When I graduated from high school, I went straight to Louisiana State University, and I immediately got caught up in LSU’s bachelor’s degree program in partying. I eventually dropped out and moved to California where my parents had taken up residence.
While I was taking a break from school, an opportunity arose to work at a beautiful Westin Hotel. After about a year of gainful employment in the purchasing department, I was asked to help at the grand opening of the Saks Fifth Avenue store in the mall across the street.
(The request came under the “Other duties as assigned” part of my job description.) It was a tony event with celebrities in attendance, and I was asked to be a kind of “go-fer” for the bartenders.
To my delight, I discovered that among the celebrities attending was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I had watched Lew Alcindor dominate college basketball at UCLA before he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and after I moved to California, I’d become a Lakers fan.
Anyway, this basketball legend was scheduled to sign autographs in the store’s shoe department. That evening I worked hard. When I finally managed to make it over to the shoes area—there he was!
When I got close, I appreciated in a new way how big this man is. Granted, my perspective is somewhat tainted since I stand at five feet, six inches tall if I wear my golf shoes with new cleats. I moved closer in an attempt to talk to him, and the closer I got, the more my head fell back until I was standing close to him and looking almost straight up in the air.
Next to the table where he was signing autographs, he had parked a pair of his own shoes. They were simply enormous. My two shoes put next to each other lengthwise would not have been as long as one of his.
Suddenly it became apparent how different we were. He is black and I am white. He is seven feet, two inches tall, and I’m not. He wears a size seventeen shoe, and I definitely don’t. He is wealthy, and I am… blessed.
I did find sort of a shared trait, though. I was starting to lose my hair, and so was he—but he was so tall that no one knew! So even that was a bummer. He was better off than I was on that count too.
Paul and Comparison
Mark Twain was absolutely right when he said, “Comparison is the death of joy.”
Not being familiar with Mark Twain 😊, the apostle Paul found an upside to comparison. We see in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 that Paul used comparison as a rhetorical tool to motivate the Corinthians to give.
Remember how Paul cited the example of the Philippians’ giving?
This is an implied comparison. Paul wanted the Corinthians to give in a manner that would compare favorably to the Philippians who had a lower economic standing than the people of Corinth.
His comparison doesn’t seem focused on the amount given, but rather on commitment, sacrifice, and follow-through. In addition, the Philippians were undergoing some kind of trial, yet they still gave sacrificially.
Paul encouraged the Corinthians to look at giving as another important expression of their love for God and as evidence of the Spirit working in them.
Paul clearly encouraged the Corinthians to compare their level of giving to the giving of other people in other churches. Paul had cited the example of the Philippian church and their sacrificial giving to the church in Jerusalem.
Such comparison and competition are generally portrayed negatively in the Bible. Remember this exchange between the disciples and Jesus?
"An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.'" (Luke 9:46-48 NIV)
When writing to the Galatians, Paul spoke against making comparisons that lead to the kind of competition Jesus’ disciples apparently felt:
"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load." (Galatians 6:1-5 NIV)
Paul’s teaching makes sense when comparisons can lead to pride and divisiveness.
However, comparison is a positive when it’s used to motivate, challenge, encourage, and inspire others to good work and spiritual growth.
In his lovely little book, The Grace of Giving, John Stott said it this way: “Christian giving can be stimulated by a little friendly competition."
And Paul had this positive kind of comparison in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians about the Philippians, especially when he wrote 2 Corinthians 2:8-9.
"You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 2:8-9)
Paul didn’t command the Corinthians to give; he wanted them to give willingly. He wanted to test the sincerity of their love by comparing it to the earnestness—to the zeal and dedication—of other people’s love.
Sincerity is translated from the same Greek word (σπουδῆς) used in verse 7. There it is translated complete earnestness and is understood to mean “zeal, diligence, eagerness, and a sense of urgency.”
Paul wanted to determine the earnestness of the Corinthians’ love. Was their love serious? Did their love for others show substance and gravitas? To whom was their love directed?
It can be convicting and productive to compare ourselves to other people, but as we follow the flow of Paul’s argument, we don’t clearly see who the people are that he is drawing into his comparison.
Specifically, Paul was comparing [the Corinthians’ love] with the earnestness of others, but who are the others?
Certainly, the Philippians, the Christians that Paul mentioned earlier, but when we keep reading, we see Paul making a much more profound comparison.
Look at whose earnest love Paul focused on:
Paul was comparing the Corinthians’ love for God and for other people with Jesus’ love for the Father and for us. Paul reminded the Corinthians that although the Philippians were to be commended for their sacrificial giving, the Corinthians had an infinitely greater example to look to for comparing and evaluating their giving.
Paul reminded the Corinthians of Jesus and the self-sacrificial gift of His very life that He freely, willingly gave. In light of the truth that God owns everything, found in Chapter 1 of this book, we might want to stop and consider the example of Jesus’ amazing love.
The Lamb of God
Jesus gave us a truly incomparable gift of love. In each of the four clauses of 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul focused on an essential aspect of our Savior’s incredible love:
"You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ"
Grace is “unmerited favor” and, in this context, reminded the Corinthians of the unmerited favor the Lord Jesus Christ had shown them.
Because of His death, the Corinthians—and we—have received such gifts as the forgiveness of sins, a personal relationship with God, Kingdom citizenship and new eternal life.
"Though he was rich"
Psalm 24:1, 1 Chronicles 29:11, and Psalm 50:12 describe the extent of our Creator God’s possessions, and John 1:1, John 5:18, and Philippians 2:6 clearly teach that Jesus and God were of the exact same nature.
Since Though he was rich appears in a discussion about material giving for the Jerusalem offering, it seems clear that he was rich is a reference to material riches. Jesus definitely does have an amazing real estate portfolio including North America and the Hawaiian Islands, the tundra of Russia and the desert plains of Africa, the rainforests of South America and the icy expanse of Antarctica.
Jesus’ commodity holdings include all the cattle on a thousand hills as well as the world’s gold, valuable minerals, and precious jewels.
In addition, Jesus created and owns every person. Although Forbes magazine identifies the richest people on the planet every year, no one’s wealth compares to Jesus.
"Yet for your sake he became poor"
For the sake of the Corinthians, Jesus became poor.
The Greek (ἐπτώχευσεν) is from the same root as the word used to describe the poverty of the Philippians. In this case, however, we understand the word to mean that Jesus impoverished Himself (Kruse, 154-155).
Jesus’ poverty didn’t result from an economic downturn; instead, Jesus chose poverty. He gave up every single thing He owned.
He did so in the incarnation itself. During His three-year ministry, Jesus owned no property. His material assets were basically the clothes on His back.
"A teacher of the law came to Him and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.'
Jesus replied, 'Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.'" (Matthew 8:19-20 NIV)
Then, at the climax of His ministry, Jesus was stripped of His clothing before He gave His final material possession—His own physical body—to be scourged and nailed to a cross. The richest One became the poorest One.
"So that you through his poverty might become rich"
Through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of His life, through His offering of His body, the Corinthians became rich.
The earlier reference to the Philippians’ poverty and this section’s opening reference to grace preclude the notion that Jesus died so we can become materially rich.
Furthermore, that thought would interrupt the obvious flow of the argument.
Through Jesus’ willing sacrifice—because He gave up everything, including His physical body—we can experience the priceless forgiveness of our sins and the rich Spirit-filled life that God intends us to live.
At this point the enormous weight of Paul’s message becomes very apparent: Paul was seeking to motivate the Corinthians to follow through on their commitments to God’s work.
He had cited first the example of the Philippians and then the unsurpassable example of Jesus who gave everything for the Corinthians, making it possible for them to live in a right relationship with their Creator.
If that fact doesn’t motivate us to give, then nothing will. If we are thankful for the gift of our salvation, received because of Jesus’ sacrificial death, then giving materially is one way we express our love and gratitude.