In the middle of his instruction about giving to the Jerusalem church, Paul drops this theological gem:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
In context, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to fulfill (“finish doing” and “completing,” 8:11) what they started. Apparently, a year before Paul penned 2 Corinthians, the church in that city promised to give generously to the poor in Jerusalem (8:10; cf. Romans 15:25–26). In chapters 8–9, Paul recalls their promise and prepares them for the forthcoming delegation to collect the offering (see 9:3–5). His words are not threatening but motivating, as he speaks repeatedly of their “readiness” (8:11, 12; 9:2), “zeal” (9:2), and genuine, generous love (8:7, 8, 24).
In fact, it is because of his confidence in their generosity that Paul encourages them in their giving. And one of the principle means of motivation is Jesus’ substitionary death. In leaving heaven to suffer and die on earth, Paul likens Jesus’ experience to that of losing his riches and becoming poor. And by speaking of Christ’s death in terms of “rich” and “poor,” Paul teaches the Corinthians and us how to give. To understand how Jesus humiliation motivates our giving, consider four points.
- Jesus’ Poverty Was Self-Appointed
- Jesus’ Poverty Was For the Sake of Others
- Jesus’ Giving Motivates Our Giving
- Our Giving Manifests and Amplifies Jesus’ Grace
Jesus’ Poverty Was Self-Appointed
In truth, Jesus did not lose anything when he became a man. Philippians 2 teaches how he “emptied himself” by addition (i.e., by taking on human nature), not by subtraction (i.e., by giving up his power, deity, or glory). Therefore, as George Smeaton observed about this passage: “for there was no change” when the eternal Son became a man, “and there could be none, upon His deity. But as he entered into a new sphere [humanity], and a new form of activity [servanthood], Paul has in his eye the whole abased poor life of Christ” (The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 230; emphasis mine).
Christ impoverished himself by leaving the riches of heaven, suffering under the curse, living for the sake of others, and having no place to call his own. As Jesus himself said, ““Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20; par. Luke 9:58). This poverty was not due to some lack in himself. As the Son of God, he often displayed his power to produce “wealth”—consider the time Jesus collected a coin from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:27), or his power to feed the five thousand (Matthew 14). Jesus lacked no access or ability to produce wealth. As God, the whole creation was his. Yet, he voluntarily endured poverty for the sake of others.
Jesus’ Poverty Was For the Sake of Others
Paul says, “For your sake he became poor.” Jesus poverty, like his productivity (e.g., his miracles of healing, feeding, and cleansing, etc.) were always for the sake of others. Jesus did not take on humanity and become poor as an end in itself. Rather, his poverty enables his people to “become rich.” Sadly, in our covetous, materialistic world, this verse is subject to gross misinterpretation, and therefore must be carefully explained.
First, in the hands of prosperity preachers, “riches” comes to mean gold, silver, and all the earthly commodities money can buy. However, that’s not what “rich” means in the first half of the verse. The riches Paul assigns to Christ in his divine nature is not material at all. Rather, it is God’s infinite, spiritual goodness, truth, and beauty. In other words, the riches Paul has in mind when he speaks of Christ’s “riches” is his unfading, eternal glory (see John 17:5). It is knowledge of this glory that has shone into the hearts of God’s children (2 Cor 4:6) and it is this glory which the lost are blind to see (2 Cor 4:4). Sadly, Satan regularly blinds unbelievers to God’s glory with the lesser glories of material things. This is the lie of the prosperity gospel. True riches are not bound up in things created, but in the uncreated God. This reality must inform our understanding of “riches.”
Second, Christ impoverished himself to deliver us from the effects of sin, which do in fact impoverish us. Truly, Christ’s work on the cross guarantees freedom from suffering—chiefly, eternal suffering. In making himself poor, Christ came to identify with the poor, the downtrodden, and the defeated, so that those who identify themselves with him through faith and baptism might enjoy grace today and glory forever. Grace does not mean the removal of current difficulty, but it does mean that grace sufficient to endure various trials (2 Corinthians 12).
Outlining Christ’s redemptive work, George Smeaton again stirs our affections:
The whole atoning obedience is applied in its unity at every point, and with a phase adapted to every actual want of the human heart. . . . he was based to atone for pride, poor to expiate the guilt of covetousness, hungry and thirsty on account of that intemperate indulgence which has in all ages conquered men from the eating of the forbidden fruit to this hour. In the same manner, we may affirmed that he was a based that we might be exalted, a servant to set us free, troubled that we might be comforted, tempted that we might conquer, dishonored that we may be glorified, and scourge that by his stripes we might be healed. The entire abasement of Christ, in the unity of his obedience, was for us. (The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 231).
In the complexity of Smeaton’s words don’t miss the simple truth:
Christ made himself poor so that we might in him be rich.
In this way, the King of Glory volunteered himself to be dethroned; the Lord of all Creation subjected himself to the world he made. Indeed, he who needs nothing and gives to everyone everything, became impoverished. He expended everything in order to claim for himself a people who would in turn reflect his glory—in part now and one day in whole. This is why Jesus impoverished himself, so that we who trust in him might know him as our greatest treasure.
Jesus’ Giving Motivates Our Giving
So what of Paul’s purpose in motivating the Corinthians (and us) with Jesus’ great self-appointed poverty?
“Grace” is a dominant theme in 2 Corinthians 8–9. In 8:1, he begins, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” From context, this “grace of God” is the gift given by the churches in Macedonia. Paul identifies them as a model for generosity, despite poverty. He says their abundant joy led them to give above their means, even begging for the chance to give (vv. 2–4).
Next, Paul speaks of the Corinthians offer to give to the Jerusalem church as an “act of grace.” First, he reminds them to finish this “act of grace” (v. 6); second, he commends their good works and impels them to add this “act of grace” to their record (v. 7). In the next chapter, God’s grace is still in view, as Paul reminds them that God’s grace abounds and is more than sufficient to meet their needs (9:8). And he finishes the section commending the “grace of God” again; this time assigning the Corinthians generosity as a sign of God’s grace upon them.
In this context then, we should be keenly aware of the “gracious” connection Paul makes between the gifts given and the grace God has given. Simply put, we are to learn that we give, because God first gave. If grace fills our hearts, it was God who put it there.
Conversely, if generosity is lacking—if the Corinthians are tempted to be stingy—Paul puts forward Jesus as a model. His infinite offering ought to spur us on to give. In this way, the new covenant work of Christ far surpasses the old, because we are not motivated by a law; we are impelled by the infinite gift of Christ. The result is not the mere giving of ten percent; rather, we are to give everything. In light of the mercies of God, we are to be living sacrifices, wholly consumed for his glory (Romans 12:1)
This is how Paul motivates us to give. He turns our attention to Christ and what he did on the cross. He puts it in terms of rich and poor, and through this vision, he encourages us to give to the needs of others. In short, to evoke us to gracious giving, he magnifies the grace of God. For only as an individual, a family, a church experiences God’s grace do our hearts desire to give as we ought.
Still, there is one more thing to see.
Our Giving Manifests and Amplifies Jesus’ Grace
Paul not only motivates us to give by means of the cross of Christ. He also motivates us with the model of his churches. Notice again the crazy-generous Christians in Macedonia.
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. 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—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 Corinthians 8:1–5)
It is not hyperbole to call the Macedonia churches “crazy.” In a world consumed with the bottom line, begging to give beyond measure at a time of extreme poverty does not seem wise. In fact, to most Christians, it probably seems to be outside of God’s will. But in this case, Paul not only commends them, he holds them up as a model to imitate.
And why would he do that? Is it because he desires other Christians to pursue bankruptcy? Is it because he believes church-to-church competition is the most effective strategy for getting others to give? No, I think it is because he sees in them something of the Lord.
Verse 1 says, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” In other words, he informs us that Christ’s Spirit (i.e., the grace of God) has been present and active in Macedonia. And as a result, they were moved to give beyond their means.
Paul points to the presence of God’s grace, because in their “begging” we see something of Christ’s own attitude towards his impoverishment. Jesus was not stoic about his Incarnation; he was not coerced by the Father to go to lay his life down for this people. No, for the joy set before him he endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). He so loved his people, he so longed to be with his bride, he passionately impoverish himself on our behalf.
We might even say that the Macedonians’ “begging” reflects Christ’s own compulsion to give himself for us. Indeed, in Macedonia we see a people who would stop at nothing to give. They so loved Christ they longed to give. In a way, they gave as Christ gave. They sacrificed and suffered so that others would not.
In truth, if they gave beyond their means in a time of great poverty, they would have felt the pain of giving. Did they hunger? Thirst? Did they experience greater cold and discomfort? Maybe they didn’t have as many logs to burn. Maybe they had to complete their work with older tools—adding time and difficulty to the labor. We don’t know how their giving impacted their living, but already impoverished they would have felt it. But such is the way of God’s people, those who give as their Lord did.
Grace-empowered giving is cruciform giving. It doesn’t look like giving simply when the bank account is full. Grace-empowered giving happens when our heart is full of love and zeal for Christ. It is the overflow of a genuine experience of grace in our heart. It was this joy that impelled the Macedonians to give. And it was this reality—the grace of God manifested in the cross of Christ—that Paul pointed the Corinthians to, so that they would not miss out on the blessing of giving.
Make no mistake, this kind of giving is uncomfortable, but only on the front-end. The kind of giving that is painful on the back-end is the kind that retains property as a personal possession that is not invested in the kingdom of God. In truth, just as Christ forsook the glorious riches of heaven to share his riches with others, so we are called to sow our money so that it will result in greater, later fruit. See the rest of 2 Corinthians 9.
This may look crazy to the world. But to those whose eyes have been opened to God’s grace, it is the wisest, most sensible decision. Since we cannot keep a single nickel in this life, may we learn how to invest our earthly treasure in God’s heavenly coffers. May his grace impel us to give, so that our treasures are found in the men and women of God brought into the kingdom and built up in Christ by means of our earthly giving.
May God give us grace to experience the joy-filled discipline of giving.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds