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A New Testament Relief Fund (1)

H Barnes, Westhoughton

"A certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem" (Rom 15.26)

Introduction

The Lord Jesus and His disciples gave alms to the poor and encouraged others to do so also (Mt 19.21; 26.9; Mk 10.21; 14.5; Lk 18.22; 19.8). In this context of supporting the poor, the Lord Jesus said, "For ye have the poor always with you" (Mt 26.11; Mk 14.7; Jn 12.8). The assembly at Jerusalem faced this issue early in its history, since those poor who had believed were probably cut off from the temple-based distribution to the Jewish needy. Happily, the "great grace" that was upon the believers in those days (Acts 4.33) resulted in great generosity, so that those with disposable property sold it and brought the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. The accumulated funds were distributed on a daily basis according to the known needs. It is in this circumstance that Barnabas comes to the fore as a generous giver (vv.36-37). The end result was that no-one was in want (v.34).

The problem in Jerusalem

Sadly, this distribution system eventually failed as far as one group was concerned. The Greek-speaking believers began to complain that their widows were being neglected in the daily allocation of relief. It is not clear who was actually doing the distribution, but it is obvious that they were from among the Hebrew speaking believers. The apostles stated that it was not for them to be involved in the practical workings of the daily ministration, seeing that their work was with the word of God, prayer, and ministry (Acts 6.2,4). They put forward the sensible solution that the believers should choose "seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business" (Acts 6.3). This prudent solution pleased all, with the seven brethren chosen given the commendation of the apostles (Acts 6.6). Such work was deemed to be of great importance, as shown by the superior qualities needed by those to be chosen by the assembly. It is interesting that all these well-thought-of men had Greek names! This sensible choice would restore mutual confidence among the various members of the assembly. What the apostles said they themselves did not want was, literally, "to do deacon service" at tables (Acts 6.2). So, effectively, these seven men were deacons in this matter. (Of course the word deacon covers many more situations that just serving in such practical matters.)

Help from Antioch

The needs of the poor saints in the Jerusalem assembly went on being met by local resources until the need outstripped the means. God anticipated such an occurrence when prophets travelled north from Jerusalem to the assembly at Antioch in Syria (Acts 11.27ff). Perhaps the prophets were sent first to Antioch because Barnabas was now there, a man who had already demonstrated his interest in the poor saints at Jerusalem in the most practical way! Agabus, one of the prophets, explained the impending need in detail. He predicted a famine throughout the whole Roman Empire, which actually happened in AD 41 in the reign of Claudius Caesar. Such a shortage of food would inevitably lead to price inflation and result in a great strain on assembly resources in helping the poor. Also, the supply of disposable land and houses would eventually become exhausted and, however generous the saints in the Jerusalem assembly were, their ability to assist the poor would be very limited.

The response on behalf of the assembly at Antioch to the predicted famine was first a determination to send relief, but also that it should be a matter of individual exercise, so it was "every man according to his ability", or to quote J N Darby’s interesting translation (and Robertson’s Word Pictures), "according as any one of the disciples was well off"! The stated determination came to fulfilment in action, and concerning the collection, "which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul".

The delivery and the handing over of the collected funds was the responsibility of Barnabas and Saul. Then the local responsibility was made over to the assembly elders at Jerusalem. This is a significant point, since this is the first mention of assembly elders in the New Testament. These principles are important, since the local elders knew best the particular local needs and could distribute the funds accordingly. Whether they did the actual distribution themselves, or left it to others, as the seven before, we do not know. The eventual situation in assemblies with elders (i.e., bishops) and deacons (see Phil 1.1), could well mean that both were involved. Unlike today, with many ways of transferring money, the physical movement of private funds in such situations in those days was limited to transport by individuals (cp. Phil 4.18). In this case it was entrusted to and undertaken by Barnabas and Saul.

The need to remember the poor

Some years later, Paul and Barnabas (previously Barnabas and Saul - note the change of name and order following the first missionary journey, Acts chs.13-14) went up to Jerusalem to sort out the "circumcision for salvation" problem. This was done and the last words we read of in this respect are when James, Cephas (Peter), and John pleaded that those who had come up to Jerusalem "should remember the poor" (Gal 2.10). Here the verb "remember" is in the present tense, so we understand the request that they should continue to remember the poor, i.e., as they had done previously (see Acts 11.30). Paul stated that he was diligent in this matter. In being prepared to entrust the work of the gospel amongst Gentiles to Paul, this was their last plea. This would give a wonderful opportunity for "the cementing of divine bonds" (W W Fereday) between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Collection of funds from Gentile assemblies

The next time we hear about the collection of funds from Gentile assemblies for the poor saints at Jerusalem is when Paul made suitable arrangements for collecting in assemblies in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia. This was the measure of his diligence in enlarging the collection from merely Syria! It is with respect to his writing about Galatia that we learn about his preferred method of collecting (1 Cor 16.1ff; Acts 18.23). First, it was to be again a matter of individual exercise as to how much they could put aside weekly at home on the Lord’s Day. These individual funds were to be consolidated as assembly gifts in the final gatherings. (Presumably, the assembly was not expected to store money over long periods of time.) The detailed instructions were, "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye [in Corinth]. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come" (1 Cor 16.1-2). The instruction was to "every one of you"; Paul wanted all the assembly involved however little they might be able to give, and it was to be proportionate "as God hath prospered".

To be continued.

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