A Theology of Christmas Presents (2)

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In the first message of this series, we considered that there are three basic kinds of gifts—the mandatory gift of the tithe, where God is teaching us how He runs the world, the free will gift of the offering, where the student demonstrates that he is beginning to grasp the lesson, and the celebratory gift, which God has placed deep within our nature.

So we already considered the ground of our giving, which is the ultimate gift of Christ, the gift that God gave to us in order to restore the world that we had ruined. We have now come to the second point, which is the nature of giving. In future messages, we will look at the nature of receiving, and the goodness of the material world.  

The Text

“And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:32–35).

Summary of the Text

Our text here is the conclusion of Paul’s exhortation to the elders of the church at Ephesus. He is reminding them that his dealings with that church were entirely aboveboard. He first commends them to God and the word of God’s grace, which can do two things. First the grace of God can edify them and build them up (v. 32). And second, the grace of God can give them an inheritance among the sanctified (v. 32). His interest is in them receiving their inheritance, and he moves seamlessly into the next point, which is that he had been no apostolic bandit among them. During his time there at Ephesus, Paul had coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or clothing (v. 33). He calls the elders of the church as witnesses—they know this (v. 34). Paul could hold out his hands and tell them that they know that “these hands” supplied the needs of Paul himself, along with his entourage (v. 34). They did not leech off the church. What Paul taught them to do Paul also did himself (v. 35), showing them how Christians ought to work in a way as to support the weak (v. 35). And Paul then quotes the Lord Jesus, and this is interesting, because it is a saying that none of the four gospels records. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Both giving and receiving are most necessary, as we will see by next week, but if you have to choose between them, choose to be among those who give. It really is more blessed to give than to receive. But as we shall see, because of our finitude it is not possible simply to give.

So Not So Fast . . .

Now notice something here. The Lord Jesus did not say that it is “more proper to give than to receive.” He did not say that it is “more noble to give than to receive.” And He did not say that it is “more polite to give than to receive.” No, not at all. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. But what is it to be blessed? It is to receive. There is no way to receive the blessing associated with not being a “receiver” except by receiving. A blessed man is a recipient of a blessing, given by another. In this case, the giving is done by God.

It is therefore more blessed to receive by giving than to receive by receiving. We are finite creatures and this means that some kind of receiving is inescapable.

Everything we give away is on loan to us from God, and when we give to Him, we are simply returning to Him what He has given to us. We are like little children buying our father a Christmas present at the dollar store, using a dollar that He gave us for the task.

The word for blessed (makarios) means to be happy, fortunate, enviable, one to whom God has extended His benefits. Another way of seeing this is to understand that for every finite creature, there is a built-in reciprocity for every act of generosity. Like one of Newton’s laws of motion for the spiritual realm. If we are creatures who want to live in the favor of God (which is to say, if we want to live in Christ), there is no escape from giving and receiving.

A System That Cannot be Gamed

So the thing that distinguishes an ungodly giver from a godly one is not the fact that they get from giving. The issue is what they want to get from their giving. When carnal men give anything (with their carnal eye on the carnal prize), they receive what they wanted and they already have their reward. So they already have their reward (Matt. 6:2), and it comes to pieces in their hands. “And he gave them their request; But sent leanness into their soul” (Psalm 106:15).

When spiritual men give anything (with their spiritual eye on the spiritual prize), God honors and blesses them. They refuse to do what they are doing in order to be seen by men (Matt. 6:1). But notice what happens if they sin in this matter, and are showboating for the grandstands. What do they lose? They lose their reward from our Father in heaven (Matt. 6:1).

Now when Paul gave to the Corinthians, he was jealous to protect that reward. “But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void” (1 Cor. 9:15).

Back Around to Christmas Presents

So bring this back to the matter of Christmas presents. That is what we are supposedly talking about, right? What is the difference between a carnal prize and a spiritual prize? To make matters really confusing, sometimes the prize itself can appear to be identical. You shopped long and hard to find that “perfect gift” for your father, and the difference between joy at Christmas and misery in Christmas is to be found in that dark little ego-center of your heart. Compare: “That is just what he wanted—God must be rejoicing to see my father rejoicing” over against “That is just what he wanted—I’m glad I found it before my sister did.”

The Joy Set Before Him

Jesus endured the agonies of His trial and crucifixion because He knew what was in store for Him on the other side of the agony.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds” (Heb. 12:1–3).

And we are told, in all our trials, all our striving, all our struggles, all our pilgrimage, all our shopping, to imitate Him in this. We are to look to Jesus, considering His behavior, as we look to modify our own behavior. Otherwise, we are going to grow weary and faint in our minds. We are going to grow weary and faint in our giving, and this applies to giving of whatever magnitude. Do you think anybody grows weary and faint in the Christmas rush, forgetting the whole point?

So everything is to be cruciform—but not a crucifix. And the difference between the two is this. Every cross is a cross in a story, and every Christian story has the blessedness of joy at the end of it. In all your giving, try to give like Jesus did. But also, in all your giving, repent of the folly of trying to be more spiritual than Jesus. He did not remain on the cross because the joy was before Him. We are not supposed to seek to remain there either. We must not try to evade the cross, and we must not try to perpetuate the cross. The story is a cruciform story, not a crucifix story.

And Christ is the one who shows us.

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