Okay, pop quiz. Which of the following sayings is the only one found in the Bible?
A. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
B. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
C. “God helps those who help themselves.”
D. “A fool and his money are soon parted.”
The first one is certainly true: God is ever at work, and his ways are often a mystery to us. But the phrase is not to be found in Scripture. The last one also makes sense, and fits nicely with much of what is said in the book of Proverbs. But no, that particular bit of wisdom is not in our Bibles either.
Many believe that the third one is in the Bible — or at least “biblical” in some vague sense — and use it to justify doing what they wanted to do anyway. In spirit, however, the saying runs counter to the only one of the four that actually is in the Bible: B, which the apostle Paul attributes to Jesus (Acts 20:35).
Unfortunately, other than this text, there’s no record that Jesus ever said it. Here, we have to remember what John said at the end of his gospel: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did (and said!); if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25, NRSV).
The world of the New Testament was not one filled with books and people who could read; it was a largely oral culture. The gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus and the birth of the church. What the first Christians knew about Jesus they either knew firsthand through experience or secondhand through story. This saying of Jesus may not have been written down anywhere, but Paul knew it as other believers did — as part of an oral tradition passed from one group of believers to the next.
Paul quotes the saying as part of his farewell to the leaders of the Ephesian church, who have come to the city of Miletus to meet with him one last time. As we’ve seen, Paul largely does two things in his final words to them. First, he warns them of the people who will trouble them not only from outside the church, but from inside: they will be like wolves among sheep, preying on the weak.
Second, he repeatedly points them to the example he has set during the three years they’ve known him. He has endured crushing trials but persevered in preaching the gospel. He has worked at hard manual labor to support himself and his companions. He has never coveted the things that others in his position might have taken for granted.
Then he concludes with these words:
In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
Who knows in what context Jesus might have spoken those words? But it hardly matters, for the saying is an apt summary of how Jesus lived. I’m reminded here of the breathless astonishment expressed in a hymn sung by early believers: the Lord Jesus
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)
From the very beginning, the way of Jesus was the way of humility and lowliness. The God of the universe took on mortal flesh and an itinerant life of poverty and powerlessness. He let human authorities torture and kill him.
For the sake of others. He was the very embodiment of the Father’s love.
Let’s face it: we, as human beings, can be a rather selfish lot. We often want religion to serve our ends rather than God’s. The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” can support an ethic of self-reliance: Don’t just sit back and wait for God to do something; take some initiative yourself! But it can also morph into a religious rationalization for greed, as in the many and various expressions of the prosperity gospel. Prosperity is taken as proof of God’s blessing on a particular ministry or course of action. And hey — if God is blessing it, why not take things even further?
This is a distortion of the very notion of blessing. It is more blessed to give, not because we get something out of it (“Give generously to our ministry and watch how God will multiply your investment tenfold”) but because giving is itself the way of God, and we are created in God’s image.
The gospel is the story of God’s self-giving.
And we are called to live a gospel life.