Paul is in Corinth when he writes this letter to the Romans, he talks about wanting to visit them on his way to Spain. He talks of the contributions made in Achaia and Macedonia for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem, which he is in the process of taking to Jerusalem. He asks for protection from the unbelievers in Judea.

Some thoughts I am going to tackle today:

  1. How far — are you willing to go to proclaim the gospel?
  2. How secure — planing for the future.
  3. How much — the Christian discipline of giving.

How Far

Paul’s description of his travel plans is not particularly noteworthy until you understand that travelling from Macedonia and Achaia (which are in modern-day Greece) to Jerusalem and then via Rome to Spain is no small thing. One source I found estimated that from his conversion on the road to Damascus (35AD) to his death in Rome (64AD) 29 years later, he travelled over 10,000 miles. Remember, there was no mechanised transport at all during that time. Paul’s route using modern transportation would take at most a matter of days, but in Paul’s day, his travels were major undertakings which would take weeks or even months. Some people won’t even put themselves out even slightly for the Gospel, and Paul was willing to disrupt his whole life. His life was lived and offered as an example for the believers to follow. His call in 1 Corinthians 11:1 to “imitate me as I imitate Christ” reaches through the centuries to challenge us in our commitment to God. How far are you willing to travel for the sake of the gospel?

In addition to the distances Paul travelled, we also have records of the trials he went through for the sake of the gospel. So, for example, he describes: “far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Thinking about this is all part of ‘counting the cost’.

We read in the gospels that Peter was told he would be taken where he didn’t want to go (John 21:18) “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go”. And in almost the next breath, we read Jesus saying to him, “Follow me” (v19). My point in bringing up this reference is that God will not always lead us into places we want to go.

However: We must NOT twist this into something which is illustrated in this:

In a previous church there was one woman who used to pray “Lord, please don’t send me to the Seychelles!!”. She said it as a joke … we think

Some people have a ridiculous sense of calling which says “if I don’t want to do it, it must be God’s leading”.

So, do we follow the leading of God? Or do we plan our steps?

How Secure

Paul says here that he is planning to stop off at Rome on his way to Spain. There is no evidence Paul ever got there. He did manage to get to Rome, and it is in Rome that He was arrested, imprisoned and ultimately executed. We may make all sorts of plans, and it is not wrong to do that, but we must always be open to the possibility that they will not come to pass, that circumstances will act to prevent it. Note that the future is never secure or fixed. We have a number of insights into Paul’s planning. Some of it comes to pass, some of it … doesn’t.

The Bible talks quite a lot about planning, here are just a couple of examples:

Job says of his life: “My days are past; my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart” (Job 17:11).

Psalm 20:4,5 says this:

May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfil all your plans!
May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!
May the LORD fulfil all your petitions!

One trick to making plans which succeed is found in Psalm 33:11-12: The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
And the very often quoted verse in Proverbs about man making plans comes from a larger context (Proverbs 16:1-9) …

“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.
All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit.
Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.
The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the LORD; be assured, he will not go unpunished.
By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the LORD one turns away from evil.
When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.
The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps”
.

The study of this subject could be a whole book, but I want to make just a few points…

  1. The Bible speaks of the wisdom of making plans and (by implication) the foolishness of not planning at all. However,
  2. The Bible warns against neglecting God in the making of and carrying out of our plans.

So, there are two extremes we must avoid.

  1. (My own weakness). No planning, just let life happen and ‘go with the flow’. Sounds great, doesn’t it? We can even weave spiritual superiority into it: “I don’t plan, I listen to the Spirit and follow His leading!”.
  2. Over-planning, crossing every ’t’ and dotting every ‘i’. This can lead us into a desire and attempt to control every aspect of what happens to us and around us. It shows itself in ‘micromanaging’ and manipulating both people and circumstances.

Suggest a third way: Matthew 6:33-34 says: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”. We plan, and prepare with our heart on the things of God, and we seek His will in all things, but we do not need to fear.

Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have said to his soldiers during the civil war, ‘trust in God, and keep your powder dry’. We should do our bit, and let God do his. In other words, balance planning and trust. Plan for the future and trust in God.

How Much

Paul has a which was made in Macedonia and Achaia for the church in Jerusalem. This is not the only place Paul mentions this gift. Note that 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 also mentions this collection, and goes on to mention Paul’s plans to travel through Macedonia (which he has already done by the time he writes Romans). Note that this dates 1 Corinthians BEFORE Romans. 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 also speak of this gift. Take some time and give attention to the importance of offerings and gifts.

It might seem self-serving for a pastor to preach about offerings and giving from his own pulpit, but actually, there are some serious consequences surrounding this subject and getting it wrong could be disastrous.

I have read blogs and articles and Facebook posts, watched and participated in discussion threads about how much we should give or not in the offerings. I want here to make a few observations and comments.

People often polarise around this issue. The extremes it seems to me are these:

  1. On the one hand, some say we should give a ‘tithe’ of at least 10% as this is commanded in scripture and there is a promise that we will be blessed if we do. Malachi 3:6 is often brought out to support a view that if we do not give at least 10% then we are “robbing God”.
  2. The other side of the ‘discussion’ takes the view we are under the New Covenant and not the Old. We live under grace, not law, and any mention of tithing means you are a legalistic Pharisee trying to place a burden onto people that should have been discarded long ago.

I am painfully aware that for far too many people their perception of churches is that “all they want is your money” (though those same people wouldn’t usually use that measure to criticise Starbucks or the other businesses and organisations, or even the charities they give their money to!)

People sometimes restrict their giving based on perception of how the money they give will be used. If they believe that the church (or anyone else for that matter) will not use the money wisely, then they don’t give. I have heard people say “I do give, but not to the church, I don’t trust them in how they will use it”. My response to them is along the lines of “you trust the church with your spiritual health and that of your family, but not with your money?” that seems like skewed logic to me!

For what it’s worth, I am going to bring some of my thoughts around what the Bible says in the area of giving. Please understand, I am NOT getting at anyone here! Of all the churches I have been in, this is of the most generous that I have come across.

I believe there are a number of principles we can apply to how we use our finances, they are what I want to try to tease out this morning:

Not every offering is acceptable to God: God is far more interested in the giver and his (or her) motives and heart attitudes than He is the gift being given.

Genesis 4:3-5 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favour on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favour. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did (Hebrews 11:4).

Malachi 3:6 says the whole nation is under a curse BECAUSE of the way they are handling their tithes and offerings.

The prophets Jeremiah and Amos are both told by God what He thinks of the people and their offerings:

  1. In Jeremiah 14:11,12 God says to Jeremiah “Do not pray for the well-being of this people. Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry; though they offer burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Instead, I will destroy them with the sword, famine and plague.”
  2. In Amos 5:22 and following, we read God saying: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.”

Psalm 40:6 – 6 Sacrifice and offering you did not desire — but my ears you have opened — burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require

This is echoed in the New Testament. Firstly, we have an account of Jesus watching a poor woman and rich people offering money at the temple.

“And he (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” This speaks to how God views not the gift itself pre-se, but the heart of the giver.

This is further shown in Luke 18:9-14 where a priest who gives his tithe reveals his heart: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Finally, we have a very sobering account about how our hearts and attitudes impact what God thinks of our giving …

Acts 5:1-10, Ananias and Sapphira withheld some of their money and gave. But tried to deceive the church into thinking it was everything they were giving. The result was that they fell under a dreadful judgement – in fact, they died! (Read passage). The point here was not about the amount they gave, but the heart they gave it with.

We must be careful therefore that HOWEVER we give of our money, either in terms of the amount we give, or in terms of what we give it to does not become for us a part of a larger narrative which allows us to tell ourselves how good or righteous we are, this is not seen positively by God.

So. This collection which is spoken of here, and referred to in 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 give us some general rules to consider …

Give regularly :: Paul tells the people in Corinth to “set aside a sum of money” on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2). So the first principle is that when we give it should not be a spasmodic “when I feel flush” or “when I feel like it” kind of thing, it should be a deliberate, conscious, regular action.

Give in proportion to your income :: Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 16:2 and 2 Corinthians 8:12, but he never specifies how much that proportion should be. Many Christians follow the Biblical principle of a tithe (or tenth) of income as a guideline. Some take it and then turn it into a rule to batter people with. I don’t believe that is God’s heart, and I don’t believe He would want us to live under a burden that we would struggle under (notwithstanding what I am about to say about next).

Give generously : (1 Timothy 6:18; 2 Corinthians 8:2-5). Many people give out of their ‘margin’, so as their offering rises and falls with their disposable income. In some cases, they will stop their giving altogether if they want something else they perceive as a need.

In the past, I have been told by people that they haven’t given their offering to the church that week because they’ve given it to some mission organisation or other. If you ‘divert’ your giving from one cause to another, it might seem incendiary to say, but you’re not actually giving the money. The previous beneficiary of your giving is.

But when David was offered Naboth’s vineyard for free to build his altar, he said, “I will not give to God that which costs me nothing” (1 Chronicles 21:24 // 2 Samuel 24:24). An offering which doesn’t cost us something is not actually an offering. Remembering though, from the widow’s offering we’ve already mentioned: the absolute value of the gift is not important to God. A penny from a widow can be more valuable to God than a rich man’s fortune. For some a tenth of their income will be a major sacrifice, for others perhaps more is appropriate.

Give gladly: Giving is a grateful response to God for what He has given us – it should not be a grim duty or chore! In 2 Corinthians 8:8, Paul says “I am not commanding you” in v4 he describes the churches in Macedonia as “pleading” to be allowed to give (they URGENTLY pleaded in fact!), and in v10 he recalls that the Corinthian church was not only the first to give, but the first to have the desire to do so.

(2 Corinthians 9:7) “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver”. I have heard people explain that the word translated cheerful in this particular verse is hilarion, which is the same root as hilarious, which is true, but they then go on to make all sorts of ridiculous statements about how Paul expects us to be ‘hilarious givers’ (laughing uncontrollably as we give and so on). I believe this is BAD interpretation. Paul is not saying we should be rolling in the aisles like lunatics as we give our offerings, but it is an indication of how our hearts should be as we give to the work of God. Let’s just understand it on face value: not to be grumpy or resentful as we give, but to give with a glad and cheerful heart.

Give to benefit others: Paul says in Romans 15:26 that this offering is ‘for the poor’ in Jerusalem. In 2 Corinthians 8:14, he says to the Corinthians about it that “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need”.

In Acts, we read a description of a church where no one was in need …

Acts 4:32: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.

Acts 4:34,35: from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

This speaks to a ‘what will my offering benefit me?’ kind of attitude in our giving. We do not and SHOULD NOT expect or measure whether we’re getting ‘value for our money’ when we give.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of this subject, and there are no end of books written about this subject, some will advocate all sorts of wacky things. Liberation theology for example in its extreme will say that money must be taken from the rich, with force if necessary, and re-distributed among the poor. Prosperity teaching in its extreme says that you can’t out give God, and that He’s no man’s debtor, so if you want to have material prosperity, the key is to give all you possess to the church (usually the one that the preacher is leading!). These are just two extreme takes. You will probably find as many opinions on giving as you will find people!

To finish, I would say to anyone who asks me how much I think they should give, I would quote 2 Corinthians 9:7 which says: “you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion”.

Finally — Prayer

The last thing Paul asks for is that the Romans would pray for him as he travels and ministers. He makes a number of comments about it:

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen”.

  1. Join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that
  2. I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and
  3. that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favourably received by the Lord’s people there, so that
  4. I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed. The God of peace be with you all. Amen.

Prayer is in a very real sense a joining with someone in ministry. When we pray for someone, they are working for the Lord, and we partner with them in that work by praying for them. Ministers are also not only representatives of God, but also of the churches they come from. In Colossians 1:8 Paul describes Epaphras as: “a faithful minister of Christ on our/your behalf” (our/your depends on which translation you have).

Prayer can be made for safety. We believe, I am sure, that the promise of God is not necessarily that we will her protected FROM harm, but rather that He will be with us IN harm. I spoke a little about this a bit when we looked at Romans 8 which says that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We have the prayer of the early church asking God to fill them with great boldness to proclaim the gospel, and we know that all the Apostles (in fact the majority of the early believers) were martyred. But here Paul asks that the Roman pray that he might be delivered from the Jews in Judea. In 2 Thessalonians 3:2, he writes: “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people”. It is perfectly legitimate to pray for protection FROM harm. Especially if we’re praying that for others.

Paul asks that the offering he takes to Jerusalem might be favourably received. Interesting isn’t it? I have noticed over the years that people are far more ready to help than they are to accept help. ‘Accepting charity’ as they see it is viewed as a weakness. We don’t know WHY he asks for this particular prayer to be made, though with our knowledge of human nature, it seems to me that it is at least a possibility that pride might prevent the believers in Jerusalem from ‘favourably receiving’ the gift.

Finally, Paul’s hope is that he might meet with the Romans once again and be refreshed by them. We must never underestimate the value of being a group of people who will refresh and encourage people simply by being with them.

Finally, another blessing Paul gives — the BEST one he can as well : “The God of peace be with you all”. I’ll leave that particular blessing with you this week.