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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
2 Corinthians 8

 

 

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Verses 1-15

Chapter 20

THE GRACE OF LIBERALITY.

2 Corinthians 8:1-15 (R.V)

WITH the eighth chapter begins the second of the three great divisions of this Epistle. It is concerned exclusively with the collection which the Apostle was raising in all the Gentile Christian communities for the poor of the Mother Church at Jerusalem. This collection had great importance in his eyes, for various reasons: it was the fulfillment of his undertaking, to the original Apostles, to remember the poor; [Galatians 2:10] and it was a testimony to the saints in Palestine of the love of the Gentile brethren in Christ. The fact that Paul interested himself so much in this collection, destined as it was for Jerusalem, proves that he distinguished broadly between the primitive Church and its authorities on the one hand, and the Jewish emissaries whom he treats so unsparingly in 2 Corinthians 10:1-18 and 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 on the other.

Money is usually a delicate topic to handle in the Church, and we may count ourselves happy in having two chapters from the pen of St. Paul in which he treats at large of a collection. We see the mind of Christ applied in them to a subject which is always with us, and sometimes embarrassing; and if there are traces here and there that embarrassment was felt even by the Apostle, they only show more clearly the wonderful wealth of thought and feeling which he could bring to bear on an ungrateful theme. Consider only the variety of lights in which he puts it, and all of them ideal. "Money," as such, has no character, and so he never mentions it. But he calls the thing which he wants a grace ( χαρις), a service ( διακονια), a communion in service ( κοινωνια), a munificence ( αδροτης), a blessing ( ευλογια), a manifestation of love. The whole resources of Christian imagination are spent in transfiguring, and lifting into a spiritual atmosphere, a subject on which even Christian men are apt to be materialistic. We do not need to be hypocritical when we speak about money in the Church; but both the charity and the business of the Church must be transacted as Christian, and not as secular, affairs.

Paul introduces the new topic with his usual felicity. He has got through some rough water in the first seven chapters, but ends with expressions of joy and satisfaction. When he goes on in the eighth chapter, it is in the same cheerful key. It is as though he said to the Corinthians: "You have made me very happy, and now I must tell you what a happy experience I have had in Macedonia. The grace of God has been poured out on the Churches, and they have given with incredible liberality to the collection for the Jewish poor. It so moved me that I begged Titus, who had already made some arrangements in connection with this matter among you, to return and complete the work."

Speaking broadly, the Apostle invites the Corinthians to look at the subject through three media:

(1) the example of the Macedonians;

(2) the example of the Lord; and

(3) the laws by which God estimates liberality.

(1) The liberality of the Macedonians is described as "the grace of God given in the Churches." This is the aspect of it which conditions every other; it is not the native growth of the soul, but a divine gift for which God is to be thanked. Praise Him when hearts are opened, and generosity shown; for it is His work. In Macedonia this grace was set off by the circumstances of the people. Their Christian character was put to the severe proof of a great affliction; {see 1 Thessalonians 2:14 f.} they were themselves in deep poverty; but their JOY abounded nevertheless, [1 Thessalonians 1:6] and joy and poverty together poured out a rich stream of liberality. This may sound paradoxical, but paradox is normal here. Strange to say, it is not those to whom the Gospel comes easily, and on whom it imposes little, who are most generous in its cause. On the contrary, it is those who have suffered for it, those who have lost by it, who are as a rule most open-handed. Comfort makes men selfish, even though they are Christian; but if they are Christian, affliction, even to the spoiling of their goods, teaches them generosity. The first generation of Methodists in England-the men who in 1843 fought the good fight of the faith in Scotland-illustrate this law; m much proof of affliction, it might be said of them also, the abundance of their joy, and their deep poverty, abounded unto the riches of their liberality. Paul was almost embarrassed with the liberality of the Macedonians. When he looked at their poverty, he did not hope for much (2 Corinthians 8:5). He would not have felt justified in urging people who were themselves in such distress to do much for the relief of others. But they did not need urging: it was they who urged him. The Apostle’s sentence breaks down as he tries to convey an adequate impression of their eagerness (2 Corinthians 8:4), and he has to leave off and begin again (2 Corinthians 8:5). To their power he bears witness, yes and beyond their power, they gave of their own accord. They importuned him to bestow on them also the favor of sharing in this service to the saints. And when their request was granted, it was no paltry contribution that they made; they gave themselves to the Lord, to begin with, and to the Apostle, as His agent in the transaction, by the will of God. The last words resume, in effect, those with which St. Paul introduced this topic: it was God’s doing, the working of His will on their wills, that the Macedonians behaved as they did. I cannot think the English version is right in the rendering: "And this, not as we had hoped, but first they gave their own selves to the Lord." This inevitably suggests that afterwards they gave something else-viz., their subscriptions. But this is a false contrast, and gives the word "first" ( πρωτον) a false emphasis, which it has not in the original. What St Paul says is virtually this: "We expected little from people so poor," but by God’s will they literally put themselves at the service of the Lord, in the first instance, and of us as His administrators. They said to us, to our amazement and joy, "We are Christ’s, and yours after Him, to command in this matter." This is one of the finest and most inspiring experiences that a Christian minister can have, and, God be thanked, it is none of the rarest. Many a man besides Paul has been startled and ashamed by the liberality of those from whom he would not have ventured to beg. Many a man has been importuned to take what he could not have dared to ask. It is a mistake to refuse such generosity, to decline it as too much; it gladdens God, and revives the heart of man. It is a mistake to deprive the poorest of the opportunity of offering this sacrifice of praise; it is the poorest in whom it has most munificence, and to whom it brings the deepest joy. Rather ought we to open our hearts to the impression of it, as to the working of God’s grace, and arouse our own selfishness to do something not less worthy of Christ’s love.

This was the application which St. Paul made of the generosity of the Macedonians. Under the impression of it he exhorted Titus, who on a previous occasion had made some preliminary arrangements about the matter in Corinth, to return thither and complete the work. He had other things also to complete, but "this grace" was to be specially included ( καὶ τὴν χάριν ταύτην). Perhaps one may see a gentle irony in the tone of 2 Corinthians 8:7. "Enough of argument," the Apostle says: "Let Christians distinguished as you are in every respect-in faith and eloquence and knowledge and all sorts of zeal, and in the love that comes from you and abides in us-see that they are distinguished in this grace also." It is a real character that is suggested here by way of contrast, but not exactly a lovely one: the man who abounds in spiritual interest, who is fervent, prayerful, affectionate, able to speak in the Church, but unable to part with money.

(2) This brings the Apostle to his second point, the example of the Lord. "I do not speak by way of commandment," he says, "in urging you to be liberal, I am only taking occasion, through the earnestness of others, to put the sincerity of your love to the proof." If you truly love the brethren you will not grudge to help them in their distress. The Macedonians, of course, are no law for you; and though it was from them I started, I do not need to urge their example; "for ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might become rich." This is the one pattern that stands forever before the eyes of Christian men, the fountain of an inspiration as strong and pure today as when Paul wrote these words.

Read simply, and by one who has the Christian creed in his mind, the words do not appear ambiguous. Christ was rich, they tell us; He became poor for our sakes, and by His poverty we become rich. If a commentary is needed, it is surely to be sought in the parallel passage Philippians 2:5 ff. The rich Christ is the pre-existent One, in the form of God, in the glory which He had with the Father before the world was; He became poor when He became man. The poor men are those whose lot Christ came to share, and in consequence of that self-impoverishment of His they become heirs of a kingdom. It is not necessary, indeed it is utterly misleading, to ask curiously how Christ became poor, or what kind of experience it was for Him when He exchanged heaven for earth, and the form of God for the form of a servant. As Mr. Gore has well said, it is not the metaphysics of the Incarnation that St. Paul is concerned with, either here or in Philippians, but its ethics. We may never have a scientific key to it, but we have a moral key. If we do not comprehend its method, at least we comprehend its motive, and it is in its motive that the inspiration of it lies. We know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; and it comes home to our hearts when the Apostle says, "Let that mind- that moral temper-be in you which was also in Him." Ordinary charity is but the crumbs from the rich man’s table; but if we catch Christ’s spirit, it will carry us far beyond that. He was rich, and gave up all for our sakes; it is no less than poverty on His part which enriches us.

The older theologians, especially of the Lutheran Church, read this great text differently, and their opinion is not yet quite extinct. They referred επτωχευσεν, not to Christ’s entrance on the incarnate state, but to His existence in it; they puzzled themselves to conceive of Him as rich and poor at the same time; and they quite took the point from St. Paul’s exhortation by making επτωχευσεν πλουσιος ων describe a combination, instead of an interchange, of states. It is a counsel of despair when a recent commentator (Heinrici), sympathizing with this view, but yielding to the comparison of Philippians 2:5 ft., tries to unite the two interpretations, and to make επτωχευσεν cover both the coming to earth from heaven and the life in poverty on earth. No word can mean two different things at the same time: anti in this daring attempt we may fairly see a final surrender of the orthodox Lutheran interpretation.

Some strange criticisms have been passed on this appeal to the Incarnation as a motive to liberality. It shows, Schmiedel says, Paul’s contempt for the knowledge of Christ after the flesh, when the Incarnation is all he can adduce as a pattern for such a simply human thing as a charitable gift. The same contempt, then, we must presume, is shown in Philippians, when the same great-pattern is held up to inspire Christians with lowly thoughts of themselves, and with consideration for others. It is shown, perhaps, again at the close of that magnificent chapter-the fifteenth in First Corinthians - where all the glory to be revealed when Christ transfigures His people is made a reason for the sober virtues of steadfastness and patience. The truth is rather that Paul knew from experience that the supreme motives are needed on the most ordinary occasions. He never appeals to incidents, not because he does not know them, or because he despises them, but because it is far more potent and effectual to appeal to Christ. His mind gravitates to the Incarnation, or the Cross, or the Heavenly Throne, because the power and virtue of the Redeemer are concentrated there. The spirit that wrought redemption, and that changes men into the image of the Lord-the spirit without which no Christian disposition, not even the most "simply human," can be produced-is felt there, if one may say so, in gathered intensity; and it is not the want of a concrete vision of Jesus such as Peter and John had, nor a scholastic insensibility to such living and love-compelling details as our first three Gospels furnish, that makes Paul have recourse thither; it is the instinct of the evangelist and pastor who knows that the hope of souls is to live in the presence of the very highest things. Of course Paul believed in the pre-existence and in the Incarnation. The writer quoted above does not, and naturally the appeal of the text is artificial and unimpressive to him. But may we not ask, in view of the simplicity, the unaffectedness, and the urgency with which St. Paul uses this appeal both here and in Philippians, whether his faith in the preexistence can have had no more than the precarious speculative foundation which is given to it by so many who reconstruct his theology? "Christ, the perfect reconciler, must be the perfect revealer of God; God’s purpose-that for which He made all things must be seen in Him; but that for which God made all things must have existed (in the mind of God) before all things; therefore Christ is (ideally) from everlasting." This is the substance of many explanations of how St. Paul came by his Christology; but if this had been all, could St. Paul by any possibility have appealed thus naively to the Incarnation as a fact, and a fact which was one of the mainsprings of Christian morality?

(3) The Apostle pauses for a moment to urge his plea in the interest of the Corinthians themselves. He is not commanding, but giving his judgment: "this," he says, "is profitable for you, who began a year ago, not only to do, but also to will. But now complete the doing also." Every one knows this situation, and its evils. A good work which has been set on foot with interest and spontaneity enough, but which has begun to drag, and is in danger of coming to nothing, is very demoralizing. It enfeebles the conscience, and spoils the temper. It develops irresolution and incapacity, and it stands perpetually in the way of anything else that has to be done. Many a bright idea stumbles over it, and can get no further. It is not only worldly wisdom, but divine wisdom, which says: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." If it is the giving of money, the building of a church, the insuring of a life, complete the doing. To be always thinking about it, and always in an ineffective way busy about it, is not profitable for you.

It is in this connection that the Apostle lays down the laws of Christian liberality. In these verses (2 Corinthians 8:2-15) there are three.

(a) First, there must be readiness, or, as the Authorized Version puts it, a willing mind. What is given must be given freely; it must be a gracious offering, not a tax. This is fundamental. The law of the Old Testament is re-enacted in the New: "Of every man whose heart maketh him willing shall ye take the Lord’s offering." What we spend in piety and charity is not tribute paid to a tyrant, but the response of gratitude to our Redeemer: and if it has not this character He does not want it. If there be first a willing mind, the rest is easy; if not, there is no need to go on.

(b) The second law is, "according as a man has." Readiness is the acceptable thing, not this or that proof of it. If we cannot give much, then a ready mind makes even a little acceptable. Only let us remember this, that readiness always gives all that is in its power. The readiness of the poor widow in the Temple could only give two mites, but two mites were all her living; the readiness of the Macedonians was in the depths of poverty, but they gave themselves to the Lord. The widow’s mites are an illustrious example of sacrifice, and this word of the Apostle contains a moving appeal for generosity; yet the two together have been profaned times innumerable to cloak the meanest selfishness.

(c) The third law is reciprocity. Paul does not write that the Jews may be relieved and the Corinthians burdened, but on the principle of equality: at this crisis the superfluity of the Corinthians is to make up what is wanting to the Jews, and at some other the situation will be exactly reversed. Brotherhood cannot be one-sided; it must be mutual, and in the interchange of services equality is the result. This, as the quotation hints, answers to God’s design in regard to worldly goods, as that design is indicated in the story of the manna: He that gathered much had no more than his neighbors, and he that gathered little had no less. To be selfish is not an infallible way of getting more than your share; you may cheat your neighbor by that policy, but you will not get the better of God. In all probability men are far more nearly on an equality, in respect of what their worldly possessions yield, than the rich in their pride, or the poor in their envious discontent, would readily believe; but where inequality is patent and painful-a glaring violation of the divine intention here suggested-there is a call for charity to redress the balance. Those who give to the poor are co-operating with God, and the more a community is Christianized, the more will that state be realized in which each has what he needs.


Verses 16-24

Chapter 21

THE FRUITS OF LIBERALITY.

2 Corinthians 8:16-24; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15 (R.V)

THIS long passage has a good many difficulties of detail, for the grammarian and the textual critic. Where it seems necessary, these will be referred to in the notes; but as the large meaning of the writer is hardly affected by them, they need not interrupt the course of exposition. It fails into three parts, which are clearly marked as such in the Revised Version:

2 Corinthians 8:16-24, commending to the Corinthians the three brethren who were to precede Paul and prepare the collection;

2 Corinthians 9:1-5, appealing to the motives of emulation and shame to reinforce love in the matter; and

2 Corinthians 9:6-15, urging liberality, and enlarging on the blessed fruits it yields. The first of these divisions begins, and the last ends, with an exclamatory ascription of thanks to God.

2 Corinthians 8:16-24. Of the three men who acted as commissioners in this delicate undertaking, only one, Titus, is known to us by name. He had just returned from Corinth: he knew all the critical points in the situation; and no doubt the Apostle was glad to have such a man at the head of the little party. He was thankful to God that on the occasion of that previous visit the Corinthians had completely won the heart of Titus, and that his loyal fellow-worker needed no compulsion to return. He was leaving Paul of his own accord, full of earnest care for his Achaian friends. Along with him went a second-the brother whose praise in the Gospel was through all the Churches. It is useless to ask who the brother was. A very early opinion, alluded to by Origen, and represented apparently in the traditional subscription to this Epistle, identified him with Luke. Probably the ground for this identification was the idea that his "praise in the Gospel" referred to Luke’s work as an evangelist. But this cannot be: first, because Luke’s Gospel cannot have been written so early; and, secondly, because "the Gospel" at this date does not mean a written thing at all. This man’s praise in the Gospel must mean the credit he had acquired by his services to the Christian faith; it might be by some bold confession, or by activity as an evangelist, or by notable hospitality to missionaries, or by such helpful ministries as the one he was now engaged in. The real point of interest for us in the expression is the glimpse it gives us of the unity of the Church, and the unimpeded circulation of one life through all its members. Its early divisions, theological and racial, have been sufficiently emphasized; it is well worth while to observe the unity of the spirit. It was this, eventually, which gave the Church its power in the decline of the Empire. It was the only institution which extended over the area of civilization with a common spirit, common sympathies, and a common standard of praise. It was a compliment to the Corinthians to include in this embassy one whose good name was honored wherever men met in the name of Jesus. This brother was at the same time a deputy in a special sense. He had been elected by the Churches who were contributing to the collection, that he might accompany the Apostle when it was taken to Jerusalem. This, in itself, is natural enough, and it would not call for comment but for the remark to which the Apostle proceeds-"avoiding this, that any man should blame us in the matter of this bounty which is ministered by us to the glory of the Lord, and to show our readiness: for we take thought for things honorable, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men."

There was evidently an unpleasant side to this transaction. Paul’s interest in the collection, his enemies had plainly said, [2 Corinthians 12:17-18] was not quite disinterested. He was capable of putting his own hand into the bag. What ought a Christian man to do in such a case? We shall see in a later chapter how keenly Paul felt this unworthy imputation, and with what generous passion he resented it; but here he betrays no indignation; he joins with the Churches who are making the collection in so ordering matters as to preclude suspicion. Wherever the money is concerned, his responsibility is to be shared with another. It is a pity that Christ should not be glorified, and the Apostle’s zeal to help the poor saints made known, without the accompaniment of these base suspicions and precautionary measures; but in all things human, evil will mingle with good, and the humble course is best, which does not only what God knows to be honorable, but what men must see to be so too. In handling money especially, it is best to err on the safe side. If most men are too readily suspected by others, it only answers to the fact that most men are too ready to trust themselves. We have an infinite faith in our own honesty; and when auditors are appointed to examine their books, the inexperienced are apt to think it needless, and even impertinent. If they were wise, they would welcome it as a protection against suspicion and even against themselves. Many a man has ruined himself-not to speak of those who trusted him-by too blind a belief in his own integrity. The third brother who accompanied Titus seems to have been more closely associated with Paul than the second. He had proved him often, in many things, and found him uniformly earnest; and at this juncture the confidence he had in the Corinthians made him more earnest than ever. Paul extols the three in the highest terms before he sends them off; if anybody in Corinth wishes to know what they are, he is proud to tell. Titus is his partner in the apostolic calling, and has shared his work among them; the other brethren are deputies (apostles) of Churches, a glory of Christ. What an idealist Paul wast What an appreciation of Christian character he had when he described these nameless believers as reflections of the splendor of Christ! To common eyes they might be commonplace men; but when Paul looked at them he saw the dawning of that brightness in which the Lord appeared to him by the way. Contact with the grimy side of human nature did not blind him to this radiance; rather did this glory of Christ in men’s souls strengthen him to believe all things, to hope all things, to endure all things. In showing before these honored messengers the proof of their love, and of his boasting on their behalf, the Corinthians will show it, he says, before the face of the Churches. It will be officially reported throughout Christendom.

2 Corinthians 9:1-5 This section strikes one at first as greatly wanting in connection with what precedes. It looks like a new beginning, an independent writing on the same or a similar subject. This has led some scholars to argue that either 2 Corinthians 8:1-24. or 2 Corinthians 9:1-15. belongs to a different occasion, and that only resemblance in subject has led to one of them being erroneously inserted here beside the other. This in the absence of any external indication, Is an extremely violent supposition; and closer examination goes to dissipate that first impression. The statements, e.g., in 2 Corinthians 9:3-5 would be quite unintelligible if we had not 2 Corinthians 8:16-24 to explain them; and instead of saying there is no connection between 2 Corinthians 9:1 and what precedes, we should rather say that the connection is somewhat involved and circuitous-as will happen when one is handling a topic of unusual difficulty. It is to be explained thus. The Apostle feels that he has said a good deal now about the collection, and that there is a danger in being too urgent. He uses what he has just said about the reception of the brethren as a stepping-stone to another view of the subject, more flattering to the Corinthians, to begin with, and less importunate. "Maintain your character before them," he says in effect; "for as for the ministering to the saints, it is superfluous for me to be writing to you as I do." Instead of finding it necessary to urge their duty upon them, he has been able to hold up their readiness as an example to the Macedonians. "Achaia has been prepared for a year past," he said to his fond disciples in Thessalonica and Philippi; and the zeal of the Achaians, or rivalry of them, roused the majority of the Macedonians. This is one way of looking at what happened; another, and surely Paul would have been the first to say a more profound, is that of 2 Corinthians 8:1 -the grace of God was given in the Churches of Macedonia. But the grace of God takes occasions, and uses means; and here its opportunity and its instrument for working in Macedonia was the ready generosity of the Corinthians. It has wrought, indeed, so effectively that the tables are turned, and now it is the liberality of Macedonia which is to provoke Corinth. Paul is sending on these brethren beforehand, lest, if any of the Macedonians should accompany him when he starts for Corinth himself, they should find matters not so flourishing as he had led them to believe. "That would put me to shame," he says to the Corinthians, "not to speak of you. I have been very confident in speaking of you as I have done in Macedonia: do keep up my credit and your own. Let this blessing, which you are going to bestow on the poor, be ready as a blessing-i.e., as something which one gives willingly, and as liberally as he can; and not as a matter of avarice, in which one gives reluctantly, keeping as much as he can."

The legitimacy of such motives as are appealed to in this paragraph will always be more or less questioned among Christian men, but as long as human nature is what it is they will always be appealed to. ζηλότυπον γὰρ τὸ τῶν ἀνθρ‏πων γένος (Chrys.). A great man of action like St. Paul will of course find his temptation along this line. He is so eager to get men to act, and the inertness of human nature is so great, that it is hard to decline anything which will set it in motion. It is not the highest motive, certainly, when the forwardness of one stimulates another; but in a good cause, it is better than none. A good cause, too, has a wonderful power of its own when men begin to attend to it; it asserts itself, and takes possession of souls on its own account. Rivalry becomes generous then, even if it remains; it is a race in love that is being run, and all who run obtain the prize. Competitions for prizes which only one can gain have a great deal in them that is selfish and bad; but rivalry in the service of others-rivalry in unselfishness-will not easily degenerate in this direction. Paul does not need to be excused because he stimulates the Macedonians by the promptitude of the Corinthians-though he had his misgivings about this last-and the Corinthians by the liberality of the Macedonians. The real motive in both cases was "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor." It is this which underlies everything in the Christian heart, and nothing can do harm which works as its auxiliary.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 In the third and last section the Apostle resumes his direct and urgent seems to say, "but one thing I cannot but set down: He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully." That is the law of God, and the nature of things, whether men regard or disregard it. Charity is in a real sense an investment, not a casting away of money; it is not fruitless, but bears fruit in the measure in which it is sown. Of course it cannot be enforced-that would be to deny its very nature. Each is to give what he has purposed in his heart, where he is free and true: he is not to give out of grief, mourning over what he gives and regretting he could not keep it; neither is he to give out of necessity, because his position, or the usages of his society, or the comments of his neighbors, put a practical compulsion upon him. God loves a cheerful giver. Money is nothing to Him but as an index to the soul; unless the soul gives it, and gives itself with it, He takes no account. But He does take account of true charity, and because He does, the charitable may be of good cheer: He will not allow them to be without the means of manifesting a spirit so grateful to Him. If we really wish to be generous, He will not withhold from us the power of being so. This is what the Apostle says in 2 Corinthians 9:8 : "God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work." here is, indeed, another way of rendering αυταρκεια (sufficiency). Some take it subjectively, not objectively, and make it mean, not sufficiency, but contentment. But though a contented spirit disposes people wonderfully to be generous, and the discontented, who have never enough for themselves, can never, of course, spare anything for anybody else, this meaning is decidedly to be rejected. The sufficiency, as 2 Corinthians 9:10 also shows, is outward: we shall always, if we are charitable, have by God’s grace the means of being more so. He is able to bless us abundantly, that we may be able for every good work. Observe the purpose of God’s blessing. This is the import of the quotation from the 112th Psalm, in which we have the portrait of the good man: "He hath dispersed"-what uncalculating liberality there is in the very word-"he hath given to the poor: his righteousness abideth for ever." The approximation, in the Jewish morals of later times, of the ideas of righteousness and alms-giving, has led some to limit δικαιοσυνη in this passage {as in Matthew 6:1} to the latter sense. This is extremely improbable-I think impossible. In the Psalm, both in Psalms 112:3 and Psalms 112:10 (LXX), the expression "his righteousness abideth forever" reflects God’s verdict on the character as a whole. The character there described, and here referred to by the relevant trait of generosity, is one which need fear no chances of the future. He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply the seed sown by the generous Corinthians (that they may ever be in a position to be generous), and will cause also the fruits of their righteousness to grow. Their righteousness, as it figures in this last phrase, is of course represented, for the time being, by their generosity; and the poetic expression "fruits of righteousness," which is borrowed from Hosea, designates the results which that generosity produces. It is not only an investment which guarantees to them the generous care of God for their own welfare; it is a seed which bears another and more spiritual harvest. With some expansion of heart on this the Apostle concludes.

(a) It yields a rich harvest of thanksgiving to God. This is expressed in 2 Corinthians 9:12, and is the principal point. It is something to fill up further the measure of a brother’s needs by a timely gift, but how much more it is to change the tune of his spirit, and whereas we found him cheerless or weak in faith, to leave him gratefully praising God. True thankfulness to the Heavenly Father is an atmosphere in which all virtues flourish: and those whose charity bears fruit in this grateful spirit are benefactors of mankind to an extent which no money can estimate. It is probably forcing the Apostle’s language to insist that λειτουργια, as a name for the collection, has any priestly or sacrificial reference; but unfeigned charity is in its very nature a sacrifice of praise to God-the answer of our love to His; and it has its best effect when it evokes the thanksgivings to God of those who receive it. Wherever love is, He must be first and last.

(b) The charity of the Corinthians bore another spiritual fruit: in consequence of it the saints at Jerusalem were won to recognize more unreservedly the Christian standing of the Gentile brethren. This is what we read in 2 Corinthians 9:13. Taking occasion from the proof of what you are, which this ministration of yours has given them, they glorify God "for the obedience of your confession unto the Gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution unto them arid unto all." The verbal combinations possible here give free scope to the ingenuity and the caprice of grammarians; but the kind of thing meant remains plain. Once the Christians of Jerusalem had had their doubts about the Corinthians and the other pagans who were said to have received the Gospel; they had heard marvelous reports about them certainly, but it remained to be seen on what these reports rested. They would not commit themselves hastily to any compromising relation to such outsiders. Now all their doubts have been swept away; the Gentiles have actually come to the relief of their poverty, and there is no mistaking what that means. The language of love is intelligible everywhere, and there is only One who teaches it in such relations as are involved here-Jesus Christ. Yes, once they had their doubts of you; but now they will praise God that you have obediently confessed the Gospel, and frankly owned a fellowship with them and with all. The last words mean, in effect, that the Corinthians had liberally shared what they had with them and with all; but the terms are so chosen as to obliterate, as far as possible, all but the highest associations. This, then, is another fruit of charity: it widens the thoughts-it often improves the theology-of those who receive it. All goodness, men feel instinctively, is of God; and they cannot condemn as godless, or even as beyond the covenant, those through whom goodness comes to them.

(c) Finally, among the fruits of charity is to be reckoned the direct response of brotherly love, expressed especially in intercessory prayer, and in a longing to see those on whom God’s grace rests so abundantly. An unknown and distant benefactor is sometimes better than one near at hand. He is regarded simply in his character as a benefactor; we know nothing of him that can possibly discount his kindness; our mind is compelled to rest upon his virtues and remember them gratefully before God. One of the meanest experiences of human nature that we can have-and it is not an imaginary one-is to see people paying the debt of gratitude, or at least mitigating the sense of obligation, by thinking over the deficiencies in their benefactor’s character. "He is better off than we are; it is nothing to him; and if he is kind to the poor, he has need to be. It will take a lot of charity to cover all he would like to hide." This revolting spirit is the extreme opposite of the intercessory prayer and brotherly yearning which St. Paul sees in his mind’s eye among the saints at Jerusalem. Perhaps he saw almost more than was really to be seen. The union of hearts he aimed at was never more than imperfectly attained. But to have aimed at it was a great and generous action, and to have brought so many Gentile Churches to co-operate to this end was a magnificent service to the kingdom of God.

These "fruits" are not as yet actually borne, but to the Apostle’s loving anticipation they are as good as real. They are the fruits of "the righteousness" of the Corinthians, the harvest that God has caused to grow out of their liberality. From the very beginning there have been two opinions as to what St. Paul means by the exclamation with which he closes-"Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift." On the one hand, it is read as if it were a part of what precedes, the unspeakable gift of God being the numberless blessings that charity yields, by God’s goodness, both to those who give and to those who receive it. Paul in this case would be thinking, when he wrote, of the joy with which the Gentiles gave, and of the gratitude, the willing recognition, and the brotherly prayers and longing, with which the Jews received, help in the hour of need. These would be the unspeakable gift. On the other hand, the sentence is read as if it stood apart, not the continuation of what immediately precedes, but the overflow of the Apostle’s heart in view of-the whole situation. It becomes possible, then, to regard "God’s unspeakable gift" as the gift of redemption in His Son-the great, original, unsearchable gift, in which everything else is included, and especially all such manifestations of brotherly love as have just been in view. Sound feeling, I think, unequivocally supports the last interpretation. The very word "unspeakable" is one of a class that Paul reserves for this particular object; the wisdom and love of God as displayed in man’s salvation are unspeakable, unsearchable, passing knowledge; but nothing else is. It is to this his mind goes back, instinctively, as he contemplates what has flowed from it in the particular case before us; but it is the great divine gift, and not its fruits in men’s lives, however rich and various, that it passes the power of words to characterize. It is for it, and not for its results in Jew or Gentile, that the Apostle so devoutly thanks God.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/2-corinthians-8.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Monday, November 12th, 2018
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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