Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me. – 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 ESV
Paul opens up this series of verses with the same words he has used throughout this section of the letter:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote… – 1 Corinthians 7:1 ESV
Now concerning the betrothed… – 1 Corinthians 7:25 ESV
Now concerning food offered to idols… – 1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV
Now concerning spiritual gifts… – 1 Corinthians 12:1 ESV
Now concerning our brother Apollos… – 1 Corinthians 16:12 ESV
In each case, it seems that he is answering a question from the Corinthians or addressing a concern he has regarding the affairs of the church. In this case, he is dealing with their role in assisting the “saints”. This is most likely a reference to the saints in Jerusalem and Judea. Luke describes the situation in the book of Acts.
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:27-30 ESV
Paul had a strong desire to assist the believers in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas who were struggling through the time of famine. These believers, who were primarily Jews, were not only going without food, but were also having to deal with persecution from their Jewish peers because of their conversion to Christianity. Paul had written to the believers in Rome, “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25-26 ESV). He went on to say that the believers in Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to do it and even saw it as a debt they owed, “For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:27 ESV).
In the early days of the church, there was a need for community and mutual care throughout the body of Christ. The new, fledgling churches were commonly made up of individuals from the less affluent segments of society. Many, after having come to faith in Christ, had lost their jobs. They had been ostracized from their families. Some of the churches to which Paul ministered on his missionary journeys were better off than others and he strongly encouraged them to use their resources to help those in need, both within their own fellowships, but in other churches located in other cities as well. Paul would write a second letter to the Corinthians encouraging them to get involved in the support of the needs of others, something they seemed to have a hard time doing.
Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well. But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also. – 2 Corinthians 8:1-7 NLT
Paul was not above using a bit of shaming by comparing the seeming stinginess of the Corinthians with the generosity of the churches in Macedonia. These churches, while enduring their own “deep poverty” were joyfully and eagerly giving to meet the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, even begging for the opportunity to do so. Two times Paul refers to this as a “gracious work” and tells the Corinthians that generous giving is to be pursued with the same intensity and given the same priority as faith, speech, knowledge or even love. In fact, meeting the physical needs of others is one of the greatest expressions of our love for others.
So Paul tells the Corinthians, “On the first day of each week, you should each put aside a portion of the money you have earned. Don’t wait until I get there and then try to collect it all at once” (1 Corinthians 1:3 NLT). He provides them with instructions as to how to take up their collection, fully expecting them to participate in the support of the needs of the believers in Judea. He is not commanding them to do so, but he is fully expecting their willing participation. Why? Because it is the will of God and the evidence of the Spirit’s working within them. God has a heart for the helpless, hopeless, the needy and the destitute. In the book of Micah, the prophet records what God expects of His people:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV
The greatest expression of generosity and sacrifice Paul could think of was that of Jesus Christ and His willing sacrifice of His life. “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 Corinthians 8:9 ESV). He gave His life so that we might live. He became poor, leaving the confines of heaven and taking on human flesh, so that we might become rich, becoming heirs of God Himself.
The body of Christ is meant to care for itself. There is no room for selfishness and self-centeredness. God blesses some so that they might be a blessing to others. But even those who have little are able to assist those who have even less. This is not just about a redistribution of wealth and the creation of a socialistic society. It is about love. It is about generosity and a desire to express the love of God to those in need.
You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say, “They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever.” – 2 Corinthians 9:7-9 NLT
The goal for Paul was generosity – genuine, heart-felt, Spirit-inspired, love-based generosity that expressed the unity and community for which Christ died. Paul longed to see the churches to which he ministered experience and display the kind of love that was found in the early days of the church immediately after the coming of the Spirit.
All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had…There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. – Acts 4:32,34-35 NLT
Genuine generosity. Godly love. Brotherly affection. Selfless sacrifice. Compassionate care. “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35 NLT).