As Brother Thaddeus lit the torch in the hall, Paul paused to glance at the fading opulence of this sprawling villa just south of Berea. The remaining furnishings cast their ornate shadows upon cracked walls poorly disguised by a few threadbare tapestries. Many tiles were missing from the mosaic floor, and the Syrian carpet was faded and torn.
The apostle had been dumbfounded when this congregation had presented him with a love gift on this, his last day with them. In addition to the gold and silver coins, there were rings, bracelets, nose rings, brooches, and several unset gems. His heart overflowed with affection for this little band of believers. A marked people in a pagan city, they were being severely tried for their faith in Jesus. Money was scarce. Some shivered in thin, tattered clothing. Others had not eaten yet today. Many bore the marks of brutal beatings. Thaddeus, who had been removed from his government post for refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord” upon entering the council chambers, had been strangely unable to sell his property, and his taxes had taken an unexpected jump. Paul hoped his last sermon would encourage them all…
“So as Jesus sat by the temple doors with His disciples, the worshipers filed by and dropped there offerings into the massive, carved chest which is opened each Sabbath to receive the tithes of the Jews.
“Our Lord watched closely. Prominent men strode sedately to the coffer, their elegant robes sweeping the marble floor, and with practiced flourishes dropped fistfuls of silver from their brocade purses. Pharisees and members of the religious councils would bow and scrape piously, glancing about to make sure none of their generous contributions slipped into the box unappreciated.
“Occasionally, one of the Twelve would gasp as the equivalent of an entire year’s earnings passed before his eyes and clattered onto the growing heap of coins.
“Then, as several of my associates quietly speculated about the possible uses for such a fortune, a young widow entered the hall and shuffled over to the treasury in her patched sandals, carrying a whimpering infant and pulling a dirty toddler with her. No flowing robes here. No gold, no jewels, no wish to be seen by anyone but God. Clumsily she fished two tiny coins from the threadbare pouch fastened to her tunic. Whispering a silent prayer of thanksgiving, her damp eyes full of hope and adoration, she dropped her very life into that chest, its tinkling barely audible as it, too, landed on the heap.
“Instantly, the Master was on His feet.
‘Did you see that poor widow, my friends? That one, over there. She just put two mites into the treasury, but I tell you assuredly that she has given more than all these well-heeled hypocrites put together! And do you know why? Because those two mites were all she had. They gave token amounts out of their vast wealth, doing their best to appear generous and holy. But she, in her poverty, gave everything to her Heavenly Father. He will reward her richly for this!’
Though we don’t actually know what Paul taught the Macedonian believers about giving, the apostle held them up to the Corinthians–wealthy, urbane believers in a city directly south of Macedonia–as model givers. They are an example to us, as well. If we could master the principles by which they lived, the cause of Christ would be propelled forward exponentially. People in our communities would not go hungry or unclothed. Believers would be more content and better able to serve the Lord.
Just what was it about these anonymous Christians that made their gifts so special? Four simple observations can reveal their secret of giving.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON THINGS AND CIRCUMSTANCES
The Macedonian Christians had a different perspective on things and circumstances from most of us. In 2 Corinthians 8.1-2, Paul writes, We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
What an amazing statement! In our culture, affliction and joy, poverty and liberality–these are perceived as mutually exclusive. We don’t expect afflicted people to be joyful; indeed, when they are we question their grasp of reality. We certainly don’t expect the poor to give generously to others–we expect others to give to them! So when we read of these wonderful people who were both oppressed and poverty-stricken, we marvel. Affliction did not rob them of their joy, and poverty did not rob them of their generosity.
Joyfulness and generosity must be conscious decisions we make as Christians, irrespective of circumstances. They are directly related to our priorities. Our tendency is to pursue what is not important, to wish for what is not possible (see PRO 23.1-3), and to take pride in what is not ours. (PRO 30.8,9) What a contrast to those struggling Macedonians, enduring one of the early waves of persecution which swept over the Church in the first century.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON FAITH
Their perspective on faith was different, as well. Paul writes in verses three and four, For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… We often give according to what we can afford. This is not wrong, but it is not faith. As we learn to give, it is a good place to begin, as Paul says in verse 12: For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. But that was not enough for the Macedonian believers. They gave beyond their ability. They gave according to faith, not figures. Not only that, but they “begged…earnestly”. There was no reluctance, no need for reminders, as in Corinth. They were “cheerful givers,” not giving “reluctantly or under compulsion.” (1 COR 9.7)
Sometimes the poor are more generous than the rich. Perhaps this pattern was evidence in Paul’s day, as well, and prompted him to write, As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the certainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share. (1 TIM 6.17,18)
Either we trust God or we don’t. If we don’t, no amount of money will be enough to please Him. If we do, no amount will be too much. He can afford whatever we decide to give.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON MINISTRY
An incident over thirty years ago taught me a lesson I hope I will never forget.
I went with a friend to visit a rural family in Nova Scotia who lived in a two-room block cottage with no hot running water, little heat, and just enough food to keep the lions in their bellies from roaring too loudly. It was a bitterly cold winter, and they had to wear their coats inside to keep warm.
They had recently immigrated from England. The man was out of work, with no prospects. His wife was ill and they had two small children.
But they were a Christian family, and there was joy in the home despite the hardship. We had a good time of fellowship, and when my friend and I went out to the car, the man came with us. As we said good-bye, he stuffed a five dollar bill into my hand.
“I–bu–I can’t take this from you!” I stammered. “I should be giving you money.”
“Listen, Brother,” my new friend replied in his direct manner, “does your Bible say it is better to give than to receive?”
“Of course it does, but—”
“Then who are you to deprive me of the blessing of giving?”
He had me there.
The Macedonians might have asked this question had Paul refused their gift. Indeed, he says they begged…earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 COR 8.4) These impoverished disciples knew God could use them despite their need, and they considered the needs of their Judean brothers and sisters more pressing than their own. The realization that we all minister together with God and that we are equally important in His program will affect how we give out of what He has given to us.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON COMMITMENT
Paul seems surprised himself as he writes of the Macedonians, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 COR 8.5) Just as the widow in the temple, they had given God their very lives, so it was no great thing to offer Him a gift to ease the pain of His children in Judea and give His servant a nice send-off.
To be truly cheerful givers, we must give ourselves to God. Such a gift is not beyond the call of duty. Indeed, Romans 12.1 calls it our “spiritual worship.” This sacrifice comes with the knowledge that if the Lord can’t have us, He doesn’t want our money. And if He does have us, He already has our money, too. All of it.
If that poor widow had only known how many precious gifts her spirit would inspire, her steps would have quickened, her face would have radiated with humble thanksgiving to her Lord for using her so.
She knows now.