Lesson IIIA - Faithfulness Illustrated - Page 2 (series: Lessons on 2 Cor.)
by John Lowe
“In a great trial of affliction”; rather, in much testing of affliction; that is, in an affliction which tested their Christian character. "Affliction" seems to have occurred very seriously and powerfully in the Churches of Macedonia—“You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6)—chiefly through the jealousy of the Jews, who inflamed the hatred of the Gentiles (Acts 16:20; Acts 17:5, 13).
They received the Gospel at a time when they were experiencing a lot of affliction and afterward suffered a great deal from their countrymen for professing their Christian faith. They were under taxing hardships, which tried their faith and patience; by reproaches, persecutions, imprisonments, confiscation of goods, etc. Now for persons who are prosperous and everything is going well with them, it is easy to be liberal in giving to help others: but for persons experiencing adversity, who many might suppose were unable to give and that they were the ones needing help; or when it might be thought their minds would be entirely engrossed with their own concerns, to give generously to relieve the afflictions of others, is something very remarkable, and worthy of notice and imitation, which was the case of these Churches of Macedonia. For more on the afflictions of the churches in Macedonia, both from the Jews and pagans, it is suggested that you read Acts 16:1-40 and Acts 17:1-34. Afflictions are called trials because God uses them to test our faith, patience, and consistency; and the devil also uses them to draw out our lusts and corruptions.
The Greek word that is rendered “trial” is always used of that which has been tried and has stood the test—“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). The meaning here is that tribulation has brought out the genuine Christian qualities of the Macedonian Churches.
The abundance of their joy
“The abundance of their joy” is another reference to joy in sadness—“I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds” (2 Corinthians 7:4). “The abundance” and the word “abounded" is definitely redundant, but is not at all unlike the style of Paul’s writing. He means to say that their joy overflowed their affliction, and their liberality overflowed their poverty—“They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on." (Mark 12:44).
“The abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality”; so that it appears that they were not only experiencing great afflictions, but also deep poverty; their purses were almost empty, and their resources almost exhausted; they had very little left; and yet freely gave, with joy, even with an “abundance” of it. The indirect reference seems to be to the words of David, in 1 Chronicles 22:14—“I have taken great pains to provide for the temple of the LORD a hundred thousand talents of gold, a million talents of silver, quantities of bronze and iron too great to be weighed, and wood and stone. And you may add to them.” “The abundance of their joy" does not refer to the joy they felt in the midst of their afflictions so that they could glory in them, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God, but the cheerfulness of their spirits arising from their contribution to the necessities of their brethren. Their hearts were glad that they had hearts for doing good, and an opportunity to do it; which they gladly took advantage of, observing the divine rule, "he that sheweth mercy", let him do it "with cheerfulness": and this they did very liberally, though they possessed only a small pittance; for though their poverty was deep, and their purses low, their hearts were large and full, and their hands ready to do good to others. If a person knows the joys of the gospel; if he has experienced the comforts of religion, he will somehow or other find the means to contribute to the welfare of others. He will be willing to work to acquire it, or he will find something which he can sacrifice or spare. Even their deep poverty will abound in the fruits of generosity. Their charity will not be in proportion to their ability to give, which might have been expected from men in their circumstances, but they will show themselves rich in their liberality, though poor in what they had of this world’s goods.
And their deep poverty
The literal meaning of “deep” is “down to the depth,” or “according to depth.” “Generosity,” is determined not by the measure of what is given, but by the mind of those who give it.”
“Their deep poverty”; literally, their great pauperism; their awful destitution. Their very low state of poverty was made to contribute liberally to the needs of others. It is implied here:
(1) That they were very poor—a fact arising probably from the truth that the poor generally embraced the gospel first, and also because it is probable that they were molested and stripped of their property through persecutions.
(2) That in spite of this they were enabled to make a liberal contribution—a fact demonstrating that a people can do a lot even when poor if all feel determined to do it and that afflictions are beneficial to the effort.
(3) That one cause of this was the joy which they had even in their trials.
The “poverty” at Philippi may possibly be connected with the great number of women in the Church there, as indicated in Acts 16:13—“On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.” In the absence of the bread-winners in a household, Christian women in a Greek/Roman city would find limited means of supporting themselves. To some degree, however, the churches shared in widely-spread distress. Macedonia and Achaia never recovered from the three wars between Caesar and Pompeius, between the Triumvirs and Brutus and Cassius, and between Augustus and Antonius. Under Tiberius, they petitioned for a lessening of their burdens and were as a result transferred for a while from the jurisdiction of the senate to that of the emperor, where taxation was not as excessive. Though they were poor, they showed themselves to be generous to their brethren in Judea. The gift of the Macedonians was like the widow's mite (Luke 21:3, 4, where similar words occur)—“I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."
Abounded in the riches of their liberality.
“Abounded,” as used here, means they contributed liberally. Their joy was expressed by a large donation, in spite of their poverty; so Paul says that their poverty "abounded to the riches of their liberality": though their poverty was great, their liberality was rich and large; though they might have given little in quantity, it was much in quality, much in liberality; like the poor widow, who, due to her want and privation, cast in more than all the rich, not in quantity, but in liberality; they only gave some, and a disproportionate part, but she gave all she had—“If it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously . . .” (Romans 12:8).
The word “liberality,” as used here, means sincerity, candor, goodness; then Christian simplicity, integrity; then liberality—“You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us, your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. 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” (2 Corinthians 9:11, 13).
The phrase "riches of liberality," is a Hebraism, meaning rich, or abundant liberality. The sense is, their liberality was much greater than could be expected from persons so poor, and the object of the apostle is to motivate the Corinthians to give liberally by their example. Such generosity indicates a singleness of heart (or purpose), and the absence of all selfish motives (see 2 Corinthians 1:12).
3 For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing,
For I bear witness
They gave according to their ability, and to the limit of it, which is the most that can be desired, or be given; for no man can give more than he has, nor is he required to do more than he is able. Paul had founded those churches and had spent a lot of time with them. He was therefore well qualified to bear testimony in regard to their condition.
That according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability
The meaning of “That according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability” is that they were willing to contribute beyond their power to give; not that they could give more than they were able to give; but they were "willing" to do so; their hearts were larger than their purses; they would gladly have done more than they had the ability to do; and to this the apostle bears witness to give credit to their liberality, which otherwise might have been called in question: and it is to be observed, that these churches gave in this cheerful manner and to the utmost of their ability, which was beyond what could have been expected; or beyond what it would have been thought possible, considering their circumstances (great poverty). This shows the anxious desire which they had to relieve the needs of others.