The Greatness of the Saviour
What’s so great about the gospel? One way of addressing that huge question is to look at the greatness of our Saviour and the greatness of our salvation. The gospel is great because it sets before us a great Saviour. And it is great because the salvation that comes to us in and through that Saviour is a very great salvation.
In this article our focus is on the first of these matters, the greatness of the Saviour. Specifically, it is on how our Saviour impoverished himself in order to enrich the desperately poor: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
In thinking our way into this, we begin with some of the movements or shifts that take place when God in his mercy saves us. It isn’t a little thing that happens to us when we become Christians. We experience the spiritual equivalent of seismic shifts. The Apostle John, for example, says that love for our brothers is a sign that we have “passed from death to life” (I John 3:14). The Apostle Peter speaks about God calling us “out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Peter 2:9). Or think of Paul’s commission, given to him by Jesus on the Damascus road. What was he sent to do? To open men’s eyes so that they would turn “from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). Seismic shifts! From death to life. From darkness to light. From the power of Satan to God. And now here in 2 Corinthians 8:9 we have another: from poverty to riches.
“For your sakes” Christ “became poor”, says Paul. And here is the reason: “so that you through his poverty might become rich.” There is something implied here to which many are blind: in and of ourselves we are poor. Whatever we may have in material terms (and most of us have a very great deal), apart from Christ we are poor. Why? Because we have no peace with God. We have no prospect of heaven. We have no enjoyment of God’s friendship. We have no delight in God himself. We have no ability to escape his wrath, no power to rid ourselves of sin.
We speak about the “haves” and the “have nots”. Poverty is defined in terms of what people don’t have. That being so, who more poor than those who have no peace with God and no prospect of heaven? You may have everything you could ever wish for in terms of possessions and friends and health and money and job satisfaction and leisure time. You may consider yourself to be very well off. But if you have no peace with God, no sure hope of heaven, no pleasure in God, no power to escape his anger, you are poor indeed. By nature that is everyone’s position. In and of ourselves, as sinners, we have nothing.
And then this great shift, this tremendous movement, takes place. Christ in his mercy saves us. What does he do? He makes us rich. From being as poor as poor can be we become as rich as rich can be. For now we have all those things of which before we were utterly bereft. Peace with God. The certainty of heaven. The gift of the Holy Spirit. Joy in the Lord. Eternal life. A Christ who has become to us wisdom and sanctification and redemption. You see what Christ does in saving sinners? He takes the spiritually impoverished and makes them marvellously and eternally rich.
In our text Paul traces this dramatic shift to its origins. How has it happened? Paul’s answer is: through an even more dramatic shift in the opposite direction. We have moved from poverty to riches because Christ our Saviour did the opposite. He journeyed from riches to poverty: “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor”. Poor ones have become rich because the rich one became poor. And therein lies his greatness – the greatness of self-sacrificing love, the greatness of astonishing grace.
The contrast described is between his pre-existent, pre-incarnate state and all that was involved in becoming and being flesh. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). What did that entail? Self-impoverishment. The rich one becoming poor.
Let’s glance at some of the indicators that it was so, noticing to begin with,
The whole way in which he lived
He came into our midst as one of us – flesh just as we are. How did he live? Within the constraints, within the limitations, and in all the dependentness of our humanity.
It must be said (and said emphatically) that he did not cease to be what he eternally was. There was no shedding of divine attributes in assuming our humanity. “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9) – nothing less than that. “He did not become poor”, writes Professor John Murray, “by ceasing to be what he was, but … by becoming what he was not. He became poor by addition, not by subtraction”, adding “manhood to his immutable and eternal Godhood” (Collected Writings, Vol. 3, p.231). It’s in the acceptance of the conditions of this manhood – its constraints, its limitations, its dependentness – that we get our first glimpse of his impoverishment.
We can illustrate this from his relation to his fellow human beings. His mother, for example. All through the nine months that Jesus was forming in her womb he was as dependent on his mother for nourishment and life as every other child in the womb. So it was afterwards. “He took the breast”, says Luther. “His mother nursed him as any other child is nursed.” Isn’t that an extraordinary thing? The Creator being nursed by one of his own creatures? There was no need of that in his pre-existent state! Then, he was utterly independent of his creatures. Not any more.
Or think of his adoptive father, Joseph. What is he doing? He’s got his son Jesus with him in the carpenter’s shop and he’s teaching him the trade. How to make things. How to fix things. How to use this tool and that tool. Isn’t that amazing? This is the Creator who in his pre-incarnate state made everything and needed no-one to teach him anything. And now he has entered so fully into the human condition that he needs to be taught the skills of a craftsman – just as Joseph had to be taught before him.
His acceptance of the conditions of manhood can be illustrated further from his relation to his own divine nature. This indeed brings us to the heart of the matter. There was no shedding of any of his divine attributes. That would have been impossible. But in order to enter fully into our human situation there was a voluntary suspending of the use of some of those attributes.
He is the omniscient one, for example, and yet he humbly submits to being nescient. He has to learn things. He has to be taught by his parents, to be taught in the synagogue, to be taught by his Father in heaven. He is the omnipotent one and yet he humbly submits to being weak and vulnerable. He becomes dependent on food, he needs to be clothed, he needs to be taken in early childhood to Egypt because Herod is threatening his life. In the glory of his pre-incarnate state it was all so different. There he knew nothing of the nescience and vulnerability and weakness inseparable from true humanity. By his incarnation he came to know them fully.
His material circumstances
There are lots of very wealthy people in the world. Lots of people who have much. Yet how small a part of the world even the wealthiest individual owns! Contrast that with the Lord Jesus. He owns the lot! “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it; the world and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). It all belongs to him. And not only this world but all worlds – all the vast unexplored regions of space. They are all his now and they were so before he became flesh. For he made them. He is their Creator, and therefore their owner, and therefore immeasurably rich in material possessions.
Nor is that the whole picture. To the wealth of ownership we must add the wealth of enjoyment. I think of the lovely words of Thomas Gray in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard about all the beautiful things in creation that no-one ever sees or enjoys:
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen;
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
But Christ sees the gems. Christ sees the flowers. Christ smells the fragrance. He sees a multitude of things in creation that people either seldom or never see. All through the period from the beginning of time to the moment of the incarnation they were present to his gaze and giving him pleasure – the things he had made, the things that were his.
Then he became flesh and made his dwelling among us. What a difference! The world did not cease to be his. Since he was God it was still his possession – in its entirety. But as a man, as a human being, how little he could call his own! He was born, says the Shorter Catechism, in a “low condition”. His parents were poor. When Mary and Joseph presented him in the Temple after his birth, the sacrifice they offered was the one that the poor people offered: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). Their son was poor as well. In the course of his ministry he could say, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). At his death his possessions amounted to five articles of clothing. When he was buried it was in someone else’s tomb. You see how poor he became? This is the one who as God possessed all things. Yet as man, next to nothing.
As a third indicator of how poor he became, notice,
How he was treated
“He was rich”, says Paul, referring, as we have seen, to life prior to the incarnation. One of the elements of that richness was unquestionably how he was treated. I’m thinking here particularly of the angels and those saints who had entered glory prior to the crucifixion. How did they treat him? They loved him. They adored him. They worshipped him. They served him with all their hearts. The pre-incarnate Lord was rich in adoration, in love, in worship.
Nor on earth, in the days of his flesh, was he without these. He had taken a nature that needed the love and the sympathy and the friendship and the companionship of its own kind. And in the kindness of God these things were not denied him. He had loving parents. Luke tells us that in Nazareth, “he grew in favour with men” (2:52). When he entered upon his public ministry he choose twelve to be “with him” (Mark 3:14), and for the most part these men truly loved him. To three he was especially close – to Peter, James and John – whilst one of these, John, is singled out as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:7). He had a very special place in the hearts of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And when toward the end he needed the companionship of men who were thoroughly in sympathy with his mission and who understood how necessary it was to go to the cross, his Father, on an unforgettable night, sent Moses and Elijah who appeared to him in glorious splendour and spoke with him about the departure he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, how different his lot on earth from what it had been in heaven! For among his friends he met with incomprehension and hostility when the talk began to centre on the cross. And when it came time for him to bear the cross one of them betrayed him, another denied him, and the eleven forsook him and fled. He had gone around doing good, healing all who were under the power of the devil because God was with him. Yet how bitterly he was hated and to what vile treatment was he subjected at the end!
It had all been so different in heaven. No-one had despised and rejected him in heaven. No-one had refused to worship him. No-one had spat in his face. No-one had mocked him or made wicked attempts on his life. You see how he impoverished himself in coming into our world? Certainly there were those who loved him to the very end. In the Garden of Gethsemane an angel came and strengthened him. But what an exchange he had made! The society of holy angels and of the spirits of just men made perfect, for the society of imperfect friends, of devils, and of the wickedest of men.
Finally, and climactically, we see how he impoverished himself when we look at him on
The Cross of Calvary
I’m thinking here especially of what Calvary meant for his relationship with his Father in heaven. The pre-incarnate Christ was God. Not God in solitary splendour but God in the mystery of Trinitarian life, God in relationship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. There is but one living and true God. But within the oneness there is threeness and, therefore, relationships. And what relationships! The divine persons know each other perfectly. They love each other devotedly. It was the greatest element of Christ’s pre-incarnate richness – the enjoyment of the love of the Father and of the Spirit, the unfathomable depths of delight that the persons of the Godhead have in one another.
Then comes the cross. And not for one moment does the love of the Father cease. This was his beloved Son, before Calvary was in the picture, and he remains his beloved Son all the way through the final ordeal. But on the cross the enjoyment and the comfort of that love are profoundly interrupted. For Christ is there as a substitute for sinners. He is there in our place. He is there as “sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). And it brings on him the judgment of God. It makes him a curse for us. That’s why it is dark at Calvary. That’s why at last that terrible cry of pain and bewilderment rings out, “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). What has happened? He has become as poor as it was possible for him to become. He has undergone the unimaginable loss of God. In some mysterious and incomprehensible sense God is no longer there. And it is all so that we, through this self-impoverishment, might be made rich in God’s eternal and unbroken friendship.
What, then, should be our response to this great grace? Or to put it another way, what is this great Saviour to be to us?
A Saviour to adore
We know the story well, many of us from Sunday School days. In his pride and folly King Nebuchadnezzar looked at the magnificent city of Babylon and said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built … by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). And God had to teach him a painful lesson in humility. The only reason he was so rich was because the God of heaven had made him rich. Everything that had made Babylon the magnificent city that it was and had made Nebuchadnezzar the powerful king that he was had come from God.
So it is always. There are no such things, no such beings, as self-made men. And men don’t always see that. It is so natural for us in the pride of our hearts to congratulate ourselves on the successes we have gained, on the riches we have accumulated, on the businesses we have built. But the glory and praise are never ours. There would be no rags-to-riches stories were it not for the gifting and the overruling and the blessing and the forbearance of the Most High. For whatever we possess in material terms the glory belongs entirely to him.
So also in regard to the greatest of all riches – our spiritual riches, the riches of our great salvation. How have we come to possess such wealth? The Bible’s answer is emphatic: not because of anything we have done. Nor because of anything any mere man has done on our behalf. It is wholly and solely on account of “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” who, “though he was rich”, yet for our sakes “became poor”, so that we “through his poverty might become rich”. We owe all our wealth to him. It is only because of him that we have gone from extreme poverty to being incalculably rich. And when we think what it cost him, what it meant for him to make the opposite exchange of riches for poverty – here is a Saviour truly to adore, to thank, to honour, to serve, to worship, to love, a Saviour whose heart to gladden.
A Saviour to preach
The question being addressed in this article is, What’s so great about the gospel? The answer of our text is – it’s a prosperity gospel! We preach a Saviour who makes people wealthy. And we don’t just say that he might to do that. He will! Wealthy beyond our wildest dreams!
Now of course we are not talking about perishable, uncertain, unequally divided material wealth. To promise that would be folly and cruelty. That would be to preach nonsense.
Nevertheless it is a prosperity gospel that we preach. Jesus is a Saviour who makes sinners rich. What a beautiful echo of it we hear in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Come … you who have no money, come buy and eat!” He is speaking to the poor. “Come buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good and your soul will delight in the richest of fare” (55:1-2). Isn’t that our message? A free salvation to one and all! Riches for the poor! Plenty for those who have nothing! We offer people the best of riches. The most enduring of riches. Riches that the world can never give and of which neither the world, nor the flesh, nor the devil can ever rob us. Peace with God. Eternal life. And all because of the grace of our Lord Jesus in becoming poor for us.
A Saviour to imitate
We need in closing to ask the question, why did Paul feel the need, at this point in his letter, to tell his readers in Corinth about the self-impoverishment of the Saviour? It was in order to stir them up to give generously to a collection that was being made for poverty-stricken believers in Jerusalem.
Things in Corinth had got off to a great start, but then for some reason zeal for the collection had flagged. Paul’s design in chapters eight and nine is to stir them up again to generosity. He does it in several ways. At the beginning of the chapter he appeals to the fine example set by the Macedonian believers who, though very poor, had given to the collection with remarkable generosity. Paul also appeals to what was true of the Corinthians themselves. They excelled in so many other respects. Let them excel in the grace of generosity! And then – and this is the supreme argument – he appeals to the magnificent, awe-inspiring self-giving of their Saviour Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (8:9). He gave up so much for us, the desperately poor. And we, in imitation of him, are to gladly sacrifice for the sake of others.
The very practical teaching of our text, then, is that we are to look at our giving in the light of Jesus’ self-giving. Our giving is to be in response to his giving. Since he gave up so much for us – to make us rich – we, in turn, ought to be willing to give generously to the needs of others. He is a Saviour, in other words, to imitate. “Make your decisions about giving”, says Paul, “in the light of Jesus’ self-giving for you.”
And of course it is not just to the giving of our money that the apostle’s teaching applies. It applies to the giving of ourselves. He gave himself for us. We, in turn, should give ourselves to him. Our bodies as living sacrifices. Our time, our talents, our energy, our very lives in his service. It is the only fitting response to such a great Saviour. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”