Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
How is the proclamation of the gospel related to the needs of the poor among us?
There is no question that an important aspect of Paul’s apostolic ministry was raising funds for the poor in Jerusalem. Not only would the collection address some very real economic needs — Jewish congregations tended to be poorer than their gentile counterparts — but it would also reinforce unity and reconciliation between Jewish and gentile Christians.1 Paul’s apostolic approach to raising funds for the poor has profound implications for how we too might relate the confession of the gospel of Christ to sharing our wealth with the poor.
- Grace and testing
Paul’s use of the Greek word charis — usually translated as “grace” — provides us with a clue for how to relate confessing the gospel to sharing wealth with the poor. The word occurs quite frequently in chapters 8 and 9 and is used to refer not only to God’s grace and Christ’s grace but also to the generosity that overflows in us as a result of divine grace.
The word charis, however, is only translated as “grace” in 2 Corinthians 8:1 and 2 Corinthians 9:14. Elsewhere it is translated as “privilege” (2 Corinthians 8:4), “generous undertaking” (2 Corinthians 8:6-7, 19), “generous act” (2 Corinthians 8:9), “blessing” (2 Corinthians 9:8), and “thanks” (2 Corinthians 8:16; 9:15). But what if we translated all these instances of charis with the English word “grace,” allowing Paul’s own use of this word in these chapters to determine what the word means?
Paul begins his discussion of the collection by referring to the grace of God granted to the Macedonian churches who, in spite of their affliction and poverty, “overflowed” (eperisseusen) with a wealth of generosity for others (2 Corinthians 8:1). The Macedonians had begged Paul and his coworkers for the grace of sharing in this ministry of the saints (2 Corinthians 8:4) and affirmed as well that Paul should send Titus to complete the grace of collecting the funds he had already begun collect from the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:6).
Paul now urges the Corinthians as well to follow Macedonians’ example and “overflow” in this grace as well. They already “overflow” with everything else — faith, speech, knowledge, every eagerness, and the love fellow Christians have for them — so why not also overflow in this grace (2 Corinthians 8:7)?
Paul makes clear that this is not a command but a “test” of the genuineness of their love against the eagerness of others. Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the word for “test” — as a verb (dokimazo) and a noun (dokime) — to refer to the way our true character — who we really are — is discerned, examined, or proven when faced with difficulties or challenges.2
- Christ as example
The main warrant for his appeal is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though rich, Christ became poor for our sakes so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Earlier in the letter Paul has depicted how Christ, in spite of being sinless, was made to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13, 14). And in Philippians, he describes how Christ, though sharing equality with God, emptied himself — even to the point of death on a cross — so he might be exalted and we too might share in his life with one another (Philippians 2:1-11).
- Desiring and completing
So how might this overflow of God’s and Christ’s grace, which is already overflowing in the Macedonians, also overflow in the Corinthians? Continuing with his point that this is not a command but merely an “opinion,” Paul says that it would be appropriate for them at this time not only to desire to do so, but also to complete the collection they have already started. Their gift’s acceptability is based on two things: their eagerness to give and that they give only what is within their means to give — what they have, not what they do not have (2 Corinthians 8:10-11).
- Equality in abundance and need
How does this overflowing grace and generosity get lived out in our lives? Paul makes clear that this is not about relieving some and afflicting others; it is not about letting some off the hook and making others feel guilty. Rather, it is about the equality or fairness (isotes) — the true reciprocity — that God’s reconciliation of the entire world makes possible. One’s overflow or abundance is to meet another’s need, and vice versa, so that both might be there for one another in all instances of abundance and of need — spiritual or monetary. Just as the Israelites shared equitably the bread that rained down from heaven, so we too are called to share our wealth so that some do not have too much and others do not have too little (2 Corinthians 8:15; Exodus 16:18).
God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ overflows into our lives — through the exchange of Christ’s wealth for our poverty — so that we too might overflow in the profound “sharing” (koinonia) of all things with one another. This overflow or excess of grace through Christ is an overflow and excess that spills out into all aspects of our lives. Abundantly supplying all our needs, God’s grace gives us power not only to forgive and be reconciled with one another, but also to share our wealth with one another.
Paul’s insights into the overflowing import of God’s reconciliation of the entire world through Christ continues to have profound relevance for our day when grave inequalities between rich and poor only continue to deepen in our country and throughout the world. Like the Corinthians, we too undergo the “testing” of our ministry — and reveal who and whose we really are — in all that we are and do. We too glorify God by confessing the gospel of Christ even as we also generously engage in sharing (koinonia) who we are and all that we have with one another, especially in times of need (2 Corinthians 9:13).
1 In addition to 2 Corinthians 8-9, see also Rom 15:25-32; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Galatians 2:10; also Acts 24:17.
2 For uses of “test” in 2 Corinthians, see 2:9; 8:2, 8, 22; 9:13; 13:3, 5.