Paul’s Vision

As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! —2 Corinthians 9:9-15

Paul quoted Psalm 112:9 in order to show how God blesses obedience. Paul had been teaching the Corinthians about the nature of generosity, how generosity is a fruit of obedience, and how obedience and generosity work together to bless the faithful. The Psalmist wrote of the good and faithful person who has scattered (distributed freely or shared) his blessings, his seed, his wealth or resources among the community of saints. As a farmer plants his seed, not all in one place, nor randomly, but in carefully prepared soil in order to produce the maximum yield, so the faithful saints are to plant (share) their wealth, their gifts, their blessings with brothers and sisters in Christ according to the needs of the community and the ability of the giver. Note also that farmers plant their seed where they can tend and harvest it. They do not scatter it promiscuously hither and thither, or on land over which they have no control.

It is also important to scatter the seed, to distribute it where it will grow, and not to plant it all in one place. We can understand this principle of sharing as diversification. The gifts that God gives us are intended to be seed, to reproduce. The gifts are not to simply be consumed by the needy, but are to be planted, invested, grown and harvested to provide an increase. Paul was teaching the Corinthians that the wealth of a community, its gifts, talents and resources are not fixed, but are renewable, expandable. God’s blessings are not to be conceived of as a fixed quantity to be equally distributed among community members. Rather, God’s blessings are to be conceived of as dynamic and capable of growth and expansion in order to meet the growing needs of God’s growing people.

Abundance
God does not operate on the economics of scarcity, but on the economics of abundance. Wealth produces wealth. Generosity produces generosity. Economic diversification produces increased economic opportunities and increasingly refined divisions of labor, which in turn provide for increases in technological advancement and cultural development.

Supporting this process as both foundation and capstone (means and end) is righteousness. Biblical righteousness is the necessary ingredient or glue that makes the process work, that holds it together. And righteousness is also the social product that is produced. Righteousness (dikaiosune) in this case means adherence to biblical moral principles. Such principles are to be adhered to both personally and socially, individually and corporately. And the glue of this adherence is the love of Jesus Christ. These principles are honesty, integrity, competency and purpose expressed as character qualities and as workplace values. While this is a high calling, it is intended to be the Christian norm, and not reserved for an elite few.

Of course, Christians know their own sin, their own flaws, their own failings. And rather than hide them, we are to confess them to God and to one another. We acknowledge them so that others can see our flaws and weaknesses, our blind spots, and help the community compensate through the love and righteousness of Christ expressed as differing gifts given to different saints and scattered throughout the community of believers.

One of the things to notice at this point is that the best way—the only way—to insure a good crop of righteousness is to plant righteousness. This may not seem very insightful in that if you want to grow corn you should plant corn—duh! God’s ordinary way of growth is, well—growth, incremental growth, not revolution. God grows a thing by adding more of the same thing to it, not by tearing it down so that something else can grow. Righteousness grows by planting and tending righteousness, not by destroying or neglecting righteousness. May you have ears to hear this biblical principle in the midst of a culture bent on the opposite principle. Because Paul tells us that “righteousness endures forever” (v. 9), righteousness is the thing to focus on, the thing to build, the thing to plant, the thing to tend and the thing to harvest. Righteousness for Christ’s sake!

Capital Development
This recipe for social success, for cultural development and technological advancement, is then clearly stated by Paul in verse 10, “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” While we are called to be laborers in God’s vineyard, it is God who actually provides all of the tools and skills. God supplies the seed. God supplies the food. And God supplies the righteousness.

Verse 11 is an expression of the principle of capitalism, telling us that the good of the community can be furthered through self-interest. Being generous to others as Paul has instructed the Corinthians will enrich those who give generously because their gifts will increase the wealth and the righteousness of the whole community. It will raise the proverbial water level in the harbor and raise the level of all of the boats.

Paul added that giving “through us” as he has instructed, through the apostles, through the church rightly conceived and executed, “will produce thanksgiving to God” (v. 11). Why add this last clause? Because it is central to the process. Paul has been describing the way to do church—to plant, tend and harvest righteousness (Christ’s righteousness, of course!) in the church as the engine of personal, social and cultural development.

The problem is that one sole righteous person in a community only gets laughed at by the self-centered, at best, and crucified, at worst. Righteousness needs a social foundation, common commitment, a place where growth, maturity and the cross pollenization of the division of labor can flourish. It needs a supporting community of like-minded righteous people in order to develop the cultural and technological tools that are required for the development of advanced specialization of labor. The knowledge, practices and procedures of righteousness require honesty, integrity, competency and purpose beyond the consciousness of self-interest.

So, self-interest is essential, as the shell (the seed coat or bran) is essential to the corn seed. The shell (self-interest in this analogy) holds the inner parts together and protects them from the elements. But the shell (self-interest) must be shed when the seed is planted in receptive soil in order that the seed of righteousness may take root and bloom into the flower of God’s gifts, and the fruit of social prosperity may develop.

So, said Paul, engaging this process as he has described it will produce thanksgiving to God. That is, building Christ’s righteousness into the social structures of the church in the light of Christ and by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit through regeneration within a faithful Christ worshiping church will produce thanksgiving to God. Those who engage this process will be thankful to God, not only for their own salvation, but for the righteousness of Christ that propels the community into increased fulfillment and prosperity. Faithfulness to Jesus Christ is a win-win proposition. Everyone benefits, even the ungodly who enjoy the benefits of increased community prosperity, even though they may not contribute to it.

Worship
Paul could not contain his enthusiasm for this vision of the church of Jesus Christ rightly conceived and executed. “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12). Here Paul’s focus is on the “ministry of this service” (ESV), “the administration of this service” (AV), the diakonia of this leitourgia—liturgy, the service of worship. This process is a function of worship!

The old English word for worship is worthship, and in the light of Scripture worthship conveyed the idea that the worship of God involved a kind of substitution or exchange of something between God and man. The Old Testament sacrifices substituted the death of an animal as a kind of substitutionary death of sin. Various animals were substituted for various sins. An exchange was made—the death of a valuable animal for God’s forgiveness. A deal (agreement) or covenant was enacted with God. The greater the sin, the more valuable the animal needed to be in order to atone for the greater sin.

In the New Testament Christ is the ultimate sacrifice. Christ’s life was exchanged for God’s ultimate forgiveness. In true Christian worship our unworthiness is exchanged for Christ’s worthiness. Our sin, our unworthiness is forgiven, but not just in a mental or spiritual way. It’s not just that our sin is removed (though it is). Rather, it is that the unworthiness that is our sin is replaced by Christ’s worthiness. It is a matter of bringing our worthlessness (sin) to God and exchanging it for Christ’s worth, both His forgiveness and His gifts of the Spirit. The result of this worship exchange is that we trade our sin for forgiveness and Christ’s gifts of the Holy Spirit—actual gifts, job producing skills that contribute to the building of Christ’s spiritual church as “as living stones are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

Of course, we have no worthiness of our own, all of our (human) worthiness is supplied by God. Christ is that supply. Christ is our righteousness. Christ is our worthiness. Worship is not simply going to church and listening to a sermon, though that’s a good start. Worship is being filled with the Holy Spirit and engaging the gifts that have been given by God for the good of God’s people in everything that we think, say and do. This worship is the work of the people (v. 9—leitourgia), the work of the community of saints.

It is primarily focused in the community of the saints, but it is not limited to that community. Paul tells us that it—this worship, this service, this leitourgia—overflows (perisseuo). It superabounds. It is excessive. It is extravagant, exuberant and superfluous in the sense of being more than is needed. The grace of God’s love overflows the boundaries of the church into the wider community to provide the same kind of blessing provided for the people of God, only less for unbelievers because the godless do not appreciate it.

The enemies of God are threatened by it, threatened by our worship because they know (and rightly so!) that God requires their submission to His love and care, submission to the saints in the sense of the mutual care and concern shared by the saints (1 Peter 5:5). And so they see the love of God as an infringement upon their freedom, their self-determined freedom to love whoever they want, however they want. And more! They see it as a threat to their personal character, their personal identity, an identity that has been captured by the forces of sin and evil, an identity that prides itself on being apart from God, independent of God.

God’s love overflows into this godlessness as a means of evangelism and conversion.

Prayer
Paul was not finished. There was one more critical element to this process—prayer. Paul said that this process functions “by their prayer for you” (v. 14—AV). Prayer is involved. Prayer greases the wheels. Prayer points the way. The Greek phrase is autos deesis, or self-petition, self-supplication. It’s not that we pray to ourselves, but that we ourselves pray. It is individual petition, individual supplication, personal petition, personal supplication. This means, in part, that prayers are not inflicted upon us, that prayer is not imposed upon us by church leaders as a method of getting the goods from the saints. Nor that we engage in prayer of our own volition in order to get the goods from God.

The church is fueled by a kind of spiritual capitalism, wherein God provides the capital of Christ’s righteousness for His people as the earnest or down payment regarding His promise to save the world. Prayer then is the dialog between God and His people where the specific needs for capital infusion (God’s gifts) are requested and dispatched.

It’s not that God doesn’t already know what we need. He does! But we don’t. So, through prayer we enter into communication with God to better understand the nature of His capital reserves and how we can make the best use of them. Our prayers begin in self-interest, but as we grow in grace and accumulate an excess of God’s capital ourselves, our prayers increasingly become more community centered. As we mature in grace and sanctification the shell of our spiritual self-interest increasingly gives way (takes root) through self-sacrificial service (worship) to the needs of the community.

Nonetheless, our prayers must issue out of our own personal love of God, from our dedication and commitment to Jesus Christ. They must flow out of our love of the Lord. This outflow begins as prayer for others and becomes an outflow or overflow of service to the community. Our love of God overflows from us personally and from our churches in the form of service, which is a part of our worship. And it overflows into the lives of our nearest neighbors.

Of course we benefit from the goodness of God’s grace, but we are not motivated by our own self-centered benefit. Rather, we are motivated by the benefit of others. We are to give ourselves away for the glory of God. We are to sacrifice our self-interests, our self-concerns for the glory of God, confidently knowing that God’s glory is for the benefit of humanity. God will increasingly improve humanity and humanity will increasingly thank and glorify God.

So, why was Paul doing all of this? “because of the surpassing grace of God upon you” (v. 14). Because he had a vision of the abundance of God’s grace, God’s blessings that would accrue to faithful saints. He saw the sin of the world and the impending death and damnation that was a kind of waterfall over which humanity would tumble because it was adrift in the river of sin, that there was no escape apart from Jesus Christ.

Redemption
Yet, he wasn’t motivated by the fear of damnation, but by the love of God. He was motivated because God had given him a glimpse of the riches of His kingdom that awaited the redeemed in Christ. He saw the flowering of human culture in heretofore unknown and unknowable ways. And he saw the simplicity of Christ’s cure for the evils of the world—God’s grace, freely given. And he knew that the whole world, all of humanity would one day see the beauty and graciousness of Christ’s cure, God’s provision, because he knew the irresistibility of God’s love.

God’s love will one day completely overwhelm sin and evil. Destroying it, yes! But more like evaporating it in the light of Christ. One day it will just disappear. It will be no more, in the twinkling of an eye. Evil and sin will simply be abandoned for the superior love of God—one day.

Finally, Paul sighed with exhaustion and frustration from trying to describe this vision of God’s grace. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (v. 15). He didn’t mean that nothing could be said about God’s grace, but that God’s grace cannot be fully expressed. Our descriptions will always fall short of the reality, partly because of our human limitations, the myopia of our insight into the workings of God, and partly because of God’s greatness, His eternalness and the infinitude of His measures.

But Paul did successfully provide a taste of God’s grace. Paul’s vision is sufficient for God’s purpose. It is sufficient for us. The sufficiency of Paul’s vision invites us into the sufficiency of God’s grace. And in a similar way, the paucity of Paul’s descriptions invite God’s people into the myriad abundance, the multifaceted and multicolored cloak of God’s grace (the robe of Christ’s righteousness), to engage God’s grace in ways inconceivable by Paul, ways that engage the multiplicity of God’s gifts to His people and through which bring to flower the glory of His grace. This is the calling into which Christ calls all of humanity.

—from Varsy Arsy Proclaiming the Gospel in Second Corinthians (forthcoming) Of course, Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming the Gospel in First Corinthians is available now.

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