A self-supporting missionary
Paul was a Jew who lived in the Roman Empire. His Hebrew name was Saul and his Greek name was Paul. He would have learnt his trade of tent-making as a youth as it was the Jewish custom to provide manual training for their sons (Acts 18:3). As the son of a Pharisee, at the age of 13-15 he was sent to Jerusalem to study the Jewish religion under Gamaliel, an eminent teacher of Jewish law (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5). Until his miraculous conversion, Paul was a fanatical Pharisee who persecuted Christians (Gal. 1:13-14). After all, according to Deuteronomy “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (Dt. 21:23NIV). He would have thought: “How could the Messiah be one who died a criminal’s death and was cursed by God?”
Called and commended
Paul was called and commended to be a pioneer missionary to Gentiles in lands around the Mediterranean Sea (Acts 9:15; Gal 1:15; 2:9). Before his first missionary journey, the Holy Spirit told the church in Antioch, “‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). During his second missionary journey, Paul was told in a vision; “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).
His message was “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus came from Heaven to save us, died for our sins in our place, was raised from death and was seen by many after His resurrection. He now sits at the right hand of God who has given Him all power and authority, including the right to act as judge of all humanity. By trusting in Christ’s work we can be rescued from the coming judgment.
Let’s investigate what enabled Paul to undertake his life’s mission.
Second missionary journey
On his second missionary journey with Silas, Luke and Timothy, Paul was supported by the hospitality of believers. At Philippi, they stayed with Lydia and after a spectacular night in jail the jailer gave them a meal (Acts 16:15, 34). They stayed with Jason at Thessalonica (Acts 7:7), while at Corinth they stayed with Aquila and Priscilla for 1.5 years (Acts 18:2-3, 11). The Bible says, “because he was a tent-maker as they were, he stayed and worked with them”. So, he worked at his trade of tent-making to pay his living expenses. By the way, his main training was to be a Jewish rabbi and tent-making was a manual skill he would have learnt when he was younger.
While in Corinth Paul wrote two letters to the church in Thessalonica. As Christ’s apostles, they were entitled to financial support from the Thessalonians, but they worked day and night to provide for their own needs (1 Th. 2:6; 9). They didn’t want to be a burden to the believers who were poor and persecuted. As he didn’t want to be unduly dependant on others, Paul earned his own living while he was preaching there.
Paul explains this further when he addresses those who had stopped working for a living because they expected the Lord’s return: “you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat’” (2 Th. 3:7-10).
Paul worked night and day at his trade of tent-making, in order to pay people for the food that he was eating.
Third missionary journey
Paul and his companions continued to be supported by the hospitality of believers on his third missionary journey. At Caesarea, they stayed with Philip the evangelist, while they stayed with Mnason at Jerusalem (Acts 21:8-10, 15-16). At Corinth, they may have stayed with Stephanas as his household “devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 16:15). He also told those in Rome to “practice hospitality” (Rom. 12:13).
On this trip, Paul spent three years at Ephesus (Acts 20:31). He may have stayed with Aquila and Priscilla who had moved there from Corinth (Acts 18:18-19; 1 Cor. 16:19). While he was there he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth and when he got to Macedonia, he wrote a second letter.
Paul said that the apostles supported themselves by working hard with their own hands and he urged the Corinthians to imitate him (1 Cor. 4:12, 16). Although he had the right as an apostle to financial support (1 Cor. 9:4-14), he didn’t use this right in Corinth (he says this three times v12, 15, 18). Instead he worked so as not to give his critics any ground for accusing him of preaching for money (1 Cor. 9:14-18). He offered the gospel free of charge so the message would not be hindered. This was an example of self-denial or self-sacrifice for the good of others. He noted that Barnabas also worked to support himself (1 Cor. 9:6). This suggests that Paul and Barnabas supported themselves on the first missionary journey as it was the only one they made together.
This message was repeated twice in his second letter:
- When Paul was with the Corinthians he didn’t receive any financial assistance from them (2 Cor. 11:7-9). But he did receive support from other churches, including those in Macedonia. He boasted that he preached the gospel free of charge and was not a burden to anyone.
- Also, He didn’t receive financial support because he didn’t want to be a burden on them and because he wanted them and not their possessions (2 Cor. 12:13-18). When Paul sent Titus to Corinth, Titus lived like Paul in working in an occupation so he would not have to be supported by the Corinthians.
Paul wasn’t like the false teachers who peddled the word of God for profit and tried to turn the ministry into a profitable profession (2 Cor.2:17; 11:20). In Micah’s time there were leaders who judged for a bribe, priests who taught for a price and prophets who told fortunes for money (Mi. 3:11).
Paul also wrote, “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited” (2 Cor. 6:3). He knew that some people look for an excuse not to listen to the message of salvation. So he was scrupulous and lived beyond reproach. He was characterised by “hard work”, which would have included manual labour such as tent-making.
When farewelling the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul said, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:33-35). So he also did tent-making in Ephesus. He didn’t seek material reward. Instead he worked hard making tents to provide for his needs and the needs of those who served with him. He believed that it is more blessed to give than to receive. This was a great example to the spiritually immature who were tempted to be lazy or greedy.
Prisoner in Rome
The church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus with gifts to take care of Paul when he was imprisoned in Rome (Phil. 2:25). Twice they had sent him financial support when he was a missionary in Thessalonica (Phil. 4:14-19). They supported gospel workers. Paul said their gift was like an offering and sacrifice that pleased God. It was like the Old Testament fellowship (or peace) offering that was an expression of thankfulness (Lev. 7:11-15). God is pleased when we use our material resources to do good and share with those in need (Heb. 13:16). It’s the sacrifice of our possessions.
Paul found that God meets our needs (Phil. 4:19) and he said “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:11-12) .
Were there any tent-makers before Paul?
You might ask, what about earlier examples in the Bible? Well in the Old Testament times the Jewish priests and Levities were supported by the tithes and offerings and sacrifices of the other people. The High Priest was the spiritual head of the nation, while the priests and Levities served in the temple. They mediated between God and the people. They inherited these roles which were restricted to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. The priests wore special clothes. As the priests and Levites had no other occupations, it seems that they were not tent-makers. But God put an end to the Jewish priests and Levities when the temple was destroyed in AD70. If there is no temple, there is no Jewish priesthood and this has been the case for the past 1,942 years.
However, Nehemiah was a tent-maker as he was self-supporting and unlike other governors of Judah, he didn’t place a burden on the Jews who returned from captivity (Neh. 5:14-18).
In the New Testament, the Old Testament system was replaced by one where each believer is a priest with direct access to God through Jesus Christ as the High Priest (Heb. 2:17; 5:1-6; 1 Pt. 2:5). Jesus is our mediator today. There is no special building like the temple and no special priests. However, there is provision for financial support as required for apostles (1 Cor. 9:4-14), elders (1 Ti. 5:17-18), teachers (Gal. 6:6) and missionaries (Phil. 4:4-19). But each of these can be tent-makers like Paul.
What about the time of Christ? We know that the original disciples left their occupations to follow Jesus: To the fishermen he said, “‘Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed Him” (Mt. 4:19-20). However, after the resurrection they went fishing again and Jesus helped them catch 153 fish (Jn. 21:1-13).
When Jesus sent His followers out on mission trips,He told them not to take money, but rely on hospitality for their support (Mt. 10:1-15; Lk. 10:1-7). Their needs were met on a day by day basis. But these instructions were changed at the Last Supper (Lk. 22:35-37). Now He tells them to take money and provisions and be prepared to protect themselves. This was probably because He was about to be crucified and ascend back to heaven and would no longer be with them physically. It is consistent with tent-making by working in order to get the money and so being able to support themselves.
Lessons for us
Paul was an example for us to follow.
Calling. Paul was called to specific missionary work. All believers are all called to share their faith where God has placed them. In this sense they are all called to be missionaries. What else has God called you to do? Like Paul, a true servant of Christ will continue to preach the good news of salvation whether they receive money for it or have to work to finance themselves. Financial reward should not be a motive for serving the Lord.
Paul’s service was supported in three ways: hospitality, giving and employment.
Hospitality. Paul and his companions often stayed in people’s homes. Such hospitality is important because the host’s names are given in Scripture. How do we use our homes? Do we use our resources to support the spread of the gospel? Are we hospitable or selfish? In the Bible, hospitality is associated with the expression of love and spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pt. 4:9). Also, when we open our homes to one another we are inviting the Lord into our homes (Mt. 25:34-40). Having people over for a meal is a great way to get to know each other better and encourage each other.
Giving. From time to time different churches provided funds to support Paul’s missionary work. Do we live economically in order to be able to give more money to support the gospel? Do we support gospel workers? After all, all we have belongs to the Lord. Are we generous or stingy?
Employment. When necessary, Paul worked as a tentmaker. He didn’t give up his trade when he was evangelising. He practiced self-support. He evangelised fellow workers like Aquila and Priscilla. He was not isolated from the ordinary working world but identified with the common people who had to work for a living. Employment enables non-Christians to see Christians in action. It also provides access to a range of people and our diligence at work and our lifestyle can influence colleagues to follow Jesus Christ. It also opens up opportunities to reach seemingly inaccessible people in new ways with the gospel. Today tent-makers have access to countries where traditional missionaries are denied. Are we using our work to further the gospel? Are we encouraging people to be tent-makers who work to support themselves while they spread the gospel?
Written June 2012
Life inevitably has its peaks and valleys; its good times and its bad times; its easy times and its hard times. We all experience burdens of some kind. Life doesn’t always go the way we would like it to. In this article, we look at what the Bible says about how to survive the burdens of life, which may be our circumstances, or our perceptions, or our fears and anxieties. In particular, we will focus on the example of Job who lived about 4,000 years ago, after Noah, the global flood and the ice age, but before Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. He was a godly man with eight children who was wealthy with many animals and many servants.
One day his animals were stolen and destroyed by lightning, his servants killed, and his children all died in a tornado (Job 1:13-19). Next there was health crisis when his body was covered with painful sores. They itched so badly that he scraped himself with a piece of broken pottery (Job 2:7-8). Because his wife couldn’t bear to see him suffering so much, she said “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9NIV). He was tempted to give up on God; but he did not.
What a catastrophe! He lost his family, his possessions, his health and the support of his wife. His life was “full of trouble” and he suffered alone (Job. 14:1). He asked “Why me?” “What did I do to deserve this?”He put his questions to God. He called out to God for relief, but his prayers weren’t answered (Job 30:20). His suffering was so bad that he cursed the day he was born and wished that he had died at birth because then he would be resting in peace instead of being in misery and turmoil (Job 3:1-26). He longed for death to release him from his difficulties and troubles. He was haunted by depression, mockery and pain (Job 30:1-31).
Job had a big problem. He thought his suffering was undeserved and unfair. Job was doing everything right when suddenly everything went wrong. That’s why he protested to God. His burdens and emotional struggles raise questions such as: Why do godly people suffer? Will Job’s faith endure or will he give up on God?
Job’s friend’s response
Four of his friends seek to comfort Job. Their debate is given in Job 3-37. Their argument was: God is righteous; He punishes the wicked; if Job is being punished it proved that he is wicked. But this is poor logic. Evil isn’t always punished in this life and all human suffering is not a punishment from God. Not all suffering is a direct result of sin in one’s life. For example, God can use suffering to refine the character of the godly. Instead, his friends only thought of God’s justice and not His love and compassion.
But Job defends his integrity and strenuously claims his innocence (Job 27:1-6; 31:40). He is not a wicked person.
Finally God speaks. How will He deal with the problem of Job’s suffering? Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of questions that reveal His divine wisdom and power and Job’s insignificance.
The first series of questions address the fact that God provides the conditions for life on earth (Job. 38:4-38). The examples given include: He created the earth; He provided water in clouds, rain, hail, snow, the water cycle, and the sea; He provided light; and He provided the stars of the universe. Then God asked Job, “Were you there when I made this?”; “What do you know about the natural world?”; “Can you do what I have done?”. Scientists may understand aspects of how these components of our universe work, but God is their ultimate cause; He designed them and created them.
The second series of questions address the fact that God sustains life on earth (Job. 38:39 – 39:30): The examples given include: lion; raven, ostrich, hawk, and eagle; goat, donkey, ox, and horse. God asked Job, “Do you provide food for all these creatures?”; “Can you tame wild animals?”; “Did you design and create these creatures”; “Can you manage the creation as well as God does”? Of course, the answer is “no”! Job would have felt small and insignificant compared to God’s might.
Job’s first response
“Then Job answered the LORD: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:3-5). Overwhelmed by God’s divine greatness, wisdom and power, Job realised his insignificance. He couldn’t answer God’s questions, but he knew what the answers were. He felt so weak that he was speechless. But now that had no more to say, he was ready to listen to God.
God’s second response
Then God responded again by asking questions about two of the greatest creatures He ever made. People debate about whether these are mythical or real and living today or extinct. The Bible says that they were real and it is clear that was familiar with these giant creatures (Job 40:15). Their description matches those of the largest dinosaurs, which are now extinct. Contrary to what many scientists say, the Bible teaches that people were on the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.
Behemoth, which lived on the land, marshes and rivers, was “first among the works of God” (Job 40:19). This means that it was God’s best, chief, foremost, greatest and supreme creation. Metaphors are used to convey that its skeleton seemed to be as hard as iron (Job 40:18). God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. Of course, Job couldn’t control this monster; but God controlled the world.
Leviathan lived in the sea. “Nothing on earth is its equal—a creature without fear” (Job 41:33). “When it rises up, the mighty are terrified” (Job 41:25). Once again God asked Job, “Can you capture it?”. If no one can stand up against it, no one can stand up before its creator. After all God made everything and runs the universe! God is much greater than any of His creation.
Job’s second response
“Then Job replied to the LORD: I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me’. My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1-6).
Job was overwhelmed by God’s power and greatness and he repented of his arrogance in questioning God. He was ashamed and sorry for the things he had said. So through his suffering he gains an accurate impression of almighty God and his own failures and limitations. He thinks more of God and less of himself. He accepts his place in the universe and submits to God’s will for his life. His faith endured the test of suffering. It proved that Satan was wrong; Job didn’t curse God in his afflictions (Job 1:11; 2:5).
Although Job was, “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil”; his trials led him to repent of his arrogance and pride (Job 1:8; 42:1-6). This domonstrates that pride is the root of all our sin.
The Christian view of suffering
Now we look at what the New Testament says about when God’s people suffer. “They (our fathers) disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-12).
Christians are children of God; He is our spiritual Father. As human fathers discipline and train their children, so God disciplines and trains us. As fathers love their children and want the best for them, so God loves us and wants the best for us. Fathers train their children to become mature adults; but God trains us so that “we may share in His holiness”. His goal is that we may become mature as our life becomes purified and the fruit of the Spirit grows. The result of the discipline and training is pictured as a harvest. Crops are harvested when they are mature. Christians are mature when they practice love, joy, peace, forbearance (or patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and holiness (Gal. 5:22-23).
This discipline and training is painful like it was for Job. So the suffering that Christians endure isn’t punishment, it is training and education. In many ways it is “no pain, no gain”, because it is possible to go through trials and never have them do a thing for us if we complain all the time. But if we persevere, suffering leads to patience and hope: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3). Job persevered: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Jas. 5:10-11).
Christians are to endure hardship and suffering because it is divine discipline, “God is treating you as His children” (Heb. 12:7). We are to “Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:3). If we think of all the suffering that Jesus went through for us, then we won’t become weary and give up. It can sustain us through the burdens of life.
So, don’t give up in the tough times. Persevere and endure. Hang in there like Job and Jesus did. Remember it is training for your spiritual growth. Job said “He (God) knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So the Christian view of suffering is to never complain or give up in despair.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from this? Firstly, the burdens of life don’t necessarily cease at death. Although God has provided eternal life for those whose sins have been forgiven through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, this is only available to those who have repented and turned to trust in God’s provision like Job did. That is the only way to survive the burdens of life in the long term. The future is dark for those without God in their life. They are not survivors.
Secondly, we need to normalise burdens and suffering. Job suffered as a godly man. Even the godliest people suffer; it’s part of the normal Christian life. We need to expect it and not be surprised when it happens. God doesn’t always explain the reason for our suffering. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves because suffering is not necessarily the result of our sins, although it is a characteristic of our sinful world.
Thirdly, suffering keeps us humble. By enduring the burdens of life we can realise that God controls the universe, not us. We need to submit to His will, rather that demand that God submit to our desires. So, the suffering of the godly has a purpose, even though we often don’t realise at the time.
Fourthly, enduring suffering can be a great witness for the Lord. Job suffered. Jesus suffered. As a result, God was praised and served because He deserved it, no matter the circumstances, and not because of how they benefited, but despite the trials of life. Likewise, if we persevere in suffering, we demonstrate God’s worth. We are given the privilege of suffering for Christ and demonstrating our faith in God by enduring life’s trials (Phil. 1:29). What a witness that can be!
Fourthly, suffering develops endurance and perseverance. God’s discipline and training also helps our growth towards spiritual maturity. So, don’t give up in the tough times.
Fifthly, suffering tests our faith. Are we only serving God on the good times? That is a weak faith. Strong faith also serves God in the tough times; when you can say to God, not my will, but Yours be done. Because Job didn’t give up on God, he was an example of great faith.
Don’t be misled by people like Job’s friends who say if we follow them we can be exempt from suffering. That we will be healthy, wealthy and wise instead of suffering the burdens of life. No one is exempt from the burdens of life, particularly the godly.
Finally, those who are suffering don’t need advice. They are on the road to maturity. So don’t feel sorry for them but join them and like Job we may learn more about God and more about ourselves in the journey.
That’s how the Bible says we can survive the burdens of life.
Written, September 2011