Before we can start cutting wood for a deck we must first take measurements of the house. Before we can even begin to comb through the text with microscopic lenses, we must first pull out our telescope, clean those lenses and get the whole picture in our purview. Agabus, along with other prophets warned of a great famine throughout Rome (Acts 11:27-30). Paul set out to bring relief to the poor saints in Jerusalem. There must have been residues of poverty that couldn’t be relieved through this benevolent contribution; this called for extra help.
Paul went to Corinth in approximately 52 AD–Gallio was proconsul in Corinth at this time and Paul was in the area for 18 months before he traveled to Ephesus (Acts 18:11-12). More than likely he writes Corinthians within a year from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:5-8) in 53 or 54. Paul must have gone through Macedonia as he planned to do (1 Corinthians 16:5-8) and encouraged their contribution. It is possible that he encouraged the Galatians to give when he was in that area (Acts 16:6, Acts 18:23). He went through this region on his second missionary journey, after the conversion of the Gentiles and the Jerusalem council (Galatians 2:1-10).
Paul concludes his epistle to the Galatians with admonitions for the church to do good to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10), since he was always minded to take care of the poor (Gal 2:10), I am almost certain he instructed them to regularly store money aside for the saints in Jerusalem. With all this in mind, it is more accurate to view 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 as the collection “for” the saints (who need relief in Jerusalem) and not the collection “of” the saints.
Now, we can put down the telescope and pick up our microscope; a stethoscope may let you know the patient has an irregular heart beat, but unless we step back and look at the open gash on the back of his head, we have only dealt with a symptom or may end up misdiagnosing the patient all together.
Now about the collection for the saints: you should do the same as I instructed the Galatian churches. On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save to the extent that he prospers, so that no collections will need to be made when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you recommend by letter to carry your gracious gift to Jerusalem. If it is also suitable for me to go, they will travel with me. (1 Cor 16:1-4)
Paul, in his typical question and answer format begins this discussion with peri de (now concerning, or now regarding, in Corinthians this expression was used to single out a question the Corinthians sent to him, see 7:1, 25, 8:1, 12:1). The collection originated with the Macedonian Christians (or perhaps Paul and his fellow laborers, see Roman 15:25-28 and Gal 2:10) In this proposition is the implicit idea that there was no regular weekly collection before this point, only a personal spontaneous yet cheerful giving of ones own liberty, which by the way, dwarfs, our weekly contributions (Acts 4:32-37). A close look at the text reveals, that Paul expected the Christians to save money ‘par eauto’ literally, by himself, idiomatically, at home. They were to set money aside weekly in increments. He did not want them to attempt to amass a relief fund when he came, but hoped they would have money saved up by the time he got there, so that the collections could cease. It must not be assumed just because the saving of money, was on Sunday, that it must have been an item of worship in their assembly. Quite frankly, the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) would be on every saint’s mind on Sunday, so either, before or after their gathering they could put money aside–with the resurrection and the joy of assembling together in mind. Furthermore Paul has already ended his discourses on worship (1 Corinthians 14:40)
Now, what should strike all of us with particular interest, is this: Paul labored with many churches yet he only gave instructions to the churches of Galatia (at least when he wrote this letter). The Macedonians, were not instructed to give, they of their own liberty begged Paul to be able to contribute (2 Corinthians 8:4)–in essence, Paul did not want to them to give (because of their poverty), but they insisted!
I am not saying this as a command. Rather, by means of the diligence of others, I am testing the genuineness of your love For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: although He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich. Now I am giving an opinion on this because it is profitable for you, who a year ago began not only to do something but also to desire it. But now finish the task as well, that just as there was eagerness to desire it, so there may also be a completion from what you have…Therefore I considered it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance the generous gift you promised, so that it will be ready as a gift and not an extortion. (2 Cor 8:8-11, 9:5)
Before we go further, we need to pay very close attention to how Paul “urged” the Corinthians to give and how we “command” it. The contribution (today in the church) is always taught “do this or else you will go to hell”–I don’t see a hint of condemnation present here. Paul was urging this because they personally vowed to give to help relieve their fellow saints, not to horde the money for rainy days, building funds, and ministerial salaries. This entire collection was to benefit the Corinthians and others, as Paul notes later; the Corinthians were his bragging rights (2 Corinthians 9:2), and their zeal stirred up the other churches. The giving was because of their promise; Paul was not trying to extort them or guilt them into giving (something that is done all to well in our churches).
Now, lest we miss the proverbial forest for the trees, we need to ask this question, “why did the Christians give and what were Paul’s aims and goals for this collection?” In properly answering these questions we should be able to further cleanse our lenses and align them together to get a clear picture. Maybe we can find a clue elsewhere in Paul:
For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many acts of thanksgiving to God. Through the proof of this service, they will glorify God for your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with others. And in their prayers for you they will have deep affection for you because of the surpassing grace of God on you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift… Now, however, I am traveling to Jerusalem to serve the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution to the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual benefits, then they are obligated to minister to Jews in material needs. So when I have finished this and safely delivered the funds to them,I will go by way of you to Spain.(2 Corinthians 9:12-15; Romans 15:25-28)
Paul’s aims were to supply the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, and bring thanksgiving to God (a life-offering of worship, or lives being offered as thanksgiving offerings), and subsequently to cause the Jewish Christians to offer prayers for the Gentile Christians and Christians not in Jerusalem, this strengthening fellowship in the kingdom. Paul only says the giving is obligatory because the Jews served the spiritual needs of the gentiles, it is only right for the gentiles to help the physical needs of the Jews. This obligation I am convinced was an obligation to scripture first and foremost, now we turn to Paul’s goals.
It cannot be doubted that Paul saw himself as an extension of God’s righteousness (God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with the world, with Abraham, and Israel, see 2 Corinthians 5:21, 6:1 and Isaiah 49:8-13). Paul’s goal was to continue along the story of Israel, fulfilling scripture, in living out that story in its final stages and getting the church to do so. The early Jews, based on the reading of their story (scripture), were expecting God to come and restore the fortunes of Israel, to deliver them from exile by forgiving their sins in a national way, to rebuild the temple, and give them reign over the world (in destroying the nations and giving them dominion). Now all of these things were taught in scripture, the Jews simply read them with lenses that were not as clean as they could be. Paul read scripture in a very similar way, but after having found Christ, he now read the story as fulfilled in Jesus, and sought to subvert others worldviews and ways of reading the story of Israel. The collection for the saints is key in rereading scripture as fulfilled in Christ.
Isaiah, promised a return from exile, and the bringing in of a new age (Isaiah 40-66), in which Gentiles would bring gifts to the Jews (I believe the 2nd temple Jews read this to mean the pagans would be subservient to them):
This is what the LORD says: The products of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush and the Sabeans, men of stature, will come over to you and will be yours; they will follow you, they will come over in chains; and bow down to you.They will confess to you: God is indeed with you, and there is no other; there is no other God. (Isaiah 45).
The gentiles would come from every direction to relieve and aid Israel. The subservient reading of the text is replace with a Christological one. Instead of them coming as slaves to be ruled, they are coming as slaves of God serving with love and freedom and confessing YHWH as the true God. This reading stays true to the Abrahamic promise (Genesis 12:3, 13:15, 17:8). “God did not promise many families but one family and that one is Christ” (Gal 2:16) (the family of Abraham made one in Christ, see Gal 3:27). The rift between Jew and Gentile would be radically mended by this graceful gift supplied by the Gentile saints.
I suggest based on this reading, that we should abandon the traditional reading of the text, which has Paul commanding and extorting 21st century saints by guilt and condemnation, to give every week, primarily to maintain the building and pay someone’s salary, in favor of a reading more grounded in scripture, which makes sense of the story of Israel, its future in relation to the Gentiles. The collection then must be viewed in lieu of our traditional reading as a fulfillment of God’s plan to deliver Israel from exile and to restore the world to himself in creating and unifying one family–what was lost in Adam is regained in Christ.