Biblical Tentmaking: Introduction

“Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, unto the name of the LORD thy God, and to the Holy One of Israel, because he hath glorified thee” (Is. 60:9).

Three years ago in 2008, the world witnessed an invisible but significant milestone. In our mobile, ever-changing world, more people officially live in urban areas than rural areas. The 20th Century experienced a tenfold increase in the population of urban areas across the world, while the world’s mission force has stayed relatively static the past several decades at approximately 200,000 total missionaries. [1]

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Biblical Tentmaking: The Importance of Place

“After This Paul left Athens and went to Corinth” (Acts 18:1).

In Acts 18, we have the introduction of Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila in the marketplace. Priscilla and Aquila were not on the outskirts of Corinth like the seller of purple in Philippi, but rather in the well-established market of the cosmopolitan and diverse city of Corinth. These marketplaces can be seen in the ruins of Corinth even today. These tight marketplaces were not exclusive to Corinth, but common across the commercial centers of the Mediterranean. Priscilla and Aquila had lately come from Rome after the Emperor Claudius expelled Jews out of the capital for following a man named Chrestus or Christ. [1] They set up shop in Corinth just as many other itinerant artisans.

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Biblical Tentmaking: Live Among Them

“For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you” (II Th. 3:7-8).

In the ancient marketplaces of the Near East, the size of workshops varied as much as the location. However, the average workshop for artisans would have accommodated as many as a dozen workers. Paul ministered through the marketplace, and this is evidenced by the make-up of the congregation in the early churches. “Most Christians were artisans and merchants because most urban people in general were from these groups.” [1]

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Biblical Tentmaking: Use What You Have

“And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought: for by their occupation they were tentmakers” (Acts 18:3).

For decades and even centuries, studies have been done on the life of the Apostle Paul. However, in most of these studies, his trade has been handled as a peripheral need because of his circumstances and lack of resources. Therefore, for many theologians and Bible teachers, his trade is not central to understanding Paul. However, as you will see in this study, we view his trade as integral to his identity. The fact that he was a tentmaker and a missionary actually penetrated to the depth of who he was and the efficacy of his ministry.Tentmaking was central to his ministry. Paul was a missionary, but his trade was not mutually exclusive or compartmentalized from his ministry. The two roles were intertwined, and he was a tentmaker with the intention of the “Great Commission.” Just as Paul did not wander into the marketplace, he did not simply “fall” into tentmaking desperate to pay for his needs.

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Biblical Tentmaking: Perceived Need

“Those two pioneers of civilization-Christianity and commerce-should ever be inseparable” (David Livingston).

In Acts 18, Paul enters Corinth from Athens and heads into the marketplace. As he entered the city, he must have felt a twinge of entrepreneurial excitement because he would have noticed a need—not just a spiritual need but a physical need.   The city was full of travelers.   Whether Roman soldiers, merchants, mobs following the games, or simple travelers, Paul must have been faced with a city of tents.  Corinth was populated with settlers in permanent houses but there was also a large transient population that would swell the city to large numbers.  Paul was in Corinth for 18 months which means that he would have been present during at least one of the Isthmian Games.  The Isthmian Games were held at nearby Isthmia, which was a city that existed only for the games.  Second only to the Olympic Games among the four great PanHellenic games, the Isthmian Games were held twice as often as the others—every two years.  Another festival, the Caesarean Games, was held concurrently with every other occurrence of the Isthmian Games at a harbor town near Corinth—every four years—so some years Corinth would have witnessed especially large crowds from both events.

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Biblical Tentmaking: Give Up Your Idols

“Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. they have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Ps. 115: 4-8)

In Ephesus in Acts 19, we are introduced to a mob scene that gives us an appropriate Biblical example of the intersection of idolatry and marketplace. Paul roused a bunch of silversmiths by preaching against their patron god Artemis. Demetrius, a silversmith, accused Paul by saying, “Not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people” (Acts 19:25). Their business was dwindling because of the impact of the Gospel in the area. People were turning from idolatry and trusting in Christ.

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Biblical Tentmaking: Church Strengtheners

“But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.  Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed” (I Cor. 15:10-11).

As mentioned in an earlier installment, Paul’s model was to enter the marketplace to reach the masses working there and work among them.  As he was in the marketplace, he would evangelize and the new converts moving through the marketplaces from all over would take the Gospel into their own towns where it would multiply. The churches were populated with those that worked in the marketplace and preached the Gospel in their own tongue.

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Biblical Tentmaking: Encouragement

And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9).

After Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth with a donation from Macedonia, they provided encouragement for Paul to preach the Word of God more intensely. Consequently, Paul was expelled from the Corinthian temple in a passionate outburst that was in response to his preaching, and he moved his ministry next door where he witnessed some notable conversions. Previous to Corinth, Paul experienced several disappointments—a stoning in Lystra; abandonment of John Mark; imprisonment in Phillipi; mocked by the Aeropagus. It would be only natural to wonder or consider if God was moving him from Corinth. However, the Lord in a vision encouraged Paul to continue in Corinth because the Lord has many in this city who are His people. As a result of this vision, Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months. Then upon leaving Corinth, Paul traveled to Ephesus. Then he left Priscilla and Aquila and traveled through Caesarea and Antioch.

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