What the apostle Paul meant when he reminded the elders from Ephesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive
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Many preachers have used the words “it is more blessed to give than to receive” in Acts 20:35 for making people believe that God will bless them, if they give money to the preacher. But, those who check the context, will find that on that occasion, the apostle Paul was addressing elders, and that he told them to be on the giving side, just as he had been. He noted that they knew that he had not lived at the cost of others but had supported himself through manual work. He told them to copy his example, in that regard.
This article takes a closer look at Acts 20, and considers what Paul really meant when he reminded those elders that Jesus had said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and when he said to them, “I have shown you in everything, that by working hard like this, we must support the infirm”.
A note: The wording is not “it is better to give than to receive”. In the Greek text, the phrase in the last part of that verse is makarion estin didonai mallon ê lambanein which can be translated in three ways:
(The word makarios was a longer form of makar which meant such things as “blessed” and “happy”, and even “fortunate” and “rich”.)
And certainly, it is happier, richer and more blessed, if one is able to help others, instead of being in need of help.
Please note that Acts 20:17–35 does not contain any promise or concept that those who give aid to others, would be blessed during their earthly life, materially or in other ways. But yes, there is a blessing in aiding others. Consider even Matthew 25, the words “come, you blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom”. That was in regard to giving, aiding people in need. We read:
Matthew 25:34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (ESV01)
Consider even 2 Corinthians 9:7, the words “God loves a cheerful giver”. Clarification: That passage talks about a collection of aid to poor saints in Jerusalem. Later in this article, there are some notes on that passage and matter.
Please note that Acts 20:35 and its context is not about giving money to some church or preacher. That passage refers to giving aid to the needy.
Some preachers have taken Acts 20:35 out of its context and twisted it and turned the apostle Paul’s words upside down. Some have even produced a dogma regarding what they call “the give way”, the core of that dogma being that people should give a lot of money to the preacher or his church. But, that is not what the apostle Paul meant when he quoted Jesus’ words regarding giving and receiving.
On the occasion which Acts 20:17–35 refers to, Paul was on his way to Jerusalem. He made a stop in Miletus, and sent a message to the elders in Ephesus and asked them to come to meet him.
Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called to himself the elders of the assembly. (WEY)
He had lived a long time in Ephesus. So, many of the elders and other saints in Ephesus knew him well, and they also knew what example he had set, how he had acted.
Again, Paul was talking to elders. He reminded them that they knew that he had not been after anyone’s silver or gold (money), verse 33. He further reminded them that they knew that he had always supported himself through manual work. (He was a tentmaker; see Acts 18:1–3.)
Acts 20:33 No one’s silver or gold or clothing have I coveted. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine have provided for my own necessities and for the people with me. (WEY)
That was the context when he reminded those elders that Jesus had taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Verse 35, with some notes:
Acts 20:35 I have shown you [a] in everything, that by working hard like this, we [b] must support the infirm [c] and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, [d] that he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (BPT)
a “You” = the elders whom Paul was addressing. “I have shown you in everything” = “I have set an example, for you to copy”.
b “We” = Paul and the elders whom he was talking to. (Many translations have “you must”, but some have more correctly “we must”. The Greek text does not contain a personal noun, but the context makes it clear that Paul meant “we” – the elders whom he was talking to, as well as he himself. Point: He was telling those elders to copy his example.)
c “We must support the infirm” – it was a matter of giving aid to people who could not support themselves. “Infirm” – in the Greek text the word is asthenountôn, referring to people who because of age or sickness or similar reasons are not able to support themselves.
d “Words of the Lord Jesus” – some might wonder, “What scripture was Paul quoting?” But, Paul was quoting Jesus and not some scripture. All that Jesus did and said, is not recorded in the Bible. But, that particular saying, “it is more blessed to give than to receive”, is actually recorded in the New Testament – here in Acts 20:35.
Doing good works, helping the needy, is a central part of righteousness. Several New Testament passages mention the matter of providing aid to the needy. One of them is Galatians 2:9–10 which records how Paul and three other apostles agreed that they were to help the poor.
Galatians 2:9 even James, and Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, having perceived the favor granted to me, gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we, indeed, should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcision; 10 requesting only, that we would remember the poor, which very thing I had also been diligent to do. (LO)
Verse 9, Cephas = the apostle Simon Peter.
Verse 10, “diligent” – the word in the Greek text is espoudasa, a form of the verb spoudazô which in this kind of context refers to being busy or eager with doing something.
So, Galatians 2 records that when the other apostles, James, and Cephas (Peter) and John, wanted to make sure that Paul would aid the poor, Paul noted that he had been diligent in doing that.
And again, as is stated in Acts 20 (quoted below), Paul had supported himself through manual work. Of that income, he had even provided aid to people in need.
A note: When Paul was imprisoned and could not support himself, he received some help from other saints. Also, it may be that at least on one occasion when he was sick or for instance recovering from beatings or stoning (2 Corinthians 11:24–25) so that he could not work, he received some aid. But when he was a free man and in health, he worked and supported himself.
Another note: Many bible-translators have put into certain New Testament passages wordings which could cause casual bible-readers to think that Paul “took wages”, “robbed churches” and so on. But, he did not do that. Several NT passages, especially in the Greek text, make it clear that as long as he was a free man and in health, he supported himself through manual work, just as even Acts 20:34 states. There are some notes on these things, later in this present article, and in a number of other articles at this site.
Acts 20:17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the assembly. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them, You are familiar with, from the day when I arrived in Asia, after what manner I lived among you all the time […] 28 So, take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians over, to tend the assembly of God which he purchased with his own blood. 29 For I know that after my departure, burdensome wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Even from among your own selves shall arise men who speak perverted things, in order to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore keep watch, remembering that for three years, I did not cease to warn everyone, with tears, night and day. 32 And now I commit you, brothers, to God, and the word of his grace, who is able to edify you and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified. 33 I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothes – 34 rather, as you yourselves know, these hands have provided for my needs and for those who were with me. 35 I have shown you in everything, that by working hard like this, we must support the infirm and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. (BPT)
Again, Paul was talking to elders. He reminded them of Jesus’ words, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. He also reminded them that they knew that he, Paul, had always supported himself through manual work, and that he had even provided aid to others. He told them to copy his example in that regard.
But, Paul knew that some would not follow his example concerning working and supporting oneself and aiding the poor. Because of this, he solemnly warned those elders.
Warned – about what? The context shows that he warned them that after his departure, there would come forth men who would not follow his example but would instead turn out to be “wolves” who feed themselves “at the cost of the flock”.
The saints were “Jesus’ flock”. Acts 20:28 records how Paul warned about “burdensome wolves”. He was talking to elders. Those elders were to act as “guardians”, protecting that “flock” from such “wolves”. This was regarding deceivers who would live at the disciples’ cost, or harm them in some other way.
Even Jesus warned the disciples about deceiving men of that “wolf” type. We read:
Matthew 7:15 “Beware of the false teachers—men who come to you in sheep’s fleeces, but beneath that disguise they are ravenous wolves. (WEY)
Acts 20 records how the apostle Paul told the elders from Ephesus to be on the giving side, just as he had been.
On one occasion when Jesus sent his apostles on a mission to prepare the way for him in the towns of Israel, he said to them, “Freely you have received, freely give”, Matthew 10:8. Please note that it was those apostles who were to “freely give”. Jesus had given them the Word of God, and the power to heal and raise the dead and cast out demons, and so on. The apostles were to give and do those things to and for others, as the Greek text has it, dôrean, “as a gift”, freely.
A note: Many people have been caused to think that Matthew 10 and Luke 10 refer to money being given to the twelve and the seventy whom Jesus sent on that mission. But, it was no so. The article ema058.htm has more on Matthew 10 and Luke 9–10, and 1 Corinthians 9:14–18. The article ema037.htm sorts out the translation and meaning of 2 Thessalonians 3:9.
In ancient Israel, under the Old Covenant, there was a system where a tenth part of the Promised Land’s agricultural produce was set aside for special use. (It was the farmers who set aside the tithe, not the consumers.)
There was no tithe on wages or money, and craftsmen and so on did not tithe their products or earnings. The concept of exacting a tithe on wages was introduced by the Catholic Church, in the Middle Ages. – The article ema018.htm has more on the Old Covenant’s tithe system, and on what the New Testament (including the Greek text) really says about tithing.
A side-note: Sometimes, when preachers ask for money, they quote Haggai 2:8–9, the words “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine”. But, those who check up things in more depth, will find that Haggai 2 does not refer to money, and not even to silver and gold in general but only to the temple-items of silver and gold which Nebuchadnezzar’s army had taken to Babylon, 2 Kings 24:11–13, and which were then given back to the Jews, Ezra 1:1–11, so that they could take them to the new temple which they were to build in Jerusalem.
Sometimes, those who quote Acts 20:35 out of its context, might connect it with 2 Corinthians 9:7. In the case of Acts 20, it is clear that the giving was directed to people who were infirm (old or sick) and could not support themselves. – The following considers what kind of giving the apostle Paul was talking about, in the case of 2 Corinthians 9.
The story begins already in chapter 8, but let us first view verse 1 in chapter 9. Many translators have put into that verse wordings that do not make it clear what Paul was talking about. Here is one such translation:
2 Corinthians 9:1 For as touching the ministering to the saints, it is superfluous for me to write to you (ASV)
“As touching the ministering to the saints” – what was that? Some preachers might claim that the giving which the context of that verse mentions, consists of giving money to the preacher, so that he can “work as a minister”. And, those who casually read that passage in certain bible-versions, might think that to be correct. But, that is not what Paul was talking about. This paraphrase version clarifies who the recipients of that aid collection were:
2 Corinthians 9:1 I don’t need to write anything further to you about helping the Christians in Jerusalem. (GWV)
Other translations: PH72 has “giving to fellow Christians”, BBE “giving to the saints”, NLT04 “giving for the believers in Jerusalem”.
For instance Family New Testament Notes make the short comment that the phrase “ministering to the saints” refers to a “collection for the Christians in Judea”. Regarding 2 Corinthians 8:4 where the Greek text contains the same phrase as in 2 Corinthians 9:1, that commentary notes that “it is the poor saints in Jerusalem that are referred to”. – Let us now go to chapter 8 where the story begins.
2 Corinthians 8:1 Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. 2 They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity. 3 For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. 4 They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. (NLT04)
That collection of aid to poor saints in Jerusalem is what even the earlier quoted 2 Corinthians 9:1 refers to. Here are verses 5–7, as the NKJV renders them:
2 Corinthians 9:5 Therefore I thought it necessary to exhort the brethren to go to you ahead of time, and prepare your generous gift beforehand, which you had previously promised, that it may be ready as a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation. 6 But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. (NKJV)
In the Greek text of 2 Corinthians 9:1, 12 and 13, the word which refers to that aid-collection is the noun diakonia, related to the verb diakoneô which referred to serving, aiding, helping. And again, the recipients of that relief aid were poor saints in Jerusalem and perhaps in all of Judea. Paul’s part in that was arranging the transport of the results of that collection to Jerusalem. That aid project is mentioned even in these passages:
1 Corinthians 16:3 And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (RSV)
Romans 15:25 At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem (RSV)
Again, the words “God loves a cheerful giver” in 2 Corinthians 9:7 refer to a collection of aid to poor saints in Jerusalem. But, some preachers have used that verse for making people think that they should give money to the preacher. – In that manner, they have turned many of Paul’s teachings upside down, not only in regard to Acts 20:35 and 2 Corinthians 9:7 but also in regard to several other scriptures.
Galatians 6:6 – some bible-translators have put into that verse such wordings as “the one who is taught the message must share his goods with the teacher”. Some preachers may have quoted that or some similar translation.
The Greek text of that verse shows that the apostle wrote that those “being instructed in the word” should “join in with the one instructing, in all upright things”. And no, those upright things did not consist of giving things or money to a preacher. The article ema047.htm has more on that passage and matter.
1 Thessalonians 2:6 – some have claimed that passage to mean that Paul said that he had a “right to be burdensome” in the meaning of receiving money, being paid. But, that is a translation-related misunderstanding. In cases like this, it is important to check what the Greek text says, as well as what other, related passages say. Regarding 1 Thessalonians 2: Paul was not talking about being paid. It appears that he merely made a rhetoric comment regarding the weight of dignity which he and his companions actually had, as Jesus’ apostles. Consider this translation:
1 Thessalonians 2:6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. (NASB77)
The article ema067.htm has more on that passage and matter.
2 Corinthians 11:8 – many bible-translators have made it seem that Paul “robbed churches” and “received wages” from them. But the Greek text, and related passages, make it clear that that is not what Paul said or meant. The article ema097.htm has more on that passage and its translation and meaning.
Philippians 4:14–16 – someone might claim that passage to mean that the apostle Paul lived at the cost of others. But, that is not so. Verses 14 appears to refer to aid which Paul received when he was in prison in Rome. Verses 15–16 perhaps refer to the time when Paul and Silas had been scourged in Philippi and were recovering in Thessalonica. The article ema107.htm has more on this.
There are a number of similar passages. See also the “recommended reading” section, below.
Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm
Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → esa095.htm
Some notes on 1 Corinthians 9:14–18. → ema058.htm
On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → ema037.htm
What is the truth about tithing, the concept of giving “tithes” to a church? → ema018.htm
On Galatians 6:6 and its translation and meaning. Does it refer to joining in in doing good, as the Greek text indicates, or sharing one’s goods with a preacher, as some translations make it seem? → ema047.htm
On the translation and meaning of 1 Thessalonians 2:6. Were Paul, Silvanus and Timothy talking about dignity, or about a “right to be burdensome”? → ema067.htm
On 2 Corinthians 11:8, the translation “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them”. Was the apostle Paul paid for his proclaiming work? → ema097.htm
On Philippians 4:14–16. → ema107.htm
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