The season of 'Christmas' is a challenge to the spirit of generosity. It is a time for giving one another gifts - a custom, intended to celebrate God's generosity in sending his Son into the world of humanity. However, like many a custom, giving gifts at the nativity may become merely a habit, something we are expected to do, told to do. Gifts at any time may be given as a matter of custom, or from a sense of duty, or even, given in love. Paul, writing to the Christians at Corinth, encourages them to give generously, and makes it clear that our motives in giving are important: "Let everyone give as his heart tells him, neither grudgingly nor under compulsion, for God loves the man who gives cheerfully. God can give you more than you can ever need, so that you may always have sufficient for yourselves and enough left over to give to every good cause.... your very giving proves the reality of your faith, and means that men thank God that you practise the gospel of Christ that you profess to believe in" (2 Corinthians 9.7‑8,13 JBP)
It is a good thing when a gift is appreciated. It is a good thing when a gift is appropriate to the receiver. The two often go together: we are thankful for what we need - or want - or would have wanted if we had thought of it. This applies in the matter of 'Christmas presents', but the same considerations apply when we receive all the gifts that God's generosity brings to us. To consider all these gifts would make an enormous study, branching out into all creation, pointing into the illimitable future. However, for the moment let us just look at three Greek words in the New Testament which are translated 'gift'. These are doron, dorea and charisma.
Doron is often used meaning an offering to God, or to His work. Jesus saw the people rich and poor putting their gifts into the temple treasury (Luke 21.1) and it was the poor widow's two copper coins that drew his praise (it's what's in the heart that counts). The high priest spoken of in Hebrews was appointed to act on men's behalf in offering gifts and sacrifices for sins to God (5.1, 8.3). Such gifts or sacrifices did not give people a good conscience - they pertained to rules and regulations - it took Christ's gift of Himself to affect our hearts (9.9). Back in Genesis, Abel's gifts to God were acceptable because they were offered in faith (Hebrews 11.4). In Matthew gifts are referred to several times: gifts on the altar (23.18), gifts as a token of healing (8.4), gifts which should not be offered until we have gotten forgiveness from those we may have injured (5.23). Promising to give a gift to God cannot be used as an excuse for depriving our nearest and dearest of what is their due (Mark 7.11). In all of this it can be seen that it is not merely the actual gift which is significant but the state of mind in which it is given.
Doron (or the plural dora) appears in Matthew 2.11 referring again to ceremonial gifts - but what gifts! It was the rich learned men from the east who had seen their star again, and came joyful, excited, into the house where the baby was, fetched out their gold and frankincense and myrrh, and worshipped - their faith and glowing worship more precious than the things they had brought.
In Ephesians 2.8 doron does not refer to men's offering to God, but God's gift to men. God is rich in mercy. He loves us with great love. We were dead because of transgressions, but He has made us alive with Christ. He proposes in the coming ages to demonstrate the surpassing value of his free gift of kindness to us in Christ Jesus. This comes through faith. And it is nothing to do with what we deserve, it is God's gift. He is making us into his 'poem', his work of art, designed to do good things.
Dorea denotes a free gift, freely given, a present. In the New Testament it is God's present to humankind. This is the word for what Jesus said to the woman at the well when he told her she did not recognise God's gift or know who He was. He offered her 'living water' which would spring up inside her and result in eternal life.
Dorea is used in referring to the Holy Spirit and its manifestations. This gift of God was not to be bought with money by people like Simon Magus (Acts 8.20). The same significant gift was given to both Gentiles and Jews, a proof they were accepted by God. It was the heavenly gift, to be tasted, experienced (Hebrews 6.4).
There were practical consequences as God's grace was given to Paul by the working of His power (Ephesians 3.7). Grace was given to each of the Christians according to the measure of Christ's free gift, which resulted in the church being equipped by the provision of servants to 'build the body' (Ephesians 4.7). The gift of God was beyond telling, impossible to put into words, whether we understand this gift as God's working in the church by his Spirit, or the gift as being Christ Himself (2 Corinthians 9.15).
The third word, charisma, speaks of the gift which comes from God's overflowing kindness and grace (charis). It is free rather than paid for. In those days soldiers, when an emperor came to the throne, might receive a charisma, a free grant of money as distinct from their regular wages. So, in Romans 6.23, Paul states that the wages of sin is death; but the gift (charisma) of God is eternal life. That overflowing generosity again!
But there are also gifts of grace along the way. Paul refers to what we might think of as a natural gift in 1 Corinthians 7.7 - but it is a gift none the less. There were special gifts when one was appointed to work in the church - gifts which should not be neglected, but stirred into flame (1 Timothy 4.14, 2 Timothy 1.6). There were special gifts for the church: gifts of people with the ability to take a special part, and fulfil a special function (Romans 12.6‑8, 1 Corinthians 12.28‑30); and also the particular powers and abilities which they used were Spirit-given (1 Corinthians 12.8‑11). They (and we) were to long for the best gifts (charismata) ... and the supreme way is that of love. "Serve one another with the particular gifts God has given each of you, as faithful dispensers of the wonderfully varied grace of God" (1 Peter 4.10 JBP).
The generosity of God, seen through these words doron, dorea, charisma, is overwhelming. The whole experience of being a Christian is overwhelming. Paul writes, "God, who first ordered light to shine in darkness, has flooded our hearts with his light, so that we can enlighten men with the knowledge of the glory of God, as we see it in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4.6 JBP). This is a priceless treasure which we hold in the common earthenware of our human nature. Common clay pots we are, cracked perhaps. If we see our Christian friends, colleagues, brethren, ministers, as being less than perfect, then we need to remember that the gift itself which we each receive and pass on is priceless: which is an awe inspiring thought to keep in mind, as we give our gifts with love at this time of year.