What about giving? In Acts 20:35, the Apostle Paul quotes Jesus as his closing word of encouragement to the Ephesians saying "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" Paul was departing for Jerusalem to preach the gospel, and he stopped at Ephesus, a church he had planted and where he had ministered longer than any other place. He called for the elders of the church and gave one of the most impassioned sermons in Scripture. Yet, the crescendo is this quote from Jesus, a quotation not mentioned in the Gospels, and was by direct word from Jesus, or, perhaps, had come to him from Peter or another of the Twelve. The climactic word? “It is better to give than to receive.” Do you find that a little odd? Surely, one might ponder, Paul could have given a more inspiring word to that going away gathering than “a stewardship” admonition. Is there something more in these few words than merely a concern about giving in the Church?

3 Points to Understanding the Meaning of “it is better to give than to receive.”

1. The Apostle Paul used the message of giving to encourage the Church.

The Apostle Paul gives a great gift to the Ephesians as he is about to depart from them. His gift is to remind them of the blessing of generosity. Isn't it interesting that one of the last things that he says is to remind them to give? This was not a self-serving reminder (“Now, you all send in your pledge cards, you hear!”). No, Saint Paul did not ask for money. Indeed, he talked about how he had earned his own way. However, the great apostle of the heart set free was concerned about the souls of the Ephesian Christians. In an affluent community like Ephesus, the natural human impulse is to accumulate. "To receive is better to give" is the base attitude of not only an unregenerate heart but a believer in the midst of sanctification. So, it is interesting that Paul uses his final words to the Ephesian to encourage a spirit getting.

2. The Apostle Paul used a message of giving that he had received from the Lord Jesus.

If you have a Bible or a Bible mobile device that presents Jesus' words in red you will see that this famous statement on “giving is better than receiving” is attributed to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. However, there is no Gospel record of Jesus uttering these words. Indeed, without this utterance by Paul, we would not know that Jesus gave this teaching. So, did Paul make it up? Well, of course not. The Apostle John tells us that the works of Jesus, and he intends by his mention of “books” to mean both words and deeds, exceed what John and his colleagues have recorded: “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen” (John 21:25). This statement does not intend to give credence to apocryphal works about Jesus, composed by those who were not eyewitness (and, thus, not breathed forth by the Holy Spirit), but rather to emphasize that the message of John (and by extrapolation, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) provides all that is necessary to establish the person and nature of our Lord Jesus and to provide precisely what is needed for you to believe. The old Puritan Presbyterian standard commentator, Matthew Henry, put it thus:

"If it be asked why the gospels are not larger, it may be answered, It was not because they had exhausted their subject; [Instead] It was not needful to write more; It was not possible to write all; [and] It was not advisable to write much."1

The Apostle Paul, as authoritative spokesman of the Lord, is a remarkable exception to the other apostles. He says that he is the last of the apostles and the least of the apostles (1 Cor. 15:9). However, he is remarkable also for being taught directly by the resurrected Christ. For we read, “I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1); and “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). The other disciples, also, considered Paul’s writings to be that of the Lord (2 Peter 3:16). So, while these words were not recorded in other parts of the Scripture they were spoken by Jesus to Paul and they are completely compatible with the rest of the teaching of Scripture.

One might surmise that Paul chose this revelation from Jesus to more emphatically emphasize his own personal concern for the Ephesians. It is like saying, “If there is just one thing I would say to you to help you in the very areas where I see problems, it is this—as Jesus said—‘it is better to give than to receive.’”

3. The Apostle Paul used the message of giving as a way to teach other spiritual lessons.

The larger context of Paul’s teaching in Acts 20 points to a deeply spiritual message that uses his experiences, lessons, and history of planting the church, to cultivate spiritual fruit in the Ephesians. So, too, Paul’s quotation of Jesus that “giving is better than receiving” is not a name-it-and-claim-it formula for self-promotion or privatized prosperity, but is, rather, a truth that opens up other truths to heal the pathologies of the human soul. The matter of giving is a “gateway” teaching into a more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of the soul. So, Paul used a message of Jesus to deal with presenting matters—perhaps, a lack of priority of missions to other churches or areas where the gospel was needed—that, if followed, would, also, bring healing to other areas of the Ephesians’ lives.

So, let us ask the question, how is it better to give than to receive?”

3 Practical Reasons Why it Is Better to Give Than to Receive

The call to give is an invitation to a work of the Holy Spirit in other parts of one’s life. Let us consider three reasons why it is better to give than to receive.

1. It is better to give than to receive because giving liberates us from a privatized faith.

It is better to give than to receive because giving releases us from the isolation of self. To receive something is a privatized act.

When we receive a gift from someone else—of money, goods, or even the gift of encouragement—we experience at minimum a sense of appreciation and often a time of great joy and comfort. No one would want to miss out on the gift of love, or the gift of support when we need it! But that is not what Paul is concerned with, in Jesus’ statement. Receiving is good. However, receiving is a pleasant joy that is experienced, mostly, in isolation. In receiving, I experience the blessing. There is nothing wrong with such a response. Indeed, we are all recipients of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. 

Yet, in assessing, diagnosing, and treating the spiritual ills of the Ephesians, Jesus, through Paul, taught that as good as receiving is, the giving is even better. Why? Whereas, receiving is often personal, giving leads to joy with others. If God wanted the Ephesians to experience the joy of the Lord in community, He would call them to know the joy of giving. Paul taught the Ephesian to give to those in the community who were poor and hungry and in need. In doing so, they become part of something larger than themselves. They become a true community.

The command for us to give is not merely to support local ministry, foreign missions, and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Jesus is concerned with your growth in grace. To give is to experience being a part of a movement that is bigger than you are. To give is to experience the liberation from a privatized religion into a global movement of Christian faith, and this opens up our hearts for even greater spiritual blessings.

2. It is better to give than to receive because this is an imitation of Christ.

The Bible says that Jesus did not cling to His divine privileges in heaven, but He left His royal robes of kingship to come to earth and take up the form of a man (without ever ceasing to be God). The passage in Philippians 2, like Acts 20:35, is related to our giving of ourselves to others to imitate Jesus and, thus, become more fully integrated into the motif of Christ: the cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and the glorious and certain hope of a new heaven and a new earth. Note the breadth and depth of this teaching and the timeline, from eternity past to eternity future:

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:3-11)

The essential nature of the incarnation is one of giving. Thomas à Kempis wrote the classic, the imitation of Christ. In that remarkable book, which I've used to my own devotion, Thomas à Kempis demonstrates how the imitation of Christ causes believers to begin to look more like the life of Jesus. We began to take on the family resemblances of our Lord. Giving is, therefore, part of growth in Christ. To withhold, to only receive from others, is to thwart the Spirit-controlled growth in the likeness of Christ. So, it is better to give than to receive because to give is to imitate Christ and thus to become more like him in our lives.

3. It is better to give than to receive because giving is an act of worship.

To give not only brings us into the life of community and away from the isolation of selfishness; it not only is an imitation of Christ and stirs one to God's mission in the world, but Giving is a supreme act of worship. Indeed, I wrote a book on this for my own congregation which was subsequently used in others. My encouragement to them was that joyful generosity would more nearly free them from the distractions of the world to worship in spirit and in truth. The essence of worship is giving: giving praise, giving thanks, giving our supplications and needs to the Lord. So, to give away one’s possessions—oneself—is a defiant act in the presence of a fallen nature. This happy defiance, however, cultivates a soul that is free to prioritize Christ; a will that is more nearly bent to grace-induced obedience, and, thus, to enter into a posture of total worship.

Giving is an act of worship because it ushers us into a mission that is larger than ourselves, a life of discipleship that is shaped on the life of Jesus and cultivates a lifetime of doxology.

The goal of giving is altogether related to the worship and the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ in our lives. And that is why giving is better than receiving. The thing is, because of all of these truths, you will end up receiving far more than you could ever give. To receive by giving is the powerful paradox of lavish generosity. To die to self is to experience true life. To forgive is to be forgiven. In all of these things, manifestations of the single gospel truth of God’s gift to us, we see that giving out of our receiving the gift of Christ—His life given as the righteousness we need, His death given as atonement for the sin we have committed—is just the power of the cross.

Note:

1. As quoted in Lange, John Peter, and Philip Schaff. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008.

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Dr. Michael A. MiltonMICHAEL A. MILTON (Ph.D., University of Wales; MPA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; MDIV, Knox Theological Seminary; Cert. in Higher Education Teaching, Harvard University) serves as the Provost and James Ragsdale Chair of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine College and Seminary. A Presbyterian minister (PCA, ARP), Milton has penned more than thirty books, hundreds of articles in journals, magazines, opinion columns, and newspapers. As president of the D. James Kennedy Institute and Faith for Living, Milton has served as a public theologian. His work has been cited on numerous national media outlets as he provides historic Christian insights into faith and life in a changing world. Dr. Milton's record of ministry includes seminary chancellor, president of three seminaries, senior minister of one of America's historic churches, founder of three congregations, and a Christian academy. A composer and artist, Mike and Mae Milton reside in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Learn more at michaelmilton.org/about. [from a press release by McCain& Associates.]


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