The Church That Learned to Give

Tonight I want to tell you a story about a church that learned to give. I ripped this story out of an old issue of the now-defunct Moody Magazine. It appeared back in the 1980s, written by Lyle Eggleston, who served as a missionary in a little town on the rocky coast of northern Chile. In time, the congregation grew to about 80 adults, but Eggleston was concerned that the Christians in that area didn’t seem able to support their own national pastor. The people were very poor, and the church’s offerings amounted to no more than six dollars a month. One day, Eggleston brought the problem to the Lord during a definite time of prayer. A few weeks later he stopped to visit a middle-aged couple, new converts who had begun the habit of reading their Bibles every day. “What does the word tithing mean?” asked Manuel. “We ran into that in our reading and we don’t understand it.”

Eggleston didn’t really want to answer the question, for he knew that Manuel and his wife were unemployed and on the verge of destitution. They were somehow managing to feed themselves and their 25 Rhode Island hens on the income from the eggs laid each day. Nevertheless they insisted he explain the concept of tithing to them, so he turned to the passage we’re coming to tonight, 1 Corinthians 16, and also to the parallel passages in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, where Paul urged believers to lay aside each week a portion of their income to the Lord. The following Sunday Manuel handed Lyle an envelope and, smiling, said, “That’s our tithe!” Inside were a few bills amounting to about 19 cents.

The next Sunday afternoon, the couple flagged down Lyle as he rode his bicycle past their house. They had some exciting news. The Tuesday morning after they had given their tithe, there’s wasn’t a bite for breakfast or any money. Their first impulse was to take the few pesos that had accumulated in their “tithe box,” but on second thought they said, “No. That’s God’s money. We will go without breakfast this morning.”

There was nothing to do but tend the hens. Much to their surprise, there were eggs in the nests that had usually at that hour been empty. Later in the day, a little man came along with a pushcart wanting fertilizer. They cleaned out their hen house, and the manure brought a good price. After buying groceries, there was enough money left over for the wife to purchase a pair of shoes, so he rode the bus 12 kilometers around the bay into a larger town. There she bumped into a nephew she had not seen in five years, and who, to her utter surprise, owned a shoe store. After she had found just the pair she wanted, he wrapped them for her and handed her the package with these words, “Oh no, Aunt, I can’t take your money. These shoes are a gift from me.”

The following week, Manuel got a job on a project that would last for two years, and soon the little couple was tithing on a much larger salary. Word got around the church, and others began experimenting with giving. Soon the church’s income begin to rise dramatically, and they were able to pay their own rent and utility bills, support a national pastor who was working with Indians, and, in a short time, they were able to call and finance a pastor of their own.

Lyle Eggleston and his wife were able to move to a new location and start a new work as the little church grew in numbers, size, property, and faith. “We had offered up a bit of prayer and 19 cents,” Lyle later said, “and God did the rest.”[1]

Well, what was so inspiring about 1 Corinthians 16? What is that teaching that can show a church how to give? Well, that’s the passage we’re coming to tonight. Let’s look at this short passage verse by verse.

Verse 1: Now…

This is a word Paul uses several times in 1 Corinthians to let us know he’s shifting subjects.

  • Chapter 7 begins: Now for the matters you wrote about.
  • Chapter 8 begins: Now about food sacrificed to idols.
  • Chapter 12 begins: Now about the gifts of the Spirit
  • Chapter 16 begins: Now about the collection for the Lord’s people

Not every division in the book is marked in this way, but it’s helpful to notice Paul’s transition statements because it enables us to better follow the plan of the book. As we’ve gone though the various divisions of 1 Corinthians, we’ve noticed how Paul has dealt with one problem and one divisive issue after another. It’s not surprising that here at the end, he includes financial problems.

Verse 1: Now about the collection…

This word (“collection”) only occurs here, in verse 1-2, in the New Testament. It’s a word that means exactly that. It’s a collection of money from various people. When I was growing up, the time of offering was still called the collection. People said, “Who’s going to take up the collection today?” Or, “Will you have the prayer before the collection.” They passed the collection plates. The apostle Paul had several terms that he used for the financial gifts we render the Lord. This is the one place where he uses the word “collection.” The idea of course is that it’s not just one person giving the money. It’s a sum of money collected from many people, from everybody.

Verse 1b: Now about the collection for the Lord’s people…

Notice it’s not simply the collection by the Lord’s people, but for the Lord’s people. The apostle Paul sometimes had a financial aspect to his ministry. He didn’t seem overly concerned about soliciting financial gifts to sustain his own ministry. But more than once he sought to raise funds for benevolent and famine relief. All this was against the backdrop of the biggest division in the early church. We can say that in modern terms that there were two denominations in the New Testament church. There were Jewish Christians who were seeped in Judaism, and there were Gentile Christians who had very little interest in Jewish ritual. I taught about this at length when I preached through the book of Galatians. The Jewish Christians were still thoroughly Jewish. Just became they embraced Christianity didn’t mean they stopped being Jews. In Acts 3, Peter and John went up to the temple at the hour of prayer. These Jewish Christians felt that Jesus Christ had simply completed their Jewishness. That rather felt that Gentiles should become Jewish proselytes as a part of their Christian experience. On the other hand, the Gentile Christians learned they could bypass Judaism in coming to Christ. They didn’t have to adopt any Jewish ritual or dietary regulations or circumcision or anything. So there were two divisions, and this threatened the unity of the early church. It also gave rise to the Judaizers who followed Paul around everywhere and bedeviled him with corrupt doctrine. They taught that salvation wasn’t entirely by grace; it should include some Jewish works.

Well, in the course of time the Jewish Christian church suffered terrible financial problems. This may have been due to the way they gave all their money and goods away in the flush of Pentecostal excitement in the early chapters of Acts. This might have been because of drought and famine. This might also have been because the Romans were tightening the noose on Judea. But for whatever reason, the Jewish Christians in Judea were on the verge of starvation.

So the apostle Paul, strategist that he was, felt that the Gentile Christians across the Roman Empire should help the Jewish Christians who were suffering destitution in Judea. This was humanitarian; it was Christlike; but it was also a way to heal the emotional divide between the two groups. It’s hard to stay mad at someone who is sacrificing to meet your needs. So everywhere Paul went he tried to collect money from the Galatian and European Christians to send as aid to the Christians in Judea. Paul describes this offering in Romans 15:23-33, here in 1 Corinthians 16, and in 2 Corinthians 8-9. That’s the background. But I don’t believe the application of this passage is limited to simply that immediate historical context or even to the principle of special humanitarian financial campaigns. I believe this passage gives us the New Testament pattern for regular giving – for the giving of our tithes and offerings, for the collecting of our funds.

Notice the last part of the verse: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. In other words, this is universal advice as it relates to giving.

Verse 2 says: On the first day of the every week…. The first day of the week was Sunday, the day that commemorated the resurrection. The apostle John called it “The Lord’s Day.” There are several things we do on this day. We gather. We pray. We worship. We commemorate the resurrection. And this is the day when we set aside a portion of our weekly income for the Lord’s work.

Verse 2 says: On the first day of the every week, each one of you…. This is a universal command. Everyone is included, young and old, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. I love it when the New Testament uses the phrase “each one.” That means that you and I are included.

Verse 2 continues: On the first day of the every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income…. The older translations tell us to “lay by in store as God has prospered us.” It’s interesting that Paul does not specifically call this tithing. He never does. He talks here about proportional giving. Now, the only basic and bottom-line proportion the Bible ever describes is the tithe, or ten percent. But in the Old Testament, the tithe represented a kind of national tax. Israel was a theocracy, and the tithe supported the work of the Jewish Temple and priesthood. It was required. In the New Testament, it’s different. The New Testament doesn’t speak of the tithe as something that Christians are forced or required to give. What we give, we give freely. We give by grace. But we’re still to give proportionally, and the only proportion I can find in the Bible is ten percent. I’ve always felt that among Christians, the tithe is not a law to be obeyed, but a pattern to be followed.

Paul goes on to say that this collection should be well administered.

Verse 2: On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income saving it up, so that when I come no collection will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.

Paul was concerned that the handling of these funds be above reproach. We have a responsibility to make sure that every penny is accounted for.

Conclusion: The Colgate-Palmolive Company is one of the oldest in America, going back nearly 200 years. It was started by a young man named William Colgate. He left home at sixteen years of age to seek his fortune, and everything that he owned in this world was tied in a bundle that he carried in his hand. But as he walked along on his way to the city, he met an old neighbor, the captain of a canelboat, and the words the old man spoke to him on that day stayed with him his entire life.

“Well, William, where are you going?” asked the canelboat captain.

“I don’t know. Father is too poor to keep me at home any longer, and says I must make a living for myself now.” William went on to say that he had no skills, that he didn’t know how to do anything except make soap and candles.

“Well,” said the old man, “let me pray with you and give you a little advice.” There in the pathway, the two of them—a teenager and an old man—knelt down and the man prayed earnestly for William. Then, rising up, the boat captain said this: “Someone will soon be the leading soapmaker in New York. It can be you as well as anyone. I hope it may. Be a good man; give your heart to Christ; give the Lord all that belongs of Him of every dollar you earn; make an honest soap; give a full pound; and I am certain you will yet be a prosperous and rich man.”

When William arrived in New York, he had trouble finding a job, but he followed the old man’s advice. He dedicated himself to Christ, joined a church, began worshipping there, and the first thing he did with the first dollar he earned was to give ten percent of it to the Lord’ work. From that point on, he considered ten cents of every dollar as sacred to the Lord. In fact, he soon began giving 20 percent of his income to the Lord, then he raised it to 30 percent, then to 40 percent, then to 50 percent. And late in his life, he had become so successful that he devoted the whole of his yearly income—100 percent of it—to the Lord.

It’s remarkable how many of America’s great companies and corporations have stories like that in their background. It’s the pattern God established for the New Testament Christians, and the pattern has never been revoked, reversed, or replaced.

So about the collection for the Lord’s people: On the first day of the week let every one of us set by us in store as God has prospered us.

[1] Lyle Eggleston, “The Church That Learned to Give,” in Moody Magazine, July/August, 1988, pp. 31-32.