RPM, Volume 13, Number 38, September 18 to September 24, 2011

1 Corinthians 9:1-14

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

This morning we are returning to our on-going study of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, picking up again at chapter 9. As many of you will remember, this letter to the Corinthians is one of a number of letters that Paul wrote to this congregation, and one of only two that God has preserved for us within the New Testament canon. The overall structure of this letter is fairly straightforward and can be divided into two parts. In the first six chapters, Paul is responding to reports he has heard about certain things that have been going on in Corinth. From chapter seven onward he is responding to questions that the Corinthian believers have asked him by means of their own correspondence.

In our last look at this letter, we had just finished chapter 8 where Paul dealt with the specific question of whether or not it was right for the Corinthian people to go into an idol temple and eat meat that had been used in the worship there. Now Paul will have more to say about this in chapter 10, but his emphasis up to this point was to focus on the whole matter of a Christian's conscience and the relationship between love and knowledge. Whatever else might be said about these things, Paul wanted the Corinthians whose consciences did not bother them - not just on this matter but on any matter ultimately - to be ready and willing to limit their freedom in this area for the sake of the other believers whose consciences - rightly or wrongly - did bother them. Paul wanted them to consider more than just knowledge or information when it came to thinking about these sorts of things.

But Paul did not simply expect that only the Corinthians congregation would exhibit this sort of other-centered behavior. In the last verse of chapter 8, Paul states that he too is willing to practice this sort of lifestyle for the sake of his brothers and sisters.

And then chapter 9 begins.

But, as we will see this morning, Paul is not finished responding to the issue raised in chapter 8. In fact, he will NOT be finished responding fully to this particular matter until verse 1 of chapter 11. Which means that 8:1 to 11:1 should be seen as a complete section, revolving around one main issue, but coming AT that issue from a number of different angles.

In the verses before us this morning, Paul picks up where chapter 8 leaves off - with his expressed willingness to do what he is instructing the Corinthians to do for one another. As proof that he means what he is saying, Paul goes on in chapter 9 to offer an example of how he has already done, and continues to do the very thing he is asking of them.

Now, complicating Paul's teachings on this matter is a situation which we have seen before, and which comes to the surface again here - the fact that at least some of the Corinthians had begun to question whether or not Paul was a legitimate apostle, and therefore whether his authority over them was valid. As we have seen in the past, the source of all this can be traced partly to the influence of false teachers in Corinth and partly to Paul's own self-conscious choices where, by relying on God's ways and God's Spirit to work, and rejecting worldly ways and patterns, Paul had set himself up for being both doubted and criticized by the immature, worldly Corinthians.

Well, this tragic situation becomes evident again here in chapter 9. Before he can even substantiate what he has said in chapter 8, before he can offer his own life as an example of the thing he is talking about in 8:13, he has to pause firstly to defend his apostleship to them once more. Sadly, this will be an on-going feature of this letter and, as we will see in the future, Lord willing, will become an even more serious matter in 2nd Corinthians.

With those introductory comments, let's pause now to pray and invite God the Holy Spirit to come and guide us into truth...

(Pray and read 1 Corinthians 9:1-14)

By means of personal example, Paul reinforces the appeal of chapter 8 - for the stronger Corinthians to forego their rights for the sake of the weak, even to adopt the stance of the weak if necessary. He reinforces this appeal by drawing their attention to his own life and to the fact that his own lifestyle is an example of this very same principle in action - surrendering his apostolic rights for the sake of a greater good - in this case, for the sake of the Gospel's advance.

Now, as we have already seen, what complicates Paul's use of this example is that, apparently, there are some believers in Corinth who wonder about Paul's credentials as an apostle. They are not sure that he should be placed in that category. And so Paul finds himself in the awkward position of having to justify his own apostleship, and with it his apostolic rights, before he can go on to talk about refusing to claim those rights.

Otherwise, his example and argument would have no force. After all, it isn't very persuasive to use yourself as an example of how to surrender your rights when the people you are talking to doubt that you ever had those rights in the first place. So, in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 9, Paul once again says some things in defense of his own apostleship. To be sure, it is not a big defense, nor is it an exhaustive one. Nevertheless, while he only says a couple of things in this regard, what he does say packs a pretty strong punch.

In the space of a few verses, then, Paul re-affirms and reminds them of a couple things. He reminds them that he - like all the other apostles - is one who has seen the Lord. If you are familiar with the story of Paul's conversion, you will know that he is referring here to his experience of Christ on the road to Damascus where he personally encountered the post- resurrection, post-ascension Lord.

However, Paul might equally be referring to another occasion, recorded in Acts 18, where the Lord appeared to him in a vision. Indeed, it was during this second visitation from the Lord that Paul was encouraged to stay and minister in Corinth, and not to worry about violent opposition, because the Lord had many people in that city.

So, as part of his defense of his legitimate apostleship, Paul reminds them that he had seen the Lord - indeed - that the whole reason he had stayed and planted the church in Corinth was a direct result of God's specific instructions in that regard.

The second piece of supporting evidence that Paul appeals to is, in fact, the Corinthian church itself. "Are you not my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord." In other words, Paul is saying that for them to doubt his apostleship is to doubt their very existence and legitimacy as a church. How could they, as the fruit of his labor in the Lord, turn around and question whether the Lord had used him, or whether he was a valid apostle?

So, again, while it is not a long or even a detailed defense, it is clear that Paul feels the necessity to say at least these things in support of his legitimate authority as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, this is not really the time or place to go into a long discussion of this, but it is worth saying at this point that we need to think carefully about Paul's own criteria for apostleship here and what it says about that "office" or role in the on-going life of the church. In particular we need to keep in mind Paul's first criteria - that an apostle is someone who has had a personal encounter with the risen Lord, someone whom the Lord Himself has commissioned to a specific task. When you take those sorts of realities and couple them with a number of other Scriptures which talk about the unique, historical and even foundational role of the apostles, then it becomes clear that the apostolic office - at least in the sense that Paul and Peter fulfilled it - is one which seems to be specific to a particular time and to a particular agenda within God's redemptive purposes.

It's like the role or office of "King" which was a reality among God's people - for a time. There was a period where that was a necessary and significant reality - but that time is now passed. There aren't going to be any more human kings set apart as God's anointed rulers over His people. That office and role has served its purposes within God's agenda and we now look forward, not to a mere human king, but to King Jesus, returning to earth to consummate the rule and reign He has already inaugurated and is advancing through His Church.

Similarly, the Apostolic function of bringing and being God's authoritative testimony regarding His Son, Jesus Christ, founding His Church, and then bringing God's revealed truth to bear upon that Church for all time - that function is fulfilled. There was something unique, foundational, and un-repeatable about what they did, and we ought not to expect that sort of thing to be an ever-present reality in the church, any more than we expect there to be a whole new round of kings or judges to start popping up.

And that means that in our day and age of loose theology, sloppy thinking and even sloppier language, the evangelical church needs to think seriously about the careless manner in which some seem to easily take to themselves titles such as "bishop" or "apostle" or "prophet".

I digress. Back to Corinth.

After making these opening comments in defense of his apostleship, Paul then devotes his energies to defending a second reality: his right to receive material/financial support as an Apostle. And, while Paul devotes the bulk of what he says in these verses to establishing this "right" - you need to remember that this is still not his ultimate goal. His ultimate goal is to show how he himself is practicing the principle illustrated by what he says in 8:13, and as a result to encourage the Corinthians to adopt the same perspective and practice toward one another.

Now, in asserting his right to receive material/financial support, he brings at least four supporting arguments or points to bear upon this situation:

1) Firstly, he argues in verses 3-6 that, as an apostle, he can claim the same rights as all the other apostles. Now, from what he says in these verses, we can see the sort of things he had in mind: a) the right to "three meals a day", so to speak, b) the right to take along a wife - if such became a reality for him and to expect that she too would be looked after, c) and the right to make a living wage from his work as an apostle, without having to engage in other labor. This, apparently, was the normal practice for the other apostles. Paul is arguing here that if that is legitimate for them, it is therefore legitimate for him.

2) Secondly, he argues in verse 7, and then again in verse 13, that on the basis of common sense and on the basis of experience, in both religious and non-religious arenas, it is accepted practice that people benefit from the labor of their own hands, that they derive sustenance and support as a result of what they do. This is true, Paul argues, for soldiers, for vintners, for shepherds - even for temple workers. No reasonable person could deny this.

3) As a third argument for his claim to the right to support, Paul seems to sense that perhaps some would look at what he has said and claim that he is simply thinking about these things in a worldly fashion, taking his cues from the culture and not from Scripture. "Do I say these things on human authority?" asks Paul. He then goes on in verses 8-12a to develop an argument from Scripture. Appealing to Deuteronomy, Paul reminds them of something which Moses wrote about not muzzling an ox when it was treading out grain. That command appears in a list of miscellaneous commands which, nevertheless, have a common concern to promote and insure justice in the day to day affairs of life. As a result, a number of different situations are addressed and envisioned, including this one regarding the treatment of livestock. In Deuteronomy 25, Moses is saying that the farmer ought to insure that, however he harnesses the animal, it is in a position to eat some of the grain that it is being used to harvest. It is a matter of simple justice. It is a matter of simple kindness. Paul shows by his treatment of this passage, that God had more in mind than just the treatment of oxen when Moses wrote those words. God was not just concerned to secure simple justice for farm animals.

He was concerned, Paul says, to provide his people with a principle whose significance went far beyond its application to livestock. Indeed, Paul seems to suggest here that God had in mind the very situation in which Paul and the other apostles now found themselves. And so, even though the Scripture was given hundreds of years before, God had the future circumstances and needs of his people in mind, even then. "Does he not speak entirely for our sake?" asks Paul, "It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop." And then Paul makes the connection from there to his own life, and to Barnabas, "If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?"

4) Finally, as if he has not already well-established his point, he adds a fourth supporting argument, and he adds it almost as an afterthought, as something like the icing on the cake. In verse 14, he moves from an appeal to Moses to an appeal to Jesus Christ himself, saying that the Lord himself commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel, probably thinking of Jesus statement, recorded in Matthew 10:10 that "the laborer is worthy of his wages".

So, finally, after re-asserting the legitimacy of his apostleship, and after firmly establishing his right to support as an apostle, Paul finally is in a position to say what he set out to say from the very beginning - that even though he has a perfect right to be materially supported by the Church, he, nevertheless, has chosen NOT to exercise that right. Even though his choosing to do so has meant difficult labor and a more trying and stressful existence than he might have otherwise experienced, he was willing to do so for the sake of the Gospel. As he says in verse 12,
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
Clearly, it was Paul's perception that for him to do what the other apostles were doing in the matter of receiving support would have been detrimental to the Gospel's advance in Corinth. But why was that the case? Well, knowing something about the situation in Paul's day helps to show why this was so. The following explanation by Richard Hays is helpful:
It is important to remember that Paul did not fit readily into any recognizable job description within the culture of the Corinthians. There was no established model for "Christian ministers". Nor were there existing institutions such as universities or church denominations to employ or sanction teachers and preachers. Paul was simply a free-lance missionary. [As a result]....the Corinthians would most naturally have compared him to the rhetoricians and philosophers familiar within their world.
So, here is Paul showing up in Corinth. No one has ever seen or heard of a Christian minister or missionary before. So, to all external appearances, Paul is just like every other philosopher that showed up in the city - and there were hundreds of them.

Unfortunately, these people did not always have the best of reputations among the people. Part of the reason for that was the manner in which many of them supported themselves. Typically, there were four different ways. Some of them charged fees - sold tickets basically - for people to come and hear them speak. But people who took this approach were often accused of being greedy and of manipulating people. Others charged no fees but instead were supported by a wealthy person who believed in their cause. These philosophers were often taken up with responding to the whims and personal needs of their patrons, and were open to the accusation of being un-duly influenced by their dependence upon their patron. Some philosophers simply resorted to begging on the streets and, apart from being a very uncertain sort of existence, these were sometimes seen as being leeches or parasites, sponging off of others. Finally, some philosophers chose to work at a particular trade to support themselves. This had the disadvantage of cutting into their time and availability, but it spared them from the charge of being greedy, of being controlled by a wealthy patron, or of being a parasite.

Because this situation was so prominent in Corinth - and more so than it was for the other apostles who were in different contexts - but because this WAS Paul's particular situation, especially as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he decided that of the four different ways described above he would adopt the last one - choosing to occupy himself with a trade. To do otherwise, in that context, would have rendered the Gospel message open to slander - which Paul would not allow. Even further, by taking on a trade - which was considered to be a lowly sort of thing to do - Paul was a living illustration of the Gospel reality of God's strength being most clearly displayed in human weakness. This, then, is the point of Paul's personal illustration:

If Paul was willing to forego his more substantial rights of being materially supported as an apostle, and that with far more personal consequences, how much more should the Corinthians be willing to forego their rights with regard to the far less serious issue of eating meat offered to idols, in an idol temple?
Clearly, Paul is not asking the Corinthians to do anything that he himself has not been willing to do, and at a far greater personal cost. That is the significance of this passage in Paul's own day, in the few minutes we have remaining then, I want to think about just two among any number of significances that this passage has for us. One is more secondary to the main thrust of the passage and the other is more primary.

Let's start with the more secondary implication, which has to do with the whole matter of supporting those who are in full-time Gospel work. Now, the reason I consider this an issue of secondary importance is simply because, in the context of 1 Corinthians 9, that is how the issue functions. In other words, Paul did not write 1 Corinthians 9 to build a case for supporting those who minister in Christ's church. That wasn't his main purpose. To be sure, he does make that case and so it has merit for us to consider, but he only makes the case in the service of a more significant purpose: encouraging self-sacrificial behavior in the Corinthians. As such it is a secondary issue, but an important issue nonetheless.

In thinking about this matter, then, I think there are two messages to be found here. One is for those who are IN full-time Christian work or are considering full-time Christian work, and the other is for congregations that benefit from their ministry. Now, admittedly, it seems and frankly feels a little self-serving for me, as a full-time Gospel worker to stand here and talk about these things and I apologize if that is the case. However, it's in the text, and therefore it's my job to talk about it - regardless of how awkward it may seem. So, let me take a shot at Gospel workers first.

For those in full-time Christian work, this passage leaves you - leaves me - leaves US - no choice but to ask, and to keep asking yourself some potentially uncomfortable questions. We need to ask ourselves what our being supported and the manner in which we are being supported says to this culture, to this context in which we minister. What is the message being sent by these things? Does our being supported, or the manner in which we are supported, or the level at which we are being supported present an obstacle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this context? How do these realities play out in South Baton Rouge, in 2004? How do they play out in Peoria, Illinois? How to they play out in Greenville, South Carolina? The answer might be different in each of those situations. But the questions must be asked. Those who are engaged in full-time Christian work must be willing to be scrutinized on these issues.

Further, we must ask ourselves whether we, like Paul, are willing to endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel? Are we willing to even take up other employment - if that proves necessary - in order to guard and protect the integrity of the Gospel in this culture? Hard questions - and they need to be asked.

For congregations who benefit from the ministry of those in full-time Gospel work, there are hard questions as well. This passage forces you to ask whether or not you are taking care of, and committed to taking care of, the Under-Shepherds to whom God has entrusted the care of your souls? Are you giving "double honor" as Paul talks about elsewhere, to the elders that rule well among you? I have, sadly, been in the position of the years to see congregations get these things completely backwards. I have seen situations, many times, where the congregation was determined to make sure that their pastor suffered hardship and the pastor, rather than having to ask whether his being supported was an obstacle for the Gospel was wondering whether or not he was going to be able to pay his bills and keep food on the table.

That's not how it ought to be. What ought to be happening in our churches is that congregations recognize and are willing and even enthusiastic to fulfill their obligations to their pastors and - on the other side of it - the pastors are equally willing and committed to holding that enthusiasm in check and making sure that there are no obstacles being placed in the way of the Gospel. That's how it ought to be. And that is a minor implication of this passage.

The major significance of this passage, however, is the gospel-first stance of Paul that so ordered and influenced his life - his passion to keep the Gospel free and clear from any hindrances - whatever that might mean for him personally.

As a result of this gospel-first stance, Paul was more than willing to forego his personal rights, to abandon his apostolic privileges and bypass opportunity for the sake of the Gospel's advance. To put it another way, what is on display here is the gospel-driven, sacrificial mindset and lifestyle. This is the lifestyle that was demonstrated by Jesus, modeled by Paul, and whose echo ought to reverberate through the lives of God's people, wherever they may be found.

What broke Paul's heart about so many of the problems in the Corinthian church was their baptized self-indulgence, their spiritualized self-centeredness that kept popping up all over the place - always playing in the background - the soundtrack to their whole Christian experience. We see this reality at work in the divisions that Paul talked about in chapters 1-3. We saw it in the issue of sexual immorality in chapter 5, and the matter regarding lawsuits in chapter 6, and the questions regarding marriage and divorce in chapter 7. It's everywhere in Corinth.

It's everywhere in the church today - the church out there, and the church in here. When you look across the landscape of evangelicalism, what is the word that comes more readily to mind - indulgence or sacrifice? When you look across the landscape of your own heart, what is the word that comes more readily to mind - indulgence or sacrifice? Are we a people that are more likely to cling fiercely to our rights, or to surrender them, and even to chafe at the suggestion that we ought to surrender them?

Oh, that God would so work in our hearts that we are far more ready, that we are far quicker to surrender our rights than we are to claim them....

Oh, that our grasp of the Gospel would be so clear, and the sufficiency of Christ so strong, that we are free and becoming freer all the time to both see the idols of our hearts and then let them slip from our clutching hands.

Oh, that our love for Christ and His body, the Church, would storm the gates of this kingdom we call Self - from the inside out - breaking down the walls so that we become increasingly incapable of thinking of ourselves apart from the body of Christ to which we belong, and the head of that body - who is Christ - and to whom we have pledged our faithfulness.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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