Bible Book List
2 Corinthians 9 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Results of Generous Giving

Paul concludes his appeal by pointing to the benefits the Corinthians will reap as a result of generous giving. Each generation takes delight in putting its practical wisdom in memorable form. For us it is maxims like "A stitch in time saves nine," "Don't count your chickens before they hatch" and "Look before you leap." In like fashion Paul sums up the benefits of liberality by means of a maxim: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. From all appearances Paul is quoting a popular saying. It is one that he finds useful, since it reappears in slightly truncated form in Galatians 6:7 ("A man reaps what he sows"). There is no exact scriptural parallel. A similar thought is found in a number of Old Testament texts (such as Job 4:8; Prov 11:24-26; 22:8-9; Hos 10:12-13). But the closest parallel actually appears in the teaching of Jesus: "Give, and it will be given to you. . . . With the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Lk 6:38).

The principle is clear: we harvest in proportion to our planting--or, to use a contemporary maxim, "we get as good as we give." This applies as well to charitable giving--so much so that Paul takes eight verses to spell this out (9:8-15). But before doing so, in verse 7 he offers the Corinthians three guidelines for giving beyond what he has already listed in 8:11-15.

First, giving is to be an individual matter that is settled in the privacy of one's own heart. Each, Paul says, should give what he has decided in his heart to give. Each is placed first for emphasis. "How much?" is a question that each person must answer for herself. And it is never to be determined by how much "the Joneses" are contributing.

Second, giving requires resolve. The text reads what he has decided (literally, "as each has purposed"). The verb proaireomai, found only here in the New Testament, means "to choose deliberately" or "to make up one's own mind about something." It is a well-known fact that telethons that play on people's emotions to solicit contributions often end up with donors who pledge impulsively but not deliberately enough to follow through on their pledge. Paul says that giving is to be based on a calculated decision. It is not a matter to be settled lightly or impulsively.

Third, giving is to be a private, not a public, decision. It is to be decided in the heart. It is an unfortunate reality that some Christians will give only if there is some form of public acclaim or recognition involved. Endowed chairs, scholarship funds and building projects are rarely underoritten anonymously. Usually much pomp and circumstance is attached to these donations, with the contributor's name(s) prominently displayed and the donation itself frequently praised and honored publicly. The real reason to give is because one cannot help but give--or, as William Barclay puts it, because the "need wakens a desire that cannot be stilled" (1954:233). This desire is in fact to give the way God gave; it was because he so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Paul identifies four beneficiaries of charitable giving in verses 8-14: the giver (vv. 8-11), the recipients (v. 12), God (vv. 11-12) and the church (vv. 13-14). In the first place, the giver benefits. God's response to generosity is to make all grace abound to the giver. The idea of grace abounding is a familiar one in these chapters. The verb "to abound" (perisseuo) is found six times. The noun grace (charis) is no stranger either, appearing ten times in all. Here it refers to the giver's unmerited favor from God.

But what form does God's favor take? Is Paul thinking of spiritual benefits or material blessings? The focus in the context is clearly on material blessings. Yet Paul could well be thinking of all the benefits we receive from God. For inherent in the term grace is the idea that whatever we possess, be it physical or spiritual, we possess by reason of God's goodwill toward us, not because of personal merit.

We also possess it by reason of God's power. God is able is perhaps better rendered "God is powerful" (dynatei ho theos; v. 8). It is God Almighty who provides the means to be generous. This same thought is found in proverbial form in the teaching of Jesus: "Freely you have received, freely give" (Mt 10:8). The order here is important. It is only as we have freely received that we can, in turn, freely give.

God's abounding grace extends beyond the mere replenishment of resources. He is powerful not only to replace resources spent in Christian service but also to multiply them to the point that at all times and in all things we have all that we need (v. 8). Autarkeia ("all that is needed") means to be sufficient in oneself or self-supporting. Cynics and Stoics aimed at the kind of self-sufficiency that permitted indifference to other people and to circumstances. To a certain extent Paul aligns himself with this sentiment. Like the Stoic, the Christian aspires to be free from dependence on material possessions--or, as Paul puts it, "to be content whatever the circumstances" (Phil 4:11). To learn to be content with very little requires that one want very little: "If we have food and clothing, we will be content" (1 Tim 6:8). And the less one wants, the greater the means for relieving the needs of others (Plummer 1915:260).

This is a very difficult notion for Westerners today, for the drive in our world too often is to get-get-get and buy-buy-buy. An attitude of contentment like Paul's presupposes trust and confidence in God to provide for our basic needs. If we are secure in his love and know that he undertakes to watch over our lives, then all anxiety for the future will be gone (Siede 1978:728).

Furthermore, Paul parts company with his Stoic contemporaries. For while he aims to be free of his circumstances, he does not aim to be free of people. The point of our resources' being replenished is so that we, in turn, can abound in every good work (v. 8). Money is given not to be hoarded but to promote good (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:91).

To illustrate this point Paul quotes the psalmist's praise of those who give freely to the poor: He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever (v. 9; Ps 112:9 [LXX 111:9]). The person who dares to be generous toward those in need is compared to the farmer who scatters his seed while sowing. To sow by scattering is the opposite of sowing sparingly. The farmer who scatters seed is generous with it. His gifts to the poor is literally "he gives to the poor." The term for poor denotes someone who works for a living (the day laborer; penhs), not the destitute (ptochos). The Old Testament gleaning laws provided for the basic needs of those without any personal means of support, such as the widow, the alien or the orphan (for example, Lev 19:9-10; Deut 24:17-22). Beyond this, it fell to those with surplus income to meet other kinds of needs (see Ps 112:5: "Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely").

"Sow a thought and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny" (Samuel Smiles, Life and Labor). The destiny of the person who gives liberally is a righteousness that endures forever (v. 9). The sense is not immediately clear. Righteousness could refer to general moral uprightness (Barrett 1973:238) or to specific acts of piety (Plummer 1915:261). Scattered abroad his gifts to the poor suggests the latter, although generosity of the hand usually issues from generosity of the heart. Such righteousness endures forever. How so? The phrase could mean "is never forgotten"--that is, God will remember the givers' goodness and reward them with eternal life (Bratcher 1983:99)--or that their reputation for doing good will be recalled by subsequent generations (JB). Alternatively, the phrase could mean "never stops"--that is, the effects of their generosity will continue on from generation to generation (TEV, NEB). Personal renown seems to fit the context the best. For not only will the Corinthian offering meet a real need, but it will also overflow in many expressions of thanks to God (v. 12) and many heartfelt prayers for the Corinthians (v. 14).

Paul differed from the Stoic in one other significant respect. He pursued God-dependency rather than self-sufficiency. The generous giver, like the farmer, is dependent from start to finish on God: he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness (v. 10). The idea is an Old Testament one. "Seed for the sower and bread for the eater" comes from Isaiah 55:10, while "the harvest of your righteousness" is taken from Hosea 10:12 (LXX). It was widely believed that material prosperity was the result of divine blessing. Paul to a certain extent reflects this belief. It is God "who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment," he tells Timothy (1 Tim 6:17).

Take the farmer. God provides not only for his immediate physical needs in the form of a harvest of grain for his daily bread but also for his future needs in the form of seed for next year's planting (supplies seed to the sower; 2 Cor 9:10). If God routinely does this for the farmer, he surely is able to do it for us--provided that we have good intentions. God supplies our seed and even increases it so that we can be generous on every occasion (vv. 10-11). The term haplotes ("generous") denotes singleness of character ("noble"), heart ("pure") or intent ("sincere," "openhearted"; Bauernfeind 1964). Here, as in verse 2, it signifies openheartedness with one's possessions, or generosity.

The general principle is thus that the more we give, the more we will get from God. And the more we get, the more we are expected to give. John Bunyan wrote, "A man there was and they called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had." Of course Bunyan was writing of the Christian. To the world such a principle of giving is nonsense. But to Paul it is a reality of the Christian life.

The idea that God can and does multiply the generous giver's material resources is not well received today. Experience seems to indicate otherwise. The rich, who often are stingy with their wealth, seem to get richer, and the poor, who frequently are the most liberal givers, appear to get poorer. As a result, it is sometimes suggested that the "supplier" in verse 10 is not God but other Christians who come to the aid of those who put themselves at risk through generosity (Murphy-O'Connor 1991:93). Or it is proposed that seed and harvest are spiritual, not material, endowments (Martin 1986:292). But Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians that they will be made rich in every way so that [they] can be generous on every occasion (v. 11). The primary act of generosity that he has in mind is charitable giving, as supplying the needs of God's people in verse 12 makes clear.

Nonetheless, we do well to observe what Paul does not say. He does not say that wealth or surplus income is a sign of God's blessing. Nor is it giving per se that is applauded. It is, rather, a lifestyle of generosity that Paul commends. For those who give cheerfully and willingly, the promise is that God will provide all that they need to continue doing good.

Not only does the giver benefit from generosity, but the recipients benefit as well. This service that you perform, Paul says, supplies the needs of God's people (v. 12). The text is literally "the service [diakonia] of this service [leitourgia]." Diakonia, commonly translated "ministry" (3:7-9; 4:1; 5:18; 6:3) or "service" (8:4; 9:1), can refer more specifically to "aid" or "support," especially of the charitable variety (compare Acts 6:1; 11:29; Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich 1979). The aid Paul has in mind is the Corinthians' contribution to the Jerusalem collection, which is called a leitourgia. The word means "work for the people" (ergon + laos) and was used in Hellenistic Greek for service to the community that certain persons were under obligation to do because of the size of their income (Hess 1978:551).

How this applies to the Jerusalem collection is not immediately clear. Is the stress on performing a public duty (promoting the welfare of the community)? Or is the focus on carrying out a religious service (serving God through meeting the needs of his people)? Paul uses the term in Philippians 2:25 and 30 more generally of the "help" he received from Epaphroditus when he was in prison, and this may well be the sense here.

The specific help rendered by the offering is that of supplying the needs of the Judean Christians. Hysterema ("needs") denotes a shortage or deficiency of basic necessities. In the first century this amounted to food, clothing and shelter (2 Cor 11:27). So the help offered through the Corinthians' contribution is by way of necessity, not luxury.

God is the third beneficiary of generous giving. This service, Paul states, is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God (vv. 11-12). The grammar of verse 12 is ambiguous. Pollon eucharistion could be "many people who give thanks" (as in Martin 1986:294) or "many thanksgivings" (as in Plummer 1915:265). Many expressions of thanks catches the sense (NIV, NEB, Phillips). In any event, it is not the Corinthians who receive the recipients' gratitude but God, which is as it should be.

God is also the recipient of praise (v. 13). Because of this service, Paul remarks, men will praise God. The subject of the Greek participle doxazontes is not immediately clear. The RSV and NRSV take it to be the Corinthians themselves: "you will glorify God by your obedience." The KJV, LB, JB and REB, on the other hand, assume that the praise comes from the recipients ("those you help"). Phillips, NEB, NIV and TEV, yet again, construe the referent more generally as "many" (men will praise God).

On the whole, the second option seems preferable. Since the participle does not stand in strict grammatical agreement with anything in the immediate context, the subject must be supplied from the logic of the argument. And unless Paul has completely lost track of the argument, the logical subject is eis autous ("to them," v. 13)--that is, the recipients of the offering. Paul's point is that the church at large recognizes the collection for what it is: God's grace at work in the lives of the contributors. As in all areas of life, "the chief end" of humankind is "to glorify God and to enjoy him forever" (Westminster Catechism, question 1). So while the immediate aim of the collection is to relieve want, the ultimate goal is to bring honor to God--the enabler and provider of all that we possess.

The recipients' praise is grounded in too things. They will praise God, Paul says, first for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ and, second, for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else (v. 13). The first phrase is literally "for the obedience of your confession." The genitive could be subjective ("the obedience that comes from your Christian profession"), objective ("your obedience to your profession"; RSV, NIV, JB, NEB, REB), adjectival ("your professed obedience"; KJV) or even epexegetic ("your obedience, namely, your Christian profession"; as in Furnish 1984:445; Martin 1986:294). The first too options best fit the meaning of the noun homologia, a term that in Hellenistic Greek denotes an agreement or compact (a common [homo-] statement [logia]). The opposite of an uncritical opinion, it implies assent to something felt to be valid and in such a way that it is followed by definite resolve and action (Michel 1967:200). "Profession" (JB, Phillips), the act of publicly declaring assent to commonly held beliefs, is perhaps a better translation than confession (NIV), which is usually associated with acknowledgment of sin or guilt. The common belief that is being professed is the gospel of Christ (or "the gospel about Christ"--objective genitive).

Paul's point is that to be vital and living, profession of faith must issue in works. The Corinthians' willing contribution to the Jerusalem collection shows that they possess a faith that accepts the claims of the gospel and obeys its dictates as well. Phillips's "that you practise the gospel . . . that you profess to believe in" captures the sense exactly. Paul is not alone in closely linking profession and practice. James similarly states that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (2:17, 26) and "useless" (v. 20).

The Judean recipients will praise God, second, for the Corinthians' generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else (v. 13). This is the last of three occurrences of haplotes ("generosity") in chapters 8--9. In all three cases the noun denotes simplicity of intent with respect to one's finances ("openheartedness"; 8:2; 9:11, 13). It is generosity of the heart, not the pocketbook, that counts. The recipients will praise God not merely for a gift of money but also for the fellowship in Christ that the gift expresses (Dahl 1977:35). Koinwnia ("sharing"), found four times in 2 Corinthians, refers to that which is held in common. In the New Testament it comes to denote the close union and caring concern of the members of Christ's body, the church (6:14; 8:4; 9:13; 13:13). It is a union that is forged by the Spirit (13:14) but that finds concrete expression in the contributions of the Gentile churches to meet the physical needs of their fellow believers in Judea.

Paul enlarges the scope of recipients to include not only the Judean believers but also everyone else (v. 13). At face value the comment is obscure. The most reasonable construal is that with them refers to the Jerusalem church, which, in turn, would distribute the funds to everyone else in need. Alternatively, kai eis pantas may be Paul's way of pointing out to the Corinthians that what benefits the Judean believers benefits the whole body of Christians (Plummer 1915:267).

Fourth and finally, the church as a whole benefits from generous giving. Here is the key to the urgency of Paul's appeal. For the most part, the recipients were conservative Jewish Christians who still regarded the Gentiles with a certain amount of fear and suspicion. For them the collection proves the Gentiles' profession of faith (v. 13). Dokimes (the noun behind the verb proved here) connotes a test in order to verify someone's or something's genuineness or worth. In this case the collection serves as the test by which the Gentiles' faith is shown to be genuine.

Paul anticipates that the offering will impact the church in too additional ways: prayers for the Corinthians will be offered, and a closer relationship betoeen the Jewish recipients and the Gentile donors will be forged (v. 14). Because of the surpassing grace God has given the Corinthians, one expected result of the collection is that the recipients will pray for them (their prayers for you). N. P. Willis once said, "Gratitude is not only the memory, but the homage of the heart rendered to God for his goodness." It is not enough to feel grateful for what others do for us. Heartfelt gratitude issues in prayer on the person's behalf. Prayer, in turn, has a way of bringing us into a closer relationship with those for whom we intercede. This is the second expected result that Paul anticipates. As the recipients pray, Paul says that their hearts will go out to the contributing churches (v. 14). Epipothew ("go out to, yearn after") is another word that turns up a number of times in chapters 7--9 (7:7, 11; 9:14). As the Jewish recipients pray for their Gentile patrons, their hearts will be warmed toward them, and they will long to see and have a closer relationship with them (M. J. Harris 1976:378).

Paul caps off his appeal with what in form is a thanksgiving but in fact is a reminder of the supreme example of giving: Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (v. 15). We can never outgive God, for he gave beyond all human imagining. In fact, he gave what Paul calls an indescribable gift. The term anekdihghtos, found only here in the Greek Bible (and only once outside the New Testament), denotes something that is beyond human description ("ineffable"--Liddell, Scott and Jones 1978). What, then, is this indescribable gift? Some suppose that this is Paul's final attempt to motivate generous giving by labeling the expected Corinthian gift as beyond all imagining. Others believe that Paul is describing the miracle of Jew-Gentile unity (for example, Plummer 1915:267-68) or the universal gospel (Martin 1986:295). Most, however, identify God's indescribable gift with Jesus Christ. We can give without loving, but we cannot love without giving. God so loved us that he gave the ultimate gift, whose cost can never be matched: the gift of his only Son.

Was Paul's appeal successful? Acts 20:2-3 would suggest so. Luke tells us that Paul made his announced third visit to Corinth and stayed three montes. The length of his visit suggests that he received a ready welcome and that matters were in order regarding the Corinthians' contribution to the relief fund. Paul admits as much in Romans 15:26-27, when he states that "Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem." Yet Luke lists no delegate(s) for the Achaian churches. It may be that there was not sufficient time to arrange for a delegate to accompany the funds to Jerusalem. Or the Corinthians could have decided to forgo representation as a way of demonstrating their belated trust in Paul's integrity.

Paul and the delegates arrived at Jerusalem and were received "warmly" (Acts 21:17). Not a word is said, however, about the collection itself. Some conclude from Luke's silence that the offering was not well received. But arguments from silence are precarious ones at best. Moreover, the difficulty that captures Luke's attention is not the Jerusalem church's response to the collection but the trouble that unbelieving Jews from Asia caused Paul: "Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, `Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place' " (Acts 21:27-36). Paul anticipated encountering problems in Jerusalem and asked the Roman church to pray that he be rescued from unbelieving Jews in Judea (Rom 15:31). But the collection was far too important to deter him, for it symbolized, as it were, the very nature of the church--a community called out from many backgrounds to be "in Christ" (Craddock 1968:170).

Previous commentary:
Paul Employs Some Reverse Psychology

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.