1 Corinthians 16—Can Money Create Unity?—and Other Earthy Details

1 Corinthians series, Bible study lesson 18

by Reta Halteman Finger

Ancient Roman Coin
Ancient Roman Currency

In the last lesson we saw how Paul’s resurrection theology climaxes his argument, but this is not the end of the letter. Although ancient Greek scrolls had no paragraphing or punctuation, the words, “now concerning…” in 1 Corinthians 16 imply a new topic, just as we saw in chapters 7, 8, and 12. Here the topic concerns “the collection for the saints.”

After the soaring rhetoric about the end of death and the final victory of God, we fall back to earth amid the clink of coins. What is this “collection”? As a perceptive student of these lessons, you will remember that in 1 Corinthians 9 (See Bible study lesson 9), Paul explains at length why he refuses financial support. Why is he now collecting money?

Actually, this collection is a big deal for Paul. He devotes two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 and much of Romans 15 to the collection he wants to take “to the saints in Jerusalem.” Paul manipulates his audience as well as any door-to-door salesman or telephone fund-raiser. He encourages his audience to put aside any extra money they make each week so he won’t need to hassle them when he gets there (1 Cor. 16:2). In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7, he tells them how very generous the Philippian and Thessalonian churches in Macedonia have been—they were “begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry “(!). Then he piles it on by reversing the situation in 9:1-2—how he boasted to the Macedonians, “saying that the people of Achaia [Corinthians] have been ready since last year!” Paul even puts off a visit to Rome in order to backtrack to Jerusalem first (Romans 15:25-29).

Why is this collection so important?

Acts 11:27-30 mentions a widespread and severe famine during the reign of Emperor Claudius, which hit Jerusalem quite hard. Before Paul started his missionary journeys, he and Barnabas had taken relief to the believers in Judea from Christians in Syrian Antioch. No doubt Paul wants to help the mother church survive financially.

But Paul is also a clever politician. He knows there are plenty of conservative believers in Jerusalem who are wary of his evangelism among gentiles. Even though they did reach a compromise years earlier (Acts 15), there are surely Pharisees in the Jerusalem church who think male gentiles must first be circumcised in order to be saved (15:1). So in order to insure the unity of Jews and gentiles together in one church of Jesus Christ, Paul wants his gentile churches to feel obligated to repay the Palestinian Jews for bringing them the gospel. In Romans 15:26-27, Paul writes, “Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem…and indeed they owe it to them, for if the gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”

Getting from here to there.

Paul offers to let his collection be carried to Jerusalem with letters by any approved Corinthian believers (1 Cor. 16:3-4). The trip will also be dangerous. Money in the Roman Empire existed only in metals. There was no paper money, let alone checks or wire transfers; coins had to be lugged in bags to their destination.

Some of the remains of the city of Caesarea, headquarters of the Roman governor in Palestine. Paul was imprisoned here for two years before being sent to Rome. (Photo by Reta Halteman Finger)
Some of the remains of the city of Caesarea, headquarters of the Roman governor in Palestine.
Paul was imprisoned here for two years before being sent to Rome. (Photo by Reta Halteman Finger)

What became of this collection? Sadly, we don’t know. Paul writes to the Romans while visiting Corinth at a later date, just as he himself is leaving for Jerusalem with the collection. Romans is the last undisputed letter we have from Paul; none of the later letters attributed to him mention the collection. Luke writes Acts some years later, telling us about Paul’s visit in Jerusalem, but never mentioning the collection. Instead, Paul is arrested, tried, and imprisoned for two years in Caesarea before his appeal to the emperor sends him in chains to Rome. Lack of known success in this venture reminds me of Paul’s metaphor in 2 Corinthians 4:7—we are only clay jars holding the treasure of God’s glory. Sometimes those jars get broken…

Further details and final greetings.

  • Paul cannot visit Corinth in person at this time. Timothy will represent him, though he apparently lacks Paul’s commanding presence. Treat him well! (16:10-11).
  • Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus have all come from Corinth, and will carry Paul’s letter back to the churches there (16:17-18).
  • Paul wants Apollos, the golden orator whom some Corinthians believers prefer to Paul (1 Cor.1:12), to return to Corinth with these brothers, but he refuses (1 Cor. 16:12). Does Paul hint at some rivalry between him and Apollos? The text is ambiguous.
  • Paul is still in Asia Minor with co-workers, Prisca and Aquila (1 Cor. 16:19). Later, this couple will return to their native Rome after the death of Claudius and the lapse of the anti-Jewish edict—and set up another house church there (Rom. 16:3-5).
  • I will echo Paul’s final words to his beloved but fractious churches in Corinth: “Maranatha—our Lord, come! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. My love be with all of you.”

Questions for reflection:

  1. If we assume the collection did not reach the Jerusalem church, what effect do you think this has had on Jew/gentile relations in the later church?
  2. How important to you is contributing to needy churches around the world today?
  3. My next and last lesson on Corinthians will trace the further relationship of Paul with his Corinthian house churches.

What biblical document would you like to study next?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.