Paul leaves Ephesus with the intention of returning to Jerusalem for the purpose of delivering the collection to the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. The collection was a gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem believers. Romans 15:26 states that “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” a text written from Corinth in the three-month period after Paul’s Ephesian ministry.
Paul has does this sort collection for Jerusalem before. Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church. This visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10. In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.” The “poor” in mind here are the members of the Jerusalem church, the very people the famine visit was intended to help.
The Jerusalem appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts. Given a famine (and possibly a Jubilee year), the poor believers in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever. Ben Witherington wonders if the handshake was an agreement to continue the financial arrangements between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church (Acts, 429). This is possible since the same sort of language appears in Acts 15 as well, although the collection is not mentioned.
The Collection was unique in the ancient world. The Greco-Roman world has a system of public benefaction, but nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people are solicited for money which is then distributed to the poor. Likewise, in Judaism the poor received Alms from individuals, but money was not collected in mass for re-distribution to the poor. Which the exception of Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51), there are no other examples of this sort of collection of funds.
Since Paul is collecting this money in the Greek world, it would have been unprecedented and would have looked very suspicious. Likely as not, the inclusion of representatives of the churches was meant to give confidence to the churches that Paul was not going to steal the funds and disappear. Notice that in Acts 20:4 there is a list of names traveling with Paul, all likely representatives of Paul’s churches in Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea) Asia Minor (Derbe) Paul was careful to separate his own ministry from the Collection for the Saints. While he did not require churches to give to support him, he is adamant that churches “give what they can” to the Collection.
What is unusual is that Luke does not mention the collection at all, although that seems to be the point of the large part traveling back to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. Why Luke would omit this collection is a mystery – some have speculated that the collection was not well-received by the Jerusalem church, perhaps even rejected. The scene is rather tense in Jerusalem when Paul arrives with a large contingent of Gentiles to deliver the gift.
What was the “point” Paul was trying to make with this collection? If the collection was rejected, why would James (or the Jerusalem Christians) reject the generosity of the Gentile churches?
Bibliography: Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 932-947; S. McKnight, “The Collection for the Saints” in DPL, 143-147. The collection is mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8-9 and Rom 15:25-32.