We can know a lot about the Apostle Paul’s thinking and ministry methods from studying the New Testament. But we can also learn a lot about the underlying heart affections that motivated him to do his ministry.
Paul was not a cold-hearted, ivory tower theologian. He was a risk-taking church planting missionary with a heart for mercy. Two of the most prominent objects that captured his heart for mercy were the lost and the poor.
His heart of mercy for the lost includes both Gentiles and Jews without a saving knowledge of Jesus. Yet Paul had another object of his merciful heart much less known. Throughout his ministry and writings, he places a high priority on encouraging the churches to show mercy to the poor.
During Paul’s ministry, under the rule of the Roman Emperor “Claudius” (Acts 11:28), there were several years of bad harvests resulting in a widespread famine. Israel and Jerusalem were hit especially hard. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, writes about the impact of the famine on Jerusalem. “[T]here was a famine in the land that overtook them, and many people died of starvation.” (Antiquities 20, chapter 1.3-2.5)
So, how did Paul respond?
He did not ignore it and just continue doing his church planting work, as if the only thing that matters are people’s souls. Instead, throughout all the years of his ministry, wherever he planted and developed churches, he called on the churches to show mercy to the poor.
More than once, Paul established relief funds for the poor.This is why significant portions of his letters focus on financial collections he was receiving from the Gentile churches to deliver to the poor among the Jewish believers in the Jerusalem church. (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32)
In Acts 11:28 we read that after hearing about the “great famine over all the world … the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). These “disciples” were the leaders and members of the Antioch church – Paul’s sending church. In Acts 11:30, we learn what happened next: “And they did so, sending it to the elders [at the Jerusalem church] by the hand of Barnabas and Saul [Paul].”
Paul saw his commitment to help raise and deliver money for the relief of the poor as a vital and deeply spiritual part of his ministry for which he was willing to take great risks and sacrifice (Rom 15:30-31).
When Paul, along with Barnabas and Titus, went to Jerusalem to meet with the elders and Apostles to take the offering, he also set before them the message of the gospel he was proclaiming to the Gentiles. Paul wanted the Apostle’s affirmation of the gospel he was preaching “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Gal 2:2).
After the Apostles and elders heard about Paul’s message and ministry, they strongly affirmed his message and his ministry to the Gentiles by giving him “the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9).” But Paul wrote that these “pillars” of the Jerusalem church had one special request they wanted him to remember as he continued to proclaim the gospel to all the Gentiles. He wrote, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10).
Showing mercy to the poor was not just a duty to Paul. He was “eager” to continue remembering the poor in his church planting among the Gentile nations.
Why was he so eager to care for the poor?
His eagerness was not only because of his compassion. Instead, Paul saw the church’s participation in giving sacrificially for the poor as an act of worship. To the church at Corinth, Paul wrote about the financial collection he was receiving from the Gentile churches for the poor in Jerusalem.
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. (1 Cor 16:1-2)
The Greek term Paul uses for “the collection” (λογεία) has strong worship overtones. It was intended to be a significant part of their Lord’s Day gatherings for worship.
In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul tells them about an amazing display of God’s grace toward the poor in Jerusalem shown among the churches of Macedonia (Europe) who themselves were suffering “severe afflictions” and “extreme poverty.” Paul writes:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 Cor 8:1-4)
Paul saw this example of the poor churches in Macedonia giving sacrificially and cheerfully to the poor churches in Jerusalem as originating from one source, “the grace of God.” A few verses later, Paul amplified this saying, “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 Cor 8:9).
In this succinct summary of the gospel, Paul reminds them and us of the amazing grace of God that is ours only because Jesus sacrificed all his heavenly riches so we would no longer be spiritually poor. And here Paul calls them, and us, to draw deeply from the riches of God’s grace toward us in Christ and give sacrificially and generously, not only our money, but also our lives for the sake of the poor.
Paul makes clear to one of the Macedonian churches at Philippi, that their giving to him was about much more than helping him or others in need. He says it was for their sake. He writes, “Not that I seek the gift but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit” (Phil 4:17).
What was this credit, this benefit, he longed for all the members of the churches to receive through the sacrificial giving of their lives and money to the poor? It was for them to experience doing this in response to God’s mercy to them, as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).
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