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Paul's "Thankless Thanks" in Phil. 4:10-20

 David Alan Black

This week our Greek 3 class finished translating the book of Philippians. We went out with a bang. If anyone wants to know why I recommend Hawthorne's commentary on Philippians, his discussion of 4:10-20 is a big part of the reason. He makes the following points about the passage:

1) Although Paul championed the right to be supported by those to whom he preached, he preferred to support himself by manual labor.

2) He insisted on doing this for three reasons:

a) He wanted to offer the Gospel free of charge.

b) He wanted to ward off any accusations that his mission was a pretext for greed.

c) He wanted to set the proper example for others.

3) Paul never hesitated to ask for money -- for others!

4) The Philippians' gifts to Paul were unsolicited and violated Paul's strict principles.

5) Paul, therefore, must insist on his own financial independence even as he gratefully acknowledges their generosity towards him.

6) Paul is "self-sufficient" (the Greek word is autarkes) -- completely independent of external circumstances, people, and things.

7) His self-sufficiency is relative, however. He can face any circumstance only because he is "in union with the One who infuses me with strength" (4:13).

It is evident that receiving gifts from others was a very sensitive issue for Paul. It was a matter that required both firmness and tact. Hence he thanks the Philippians without really thanking them. (Some have called Phil. 4:10-20 Paul's "thankless thanks.") The value of their gift was primarily as an expression of the work of Christ in them. Paul is, I suppose, the classic example of a tentmaking missionary. He does not seem to have been concerned about his finances. The Lord had indicated to him that he should work for his own living -- something he is eager to exhort his fellow believers to do as well (Eph. 4:26; 1 Thess. 4:11-12). Yet he was humble enough to graciously receive unsolicited gifts. The only thing he would not do is ask for money for himself.

Most of us find conversations about Christian finances difficult, as did Paul. What on earth are we supposed to do when a close relative of ours asks us to support their summer mission trip? We, like Paul, must be in vital touch with the Lord. We must be prayerfully open to sensing His leading towards the individual He wants us to help. I am certain that I have missed many opportunities because I have been too distracted by my own agenda. But it is essential if we are to help other people that we follow the Lord's leading. One approach that has occurred to me is this: When a loved one asks me to support their summer mission trip, I can say: "I'm happy to help you, but you must match every dollar I give you from your own savings." When I give, I want to see that there is at least some effort by the recipient, if he or she is able, to add to the kitty out of their own savings and thrift. Serving Jesus is costly. Paul knew this very well. During the day he preached; during the night he plied his trade. The truth of the matter is that Paul, united with Christ, was able to face life confidently, irrespective of the aid of others. He was "untroubled by the vicissitudes of life" (Hawthorne). He lacked nothing. And this is true partly because he was willing to support himself.

I find that this principle is perfectly possible to operate in today's world. And I am quite certain that the combination of a high work ethic with a generous spirit of giving (and receiving!) is a great attraction in proclaiming and demonstrating the Good News.

Wouldn't you agree?

Happy working -- and giving!

November 19, 2011

David Alan Black is the editor of

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