Throughout his third missionary journey, Paul was collecting money from the Gentile churches in Macedonia and Greece for the Jewish church in Jerusalem. This was to bring practical assistance to the believers in Jerusalem who were very poor because they had suffered a severe famine. However, Paul also wanted this collection to be an act of solidarity to ease the tensions between the Gentile churches that he had established and the Jewish church in Jerusalem. They had often struggled to accept Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, because he did not insist on his Gentile converts keeping the Jewish law. This project was started before the first missionary journey and not finally completed at the end of the third missionary journey, an overall time span of about ten years.
The Famine in Judea
The first record of the famine in the New Testament was before it even happened. In his description of the establishment of the church in Antioch, Luke recounts that prophets came from Jerusalem. One of these was Agabus, who predicted by the Spirit that there will be a severe famine over all the world (Acts 11:28). This probably meant over the whole Roman empire. According to Luke, this took place during the reign of Claudius, who was emperor from AD 41 - 54.
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus mentions that Queen Helena of Adiabene, a Jewish proselyte, brought grain in Egypt and figs from Cyprus for the relief for the hard-pressed Judeans:
“Now her coming was of very great advantage to the people of Jerusalem, for whereas a famine did oppress them at that time, and many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food withal, Queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn, and others of them to Cyprus to bring a cargo of dried figs.” (Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews 20:2:5).
This famine is also mentioned by Bede in his history of the English Church. He related that the Emperor Claudius was the first Roman emperor to land in Britain since Julius Caesar. He came to quell a revolt, and to bring Britain under the rule of Rome. Bede says this campaign was in the fourth year of his reign and in the forty-sixth year after the birth of Jesus, the same year as the famine. “This was the year in which a very serious famine occurred in Syria, which is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as having been foretold by the prophet Agabus.” (Bede 1.3).
As Agabus predicted, the famine affected wide areas of the Roman Empire during the reign of Claudius.
Suetonius described how Emperor Claudius was once pelted with curses and stale crusts because droughts had caused shortages of grain in the city of Rome.
“Once, after a series of droughts had caused a scarcity of grain, a mob stopped Claudius in the Forum and pelted him with curses and state crusts that he had difficulty in regaining the Palace by a side-door; as a result he took all possible steps to import grain, even during the winter months.” (Suetonius. Claudius 18:2)
Tacitus also described the riots caused by grain shortages in Rome during the reign of Claudius.
“Scanty crops too, and consequent famine were regarded as a token of calamity. Nor were there merely whispered complaints; while Claudius was administering justice, the populace crowded round him with a boisterous clamour and drove him to a corner of the forum, where they violently pressed on him till he broke through the furious mob with a body of soldiers” (Tacitus. Annals 12:43)
The church in Antioch decided that they would send relief to the believers living in Judea, where Agabus had come from. They sent it to the elders in Jerusalem by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:30). This was the second time that Paul visited Jerusalem after his conversion. This visit is sometimes known as “the famine visit”, and probably took place around AD 47.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul carefully lists the different times he had visited the church in Jerusalem. The first visit was after three years, probably meaning three years after his conversion (Gal 1:18ff), when he met with Peter and James. On his second visit, after fourteen years (probably also after his conversion), he went with Barnabas and Titus and spoke with all the apostles (Gal 2:1ff). They gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, agreeing with his ministry to the Gentiles. The only thing the apostles asked was that they remember the poor (Gal 2:10), which Paul was eager to do, probably because this was his original reason for coming to Jerusalem this time. Many scholars identify this meeting with the apostles as the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) in AD 49, but it is more likely to be the earlier meeting in Jerusalem during “the famine visit” around AD 47.
During the Third Missionary Journey (about AD 53 - 57)
The first time the collection for the saints in Jerusalem is specifically mentioned is in Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians, which were both written during his third missionary journey.
1 Corinthians 16:1-4
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in Ephesus around AD 53, towards the end of the two or three years he spent there (Acts 19). In response to a question in the letter from the church, Paul wrote about the collection (1 Cor 16:1-4). We do not know what the Corinthians had heard about the collection, or what they wrote in the letter to Paul. Perhaps he had spoken about the collection when he was in Corinth, or written about it in his previous letter (5:9). In response to their question, Paul tells them what they should do before he arrives (16:1-2), and what will happen to the collection once he comes (16:3-4).
Paul refers to it here in strictly practical terms, calling it a collection, giving instructions on how it should be collected, and omitting the more theological content he includes in 2 Cor 8-9 or Rom 15. He tells them to follow the instructions he gave to the churches in Galatia, which he must have given them while he was passing through Galatia on his way to Ephesus (Acts 18:23). Through this he is showing that the instructions are not unique to Corinth, also reminding them that the church in Corinth is part of the world-wide church of Jesus Christ.
He wanted the collection to be complete before he arrived, so no collection needed to be taken once he was there (16:2). They were to take up regular collections on the first day of the week, presumably when they met together for worship and breaking of bread on Sunday, so a special fund would be built up. Each person is to put aside and save whatever extra they earn. As many of the slaves in the church would not have received a regular income, he says they are to contribute out of what the Lord has prospered them with. We should note that there was no emotional appeal to them to contribute, merely practical instructions for its collection. It is also significant that there is no appeal to the tithing laws of the Old Testament, and that he gives no suggestion of a particular proportion of their income they should give. Donation to this collection is purely voluntary, with no compulsion.
Once Paul finally arrives in Corinth, he will arrange for the gift to be taken to Jerusalem by representatives chosen from the church. The arrival of a large group of people in Jerusalem, representing many Gentile churches, will be a great statement of the unity and diversity of the church. He will give them letters of introduction, and only if necessary will he accompany them himself. By the time he wrote 2 Corinthians he had decided to accompany the gift himself (2 Cor 1:16), a decision which led to some in the church accusing him of repeatedly changing his mind (2 Cor 1:17ff).
It is probable that some of Paul's opponents in Corinth were accusing him of making the collection for himself. From the beginning Paul was careful to show that he will not receive any of the money. He wanted them to send one of their representatives to Jerusalem with the money (16:3-4), and he will only accompany them if necessary. When the money was finally taken to Jerusalem Paul was accompanied by eight or nine representatives from the churches (Acts 20:4).
2 Corinthians 8-9
Following what he called his "painful visit", it appears that Paul was accused of deceiving people and taking advantage of them (2 Cor 7:2), and other financial inconsistencies. In his response he affirms that he intends to do what is right both in the sight of God and men (8:20).
Before writing 2 Corinthians, Paul was waiting in Macedonia for Titus to arrive with news from Corinth, particularly their response to what is known as his “severe letter”. When Titus finally arrived, Paul rejoiced that he brought positive news about the church’s response to his letter (7:6). However it appears that Titus also reported that their support for the collection had been disappointing. At the initiation of Titus, or in response to 1 Cor 16, they had started the collection the previous year, but had now become slack or even stopped taking up the collection, perhaps because of the accusations against Paul and questions about his authority as an apostle. In 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9, Paul exhorted them to complete it (8:10-11), hoping that through the efforts of Titus that it could be revived and completed before he himself came to Corinth.
In these two chapters he tells Corinthians about the unexpected generosity of churches of Macedonia (Philippi and Thessalonica), who although they were poor, had, in contrast to the wealthy Corinthians, been eager to give generously. He encourages and challenges the Corinthians to follow their example of generosity (8:1-6). The second letter to the Corinthians was carried by Titus, who was accompanied by two unnamed brothers (8:18,22). One of these may have been Luke (the brother famous for preaching the gospel). Paul was sending them ahead to urge them to restart the collection of the gift that they had promised (9:5).
For Paul, this collection was far more than a mere financial transaction. He uses a number of more profound theological terms to describe it. It was a fellowship (8:4), to show unity between the Gentile and Jewish believers. It was a service or ministry to the saints (9:1), a way of serving those in need. His most frequent description is “an act of grace”, often translated “a generous undertaking” or with similar phrases in English translations (eg. 8:6,7,9). It was also described as a blessing (9:5), and a divine service (9:12). He also uses a series of extravagant descriptions, such as generosity (8:2), utmost eagerness (8:7), describing the gift as being both bountiful and voluntary (9:5). The collection was to be seen as a response to grace of God that the Corinthians had received, so it not only ministered to the needs of the poor believers in Jerusalem, as a blessing to them, but also was an act of ministry to God himself. It was a thanksgiving to God, as well as a work of fellowship between God’s people from very different backgrounds. For Paul, the doctrine of grace which was central to his ministry and to the Gospel, should be practically outworked in the taking up of a financial offering.
Paul gives some important basic principles for financial giving (9:6-8). Firstly God will reward those who give, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Financial giving is a work of faith, to trust God to provide for those who give generously. Paul promises that God will ensure that they will lack nothing and be enriched in every way for their generosity. Secondly, giving is to be strictly voluntary. Each person should carefully decide in their own heart how much to give, and then contribute with a cheerful and generous spirit. Thirdly, giving should be generous and not reluctant. At all costs Paul wants to keep the heart of the Gospel of grace, so there is no way he wants to impose a legalistic requirement of any particular amount or any specific proportion of their income. For Paul, the free gift of grace is far more important than raising money. Generous giving should be a natural response of thankfulness from people who have been forgiven by grace. Any compulsion would have the consequence of making people reluctant to give and be totally contrary to his Gospel of grace.
There are many lessons for today from the principles for giving that Paul gives in these chapters. He wants giving to be generous and voluntary, coming out of personal gratitude towards God. He gives no standard requirements of the amount or proportion. To require tithing would be completely contrary to his Gospel of grace. He also avoids any emotional appeal to people to respond immediately, but wants them to decide on their own in their own time. In applying the sowing and reaping principle we should take care to avoid any idea of giving as a financial investment, (the more you give, the more you get back), which is basically appealing to human greed. Giving should an act of faith done out of gratitude to the grace we have each received from God, and done with no demand of receiving anything in return.
The Letter to The Romans
The collection is also mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans, even though the Roman church had not been involved in it. He wrote to Rome from Corinth during his visit on the third missionary journey (Acts 20:3). The date is now about AD 57. At the end of his letter, Paul informs the Roman believers about his plans for future travels. He tells them that he is next going to Jerusalem, before coming to Rome, wanting them to send him on to Spain (Rom 15:22-32). He describes his visit to Jerusalem as a “ministry to the saints” (15:25). He tells the Romans that the Christians in Macedonia (which would include Philippi and Thessalonica) and Achaia (which would include Corinth) have been pleased to share their resources with the poor in Jerusalem (15:26). It is significant that Paul refers to both the believers in Jerusalem and the Roman believers as “saints”, as this collection is an act of unity between the Gentile and Jewish believers.
He tells them that the saints in these churches were pleased to send gifts to Jerusalem. From this we can conclude that the Corinthians did eventually fulfil their promise and complete the collection. So Paul was successful in his exhortations in 2 Cor 8-9, as the Corinthian church gave generously in response to Paul’s appeal.
He sees that the Gentile churches owe a debt to the Jewish church. The Gentiles have come to share in the spiritual blessings belonging to the Jews, specifically the Gospel of salvation through their Jewish Messiah, so they should serve them in material things in return (11:27). To use Paul’s analogy from earlier in the Book of Romans, the Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree to share the rich Jewish root (11:17). It is significant that he uses the familiar Greek word “koinonia” to describe this gift to the Jewish church (15:25). For Paul, this collection was an act of loving fellowship between Gentile and Jewish believers. Gentiles who contributed towards this collection are showing their spiritual debt to the Jewish believers in a very practical way. Also for Jewish believers to receive this gift would show that they welcomed Gentile believers on an equal basis, and accepted that salvation was no longer exclusively for themselves.
Throughout much of his ministry, the Jerusalem church had been suspicious of Paul and questioned the validity of his Gospel of grace without law-keeping. He often had to battle against Judaisers who claimed to have the authority of the Jerusalem church and who opposed him and his Gospel (Acts 15:1,5, 21:20-22). However, Paul was very aware that it was from Jerusalem that the Gospel first came, so the Gentile believers are spiritually indebted to the Jewish believers.
He concludes by appealing for earnest prayer from the Roman believers (15:30-32), asking for two things: one for his personal safety, that he would be rescued from unbelievers in Jerusalem, and secondly that his ministry to the Jerusalem would be acceptable to the saints. This indicates that he has doubts about how well the collection will be received by the Jewish believers in Jerusalem.
The Journey to Jerusalem
On the journey to Jerusalem with the collection, Paul was accompanied by eight people representing the different Greek, Asian and Galatian churches: Sopater and Pyrrhus, from Beroea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy (perhaps from Lystra), Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia (Ephesus) (Acts 20:4). Luke was also accompanying them (Acts 20:5-6), perhaps as the representative from Philippi, which would increase the number to nine people. Paul was later accused of bringing Trophimus the Ephesian into the temple, which led to his arrest and imprisonment (Acts 21:29). Interestingly no representative from Corinth is listed, perhaps because of the difficult relationship Paul had with the church there, unless Titus had carried the gift from Corinth.
By this time, the collection probably had become a large quantity of money, so it was safer for it to be carried by a large group of people, as a protection against robbery. Also it would have all been in coins, making it very heavy to carry. Also the large number of representatives from many different Gentile churches in different locations would make a profound statement of the nature of the universal world-wide church to the Jewish church in Jerusalem.
Arrival in Jerusalem
Paul finally arrived in Jerusalem at the end of his Third Missionary Journey. It is interesting to note that Luke makes no mention of Paul’s collection in the Book of Acts. So there is no record of how it was received by the Jerusalem church. The prayer request in Romans would suggest that Paul had some doubts about how well it would be received (Rom 15:30-32). However, Luke had to be very selective over what material he included in Acts, so it is probably safest to suggest that Paul’s collection was not considered central to Luke’s overall theme of the spread of the Gospel out of its Jewish roots in Jerusalem to reach to Rome, the capital of the Gentile world. The only mention in Acts is when Paul gave testimony before Felix, the Roman governor, when he told him that, “Now after some years I came to bring to my nation alms and offerings” (Acts 24:17), probably referring to this collection.
This collection for the church in Jerusalem had taken up a great amount of Paul’s time and attention over a number of years, and was something that he placed great importance on. For Paul, this practical act of service was also a great theological statement of the unity of the church, in which both Jew and Gentile can come together as one body in Christ. It was also a practical demonstration of the grace of God made available in the Gospel.
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