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Paul’s self-sacrifice for the gospel
Paul establishes his apostleship
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 1-2
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
The apostle had taken up the problem of offense in chapter 8. He pointed out that a knowledgeable Christian must not offend the conscience of a weak fellow Christian by insisting on exercising his Christian liberty. He will forego his freedom rather than endanger the salvation of his Christian brother.
In chapter 9 he continues with the principle of self-limitation for the sake of others. First, he reminds his readers that he has the same Christian freedom that all other believers have. “Am I not free?” he asks. He had the same right to eat sacrificial meat as the Corinthian Christians had, for example.
Immediately he adds that he also has special rights and privileges as an apostle. And he is an apostle. “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” The Corinthians know that he is an apostle. The fact that they are Christians is evidence of his apostleship. As a result of his ministry in their midst, they became Christians. The Corinthians know that he is the Lord’s apostle because their experience with Paul’s preaching and ministry convinced them of this. People who are not Christians will not accept Paul’s argument as proof of his apostleship, but the Holy Ghost led the Corinthians to believe it just as you and I believe Paul is what he claims to be: an apostle of Jesus Christ. His Spiritfilled words convince us. It is important to remember this in an age that rejects much of Paul’s inspired message.
The rights Paul can claim as an apostle
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 3-6
This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?
Paul is an apostle; he also has the rights of an apostle. He makes this clear to those who challenged his apostleship. “This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.” His defense is that he has the right to expect his congregations to support him, and he has the right to be married and to have his congregations support his wife and family also.
Paul did not receive a salary from the Corinthian congregation. He supported himself by making tents. (Later in this chapter he explains why he chose to do this.) There were people in the congregation, however, who apparently drew the conclusion that because he maintained himself by performing manual labor during his ministry in their midst, he was not really an apostle with the rights of an apostle; he didn’t deserve the privileges of an apostle.
The apostle leaves no doubt that he has all the rights the other apostles have. He can expect the congregation he serves to provide him with food and drink. He also has the right to be married, just as were the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers (very likely, his halfbrothers) and Peter (a problem for Catholics), and to expect this congregation to maintain his wife and family also, had he chosen to be married. Paul and Barnabas do not have to work at a trade for a living, while all the other ministers of the gospel have their living provided by their congregations.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 7-12
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
To support his right to receive a salary, Paul cites three professions as examples: the soldier, the vinedresser, and the shepherd. In each case, the individual counted on his profession to supply his physical needs, to provide his living. So it is in daily life. Why shouldn’t the minister of the gospel also expect his ministerial profession to provide him with his livelihood?
Lest someone point out, however, that comparisons are not proofs, Paul adds a stronger argument for receiving a salary from his congregation. “Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.’”
If his readers should think it strange to use a passage that appears to be dealing with prevention of cruelty to animals to demonstrate that ministers of the gospel are entitled to their keep, Paul explains that a basic principle is involved. “Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.” The principle is that the worker is entitled to the fruits of his labor.
Using figures of speech from agriculture, Paul makes the application to the Christian ministry. The minister sows the seed of the Word that brings salvation to those who hear it. Shouldn’t they recompense him for his labors by giving him the wherewithal to procure his food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities of life? Shouldn’t those who receive spiritual blessings see to it that the earthly needs of those who provide those spiritual blessings are taken care of? Paul’s answer is an unequivocal yes. “The worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7).
Paul, like the other apostles, had the right to receive a salary, but he didn’t use that privilege. He didn’t want anyone to reject the gospel because that individual felt that the minister was preaching the gospel in order to secure a comfortable living. There were people in Corinth who were all too ready to believe that a preacher is in his profession for material gain. Paul addresses himself to this attitude.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 12-14
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
If the Corinthians need more proof that they owed Paul a living, Paul supplies it. He reminds them that the physical and material needs of the Levites in the Old Testament were supplied by the gifts and sacrifices the worshipers brought to the temple. New Testament worshipers also owe support for the body and life of their pastors and teachers.
Paul sacrifices his right for the sake of the gospel
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 15-18
But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.
Now that he has established his right to receive support from his congregation, Paul says again, “But I have not used any of these rights.” (See also verse 12.) Lest his readers draw the wrong conclusion from this statement, namely, that Paul was really looking for sympathy and was angling for a salary, he immediately rules out that possibility: “And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me.”
He wants to do without a salary from the Corinthians because he has a “boast,” namely, that he is living without support from their church. He feels so strongly about this that he says, “I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.” He would rather starve to death.
If he needs to boast, why doesn’t he boast of his greatest work, preaching the gospel? Surely there is no greater achievement, no greater service than to proclaim the message of salvation in Christ Jesus. He explains why he does not, in fact, why he cannot boast about his preaching the gospel: “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” Paul can claim no credit for his preaching; he is under orders to do it. God told Ananias before he baptized Paul, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul had no choice but to be an apostle.
If he could have been a gospel herald by choice, he could claim some credit: “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward,” namely, pleasure and satisfaction, even future honor and glory. But since his preaching is not voluntary but by constraint, he can only say, “If not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.” He cannot expect a citation simply for having done his duty. Like a steward he was simply carrying out his responsibility.
“What then is my reward?” Paul asks. “Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” Paul wanted to show how grateful he was for what God had made of him. He needed to do something voluntarily, beyond the call of duty, to show such gratitude. By sacrificing his salary, to which he had every right, Paul was doing something of his own free will to show his love for his Lord. His “boast” and his reward were the satisfaction of being able to say that he had preached the gospel in Corinth at no cost to his congregation. It was free.
Paul relinquishes his rights in order to win more people for Christ
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 19-23
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
After stating that by not accepting a salary he is free from any obligation to those who provide such support, Paul tells us that his purpose in relinquishing his rights goes far beyond gaining satisfaction in his ministry. His higher purpose is to save souls. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” He is willing to sacrifice his prerogatives in his service to others to win them for Christ.
He supplies a number of examples. First, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.”
When Paul became a Christian, he became a free man in Christ, free from all the laws and regulations that bound God’s people in the Old Testament. But to win the Jews, he lived like the Jews “under the law,” the ceremonial law, even though as a New Testament Christian he was no longer obligated to do so. He kept the Sabbath and festival days; he followed the Old Testament regulations regarding the eating of pork and shellfish; he observed the rite of circumcision. In all this, however, he did not compromise his faith in Christ.
Paul also accommodated himself to the Gentiles in order to win them. “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” When Paul characterizes the Gentiles as “not having the law,” he is referring to the ceremonial law that no one except the Jews had or was obligated to observe. The Gentiles, of course, were under the natural law, the universal moral law, from which no human being is exempt. (“I am not free from God’s law.”) In his contacts with such Gentiles as the Greeks and Romans, Paul did not observe the ceremonial law of the Jews. Therefore, the Gentiles did not have to feel that they should become Jewish in order to become Christians.
Both Jewish and gentile Christians, however, were “under Christ’s law.” Both had the mind of Christ and sought to live upright, God-pleasing lives. Both Jewish and gentile Christians live in Christ; their will is in accord with Christ’s will. Both want to do the will of God as expressed in the moral law, the Ten Commandments.
Paul concludes his list of examples. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Among the weak, who are easily offended, Paul up his Christian liberty, as he explained in chapter 8. Whatever kind of people he was endeavoring to win for Christ, Paul tried to find common ground with them. He became “all things to all men,” without ever, as was pointed out previously, compromising his Lord. Paul’s example of love and service is there for all who want to win others for Christ. Our foreign missionaries will be most keenly aware of it.
In summary, Paul’s passion to share the gospel with others moved him to forego his rights and liberties when working among them. “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” The Greek text merely has “in order that I may become a joint sharer of it,” namely, of the gospel. That would include the interpretation “share in its blessings.” In view of the next four verses, however, it could also include the thought that Paul’s salvation is involved in his readiness to preach the gospel to all men.
The gospel ministry calls for self-denial and strenuous effort
1st Corinthians, Chapter 9, verses 24-27
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
How earnest Paul was in proclaming the gospel to all men is seen in his illustration from the world of Greek sports. As every Corinthian knew, the winner in a race had to exert himself to the limit in order to get the prize. Applying this example to the race the Christian runs in his life of faith, Paul urges the Christian to put forth similar effort to win in his race.
To run like a winner requires great self-discipline. Athletes are not successful unless they go into strict training. But when we consider how perishable the prize is for which they compete, we Christians should be even more strenuous in the preparation for our race. “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Whether the prizes were wreaths of laurel or wild olive leaves or even of parsley, they were paltry prizes compared with the unfading glory of the heavenly prize toward which the Christian strives. That prize makes all his self-discipline worthwhile.
Like the runner and the boxer, the Christian must be purposeful and effective as he strains for the goal. “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly,” that is, not running straight for the goal. “I do not fight like a man beating the air”—more exactly, not landing his blows. Rather, he forces his unwilling and rebellious body to do his will. He gives it a knockout blow and he “makes it know its master” (New English Bible). He inflicts such self-discipline on himself so that he will not lose his prize. “No, I beat my body and I make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” If what Paul is saying goes beyond a fear of losing a special satisfaction in his self-denial for Christ, and if it extends to an anxious concern for his very salvation if he does not extend himself to the uttermost to save others, these closing words of chapter 9 are indeed arresting. Yet Paul could also say, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12).