Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church occupies significant portions of his letters (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32). It is so important to Paul he is willing to face hostility (Romans 15:30-31) and is indeed arrested in Jerusalem in part because of it (Acts 24:17). What compelled Paul to raise funds among his gentile converts for the poor in Jerusalem? Why did he feel this money would be better spent on the Jerusalem poor than on the poor gentiles surrounding the communities where he collected it? What did he hope this offering would accomplish?
In short, Paul sees his outreach to the Gentiles as a ministry to Israel (Romans 11:12-15). God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations (Gentiles) of the world would be blessed (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:15). And Isaiah prophesied
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. (Isaiah 2:2)
Paul’s understands his ministry and particularly this offering as a fulfillment of God’s promises. Through this offering the Gentiles are journeying to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel and in so doing offering themselves as proof to the Jews that Jesus is the one Christians claim him to be.
In Galatians, the origins of the offering appears as a important bridge between Paul’s Gentile ministry and Peter, James and John’s ministry to the Jews. To see this we need to understand the context in which the mention of an offering first appears.
Paul wrote Galatians to defend against Jewish Christians who taught that Gentile believers in Jesus needed to follow the traditions of the Jews. Paul is resolute in his hostility to such a doctrine, eternally condemning any who preach a message other than the one he delivered to them (Galatians 1:8-9). To give context to his opposition, Paul recounts his own history; his former zeal for these traditions, his conversion and his subsequent relationship with the Jerusalem church who are presumably the source of the present conflict.
Paul claims to initailly have been extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers, alluding to God’s commendation of Phineius who killed an Israelite man in the very act of fornicating with a Gentile woman (Numbers 25:1-8). But a revelation of Jesus and Paul’s call to the Gentiles changes all that. Without consulting anyone (once again presumably leaders in Jerusalem), Paul journeys to Arabia (2:17) and possibly even Mt. Sinai (4:25). Its only three years later that Paul briefly meets some of the apostles, Peter and James, in Jerusalem. In all this Paul stresses that his message came from God and not from any man.
14 years pass before Paul feels compelled to consult with these leaders in Jerusalem again. Paul presents the message he preaches among the Gentiles privately to them in the hope that they will see it from his point of view. Peter and James agree that they should go to the Jews and Paul should continue his outreach among the Gentiles. The one thing they ask is that he “continue to remember the poor.”
This last phrase, “continue to remember the poor,” appears to refer specifically to the poor in Jerusalem. Paul gives ample evidence to a serious tension that existed between Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and his ministry among the Gentiles. That this meeting and agreement occurred “in private” likewise suggests that Peter and James felt apprehensive in giving Paul the right hand of fellowship. A financial offering from Paul and his Gentile converts would certainly help to smooth out any difficulty that might develop among the believers in Jerusalem.
There are also other reasons to see this phrase as a reference to the poor in Jerusalem.
James and Peter’s request that Paul “continue to remember the poor” indicates that this something Paul is already doing. If Galatians is written prior to the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), than this meeting occurred when Paul delivered aid from the church in Antioch to the famine starved church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30).
Paul claims his offering for the Jersualem church is for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 16:26).
His audience would presumably understand the shorthand reference since they themselves had been instructed about Paul’s collection (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
Paul’s commitment to the poor in Jerusalem does not originate with Peter and James. It’s an idea which appears to be fundamental to his understanding of his ministry among the Gentiles. This can been seen in his letter to the Romans.
Scholars are apt to point out that Paul wrote to the Romans to prepare for a further missionary trip to spain (Romans 15:23-24). But what we often overlook is that Paul’s occasion for writing is more immediately connected with his journey to Jerusalem where he will finally deliver this gentile offering. (Romans 15:26-32). And it apparently weighs heavily on his mind (Romans 15:31).
Read in this light, the theme of Jew and Gentile makes a great deal more sense. Romans is a meditation on Paul’s gospel and what he hopes to achieve through his ministry to the gentiles. In Romans 11:13-14 Paul states
I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.
It appears highly likely that Paul saw this arousal as coming from the prophetic fulfillment of a later day worship of God among the Gentiles.