An abrupt transition occurs in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Heretofore, Paul has been speaking in lofty theological terms about lofty theological themes. Now, however, he offers four verses of advice on the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of giving. The transition is, if you think about it, a marvelous comment on the Christian life, for the life of faith includes everything from the sublime to the mundane. No aspect of life is untouched by God’s grace. Our ideas must change, and so must our habits – even our spending habits.
“Now about the collection for God’s people….”
In the early church, a dispute arose as to whether a person must become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Christianity is, of course, Jewish. Our Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. Jesus himself was a fully observant Jew, as were all the writers of the New Testament, except Luke, who was a Gentile. Although the early church dispute is not a live issue for us today, in the first century, it nearly drove the church apart. As you can read in Acts 15, a church council met in Jerusalem and decided that Gentile converts were not required to under circumcision, eat a kosher diet, or in any way observe the Jewish ceremonial law.
Reflecting on this council, Paul writes of the division of missionary labor that resulted from the Jerusalem Council: “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:9-10).
The collection for God’s people – especially the poor Christians in Jerusalem – was Paul’s way of keeping his promise. Not only did this collection demonstrate Christian concern for the social well-being of the poor, but it also demonstrated the love of Gentile Christians for Jewish Christians. The offering was a way of supplying needs and bringing people together. In a first-century world where ethnic and religious differences were sharp and strong, and in a church that was still trying to figure out how to be united in spite of these differences, a generous offering for the Jewish poor from Gentile converts would go a long way toward uniting the church.
And, we might add, toward facilitating exuberant worship. “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:12-15).
As I already wrote, the Jewish-Gentile division in the early church is no longer a live issue for us today, but there are still poor people in our church and in our community. We are, let’s face it, a comparatively wealthy church, and our affluence sometimes makes the poor or the homeless or the otherwise “different” uncomfortable in our presence. What better way to supply their needs, welcome them into our community, and inspire them to worship God than by blessing them materially?