A Study of 1 Corinthians 9
Introduction: The other day I read about a man who claimed that the slogan of his Baptist church was: We don’t cuss, but we fuss. Well, it’s not just Baptist churches. The Corinthians were having the same problems in the first century. It reminds me of the old poem that says: “To live above with saints we love, that will be grace and glory; / To live below we saints we know; now, that’s another story.” From time to time, I’ve pondered why churches and Christian organizations – including Christian marriages and families – seem particularly prone to fussing. I have a friend who spent the first half of his career in the business world, and the last half in the world of ministry. He told me the thing that most astounded him as he went from one to the other (from being the head of a corporation to being the head of a ministry) was how much more squabbling there was within the ministry than within the business. Relational issues were more frequent and more difficult. How do we explain that? It seems like it should be the other way around. Well, there are several explanations.
First, I think the devil has something to do with it. Jesus had a lot of unity issues with His original disciples, and one of the complicating factors, I think, was the presence of Judas, who stirred things up.
Second, Christians are people who, by the very nature of who they are, have very deep convictions about things. We care very deeply about things. We have very deep and abiding commitments. We have deep feelings about what we’re doing. So when someone differs with us in some way, it affects us.
Third, any church, home, marriage, or Christian organization is going to be made up of people at varying levels of maturity. We come from different backgrounds, we have different personalities, we look at things differently, and some people are more mature than others. All of this combines to create an environment where division can easily occur, and division was breaking out like the measles in the church in Corinth. So the apostle Paul devotes chapter after chapter to trying to ease the tensions and give wise answers to the questions that had arisen.
In chapters 8, 9, and 10, he deals with areas in which Christians can disagree. In Romans 14, he calls these “disputable matters”—in other words, areas in which Christians can agree to disagree. We know that in both theology and in our personal standards, some things are clearly right in the Bible and some are clearly wrong. The Lord is very dogmatic about some things. But there are other issues that the Bible doesn’t address, or at least it does not do so directly. We have discretion. We have liberty. We may come to different conclusions about what is right or wrong in terms of our own practice. The example Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8 is meat sacrificed to idols. In Corinth and in many of the ancient Roman cities, people would drive their herds to the temple of their god – in Corinth it might be the temple of Apollo – and they would offer their cattle as a sacrifice. The animals would be butchered, the meat sold, the owners paid, and the steaks would be available in the meat markets near the temple. Some of the early Christians didn’t think they should purchase or eat meat that had been offered to a false god. But with others, it didn’t matter at all. They had no hesitation to go into the temple districts and buy steaks or hamburger at the Apollo Meat Market. There was a division about this. As we said last week, Paul had three comments in chapter 8.
- In verses 1 – 3, he told them not to hold their particular opinions too dogmatically. In areas where Christians can disagree we out to be tolerant and not so tense about “disputable matters,” as Paul puts it in Romans 14:1. Knowledge puffs up, he said, but love builds up. Don’t think that your opinion on this matter is the only valid way of looking at it. This is one of those areas where Christians can disagree.
- In verses 4-8, he said, in effect, personally I have no problem eating meat from the temple precepts because as far as I’m concerned it hasn’t been offered to an idol at all, for in truth there is no such thing as a false god. A false god may be an idea in someone’s head, but that god doesn’t exist in reality. So this is an area in which I could exercise liberty to eat, if I wanted to.
- In verses 9-13, he said, in effect, there is one other consideration. If my practice of eating meats from the temple causes someone to violate their conscience, that’s not good for either them or me. If you think something is wrong, and I persuade you to do something that you truly feel in your heart is wrong, that’s not wise.
So the essence of chapter 8 is: In areas where Christians can disagree, don’t be too dogmatic; exercise your Christian liberty and enjoy yourself in Christ, for He died to set you free; but in doing so be careful not to draw others to violate their own convictions or consciences. Now, tonight, we’re going on to chapter 9, where Paul is going to continue the discussion and give it a personal twist. Here is this chapter in a nutshell. The apostle Paul is going to say this, in summery: Speaking of giving up our rights, I have given up a lot of them for you. There are a lot of things I have every right to do or to receive, but I have decided to forgo those rights just so none of you will be able to criticize me. The only thing that matters to me is winning the lost at any cost. I’ll give up anything and everything for the privilege of winning others to Christ. That is Paul’s essential message in this chapter. So let’s drill into 1 Corinthians 9, beginning with verse 1:
Verse 1: 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? These are rhetorical questions, which means this is what Paul was saying: I am free! I am an apostle! I have seen Jesus the Lord! You are the result of my work! This is Paul’s claim to apostleship. He was not one of the original apostles, and there is no evidence he ever saw the Lord Jesus prior to his conversion. But on the Damascus Road, as he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the church, Jesus appeared to him. Paul saw Christ in all His resplendent glory; and the enthroned Christ was radiating such powerful blinding beams of light that Paul fell from his donkey and his eyes were burned out (see Acts 9). Jesus saved him, restored his sight, and called him to be the 13th apostle. Paul was sent out to evangelize, and when he came to Corinth some of the citizens listened to his message and came to Christ.
Verse 2: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. Not everyone accepted him as the 13th apostle. But surely the Corinthians would respect his apostolic authority since he was the founder of their church.
Verse 3:This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. This is what I say to people who claim Jesus didn’t send me or commission me, that I’m not one of the apostles – just look at the lives that have been changed. Look at the conversions that have occurred. Look at the churches that have been planted.
Verse 4:Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Since I’m an apostle, don’t I have the right to eat or drink whatever I want? Why would you criticize me for that? And furthermore, don’t I have a right to be married?
Verses 5-6: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 lack the right to not work for a living? Don’t I have the right to receive financial support from you? In these verses, Paul is talking about all the rights he has relinquished because of the ministry. He has a right to eat and drink whatever he wants. He has a right to get married and take a wife along on this travels. He has a right to financial support.
Verse 7:Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? These are more rhetorical questions. I’m a soldier and soldiers get paid. I’m working in the Lord’s vineyard, so why shouldn’t I be able to eat the grapes. I’m an under-shepherd of God’s flock, so shouldn’t I receive sustenance from the sheep. Paul is making a logical case for the support of the ministry. From the earliest days of the Levites in the Old Testament, God has called some people to labor fulltime on behalf of His church, and He has provided for their support.
Verses 8-10: Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same ting? 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 whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing the harvest.
The Old Testament gives us the principle of the material support for kingdom workers.
Verse 11: 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 will not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the Gospel of Christ.
This refers to a habit that Paul seemed to have. He had determined that he would not accept any finical support from churches he was trying to establish. When he went to Corinth, he stayed there a year-and-a-half and never took a penny from the Corinthian churches. At one point, his funds were so low he began making tents with Aquila and Priscilla (see Acts 18). He didn’t want anyone to accuse him of going into towns and starting churches in order to make money.
Now, after he had established the church in a city and gone on to a new city, if that church wanted to send him an offering he would receive it. In fact, that’s what happened in Corinth. He was working to support himself until Silas and Timothy showed up with some funds given by the churches Paul had established to the north. He would receive funds from churches he had planted in the past; but while he was on the ground in a city trying to win people to Christ, he would not take their money.
He was telling them here, “I have a right to be supported by you; but I decided to give up that right so nothing would hinder you from being saved.”
Verses 13-15: Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that 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. 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, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.
His point was that we have many rights, but it’s not always wise to exercise those rights. Sometimes we forgo certain rights if it helps the cause of the kingdom. And now, Paul is going to open up the curtain and talk about his evangelistic zeal. Why is he willing to give up his rights? Why is he willing to remain single and live in poverty? It’s because he is driven and compelled and constrained to win people to Christ – and nothing else matters to him.
Verse 16-18: For when I preach the Gospel, I cannot boast, since 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 full use of my rights as a preacher of the Gospel.
The Living Bible puts it this way: If I were volunteering my services of my own free will, then the Lord would give me a special reward; but that is not the situation, for God has picked me out and given me this sacred trust, and I have no choice. Under this circumstance, what is my pay? It is the special joy I get from preaching the Good News without expense to anyone, never demanding my rights
He goes on to say that he’s willing to do his best to fit in with various cultures if only it will open avenues for preaching. When he’s in a Jewish environment, he’ll speak from a Jewish perspective. When he’s in a Greek environment, he’ll adopt that perspective. When he’s with Romans, he’ll adapt to that as best he can.
Verses 19 – 23: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made 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.
And now, he’s going to end the chapter by exhorting the Corinthians to put some discipline into their lives. They need to enjoy their Christian liberty and allow for disagreement; but the thing to remember is our zeal and discipline and dedication for Christ. It’s like a runner who has every right to eat cake and drink soda pop and lay around on the sofa; but the runner forgoes these rights in order to train for the race and win it.
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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Conclusion: A couple of Sundays ago in a morning sermon, I told the story of Mabel Francis, who had sailed for Japan as a missionary in 1909. When Pearl Harbor was attacked and America entered World War II, it was very dangerous for Mabel, as an American, to remain in Japan. But she was determined to be there, in her place, after the war because she knew whatever happened the nation of Japan would need Christ. The war ended, of course, after the atomic bomb was dropped on two Japanese cities. As soon as she could, Mabel headed to Hiroshima to see what could be done. “It was just like a desolate wilderness,” she later wrote. “There was no escape, no getting out. Many people saw their lived ones burned alive. Those in the center of the blast just disintegrated with no trace of them left. Stones fused together under that light. The concussion, when the sound came, was so terrible that people’s eyes were pulled right out of their heads. Many that were burned so with the light rushed to the river—and the river was jammed with dead bodies.” Mabel managed to find a small piece of land in the wasteland of Hiroshima where she could have a church building erected. As soon as the doors were opened, it became a center of evangelism. One evening a woman stood up and gave this testimony.
“That morning when the bomb struck,” she said, “I was at my home, up on the mountainside. My two little children were playing on the floor—a one-year-old and a three-year-old. I stopped down to pick up something, and in that second, that awful flash of light came! I was startled, and stood up to look around, and when I looked back, my two children were charred at my feet—both dead. I didn’t now then that I was all burned, I was so concerned for my little ones. I picked them up and laid them aside, and pretty soon, I began to feel the pain in my own body. Then I found how badly I was burned.” That woman said that in the following weeks she dragged herself to every shrine and temple she could find, searching for some kind of answer and some sort of comfort.
“But tonight you told us of this God’s love, and that is was He who created us, and you said my children are with Him—I believe it! I believe it! My heart is comforted. Light has come to me.” (From Mabel Francis, One Shall Chase a Thousand (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1968), 59-60.)
As Christians we have more rights and more liberty that anyone else in the world. The Bible says that when Christ has set us free, we are free indeed. We have the right to do what we want with our money and time and energy; but for the unity of the church and for the expansion of the Gospel, we sometimes yield some of those rights on earth. We sometimes give up things. We sometimes sacrifice. We sometimes exercise self-discipline and self-control.
What are you doing, what are you giving up, what rights are you yielding so that others can find and know Christ? Let’s say with the apostle Paul, “I am constrained to share the Gospel. Woe to me if I don’t share the Gospel. I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might win some.”