During this Advent season, I want to spend some time in this series of messages working through a theology of Christmas presents. Quite a number of you are going to be spending quite a bit of time on this aspect of your Christmas celebrations, and so—as Christians who seek to bring every aspect of our lives into submission to the Word—how should we think about Christmas presents? We will need to consider in turns the ground of our giving, the nature of giving, the nature of receiving, and the good of the material world.
“Now he that ministereth seed to the sower both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness;) Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God. For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God; Whiles by the experiment of this ministration they glorify God for your professed subjection unto the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal distribution unto them, and unto all men; And by their prayer for you, which long after you for the exceeding grace of God in you. Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Cor. 9:10–15).
Summary of the Text
Now in this part of his letter, the apostle Paul is speaking a benediction for the Corinthians. He asks that the God who provides seed for the farmers would bless the ministrations of the Corinthians (v. 10). He asks that God would provide them with food, and multiply the effects of their generosity (v. 10). He wants this to result in abundance for them so that they might be equipped to give more, with the result of even more thanksgiving (v. 11). The reason is that this kind of giving has two benefits—it meets the need and it results in thanksgiving to God (v. 12). As the recipients approve of and rejoice in what they (and others) receive, they are glad for this tangible evidence of the submission of the Corinthians to the gospel of Christ (v. 13). In return for the gift, the recipients pray for and long for the donors as they see the surpassing grace of God resting upon them (v. 14). And then Paul anchors his benediction by referring to the ground of all generosity, which is the generosity of God toward us, in the gift of His Son—the unspeakable gift (v. 15). All our gifts, of whatever kind, are to be grounded here.
Different Kinds of Donations
By the grace of God, you own or possess what you have. Now the Scriptures describe for us different sorts of circumstances under which we give some of it away. And this giving would include anything of monetary value going out from you and with nothing coming back immediately in return. In other words, we are talking about an expenditure that is not “buying” something.
For our purposes, we can divide this up into three categories—tithes, offerings, and celebrations. Christmas presents would obviously fall into the third category.
The tithe is a gift that is not discretionary. In other words, it is God’s tribute, assigned to us by Him. Contrary to the assumption of many believers, the tithe is not a “Mosaic thing.” Abraham tithed to Melchizedek before there was a Mosaic code (Gen. 14:20). Moses certainly included it in his law, the same way other ancient practices were included, practices like circumcision or animal sacrifice (Dt. 14:28). And then, in the New Testament, Paul tells us that those in Christian ministry should be supported in the same way that the Levitical priests were supported, which is to say, by means of the tithe (1 Cor. 9:13-14). Paul describes how the priests were supported in the OT, and then says even so, in the same way, Christian ministry should be supported.
So if you look carefully at the Scriptures, you will see that lawful recipients of the tithe are ministers of the Word (1 Cor. 9:14), the poor (Dt. 14:29), and the merchants who provide you with the goods for your celebrations before the Lord (Dt. 14 22-29).
Scriptures frequently describe the giving of the tithe in terms of seed going into the ground, and seed that goes into the ground is the ordained means of obtaining a harvest or a crop (Mal. 3:10). To say that the tithe is a mandatory gift is simply to say that God requires us to put a certain amount of seed corn into the ground. He cares for us. Otherwise, we would tend to eat our seed corn.
But once we learn that money is seed corn, the wise among us want to figure out how to give more. But we do not give to get, period. We give to get in order to be enabled to give some more. “The liberal soul shall be made fat: And he that watereth shall be watered also himself” (Prov. 11:25).
And Paul encourages the Corinthians to apply the logic of the tithe to their thinking about their free will offerings.
“But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6–7).
And so we come to the custom of celebrating through gifts. We already saw some indication of this in the Dt. 14 passage, where God requires what might be called a party tithe. But it appears that God has embedded deep within mankind an impulse to give gifts when celebrating. This is even the case with wicked men (Rev. 11:10). But impulse is also found among the righteous. What happened when the Jews were delivered from a great threat in the book of Esther?
“As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22).
The Unspeakable Gift
And so now we find the basis for all our Christmas shopping. Like all Christian generosity, it seeks to mimic the generosity of God, grounding our giving in the fact that God has given so generously to us. “freely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). It shares this feature with our tithes and with our offerings. And, at the same time, all our Christmas gifts are also a celebration of that great gift that was given to us. We celebrate the Incarnation—the prerequisite gift that enabled God to give us the even greater gift of the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus was born to die, and all of this—birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension—was given for us men and for our salvation.
Provided we remember why we are doing it, it is entirely fitting that we give Christmas gifts to one another.