1. Serving God as a couple
I work in the State Library. One of the things we do is send out books to all the public libraries in Western Australia. We send them to Perth libraries like Bullcreek and Willeton. But we also send them to tiny libraries in Aboriginal communities where there might only be a hundred or two hundred people and a small library in a shed.
We have Outreach officers whose job it is to find out what books these tiny libraries need. Sometimes they visit them and actually ask. When one of our Outreach officers came back from way up north recently, she said that the Aboriginal people at one of the tiny libraries wanted more children’s picture books. But not the picture books we were sending them. They wanted picture books which didn’t have white kids in them.
The problem was that the Aboriginal kids had trouble relating to these white kids in the picture books we were sending them. These white kids seemed too different to them. They wanted some kids more like themselves so they could feel like it was them in the stories and not someone else.
At the State Library, we listened hard to what they said and dug through piles of books, carefully picking out the few we had which showed Aboriginal kids or had animal characters in them and we sent these.
When we read the New Testament, those of us who are married might feel like those Aboriginal kids. Jesus and Paul are the two main characters in the New Testament, and yet neither of them married. We know that Peter was married, but we never learn anything about his wife. We don’t even know if any of the other disciples were married.
Perhaps because of this, we might feel that in marriage we can’t serve God as effectively as if we’re single. I don’t think this is true. I think God uses us both as couples and individuals to serve him and his church. Some people are specially called to remain single so they can devote all their energies to serving God. But this isn’t the way God usually works.
Instead, God gives many of us the chance to serve him as married couples. And if we dig hard enough and long enough through the New Testament, we can even find one married couple who give us a glimpse of how well we can serve God as a married couple.
That couple is Priscilla and Aquila.
In learning about their life and ministry, I hope you can get a better understanding of what church was like in the first century. It should also help you to understand how to serve God as a married couple.
In Acts 18:1-3 we read the passage that introduces them:
After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.
2. Good from bad
So this couple was in Rome when Emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews to leave the city. We know from the history books that the Jews were expelled because of disputes between those Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who didn’t. This happened in AD 49, about twenty years after Jesus’ resurrection.
It is hard to imagine how hard this was for Priscilla and Aquila. Their church was just getting established and growing a bit when suddenly they all had to leave the city. It would have been a traumatic time for them. They would have had to sell their house quickly for less than it was worth and leave the city they’d been living in for years. The church they’d built up has suddenly stopped existing. They move to another city 750km away and start all over again.
If I had to do that, I’d feel discouraged. I might even start feeling like Christianity is too hard. I might find it hard to see that God has a way of working good through this bad time. Priscilla and Aquila and the other Christians from Rome didn’t know it at the time, but being scattered helped to spread Christianity even further.
We have to look for ways in which God makes good come from bad situations in our lives. Try to see things from God’s perspective. He’s got a much bigger view of things. He can see into the future. What seems like a disaster now could be the start of something good.
So Priscilla and Aquila are forced to start again from scratch in a new city. They became an important part of the church at Corinth. A few years pass, and in AD52, Paul comes to the city. At this stage, Paul is going through a rough time.
- He had a terrible time in Thessalonica, where some Jews formed a mob in order to kill him.
- He escaped to Berea, but the Jews who hated him followed him and he had to run away to Athens.
- Waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, he talks to some Greek philosophers. He tries a different way of preaching to them, using their own poetry to teach them something. It gets a mixed reaction; a few want to hear more, but others sneer at him. He comes away feeling discouraged. Will nothing get through to people? Why can’t they see that Jesus is Lord?
Now Paul arrives in Corinth. He’s short of money. Silas and Timothy are off trying to raise some money for him in Phillipi. In the meantime, he needs to eat. He goes down to the marketplace, trying to find some tentmakers who’ll give him a job for a while. The mission trip isn’t going to plan. He thinks the whole thing is a bit of a failure. He’s struggling to work out what God’s doing in all this, what God’s bigger picture is. There isn’t meant to be so much struggle! He isn’t meant to be hungry and exhausted like this! How much longer can he carry on?
At the marketplace, he doesn’t just find any old tentmakers. He finds Priscilla and Aquila. Paul tells them about everything which has happened to him.
“Why don’t you come and live with us?” Priscilla and Aquila ask.
What does he say back to them? “Oh no – I wouldn’t want to put you out”? No! Paul’s too desperate, too humble and too God-reliant to turn down their offer. “That would be great!” he says.
So he stays with them, and their hospitality restores him and gives him new confidence. He feels like he’s amongst friends. He can talk about all the strange, difficult and wonderful things that have happened to him on this mission trip so far. He is introduced to the church at Corinth through Priscilla and Aquila. He feels at home.
For Christians, it’s more glamorous to be like Paul, a missionary who never puts down roots. He’s always going to a new place, responding to a new call. He doesn’t have to worry about looking after a house or keeping down a steady job.
But missionaries like Paul need the stability of families like Priscilla and Aquila. Throughout the ministry of Jesus and the apostles of the early church, there were always the supporters who stayed behind, who provided food and shelter to the missionaries and thus enabled them to do their job. We tend to hear about them less and notice them less, but they’re still important.
In Luke 10, Jesus sees the hospitable household as an essential part of his mission plan. He sends out seventy-two disciples with these instructions:
When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a person of peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.’
After the missionary leaves that village, the household of peace will become the foundation of a new church.
Where do you fit in? There’s not many of us that are called to be travelling apostles or evangelists. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. Those of us that stay have the responsibility to be hospitable – for missionaries, like Paul, but also, Jesus tells us in Luke 14:12-14, for the people we wouldn’t normally want to eat with. Strangers, enemies, poor people, people from different cultures, people from different religions, people who are lonely or sad or sick. Hospitality is an important part of a God-pleasing life.
When Paul came to stay with Priscilla and Aquila, he worked with them. All three of them stood at their workbenches, making tents. Tents were made from leather and tentmaking was hard work. Several times in his letters, Paul talks of ‘labour and toil’, and of ‘working with our own hands’. He was talking literally of the hard work they did to pay their way. Their hands would have been stained and their backs would have ached.
This is an important thing to keep in mind. Priscilla and Aquila were superstars of the early church. They had more of an impact in their time than Billy Graham or Phillip Yancey in ours. And yet here they are with the apostle Paul, spending their days at workbenches stitching leather to make tents. They didn’t need to stop working in order to serve God. They could serve God while they were also earning a living.
I see this as a challenge to us in our lives as Christians today. We are tempted to think that we cannot serve God because we have to work our normal jobs earning a living. Yet Priscilla, Aquila and Paul managed to earn a living while doing a lot for the Lord.
They would have kept a healthy work-life balance, as we call it today. Their job wasn’t their main reason for living. It was something they did to earn a living. They wouldn’t have let this work interfere with the things they were doing in the church. We need to do the same. We know who we are not from the work we do, but from being a follower of Jesus. It would be good if, when people ask us what we do, were able to say we ‘follow Jesus’. It would sound silly if we actually said it, but it would challenge our society which defines us by the work we do.
But we’ve also got to remember that work has meaning in the kingdom of God. Work is a part of God’s creation. He gave us work to do so that we could be content and get satisfaction from achieving things.
Sometimes when I was young I’d start feeling hopeless. I’d been taught badly by some of the sermons I heard. I’d come to think that this life I was living now was only filling in time for what was to come later on. I thought that when Jesus came back, the only things I’d done that would count were evangelising and avoiding sin.
I’m surprised I kept trying so hard at school if I was really convinced this was true. Maybe I had a hunch that this life does count.
Because it does. Jesus didn’t come to remove us from everyday life. His message doesn’t make our everyday life meaningless. It doesn’t turn our work into a bad thing.
Instead, Jesus came to transform everyday life. When we know that there is a God who created us and loves us, all the little things we do every day mean something. Our new way of life shines from the way we do our work, from our interactions with people. Priscilla, Aquila and Paul would have worked with a sense of joy. They would have been fair in selling their tents to customers. They would have believed that their work had importance, that it contributed something to the world that God made.
There’s a lot more I could say about Priscilla and Aquila. Later on in chapter 18, when Paul finally leaves Corinth he takes them with him. They stay on in Ephesus while he keeps going. When they’re there, they take aside a confident, well educated Bible-teacher named Apollos and together they teach him some things about Jesus which he didn’t know. These tentmakers who smelt like leather and had much less education than him were teaching him. And they were doing it together, working as a team.
When we are married, God will use us together to do things better than we could have on our own. Our gifts may be very different; they may be very similar. With God’s help we can work together to minister better.
In my own marriage, my wife Nicole has a gift of wisdom and will often stop me saying foolish things that could harm our ministry to others. And then when we talk to people about God together, we have different angles on the same things and manage to get the message across much better than we would on our own.
Later on, Emperor Claudius dies and the Jews can come back to Rome. Priscilla and Aquila move from Ephesus back to their old city of Rome and a church starts meeting at their home. In Romans 16:4, Paul says of them, ‘Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.’
6. Summing up
So, what have we learnt from Priscilla and Aquila? There’s four points that I’d like you to try to remember.
i. God makes good come from bad situations in our lives.
ii. Hospitality is an important part of living a God-pleasing life .
iii. We don’t need to stop working in order to serve God. We can serve God while we are also earning a living. Our work has meaning.
iv. God can use us as a couple to do more than we could have on our own.