Instead of starting with a request for money, Paul begins with an example of sacrificial giving. We want you to know is the usual way he goes about introducing new information to his readers (v. 1). In this case, the new information concerns the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Edwin A. Judge (1982) describes Macedonia as a splendid tract of land, centered on the plains of the gulf of Thessalonica. It was a prosperous area. Running up the great river valleys into the Balkan Mountains, it was famous for its timber and precious metals. The churches of Macedonia had been planted by Paul on his second missionary journey—Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. What is newsworthy about these churches is the grace that God has bestowed on them. The noun charis ("grace") appears ten times in chapters 8—9. Even within this short span of verses, the range of usage is surprising. It is employed of a spiritual endowment (8:7), divine enablement (8:1; 9:8, 14), a monetary gift (8:6, 19), a human privilege (8:4), a word of gratitude (8:16; 9:15) and divine favor or goodwill (8:9). Here it refers to the way that despite adverse conditions, God has enabled the Macedonians to financially assist destitute Christians whom they did not personally know.
Paul seeks to motivate the Corinthians by making reference to a longstanding competitor. Greece and Macedonia (called the "barbaric North") have a lengthy history of political rivalry. Although Philip of Macedon united all of Greece through brute force in 338 B.C., it was a union not destined to last. But now the Macedonians are put forward as a competitor of a different sort. These churches were experiencing the most severe trial (v. 2). The Greek is literally "a great testing of affliction." The genitive defines the content of the testing: "a severe test consisting of afflictions." The noun dokime means a "testing" that proves someone's or something's worth or genuineness (compare 2:9). The term thlipsis ("pressure"), found nine times in this letter, is commonly used of the harassment that God's people experience at the hands of the world. No further details are provided about the nature of the harassment or the circumstances. But this may well be the same trouble that Paul faced prior to his rendezvous with Titus (7:5). If one can gauge from the frequency with which the topic crops up in Paul's letters, persecution was almost a way of life for these churches (Phil 1:29-30; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4; 2 Thess 1:4-10).
The severe trial that the Macedonian churches experienced was of a sort that left them in a condition of extreme poverty. The phrase is literally "down-to-the-depth poverty" (he kata bathous ptocheia; v. 2)—or, as Philip Hughes translates, "rock bottom" poverty (1962:288). James counsels his readers to consider it pure joy whenever they face trials (1:2). The Macedonian churches are a testimony that it is possible not merely to experience joy but to have it "overflow" in the midst of trials. Even more, just as persecution did not take away from their joyfulness, neither did poverty diminish their ability to be generous (Bruce 1971:220). Paul says that their poverty welled up in rich generosity (v. 2). The text is literally "a wealth of liberality" (to ploutos tes haplotetos). The basic meaning of haplotes is "singleness," and it denotes simplicity of character ("noble"), heart ("pure") or intent ("sincere"; Bauernfeind 1964). Here it signifies an openheartedness toward one's possessions ("generosity"). Sadly, it is often those having the least, rather than the most, who are the generous givers. Charles Spurgeon tells of receiving a wealthy man's invitation to come preach at his rural church to help the members raise funds to pay off a debt. The man also told Spurgeon that he was free to use his country house, his town house or his seaside home. Spurgeon wrote back, "Sell one of the places and pay the debt yourself."
It is easy to see how affluence can well up in generous giving. But how is it possible for extreme poverty to overflow in a wealth of liberality? Verses 3-5 provide the explanation.
First, it is because the Macedonians gave not just as much as they were able (literally "according to their ability") but beyond (v. 3). How much beyond Paul does not say. But there is no hint that this was a reckless action on their part. The sense is that they determined what they could comfortably contribute and then went beyond this figure.
Second, what they gave, they gave entirely on their own (v. 3). Authairetos (autos "self" + haireomai "to choose") refers to something done of one's own accord or by a free choice. In essence, the Macedonians were not pressured into giving. They gave willingly. In fact, they urgently pleaded to be involved (v. 4). The thrust of the Greek is that they begged (deomenoi) Paul most earnestly (meta pollhs parakleseos). This was because they considered involvement in the relief effort a privilege (charis; see v. 1) and a sharing (koinonia, v. 4). Koinwnia, commonly translated "fellowship" in the New Testament, means "that which we hold in common or have a share in." In Christian circles it came to denote the close union and common faith that believers have as members of Christ's church. Implicit in this close union is a responsibility to care for those in need in the family of God.
Finally, the Macedonian generosity was possible because they gave themselves first to the Lord and only then to Paul (v. 5). Their preeminent concern was how best to serve Christ. It is here that they exceeded Paul's expectations. They gave out of their poverty because of the sincerity of their commitment to Christ as Lord (to kyriw). So great was their desire to serve Christ that they would not allow their economic situation to keep them from being involved in the Lord's work (Waldrop 1984:38). This is why Paul describes the collection as a service (v. 4). It is not just a financial obligation. It is a ministry opportunity to the saints (v. 4)—those set apart to be God's possession.
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