A common theme in several of the letters written by the apostle Paul to the churches is collecting money for the church at Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-28,1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8, and Galatians 2:10). I think this verse from Galatians sums up Paul’s desire to help the saints in Jerusalem. 

All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

Galatians 2:10 (NIV)

In the book of Acts, we read about Paul in Ephesus. Specifically, we read about how some people responded to the Gospel message. 

A number of them who had been practicing sorcery brought their incantation books and burned them at a public bonfire. The value of the books was several million dollars.

Acts 19:19 (NLT)

Since Paul was eager to help the poor, why did he not direct those Ephesians to sell those books instead of burning them? After all, several million dollars would have been a massive boon to the church in Jerusalem; in fact, one might think that such a donation would have taken care of all of their financial needs for a very long time! 

It wasn’t like Paul was staying in Ephesus and wouldn’t have been able to go to Jerusalem with the money because of what we read here in Acts 19:21.

After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.”

Acts 19:21 (NIV)

Therefore, Paul could have taken the proceeds from the book sales to help the poor in Jerusalem. So, why weren’t the books sold and the money given to the poor? 

Before I dive into that question, I want to point out that it’s not a new question. At least, the concept. We see the same question asked in Matthew when a woman poured an expensive jar of alabaster perfume on Jesus’ head (Matthew 26:7). 

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

Matthew 26:8-9 (NIV)

Jesus gave three reasons to the disciples that day. 

The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.

Matthew 26:11 (NIV)

She did it to prepare me for burial.

Matthew 26:12 (NIV)

“Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Matthew 26:13 (NIV)

Let’s consider the third reason. What the woman did stood out as something remarkable. So remarkable that it’s in the Gospel, and like Jesus said, people still talk about it. If the jar of perfume had been sold, would that have made it into the Gospel message? Even if the proceeds went to the poor?

Consider the books that were burnt and their value. What stands out? That books were burnt, or that valuable books were burnt?

While I don’t think Paul considered the value of the books and thought their burning would make for a memorable occasion, it is worth considering; that they destroyed valuable items that could have been used to feed, clothe, and shelter the poor.

In Deuteronomy 7, the Lord instructed the Israelites on how to treat the nations driven out of the Promised Land. God also told them what to do with the idolatrous stuff left behind. 

The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it, for it is detestable to the Lord your God. Do not bring a detestable thing into your house or you, like it, will be set apart for destruction. Regard it as vile and utterly detest it, for it is set apart for destruction (emphasis added).

Deuteronomy 7:25-26 (NIV)

When Jesus talked about things that caused a person to sin, he gave us this instruction.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Matthew 5:29 (NIV)

Furthermore, when Jesus was asked about the greatest of the commandments, he remarked on two.

Jesus replied: “‘ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (emphasis added).

Matthew 22:37-39 (NIV)

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus makes this declaration about those who cause others to sin.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

Mark 9:42 (NIV)

Between Deuteronomy 7:25-26 and Matthew 5:9, we learn that it’s better to destroy the things that cause us to sin instead of messing around with them or ignoring them. Matthew 5:9 also teaches us that it doesn’t matter how valuable something in this world might be; our eternal souls are worth more. This is one reason Paul allowed those valuable books to be destroyed. If those books had been sold, they would have been around to tempt someone else. How would Paul be showing love for his neighbors by allowing them to be ensnared by evil books? 

Although Jesus wasn’t talking about unbelievers in Mark 9:42, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we don’t leave anything around that will harm them, do we? 

Aside from destroying sinful things and keeping them out of other people’s hands, we read that the books were burnt publicly. It’s logical to presume that those people who practiced those magical arts did so publicly, so destroying their books publicly was a great testimony to others. 

While I abhor the practice of misguided people burning books throughout the ages, I stand behind the fact that there are things in our lives that must be destroyed when we turn from them. Unlike those magical books burned or the prominent idols left behind for the Israelites, the things in our lives might not be so obvious. The more we value something, the more likely that thing might have a hold over us.

Because the things that trip us up aren’t always so obvious, we must pray, fast, and read our Bibles. Through our daily fellowship with Christ, we become attuned to the Holy Spirit and what he tells us.