom 8:17). Jesus himself was perfected (formed) by the things he suffered (Heb 2:10). When we suffer, we participate in the suffering of Christ, and this suffering perfects us as it produces endurance, character, and hope.

As we follow Jesus, we, too, will suffer before entering into glory. If we follow Jesus into the water, we will be thrown into the wilderness. And we will be tested, just as he was.

This formation, in our lives, takes a long time; the crucible of life forms us over the long haul.

Conclusion

When we know that we are beloved by God, we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope arises in concert with the love of God present in our heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. We boast in the hope of glory, and we boast in our afflictions.


Sex, the Body, and God: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 — A Sermon Outline

March 22, 2022

Introduction

A.   The culture of the Greco-Roman world, including and perhaps especially Corinth, was highly sexualized. Public pornography was displayed on its city streets and on the walls of homes.

B.   The Corinthians were puzzled by the sexual constraints of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Distancing oneself from former habits and practices in the sexualized world of Greco-Roman culture was probably difficult and seemingly impossible for Corinthian males.

C.    Apparently, some Corinthians pushed back against Paul, specifically about porneia (fornication). They appear to have heard Paul say, “All things are permitted,” which they took to mean some kind of sexual liberty. Possibly, Paul was talking about another question like eating meats sacrificed to idols, but some Corinthians applied it to their sexual habits as well.

D.   This text is a dialogue between Paul and some Corinthians where Paul quotes his interlocutors at several points. Of course, the Greek text does not have any punctuation or quotation marks; only context can decide the question.  The NIV (2011) does a good job of alerting us to Paul’s quotations from some Corinthians.

The Text (NIV, 2011)

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 

Flee from sexual immorality. “Every sin a person commits is outside the body,”[1] you say—but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The Dialogue

A.   “I have a right to do anything,” but not everything is beneficial, Paul responds; and  “I have a right to do anything,” but no one should be mastered by anything, Paul responds.

God created so many goods, including sex. Nevertheless, those goods are not always beneficial, healthy, or helpful, and they are addictive if not managed in a healthy way.

B.   “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both,” but the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body as God will raise up the body just as God raised the body of Jesus, Paul responds.

The body is good, and it is not destined for destruction. The resurrection of the body is our Christian hope, and since God will raise the body from the dead, it matters what we do with the body. The deep connection between Christ and the body is reflected in the union of Christ and humanity through the resurrection (they belong to the same harvest).

C.   “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body,” but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.

The Corinthian argument appears to be that the body has nothing to do with sin, but Paul believes the body—because it is good, it will be raised, and it is united to Christ—is deeply connected to the ethical meaning of our actions, whether sin or righteousness.

A Theology of the Body

A.   The body is good; sex is good. Through bodies, we enjoy the created world. At the same time, we must be not be mastered by the body or sex (or any other chemical, physical, or emotional addiction). This is a self-destructive path. We are invited to enjoy God’s good gifts fully, though with balance and moderation. Porneia will master us if we do not pay attention to its power.

B.    Our bodies are united with Christ, and what we do unites Christ with that activity in the body. The unity (one flesh) of husband and wife in their sexual activity is a union with Christ; the experience of healthy sex is union with Christ. Sex, therefore, is a spiritual, even mystical, experience which honors Christ. The communion of husband and wife is communion with God.

C.    Our bodies are sacred space as the temples of the Holy Spirit. The awe, reverence, and honor due to God shapes how we use and treat our bodies because our bodies are God’s sanctuary. We, as whole persons—body and soul, image the holiness of God, and this principle grounds our ethical choices. We must always consider where we take this sacred space, what we do with this sacred space, and how we treat the sacred space of others.

Conclusion

Honor (glorify) God with your bodies!  Enjoy the goodness of creation, but do not be mastered by it. Instead, enjoy the good gifts of creation through your bodies and bring glory to God through a healthy use of your bodies.


[1] I have adjusted the NIV (2011) translation at this point because I think this is also a quotation from the Corinthian interlocutors. I also changed “all other sins” to “every sin”


2 Corinthians 11:5-15 – When Patronage Goes Awry

March 19, 2022

Paul is jealous for the purity of the Corinthian church just like a father is for his engaged daughter. He intends to protect the church from those who proclaim another Jesus with a different Spirit and a different gospel.

Paul now turns his specific attention to the group that threatens the purity of the Corinthian church. He calls them “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5) but also “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13). These designations tell us something about their identity and how dangerous the situation has become. They have come to Corinth with a different gospel, preaching another Jesus with a different spirit.

Since the “super-apostles” are also “false apostles,” Paul’s description is sarcastic. They are not really “super-apostles” except in their own eyes as they think they are better than Paul. They are “hyper-apostles” in the sense that they presume they have credentials Paul, who himself is an apostle of Christ, does not have. But Paul does not think of himself as at all inferior to these so-called apostles; indeed, his credentials—about which he will shortly boast—are more shaped by the gospel than theirs. He is not only not inferior, but he is, in fact, authentic whereas these “hyper-apostles” are not.

Paul concedes he is not like them in at least one respect, that is, he is “untrained (idiotes) in speech.” He is not a speech professional, a trained rhetorician or orator. We might surmise that some, if not all, the “super-apostles” were. This is their advantage, it seems. But it is no advantage at all since Paul’s ministry is not rooted in the style and ability of speech-making but in “knowledge.” Paul knows the mystery of Christ; he knows the gospel. He knows it, not simply in a cognitive sense, but through his ministry as an ambassador of Christ in the ministry of reconciliation. He has suffered for the gospel, just as Jesus did, and the Corinthians know this about him. Paul’s ministry is not one of outward show but of continual suffering for the sake of the gospel.

As trained rhetoricians, the “super-apostles” enjoyed and perhaps requested (maybe demanded) patronage. They expected, as was the case in Greco-Roman culture, to be rewarded for their skills and efforts, and Corinthians expected to provide patronage. This involved a sort of patron-client relationship where there were expectations due to an agreed financial exchange. In other words, the “super-apostles” expected to be paid, and the Corinthians expected to pay.

Paul addresses this situation in 2 Corinthians 11:7-11. The Corinthians so valued the patronage relationship that they appear to have been offended by Paul’s lack of interest. “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself?,” Paul asks. As we know from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul made a deliberate decision to live among the Corinthians without patronage and live by his own means. He did this so that he would not “burden” the Corinthians.

What does Paul mean by “burden?” It certainly includes a financial burden as Paul “robbed other churches by accepting” their support, as he did, for example, from Macedonia. But it seems it is more than financial.

The “burden” of patronage involves mutual obligations. Paul is willing to receive help and financial support from other places, both congregations and individuals. We know he received support from Philippi in Macedonia, for example, on at least one occasion (cf. Philippians 4:15-16). So, it is not that Paul opposes financial support per se. Rather, it has something to do with expectations and the obligations connected with patronage.

Patronage was, in fact, a hierarchical relationship, though the obligations were mutual. The patron—the one who provided financial support—was owed a certain honor and respect, including attending to the directives of the patron. Clients, then, served the patron, often lived in their household, and were loyal to the patron.

Perhaps Paul wants to avoid enmeshment in this cultural world of patronage because of the relationship it assumes and expects. Paul does not want the Corinthian support while living in Corinth because he does not want that kind of relationship with the church. He refuses patronage so that he is free to preach the gospel of Christ in loyalty to the kingdom of God rather than out of loyalty to a patron.

This is Paul’s boast. While the “super-apostles” may have boasted in their rhetoric and the patronage they received, Paul will boast in his relationship with the Corinthians that is not conditioned or shaped by patronage. Rather, he wants a relationship of family rather than patronage. He is a father to the Corinthians, and they are his children. He will not burden them with support, and neither will he permit the Corinthians to leverage his gospel by their patronage. In other words, Paul loves the Corinthians. They are not a pawn in his search for financial support but family whom he loves and seeks what is best for them. That love means he will not accept Corinthian patronage.

This is one particular in which Paul is different from the “super-apostles.” They accept patronage, and they have apparently used this as one ploy to say that they are equal, if not superior, to Paul. Indeed, they boast in their patronage, and they use Paul’s lack of it as a weapon against him or at least to exacerbate the tension between Paul and the Corinthians.

Their sly use of patronage illustrates, according to Paul, that they are “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” They are not truly interested in the gospel of Christ. They deceive others and hide their true motives. Like Satan himself, they disguise their selfish ambitions with angelic appearances. They disguise themselves as apostolic “ministers of righteousness” when they themselves are “false apostles.” The “super-apostles” are really “false apostles.”

Such weighty descriptions of the “super-apostles” are not merely a function of patronage and financial support. Rather, the more fundamental problem is they preach “another Jesus” with a “different Spirit” and a “different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4). The gospel is at stake.

Patronage is not inherently evil. Paul willingly receives financial support from some. The problem with patronage in Roman Corinth is that it created cultural expectations and obligations. Paul did not want to be bound to these cultural commitments. He wanted to preach the gospel freely.

Perhaps at times full-time, salaried ministers and pastors endanger both themselves and the congregation by living under analogous patronage relationships with relation to congregational leadership. When the financial relationship is such that the free preaching of the gospel is hindered, as Paul feared it might in Corinth, perhaps another path must be chosen. Or, at a minimum, the congregational leadership and its ministers must clarify the relationship so that the gospel might have space to breath freely and fully.

There is nothing inappropriate about salaried ministers; indeed, there is an obligation for the receivers of spiritual blessings to share their material resources (1 Corinthians 9:7-14; Galatians 6:6). But the environment must encourage the preaching of the full gospel in freedom. Otherwise, the gospel becomes a commodity and is hindered by the sort of patronage that Paul wanted to avoid in Corinth.


2 Corinthians 10:7-18 – Boasting in Ministry

March 6, 2022

In this third part of the letter, Paul confronts the Corinthians regarding the reception of the “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11) on the part of some in the congregation. In preparation for his third visit to Corinth, Paul lays the groundwork for a potentially tension-filled encounter. He promises that he will deal with his opponents and punish their disobedience (1 Corinthians 10:6).

But, it seems, his letters don’t frighten some people. Perhaps it is a particular person who is the leader of the group. Paul writes, “he says” (though some translations write “they” [NRSV], the text is singular), and what “he says” is this: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” In other words, Paul talks a big game when he is writing a letter, but when speaking in person, he is not a formidable person. One can hear the accusations: he has no rhetorical skills, his bodily appearance is unimpressive, he has no credentials, he has had little success, and his ministry is one moment of suffering after another (and where is God’s blessing in that?).

Greco-Roman culture valued a good rhetorician, impressive physical presence, bonified credentials from important people, successful adventures that win renown, and prosperity with reputation and honor. Perhaps the “super-apostles” fit the bill, and their ringleader pressed the comparison between Paul and themselves. Paul was an unfit leader, and the “super-apostles” were the truly authentic leaders to whom the Corinthians should listen rather than Paul.

The apostle’s initial response appeals to the experience of the Corinthians with Paul. If the Corinthians belong to Christ, they know Paul also belongs because it was Paul who planted (fathered, 1 Corinthians 4:15) the church in Corinth. As their father in the faith, he has treated them with grace and patience, but it is about to run out with those who oppose him. Paul will do in person what he writes in absence; Paul will do what he says and act boldly just as his letters speak boldly.

Moreover, his relationship with the Corinthians entails a kind of “authority” rooted in the measure that God gave Paul with regard to his missionary activity. It was an authority for planting and building rather than destroying and tearing down the church. Paul alludes to the prophetic task Jeremiah was given in Jeremiah 1:10 and essentially locates himself in a prophetic tradition. Paul wants to use this authority for positive purposes rather than overthrowing the Corinthians. Yet, Paul will use his authority to address his opponents and deal with them accordingly because they follow a “different Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11:3-4).

The authority Paul names is rooted in the reality that God gave Paul a “field” in which to work; literally, God gave a “measure of the canon.” The term “canon” may refer to a rule or standard of measure, or it may refer to something assigned. Either way, this identifies the authority Paul was given with respect to the Corinthians. Paul has been assigned to work this field. Indeed, Paul was the first to preach the “good news of Christ” to the Corinthians.

This is a boast within limits as Paul does not boast in the labor of others who work their fields. The “super-apostles” have apparently entered Paul’s field to turn over the soil, subvert Paul’s work, and undermine what Paul was building in Corinth. These intruders have overstepped their limitations. Paul has worked within the limits of his commission as an apostle to Corinth, but the “super-apostles” boast is not in the work where they have been commissioned but in the work they have done in other people’s fields. Moreover, they boast in the identity they claim.

Their boast is not “in the Lord,” but in comparing themselves with others in order to exalt their own credentials, work, or identity. They “measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with another.”  When they compare themselves with each other, and particularly when they compare themselves with Paul, they claim a higher role or more significance than Paul. They are rhetoricians, have credentials, claim success, and come with prosperity and reputation (in contrast to the persecuted Paul).

Paul refuses to compare himself in this way with others. Rather, he locates his ministry in the authority and assignment that God has given him. He will boast in this assignment as the one who has preached the gospel in Corinth, and he will boast in the opportunities this affords to spread the gospel to other lands (but not in lands where work is already underway). This is, according to Paul, boasting in the Lord, and it is in line with the quotation from Jeremiah 9:23-24. The only authentic boast is a boast in what the Lord has done. Instead of boasting in our credentials, rhetoric, and success (or wealth in Jeremiah), the faithful boast identifies with the Lord who acts with “steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.”

In recent years, a well-known minister refused to be mentored by another minister whose church was smaller than his. His sense of mutual respect for spiritual guidance, apparently, was based on success, credentials, and prosperity (his salary was a prosperous one). This is a different gospel, a different Spirit, and a different Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:3-4). It is the boast of the “super-apostles” in 2 Corinthians. It compares one minister with another minister, one congregation with another congregation, and locates “authority” in cultural standards (whether Greco-Roman or American). This defines success in terms of credentialed people, large and successful organizations, and popular and charismatic personalities (“celebrity pastors,” for example).

Paul refuses to compare himself with others. Rather, he will boast in the measure that God has given him, the suffering he endures for the sake of the gospel, and prioritize the preaching of the good news of Christ above all else. Rhetorical skills, “successful” churches, prosperity and wealth, and credentials are neither evidence of the embodied gospel nor the signs of gospel preaching. Rather, the task of ministry is telling the good news of the gospel in the fields God assigns—without fanfare, trickery, or intimidation. Nothing else really matters in comparison.


2 Corinthians 10:1-6 – Bold Whether Absent or Present

February 27, 2022

The tone and intensity of 2 Corinthians 10-13 appears remarkably different from the early parts of the letter. The first section of the letter ends with Paul’s joy in his “complete confidence” in the Corinthians (7:16), and chapters 8-9 are filled with Paul’s confident expectation that the Corinthians will respond with generosity to his Jerusalem project. However, chapters 10-13 are rather confrontational as Paul responds to the intrusion of, what he calls, super-apostles into the Corinthian congregation.

Why does this shift in tone and topic occur? What accounts for this radical change in the letter?

Scholars debate the possibilities, and I will not detail them here except to offer a few perspectives. Since the late 18th century, quite a number of scholars have surmised that we are reading an earlier letter to Corinth than what we know as “2 Corinthians.” Some suggest that we are actually reading the “painful letter” (2 Corinthians 7:8) that has been attached to the end of what we call “2 Corinthians” (chapters 1-9). This is the letter that convinced the Corinthians to reconcile with Paul. This is a possible scenario since letters were often combined in publication in order to put them on one scroll.

However, I think it more likely 2 Corinthians, as we have it before us, is a single letter rather than the combination of two (or even three) letters. Clearly, the letter has three movements: (1) Paul explains his ministry of reconciliation (chapters 1-7), (2) Paul persuades the Corinthians to give (chapters 8-9), and (3) Paul confronts his opponents (chapters 10-13). There is a difference in tone within each as well as a significant difference in purpose.

In the first section of the letter Paul wants the Corinthians to understand his ministry of suffering for the sake of the gospel in more profound ways and not misinterpret his suffering as a sign of weakness or divine rejection. This explanation include some rather pointed statements about the Corinthian misunderstanding and mistaken expectations. His language was sometimes corrective as well as defensive (in a good sense).

In the second section of the letter Paul wants the Corinthians to keep their promise to contribute to the poor saints in Jerusalem. He brings on the charm but suggests their integrity is at stake—will they act on the gospel of grace that they claim to believe? His language is filled with grace, but it is pointed as he calls upon them to obey the gospel of Christ.

In this third and last major section of the letter Paul confronts those who oppose him and are stirring up trouble in Corinth. He is focused on how the presence of “super-apostles” (as he calls them) are disrupting the relationship he has with the Corinthians. Paul planted the church and is like a father to the Corinthians, but now these “super-apostles” have arrived to build on the foundation he laid. And their credentials and methods, according to Paul, exhibit a “different Jesus,” a “different spirit,” and a “different gospel” than he modeled and proclaimed (2 Corinthians 11:4). In other words, the health of the Corinthian congregation is at stake.

We don’t know exactly when these “super-apostles” arrived in Corinth. They are not mentioned in 1 Corinthians. They are, then, new arrivals. They may have arrived prior to Paul’s second visit and the “painful letter,” which would explain some of the intensity of that visit and letter. Or, they may have arrived about the same time Titus arrived or after. In any event, 2 Corinthians 10-13 identifies their presence.

It seems to me that Paul’s impending third visit to Corinth (2 Corinthians 13:1) provides the occasion for this confrontation. When Paul previously visited Corinth, he was rather deferential or mild in his response to Corinth, and this was perceived as weakness. The visit grieved Paul, and he wrote the “painful letter” in response to how he was treated on that second visit. However, this time (the third visit) Paul intends to be as bold in person as he was bold in previous letters. Too much is at stake, and Paul decides to prepare the Corinthians for such a bold visit with a bold letter.

The tone of 2 Corinthians 10-13 suits the situation: (1) to confront the “super-apostles” and (2) prepare Corinth for Paul’s bold intentions when he visits. But why don’t these themes appear earlier in the letter? The “super-apostles,” for example, are not named. However, Paul has alluded to these sorts of troubles—the misunderstanding of his ministry, for example—throughout the letter. We see from reading chapters 1-7 that there was trouble in paradise. Though Paul and Corinth was reconciled, everything was not calm or healed. The Corinthians need to more fully understand the nature of Paul’s ministry, which is why he pursued that theme for five chapters in the first half of the letter.

Paul’s boldness in chapters 10-13 is matched by his jealousy for the Corinthians as the bride of Christ. His tone is one of a protector, and his third visit will employ the same kind of boldness, if necessary, as these chapters exhibit.

His opening salvo employs military metaphors while, at the same time, characterizing his approach as rooted in the “meekness and gentleness of Christ.” Paul is going to do battle, even take captives, but he will do so with the character of Christ rather than according to worldly standards (literally, according to the flesh). Paul wants to win this battle—punish disobedience and confirm obedience, but he will do so in a godly way that reflects his commitment to the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah.

It appears that the Corinthians assessed Paul as poor, untrained, and ungifted in rhetoric when he was among them. He was, as Paul put it, “humble” (poor, which is often a derogatory term) when he was present with them. The Corinthians were perplexed by how “humble” Paul was in person but how “bold” he was in letters. This incongruity was probably something the “super-apostles” exploited for their own self-promotion.

But Paul is clear that he will boldly oppose those who act “according to human standards” (literally according to the flesh). There are two ways of battling in view here. One is “according to the flesh” or carnal ways, which probably include false accusations, deceit, pride, and potentially violence. The other is through the gospel which is the knowledge of God and leads to people to obey Christ.

Even though Paul lives “in the flesh” as a human being, he does not employ carnal or fleshly methods. His concern is the knowledge of God and how that knowledge demolishes “strongholds” and takes thoughts of people “captive to obey Christ.”

Paul draws a contrast between himself and the “super-apostles.” They minister according to fleshly standards, erect strongholds and obstacles through pride, and prey on “humble” servants to build their own empires. Paul, however, uses different kinds of weapons to destroy the strongholds and bring every thought captive to Christ. Paul claims he is engaged in a spiritual warfare where the gospel is at stake and the health of the Corinthian congregation lies in the balance.

Consequently, Paul will act with boldness if necessary when he visits Corinth for the third time. He is “ready to punish every disobedience,” though he hopes for and anticipates the obedience of the Corinthians. He will oppose the “super-apostles,” but he will welcome—with the “meekness and gentleness of Christ”—the obedient response of the Corinthians.


2 Corinthians 9:6-15 – Thanks be to God!

February 19, 2022

While the final appeal for generosity Paul makes is the inexpressible gift of Jesus, he also draws on numerous texts from the Scriptures to make his case: Proverbs 11:24; Deuteronomy 15:10; Proverbs 22:8 (LXX); Psalm 112:9; Isaiah 55:10; and Hosea 10:12. He assumes his readers are familiar with their Bible, and through the echoes of these texts he offers an embedded theology of generosity that appears in Hebrew wisdom, Torah, prophets, and poetry. Paul is no innovator, but his capstone is God’s gift in Jesus the Messiah. Thanks be to God.

[The following is copied from my book Searching for the Pattern, pp. 90-104. Due to a recent bout with COVID-19, I have not had the energy or time to do any original writing on 2 Corinthians 8-9. However, I think the following captures the essence of Paul’s theological interests in this section of the letter. One more video will cover the rest of chapter 9 next week.]

2 Corinthians 8-9 – What Paul Doesn’t Do

Here’s how my continued investigation played out, at least in part.

I have heard it said that the Bible is its own best interpreter. There is much truth in that. Since the Bible offers a coherent account of God’s scheme of redemption, one part illuminates another part.

This is particularly true when we are reading the same human author, like Paul. What Paul writes in Colossians will helpfully illuminate what Paul means in Ephesians. This is more pronounced when Paul is writing to the same church about the same thing. Consequently, if we want to understand what lies in the background of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 16, it is helpful to hear how Paul grounds and explains this collection in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

As we read 2 Corinthians 8-9 where Paul encourages the Corinthians to follow through on their commitment to help the saints in Jerusalem, we see the inner workings of Paul’s understanding as he provides a rationale for their giving. We see, in effect, Paul’s own hermeneutic (or step two) at work. We see how Paul gets from (1) there are needy saints in Jerusalem to (3) you Corinthians ought to supply their needs. What is the second step that demands the move from (1) to (3)?

Interestingly, in this text Paul does not seem to inhabit the same patternistic world in which I grew up, at least not the sort of pattern for which I searched. First, he does not command the Corinthians to give. “I am not commanding you,” Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 8:8).

Second, he does not demand they obey the pattern I thought was in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. Paul does not remind them of what he had previously prescribed as if their first day of the week giving was part of their faithfulness to a pattern. He neither details a pattern nor itemizes the blueprint particulars that constitute what a faithful church practices regarding giving. He neither specifies the laws that govern this act of worship nor reminds them of the dire consequences of neglecting it.

Third, he does not draw a line of fellowship concerning the collection. Paul does not make this collection—for which he gave directions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2—a matter of fellowship or communion with him. Their non-participation would be an embarrassment and a lack of grace on their part, but it would not violate whatever pattern is embedded in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 as a test of fellowship.

In other words, Paul does not do what the method I had learned would have done and what I have heard done over the years practically every Sunday. Paul does not say, “you are commanded to give every first day of the week, and if you don’t, you are unfaithful to the pattern God established.” I often used Paul’s direction for the collection in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 to establish pattern authority for why faithful churches share their financial resources every first day of the week. I regarded it, as many had before me, as part of an exclusive pattern of worship. It was one of the five acts of worship without which the Sunday assembly is incomplete and could not be considered a community who worshipped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Paul does not use that sort of pattern authority. He does not remind them of what I supposed was a pattern command in 1 Corinthians 16. He does not prescribe giving as a matter of obedience to a pattern of congregational worship.

What does Paul do? How does Paul call a wealthy Gentile congregation in Greece to contribute to a collection for poor Jewish saints in Jerusalem?

There is only one imperative in the text: “finish the work” (2 Corinthians 8:11). The Corinthians had promised to give to the needy in Jerusalem, and Paul expects them to keep their promise. They had expressed a prior willingness, even eagerness, to contribute (2 Corinthians 8:10-12). Though he does not command them, he does offer a rationale to motivate them to act on their prior willingness according to their ability.

Ultimately, Paul does not use a two-step rationale such as: “This is the pattern God demands; therefore, do it.” Neither does he introduce the sort of rationales that establish a pattern for the church based on detailed prescribed practices as might be expected. Rather, he calls the Corinthians to embody and practice a different sort of pattern.

As I understand Paul in these two chapters, I see three (perhaps more) overlapping and mutually enriching organizing emphases. Together, these point to a pattern which grounds Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians to participate in the grace of giving.

A Key Principle in 2 Corinthians 8-9

One of the most significant words in 2 Corinthians 8-9, if not the most significant, is the Greek word charis, which means grace. Its ten occurrences in these two chapters are the highest concentration in the New Testament.

  • the grace (charis) of God given to the churches of Macedonia (8:1)
  • the privilege (charis) of sharing in this ministry to the saints (8:4)
  • complete this generous (charis) undertaking among you (8:6)
  • as you excel in everything…excel also in this generous (charis) undertaking (8:7)
  • for you know the generous (charis) act of our Lord Jesus Christ (8:9)
  • Thanks (charis) be to God (8:16)
  • while administering this generous (charis) undertaking (8:19)
  • God is able to provide you with every blessing (charis) in abundance (9:8)
  • the surpassing grace (charis) God…has given you (9:14).
  • Thanks (charis) be to God for his indescribable gift (9:15).

These statements provide several different angles on the grace of God. God gives grace (2 Corinthians 8:1, 9; 9:8, 14), the Corinthians administer the grace of God in their ministry to others (2 Corinthians 8:4, 6, 7, 17), and all, including those who receive this ministry, give grace (thanks) to God (2 Corinthians 8:16; 9:15).

While the profound depth of these statements is inexhaustible, my purpose is to highlight one point. Fundamentally, Paul roots his invitation to participate in the collection for the Jerusalem saints in God’s grace. He reminds them that (1) God has graced them, (2) they are the instruments of God’s grace to the poor, and (3) their ministry will result in grace (thanksgiving) to God as well as God’s glory (2 Corinthians 9:13). God’s own grace, whether in creation, providence, or redemption, should move the Corinthians to act graciously. They should “finish the task” because they are graced people through whom God graces others with the result that they will grace God.

We might call the function of grace in Paul’s persuasive speech a form of “principlizing,” though it has more substance than a kind of moralizing. As we read Paul’s passionate plea, he uses the principle of grace in its many manifestations to articulate a vision for the heart of God and how the Corinthians might participate in that heart.

Why give to the poor? Whether local or distant, whether Jew or Gentile, whether known or unknown, Paul roots this gift in God’s grace. We give because we are the recipients of God’s grace, empowered by that grace, and moved by the goal of gracing God (thanks and glory).

Paul does not ground his call to share grace in a command or a pattern of church practices. Rather, he grounds it in God’s own gracious giving. We give because God has given to us, and we give because we want to be like God. We respond to God’s grace by doing what God does. Grace is no static command but an internal dynamic at work in the scheme of redemption and in our lives so that we might imitate and glorify God.

Paul, then, uses a principle profoundly grounded in God’s own identity and actions in order to call the Corinthians to fully live out the grace they have received. Let us imitate Paul’s hermeneutical move ourselves. If God’s grace is the ground of giving to the poor, this grace is not limited only to saints. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 cannot mean that church funds are only for church people because God’s grace is for all people and the grace of God has appeared to all people (Titus 2:11).

I remember, and still sometimes hear, the language that sometimes introduces the offering. “We are commanded to give every first day of the week.” But I also have heard the language from 2 Corinthians 9, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul did not do the former in 2 Corinthians 8-9 (command every congregation to take up a collection every first day of the week) but the latter. Paul did not command or expect conformity to a blueprint, but called the Corinthians to conform to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we gratefully receive God’s grace, we will then cheerfully share it. This was Paul’s approach in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

2 Corinthians 8-9 – Paul’s Use of Scripture

If Paul does not appeal to a prescribed pattern of church practices as the ground of the collection, does Paul appeal to Scripture at all? When Paul wants to persuade people to give to the poor, what role does Scripture play?

What was Scripture for Paul? In 55-56 A.D. we would not expect him to appeal to any New Testament documents except those he had already written (1 & 2 Thessalonians, for example). Nevertheless, for Paul, all Scripture is “inspired and profitable for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” and it is sufficient to equip believers “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These were the “sacred writings” Timothy had known from childhood, and they were able to instruct him “for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15). This Scripture is what we have called the Old Testament, and it has the capacity to instruct us, correct us, guide us, and equip us for “every good work,” including giving to the poor. Paul identifies the grace of giving as a “good work” in 2 Corinthians 9:8.

In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul appeals to the Hebrew Bible at least three times. First, God’s gift of manna in the wilderness teaches the principle of a fair balance. The needy are supplied out of the abundance of the wealthy so that everyone has what they need. Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15 as an example that grounds Paul’s call for shared resources so that there is equity within the body of Christ. God supplies manna (resources) for the sake of the community, and the community shares them so that all needs are met. The instruction to gather what one needs arises out of the divine intent that one person not have too much and another person not have too little. The way God supplied the needs of Israel is a model for how we supply each other’s needs. What moves God should move us, that is, a grace that meets the needs of people. God is our model, and we see God’s intent through the practices of Israel.

Second, Paul quotes Psalm 112:9 in 2 Corinthians 9:9. Psalm 112 blesses the righteous person. At the same time, Psalm 111 praises God’s own identity. The righteous person of Psalm 112 is the one who imitates the God who is described in Psalm 111. Psalm 112 mirrors Psalm 111. In this way, the root idea is doing what God does or becoming like God in our lives and practices. Just as God is generous, so the righteous person shares generously with the poor. God, in fact, supplies the seed or wealth which we, in imitation of God, scatter among the poor. Interestingly, 2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us that God supplies us for “every good work,” and then Paul uses Psalm 112 to identify that “good work,” which is scattering God’s gifts to us among the poor. In this way, Paul appeals to Scripture (Psalm 112) to equip them for this good work of sharing with the poor in Jerusalem. Thus, Psalm 112 authorizes his call for the Corinthians to participate in this good work.

Third, Deuteronomy 15 lurks in the background as well. Just as God had blessed Israel so that there should be no needy among them, the Corinthians should give generously without a grudging heart (Deuteronomy 15:10; 2 Corinthians 9:7). Paul uses the language of Deuteronomy 15. Just like Israel, God intends the church to be a place where there are no needy, and Paul invites the Corinthians to participate in the practices of Israel by continuing that intent in the present.

Paul also draws on the model of the Macedonian disciples in order to convict the Corinthians and wants the Corinthians to be an example to others (2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 24). The ongoing history of God among the Macedonians teaches the Corinthians too. Redemptive history is filled with good examples and good practices that imitate God’s own grace, and because they are grounded in God’s acts and grace, we imitate God when we share generously with others.

In the light of how the church continues the life of Israel, it is important to note that Israel’s generosity included aliens or foreigners living among them. Israel’s attitude toward aliens was rooted in God’s own love for Israel when they were aliens. Leviticus 19:34 says, “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” In fact, needy aliens received shares of the third-year tithe (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Moreover, the God of Israel “executes justice” for and “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

If the God of Israel loved the alien, provided food and clothing for the alien, and required Israel to share with the alien, then the “saints only doctrine” is inconsistent with this trajectory within the scheme of redemption. Should one say, “well, that is in the Old Testament, and we draw our church practices from Acts and the Epistles,” it is important to recognize how Paul models something different. Paul has no problem looking to Israel’s Scripture to ground the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem in both the identity of God and the practices of Israel as God’s people. Since God’s gift (grace) of manna to Israel can teach the church about generosity toward the poor (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), then God’s treatment of the aliens within Israel can teach us about God’s generosity toward aliens today. God loves the alien today, just as God loved the alien in ancient Israel.

2 Corinthians 8-9 – Paul Appeals to Jesus

In order to ground his appeal to the Corinthians to finish the task, Paul employed (1) the theological principle of grace and (2) used Israel’s Scripture as a way to understand God’s own identity and call. In his final sentence, Paul (3) appeals to the foundational act of God in Jesus the Messiah. “Thanks be to God,” Paul writes, for God’s “indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15). The gift, of course, is God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God.

Earlier, in 2 Corinthians 8:8-9, Paul noted that the Corinthian response to this collection would test their integrity and the sincerity of their love. In effect, he wants to know if they really believe the Faith they confess. Paul does not command the Corinthians. Since Jesus himself acted out of grace rather than obligation, Paul wants the Corinthians to do the same. He wants them to imitate Jesus.

“You know,” Paul wrote, “the generous act (charis) of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The grace of Jesus is his incarnation, that is, the Word of God became flesh. Or, as Paul described it, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” The incarnation is Paul’s paradigm, and this is God’s indescribable gift. This is the pattern. God’s self-giving in the incarnation of Jesus is the model or pattern for Christian life and practice.

When we remember that the Word of God became human for the whole world and died for all people, there is no basis for the “saint’s only doctrine” in the scheme of redemption. If the incarnation of the Word of God is Paul’s rationale for sharing with the poor, and the incarnation is an expression of God’s love for the whole world, then the imitation of the incarnation in giving to the poor includes all the poor and not only the saints.

A Theological Hermeneutic?

In summary, as Paul asks the Corinthians to “finish the task,” he grounds his appeal in God’s multi-faceted grace, the practices of Israel that bear witness to God’s own life, and the incarnation of the Word of God. In essence, Paul asks the Corinthians to imitate God. This is the basis of Paul’s mission for the poor saints in Jerusalem. At every point, Paul’s method roots that mission in the identity, grace, and love of God. And, as we know from the scheme of redemption, God loves the whole world and the Messiah died for all people. Therefore, the body of Christ shares with everyone, and this grace is not limited to saints only.

Perhaps another way to say this is to recognize that Paul’s step two does not find its pattern in some detailed and exclusive blueprint for church practices but in the pattern of God’s mighty acts in Israel and Jesus the Messiah. Instead of applying a blueprint for church practices to Corinth as if he were shown an ideal pattern for how churches must conduct their Sunday assembly, Paul resources the workings of God’s grace in providence and salvation, Israel’s history, and the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. The pattern is the activity of God, which finds its fullness in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah.

What Paul is doing is what some call a “theological” interpretation. Don’t let that word intimidate you. The Greek word theos means God. Theology is the study of God, and to say something is “theological” means it is a reflection on God or about God. In particular, this approach focuses on the identity of God and how believers might imitate God. In other words, we look to who God is and what God has done in order to know what is required of us or how we might participate in God’s mission.

Another way of saying this is that we do not look for a prescribed, detailed blueprint in what the early church did as much as a theological (God-centered) pattern as to how the early church imitated God, including imitating Jesus. In other words, how did the early church embody the life of God (the theological pattern) in their own community and mission?

Paul fulfilled his commitment to the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:9-10). He asked the churches of Galatia and Achaia, but not Macedonia, to set up an arrangement to collect money every first day of week so that when he arrived there would be no need to take up a collection. When Corinth hesitated, Paul employed his apostolic authority by way of a theological appeal rather than by way of a positive command based on a blueprint. Paul did not demand conformity to a prescribed pattern of weekly giving but invited them to imitate God and share the grace with which God had graced them for the sake of gracing God.

This does not mean, of course, that churches should give up weekly giving as part of their assemblies. In the language of the received method, it is at least a good example even though it is not an approved (binding) example. There are good reasons to give every week or to regularly share our resources with the community of faith, and those reasons are rooted in God’s grace, God’s story, and God’s Messiah. The convenient practice of weekly giving within the assembly is a healthy practice that provides the community with an opportunity to participate in the mission of God as a community, to share in this corporate moment of grateful worship, to remember that God has graced them, and to imitate God by gracing others in order that God might be graced by all.

There are many reasons to participate in God’s mission through sharing our resources. We could begin with the story of Abraham’s tithing and continue with Israel’s tithing practices. We could point to the teachings of Jesus on giving as well as the practice of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2, 4, and 6. If we expanded the conversation to include these factors, that would employ a fuller theological hermeneutic (which enriches our understanding and motivates our sharing). But those larger resources do not entail that there is a prescribed blueprint. Communal sharing on the first day of the week conveniently continues the practice of the people of God seen throughout Scripture, but it is not a requirement mandated by a specifically prescribed pattern for the church.


2 Corinthians 8:16-9:5 – Blessing Rather Than Extortion

February 12, 2022

[This is copied from my book Searching for the Pattern, pp. 90-104. Due to a recent bout with COVID-19, I have not had the energy or time to do any original writing on 2 Corinthians 8-9. However, I think the following captures the essence of Paul’s theological interests in this section of the letter. One more video will cover the rest of chapter 9 next week.]

2 Corinthians 8-9 – What Paul Doesn’t Do

Here’s how my continued investigation played out, at least in part.

I have heard it said that the Bible is its own best interpreter. There is much truth in that. Since the Bible offers a coherent account of God’s scheme of redemption, one part illuminates another part.

This is particularly true when we are reading the same human author, like Paul. What Paul writes in Colossians will helpfully illuminate what Paul means in Ephesians. This is more pronounced when Paul is writing to the same church about the same thing. Consequently, if we want to understand what lies in the background of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 16, it is helpful to hear how Paul grounds and explains this collection in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

As we read 2 Corinthians 8-9 where Paul encourages the Corinthians to follow through on their commitment to help the saints in Jerusalem, we see the inner workings of Paul’s understanding as he provides a rationale for their giving. We see, in effect, Paul’s own hermeneutic (or step two) at work. We see how Paul gets from (1) there are needy saints in Jerusalem to (3) you Corinthians ought to supply their needs. What is the second step that demands the move from (1) to (3)?

Interestingly, in this text Paul does not seem to inhabit the same patternistic world in which I grew up, at least not the sort of pattern for which I searched. First, he does not command the Corinthians to give. “I am not commanding you,” Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 8:8).

Second, he does not demand they obey the pattern I thought was in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. Paul does not remind them of what he had previously prescribed as if their first day of the week giving was part of their faithfulness to a pattern. He neither details a pattern nor itemizes the blueprint particulars that constitute what a faithful church practices regarding giving. He neither specifies the laws that govern this act of worship nor reminds them of the dire consequences of neglecting it.

Third, he does not draw a line of fellowship concerning the collection. Paul does not make this collection—for which he gave directions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2—a matter of fellowship or communion with him. Their non-participation would be an embarrassment and a lack of grace on their part, but it would not violate whatever pattern is embedded in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 as a test of fellowship.

In other words, Paul does not do what the method I had learned would have done and what I have heard done over the years practically every Sunday. Paul does not say, “you are commanded to give every first day of the week, and if you don’t, you are unfaithful to the pattern God established.” I often used Paul’s direction for the collection in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 to establish pattern authority for why faithful churches share their financial resources every first day of the week. I regarded it, as many had before me, as part of an exclusive pattern of worship. It was one of the five acts of worship without which the Sunday assembly is incomplete and could not be considered a community who worshipped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Paul does not use that sort of pattern authority. He does not remind them of what I supposed was a pattern command in 1 Corinthians 16. He does not prescribe giving as a matter of obedience to a pattern of congregational worship.

What does Paul do? How does Paul call a wealthy Gentile congregation in Greece to contribute to a collection for poor Jewish saints in Jerusalem?

There is only one imperative in the text: “finish the work” (2 Corinthians 8:11). The Corinthians had promised to give to the needy in Jerusalem, and Paul expects them to keep their promise. They had expressed a prior willingness, even eagerness, to contribute (2 Corinthians 8:10-12). Though he does not command them, he does offer a rationale to motivate them to act on their prior willingness according to their ability.

Ultimately, Paul does not use a two-step rationale such as: “This is the pattern God demands; therefore, do it.” Neither does he introduce the sort of rationales that establish a pattern for the church based on detailed prescribed practices as might be expected. Rather, he calls the Corinthians to embody and practice a different sort of pattern.

As I understand Paul in these two chapters, I see three (perhaps more) overlapping and mutually enriching organizing emphases. Together, these point to a pattern which grounds Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians to participate in the grace of giving.

A Key Principle in 2 Corinthians 8-9

One of the most significant words in 2 Corinthians 8-9, if not the most significant, is the Greek word charis, which means grace. Its ten occurrences in these two chapters are the highest concentration in the New Testament.

  • the grace (charis) of God given to the churches of Macedonia (8:1)
  • the privilege (charis) of sharing in this ministry to the saints (8:4)
  • complete this generous (charis) undertaking among you (8:6)
  • as you excel in everything…excel also in this generous (charis) undertaking (8:7)
  • for you know the generous (charis) act of our Lord Jesus Christ (8:9)
  • Thanks (charis) be to God (8:16)
  • while administering this generous (charis) undertaking (8:19)
  • God is able to provide you with every blessing (charis) in abundance (9:8)
  • the surpassing grace (charis) God…has given you (9:14).
  • Thanks (charis) be to God for his indescribable gift (9:15).

These statements provide several different angles on the grace of God. God gives grace (2 Corinthians 8:1, 9; 9:8, 14), the Corinthians administer the grace of God in their ministry to others (2 Corinthians 8:4, 6, 7, 17), and all, including those who receive this ministry, give grace (thanks) to God (2 Corinthians 8:16; 9:15).

While the profound depth of these statements is inexhaustible, my purpose is to highlight one point. Fundamentally, Paul roots his invitation to participate in the collection for the Jerusalem saints in God’s grace. He reminds them that (1) God has graced them, (2) they are the instruments of God’s grace to the poor, and (3) their ministry will result in grace (thanksgiving) to God as well as God’s glory (2 Corinthians 9:13). God’s own grace, whether in creation, providence, or redemption, should move the Corinthians to act graciously. They should “finish the task” because they are graced people through whom God graces others with the result that they will grace God.

We might call the function of grace in Paul’s persuasive speech a form of “principlizing,” though it has more substance than a kind of moralizing. As we read Paul’s passionate plea, he uses the principle of grace in its many manifestations to articulate a vision for the heart of God and how the Corinthians might participate in that heart.

Why give to the poor? Whether local or distant, whether Jew or Gentile, whether known or unknown, Paul roots this gift in God’s grace. We give because we are the recipients of God’s grace, empowered by that grace, and moved by the goal of gracing God (thanks and glory).

Paul does not ground his call to share grace in a command or a pattern of church practices. Rather, he grounds it in God’s own gracious giving. We give because God has given to us, and we give because we want to be like God. We respond to God’s grace by doing what God does. Grace is no static command but an internal dynamic at work in the scheme of redemption and in our lives so that we might imitate and glorify God.

Paul, then, uses a principle profoundly grounded in God’s own identity and actions in order to call the Corinthians to fully live out the grace they have received. Let us imitate Paul’s hermeneutical move ourselves. If God’s grace is the ground of giving to the poor, this grace is not limited only to saints. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 cannot mean that church funds are only for church people because God’s grace is for all people and the grace of God has appeared to all people (Titus 2:11).

I remember, and still sometimes hear, the language that sometimes introduces the offering. “We are commanded to give every first day of the week.” But I also have heard the language from 2 Corinthians 9, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul did not do the former in 2 Corinthians 8-9 (command every congregation to take up a collection every first day of the week) but the latter. Paul did not command or expect conformity to a blueprint, but called the Corinthians to conform to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we gratefully receive God’s grace, we will then cheerfully share it. This was Paul’s approach in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

2 Corinthians 8-9 – Paul’s Use of Scripture

If Paul does not appeal to a prescribed pattern of church practices as the ground of the collection, does Paul appeal to Scripture at all? When Paul wants to persuade people to give to the poor, what role does Scripture play?

What was Scripture for Paul? In 55-56 A.D. we would not expect him to appeal to any New Testament documents except those he had already written (1 & 2 Thessalonians, for example). Nevertheless, for Paul, all Scripture is “inspired and profitable for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” and it is sufficient to equip believers “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These were the “sacred writings” Timothy had known from childhood, and they were able to instruct him “for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15). This Scripture is what we have called the Old Testament, and it has the capacity to instruct us, correct us, guide us, and equip us for “every good work,” including giving to the poor. Paul identifies the grace of giving as a “good work” in 2 Corinthians 9:8.

In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul appeals to the Hebrew Bible at least three times. First, God’s gift of manna in the wilderness teaches the principle of a fair balance. The needy are supplied out of the abundance of the wealthy so that everyone has what they need. Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15 as an example that grounds Paul’s call for shared resources so that there is equity within the body of Christ. God supplies manna (resources) for the sake of the community, and the community shares them so that all needs are met. The instruction to gather what one needs arises out of the divine intent that one person not have too much and another person not have too little. The way God supplied the needs of Israel is a model for how we supply each other’s needs. What moves God should move us, that is, a grace that meets the needs of people. God is our model, and we see God’s intent through the practices of Israel.

Second, Paul quotes Psalm 112:9 in 2 Corinthians 9:9. Psalm 112 blesses the righteous person. At the same time, Psalm 111 praises God’s own identity. The righteous person of Psalm 112 is the one who imitates the God who is described in Psalm 111. Psalm 112 mirrors Psalm 111. In this way, the root idea is doing what God does or becoming like God in our lives and practices. Just as God is generous, so the righteous person shares generously with the poor. God, in fact, supplies the seed or wealth which we, in imitation of God, scatter among the poor. Interestingly, 2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us that God supplies us for “every good work,” and then Paul uses Psalm 112 to identify that “good work,” which is scattering God’s gifts to us among the poor. In this way, Paul appeals to Scripture (Psalm 112) to equip them for this good work of sharing with the poor in Jerusalem. Thus, Psalm 112 authorizes his call for the Corinthians to participate in this good work.

Third, Deuteronomy 15 lurks in the background as well. Just as God had blessed Israel so that there should be no needy among them, the Corinthians should give generously without a grudging heart (Deuteronomy 15:10; 2 Corinthians 9:7). Paul uses the language of Deuteronomy 15. Just like Israel, God intends the church to be a place where there are no needy, and Paul invites the Corinthians to participate in the practices of Israel by continuing that intent in the present.

Paul also draws on the model of the Macedonian disciples in order to convict the Corinthians and wants the Corinthians to be an example to others (2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 24). The ongoing history of God among the Macedonians teaches the Corinthians too. Redemptive history is filled with good examples and good practices that imitate God’s own grace, and because they are grounded in God’s acts and grace, we imitate God when we share generously with others.

In the light of how the church continues the life of Israel, it is important to note that Israel’s generosity included aliens or foreigners living among them. Israel’s attitude toward aliens was rooted in God’s own love for Israel when they were aliens. Leviticus 19:34 says, “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” In fact, needy aliens received shares of the third-year tithe (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Moreover, the God of Israel “executes justice” for and “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

If the God of Israel loved the alien, provided food and clothing for the alien, and required Israel to share with the alien, then the “saints only doctrine” is inconsistent with this trajectory within the scheme of redemption. Should one say, “well, that is in the Old Testament, and we draw our church practices from Acts and the Epistles,” it is important to recognize how Paul models something different. Paul has no problem looking to Israel’s Scripture to ground the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem in both the identity of God and the practices of Israel as God’s people. Since God’s gift (grace) of manna to Israel can teach the church about generosity toward the poor (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), then God’s treatment of the aliens within Israel can teach us about God’s generosity toward aliens today. God loves the alien today, just as God loved the alien in ancient Israel.

2 Corinthians 8-9 – Paul Appeals to Jesus

In order to ground his appeal to the Corinthians to finish the task, Paul employed (1) the theological principle of grace and (2) used Israel’s Scripture as a way to understand God’s own identity and call. In his final sentence, Paul (3) appeals to the foundational act of God in Jesus the Messiah. “Thanks be to God,” Paul writes, for God’s “indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15). The gift, of course, is God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God.

Earlier, in 2 Corinthians 8:8-9, Paul noted that the Corinthian response to this collection would test their integrity and the sincerity of their love. In effect, he wants to know if they really believe the Faith they confess. Paul does not command the Corinthians. Since Jesus himself acted out of grace rather than obligation, Paul wants the Corinthians to do the same. He wants them to imitate Jesus.

“You know,” Paul wrote, “the generous act (charis) of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The grace of Jesus is his incarnation, that is, the Word of God became flesh. Or, as Paul described it, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” The incarnation is Paul’s paradigm, and this is God’s indescribable gift. This is the pattern. God’s self-giving in the incarnation of Jesus is the model or pattern for Christian life and practice.

When we remember that the Word of God became human for the whole world and died for all people, there is no basis for the “saint’s only doctrine” in the scheme of redemption. If the incarnation of the Word of God is Paul’s rationale for sharing with the poor, and the incarnation is an expression of God’s love for the whole world, then the imitation of the incarnation in giving to the poor includes all the poor and not only the saints.

A Theological Hermeneutic?

In summary, as Paul asks the Corinthians to “finish the task,” he grounds his appeal in God’s multi-faceted grace, the practices of Israel that bear witness to God’s own life, and the incarnation of the Word of God. In essence, Paul asks the Corinthians to imitate God. This is the basis of Paul’s mission for the poor saints in Jerusalem. At every point, Paul’s method roots that mission in the identity, grace, and love of God. And, as we know from the scheme of redemption, God loves the whole world and the Messiah died for all people. Therefore, the body of Christ shares with everyone, and this grace is not limited to saints only.

Perhaps another way to say this is to recognize that Paul’s step two does not find its pattern in some detailed and exclusive blueprint for church practices but in the pattern of God’s mighty acts in Israel and Jesus the Messiah. Instead of applying a blueprint for church practices to Corinth as if he were shown an ideal pattern for how churches must conduct their Sunday assembly, Paul resources the workings of God’s grace in providence and salvation, Israel’s history, and the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. The pattern is the activity of God, which finds its fullness in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah.

What Paul is doing is what some call a “theological” interpretation. Don’t let that word intimidate you. The Greek word theos means God. Theology is the study of God, and to say something is “theological” means it is a reflection on God or about God. In particular, this approach focuses on the identity of God and how believers might imitate God. In other words, we look to who God is and what God has done in order to know what is required of us or how we might participate in God’s mission.

Another way of saying this is that we do not look for a prescribed, detailed blueprint in what the early church did as much as a theological (God-centered) pattern as to how the early church imitated God, including imitating Jesus. In other words, how did the early church embody the life of God (the theological pattern) in their own community and mission?

Paul fulfilled his commitment to the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:9-10). He asked the churches of Galatia and Achaia, but not Macedonia, to set up an arrangement to collect money every first day of week so that when he arrived there would be no need to take up a collection. When Corinth hesitated, Paul employed his apostolic authority by way of a theological appeal rather than by way of a positive command based on a blueprint. Paul did not demand conformity to a prescribed pattern of weekly giving but invited them to imitate God and share the grace with which God had graced them for the sake of gracing God.

This does not mean, of course, that churches should give up weekly giving as part of their assemblies. In the language of the received method, it is at least a good example even though it is not an approved (binding) example. There are good reasons to give every week or to regularly share our resources with the community of faith, and those reasons are rooted in God’s grace, God’s story, and God’s Messiah. The convenient practice of weekly giving within the assembly is a healthy practice that provides the community with an opportunity to participate in the mission of God as a community, to share in this corporate moment of grateful worship, to remember that God has graced them, and to imitate God by gracing others in order that God might be graced by all.

There are many reasons to participate in God’s mission through sharing our resources. We could begin with the story of Abraham’s tithing and continue with Israel’s tithing practices. We could point to the teachings of Jesus on giving as well as the practice of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2, 4, and 6. If we expanded the conversation to include these factors, that would employ a fuller theological hermeneutic (which enriches our understanding and motivates our sharing). But those larger resources do not entail that there is a prescribed blueprint. Communal sharing on the first day of the week conveniently continues the practice of the people of God seen throughout Scripture, but it is not a requirement mandated by a specifically prescribed pattern for the church.


2 Corinthians 8:1-15 – Grace, Generosity, and Gospel

February 5, 2022

[This is copied from my book Searching for the Pattern, pp. 90-104. Due to a recent bout with COVID-19, I have not had the energy or time to do any original writing on 2 Corinthians 8-9. However, I think the following captures the essence of Paul’s theological interests in this section of the letter. Two more videos will cover the rest of chapters 8-9 in the coming weeks.]

2 Corinthians 8-9 – What Paul Doesn’t Do

Here’s how my continued investigation played out, at least in part.

I have heard it said that the Bible is its own best interpreter. There is much truth in that. Since the Bible offers a coherent account of God’s scheme of redemption, one part illuminates another part.

This is particularly true when we are reading the same human author, like Paul. What Paul writes in Colossians will helpfully illuminate what Paul means in Ephesians. This is more pronounced when Paul is writing to the same church about the same thing. Consequently, if we want to understand what lies in the background of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 16, it is helpful to hear how Paul grounds and explains this collection in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

As we read 2 Corinthians 8-9 where Paul encourages the Corinthians to follow through on their commitment to help the saints in Jerusalem, we see the inner workings of Paul’s understanding as he provides a rationale for their giving. We see, in effect, Paul’s own hermeneutic (or step two) at work. We see how Paul gets from (1) there are needy saints in Jerusalem to (3) you Corinthians ought to supply their needs. What is the second step that demands the move from (1) to (3)?

Interestingly, in this text Paul does not seem to inhabit the same patternistic world in which I grew up, at least not the sort of pattern for which I searched. First, he does not command the Corinthians to give. “I am not commanding you,” Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 8:8).

Second, he does not demand they obey the pattern I thought was in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. Paul does not remind them of what he had previously prescribed as if their first day of the week giving was part of their faithfulness to a pattern. He neither details a pattern nor itemizes the blueprint particulars that constitute what a faithful church practices regarding giving. He neither specifies the laws that govern this act of worship nor reminds them of the dire consequences of neglecting it.

Third, he does not draw a line of fellowship concerning the collection. Paul does not make this collection—for which he gave directions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2—a matter of fellowship or communion with him. Their non-participation would be an embarrassment and a lack of grace on their part, but it would not violate whatever pattern is embedded in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 as a test of fellowship.

In other words, Paul does not do what the method I had learned would have done and what I have heard done over the years practically every Sunday. Paul does not say, “you are commanded to give every first day of the week, and if you don’t, you are unfaithful to the pattern God established.” I often used Paul’s direction for the collection in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 to establish pattern authority for why faithful churches share their financial resources every first day of the week. I regarded it, as many had before me, as part of an exclusive pattern of worship. It was one of the five acts of worship without which the Sunday assembly is incomplete and could not be considered a community who worshipped in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Paul does not use that sort of pattern authority. He does not remind them of what I supposed was a pattern command in 1 Corinthians 16. He does not prescribe giving as a matter of obedience to a pattern of congregational worship.

What does Paul do? How does Paul call a wealthy Gentile congregation in Greece to contribute to a collection for poor Jewish saints in Jerusalem?

There is only one imperative in the text: “finish the work” (2 Corinthians 8:11). The Corinthians had promised to give to the needy in Jerusalem, and Paul expects them to keep their promise. They had expressed a prior willingness, even eagerness, to contribute (2 Corinthians 8:10-12). Though he does not command them, he does offer a rationale to motivate them to act on their prior willingness according to their ability.

Ultimately, Paul does not use a two-step rationale such as: “This is the pattern God demands; therefore, do it.” Neither does he introduce the sort of rationales that establish a pattern for the church based on detailed prescribed practices as might be expected. Rather, he calls the Corinthians to embody and practice a different sort of pattern.

As I understand Paul in these two chapters, I see three (perhaps more) overlapping and mutually enriching organizing emphases. Together, these point to a pattern which grounds Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians to participate in the grace of giving.

A Key Principle in 2 Corinthians 8-9

One of the most significant words in 2 Corinthians 8-9, if not the most significant, is the Greek word charis, which means grace. Its ten occurrences in these two chapters are the highest concentration in the New Testament.

  • the grace (charis) of God given to the churches of Macedonia (8:1)
  • the privilege (charis) of sharing in this ministry to the saints (8:4)
  • complete this generous (charis) undertaking among you (8:6)
  • as you excel in everything…excel also in this generous (charis) undertaking (8:7)
  • for you know the generous (charis) act of our Lord Jesus Christ (8:9)
  • Thanks (charis) be to God (8:16)
  • while administering this generous (charis) undertaking (8:19)
  • God is able to provide you with every blessing (charis) in abundance (9:8)
  • the surpassing grace (charis) God…has given you (9:14).
  • Thanks (charis) be to God for his indescribable gift (9:15).

These statements provide several different angles on the grace of God. God gives grace (2 Corinthians 8:1, 9; 9:8, 14), the Corinthians administer the grace of God in their ministry to others (2 Corinthians 8:4, 6, 7, 17), and all, including those who receive this ministry, give grace (thanks) to God (2 Corinthians 8:16; 9:15).

While the profound depth of these statements is inexhaustible, my purpose is to highlight one point. Fundamentally, Paul roots his invitation to participate in the collection for the Jerusalem saints in God’s grace. He reminds them that (1) God has graced them, (2) they are the instruments of God’s grace to the poor, and (3) their ministry will result in grace (thanksgiving) to God as well as God’s glory (2 Corinthians 9:13). God’s own grace, whether in creation, providence, or redemption, should move the Corinthians to act graciously. They should “finish the task” because they are graced people through whom God graces others with the result that they will grace God.

We might call the function of grace in Paul’s persuasive speech a form of “principlizing,” though it has more substance than a kind of moralizing. As we read Paul’s passionate plea, he uses the principle of grace in its many manifestations to articulate a vision for the heart of God and how the Corinthians might participate in that heart.

Why give to the poor? Whether local or distant, whether Jew or Gentile, whether known or unknown, Paul roots this gift in God’s grace. We give because we are the recipients of God’s grace, empowered by that grace, and moved by the goal of gracing God (thanks and glory).

Paul does not ground his call to share grace in a command or a pattern of church practices. Rather, he grounds it in God’s own gracious giving. We give because God has given to us, and we give because we want to be like God. We respond to God’s grace by doing what God does. Grace is no static command but an internal dynamic at work in the scheme of redemption and in our lives so that we might imitate and glorify God.

Paul, then, uses a principle profoundly grounded in God’s own identity and actions in order to call the Corinthians to fully live out the grace they have received. Let us imitate Paul’s hermeneutical move ourselves. If God’s grace is the ground of giving to the poor, this grace is not limited only to saints. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 cannot mean that church funds are only for church people because God’s grace is for all people and the grace of God has appeared to all people (Titus 2:11).

I remember, and still sometimes hear, the language that sometimes introduces the offering. “We are commanded to give every first day of the week.” But I also have heard the language from 2 Corinthians 9, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul did not do the former in 2 Corinthians 8-9 (command every congregation to take up a collection every first day of the week) but the latter. Paul did not command or expect conformity to a blueprint, but called the Corinthians to conform to the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we gratefully receive God’s grace, we will then cheerfully share it. This was Paul’s approach in 2 Corinthians 8-9.

2 Corinthians 8-9 – Paul’s Use of Scripture

If Paul does not appeal to a prescribed pattern of church practices as the ground of the collection, does Paul appeal to Scripture at all? When Paul wants to persuade people to give to the poor, what role does Scripture play?

What was Scripture for Paul? In 55-56 A.D. we would not expect him to appeal to any New Testament documents except those he had already written (1 & 2 Thessalonians, for example). Nevertheless, for Paul, all Scripture is “inspired and profitable for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” and it is sufficient to equip believers “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These were the “sacred writings” Timothy had known from childhood, and they were able to instruct him “for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3:15). This Scripture is what we have called the Old Testament, and it has the capacity to instruct us, correct us, guide us, and equip us for “every good work,” including giving to the poor. Paul identifies the grace of giving as a “good work” in 2 Corinthians 9:8.

In 2 Corinthians 8-9, Paul appeals to the Hebrew Bible at least three times. First, God’s gift of manna in the wilderness teaches the principle of a fair balance. The needy are supplied out of the abundance of the wealthy so that everyone has what they need. Paul quotes Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15 as an example that grounds Paul’s call for shared resources so that there is equity within the body of Christ. God supplies manna (resources) for the sake of the community, and the community shares them so that all needs are met. The instruction to gather what one needs arises out of the divine intent that one person not have too much and another person not have too little. The way God supplied the needs of Israel is a model for how we supply each other’s needs. What moves God should move us, that is, a grace that meets the needs of people. God is our model, and we see God’s intent through the practices of Israel.

Second, Paul quotes Psalm 112:9 in 2 Corinthians 9:9. Psalm 112 blesses the righteous person. At the same time, Psalm 111 praises God’s own identity. The righteous person of Psalm 112 is the one who imitates the God who is described in Psalm 111. Psalm 112 mirrors Psalm 111. In this way, the root idea is doing what God does or becoming like God in our lives and practices. Just as God is generous, so the righteous person shares generously with the poor. God, in fact, supplies the seed or wealth which we, in imitation of God, scatter among the poor. Interestingly, 2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us that God supplies us for “every good work,” and then Paul uses Psalm 112 to identify that “good work,” which is scattering God’s gifts to us among the poor. In this way, Paul appeals to Scripture (Psalm 112) to equip them for this good work of sharing with the poor in Jerusalem. Thus, Psalm 112 authorizes his call for the Corinthians to participate in this good work.

Third, Deuteronomy 15 lurks in the background as well. Just as God had blessed Israel so that there should be no needy among them, the Corinthians should give generously without a grudging heart (Deuteronomy 15:10; 2 Corinthians 9:7). Paul uses the language of Deuteronomy 15. Just like Israel, God intends the church to be a place where there are no needy, and Paul invites the Corinthians to participate in the practices of Israel by continuing that intent in the present.

Paul also draws on the model of the Macedonian disciples in order to convict the Corinthians and wants the Corinthians to be an example to others (2 Corinthians 8:1-2, 24). The ongoing history of God among the Macedonians teaches the Corinthians too. Redemptive history is filled with good examples and good practices that imitate God’s own grace, and because they are grounded in God’s acts and grace, we imitate God when we share generously with others.

In the light of how the church continues the life of Israel, it is important to note that Israel’s generosity included aliens or foreigners living among them. Israel’s attitude toward aliens was rooted in God’s own love for Israel when they were aliens. Leviticus 19:34 says, “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” In fact, needy aliens received shares of the third-year tithe (Deuteronomy 26:12-13). Moreover, the God of Israel “executes justice” for and “loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).

If the God of Israel loved the alien, provided food and clothing for the alien, and required Israel to share with the alien, then the “saints only doctrine” is inconsistent with this trajectory within the scheme of redemption. Should one say, “well, that is in the Old Testament, and we draw our church practices from Acts and the Epistles,” it is important to recognize how Paul models something different. Paul has no problem looking to Israel’s Scripture to ground the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem in both the identity of God and the practices of Israel as God’s people. Since God’s gift (grace) of manna to Israel can teach the church about generosity toward the poor (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), then God’s treatment of the aliens within Israel can teach us about God’s generosity toward aliens today. God loves the alien today, just as God loved the alien in ancient Israel.

2 Corinthians 8-9 – Paul Appeals to Jesus

In order to ground his appeal to the Corinthians to finish the task, Paul employed (1) the theological principle of grace and (2) used Israel’s Scripture as a way to understand God’s own identity and call. In his final sentence, Paul (3) appeals to the foundational act of God in Jesus the Messiah. “Thanks be to God,” Paul writes, for God’s “indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15). The gift, of course, is God’s Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God.

Earlier, in 2 Corinthians 8:8-9, Paul noted that the Corinthian response to this collection would test their integrity and the sincerity of their love. In effect, he wants to know if they really believe the Faith they confess. Paul does not command the Corinthians. Since Jesus himself acted out of grace rather than obligation, Paul wants the Corinthians to do the same. He wants them to imitate Jesus.

“You know,” Paul wrote, “the generous act (charis) of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The grace of Jesus is his incarnation, that is, the Word of God became flesh. Or, as Paul described it, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” The incarnation is Paul’s paradigm, and this is God’s indescribable gift. This is the pattern. God’s self-giving in the incarnation of Jesus is the model or pattern for Christian life and practice.

When we remember that the Word of God became human for the whole world and died for all people, there is no basis for the “saint’s only doctrine” in the scheme of redemption. If the incarnation of the Word of God is Paul’s rationale for sharing with the poor, and the incarnation is an expression of God’s love for the whole world, then the imitation of the incarnation in giving to the poor includes all the poor and not only the saints.

A Theological Hermeneutic?

In summary, as Paul asks the Corinthians to “finish the task,” he grounds his appeal in God’s multi-faceted grace, the practices of Israel that bear witness to God’s own life, and the incarnation of the Word of God. In essence, Paul asks the Corinthians to imitate God. This is the basis of Paul’s mission for the poor saints in Jerusalem. At every point, Paul’s method roots that mission in the identity, grace, and love of God. And, as we know from the scheme of redemption, God loves the whole world and the Messiah died for all people. Therefore, the body of Christ shares with everyone, and this grace is not limited to saints only.

Perhaps another way to say this is to recognize that Paul’s step two does not find its pattern in some detailed and exclusive blueprint for church practices but in the pattern of God’s mighty acts in Israel and Jesus the Messiah. Instead of applying a blueprint for church practices to Corinth as if he were shown an ideal pattern for how churches must conduct their Sunday assembly, Paul resources the workings of God’s grace in providence and salvation, Israel’s history, and the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. The pattern is the activity of God, which finds its fullness in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah.

What Paul is doing is what some call a “theological” interpretation. Don’t let that word intimidate you. The Greek word theos means God. Theology is the study of God, and to say something is “theological” means it is a reflection on God or about God. In particular, this approach focuses on the identity of God and how believers might imitate God. In other words, we look to who God is and what God has done in order to know what is required of us or how we might participate in God’s mission.

Another way of saying this is that we do not look for a prescribed, detailed blueprint in what the early church did as much as a theological (God-centered) pattern as to how the early church imitated God, including imitating Jesus. In other words, how did the early church embody the life of God (the theological pattern) in their own community and mission?

Paul fulfilled his commitment to the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:9-10). He asked the churches of Galatia and Achaia, but not Macedonia, to set up an arrangement to collect money every first day of week so that when he arrived there would be no need to take up a collection. When Corinth hesitated, Paul employed his apostolic authority by way of a theological appeal rather than by way of a positive command based on a blueprint. Paul did not demand conformity to a prescribed pattern of weekly giving but invited them to imitate God and share the grace with which God had graced them for the sake of gracing God.

This does not mean, of course, that churches should give up weekly giving as part of their assemblies. In the language of the received method, it is at least a good example even though it is not an approved (binding) example. There are good reasons to give every week or to regularly share our resources with the community of faith, and those reasons are rooted in God’s grace, God’s story, and God’s Messiah. The convenient practice of weekly giving within the assembly is a healthy practice that provides the community with an opportunity to participate in the mission of God as a community, to share in this corporate moment of grateful worship, to remember that God has graced them, and to imitate God by gracing others in order that God might be graced by all.

There are many reasons to participate in God’s mission through sharing our resources. We could begin with the story of Abraham’s tithing and continue with Israel’s tithing practices. We could point to the teachings of Jesus on giving as well as the practice of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2, 4, and 6. If we expanded the conversation to include these factors, that would employ a fuller theological hermeneutic (which enriches our understanding and motivates our sharing). But those larger resources do not entail that there is a prescribed blueprint. Communal sharing on the first day of the week conveniently continues the practice of the people of God seen throughout Scripture, but it is not a requirement mandated by a specifically prescribed pattern for the church.