We can learn a great deal about Paul’s condition if we read the chapter carefully. I think, too, that it was not only the experiences that he had before he came to Corinth that must have weighed upon him, but also the difficulties once he was there.
The first thing we are told in this chapter, right after the first verse, is that Paul “met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife, Priscilla” and that he teamed up with this Jewish couple because they were tentmakers. He worked with them, that is, helping them in their business, no doubt in order to support himself.
In evangelical missionary circles we often hear the term “tentmaker.” It refers to somebody who goes abroad to be a missionary but who, instead of being supported by people from back home, supports himself or herself by working in the economy of the local country. The missionary then does his or her missionary work “on the side.” I think that is the direction mission work is moving today for a number of reasons. To begin with, it is the only way you can get into some countries. Also, the world’s economy is changing so adversely to the American economy that it is becoming increasingly expensive to support an ever-growing roster of missionaries. There are places where that has to be done. It should be done and no doubt will continue to be done. Yet the situation is changing.
However, although this may be common with us, this is nevertheless the first time in the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, so far as we can tell, that he found it necessary to support himself by making tents.
How had he managed before this? No doubt those who sent him had given him sufficient money. He had been sent from the church in Antioch in Syria, and that church in that prosperous city undoubtedly had the means to support him. Then again, other churches supported him. We know this because he writes about it in his letters, thanking them for their help. When he got to Corinth apparently his money had run out.
There is not much doubt that he was in need since he says in his second letter to the Corinthians that he was kept from being a burden to them only by supplies eventually sent by the Christians in Macedonia (2 Cor. 11:9). He does not complain. But even though he talks about this positively, he does indicate that there was a period when he lacked funds.
There are Christian works like that today. I would go so far as to say the best Christian works I know seem to lack funds. And here was the Apostle Paul—this first great missionary and prince of apostles, this great man of faith—at least for a time in financial need at Corinth. He had to work at tentmaking to feed himself and carry on the ministry.
Paul had other difficulties. We read that when he went to the synagogue he had little success. Verse 4 says, “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” Verse 5 adds, “Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.” The next verse shows the discouraging result: “The Jews opposed Paul and became abusive,” so much so that he eventually shook out his clothes in a symbolic protest, saying, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
Paul’s policy had been to go to the synagogues: “first for the Jew, then for the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:16). He had a special heart concern for his people. He prayed for them. Yet in spite of his prayers, in spite of his ministry, in spite of his knowledge of the Scriptures and his ability to expound them clearly, very few believed. Initially, perhaps none at all believed.
Finally, not only did Paul fail to have success in his approach to the Jews through the synagogue, he actually got abuse from his people. If Paul had not had enough of an excuse earlier to say, “I have had enough of this; I am going home,” certainly he had a good enough excuse to say it now. He could have said, “Look, not only am I rejected by my people, not only do they turn away from Christ, they are even abusive to me. I have been through this before. I know how it works. Here it is starting all over again. The next thing they are going to do is stir up the Greeks against me. Then I’ll be hauled into court. After that I’ll be beaten and thrown in jail. I had enough of that at Philippi. I quit.” If Paul had fears like that, they were not idle fears because the latter half of the story tells us that this is precisely what his opponents in Corinth tried to do.