by John O. Reid (1930-2016)
When I was a young man, I occasionally attended a Protestant church. I recall the hard, wooden pews and the songbook holders built right into the back of the bench in front of me. Along with the songbooks, little note-paper-sized boxes filled with offering envelopes also hung from the back of the pews.
To take my mind off the discomfort of the pew, I would pick up an offering envelope and read the scripture printed on the back. The church had chosen to use I Corinthians 16:1-3:
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters, I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem.
At the time, as far as I was concerned, this scripture seemed to be the right one to put on the back of the offering envelopes, but now I realize that it was truly terrible scholarship.
What do these verses say? Protestants think it means three things:
1. That a collection should be taken up for an offering to God.
2. That it should be done every week at church services.
3. That we should attend church on the first day of the week.
We will see that it does not mean these things at all.
A Collection for the Saints
Immediately, we notice that this collection, a gift from the congregation in Corinth, was for "the saints" (verse 1). It was not a tithe or an offering to God for the support of the ministry and its work. Notice Paul's salutation to the Philippian church: "Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi . . ." (Philippians 1:1; see Romans 1:7; II Corinthians 1:1). The brethren of the church are the saints. Thus, this collection was a gift from the Corinthian congregation to the one in Jerusalem (I Corinthians 16:3).
Why had Paul "given orders to the churches of Galatia" (verse 1) to send a gift to Jerusalem? The immediate context does not say, but other verses fill in the missing details:
And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:27-30)
Knowing that a severe famine was to strike the Roman world—and hit Judea especially hard—church members everywhere decided to give their brethren in Palestine as much aid as they were able to provide. Though they may have wondered why God would allow them to endure this harsh trial, the members of the church made the most of the situation, trusting that God would bring them through it and bless them for it. The easiest and least expensive way to accomplish this was to send their contributions with Paul and Barnabas as they returned to Jerusalem.
When Paul reminded them of the collection, he did not mention a church service. Knowing that it took time to reach each of the churches, he told the people to lay aside what they were planning to give, so that when he arrived he would not have to wait while they gathered it (see II Corinthians 9:5). He specified the first day of the week for this task. As this work was strenuous, he did not want them to do any of it on the Sabbath day.
Nor does Paul specifically mention money in these scriptures. He uses the words "collection," "something" and "gift." How do we know the gift was not just money? The apostle writes, "And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem" (verse 3). If it were simply money, he would not need a bearer; he could put the money in a bag and carry it himself.
In a parallel passage to the church in Rome, Paul explains, "Therefore, when I have performed this and have sealed to them this fruit, I shall go by way of you to Spain" (Romans 15:28). Literally, the phrase "sealed . . . this fruit" means "secured this produce." It is likely that the Corinthians were sending foodstuffs, which would require the help of others during the trip to Judea.
An Example to Us
Clearly, Protestant churches that use this section of Scripture on their offering envelopes lack a basic understanding of these verses. Yet, even if we understand the circumstance behind Paul's command, we can miss the lesson that it teaches. We would hardly think that a famine would produce spiritual fruit, but that is the lesson for us: It did! God was in charge of the situation and knew exactly what He was doing and what He wanted to accomplish.
One aspect of the famine and the churches' relief has not yet been emphasized: The Jews in Judea suffered, and the Gentiles of Achaia and Macedonia sent them aid. Years before, when they heard that God was increasingly calling Gentiles into the church, the Jews had harbored hard feelings against them and required things of the Gentiles that God had not (see Acts 15:1-5). This had inflamed existing frictions between the two groups, and Paul spent years trying to heal the wounds.
Even though they were converted, the old prejudices continued to crop up from time to time. But God in His love and wisdom used the famine and the Gentiles' aid to help the church to learn and grow together as a family. Understanding this, Paul asks the Romans for prayers about this matter:
For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things. . . . Now I beg you, brethren, through the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the love of the Spirit, that you strive together with me in prayers to God for me, that I may be delivered from those in Judea who do not believe, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you. (Romans 15:27, 30-32)
Paul's intent was to use the collection of food for the Judean brethren as a means to mend and build the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles. He desired to see them join together in loving acceptance and appreciation of their equality in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 2:11-22). And these things did indeed occur. II Corinthians 8 and 9 describe the spiritual fruit—the love, zeal, liberality, submission to God—that was produced in the Macedonian and Achaian churches through their generous gifts.
Is There a Famine Today?
Though such a situation arose in the first century, we might think that no similar crisis exists in our time. But a much more severe crisis rages today! The church of God is suffering a tragic famine of the Word of God! The prophet Amos writes,
"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, "That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but shall not find it." (Amos 8:11-12)
For over fifty years, God's people fed on a constant, spiritual diet provided through the work of the church and Christ's chosen ministers, but upon the death of Herbert W. Armstrong, the larder grew sparse. Many of God's doctrines have been changed, and the emphasis and goal of true Christianity have been ridiculed, attacked and laid aside. We have seen many of our brethren leave the fellowship of the church and wander "to and fro" in a fruitless search for spiritual sustenance. Many people feel at a loss, fearful, unstable, frustrated, angry, bitter and confused.
We live in a time of spiritual starvation.
Many who have come out of this confusion have expressed an urgent desire to continue to warn the world—they call it "doing the Work." There is no doubt that this aspect of the Work of God is important, but God will see to it that the world is warned. In the near future, the work of the Two Witnesses will primarily center on warning the world through preaching emphasized with tremendous miracles (Revelation 11:1-10).
But for the present, what is the most necessary work of the church? When a famine occurs, the most important task is to feed those who are starving! It is no different during a spiritual famine—feed the flock!
In a special edition of The Worldwide News, June 24, 1985, Mr. Armstrong repeatedly stated that we are students in the school of the church. As such, we need to be instructed to fulfill the duties we will have in God's Kingdom as teachers and rulers or priests and kings (Revelation 1:6). As Mr. Armstrong said, he had finished the work God gave him to do and urged that we get ready for Christ's return.
The author of Hebrews echoes this idea in Hebrews 13:20-21:
Now may the God of peace who brought up our Lord Jesus from the dead, that great Shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
With the nations in such turmoil, careening this world toward the edge of the precipice, we can all see the need to be prepared for the terrible times ahead. Indeed, this IS the time to get ready! God's purpose for His people at this time is to overcome and be perfected so we can perform our duties as kings and priests in His Kingdom! If we fail in this task now, we may not survive—physically or spiritually—the turbulent and dangerous days approaching.
Those of our brethren still deluded by the changes—and many who are just coming out of them—have not realized how poor their spiritual diets have been. Like prisoners of war who are fed just enough to keep them alive, the members of God's church have received starvation rations for years. They have received almost no spiritual nourishment, and too many are dropping in their tracks!
Just as God allowed His people to endure a physical famine in Judea, so He has permitted us to go through a spiritual famine. In both cases, He did so with a purpose in mind. Even through sore trial, if we overcome it, God can produce thankfulness, faith, unity and love. Great blessings often follow even the darkest of trials. We only need to see the example of the church in the book of Acts to understand that God uses the fruits wrought during trials to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God even further.
If we for a moment think that God is not fully aware of the present famine of the Word, we are greatly mistaken! He is using this famine to test us, work with us and perfect us. How many people have we heard saying, "I have been forced to study and prove what is the truth like never before"?
Like during the famine in Judea, it is still possible to obtain food. It is imperative for us to try to have the finest diet possible, for only by eating sound, strong, spiritual food will we be able to stand and please God in this end time (Ephesians 6:13). If we cannot get this nourishment, we will faint (Isaiah 40:28-31)!
Remaining in an environment of compromise will eventually take its toll on our spiritual health. Paul advises: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?" (II Corinthians 6:14). Just a few verses later, he writes:
As God has said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people." Therefore "Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you." (verses 16-17)
As the Shepherd of Psalm 23, Christ will supply our needs fully, for He does not want us to lack proper nourishment (verse 1). He desires that we find a green pasture, abundantly supplied with food and drink, where we can lie down in peace (verse 2). One of the purposes of the Church of the Great God is to be such a refuge for those who wish to feed and grow in God's character.
No Time to Waste
Among the bounty with which God has blessed America, we really cannot appreciate famine. We do not relate to the pictures of starving children in parts of Africa and other places of the world. Yet, we can relate to the spiritual starvation of the past few years. We have lived through it and are still recovering from it.
If we find ourselves letting down in prayer, Bible study, meditation and fasting—if we see we are becoming malnourished—it is paramount that we remedy the situation immediately. We have no time to waste! Once we do this, God can then do His part to encourage, perfect and complete His purpose in us.
Though the times are difficult and often our footing is unsure on the shifting moral ground of this world, search out the truth of God and stand firm on it! No matter what happens—famine, war, captivity, death—God's purpose is sure, and He will deliver and reward His people (I Peter 1:3-9)!