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Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountain in Galilee and gave them the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16–20). They were to carry the light of the gospel throughout a sinfully dark world and call unbelievers to repentance and faith. But Christians often forget that this same gospel also advances within the church, and it does so through the care that we show for those of the household of faith: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10, emphasis added). But what is the connection between the gospel of grace and the Christian obligation to care for others in the church? The best answer comes from considering the Jerusalem Collection.

The Jerusalem Collection was a focal point in the Apostle Paul’s ministry. He mentions it several times in his letters (Rom. 15:25–29; 1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8–9; Gal. 2:10), and it involved the act of collecting money and resources from predominantly gentile churches to give to the poor saints in Jerusalem. At first glance, the collection appears to be a socially mundane act in the early church. But in reality, it was deeply theological and profoundly gospel-oriented. Everything in Paul’s life and ministry, from his leatherworking trade to his preaching ministry to the Jerusalem Collection, was undergirded by a robust theology rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Two facts about the Jerusalem Collection confirm this.

First, the collection was a concrete manifestation of the mystery of the gospel. The “mystery,” according to Ephesians 3:6, is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (emphasis added). A common faith in the gospel of Christ makes Jews and gentiles one “in Christ” (Gal. 3:28; see also Col. 3:11). What better way to exemplify this union than by caring for one another as a single household?

Second, the collection was a concrete manifestation of grace. We see this in 2 Corinthians 8–9. The only other place where Paul mentions grace more than in these two chapters is Romans 5. (That’s saying something!) Yet what he’s saying often gets lost in translation. “Grace” (Greek charis) appears ten times (2 Cor. 8:1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 16, 19; 9:8, 14, 15), but sometimes it gets undertranslated—as “favor” (8:4), for example. The word “grace” simply means “gift.” The content of the gift is determined by its context. In 2 Corinthians 8–9, it can refer to the person and work of Jesus Christ: “For you know the grace [charis] 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” (8:9). Or it can refer to the material gift of money or resources that the gentile believers give to others in the household of faith. For instance, the Macedonians begged Paul for “the charis of taking part in the relief of the saints” (v. 4). This is why John Barclay writes that the collection is “a financial and social arrangement rooted by Paul in a profound theology of gift,” depicting a profound “relationship between the Christ-gift [i.e., the gospel] and the practice of generosity.”

If we’re honest, our duty is not always our delight.

All this helps us answer our initial question: What is the connection between the gospel of grace and the Christian obligation to care for others in the church? Grace and obligation are often pitted against each other, as if one dealt more with a voluntary gift and the other more with compulsory loans. This bifurcation breaks down when we consider some key texts regarding the collection.

Paul clearly wants believers to care for others voluntarily, not by compulsion: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7). He even explains that his directions about contributing to the collection are not “a command” (8:8). In Romans 15, however, Paul likens the collection to an obligation. When describing the contributions of the Macedonian and Achaian churches to the collection, he explains that “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 blessings” (v. 27, emphasis added). “Owe”? “Ought”? Those words carry an obligatory, perhaps even compulsory, tone. And yet notice what Paul says just before this. These churches “have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them” (vv. 26–27, emphasis added). This is a voluntary obligation.

Caring for those in the household of faith is something we get to do, not have to do—“as we have opportunity” (Gal. 6:10) and “according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Cor. 8:12). But if we’re honest, our duty is not always our delight, and this is precisely where the gospel comes in.

The whole point of 2 Corinthians 8–9 is to galvanize the Corinthians to contribute to the collection. So how does Paul do it? He gives them the gospel. He gives them Christ—grace Himself (see Titus 2:11, 13), who “loved [us] and gave himself for [us]” (Gal. 2:20)—and anticipates the gospel’s powerfully transforming their apathy, greed, and self-preservation and advancing through their faith and their love for the saints (2 Cor. 8:7–8). In fact, after getting a clear glimpse of Jesus’ self-giving love in the gospel, he sees the poor saints in Jerusalem as “glorify[ing] God because of [the Corinthians’] submission that comes from [their] confession of the gospel of Christ” (9:13, emphasis added). The gospel can turn a duty into a delight, for with the gift of the gospel comes the Giver. He can make “all grace abound to you,” so that “you may abound in every good work” (v. 8), especially in the household of God. This is why Paul ends by declaring, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (v. 15), because only the gift of grace in our hearts can voluntarily open a closed hand toward a neighbor in need.

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