The Rich Became Poor for You
A sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:9 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 1/18/04
Two brief stories to start us off: the first is fictional, the second true:
Suppose you’re sitting at home one day and hear a knock at the door. Opening the door, you see a dear friend, whom you love and trust. He says, “I really need a lot of money. It’s for a very important cause. And I need it all in 30 days. Will you give it to me?” You ask, “How much?” He gives the figure – tens of thousands of dollars. You say, “I don’t know if I could possibly round up that much, but let me check.” So you add up everything – you see what you could possibly round up in a month if you sell all your liquid assets, if you take out all the equity of your house. As it turns out, you can come up with the money he needs - with one dollar to spare. So, theoretically, you can give it to him, but you would be left with nothing. Trusting him, and believing thoroughly in the cause, would you do it? If not, why not?
Now imagine the same scenario, but suppose that your parents have millions of dollars. You have a very close relationship with them, and if you really need money, you can get it from them. Does that fact change the likelihood that you would give your friend the money? Do all those riches make a difference? Why?
Hold on to those ideas. It will be a while before we come back to them, but we will.
Here’s the second story, this one true.
Five years ago I was in the Philippines on a business trip. I went to an ATM to withdraw money from my account, and the machine gave me the option of checking my balance. Curious to see how much Beth had spent in my absence, I punched the button. The machine gave the balance: about 200,000.
Startled, I wondered: Where did all this money come from? I even checked the account number to see if perchance the ATM had linked me to the wrong account. After seeing that it was indeed my own account, I finally realized that the machine was giving me my balance not in terms of dollars but in terms of Philippine pesos. And at the time, the exchange rate of pesos to dollars was about 40-1, which made the balance of the account not $200,000 but $5,000; about what I had expected.
If you are checking your bank balance, you need to know the currency in which it is measured! Just so in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 when we talk about giving; about returns to giving; about riches; about poverty. We need to know what currency is used in each case because Paul talks about different currencies in these chapters.
We saw this last Sunday. We noted that true Christian giving essentially is neither tithing nor self-denial. Rather, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 8:1-8 that true Christian giving:
Indeed, we saw that as we give we are acting as God's agents of love in the world.
Do you see how the currency is important? We give – but what do we give? Fundamentally, we do not give dollars! Fundamentally, we give ourselves! We give our love! Dollars are valuable not in themselves but only as expressions of love. As Paul says in verse 8, the Corinthians’ giving shows that their love is genuine. As he says in verse 2, genuine love, having a wealth of sincere concern, is the key.
But there is more than this insight. For even love comes in different currencies. The only love that counts is the love of God flowing through us to others. As we, in Christ, become as He is in this world, then our love is valuable. Only then does our giving of ourselves and of our resources glorify God. Only then are we fulfilling the purpose for which God called us, the purpose for which God created us: to bring glory to His name.
So even last week we had to be clear about the currency of the transaction. As we come to today’s text, being clear about the currency is even more important. This text is only one verse: a wonderful verse holding up Jesus as an example of right giving. But unfortunately this verse is frequently misunderstood and consequently is misapplied. After describing the grace God has given to the Macedonian churches in causing them to delight to give themselves to God and to Paul, and to delight to give their meager resources to their fellow Christians in Judea, Paul tells the Corinthians to abound in “this grace”; and then explains why:
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)
This verse is intended to explain why they should abound in this grace. What is the reason he gives?
Someone might interpret this verse to mean, “Oh, Jesus died so that I might become rich with money! See it says so right there: “So that you might become rich!” But that person is misunderstanding Paul’s point – he is thinking of the wrong currency, like I did when I saw that ATM slip. We know this because that interpretation wouldn’t support Paul’s point that the Corinthians should be like the Macedonians and abound in this grace. The Macedonians were poor monetarily, and yet gave out of their poverty.
Someone else might say, “Jesus became poor in terms of money, so I too must become poor in terms of money. Jesus is our example in being poor monetarily.” But that goes against not only what we saw in the passage last week, but also Paul’s teaching elsewhere. As we saw in our earlier sermons on 1 Timothy 6 (first, second), Paul commands rich people to be generous, to be willing to share, and not to put their hope in money – but he never instructs them to become poor. Certainly some individuals are called to poverty – that was true of Paul himself. But neither Jesus nor Paul makes that a general rule for Christians.
So what does this verse mean? What currencies is Paul talking about in terms of riches and poverty? And how does this verse support Paul’s call to the Corinthians to “abound in this grace”? Paul is holding Jesus up to us as an example. But the example is not one of giving away all our money.
Four questions provide the outline to our understanding of this verse. The first three all have to do with currency; the fourth will return us to our opening story.
What aspect of Jesus’ poverty makes us rich?
Not his monetary poverty. We don’t become rich because Jesus was poor in money. There are good reasons why God chose to have Jesus born in a stable, brought up in a working class family; there are good reasons why he as an adult had no place to lay his head. But we today do not become rich because of that aspect of his poverty.
Philippians 2 helps us get to the answer:
6 Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The important aspect of Jesus’ poverty is His humbling himself, His becoming man, literally “taking the form of a slave”. And further, his dying on the cross: accepting its shame and suffering. In Jesus’ incarnation, suffering, and dying, he is made poor. He is made weak. He becomes the slave of all. And the slave is poor indeed.
So when Paul says Jesus became poor, and by his poverty we become rich, he is talking not about poverty in terms of money, but about his incarnation and death on the cross.
What kind of riches does Jesus gain for us through his poverty? These riches are measured in what currency?
Romans 11 is helpful here: In this chapter Paul is dealing with God’s rejection of his chosen people because of their disobedience, and assuring his readers that God’s promises to the Jews have not failed:
11:12 Now if the trespass [of the Jews] means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! . . . 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world,
Do you see the parallel between verses twelve and fifteen? In verse 12 we have the Jews’ trespass and failure leading to riches for the Gentile world; in verse 15 the Jews’ rejection leads to reconciliation for that same Gentile world. Trespass, failure, rejection: all of these words relate to the Jews’ breaking of the covenant.
But if all three phrases are talking about the same event, the impact on the Gentile world is the same also. Thus, the riches for the Gentile world consist of reconciliation with God! Thus, these riches are primarily relational: We have God! We are in Christ! We are no longer separated, but are restored to full fellowship with the King of the Universe. These riches are not monetary; they do not consist of health, or wealth, or prosperity here in this world – but they are riches of a much more valuable currency! Treasure in heaven! Adoption into the family of God! Joy in Him eternally!
The same idea can be found in many other places throughout the Bible: We’ll touch on just one more here:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, (Ephesians 3:8)
The riches of Christ! Once again, Paul here is not talking about money; he is not talking about health; he is not talking about wealth – but about knowing Christ Himself!
So the riches we get are the greatest riches of all:
· Having Christ Jesus as our brother, as our head, as our husband;
· Having God as our father;
· Becoming the objects of their great delight. These are riches unimaginable!
Now, in the eternal state, in the new heavens and the new earth, we become heirs of all things. “All things” certainly implies lots of material abundance! We do become rich in that sense. As Revelation 21:21 tells us, the streets of the New Jerusalem are pure gold. But the point of these images of the eternal state is never to make us respond, “Wow! I'll have bunches of gold then!” Think, now: Do you spend much time valuing the asphalt or the concrete under your car? As long as it’s flat, holds up your car, lets you go fast, and doesn’t have any potholes you don’t even notice it.
Just so here. Gold is not the attraction. We’ll hardly even notice the gold. The attraction in the new heavens and the new earth is God himself. We have him – and so we are rich. The riches Jesus provides for us even in the eternal state are primarily relational.
Before we move on to Jesus’ riches, one more point: Go back to our verse: It makes a strong emphasis on this point:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: that for your sake He became poor . . .so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Paul is saying, “Jesus loves you incredibly much! You are the object of his great affections! In order for you to become rich, he was willing to suffer such great poverty. Realize this!”
So we’ve seen that Jesus’ poverty is primarily His humbling Himself, and that our riches are primarily relational, becoming reconciled to God. Now, Jesus’ riches.
In what sense is Jesus rich? “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” What is the currency of these riches?
Of course, there is a sense in which Jesus is materially rich:
Psalm 50:10 Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. . . . 12b the world and its fullness are mine.
But, would it really make sense to say, “our riches are relational, and Jesus’ are material”? No!
Consider John 17:24-26:
24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." (Emphasis added)
What are Jesus’ riches? What means more to Him than anything else? Just as our riches are bound up in the relationship we have with God in Christ, Jesus’ riches are bound up with the relationship He has with God the Father. He owns everything, but fundamentally what makes Jesus rich is the love of God the Father.
He shares His rich relationship with us; the love that was between Father and Son before the foundation of the world. So our riches and Jesus’ riches are fundamentally the same: A relationship with God
This brings us to the way all these interact together.
What is the relationship between Jesus’ riches and His becoming poor?
The usual translation of this phrase is: “Though he was rich, he became poor”
But now let’s try substituting the ideas we have seen as we have understood Jesus’ riches and poverty: “Though he was loved by His father, he became a slave and died on the cross” This doesn’t make sense as an example of giving – it doesn’t fulfill the purpose of the sentence: to explain why we should give as the Macedonians gave. The sentence is true, and would make sense as a statement of the Father’s love; indeed, we could restate John 3:16 this way: “Though God loved His one and only Son, he gave him up, so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
But do you see why this doesn’t make sense in the context of 2 Corinthians 8? “Though he was rich he became poor” makes sense if we think of poverty and riches in the same currency. In that case, being rich is the opposite of being poor, and we don’t expect rich people to choose to become poor. But given our interpretation of “rich” and “poor”, and given the context of the sentence, that translation doesn’t make sense.
So are we all wrong? No. Rather, the traditional translation of this is wrong. In the letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians in Greek, there is no word for “though.” Instead, the verb translated “though he was rich” is simply a participle, and thus is ambiguous. We could capture that ambiguity in a more literal translation this way: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for you he became poor being rich, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
It only says that he: “became poor being rich”. This grammatical construction can mean “though”, but it can also mean “because”. And when we take the meaning “because” and add the idea of being rich and poor in different currencies, the verse makes perfect sense: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for you he became poor in one currency BECAUSE he was rich in another currency, so that you by his poverty might become rich in that same currency.”
You see why this makes sense? If you have millions of US dollars, you don’t mind becoming poor in British pounds. If Jesus has the honor of being the Son of God, he can endure the loss of becoming man, of dying on the cross – knowing that He will be restored to the Father’s side and will bring great glory to God.
Think back about the story at the beginning: A friend comes asking for all that you have. If you would have to give up everything, you would be unlikely to give, even though you know it is an exceptionally important cause. But if your parents are multimillionaires, whom you love; if they have told you that you are always welcome to come to them; if they have plenty to meet your every need – then, if you are convinced of the rightness of the cause, you might very well do it. You are rich in one way; so you can become poor in another.
This is the idea of Hebrews 12:2:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
“For the joy set before Him.” He knew the cross would result in the glory of God, and that He would be at His father’s side for all eternity – that He would then present to Himself the church in all her glory as His perfect bride, to bring glory to God for all ages. So having those riches, because He was rich, He became poor in another sense – and brought us into those same riches.
What are the implications for us today? How do we give?
We are to abound in this grace because we know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: For our sakes, because He knew the depth of the riches of the knowledge of God, He became man and died on the cross, so that we through that death might enter into the riches of fellowship with God. So we are to imitate Christ. Not by becoming materially poor, though some of us may well be called to do so. But ALL of us are to imitate Christ. Knowing the riches we have in Christ, we are willing to give up all that we have to bring honor and glory to Him. We are confident that we have what is most valuable: the love of God for all eternity. So, knowing that, we can step out in faith – and give generously.
Our joy is in GOD. And He will never leave us nor forsake us. So we can give, give, and give – even all of it, if God so calls us.
A commentator puts it this way: “We become ‘like Christ’ as we act in our context in the same way as Christ acted in His; giving up our physical resources for others because of our spiritual riches in God.”
Do you have those spiritual riches? Is God your treasure?
If not, confess that to Him. Fall before Him! He will welcome you, and you will be rich – in relationship – beyond measure.
If you already belong to God: You ARE rich – The King of the Universe is your Daddy! He loves you with a love that surpasses all we can imagine. So, knowing the depth of the riches that are yours in Christ, give of yourself. Delight in God! Turn your backs on the myths about money! Show those around you that God is your treasure. Trust God to watch over you – and give yourself fully to Him.
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 1/18/04. The commentary quote is from Scott Hafemann, The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Zondervan, 2000), p. 342.
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