RPM, Volume 10, Number 14, April 2 to April 8, 2006

1 Corinthians 9:15-23

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

This morning we are continuing with our study of 1 Corinthians, picking up at verse 15 of chapter 9 and continuing through to verse 23 of that same chapter. If you were with us last week, then you will know that the verses before us this morning are a small part of a larger sub- section of this letter which extends from 8:1 through to 11:1, and which is dealing with a few issues related to the subject of eating foods sacrificed to idols. That sub-section is part of a still larger section of the letter which extends from 7:1 through to the end of the letter, or near the end, and which contains the Apostle Paul's responses to a variety of questions and concerns that the Corinthian Church have expressed to him by means of their own letter.

In looking at these things, we have been somewhat handicapped all along the way because we do not, in fact, have in our possession this letter that was written to Paul from the Corinthians, nor do we know how many they actually sent him. It may have been one, it may have been 10 - we just don't know. All we have are Paul's responses to them in 1st Corinthians.

However, through paying careful attention to the text we have, along the way, been able to re-construct what the likely content of that letter was so that we can have a pretty good idea of what was going on between Paul and this troubled church he had planted.

With regard to the passage before us this morning, there are certain aspects of this re- constructed letter which are useful to recall, and which help us to make some sense of the shape of Paul's response to them on these issues of food and idols and rights and freedom. Some aspects of this re-constructed letter are:

1) In their letter to Paul they have obviously asked what he thinks about the issue of eating meat that has been offered to idols in a pagan ceremony. They have apparently asked him what he thought about their eating it at all, as well as asking him about their eating it inside a pagan temple (which, as we've seen, was sort of the "restaurant" of their day), and even whether they could purchase it in a marketplace and/or eat such meat in another person's home.

2) It is also apparent that, in their letter to Paul, they have given not only their questions but their own convictions in these matters - conclusions they have already reached and were acting upon. One of these convictions was that "idols are nothing" - which Paul quotes in 8:4 - and with which he does not disagree. Another conviction expressed by them was that food itself was neutral - "a matter of indifference to God", as Fee puts it. This too was something with which Paul does not disagree, as seen in 8:8.

3) In short, as Gordon Fee observes, one of the main points of their inquiry, or more precisely, one of the conclusions expressed in their inquiry, seems to have been this: "Since idols are nothing, and since food is a matter of indifference to God, it doesn't matter what we eat, nor does it matter where we eat it." While their thinking on these things was right, in some ways, as we saw in our look at 8:1-13, there were other realities which they had not adequately considered, and which Paul goes on to address.

4) Judging from the contents of Chapter 10 of first Corinthians, it also appears that another aspect of their letter, and related to this whole issue, was that the Corinthians seem to have developed an almost "magical" view of the sacraments. Now we will look at this in more detail when we get to Chapter 10 in a couple weeks. But it appears that one thing which the Corinthians had expressed to Paul in their letter was this idea that because they had been baptized and were taking the Lord's Supper, that they were therefore safe from all harm, from any possible influence of demons or evil that might result from their presence at these meals inside pagan temples. As I said, we won't deal with that now, but this was apparently part of the correspondence and another point with which Paul disagrees quite strongly.

5) Finally, it also appears from what Paul writes that their letter to him expressed some doubts or questions about his authority over them as an Apostle and, along with that, some criticisms of his actions - e.g., that his not being financially supported was an indicator that he must have been inferior to the other apostles who were supported. That seems to have been one of their criticisms. Another one seems to have been that his behavior was confusing or inconsistent - that he refused to eat idol meat when he was with Jews, but if he was in the home of gentiles - he would eat it without making an issue out of it. This too is a matter which will be more directly addressed in chapter 10, but which seems to have been included in their letter to Paul, and which we will at least begin to address as we look at the verses before us this morning.

All of these things, then, seem to have been part of the Corinthians' letter to Paul, and so have guided and shaped the structure of his response back to them in 1 Corinthians. With that re-construction in mind, let's turn then to the verses before us to understand a portion of Paul's response on this matter. Before we do that, however, we should pray:
Great Father in Heaven, We thank you again for Your word this morning. Please come and teach us this Word now, by Your Holy Spirit. Let us hear Your voice in the way which you intended for us to hear it - in and through your Word. Humble us at the very beginning Father so that we do not assume the posture that we so easily do - and sit in judgment upon your Word. Instead, break our proud spirits and hearts, so that we place ourselves beneath Your truth, that it might judge US. And Father as that happens, and as we will inevitably be found wanting, would you bring the life-giving and comforting and healing ointment of the Gospel which allows us to endure the scalpel of your Truth and to turn to you again, in repentance, in love, in faith, in obedience, and in confidence. We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen. (Read 1 Corinthians 9:11-23)
As we have already seen, in response to the beliefs of some of the Corinthians: that there was no problem with eating meat in an idol temple and, indeed, that they were "free" to exercise this "right" - in response to this Paul urged them to consider the effect of their actions on some of their other brothers and sisters.

This is because, by insisting on claiming their rights, some of the Corinthians were leading other Corinthians to go against their conscience and participate in something which they did not feel right about. The result of this was to wound their consciences and so hinder the on- going work of the Gospel within them. Over against this, Paul called these temple-eating Corinthians to a better way - to be willing to relinquish their "rights" for the benefit of their brothers and sisters.

Then, after making that point, Paul in the first part of chapter 9, used himself as an example of this very principle in action. Because he was an apostle, he had the "right" to receive support. And yet, Paul had chosen not to accept support because he judged that for him to do so, in that particular Corinthian context, would have hindered the advance of the Gospel. The Corinthians, being very concerned for clinging to their personal freedoms, would have been puzzled and rebuked by Paul's example. His self-denying perspective showed quite clearly that the Corinthians were not nearly as free as they might have imagined themselves to be.

In the next section of Chapter 9, the verses just read to you, Paul continues with these same ideas, showing again, through what he says, that there is a freedom that is even greater than the "freedom" that the Corinthians seem to be so proud of - and that, again, is the freedom to NOT claim what you could. Even further, Paul goes on to show that his freedom is so complete that he is even free to gladly make himself a servant of all, in order to serve the Gospel.

Now, that is, admittedly, a very cursory overview of Paul's response thus far, and of the passage in front of us. Let's slow down, then, and think about some of the specifics of these verses.

First of all, if verses 1-14 can be said to be about apostolic rights, then verses 15-18 can be described as a summary of apostolic self-restraint. To be sure, he has already briefly mentioned this in verse 12, but he gives it a fuller treatment here. "I have made no use of any of these rights" says Paul in vs15. And then, following that assertion, comes a series of cascading remarks, each one following from what was just said and each one moving Paul's argument a little further afield until he finally brings everything back on point in verse 18.

So, as soon as Paul states that he has not made any use of his rights in vs15, he seems to become conscious of the fact that perhaps some might accuse him of bringing all these things up in order to get people to start supporting him. In other words, they might see Paul's whole response here as a calculated attempt at manipulating people, or creating guilt, which he would then use to his own advantage.

However, Paul immediately squashes any possibility of being mis-judged in that regard by assuring the Corinthians that this is NOT his motive. Getting their support is the furthest thing from his mind. Paul, very dramatically, says that he would rather die than start receiving support for his Gospel work, and so lose any basis for "boasting".

Now, you have to understand when you see that word "boasting" that Paul is not using that word, in the way that you and I might use it. When we talk about boasting we are talking about bragging. We're talking about people drawing attention to themselves so that they will be elevated in the eyes of others. That is what you and I usually mean, but it isn't what Paul means.

The focus of Paul's "boasting," by contrast, is summed up with his statement in chapter 1, verse 31, "Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord". Indeed, it seems that because of all the self-promoting boasting that was going on amongst the Corinthians that Paul quite intentionally uses the language of "boasting" but in a way that was opposite to what some of the Corinthians were doing. The things that Paul boasts of are things that highlight not his strength, but his poverty, his weakness. The things that Paul "boasts" of are things that show the power of God and the greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ and what he has done.

With that sort of understanding of Paul's "boasting", let's think again about what Paul might mean in vs15. Paul says here that for him to accept their material and financial support would remove the ground or the basis for his boasting. What is that ground or basis that Paul refers to? Simply this: that he offers the Gospel free of charge. Now, as soon as those words are off his lips, he immediately reminds the Corinthians that this preaching of the Gospel that he is talking about is not something that he can take credit for, or can pat himself on the back about. As Paul says in verse 16, "For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" In other words, Paul can take no credit for preaching the Gospel because God has called him to that task and entrusted that responsibility to him. He can't NOT preach the Gospel.

So, it is not the preaching of the Gospel that is the ground of his boast, only that he does so free of charge. But even this is not any sort of self-promotion since, as Paul himself points out here, by keeping money out of the picture in Corinth, the Gospel goes ahead unhindered. What is the result of that? What happens when the unhindered Gospel goes forward? Christ, not Paul, is promoted. This is Paul's reward. This is Paul's boast. The Corinthians may boast in other things, but Paul's boast is in the things that result in Christ being lifted up and honored. In doing all of this, Paul shows the extent and depth of his freedom, which is then the subject of verses 19-23. Not only is Paul so free that he can forego his apostolic rights, he is also so free that he can willingly make himself a servant of all - accommodating himself to them as much as possible, in order to win more of them to Christ.

In verses 19-23 Paul expresses his willingness to be a servant of all in several different ways. He says, first of all, that to the Jews he became as a Jew. Now, since Paul was in fact a Jewish man, this is an interesting statement for him to make. And all he means by this is that he was willing to adopt or let go of certain things associated with "being Jewish" which were neither good nor bad, neither required nor forbidden. The obvious example of this was certain foods - especially meats - that he once would not have eaten, but he now understood were okay. Another example was circumcision which Paul opposed strongly in Galatians , because it was seen by some as a means of being right with God. And yet, in another circumstance, Paul felt free to encourage it - when it was clear that doing so would not confuse people about the Gospel but would simply remove an un-necessary cultural and communicational barrier for Timothy (Acts 16:3).

So, Paul was willing to accommodate and adjust to the cultural and environmental factors around him - within limits. So again, for example, in verse 20 he makes it clear that while he was willing to identify with people who were under a system of works righteousness - which is what "under the law" refers to - he was willing to identify with them for the sake of winning them to the Gospel - but in doing so, he did not go so far as to adopt their perspective.

A contemporary example of this sort of thing might involve a person going to live among Muslims - who are all about works righteousness - and that person being willing, while among them, to adopt some of their standards of dress and food customs, etc., in order to win them to Christ. A Christian involved in this ministry might go a great distance in identifying with his Muslim friend and in trying not to offend, and yet not go so far as to adopt a view of works righteousness himself.

So, Paul qualifies his statements about accommodation here. You see it again in verse 21 where he says that he was willing to identify with those who were "outside the law" - the Gentiles, in other words, and yet he would not do so as one who had rejected every notion of law. To put it another way, Paul could identify with those outside the law but he was not free, for example, to become an adulterer to the adulterers, or an idolater to the idolaters. Why? Because while Paul no longer saw the law as a means of righteousness and so was not "under" it in that sense, he nevertheless understood that belonging to Christ meant being subject to the "law of Christ" - the ethical imperatives that were part and parcel of being a Christian, which included the moral law, and all of Jesus' various expansions upon it.

In short, Paul's willingness to accommodate himself to a variety of social and cultural circumstances is not a blank check. He is willing to do so, and to go a great distance for the sake of the Gospel, and yet not in a way which would compromise the integrity OF that gospel. That is the sort of Gospel-centered, self-denying exercise of freedom that Paul wants to see among the Corinthians, not the self-serving, soul-suffocating, clinging to one's "rights" and "freedoms" that was destroying people and was hindering the work of the Gospel.

That is, I believe, what these verses are talking about. Let's take a few minutes then, as we draw this study to a close, to think about some of the significances of this passage for God's Church today.

First, one thing that we are reminded of here is the fact that the pastor's power and authority do not come from the people - they come from God. Paul talked about a necessity that was laid upon him by God. He talked about being entrusted with a stewardship. A steward, as we have seen before, is one who has been entrusted with certain things, with carrying out certain responsibilities on behalf of another. This was Paul's position as God's Apostle to the Gentiles. Similarly, this is the situation of every person who is given to full-time service of the Gospel. He is a steward of responsibilities and of a calling that have been laid upon him - THROUGH the local church, no doubt - but BY God Himself.

The pastor of a local church may be supported by a local congregation. He may give his life serving the people OF that congregation and work very hard AMONG them. But at the end of the day, he does not work for them. He works for God. He is God's servant. He is ultimately answerable to God for that service. Churches do not always understand this. They sometimes regard the pastor as an employee of the church and, while he may be one in a certain technical, pragmatic sense, he is NOT one in an ultimate, spiritual sense.

A second implication of these verses has to do with the matter of Christian freedom. Now, I cannot say for sure, but if I were a betting man, I would be willing to bet that if I went down to the Mall of Louisiana and set up a little table in the entryway and asked people who came in, "What is freedom all about?" - I would be willing to bet that the sorts of responses I would get would be things like this: - "Freedom is about being able to say what you want to say" or "Freedom is about being able to vote and elect your own leaders" or "Freedom is about being able to be or become what you want to" or "Freedom is about being able to worship in whatever way you think is right". Those are the sorts of answers I would get and those answers are okay, as far as they go, because in our culture when people talk about "freedom" it almost always is connected to some right or privilege that that person has or places a high value upon. The emphasis is almost always on how, at the end of the day, freedom is something which helps me, and which gives me and my loved ones great personal advantages. And certainly freedom does do that.

However, if you spend any amount of time studying the life and words of the Apostle Paul, what you discover is that, typically, when Paul talks about freedom it is almost always in terms of what his freedom means for others. Paul's orientation was starkly different. For him, being free meant being free to give. It meant being free to serve and even "enslave" himself to others. It meant being free to let go of rights and privileges, not insist upon them.

I don't know if you have yet been struck by how odd Paul's approach might seem in our culture, but if the Apostle Paul walked up to our hypothetical survey table in the Mall of Louisiana, I think that you would get a very different answer to the question, "What is freedom all about?" I hope that reality follows you around and haunts you, as it haunts me. What is your freedom about? Yes, Christ has set you free. But what for? What is YOUR freedom FOR?

A third and final significance of these verses is to simply take note of the fact that when the organizing principle of your life is to promote God's glory by advancing the Gospel you will at times be regarded as inconsistent, hypocritical, or just plain crazy by others - and some of your worst critics will be people who ought to know better.

I remember years ago watching a movie - I won't say the name of it because it was a hopeless waste of celluloid, money, time, brain cells - with the exception of this one scene, which I'm going to describe to you now so you needn't bother with renting it. Nevertheless, in this one scene there are two lawyers, working on a case, and trying to sort through a huge pile of paper in order to find some clues and catch the bad guys. Well, the pile is so enormous that one attorney is working on one stack and the other is working on a different one and each one, as they look at the individual pieces of paper, is then taking that paper and organizing it into various piles, according to some system that makes sense to them.

Well, after doing this for quite a while, they discover, to their horror, that they have not been using the same system to sort their papers, with the result that everything has gotten mixed up and they're now going to have to start all over again. However, the interesting thing was watching how each attorney responded to the other one. The first attorney explained what he was doing and what his "system" was for organizing the papers - which made perfect sense to him. And he then went on to show how exasperated he was with the other person whose actions did not seem to make any sense at all — when compared to his system. However, when the other attorney explained what she was doing, and why, then her actions made complete sense to her and, at the same time, made her unable to appreciate what her partner was doing, or see any rhyme or reason to his actions. They had different organizing principles, and because they did, their actions seemed foolish and inconsistent to one another.

In a similar way, this was what Paul experienced as an apostle. In one situation, he would refrain from eating meat offered to idols, in another situation, he would partake. His actions seemed strange and inconsistent to some of the Corinthians because they did not have Paul's perspective, their own lives were organized around something else. They did not have the honor of God, and the advance of the Gospel, as the defining center of their life and experience.

The church today - God's people today - will experience the same sort of criticisms, will receive the same accusations of being inconsistent, confused and confusing, and even hypocritical if they have the same sort of organizing principles. If the honor of God, and the advance of the Gospel are a priority for the Church, then we too will be misunderstood and maligned, and our actions and motives will be brought into question. It goes with the territory.

Now, if you're like me, the God-honoring, Gospel advancing organizing principle is not the only one competing for the affections of your heart. There are days where the organizing principle for my life is "to be a success" or "to be liked" or "to feel better about myself" or "to not fail". There are all sorts of candidates for "organizing principle" that are madly waving their hands, hoping that I will notice and call them forward. And when I choose to organize my life around these other things it is invariably because I doubt God. It is because I do not believe that a life centered around the honor of God and the promotion of his Gospel will be the best sort of life.

Which leads me again to my need of repentance. To confess my rebellious spirit that resists, and resists again, the wisdom and love and goodness of God. And so it is that when I arise each morning, and preach to myself the Gospel all over again, I need to pray and ask the Father that He will not only help me to believe the Gospel today, but that he will also help me to be a Gospel-centered person, that he will help me to recognize and resist those times when I am being tempted to organize my life around some other thing, some other purpose than promoting His honor and enjoying His presence.

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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