In Acts 1, Jesus told his friends that they would give witness to his life, death, resurrection… in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the world.
This forms the outline for how the history of the early church would unfold…we find this in the rest of the book of Acts.
The gospel took root in Jerusalem, spread to the surrounding areas then to the ends of the known world.
Sounds great…but how it happened was difficult.
There is an epic beginning…The Holy Spirit falls on the early church, lots of people come to faith…exciting times.
Then, a guy named Stephen, a kind and wise man whose job is taking care of widows…making sure they have what they need…is attacked.
He was a humble man…and God did some powerful things through him.
In fact, those who opposed him…realized they could not directly deal with him…his life was above approach, and he was just much wiser, full of grace and God…they knew they were outmatched.
So, they attacked him…they said that he had blasphemed God.
Of course, he hadn’t…but they enraged the crowd and he was killed by being crushed with stones.
Saul, who would become Paul…was there, approving of what was happening.
Not because Paul was wicked, but because he was deceived…he was just wrong about things…but God would help him see the truth.
8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
At that point the good times were suddenly over…the heady first days of church growth gave way to people being killed and put in prison…but the gospel took off as Christ said it would.
Now jump to chapter 11.
Acts 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good new about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
What happened? The gospel jumped out of Jerusalem and the surrounding area (because of persecution) and out into the wider world.
But something else happened that was more than geographic…it was demographic.
The church, at first was largely Jewish background believers…the gospel had jumped, as God had always intended it to do…to the non-Jewish world.
Let’s go on:
22 News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem (the news was that lots of folks were coming to Christ up north), and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. 27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Here’s what we have so far:
- Jesus said the church will spread and it did because of persecution…it spread out geographically from Jerusalem and demographically as the church became more multi-ethnic.
- Now, the church was growing…Saul/Paul has become a Christian and he was working together with Barnabus to disciple new believers in Antioch
- A prophet showed up and predicted that a famine will become widespread at some future time.
- Luke jumped ahead and said the famine did in fact happen and that Paul and Barnabus would end up being a part of collecting an offering for the Christians in Judea (where Jerusalem is).
Why all this backstory?
Paul spends a lot of time talking about collecting an offering for the Christians in Jerusalem, a church hit particularly hard by the famine….it was a really big deal for him…it was a major focus of his for several years.
He writes about the collection of funds in all of his letters written during the time of his third main journey…Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans.
Why was it so important to Paul.
Because it was a prime opportunity to build church unity…and of course there was a real need.
But if it was just the need…getting funds collected and delivered…he could easily have delegated it completely to someone else.
But he kept it on his own plate…because of the larger implications.
Paul, the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles…saw this famine and the offering…as a key opportunity to build a bridge between the churches.
So, as he visited the churches in Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece he asked them to send help to Jerusalem.
These are Gentile churches…that had not had been hit quite as hard, sending help to a Jewish church…that had been hit hard.
Paul knew that difficult times are not just threats but they are God’s opportunities…he had experienced it personally, he had seen it around him.
Now, he was intent on maximizing the opportunity embedded in the threat…physical famine was a gospel opportunity to meet a real need and bring church unity.
*Please don’t miss some important historical facts with great theological meaning:
-Jesus said, ahead of time that the church would spread…and it did and the impetus for that movement was persecution.
-A man predicted by God’s spirit that famine would engulf the empire…it came…and God used it to build a bridge between ethnically diverse churches.
-The way individual believers engaged these epic movements of God…was in facing one day at a time…choice by choice.
*God continues to use sometimes difficult and surprising events for his purposes…he uses us in those events through our small, faithful daily choices.
Now, back to Paul’s letter to Corinth.
Paul had urged the Corinthians, in 1 Cor. 16 to “On the first day of every week each one of you should set aside a sum up money in keeping with their income…then when I come I can take your collective gifts to Jerusalem.”
He came to Corinth after writing that first letter…and it went horribly…it was so bad that he left, abruptly.
But since then had written his difficult letter…sent Titus with the letter…and they had responded well…
Paul is now reconciled to the church at Corinth and he is writing them again about picking up where they left off.
He encourages them to get back to the collecting of the offering for the Jerusalem church.
Now that we know why Paul was so focused on this offering…it was a micro event…with macro impact…unity in the larger church.
Paul wants the Corinthians…whom he has corrected and directed and encouraged…to tie God’s larger purposes together with their small, day to day choices.
They are locally gathered believers…globally connected with the wider church.
Next week, we will use chapters 8,9 to look at a theology of generosity and of cooperation.
But today…I want to set the foundation for that message.
Being a part of God’s grand purposes…in our small, day to day choices.
8 And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. 6 So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
Paul had connected with Titus in Macedonia…an area north of Corinth.
Titus brought news of how the church at Corinth…had turned around.
Now Paul, is using the churches in Macedonia…churches that demographically were much like the Corinthian church… to challenge the Corinthian Christians.
The Churches in Macedonia…gave sacrificially and generously to the collection for the Jerusalem church.
They even “pleaded” Paul wrote, for the privilege of being a part of what God was doing.
Paul then challenges the Corinthian church to get in on this “Grace” gift themselves.
The grace that God gave the church was the privilege of being involved in his larger work through their own individual choices…in this case…the privilege of giving.
Why is this a privilege?
God doesn’t need us to get stuff done…but he chooses to allow us to be involved in what he is doing…the opportunity to give…our money, time, our lives…is a grace gift to us.
8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 10 And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.
Again, next week, we will look at this from the perspective of principles related to generosity and cooperation.
This week we want to look at this from a foundational perspective of seeing our small choices as having implications for God’s larger purposes.
He says he is not using his authority to command them to give…but rather giving them the chance to demonstrate in practical fashion the authenticity of their love.
They had committed to giving towards the offering…now that they had gotten back on track theologically…they needed to be challenged to get back on track in their commitment.
Beliefs back on track…check
Hearts back on track…check
Behavior back on track…let get this corrected.
Let’s look for a moment at verse 9
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
“Grace” here is not merely attitude but specific actions.
Christ’s love was expressed to us in concrete saving actions on our behalf.
And a concrete expression of love is what Paul wants the Corinthians to manifest.
We want to be careful to not distort the biblical picture of Jesus’ poverty and fail to understand what Paul has in mind in regards to that poverty here…or to his riches given to us
Luke, in his gospel highlights the lowly circumstances of the birth of Jesus…the manger, no room in the inn.
This doesn’t mean that his family was destitute but it specifically speaks to the overcrowded conditions of Bethlehem at the time of the census.
The offering that Mary made for her purification after childbirth was that which was permitted by OT law for those who could not afford a lamb (she offered two birds instead).
So clearly, they were not well off…but they were not destitute either.
Jesus was a craftsman, as was his dad…he would not be among the very poor of that time.
He did tell a would-be disciple that “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but I have nowhere to lay my head.”
This doesn’t mean he was in continual dire economic circumstances…it meant he was going to be on the road, non-stop…and that following him was not going to be a prosperous “business” venture.
Luke says that Jesus was supported by some people, specifically women…who had experienced his healing and forgiveness. (Luke 8)
These women gave from their own means…to support the work of Jesus and the twelve.
And Jesus didn’t live perpetually homeless…he stayed at the homes of various people…as was customary at the time.
And then there was Judas, the group treasurer.
He was in charge of the funds that were used to provide for the group’s needs…and there was enough left over for them to be able to give some of their money to the poor.
And unfortunately enough for Judas to steal some for himself.
The point is that the poverty Jesus experienced…at whatever level it was economic is not Paul’s point here.
What Paul had in mind was the whole story of incarnation and redemption:
-Jesus who was in the beginning God and was with God…emptied himself and took on human form.
His poverty is not in terms of physical want…but in his incarnate life…taking on human flesh.
We are, without God…truly poverty stricken…it is our nature as human.
Jesus emptied himself, Scripture says, and took the form of a servant…human form.
You and I are, in our natures…poor, servants.
Then the riches Jesus offers us are not material prosperity (some experience this, many don’t)…but eternal life…his life in us…is the riches of every believer.
Now, as recipients of Christ’s self-sacrifice…sacrifice demonstrated in concrete terms.
Paul challenged them that through their own practical acts of sacrificial love…they would demonstrate in concrete terms the reality of the gospel.
Their giving to bless others…was an evidence of the reality of the gospel in their lives.
This is not, of course, about trying to earn God’s love through their own efforts…but expressing their love through their actions.
13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15 as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
*This is no call for a kind of communism…people were free to make their own decisions as to what they gave and what they kept.
Paul is casting vision not for foolishness or imbalance but for faith expressed in mutually interdependent actions.
“Hey, someday, you will be in need…and they will help you…we are in this together.”
But in all of it…they needed to remember that God is the provider….and his church is to work together.
He quotes from Exodus where God provided food, manna in the wilderness.
And as God provided…everyone had what they needed.
Paul finishes chapter 8 with some more details about the offering and Titus’ role in it.
Then in the final verse of the chapter he writes this:
24 Therefore show these men the proof of your love and the reason for our pride in you, so that the churches can see it.
This is not about people pleasing or trying to keep up with what other churches are doing…that would be the opposite of what God would want.
This is about practical evidence of the gospel through the practical actions of the church…his people
It is about modeling that believers can should experience a unity in their diversity…unity built on sacrificial choices for the good of each other.
Okay: Let’s jump out of 2 Corinthians (the letter) and ahead in time.
Paul shows up back in Corinth (after he had written this letter)…he stays there about 6 months…writes the book of Romans.
Then he packs up and takes the offering (they had listened to him and had given) and heads for Jerusalem.
On the way to Jerusalem he will stop to visit churches and on one of those stops he said this…
Acts 20:22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
He traveled on and just before he made the final leg of his journey to Jerusalem this happened:
Acts 21:10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ ”
There’s that Agabus again, poor guy…never seems to have good news.
What he did, with Paul’s belt is called an “acted parable”…it was common among OT prophets…especially Jeremiah.
Paul is going to be captured…Agabus acted it out.
When Paul’s friends heard(and saw) this prophecy…they begged him not to go.
Acts 21:12 When we (we means Luke, who is writing the book of Acts…was there in person) heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
Paul would go to Jerusalem, where he would deliver the offering…Luke doesn’t mention the offering but he does say that Paul and Titus were well received.
Then when Paul reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles (like in Corinth)…they praised God.
Acts 21:17 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. 18 The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. 19 Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20 When they heard this, they praised God.
God was glorified and the church was unified through practical acts of sacrificial service.
But for Paul the sacrifice would be huge…bigger than the giving of money.
As predicted he was arrested in Jerusalem…and taken to Rome
He had long wanted to take the gospel to the heart of the Roman empire…and Rome itself would deliver him there…albeit as a prisoner.
Eventually he would die there…having lived out what he had said back in Acts 20:24
However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
That he did.
This year we have focused on:
Paul was resolute in teaching the truth of the gospel to the Corinthian Christians.
He was passionate that they understand that his life and his love were to authenticate the gospel message.
This was so important because the message that his life was tied to was so important for their lives.
It was the very truth of God.
If I do not believe what is in fact true…what hope is there for me to live in the world as it actually is?
Marx’s political and social theories.
Freud’s psychological and sexual theories.
Darwin’s origin theories.
Have all led to great devastation, human suffering on a large scale.
Ideas, beliefs…they matter…not just large historic ideas…but for all of us….what we actually believe is real and true matters…a lot.
The first job of a leader is to define reality…not to make one up…but to say “This is what is actually real, true here.”
Paul has been doing that for them…if they don’t believe what is real…how will they possible thrive in the real world?
Beliefs form values…become behavior…all this equals our lives.
If what we believe is wrong…not real…then we will attempt to live in ways that will bring increased brokenness and suffering.
*What ideas we allow to nest in our heads…shapes he very course of our lives.
*And you get to choose what ideas nest…you can’t keep the idea birds from flying over your head, but you can choose to not let them nest in your minds.
*When our actions and attitudes begin to slip…we must pay attention to what we are currently believing about God…is he there, is he powerful, is he good…is he worthy of giving our hearts and lives to.
*Have we begun to believe…that we must live for self, that we deserve something, that others exist for our own pleasure and purposes.
*When the check engine light comes on…check the engine.
When attitudes and behaviors slip…check what you are actually “believing” about God, self, others.
Paul wanted them to believe the gospel…and as they did…he wanted them to learn to love God out of their very hearts…to worship rightly.
To worship Christ…so they could experience the joy of becoming like him…particularly in how they related to one another.
So, his passion for them to know the truth was not just for them to contain more information in their heads…but to love truth in their hearts.
As this happened…beliefs that are true, hearts wrapped around Christ…then it would change the way they live in relationship with each other.
So, some, as they read 2 Corinthians, see a jump from Paul’s earlier chapters…to these two chapters on offering…and it seems to make no sense.
But there is no “jump” there is a sequence…gospel beliefs, gospel values, gospel behavior…grace all the way through.
The offering was the behavior that demonstrated they had embraced the gospel and that Christ was king in their hearts.
Our small choices (maybe large for us)…but in the grand scheme seem small are where God’s great purposes are unfolding in the world.
The Macro work of God converges in our lives in the Micro day to day choices that we make.
What God is doing in the wider world, we get to be in on by simple acts of obedience.
So…the Macedonians, Paul wrote…they saw this…
They pleaded, even out of their own relative need… “Please, please, let us give…let us in on this grace of giving.”
The Macro movements of God…are the collections of the Micro movements of his people.
This is enormously difficult and important to maintain as a focus of our attention.
When we see God in every aspect and angle of our lives…and in what he is going on in the world around us…we then see that every little choice…matters.
We are less prone to be overwhelmed by the current news cycle.
*We really need to read history and theology from the Bible…not just news current events if we want to live in the present in ways that resemble actual reality.
When we fail to see God in the world around us…then no choice, great or small…ultimately seems to matter…it all starts falling apart.
It’s really all or nothing…it all matters or nothing does.
When God’s purposes are kept clearly in view…then it all matters.
Let’s go back to Paul…resolutely headed for Jerusalem…to deliver an offering that he could have sent with someone else.
But he took it himself…because it was the right thing to do.
This is what he said…after being told “If you do this bad things will happen to you.”
I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
I have been enormously challenged by this passage this week…I’ve thought it over and I’ve used it to look over my life.
I have experienced some sorrow as I have…it has challenged and it has rebuked me.
But it has, for me, been what Paul called godly sorrow…not what he called worldly sorrow…I am challenged to action…not just passive remorse.
I don’t want to waste my life.
If you are challenged…please don’t go looking to experience God’s great purpose in some grand new commitment or some epic life change…don’t try to make some new promise to God.
That kind of emotional response usually doesn’t survive much past Sunday lunch.
Just decide, either for the first time…or again for the thousandth time…to say “yes” to God.
To not fear what he wants for you…to fear not living what he wants for you.
The larger purposes…the epic things of God…are experienced by normal people in non-epic ways…in what are often difficult daily choices…put together into a lifetime.
*Harold Bullock Vacuum the carpet*
Vacuum the carpet…excel, as Paul wrote in: faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness, love…and in giving.
These are the simple, day to day decisions that put us in the flow of God’s epic historical purposes.
It won’t often feel epic…there will be times when you will get glimpses of the larger things God is doing(if you watch for them).
But mostly you will just live day to day life with no visible view of grand purpose…
-but over time, time will tell…that faithfulness lived by faith…will prove to be a life of grand purpose….guaranteed.