A few blogs ago, I made a statement that may have been a bit provocative. I said: “The apostle Paul spent more time in his letters talking about the redistribution of wealth within the global body than he did on justification by faith.” I thought it would be good to put some ground under this claim by showing from the NT why it’s true.
It all starts in Acts 11:27-30, where a prophet named “Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world” (Acts 11:28). In response to the famine, “the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers and sisters living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29-30). The “relief” was a financial gift collected from various churches in Greece and Asia Minor and sent to the impoverished churches in Jerusalem. This gift has been called “the Jerusalem Collection.” About this collection, Paul has much to say. Sometime between Acts 12 and 15, Paul met with the Peter, James, and John (leaders of the Jerusalem church) to talk about Paul’s future ministry to the Gentiles. At the end of the day, the one thing these leaders told Paul was: “remember the poor” in Jerusalem, which Paul was “very…eager to do” (Gal 2:10). And by “remember” Paul didn’t mean cognitive recollection. Rather, Paul set out on a mission to bring financial relief to the poor saints in Jerusalem. So in late Autumn of AD 49, Paul embarked on his second “missionary” journey (Acts 15:36-21:16), which was largely aimed at collecting money from the wealthier Gentile churches in Asia Minor and Greece to give to the poor believers in Jerusalem.
This was Paul’s “Jerusalem Collection.” And he talks about it quite often in many of his letters. For instance, while Paul was hanging out in Corinth, he sent a letter to the house churches in Rome and spoke about the collection with much excitement, boasting that “Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Rom 15:26). The gift was more than just financial relief, but a symbol for racial unity. “For they (Gentiles) were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (Rom 15:27). The church at Corinth too was eager to participate (1 Cor. 16:1-4), as were the churches through Galatia (1 Cor 16:1), Philippi (2 Cor. 8-9), and probably Cenchrea, Berea, Derbe, and Thessalonica. The latter three churches even sent delegates to present the gift along with Paul, Timothy, Barnabas, and Luke. So important was this gift that Paul spent an entire two chapters talking about it in his second letter to the house churches in Corinth—2 Corinthians 8-9. Some scholars think that this section of 2 Corinthians was originally a separate letter, which was later pasted into “2 Corinthians.” If so, Paul devoted an entire letter just to talk about the Jerusalem Collection.
According to New Testament scholar Moyer Hubbard:
It is true that Paul’s primary mission was to spread the message of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. It is equally true, however, that along with being a missionary and a theologian, Paul was a relief worker trying to make a difference in one corner of a poverty-stricken world, Jerusalem (Christianity in the Greco-Roman World, 157).
So what do we do with this? For starters, you know that famous line that “God loves a cheerful giver?” Well, Paul said that about the Macedonian churches sending money to poor believers overseas. Next time you’re passing the plates and hear the pastor say “God loves a cheerful giver,” it would be more true to the text to keep passing those plates right out the back door, into the church van, all the way to the nearest Fed Ex to send them to poorer churches in Nepal—or wherever.
Hardly any statement that Paul makes about giving money has to do with Giving money to your own local church. The ones that do, talk about giving money to people with needs. But most of the time, when Paul talks about giving, he’s referring to the redistribution of wealth across the global church.
In a previous blog, I made a plea that wealthier American churches should be more concerned with helping to financially empower poorer believers across the globe. The biblical ground for this assertion is the Jerusalem collection. Now, when I talk about the redistribution of wealth, I’m not making some sort of Obamic plea. I’m trying to align myself with Paul. Paul doesn’t say that rich believers should financially help poor believers because, well, there needs to be equality in our country. Rather, Paul grounds such giving in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
The Jerusalem collection occupied more space in Paul’s letters than his explicit teaching on justification by faith. I’m not trying to be provocative, nor am I downplaying justification. Lord knows I cherish this doctrine. I don’t want to diminish justification, but elevate financial generosity toward believers—especially those with (perhaps) greater needs outside our congregations. Paul talks about Justification by faith in Rom 3:21-26, 4:1-6, 5:8-11, Gal 2:16-21, 3:6-12, 22-26, and Phil 3:6-9 (implicitly). He mentions justification by faith in 3 of his 13 letters. Paul talks about the Jerusalem collection in Rom 15:25-33, 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8:1-9:15, Gal 2:10, not counting the various places where Paul talks about various churches/people supporting his missionary endeavors (Rom. 16:2; Phil. 4:14-20), passages in Acts that talks about the financial need in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30 and others), and that annoying verse in Ephesians 4:28 that tells us to work—watch this—so that we can give to others in need. In nearly ½ of his letters, Paul talks about the redistribution of wealth across the global church.
My dream would be that churches in America would be more aligned with Paul in how they use their money.