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
In this series we have seen that Paul preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. These people turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They were also a good example for all believers in Greece. Paul loved new believers like a mother caring for her baby, and coached them like a father training his children. He was a hard worker. He knew the opposition the Thessalonians faced because he had faced it as well.
In Part 3 we look at Paul’s joy, which is mentioned three times (1 Th. 2:19,20; 3:9). We will see his priorities in life and his attitude towards new believers.
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Th. 2:17-20 NIV)
Paul explained his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17-18). Perhaps his critics accused him of being afraid to go back because of the opposition he faced, but Paul said that his separation from them was like being “torn away.” He felt like an orphan – their close relationship was like family.
His concern for the Thessalonians is clearly evident. Although he was forced to leave the city, he still thought about them regularly. In fact, he had an “intense longing” to know how they were doing, and did all he could to visit them again. He tried at least twice, but his plans were blocked by Satan (2:18). But God always overrules Satan’s opposition, and in this case He used Paul’s delay so this letter would be written and believers in all eras could benefit from Paul’s example.
Satan wants to hinder the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. When we face hindrances in God’s work, Satan is often behind them. Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Satan and his demons are the real enemy, not the people or circumstances that they use. Satanic opposition is permitted by God. Remember how Satan got God’s permission before he afflicted Job. It is God’s way of getting our attention. Nothing happens by chance to Christians.
Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. He also said that the believers in Philippi were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).
The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and our efforts might have been useless” (1 Th. 3:1-5).
Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.
Hardship And Opposition
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). When he revisited Pisidia he said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The journey for believers before they share in Christ’s glory involves suffering (2 Tim. 3:12; Jn. 16:33). The Lord warned His disciples that to follow Him meant facing opposition: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). We know that Christ and the apostles were persecuted (1 Pet. 2:21). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.
God uses opposition, persecution, suffering and trials to discipline and train us (Heb. 12:7-11). They can test and prove our faith and weed out those who profess but don’t have true faith (Mk. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). As we experience God’s comfort, we can encourage others who are going through difficult times (2 Cor. 1:4). Difficulties also develop character (Rom. 5:3; Jas. 1:3) and make us more zealous in spreading the gospel (Acts 8:3-4).
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (1Th. 3:6-9).
Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were clearly evident. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter.
They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. To the Galatians Paul wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And to the Ephesians he wrote: “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints I have not stopped giving thanks” (Eph. 1:15-16).
Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9). His attitude was like John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4).
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Th. 3:10-13).
When it’s hard to know what to pray for Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically. “Most earnestly” is a compound Greek word meaning “most exceedingly.” He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). He also wrote, “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-17).
Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.
In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1 Th. 1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually.
Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
Lessons For Us
This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.
The Lord’s command to His disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Making disciples was Paul’s passion.
Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?
Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong in the midst of suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?
This was Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians, and for us.
Published, March 2009