Reading: 2 Corinthians 8—9
If you've read 2 Corinthians 8—9 you might have wondered if Paul couldn't make up his mind. On the one hand he says, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) On the other he says, “But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter (how you had committed to give in this offering) should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be.” (2 Corinthians 9:3) Verse 7 is often quoted from this chapter, but as I read the chapter, the over all feel is much more like vs. 3.
This is a rich chapter, and it is highly likely that the real understanding of it lays in the Old Testament background for it. A large portion of this section has to do with Paul collecting an offering for the saints. Paul seems to have spent a great deal of focus and attention on this particular offering. I think F. F. Bruce is right when he suggests that, “Perhaps Paul envisaged this appearance of Gentile believers with their gifts in Jerusalem as at least a token fulfillment of those Hebrew prophecies which spoke of the 'wealth of the nations' as coming to Jerusalem... (Isaiah 60:5; 66:20)”1. Paul certainly had big hopes for the effect that this offering would have.
12This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. (2 Corinthians 9:12-14)
Paul desires that the effect of this offering would be a joining of hearts between the Jerusalem believers and the Gentiles. That they would give thanks to God because of them, and that their hearts would go out to them in prayer. This would certainly be a significant effect growing out of their offering. In writing to the Roman Christians, Paul asks them to pray that this offering to the saints in Jerusalem would be received in such a fashion (Romans 15:31). So he didn't see it as an foregone conclusion that it would have such an effect, but he definitely desired that it would be so.
But this doesn't resolve the tension that seems to be posited in these chapters between giving without compulsion, as one has decided, and the evident appeal to their commitment and Paul's longing to see it fulfilled. I wonder if we might find some help in verse 13 above. It reads, “Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.”.
It may be that this sentence has its roots in the Law. For instance, Leviticus 22:18-19 speaks of two ways people might present burnt offerings to the Lord: either to fulfill a vow, or as a freewill offering. These two ways, if we translate from the Greek Old Testament, would read, “who shall offer his gifts according to all their confession and according to all their choice”. It is possible, then, to understand this “confession” as the “vow”. It as the commitment they had verbally made, their confession. If this is correct, then Paul is treating the Corinthians as if they had made a vow. One is free to make a vow, or not to make it, but once made, they were committed. This then, would relieve the tension in these chapters as Paul could speak of not being under compulsion, while at the same time being obligated to fulfill a commitment one has made.
If I take this understanding of the 9:13, informed by Leviticus 22:18, then, what is the vow Paul says the Corinthians made? “...the obedience that accompanies your confession (vow) of the gospel of Christ...” Is Paul saying that when they came to Christ, they were vowing their life to live under the reign of Christ? Did Paul think of the Christian as someone who has submitted all he is and all he has to the King of the Kingdom—Jesus Christ? Did he then see the giving of the Corinthians, and therefore our giving, as a part and parcel of fulfilling this original vow that our lives, and therefore all we have, belong to the King?
Does our giving, our help of the poor, our generosity reflect an obedience, or submission (ESV) that flows from our vow to live under the reign of Christ Jesus our King? Paul might be insisting on it.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
1Bruce, F.F., Paul: Apostle of he Heart Set Free, pg. 322.