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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

God's Indescribable Gift

In this second letter of Paul to the church at Corinth, chapters 8 and 9 go together. They are written on the topic of giving. Chapter 8 has a heading in the NIV of ‘the collection for the Lord’s people’. This is exactly the same heading that is used to cover the first three verses of chapter 16 of Paul’s first letter to this same church.

In that first letter, Paul is instructing the church on the best way for them to collect money for the church in Jerusalem that was really struggling. One of the factors in this struggle was an ongoing famine. The believers in Jerusalem needed the wider church to give them financial support. Paul was planning to either visit these churches himself or to send others to collect a gift of money. He instructs the church to have an ongoing effort of saving, or setting aside, in order to have the funds readily available at the required time.

From what is written by Paul in this second letter, the church in Corinth had evidently listened to Paul’s instruction and followed it. In fact, they had committed themselves to saving, and had promised Paul that they would have a considerable gift to give when the time came. Now, Paul is reminding them of what they had promised. Those that were tasked with collecting and distributing the church’s gift were on their way. Paul wanted to be sure that everything was ready as promised.

Was this because Paul didn’t trust the Corinthian believers? What really stands out in these two chapters, is Paul’s commitment to the church. He knew that their intentions had been good. He knew that, in love to the Lord’s people, they had promised to do something of real significance. He tells them that he is proud of them, has confidence in them, and has even boasted about their willing spirit to others. He doesn’t want them to be embarrassed. Paul knows that our good intent can quickly decline.

Some of us may have decided upon a course of good intention over Christmas. We know the difficulty that January brings. We’ve put on 9 pounds in 2 weeks and now have to re-join our diet club of choice for a few difficult months to right our wrongs. This year it’s all going to be different! We are just going to eat normal portions, forsake Christmas pudding, and avoid the pleadings that seem to come from the purple-wrapped, nutty delight in the Quality Street tin, and just munch on celery as we enjoy our daily ten mile stroll.

Then, someone asks whether anyone is up for a mince pie with cream. We hear ourselves saying, ‘Yes, please, if there’s enough to spare, I’ll have two!’ Paul is aware that good intention is easy. Staying committed to such intentions is not so easy. Paul wants to keep the believers at Corinth on track. He reminds them (v.12) that service to the Lord’s people, in their need, is an expression of thanks to God. Also, he tells them (v.14) that this endeavour, when followed through, has a power to move hearts. It is as if Paul is saying to them, ‘Are you motivated enough to want to move hearts by your generosity?’ Paul has already used the example of other believers to spur the Corinthians on. He mentions the Macedonian churches at the start of 2 Corinthians 8. They were experiencing ‘extreme poverty.’ Despite this, they had shown ‘rich generosity’ towards other needy believers. They were a great example to use. But Paul saves the best example until last. To finish this section he uses the example of God himself – ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

What is this gift of God? Well it’s related to Christmas. We see this in prophecy. It is not a surprise gift but one that was promised beforehand. In those well- known words of Isaiah 9:6, we read, ‘for unto us a child is born, to us a son is given...’ And some of the most well-known words in the New Testament contain similar things. John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son... Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, is God’s gift. And the motivation to give was love. This theme is continued in 1 John 4:10, ‘...he loved us and sent his Son... But why is God’s gift described as indescribable? Is it even possible to describe something as indescribable? What does this mean? It appears that the bible translators have spent a lot of time considering this word. The original Greek word, when it is written using characters from our alphabet (transliterated) is anekdiēgētos. It is a rare word which makes it harder to understand, because the appearance of it in other ancient writings is very limited. In fact, it is only used once in the whole Greek New Testament. In the various English translations there are a very limited selection of words used to translate this Greek word. I looked at fourteen of the most widely used. Thirteen use only three different words. Those words are ‘indescribable’, as here in the NIV, ‘unspeakable’, as in the AV, and ‘inexpressible’, as in the ESV.

So, is the bible saying that it is impossible to describe God’s gift of Jesus Christ; that it is unspeakable, in the sense that we cannot speak about it? No, in fact, we see this illustrated in the passage that Tim based his message on last week. In Luke 2:38 we have the record of Anna the prophet. She came up to Mary and Joseph and ‘gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.’ Clearly, Anna was able to speak about God’s gift.

Whereas most translations use a single word to translate anekdiēgētos, the NLT uses several words. It says this, ‘Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!’ It isn’t that we cannot speak about God’s gift of Jesus Christ. It’s that we don’t have the words, or the ability, to fully describe the wonder of what God has done through his Son. We will always fall short in our description. Christians can often be troubled about what they perceive to be their poor, weak words, when it comes to speaking about their faith to others. We might think, ‘I just cannot adequately express what he means to me’. Well, be encouraged. You aren’t alone. No-one can. Take the weak words that you have and go with them.

We may have received a gift from a loved one this Christmas that we are really pleased with. Will we have received something that was beyond words? I think not. God’s gift of Jesus is like no other, and it is a gift that is complete. Who would want to receive a gift that was not complete? Would you be pleased if you received a single glove, or one shoe, as a Christmas present? Or a bicycle with no wheels? We would not be pleased to receive such things because they aren’t complete. Many of us have come across the board game called ‘Trivial Pursuit’. It comes in a lovely teal box. Inside is a board on which the game is played and several playing pieces which have six wedge shaped cut-outs. It has wedges, or cheeses, which are won during gameplay by answering questions from various categories. Then, there are the all-important questions and the relevant answers. Let’s say that I unwrapped a present on Christmas Day. Inside I find the Trivial Pursuit box. I am really pleased. I have played the game before and enjoyed it. Later on, I open the box. It is empty. How disappointed would I be? Very disappointed, because the gift is not complete. Something is lacking. God’s gift of Jesus Christ is complete, though. Sin, and its consequence, asks serious questions of mankind. Jesus brought all the answers to those questions. And Jesus brought many more things besides. Let’s go back to Anna the prophet. ‘She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.’ Part of the package, which was gifted by God in Jesus Christ, is redemption.

Tim mentioned this last week. Redemption is the act of regaining possession of something by clearing a debt. Jesus came into this world to pay back to God everything that his people owed. In the Garden of Eden life was lost. It was lost because of sin. Death was introduced into the world. Jesus pays our debt and buys back life. He brings everlasting life. It is included in God’s gift. We read this in Romans 6:23, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ And in 1 John 5:11 we read, ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.’ What else is included? Well, I have a few texts to read:- But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 15:57) God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness... through the one man, Jesus Christ!’ (Romans 5:17) Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4:12) Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38) ...the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:7-8) He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32)

What a list! God’s Son gifted to us, along with God’s Holy Spirit and the grace of faith to believe that we have been redeemed, saved from sin, given the victory, made right with Jehovah God, in the knowledge that we have eternal life. And, if that wasn’t enough, we are promised all things that we will ever need to follow our Lord and Saviour. What a gift! How perfect and complete? No wonder human language falls short! It is unspeakable and indescribable. Let us then express what we can and join with Paul in giving thanks to God.

We will finish in Bethlehem among the sheep in the fields surrounding the town. It was the first Christmas, when God’s gift, ‘the Messiah, the Lord’, was given that very night. When this gift was heralded to those shepherds, two other precious things were included. There was joy and there was peace. An angel appeared to tell them of ‘good news that will cause great joy’. Then a great company of angels joined the celebration and said, ‘‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Luke 2:8-15) Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, may you know joy and peace this Christmas as you consider God’s gift which is ‘too wonderful for words’. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.’



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