The apostle Paul was one of the most influential figures in early Christianity. He traveled extensively around the ancient Mediterranean world, preaching the gospel and establishing churches. But how did Paul support himself financially during his missionary journeys? A close look at Paul’s own letters and the book of Acts provides insight into who supported Paul and how he viewed financial gifts.
Paul did not shy away from talking about finances in his letters. He addressed money matters with candor, acknowledging both the generosity of his supporters and the precariousness of his situation at times. Paul worked tirelessly to spread the gospel across the Gentile world. Through his tireless efforts, Paul planted churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. He did not let his chronically poor financial situation hinder him from pursuing his calling.
As we explore Paul’s words on finances in his letters and the descriptions in Acts, some key takeaways emerge:
- Paul accepted support from churches he had planted and individual Christ-followers. He defended the right for full-time gospel ministers to receive financial support.
- There were times when Paul refused support and worked with his hands to provide for himself. He did this to avoid being a financial burden.
- While Paul saw financial gifts as a sign of partnership in ministry, he remained content whether in plenty or in need. He found his identity in Christ, not in his bank account.
Now let’s take a deeper look at who helped fund Paul’s missionary travels and how the apostle viewed money.
The Philippian church’s partnership
One of Paul’s most generous supporters was the church he established in Philippi. This congregation in northern Greece sent Paul financial help on more than one occasion:
Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. (Philippians 4:14-16)
The Philippian believers sent gifts to Paul during his 18-month ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:11). While planting the church there, Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself (Acts 18:3). But the Philippian church wanted to come alongside Paul by providing funds. He thanked them for their generosity, which allowed him to focus fully on preaching instead of tentmaking.
Paul also alludes to an even earlier gift from the Philippians during his ministry in Thessalonica (located in modern-day Greece). This was shortly after Paul had first visited Philippi and planted a church there (Acts 16:11-40). The new believers wanted to continue their partnership with Paul by supporting him financially.
In addition to thanking the Philippian church for their previous gifts, Paul gave them an opportunity to give again:
I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:18-19)
The Philippians’ generous spirit blessed Paul and pleased God. Paul assured them that God would also supply their needs in turn.
Support from the Corinthian church
The church at Corinth also gave money to support Paul’s ministry. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul gives instructions regarding a collection for Jerusalem believers in need. But in verse 5, he tells the Corinthians that he will visit them after passing through Macedonia. He wants them to provide resources for his journey:
I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. (1 Corinthians 16:5-6)
Paul did not demand funds from the Corinthians. But he let them know their financial help would assist his future travels as he spread the gospel.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul mentioned accepting support to devote himself to ministry. But he refused to utilize this right when working with the Corinthian church:
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.
If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:7-12)
Paul refused financial support from the Corinthian church because some individuals there challenged his motivations. He put up with a lack of funds to avoid hindering the advance of the gospel. But he still affirmed that full-time gospel ministers deserved pay for their labor.
Support from the Ephesian elders
When saying farewell to the elders from the Ephesian church, Paul described working hard to support himself:
You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)
But Paul also received gifts from the Ephesian believers and others in the province of Asia:
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:32-35)
The Ephesian elders support Paul’s claim to have worked with his own hands. But at the same time, Paul acknowledges the gifts he received from them and other believers in Asia. He balanced manual labor with financial support in his ministry.
Blessings from partners in Rome
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he expresses his desire to visit the church in Rome. He asks them to send him on his way to Spain after their time together:
I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while. (Romans 15:24)
Paul saw the Roman believers as partners who could provide funds to help him reach those in Spain with the gospel. He recognized that their support would enable him to travel farther with the message of Christ.
Later in Romans, Paul shares greetings from unnamed believers who financially helped him:
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. (Romans 16:14-15)
These individuals likely provided gifts or hospitality to sustain Paul’s demanding ministry schedule. Even though we do not know much about them, Paul valued their partnership in the gospel.
Refusing support to avoid burdening others
Despite gratefully accepting support from several churches and individuals, there were times when Paul refused such help. He did not want financial issues to hinder the spread of the gospel.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:9, Paul reminds the believers in Thessalonica of his work among them:
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
Paul engaged in manual labor, probably still tentmaking, to avoid being financially dependent on new converts in Thessalonica. He did not want to burden these young believers unnecessarily.
Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9, Paul describes his diligent work:
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.
Paul refused handouts in Thessalonica because he wanted to set an example of diligence. But again he affirms his right to receive financial help from other churches. It was a matter of expedience based on the situation, not because Paul saw receiving support as inherently wrong.
Remaining content in all circumstances
A common theme emerges from the passages we have examined: Paul focused on furthering the gospel, not pursuing material comfort. He worked tirelessly in ministry whether experiencing abundance or need.
In Philippians 4:10-13, Paul highlights his contentment:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
The Philippians’ gift delighted Paul, but his joy stemmed from their love and unity in Christ. Their offering did not define Paul’s sense of self-worth or security. He remained steadfast in ministry through all kinds of circumstances that were often beyond his control. If financially provided for, he was grateful. If lacking basic needs, he worked with his hands. But his identity and contentment came from Christ, not his bank account.
Paul also mentions learning to be content when writing to Timothy:
But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (1 Timothy 6:8-10)
Paul did not seek luxury. Basic provisions enabled him to travel and preach the gospel. While he accepted gifts, he refused to let money distract him from ministry or stir up discontentment in his heart.
- Churches planted by Paul, especially Philippi, provided financial gifts to support his missionary work. Individual believers also contributed funds and hospitality.
- At times, Paul refused support to avoid burdening new converts or creating obstacles to the gospel. He worked as a tentmaker in these situations to provide for his own needs.
- Paul affirmed the right of full-time gospel ministers to receive pay for their labor.
- While Paul appreciated financial support, he learned to be content whether in plenty or in need. His identity was in Christ, not his income.
Paul valued the partnership he found in supporting churches and individual believers. Their gifts refreshed him physically and spiritually. But more importantly, their generosity reminded Paul of the unity in Christ that defined the early church. Financial contributions enabled Paul’s missionary travels to continue unhindered. As believers today, we play a similar role by supporting gospel-centered ministries around the world.
Paul’s example challenges us to avoid greed and preoccupation with money or possessions. Thankfully, our worth comes from being hidden in Christ, not our bank statements. We can be content when experiencing abundance or need, just as Paul was. Our true security is in our eternal inheritance, not fluctuating income or holdings on earth.
Following Paul’s pattern means generously supporting gospel ministry and relying on God to supply our needs. The apostle’s words and example offer us guidance for wisely handling money in a way that furthers God’s kingdom. Just as the Philippians and other early Christians partnered with Paul, we can come alongside today’s missionaries and ministries making Christ’s name known among all nations.