Scripture readings: Isa.40:21-31; Ps. 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Cor. 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39 Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Cor. 9:1-27 (drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and Bruce Winter in The New Bible Commentary)
Exercising Our Freedom in Christ, part 2
Today is the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—the annual celebration of the revealing (epiphany) of Christ to the world. Last Sunday, we began to explore what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians concerning how Christians reveal our Lord as they rightly exercise the freedom that is theirs in Christ. We saw in 1 Corinthians 8 that this means balancing knowledge with love. Now in chapter 9, Paul tells us that it also means balancing freedom with discipline—a principle he illustrates with the example of his own ministry in the city of Corinth—specifically the way he approached the matter of his personal finances.
As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul had the right to ask the Corinthian church for financial support. Nevertheless, he waived that right, supporting himself instead by working as a tentmaker. This was a radical thing to do in Corinth, where the Greek populace despised manual labor, which typically was assigned to slaves. Free citizens like Paul would normally enjoy sports, philosophy and leisure. But Paul balanced that freedom with personal discipline, denying himself some of the freedom that was his right in order to benefit others.
A. Paul defends his authority to seek their support (1 Cor. 9:1–14)
Our passage begins as Paul, through five related arguments, points out that he has the authority (the right) and thus the freedom to ask the church at Corinth for financial support.
1) His apostleship (1 Cor. 9:1-6)
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. 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? (1 Cor. 9:1-6)
The title apostle means “one sent under commission,” and refers primarily to the 12 apostles and Paul. These men had a special apostolic commission, along with the New Testament prophets, to lay the foundation of the church. One of the qualifications for these founding apostles was a personal and visible encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Paul, as you know, encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. The apostles also performed special signs and wonders that validated their ministry and Paul performed many miracles in founding the church at Corinth.
As an apostle, Paul had the “right” (which means “authority”) to receive support from the people to whom he ministered. As the special representative of Jesust, he deserved to be welcomed and cared for. Paul also had the right to devote his full time to apostolic ministry. He did not have to make tents. The other apostles did not work to support themselves because they gave themselves completely to their apostolic ministry, and believers gave them financial support. However, both Paul and Barnabas labored with their own hands to support not only themselves, but also others who served in ministry with them.
2) Human experience (1 Cor. 9:7)
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? (1 Cor. 9:7)
Everyday experience teaches that workers deserve to be rewarded for their labor. If people are drafted to be soldiers, the government pays their wages and provides supplies. The person who plants a vineyard gets to eat the fruit, just as a shepherd gets to use the milk from their animals. The lesson is clear: Christian workers have the right to expect benefits for their labors.
3) Scripture (1 Cor. 9:8-12)
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? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor. 9:8-12)
The “Law” (a term that is shorthand for what we call the Old Testament) was the Bible of the early church, since the New Testament was in the process of being written. The first believers found guidance in the principles of the Law, even though they were no longer “under” the Law as their rule for life. Here Paul quotes Deut. 25:4, which notes that it is cruel for a farmer to bind the mouth of his ox and thus prevent him from eating grain. After all, the ox was doing the work.
Paul correctly sees here a spiritual principle: the laborer has the right to share in the bounties. The ox had plowed the soil in preparation for sowing, and now it was treading out the grain that had been harvested. Paul had plowed the soil in Corinth. He had seen a harvest from the seed he had planted. It was only right that he enjoy some of the fruit of that harvest.
In 1 Cor. 9:11, Paul gives a basic principle of Christian living: If we receive spiritual blessings, we should in turn share our material blessings. For example, as noted in Rom. 15, the Jews gave spiritual blessings to the Gentiles, so the Gentiles had an obligation to share materially with the Jews. As noted in Gal. 6, those who teach us the word have the right to expect us to support them financially. We have reason to believe that Paul did accept financial support from other churches (2 Cor. 11:8). Apparently other ministers had accepted support at Corinth (1 Cor. 9:12), but Paul preferred to remain independent lest he should “hinder the gospel of Christ.” For Paul, his example was more important than his “rights.”
4) Old Covenant practice (1 Cor. 9:13)
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? (1 Cor. 9:13)
The priests and Levites under the old covenant, (as well as the pagan priests in Corinth) lived off the sacrifices and offerings brought to the temple. Paul’s point is clear: if these priests were supported by the people to whom they ministered, shouldn’t he and his fellow ministers be supported?
5) Jesus’ teachings (1 Cor. 9:14)
In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:14)
Here Paul refers to Jesus’ words, which he had learned from Jesus’ original disciples (the Gospels had not been written yet). That the laborer is worthy of being paid, is a fundamental principle that the church dares not neglect.
With these five arguments, Paul makes his point: he had the right to expect the church in Corinth to support him in his ministry while he was with them. Yet, he deliberately refused their support. Why? This he now explains.
B. Paul defends his freedom to refuse their support (1 Cor. 9:15–27)
Paul had the authority (right) to receive material support, but being a mature Christian, he balanced authority with discipline. Though he did not have the right to give up his liberty in Christ, he did have the liberty to give up his rights; and that is what he did. Now his appeal to the Corinthian believers is that they follow his example. The stronger believers in the church should be able to set aside some of their rights for the sake of the weaker ones. Was eating meat more important than edifying the church?Paul is here addressing their priorities. It’s unfortunate that some Christians have their priorities confused and, as a result, hinder the work of Christ.
Paul gives three reasons that explain why he refused financial support from the church in Corinth:
1) For the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:15-18)
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. (1 Cor. 9:15-18)
Paul did not want to “hinder the gospel of Christ.” In that day, Greek cities were frequented by all kinds of itinerant teachers and preachers, most of whom were in it for the money. Not only had Paul refused to use their kind of oratory and argumentation (as noted in 1 Cor. 2), but he also refused to accept money from those to whom he ministered. He wanted the gospel message to be free from any obstacles or hindrances in the minds of his audiences and he did not want his audiences to exert any influence over what he would preach.
Paul could not claim credit for preaching the gospel, because he had been called of God to preach it. God had given him a divine stewardship (trust), and, as Paul said, “it is required of stewards, that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2, NASB). God would see to it that Paul would receive his “reward” (translated “wages” in Luke 10). What was that reward? The joy of preaching the gospel freely! This meant that no one could accuse him of underhanded motives or methods as he shared the good news about Jesus Christ.
2) For the sake of non-believers (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
Though I am free and belong to no one, 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 people 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. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
What a paradox: free from all people, yet servant of all “for Jesus’ sake.” Paul exercised his freedom by setting aside some of his rights in order that he might more effectively serve others. His tactics did not mean that he changed his message and methods with each new situation. Nor did he compromise his message to please his audience. Rather, Paul was a master at relating the gospel to diverse audiences. Whenever he went into a new city, he headed straight for the Jewish synagogue, if there was one, and boldly shared the gospel first to his kinsmen Jews. If he was rejected by them (which was usually the case), he turned to the Gentiles.
What separated Jews and Gentiles in that day? The Law of Moses (the Torah), which was a central feature of the covenant as administered between God and Israel in what is sometimes called the old covenant. In his personal life, Paul sought to live in such a way that he offended neither Torah-observant Jews, or non-observant Gentiles. He also sought not to offend “the weak”—Christians who did not have the freedom of conscience that he possessed. Thus, Paul did not parade his freedom from the Law before Jews, nor did he impose the Law upon Gentiles.
Was Paul thus behaving inconsistently? No, he was adapting his evangelistic approach to the needs and consciences of different groups. You will find this evangelistic strategy in his sermons in the book of Acts. When preaching to Jews, he started with the Old Testament patriarchs; but when preaching to Gentiles, he started with creation and its Creator. From these points of common ground, Paul led both groups to an awareness of Jesus—the God of the Old Testament and the Creator of all. As a good evangelist, Paul built bridges, not walls.
Though to immature people Paul’s tactics looked inconsistent, even scandalous, he was being consistent—his overriding purpose was always to lead people to Jesus. In fact, consistency can itself become legalistic—we can become so bound by humanly-devised rules and standards that we lose our God-given freedom to minister.
Paul had the right (freedom) in Christ to eat whatever he wanted, yet he gave up that right to reach Jews for Christ. As a Jew, he had a high regard for the Law of Moses, yet gave up his right to be Torah-observant to reach Gentiles. He even identified himself with legalistic weak Christians to help them grow up in Christ. This strateghy was not compromise, but rather total abandonment to the law of love (“Christ’s law”). It involved humbling himself to be the servant (bond-slave) of all. This is the way of Jesus.
3) For his own sake (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
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. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Paul, a fan of sports, often used athletic images in his letters. The Corinthians would have been familiar with the Greek Olympic Games as well as their own local Isthmian Games. Knowing this, Paul used a metaphor very close to their experience. Athletes (whether runners or boxers) must be disciplined if they are to win the prize. Discipline means giving up the good and the better for the best. And so it is for the Christian who “competes” in Christ’s service. They strive not to be saved, but because they are saved.
Only Greek citizens could participate in the games, and they had to obey the rules both in their training and performing. Any contestant found breaking the training rules was automatically disqualified.
To lead others to Jesus, Paul was willing to give up his rights by disciplining himself. The emphasis of this chapter is that rights must be balanced by discipline. If we want to serve the Lord effectively, and thus win his reward (the “crown”), we must pay the price. At the Greek games, there was a herald who announced the rules of the contest, the names of the contestants, and the names and cities of the winners. He would also announce the names of any contestants who were disqualified.
Paul saw himself as both a herald making such announcements, as well as a competitor in the race. He was concerned lest he be so busy helping others in the race that he ignore himself and find himself disqualified. Again, it was not a matter of losing salvation (the disqualified Greek athlete did not lose his citizenship, only his opportunity to win the prize). The emphasis here is on rewards, and Paul did not want to lose out on his.
Only one runner could win the olive-wreath crown in the Greek games, but every believer can win an incorruptible crown that will be given them when they stand to receive their reward before the Judgment Seat of Christ their King. This crown will be given to those who have disciplined themselves for the sake of serving Christ. This discipline involves keeping their bodies under control and their minds fixed on the goal.
We have great freedom in Christ—and now, from Paul, we’ve heard how we may exercise that freedom in the balanced way that glorifies God and advances Jesus’ work of reaching out with the gospel to a world that does not yet know him. May we all, like Paul, balance our personal rights—our freedom in Christ—with self-discipline. To do that, we’ll often need to sacrifice personal, temporary gain and comfort for eternal joy for many. This is our calling and our participation in the life and love of Jesus, the servant of all. Let us live free as the servants of Christ that we are! Amen.