Sunday 3 July 2011

Christian giving (1 Corinthians 16:1-11)

Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do.
1 Corinthians 16:1

Money can a touchy subject. Especially when we are talking about your money. On Sundays, we collect an offering and pass small bags down the aisle for Christians to put money in. But imagine if instead we placed a big transparent plastic box right in front and said to everyone, Put your money in here, where everyone can see. We want our giving to be personal. We want it to be anonymous.

In today’s passage we consider the subject of Christian giving. What does it mean for Christians to give money. 1 Corinthians 16 gives two clear guidelines: (1) We give to help God’s people; and (2) We give to support God’s work.

For the Christian, these are the two main, if not, only reasons for giving to the church. For the Christian leader, these are the two main, if not, only reasons for spending money given to the church. God’s people and God’s work.

But before we get to the why, verse 2 talks about the how. How should a collection be taken in the church?

On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
1 Corinthians 16:2

The apostle Paul says we should set it aside and save it up.

This happens on Sundays, “the first day of the every week”. In part, he is talking about when we come together as the church. That is why we take up the offering. But notice that Paul talks about setting aside money not simply on Sunday, but on every Sunday of every week, adding the words, “in keeping with your income.” That is quite important, because the some translations have “as he may prosper”. It is telling us to look back at these past seven days and ask the question, “How has God provided for me this week?” Not this past month or year, but just this past week. Answering that question helps you answer the next question, “How much should I give?”

Some of us might not give because of student loans. Some of us have mortgages or bills to pay on that new car. The new iPod is coming out in September or there’s that holiday trip to Hong Kong over the summer.

Paul says look back just at this past week. And give according to how much God has blessed you this week. Set it aside.

Next, Paul says save it up. The big idea is to give regularly, and the reason for this is very interesting. “So that,” says Paul at the end of verse 2, “no collections will have to be made.” You make a collection every week so that there won’t be a need for a big collection at the end when I arrive.

Christian giving is regular giving. It’s not a big campaign held once a year, with emotional appeals to worthy causes and a touching video featuring the stars of Harry Potter. Paul says the collection is to be made each week and entrusted to the church.

Notice that Paul does not use the word “tithe”. Christians are not called to “tithe” their money. The word means to give a tenth of your income. Jesus uses the term three times in the gospels (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42, and Luke 18:12) to describe not Christian giving but Pharisees who give a tenth of their possessions, money, even their spices (for us Chinese, that include your oyster sauce, five-spice powder and curry paste) to God as their tithe. Jesus condemns them for being proud of their giving, calculative in their tithing, yet hard in their hearts towards God.

The word used here in 1 Corinthians 16 is not “tithe”, but “collection” (verses 1 and 2). Not that it is wrong to call it the “offering” as we do here in the Chinese Church, but collection emphasises the responsibility of the church. As a Christian you present your offering of money, but you entrust that money to the church who collects this money.

I realise that some have a big problem with that. Why should I give through the church? In fact, some of you may even be thinking: How can I trust the church to handle my money?

That is precisely Paul’s concern in verse 3.

Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.
1 Corinthians 16:3-4

Paul is concerned with integrity. In sending this money, but also, integrity in receiving this money.

He is saying that it isn’t enough to write a cheque. You need to send people with this money. Send men whom you trust - your best guys.- and I will write a letter introducing these guys to the church in Jerusalem. In other words, Paul wants to establish a relationship between the Christians in Corinth and in Jerusalem. He wants them to shake hands, spend time in Jerusalem, meet the Christians there. Then go back to Corinth and tell the church about how the money was used, but also how the Christians there are doing.

You see when we send money to missionaries or to poor churches in China, we should not post the cheque and then wait for them to write back saying how grateful they are and to give an account on how they spent the money. Paul says that is not Christian giving. We should write to them; we should visit them and present the money ourselves. Because he wants us to be interested in their welfare, not just their bank accounts.

But there is another reason Paul writes these letters of recommendation; moreover offering to go with them himself. Because there needs to be integrity in receiving this money. He says in verse 3, this is your money sent with your people. This is your gift (verse 3).

Money raised for Christian aid must come from Christian believers. It is shameful to go to the streets, shake cans and ask non-Christians to give their money; then to use that money to plant churches, print bibles and run programmes. It shames us as Christians and it brings shame to God’s name.

Paul wants integrity in their giving. Such that if need be, he will go with them himself to Jerusalem to present this gift (or charis, which can also be translated grace).

After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. Perhaps I will stay with you for a while, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.
1 Corinthians 16:5-7

Paul is outlining his travel plans. He just said he might accompany them to Jerusalem with their gift (at the end of verse 4). So pulls out his diary, jots down his itinerary and plans his destinations leading up to this visit to Corinth. Notice how Paul says “Perhaps I will stay with you awhile” (verse 6), “I hope to spend some time with you” (verse 7), and “if the Lord permits.”

The apostle Paul makes plans. But plans may change. Plans may or may not work out, depending on circumstance, depending on God’s will.

It is good and godly to make plans for your summer. Work part-time at Yim Wah restaurant. Go on holiday with your family. Study at university next year. In fact, I would say, it is wise. You should plan to spend your time responsibly and gainfully. Do you want to be a lawyer in 5 years? Plan to study, to get your degree and work in a law firm to gain experience. Fail to plan and you plan to fail.

Paul plans to be in Corinth, so he plans how he will get there. Through Macedonia and then to Corinth in the winter.

But plans do change. And Paul is ready to change his plans to reflect his true priorities. That is verse 8.

But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.
1 Corinthians 16:8-9

His priority is God’s work. The gospel - that’s number one. A great door has opened in Ephesus, and through this door comes great opportunity and great opposition.

We know from Acts 19 that Paul spent every day for two years teaching the bible in a school hall, such that everyone in that entire region of Asia heard the gospel. It was a great opportunity for God’s word to be heard; for Jesus to be proclaimed.

Yet we also know from the bible, that Ephesus was where Paul faced his fiercest opposition. And Acts 19 tell us, it involved money. There was a huge trade in Ephesus involving the manufacturing of idols, but thanks to Paul’s preaching that said “man-made gods are no gods at all”, they started to lose their income. This led to a riot and revolt in the city centre led by the craftsmen and silversmiths. Paul and his preaching was bad for business.

Paul knows with every opportunity from God comes opposition from men. He plans to stay in Ephesus. His priority is not comfort; it’s not safety, it is the gospel.

Now what does all this have to do with Christian giving? It is this: In putting God’s work first as his priority, Paul puts his own rights and needs second. Not once in sixteen chapters of this letter, does Paul ask for money for himself.

It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to be paid. In Chapter 9, Paul writes:

In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
1 Corinthians 9:14

Pastors should receive their living from preaching the gospel. It is right that we support our pastors with money and an income. This is a command from God himself.

Yet at the same time, we need to understand that we do not pay our pastors a salary. They are not employees of the church. Rather, we support them as workers of the gospel, freeing them to focus on the preaching of the gospel. This is our privilege as the church and their right as servants of God.

Yet for Paul, he sets aside his rights in order to offer the gospel free of charge.

What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.
1 Corinthians 9:18

This is a hard act to follow, but an important principle to grasp, especially for full-time workers of the gospel. Paul is willing to set aside his rights in receiving an income to make the gospel free of charge. It meant, at times, holding a secular job - Paul made tents. It meant putting the gospel first, before his other own plans and before his other priorities. So much so, that Paul would call this his boast and reward. Preaching the gospel is not a profession, it is a privilege given by God. There may be seasons in our lives that God may bring this home in a big way on your ministry and in our churches.

Yet for the Corinthian church, such a situation spoke only of their shame. They looked down on Paul; in part, because he refused to accept money. Corinth was very much like Cambridge today. It was a city that gave prominence to oratory, flair, philosophy and debate. The better the debator, the more elequent the orator; then the greater the respect he commanded, the greater the financial success he enjoyed. This was not Paul. He wasn’t paid. He wasn’t impressive. He wasn’t respected.

And neither were his friends.

When Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should treat him with contempt. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me. I am expecting him along with the brothers.
1 Corinthians 16:10-11

It is almost sad and a little bit scary to read how Paul expected Timothy to be treated at Corinth. See that he has “nothing to fear”. No one should “treat him with contempt”. What was he afraid the church would do to Timothy? And why would he have to write such words asking them to send Timothy on his way “in peace” so that he would return safely back to Paul? It almost sounds like Paul was sending Timothy off to war in Afganistan!

In Chapter 4, we know that Paul sent Timothy, “as a son whom he loves, who is faithful in the Lord”. Here in verse 10, Paul writes of Timothy, “he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am”. Paul is sending someone with the same heart for God and shares the same commitment to the gospel.

And because of this, Paul knows Timothy will receive the same opposition to the gospel in Corinth. So why send Timothy if Paul knows this?

Because Christian giving isn’t just about money. It is the giving in sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. What Paul has been urging the Corinthians to do with their money, he does with his own treasured son in the faith, Timothy. The Corinthians are still Paul’s brothers and sisters in Christ, and he wants to remind them of the gospel. Even though they have messed up again and again, Paul doesn’t give up on them, because God doesn’t give up on them. God continues to show grace to his church in his Son, Jesus.

The point of today’s passage is not about giving money, but rather, faithfulness. Faithfulness with our lives and faithfulness with our money. It is a faithfulness that come from recognising the faithfulness of God in continuing to show us grace even when we do not deserve it, by sending his Son to die for us on the cross.

In a second letter to this church, Paul would later write to the Corinthians:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

Christian giving is for God’s people, entrusted through God’s church, for the growth of God’s work in the gospel. That’s quite a mouthful. Summarising it another way, Christian giving is simply a response to Jesus on the cross. Through he was rich, for our sakes he became poor. He humbled himself and gave his life for us. We respond to his gift of grace in repentance, in trust and in the worship of our whole lives, lived for Jesus.

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