- The circumstances of the Macedonian churches as background
- Habitat for God to work
- They become Superlative people
- The grace of God
- The churches of Macedonia gave themselves to God
- In closing
2 Corinthians 8:1-5 (NIV)
And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very 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 Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
1. The circumstances of the Macedonian churches as background
It is necessary to understand who the churches in Macedonia were and where they came from in order to better understand this passage in the Bible. The churches in Macedonia were a number of congregations in Europe; Christian congregations with a pagan background. In these five verses, Paul tells us about these congregations who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Their origin was not self-evident; they did not start without challenges. We read that these congregations financially contributed to the Jewish congregations in Jerusalem and Judea. This fact already speaks volumes if you understand it in the light of their history.
We know that the first followers of Jesus, the Christians, originated in Jerusalem. There was a solidarity among the first members of this congregation. All their possessions were held as common property. There were neither poor nor rich, they shared everything; it must have been wonderful times. Every day God added to the congregation those who had been saved.
Soon, however, we read of the start of the persecution of the church during which Stephen was killed. These events ignited a large-scale persecution of Christians. Emperor Herod saw that the Jews approved of this persecution and so he also killed James, the brother of John. As a result, the new Christians had to flee from Jerusalem, sometimes on the back of a donkey and at night. The early church’s beginning was in Jerusalem, under these people.
In their flight they went north and arrived at Antioch. In Acts we read that when they arrived in Antioch, they first only preached the Gospel to Jews. It is only at the later arrival of two men of Greek background in Antioch, that they then also began to preach to the Gentiles. As a result, the Gentiles in Antioch began to convert.
You will remember that the Lord showed Peter in a dream a sheet with the unclean beasts coming down from heaven, so as to convince Peter to preach the gospel to Cornelius and his house. However, upon hearing of Cornelius’ conversion, the Jerusalem congregation was very unhappy and wanted to know from Peter how is it that he eats with the Gentiles, after which Peter explained his actions to them.
The vision that Peter saw, and the events with Cornelius, were God’s way of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. But Peter did not seem to really be able to make this transition. For when the Gentiles in Antioch later converted, the Jerusalem congregation sent Barnabas to find out what was going on. However, there is a cryptic remark in Acts, namely, that Barnabas was full of the Holy Spirit.
Upon his arrival in Antioch, he was very pleased to see what the Lord was doing there. He then acted wisely and went to fetch Paul who lived in Tarsus. He now had a converted friend with him who knew this Hellenistic world. The two of them taught and preached in Antioch.
One day, the Spirit of the Lord came upon the Antioch congregation and it was then that the Lord pressed on their heart, to consecrate Paul and Barnabas and send them on their first missionary journey. Paul and Barnabas were not sent by the congregation in Jerusalem, but by the new congregation from the pagan world of Antioch. The spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, therefore, did not come from the cradle of the Jerusalem congregation.
Paul and Barnabas left on their first missionary journey and upon their return to Antioch they reported to the congregation. The congregation in Jerusalem again heard about this and informed them that the people who had come to repentance from paganism, had to be circumcised and had to observe the Sabbath as well as the law of Moses. Immediately, restrictions that did not agree with the truth of salvation alone through faith in Jesus Christ were placed on the congregation.
For the congregants in Jerusalem, it was difficult to accept that Paul and his followers broke away and preached to the Gentiles salvation only through faith in Jesus Christ. It seems that the Jerusalem congregation was controlled by Pharisees and Jews who became believers but still held on to the circumcision and observance of the law. It was an attempt to burden the proclamation of the miracle of salvation, through the grace of God in Christ to a vast world outside of Israel, with an attachment of the Jewish faith.
The church of Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to defend their case. On that occasion we find the Acts 15 meeting where it was decided that the new converts should be accepted and did not need to be circumcised.
The intent of the church in Jerusalem was never to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in Macedonia. God, in His own wonderful way, made the churches in Macedonia come into being, despite the lack of understanding of the early Christians.
After these events we find Paul and Silas who want to continue on their missionary journey to preach the Gospel. However, they were repeatedly hindered by the Holy Spirit until, one night in a dream, a man from Macedonia appeared to Paul and begged him to come there. They accepted the dream as coming from the Lord and departed the next day.
The first place where Paul arrived in Macedonia was Philippi. The Philippi congregation was, so to speak, born from within prison. The prison guard and his family converted after Paul and Silas had been beaten and sung hymns late at night in the prison.
What was true of the congregations of Macedonia was that there was a clear intervention from God in their formation. An intervention that made them independent of restrictive church structures, of people who struggled to understand God’s plan. It was a breakthrough of God’s plan, to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to Europe and beyond; to the whole world.
After his first missionary journey, Paul reported on the events that took place among the Gentiles. But, this time, in his letter to Corinthians, he briefly reported in five verses (our text verses) on the churches in Macedonia.
If one understands this background, then you will start to understand that you are standing on “holy ground”: of God breaking through so that you and I today, can hear the good news of Jesus. The Christians in Jerusalem had nearly hijacked the gospel message, making it a gospel where sinners cannot be reconciled to God without Jewish observance (Rom. 10). We read of the same struggle in the letter of Galatians when Paul writes: “… with those esteemed as leaders … We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” (Gal. 2: 5)
In our passage from Scripture Paul relates two things concerning the congregations in Macedonia:
Firstly, that they have experienced a great deal of affliction. The Greek word he uses means “to have been put in a tight squeeze”. They were in a firm thrust, or they were held tightly in distress and suffering. It is the same word Jesus uses in Matthew 24 to say, that in the last days there will be a tribulation like there has never been before and never will be again. If God does not shorten this tribulation, people will not survive it. The congregations in Macedonia experienced this kind of tribulation.
Secondly, he writes of their poverty. The word he uses is “deep” poverty. Nida wrote in his book “Message and Missions” that all revival movements began with the poor. It is the people in need who are more receptive to God.
The congregations in Macedonia were very poor and experienced great tribulation. If you think of these new congregations, with their little background of the gospel and of God, newcomers coming from paganism, then you would want to say: “Lord God, one should not put so much pressure on a young tree. You protect a small tree. You have to protect the newcomer from such great tribulation and challenges so that they can grow strong.”
What I want you to understand is that this situation is common to the Bible. Our entire book is full of similar stories. You have Abraham’s story. You have a story of Joseph in prison. You have Moses, who one day says: “Lord God, rather kill me because it is not fair for You to make me live this way.” You have a David fleeing. You have a Daniel story. These are the stories of God’s people. Indeed, the whole Bible is full of this truth. When you step into the New Testament you read about the same truth. When you read the book of 2 Corinthians, it may look like the book of Job. It is a man who gets beaten, a man who is broken like a clay pot, a man who is killed every day, who is hungry and naked, who is cold. The book is full of it. Paul writes about it. James and Peter also writes about it, and Jesus wrestles with it, with tears and loud cries; it was the bread and butter of Jesus’ life.
2. Habitat for God to work
The truth is that this story of tribulation and great poverty is the HABITAT of God’s people. You can not wish it away. It has nothing to do with fatalism. We sometimes talk of a fatalist as a “gloom-monger”. God’s people were not Trans-Tuber people of their own choice, people living in the smelly swamp side of Rome because they wanted to live there.
Two reasons why these circumstances are habitat for God’s people: firstly, so their faith can grow, and secondly, to learn obedience. It’s all about these two issues.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1 that these things happened to me so that I would not trust in myself but that I might believe in God who has the power to rise from the dead. In Hebrews 11, we read of all the heroes of faith and are specifically told in verse 6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God…” We read of Jesus; that He was subject to all kinds of temptations, just like us, and that He cried out to God with tears. “… though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered.” There is nothing else. It is the Bible’s way for God’s people. It is not fatalism. It is rather the place where the sparks fly, the place where the chisel splits the stone! This is the place where God is actively engaged and at work in His love! It is God’s coming to us through His Son, to bring to you and me, an authenticity and a quality that will last forever.
Even though they were in their infancy, Macedonia could never escape this truth. That is why, in his letters, Paul calls our adversity and hardship “Christ’s suffering.” They should not bother him because he carried the scars of Christ on his body; he is completing Christ’s suffering. The habitat of God’s world will never be anything but this.
One of the great curses that infiltrated the Pentecostal world was when we were taught prosperity theology. This way of thinking has taken us out of God’s way of thinking and disconnected us from God’s actions. Paul writes: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Cor. 4:10)
But there is something else the verses want to tell us. Paul uses superlative words to highlight this truth, the truth that makes us “plus-people”.
3. They become Superlative people / “Plus-people”
Listen what Paul says about the congregations in Macedonia: “ their overflowing joy” and “welled up in rich generosity [or abundance]”. Bakster speaks of “abundant” and more so a “super abundant“. The people described in the verses are people who were “super abundantly” happy and “super abundantly” generous!
He describes it as such: he says there are things that you can expect from people, things that are within their power, but these people in Macedonia are performing above their ability, above what you can expect from them.
To understand the significance of this you have to think Pauline, after all, he is the man who went through many prisons, who sang while in shackles and his body was more than once lacerated. Such a man would have had certain expectations of congregations that he founded – and still the Macedonia congregations exceeded his highest expectations.
That’s why I call them “plus-people”; they performed in a superlative manner. In a personal letter that Paul wrote to one of these congregations, he repeatedly says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”, (Phil 4: 4) “…rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again.” (Phil 3: 1)
He wrote to Philippi to rejoice in Jesus Christ. He wanted God’s glory to be with them so that they should always be cheerful and generous.
The congregations in Macedonia had exactly these qualities!
The wonder that lies at the heart of these verses is: the grace of God.
4. The grace of God
What Paul is indeed writing in these few verses, is that he wants to tell them what the grace of God has accomplished in the congregations in Macedonia.
To understand what Paul means by the “grace of God”, we must look at what he writes about it. In his letter to Philippi, he concludes with “May the grace of the Lord be with your spirit.” For Paul, grace was from God, located in the person of Jesus Christ. He corresponds with John, who wrote that we received a law from Moses, but He who comes from the bosom of His Father, from Him we have received grace upon grace. For Paul, grace was Jesus Christ himself. When he writes in the letter: “May the grace of the Lord be with your spirit”, he indeed says: “May Jesus Christ the risen Lord, through the Holy Spirit, be with your spirit!”
He believed that the resurrected Christ was brought within us by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus rightly promised. His letter’s conclusion was something like this: “Goodbye my friends – may Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, through His Spirit, be in you!”
In 2 Cor. 12: 7-9 he says that a messenger was given by Satan, to strike him with fists. Normally he and the Lord would have driven this devil off, but he writes that God told him, “My grace is enough for you“. Therefore, he boasts in his weakness because if he is weak then the grace of God dwells in him. He changes “grace” here to “Then the power of God dwells in me.”
Jesus Christ, was for Paul, the grace of God; the resurrected Christ who permanently comes to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. That was how they thought, that was how they lived – with the risen Christ within and over them. God did something for these people and that is why they could be “plus-people” – all by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
He wrote to the congregation in Philippi: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him.” Before you become too troubled with the “suffering”: know that this is where the chisel of God’s grace hits the rock and where the sparks fly – it is here that we become God’s people, through and through.
5. The churches of Macedonia gave themselves to God
He wrote that the congregations in Macedonia gave themselves; first to God and then to us. A Christian always gives twice. But you always give yourself first to God and then only, follows the second giving; then you give yourself to God’s people and to His cause.
The congregation gave. The crux of these five verses lies in this, they “gave”.
I am going to look at three Bible passages to gain a better understand of this “giving” that is worked by God’s grace.
i) Romans 12.
For Paul, the core/heart of a Christian’s relationship with God is: “Give yourselves to God as living holy sacrifices acceptable to Him.” (Romans 12: 1) He mentions two facts that motivate us to give our lives as a holy sacrifice to God.
The first is found in Paul’s writing in the foregoing verse. In Romans 11, from verse 13, he writes the most impressive doxology about God’s omnipotence: “Oh, the depth of the riches, of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” He talks about God. No man has ever given Him advice. No man can understand Him; for from Him, through Him and to Him, are all things.
He continues in the beginning of chapter 12 with the second fact: God’s great mercy. Let’s call it: God’s great love. In this he refers to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Then he follows, “Give yourselves to God.” Our “giving” is founded on two reasons: first, the omnipotence of the Only God and secondly, His great love in Jesus Christ. Paul understood that we cannot give ourselves to God until we have heard of His omnipotence, His splendour, and His infinite love.
In the Bible, when God wants us to know that we should not be afraid, he always starts with: “Thus says the Lord Almighty, do not be afraid for I am with you.”
When your spirit is in awe of God, only then can you give yourself! You must understand His infinite omnipotence and boundless love – then you can give. When you give yourself, that is when He changes your thinking so that you can understand His will. Then you can understand those things that are totally beyond our comprehension.
ii) Increase of the bread and fish.
The second passage that I want to look at is the section that deals with the increase of bread. The word “give” of Romans 12: 1 is the same word used for when, after Jesus prayed over the five loaves and two fishes, He broke it and then “give” it to the disciples and they “give” to the crowd. The story metaphorically wants to tell us to give our bread and fish to God, and He then in return, gives it to the hungry people of this world.
You will remember that Jesus told His disciples at the beginning of this miracle, that they had to give the crowd something to eat. The disciples only managed to put together the five loaves of bread and two fishes from the boy. In the Gospel of John we read that Jesus tested His disciples because He already knew about the bread and fish He would multiply.
When we understand this, then we will know what is really meant by giving, namely: “what I have to give is what Jesus has already given me.” Then I take what little I have, my “fish and bread”, and I place it in God’s basket. It then passes through His hands during which it multiplies so that it can feed the crowd. The bread and fish that were multiplied that day, in truth, were pre-arranged by God. He knew, says John, of the boy’s fish and bread. Indeed, we have nothing to give that is our own.
We may think the request to give comes from a cruel God who puts us in the corner like a child and then takes away our toys. It is not God who robs us. The truth is that it is actually God who has given the fish and bread in the first place. He just wants us, in faith, to let it pass through His hands, so that He can bless and break it and satisfy the crowd. In the process we become part of the wonder of the coming of God’s kingdom in this world.
iii) Jesus’ high priestly prayer.
The same principle is found in Jesus’ high priestly prayer. Hear what He prays: “Sanctify them by the truth … For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (John 17: 17,19)
The agent for the verb is God the Father. God the Father must help us, to give ourselves to Him through His truth and His Word. It is a request from Jesus to His Father; that His Father will take us or make us give ourselves to Him. Then immediately He says: “…For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” (v19)
Simply put, it means something like this: God the Father and the Son, through His great grace, first climbs into my basket. And because I find Him in my basket and I am in awe of Him, I climb into His basket.
“Give” has nothing to do with what God needs, but everything to do with me being included in His marvellous Kingdom.
In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul has a similar argument. In my own words: God is able to make you rich enough so that you can always give to everyone. Then it will cause a great gratitude towards God, by the recipients of this “give”. The God who has the power to do this, first of all, provides us with the seed. But then it is He who makes this seed to grow. He puts the stuff in our basket from start to finish. It is then when we can give cheerfully so that the world can rejoice and glorify God.
6. In closing
These five verses on the churches in Macedonia, are full of wonder for God; marvel at God’s greatness and love in Jesus Christ. Marvel at God’s closeness – that He becomes part of the lives and of the hardships of people – and in the process He makes their lives very beautiful. He makes them superlative people.
Becoming such people is not possible, if they do not believe in the Almighty God and in His great love. The wonder is that He Himself turned them into people who gave themselves to Him and His cause. People who were not stuck in their deep poverty and tribulation.
The Macedonian congregations were, through and through, a product of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Many of them were Trans-Tuber people, people who had nothing to hold on to except God’s great grace that had crossed their paths. This is the habitat where you belong only to God and where Jesus is sufficient for you.
Paul writes, they first gave themselves to God and then they gave themselves to us. The boy’s contribution of bread and fish that Jesus blessed and broke, was enough to feed 5 000 men (without women and children), leaving a surplus of 12 baskets.
This was the story of the Gentiles in Macedonia who came to salvation. These were the people who were always called “dogs” by the Jews. It’s the story about the day when God’s bells started ringing for the “dogs”.
Giving is actually easy. I let go of all the things that I consider so important, things that I desperately wanted to cling to. I let go of my anxiety, my fears and distress. In return, I risk my life on the Almighty God, who’s love for me is boundless and is the greatest reality of this world.
And so did these congregations play their role, in the journey of the gospel of Jesus Christ to Europe and to the ends of the earth. They were the people who helped Paul with his budget of income and expenditure. Jesus said to his Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18)