In yesterday’s study we looked at two things that can be said in defense of Paul’s decision to return to Jerusalem: his strong personality and his love of the Jews. Third, Paul had a great evangelistic plan, a strong strategy for world missions, and this was part of it. Paul knew that there was a growing rupture in the church between its Jewish and Gentile branches. This was probably inevitable, given Jewish prejudices against the Gentile world. But whether it was inevitable or not, Paul wanted to do everything possible to overcome its presence in the church. One way he tried to do this was by collecting an offering from the Gentile churches which he was determined to bring to Jerusalem as a demonstration of the love of Gentile believers for Jews and of the solidarity of the people of God throughout the world.
It is interesting to me that in Acts, Luke says very little about this offering. As a matter of fact, it is not mentioned at all, except in the twenty-fourth chapter in the context of a speech Paul gave before Felix (“After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings,” v. 17). We do not learn much about this offering from this one reference in Acts, which leads me to suspect that Luke was not as sold on the idea as Paul was. Perhaps he was even unhappy about it.
However, when we turn from Acts to Paul’s letters, especially 1 and 2 Corinthians, we find that this was a most important matter for Paul. It was part of his strategy for welding the church together. In 1 Corinthians 16 he gives specific instructions as to how the offering was to be collected:
Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. (vv. 1-3)
In 2 Corinthians, written in part at least because the offering project had not been going very well, he reiterates what he had in mind. In this letter he talks about the offering in one way or another for the better part of chapters 8 and 9.
As I read those chapters, I suspect that the matter may have been getting out of hand. Paul gives a lot of valuable instruction in those chapters about how we are to give of our substance to the Lord’s work. I have often referred to them in stewardship sermons. But one nevertheless wonders at times whether the tone is quite right. Isn’t Paul being just a little preemptory in his instructions? Isn’t he ordering them about just a bit too much, particularly in something which should be voluntary? There is room for disagreement here, and I confess that I may be reading too much into the situation. But, as I said, I suspect that even Luke’s silence may be evidence of the fact that the project may have gotten just a bit out of hand.
Paul’s intention was good. He wanted to bring this gift to say to the Jews in Jerusalem, “Look how much the Gentiles love you.” Still, I do not believe this was God’s plan for Paul, however well intentioned. And, as we are going to see, the offering did not accomplish Paul’s purpose.
Here is one other thing in Paul’s defense. When the Christians in Tyre were pleading with Paul not to go to Jerusalem, he said, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (v. 13). This was quite true. Paul was willing to be bound and even die for the sake of Christ, as eventually he did. He was martyred in Rome.
But that was not the point. Paul may have been willing to die for Jesus. But that was not what Jesus was requiring in this matter. Jesus was not asking Paul to die for Him. On the contrary, He seems to have been telling him not to die. The issue was not martyrdom but obedience. This is very relevant to us, because we sometimes try to cover up disobedience in our lives by taking what seems to be a high spiritual road. We say, “I am willing to do anything, suffer anything, even die for Jesus.” But what we really mean by that is, “I want to do what I want to do, regardless.” As I read this story, it seems to me that this is what Paul was doing and that this is the main point of the application.