The severe trial that the Macedonian churches experienced was of a sort that left them in a condition of extreme poverty. The phrase is literally “down-to-the-depth poverty” (he kata bathous ptocheia; v. 2)–or, as Philip Hughes translates, “rock bottom” poverty (1962:288). James counsels his readers to consider it pure joy whenever they face trials (1:2). The Macedonian churches are a testimony that it is possible not merely to experience joy but to have it “overflow” in the midst of trials. Even more, just as persecution did not take away from their joyfulness, neither did poverty diminish their ability to be generous (Bruce 1971:220). Paul says that their poverty welled up in rich generosity (v. 2). The text is literally “a wealth of liberality” (to ploutos tes haplotetos). The basic meaning of haplotes is “singleness,” and it denotes simplicity of character (“noble”), heart (“pure”) or intent (“sincere”; Bauernfeind 1964). Here it signifies an openheartedness toward one’s possessions (“generosity”). Sadly, it is often those having the least, rather than the most, who are the generous givers. Charles Spurgeon tells of receiving a wealthy man’s invitation to come preach at his rural church to help the members raise funds to pay off a debt. The man also told Spurgeon that he was free to use his country house, his town house or his seaside home. Spurgeon wrote back, “Sell one of the places and pay the debt yourself.”
It is easy to see how affluence can well up in generous giving. But how is it possible for extreme poverty to overflow in a wealth of liberality? Verses 3-5 provide the explanation.
First, it is because the Macedonians gave not just as much as they were able (literally “according to their ability”) but beyond (v. 3). How much beyond Paul does not say. But there is no hint that this was a reckless action on their part. The sense is that they determined what they could comfortably contribute and then went beyond this figure.
Second, what they gave, they gave entirely on their own (v. 3). Authairetos (autos “self” + haireomai “to choose”) refers to something done of one’s own accord or by a free choice. In essence, the Macedonians were not pressured into giving. They gave willingly. In fact, they urgently pleaded to be involved (v. 4). The thrust of the Greek is that they begged (deomenoi) Paul most earnestly (meta pollhs parakleseos). This was because they considered involvement in the relief effort a privilege (charis; see v. 1) and a sharing (koinonia, v. 4). Koinwnia, commonly translated “fellowship” in the