Paul’s concern for the poor saints at Jerusalem was a burning issue that passionately manifested itself in his writings. He mentions it in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, spends two chapters on it in 2 Corinthians (8-9), and alludes to this circumstance in his letter to the Romans (15:26-27).In addition, the apostle introduces the topic in his defense before the Roman governor, Felix (Acts 24:17).
This episode can be profitably discussed under the following divisions. (1) The emergency; (2) the problem; (3) the motivation towards a cure; and, (4) the potential blessings. Let us briefly look at each of these factors.
(1) The Need — The church in Jerusalem was in desperate straits. For various reasons (not the least of which was persecution — cf. Acts 8:1; 12:1), food, clothing, and shelter were needed. For assistance, these “poor” saints (Romans 15:26) could look only to God, and his providential instruments — other brethren.
(2) Slackers — While some had generously helped, others (e.g., the Corinthian Christians) had promised to do so, but had dragged their feet. This was the aim of Paul’s loving rebuke in 2 Corinthians 8-9. These neglectful saints must be stirred to activity (8:10-11). It is a sad reality of history that not infrequently those who have been blessed the most are the least generous. Surely God will not hold such blameless.
(3) Motivation — While stern rebuke is needed for the listless on certain occasions, it is not the highest motivation for change. In this case, Paul employs two examples to “jump-start” the hearts of the Corinthians to do what they had: promised to do, were able to do, were obligated to do, but had not done.
The first example is that of the noble Macedonian Christians. These saints were impoverished themselves; the apostle describes their situation as one of “deep poverty.”Incredibly, however, rather than adopting the “let’s-take-care-of-us-first” ideology, their poverty “abounded unto the riches of their generosity” (8:2). They stretched themselves beyond their ability to give — so much so that they actually had to persuade Paul to take their gifts (8:4)! That is magnificently stunning!
What was it that so empowered these impoverished brothers and sisters to sacrifice as they did? Doubtless it was the example of Christ himself, a point which Paul introduces in this very context. “For you know the grace [favor] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich” (8:9). This verse is breathtaking; it stirs the soul of the spiritual. By way of contrast, those who cannot be moved to help others only demonstrate how little appreciation they have for the gift of the Lord Jesus. N.B. Hardeman once noted that the covetous are the most un-Christ-like of all earth’s inhabitants.
(4) The Blessings — The blessings in responding to Paul’s admonition would be manifold. First, the generous spirit would produce wondrous returns on behalf of the givers. He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly; he who sows bountifully, reaps bountifully (9:6). Second, the gracious gifts of the Gentile Christians for their impoverished Jewish kinsmen in the Lord would help cement relations between the two, each segment being assisted by the other’s contribution to their welfare (Romans 15:27).
That this effort was successful is strikingly confirmed by Luke in describing Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, as he brings the contributions to the poor saints. “And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly” (Acts 21:17). Mission accomplished!