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Paul: The Apostle Who Learned Contentment

5 min

At the seaport town of Miletus, the Apostle Paul met for the final time with the elders of the church at Ephesus. A touching scene of the fervent farewell is vividly described in the Book of Acts. Paul was on his way to Jerusalem. His visit required haste, and he did not have the time to make a stop at Ephesus, where he had spent so much time and effort advancing the Kingdom of God. Instead of visiting Ephesus, Paul summoned the leaders of the Ephesian church to make an approximate 30-mile journey to Miletus. There the church leaders and the apostle had a farewell meeting, and Paul delivered to them a message that would give direction and encouragement for the future.

In Acts Chapter 20, Paul addressed many important matters in this farewell. He told the gathered saints that he expected “bonds and afflictions” (verse 23) in his upcoming journey to Jerusalem. He spoke directly, so there would be no misunderstanding: “And now, behold, I know that ye all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more” (verse 25). He encouraged these pastors to take heed to the flock over which the Lord had made them overseers (verse 28). He warned the church elders that “grievous wolves” would enter in and subvert the pure Gospel (verse 29). He commended the men to the grace of God, praying that the Lord would build them up and sanctify them.

Before taking final leave of these elders who were dear to him, Paul gave them a personal testimony of contentment. Paul testified that “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (verses 33–35).

During his third missionary journey, Paul had spent three years laboring in the vicinity of Ephesus. This was his longest stay anywhere on his travels. Many of these Ephesian church leaders had been converted to Christ and discipled under Paul’s preaching and teaching. These men had observed firsthand the apostle’s lack of selfish motives in the advance of the Gospel. When Paul told them “these hands have ministered unto my necessities” (Acts 20:34), he was referring to his regular practice of sustaining himself by his work as a tentmaker. In situations where Paul could have demanded—or at least requested—financial support from his followers, he instead set an example of contentment and diligence by laboring with his own hands. This passage provides an example for all preachers through the centuries, teaching that a minister of the Gospel should be fully supported whenever possible, but he should also be willing to labor where supporting funds are insufficient or a hardship upon the ones to whom he is ministering.

Contentment does not come naturally to the selfish heart of man. Neither did it come naturally to the Apostle Paul. In a letter to the Philippians, he testified that it was through hardships and adversity that he had “learned to be content” (Philippians 4:11). We too must learn contentment through the daily experiences of our lives.

Paul was formerly known as Saul of Tarsus. As Saul of Tarsus, he was endowed with every advantage and the ability to live a life of relative luxury as a respected Jewish theologian. He had been taught by the famous rabbi Gamaliel (see Acts 22:3). He was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5) and had all the credentials to rise to a promising career as a teacher of the Jewish law. But he said of those qualifications: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:7–8).

Apprehended by Jesus Himself in a dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus, Saul the persecutor was transformed by the power of Christ’s Gospel. The man put aside his reputation, life of ease, career, and future, and unwaveringly committed himself into advancing the cause of Christ that he had once hindered with all his might. At first, this former persecutor was viewed suspiciously by the Christians that he had once seized and threw into prison for their beliefs. But taken under the wing of Barnabas, Saul—now Paul—was soon welcomed into the fold.

Following a period of time in Arabia (see Galatians 1:15–17), Paul returned to Damascus and then visited his hometown of Tarsus (see Acts 11:25). He was sought out by Barnabas to assist with the work of the Gospel in the city of Antioch, discipling the new Gentile converts to Christianity in that city.

From Antioch, Paul was chosen by the Lord to go with Barnabas on the first missionary journey. The two men journeyed to the island of Cyprus and then into the interior of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). In Lystra, Paul was stoned and experienced the reality of what his service to Christ would cost (see Acts 14:19).

Over the years, Paul suffered many hardships for the sake of the Gospel. Walking thousands of miles on dusty roads, Paul labored to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He summarized his own afflictions in his second letter to the Corinthians: “in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (II Corinthians 11:23–28).

In these very afflictions, Paul found the truth of God’s promise: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). On the basis of that promise, Paul continued with this assertion: “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (verse 9).

Paul had learned, through the afflictions of life, to be content. Even after his final, tearful parting with the Ephesian elders by the seashore at Miletus, Paul continued to learn new lessons of contentment. Enabled by the grace of God, he later wrote from the confinement and darkness of a Roman prison: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:11–12). Paul had no reason to covet another man’s silver, gold, or apparel because he had found contentment in the riches of Christ!

A man who lives in contentment can die in contentment. Imprisoned, cold, hungry, weary, and about to die at the hands of the cruel tyrant Nero, the Apostle Paul confidently affirmed to his son in the faith, Timothy: “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:6–7). May Paul’s example in continually learning contentment be a model for our own lives today.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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