“But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.”
– Philippians 4:18 –
In the final phrases of Philippians 4:18, Paul describes Christian giving in the language of Old Testament sacrificial worship—language that originated all the way back in Genesis 8. After Noah and his family emerged unharmed through the flood of God’s judgment, he worshiped God: “Then Noah built an altar to Yahweh, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. Yahweh smelled the soothing aroma (same as “fragrant aroma” in Phil 4:18) and Yahweh said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man…’” (Gen 8:20–21).
This was the essence of worship under the Old Covenant. God’s people were commanded to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and strength (Deut 6:5), to worship and serve Him only (Deut 6:13; cf. Luke 4:8), and to have no other gods before Him (Exod 20:3). And a principal way in which His people demonstrated that He had occupied first place in their hearts was by offering up to Him of the firstfruits of their livestock, by dedicating animals to God that would have otherwise been used for food or for securing profit through labor. As an act of worship—as a lived-out demonstration that they regarded God as more worthy than their own possessions—like David (cf. 2 Sam 24:24), they gave God that which cost them something.
The one who recognized God’s worth above all things and thus could part gladly and even eagerly with a portion of what God had given to him. And because that was the heart attitude of a faithful worshiper who brought a sacrifice to God, when the odor of the burnt flesh of an ox or a bull or a ram ascended into the heavens, rather than a disgusting stench, the text says it reached the nostrils of God and was to Him a soothing aroma—a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God.
Paul uses this very same imagery and applies it to the giving of God’s people in the service of the Gospel. He says, in effect, “Dear Philippians, when Epaphroditus arrived in Rome and laid before me the gift that you had sent with him, it was as if my physical needs were an altar, and your gifts were the sacrifice laid upon that altar. And because your gift was rooted in true fellowship, because it was driven by the Gospel, because it was generous and sacrificial and came from a glad and willing heart—when Epaphroditus set those coins before me to meet my needs, a soothing aroma wafted into heaven. God smelled the sweet-smelling aroma of a spiritual sacrifice, and He smiled. He was pleased.”
And this is the way the New Testament speaks about you and me. We are a kingdom of priests to God (Rev 1:6). The sacrifices we bring before Him are not the carcasses of bulls and goats, but our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable (there’s another phrase from Philippians 4), which is our spiritual service of worship (Rom 12:1). 1 Peter 2:5 says that the people of God “are are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And Hebrews 13:15–16 specifies those spiritual sacrifices: “Through [Christ] then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” So the sharing of the needs of the saints are sacrifices, well-pleasing to God.
All of this vivid imagery teaches us plainly that true Christian giving is a sacred act of spiritual worship to God. Whatever benefit our gifts bring to fellow believers, the ultimate recipient of all of our giving to Gospel efforts is none other than God Himself.
Paul understood the principle that the Lord Jesus spoke in Matthew 25, where in the last day the King will look to those on His right, and tell them to come and inherit the everlasting kingdom, because, He says, He was hungry and they fed Him, He was thirsty and they gave Him to drink, He was naked and they clothed Him, He was in prison and they visited Him. And then the righteous will say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or in prison?” And Jesus responds, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:40).
Paul understood that principle. How could he not? It was he who was confronted by the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, as he sought to continue in his murderous persecution of the church of God. The Lord struck him down and asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting—” not: My people, but, “—why are you persecuting Me?” Because of the vital spiritual union between Christ and His people—because by the grace of God we are bound up and immersed, as it were, in the Person of Christ—what we do to even the least of our brethren, whether for good or ill, we do to Christ.
And friends, that means that our giving is an act of spiritual worship to God. Our giving is catapulted out of the realm of the merely horizontal relationships between our fellow-man up to the realm of our worship of the living God. That’s why, when we’re gathered in the worship center as the body of Christ, the offering is part of our worship service. Because we recognize that we’re not just participating in some person-to-person-level accounting, but that we’re offering spiritual sacrifices to a holy God. We are priests, offering sacrifices to the thrice Holy God of heaven.
And just as the priests of the Old Testament needed to bring their offering in a right spirit and in purity of heart, so also is our sacrificial worship in giving to be attended with the utmost sobriety and care. I can think of at least three implications for us.
A Cheerful Giver
First, we are not to be like the priests in the day of the prophet Malachi, who despise our duty and disdainfully sniff at it (Mal 1:12–13). No, God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7). God loves a giver—a worshiper—who from a pure heart delights to offer to Him the fruit of their labors. The priests of Malachi’s day brought defiled food to the altar—not their best and choicest, but the lame and the sick. But we are to bring our very best—the firstfruits of all our labors—so that giving to the work of God takes first priority in your checkbook and on your budget sheet; so that before any other obligations are met, God is to have His share.
A Prepared Giver
And in the sacrificial worship, the priests were not just to prepare the offering. They were also to prepare themselves. You see the regulations for the priests in Leviticus 8 and 9. They were to wash with water; they were to be girded with the priestly robe and the linen ephod. He was to wear a breastpiece and a turban with a golden plate at the front, and then was anointed with oil on his head. And though the preparation itself will look different, the need for the preparation of the heart of the worshiper is only increased in the New Covenant era, as we have been ushered beyond the veil into the Holy of Holies, ever in the presence of God Himself. The preparation of our weekly offerings should not be done in a casual, flippant matter (we’ve been guilty of writing the check in the car on the way to church!). We are to consider the preparation of our giving as the act of worship that it is.
Set aside time on Saturday evening to review your finances, to thank God for His provision for your needs, and to ask for His continued provision. Pray that He would enable you to give sacrificially, and think intentionally about how you might be able to bless God’s people and contribute to the advance of His kingdom in strategic ways.
A Prayerful Giver
And then, with your spouse if you’re married, or just before the Lord if you’re not, pray over the gift that you will offer up to God as a spiritual sacrifice on the next morning. Acknowledge that all you have comes from Him. Pray that you would offer it from a pure heart, cheerfully and not begrudgingly, but delighted to give the Lord a portion of what He’s blessed you with. Pray that God would receive it as an act of worship from a heart made glad by His glorious grace. And though you know that even your best deeds of obedience are laced with enough sin to damn the whole human race, pray that He would receive this offering in the name of Christ, cleansed, as it were, by His own blood, so that it would be acceptable to Him.
And then pray that He would bless it as it goes from your hand into His kingdom—that He would multiply its efficacy for the accomplishment of His own will through the hands of those to whom you’re entrusting it. And finally, pray that the Lord Jesus Christ would meet you in fellowship as in a very real sense you partner with Him in the advancement of His Gospel ministry in the world. Pray that your giving would be occasion for communion with the living God—that He would increase the spiritual profit that accrues to your account in the currency of the glory of God shining in the face of Christ.
What a privilege that the Lord our God receives our giving as an act of spiritual worship unto Him! May we be faithful to such an awesome responsibility—the priestly ministry of offering spiritual sacrifices to God! May we not defile His table, and may we not defile ourselves, by taking those resources which God gives us and, as Calvin says, squander them on worldly luxuries while our brothers suffer need. May we set apart what God gives us to give back to Him as our spiritual service of worship—to pour them out, as it were, upon the altar of the needs of the poor and the servants of Christ, offering up spiritual sacrifices to God.