The word of the day is “collection.” Generally, we are interested in the message of the scriptures and their application to our lives. But to fully understand that message, we must know its historical context. This contextual knowledge requires patient study because the situations are complex and different from our own.
In today’s reading of 2 Corinthians 8:16-9:5, we learn some historical details behind Paul’s often-quoted teaching of financial stewardship. Here we see how careful the apostle was handling his collection for the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The Apostle to the Gentiles had spent nearly ten years raising funds to relieve the “Mother Church” in the Holy City. Now Paul planned to take Titus with him when he delivered the offering to Jerusalem. He would also take a delegate that his churches had selected (vs. 18-19). Paul made these painstaking arrangements because he did not want anyone to “blame” him– that is, he did not want someone to “find fault” (Strong’s #3469, 159) with his “ministry” of bringing a large amount of money to the believers in Jerusalem (vs. 20).
A Primary Concern of Paul
The collection of funds was a primary concern of Paul. He mentioned it in three places in his letters to Corinth. And he indicates that the Macedonians (2 Cor. 8:1), the Achaeans (Romans 15:26), and the Galatians took part in the collection. Moreover, the list of delegates that traveled to the Holy City with St. Paul and the offering included representatives of the churches in Berea and Thessalonica as well as Macedonia and Achaia (Acts 20:4). Others came from Philippi, Lystra, and, presumably, Corinth. Thus, this large group represented the fruits of Paul’s labors among the Gentiles.
The Reasons for the Collection for the Jerusalem Poor
St. Paul put so much emphasis on gathering funds from these predominantly Gentile churches for several reasons. First, the collection was an expression of Christian love and mercy for those who were suffering in the Holy City. Second, the offering and the impressive delegation that delivered it were signs of the communion of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ.
But third, charity to the poor followed up on the agreement of the “Jerusalem Council.” Recall that this ground-breaking meeting accepted Gentiles into the church. It decided that Gentiles could be full church members without circumcision if they would “remember the poor.” (Note that this is Paul’s report in Galatians 2:10.) The apostle was unsure that the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem would accept the charity of the Gentiles (Romans 15:31). If the Jewish Christians received the Gentile delegation and their offering, it would implicitly recognize the Gentile mission. There would no longer be any question of the status of Gentiles in the Body of Christ. Thus, the collection would be a tacit endorsement of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. But if the Jewish Christians refused the generosity of the Gentiles, then they would reject Paul’s whole enterprise.
In Paul’s time, the Gentile mission was an ongoing controversy. We can see that it was crucial to the church’s future and the Christian faith from hindsight. The Lord had prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, but until the very end of Paul’s life, it was the center of Judaism and Christianity.
The church historian Eusebius reported that Emperor Nero had Paul beheaded in 67 A. D. That date would mean that his martyrdom overlapped the beginning of the “First Jewish War” that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. This horrible event signaled the coming of the end of Jewish Christianity. The Christians failed to support the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 AD) and it eradicated the Jewish population in Judea. Henceforth, no Jews would accept any form of the Christian faith. Thus, only Gentile Christianity would survive—and grow to include even ourselves.