“He was a tentmaker”
If you asked a group of people to describe Paul in one word, you’d probably get responses like, “apostle“, “saint“, “evangelist“, and “preacher” but I bet none of them would say “tentmaker.” It’s just not something that comes immediately to mind when we think of Paul. And yet I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was how Paul described himself. Because although he knew preaching was his calling, he was also a man of humility.
So what is there for us to learn from this, other than knowledge that might serve us well if we ever join in a game of Bible-themed Trivial Pursuit?
Well first of all, tentmaking was another way of serving people. People need shelter. Perhaps there were times when Paul himself needed shelter, and it was his way of blessing those who traveled with him. James 2 says “If you say to someone, ‘go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but do nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Also, Paul believed in supporting himself. Acts 20 tells us that he said, “I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. These hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.” Although there is no shame in being supported by your ministry, Paul apparently was not at peace with this option, and he acted accordingly.
Lastly, it was not pretty work, but it needed to be done. Paul was not above what I assume was hard, dirty work; far from glamorous, and maybe even hard to reconcile with someone that many see only as a man of words. For us, that means emptying the trash, straightening chairs, throwing out coffee cups that have been left behind… and not just at church, but at your place of business, in your school, in your home… Acts 20 also says, “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.'”
Several years ago, at my church, four men were added to the Board of Elders. As they were announced to the congregation, those gentlemen stood on the altar with the Pastor, and I realized that those were the men I saw emptying the trash every week.
We don’t know how often Paul worked as a tentmaker. Maybe it was a constant; maybe he only did it when they were running low on funds. And it’s right that we think of him first as an evangelist. But we also need to remember that he was a tentmaker. And that whatever our “calling” is from God, we too, need to make tents.