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? 1 Corinthians 9:1
This chapter seems somewhat disconnected from what has gone before. However, this is only in appearance. When we examine the chapter, we will understand that it is quite closely connected with Paul’s previous arguments. He has just asked the Corinthians to give up some of their privileges, so now he relates to them how he has given up some of his own privileges.1
Obviously, there were some in Corinth who were sitting in judgment of Paul (9:3). No doubt, these were saying of him, that if Paul were a real apostle he would demand his rights, rather than forgoing them.2 So, here we find Paul beginning a defense of his apostleship. Later in 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13, he will do this in much more detail. In this chapter, Comfort sees him asking at least sixteen rhetorical questions in a row concerning his apostleship.3 He first asks, “Am I not free: am I not an apostle?” Paul was certainly one of the freest people in the Bible, and yet, he was willing to give up his freedoms for the sake of the church. He was certainly an apostle. Jesus had sent him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). The word apostle (apostolos) simply means one sent out, or a messenger.
In a number of Scriptures Paul defines his apostleship. In Second Corinthians 12:11, he states that he is not inferior to other apostles. In Galatians 1:15, he claims that he was called from his mother’s womb. In Galatians 1:17, he notes that he belongs to the apostolic band. In Galatians 2:7, 9, we see that the other apostles recognize and accept Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.
The matter of seeing the risen Christ was of utmost importance to an apostle (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33). Paul had fulfilled this requirement on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:17; 22:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:6-8). This interesting account is recorded for us in Acts 9:3-18. Paul was not only called to be an apostle, but he was sent out to the Gentiles (Acts 26:15-18; Gal. 1:15-16).
Obviously, Paul had accomplished the work of an apostle. The Corinthians themselves were proof of this (2 Cor. 3:2-3). Also, on several occasions in his ministry, Paul had demonstrated the signs of an apostle, as he had worked miracles among the people (e.g. Acts 13:9-12; 20:9-12).
“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” (9:2-3). The Corinthians were living proof of his apostleship. Paul claims them as a seal (sphragis) of his apostleship. Seals were often made by engraving a pattern in a stone and then setting the stone in a ring, where it became a mark of authority. The Greeks were known to excel in such crafts.4 In order to seal an item, the ring was pressed into hot wax, leaving its impression.
Barclay enlightens us regarding the purpose of ancient seals. They were used as a final marking of cargoes, such as grain or dates. The containers were closed and sealed to show that the cargo was genuine. Seals were used in many places. For instance, a will was not valid unless it was sealed with seven seals, and each of those seals had to be intact. It was a mark of genuineness.5
So, some of the Corinthians were sitting in judgment of Paul. The word here is anakrinōis. It is a forensic term and speaks of judges who sat over their courts in judgment.6 Surely, in his eighteen months at Corinth, Paul had instructed them about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
Paul continues, asking, “Don’t we have the right to food and drink?” (9:4). We see in the gospels that Jesus sent his men forth without normal provisions. He said, “…the worker is worth his keep” (Matt. 10:10). New Testament apostolic workers were also worthy of their keep. It was really unthinkable that they should not be supplied with the basics of food and drink. Jesus had also said about this: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Matt. 10:42). Those whom he sent out were to live by the gospel.
“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? (9:5). Here, Paul in one breath destroys the papal doctrine regarding celibacy of the clergy. Quite simply, Peter, who was supposed to be the first pope, was a married man. On one occasion Jesus even healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14-15; Mk. 1:30-31; Lk. 4:38-39). Several of the apostles, as well as the Lord’s brothers, were also married. We know from Scripture that Philip had a family, even four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9).
Early in church history there began to be an undue emphasis on the virginity of Mary. It was determined by the church that Mary had remained a perpetual virgin, and that the other children belonging to the couple were Joseph’s offspring from a former marriage, or else they were cousins. No doubt, this erroneous doctrine arose because of the Greek idea that the body and sex were dirty and unholy things.
The wording of this verse has perplexed interpreters. The Greek has two words here, adelphēn and gunaika. The former means a sister and the latter means a wife. Robertson sees this as indicating a wife who is a sister or believer.7 Thus, the ministers of God have a right to lead around a believing wife. Eusebius, the church historian, tells of Peter’s wife being led away to her execution, while Peter called to her in an encouraging voice, “Oh thou, remember the Lord.” 8 In order to uphold its erroneous doctrine, the church has tried to say that Peter traveled with unmarried women or “sisters” who served him. Obviously, this would have generated a great deal of unwholesome gossip and scandal. Besides that, such a thing was later forbidden by the third canon of the Council of Nice.9
“Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?” (9:6). We have mentioned before that the Greeks despised manual labor. They considered that it was wholly a thing for slaves. Still, Paul often supported himself by tent-making (Acts 18:3; 20:34; 1 Thess. 2:9). In Hebrew eyes this was a noble thing to do. In Greek eyes it was despicable. Still, the Corinthians were irresponsible, and should not have allowed the great apostle to work for his living.
THE ONE WHO WORKS GETS A SHARE
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? 1 Corinthians 9:7
Paul now gives some quick examples of workers who can rightfully claim a share of the work. A soldier does not work at his own expense. His salary is provided by the government. The Roman soldier not only got his allotted pay, but the Roman government furnished a goodly supply of food items as well.10
The next picture is that of a worker in the vineyard. The worker gets to eat some of the grapes. The picture of the vineyard is an ancient one. The prophet Isaiah once spoke of Israel as being the vineyard of the Lord (Isa. 5:1 ff.). The prophets of old were of course workers in that vineyard. This is a simple human analogy. The worker gets to share in eating the grapes.
The same is true of the herdsman. He gets to drink milk from the flock. The Greek word for the one tending the flock, or the shepherd, is poimainei. It has a much broader meaning than simply to feed. It also means that the shepherd guards, protects and defends his flock as well. We are reminded of Peter, and the work assigned to him by the Lord. (Jn. 21:15-17).11 We are also reminded of Jesus who himself is the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:11, 14).
“Do I say this merely on human authority? 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?” (9:8-9). Paul is not content to merely cite human, every-day examples. He now cites the Law of God to back up his examples. To clinch his argument, the apostle quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, which commands: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” In those early days, oxen were hitched to a turnstile affair with an upright post and revolving arm. As the ox went around in circles it treaded out the grain. The ox could also pull a threshing sledge, which was made of heavy boards with small stones and other items attached to its bottom. The grain was knocked out of the stalk and husks and was later winnowed in the afternoon breeze.
This passage clearly shows God’s concern for animals. The ox that treaded grain was allowed to eat a bite now and then to stave off its hunger. Of course, God is concerned for all living things as he is pictured of supplying them with food in Psalm 104:27-28. This Scripture has profound implications for God’s workers. I remember that years ago in Israel we established a food bank and proceeded to give free food to the new immigrants who were arriving home. At the time we had several volunteer Christian workers manning the bank. The policy of the organization at first did not allow workers to enjoy any of the food. I thought this was unfair, based on the Deuteronomy 25 verse, so I took it up with the director. He agreed, and soon our workers were well fed. I remember how it felt so good and so biblical to do such a thing.
The whole Bible expresses the Creator’s tender care for all living creatures (cf. Psa. 36:6; Matt.10:29). We are to mimic God in this regard. We read in Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” We see here in Corinthians that the righteous are to exercise a similar care for Christian workers in their midst. They thus have a biblical obligation to care for Paul.
“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 in the harvest” (9:10). Kretzmann, no doubt citing Luther, says that God did not write this for oxen, because they couldn’t read.12 Thus, it was written for us. In the early First Century, Christian workers were able to eat of the offerings of the people much like the priests did in the Old Testament. We should however be aware that the salaried pastor or worker was unknown in the early church. Viola and Barna state: “As far as clergy salaries go, ministers were unsalaried for the first three centuries. But when Constantine appeared, he instituted the practice of paying a fixed salary to the clergy from church funds and municipal and imperial treasuries….” 13
“If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?” (9:11). Those who sow spiritual seed must be able to receive a natural harvest. One reason that many churches are financially weak today is because Christians are spreading their gifts among several para-church organizations as well as their church. This is not always a good thing, for often some of these organizations are quite unworthy of support. We should be careful to give to those who are feeding us spiritually. “Give where you are fed” would be a good motto for us all.
Paul speaks of this principle in Romans 15:27, “For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.” We Gentiles have a huge, unpaid debt to the Jewish people. They have handed us our Messiah, our Bible and our salvation. When we served in Israel, we helped distribute millions of dollars in supplies to new immigrants, and our work was based on this very verse. The supplies were provided by Christians around the world. So far in Christian history, the Jewish people have been poorly compensated by the church for all she has received from them.
“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” (9:12). We remember that in the Corinthian church there was a “Peter faction” (1 Cor. 1:12). We do not know that Peter himself was ever in Corinth, but he may have been receiving offerings from the church. It is likely that Apollos, who succeeded Paul at Corinth, also received offerings.14 Perhaps this is what Paul is referring to here. Peter was a very important foundation stone in the church, and Apollos was an important worker, but Paul had actually founded the church at Corinth.
“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?” (9:13). The priests had the privilege of eating from the altar (cf. Lev. 7:6; Num. 18:8-24; Deut. 18:1). Barclay enlightens us as to exactly what the priests received in biblical times. Of the meat offering (grain or dough offering), a good portion belonged to the priests. From the peace offering the priests received the breast and right shoulder. There were first-fruit offerings of all kinds, consisting of wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, honey, etc. Much of these went to the priests. Then there were the regular tithes and other offerings. The tithe belonged to the Levites but the priests received a tithe of the tithes. While the average Israelite seldom ate meat the priests seemed to have had their fill.15
“In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (9:14). Now, Paul leaves the Corinthians to make the application to their own situation in regard to his apostleship. Some commentators feel that Paul is quoting an unpublished saying of Jesus. Others feel that he is basing this statement on Luke 10:7 which reads: “…the worker deserves his wages…” 16
PREACHING THE GOSPEL VOLUNTARILY
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. 1 Corinthians. 9:15
Barclay says, “In this passage there is a kind of outline of Paul’s whole conception of his ministry….He must regard himself as a man whose primary duty is not to help himself but whose privilege is to serve others for God’s sake.” 17 We should be clear that Paul did sometimes accept gifts from churches (e.g. Phil. 4:14-19). However, he must have felt that the Corinthians were much too immature for him to accept their gifts. Apparently, he did not wish to have them question his motives (2 Cor. 12:17-18). Paul reminds us a lot of Abraham, who was determined to receive nothing of the Gentiles, lest they might claim to have made him rich (Gen. 14:22-23).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” (9:16-17). Paul was compelled by the Spirit to preach the gospel. On one occasion the Spirit changed his direction and in the night he saw a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to come over to what is now Europe. Paul was thus compelled to take the gospel to Macedonia and on to Greece, even to Corinth (Acts 16:7, 19).
Comfort says here: “Paul’s admission offers a clue to discovering our spiritual gifts. What do you find yourself doing over and over? In what very specific way do you have a habit of serving others and enjoying it?” 19 This might be a clue to our gifts and calling.
“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” (9:18). It seems that Paul took great delight in preaching the gospel without charge. What a blessed example he has set for us all!
George Müller, who was born in 1805, for many years directed the Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol, England. In his career he cared for over 10,000 children. But Müller ran his orphanage solely by faith in God. He would have considered the whole enterprise a failure if the children ever lacked sufficient clothing and food. On many occasions that food was supplied miraculously, and in the nick of time. In one instance there was absolutely no food for his 300 children. Müller asked that they all sit down at their empty plates. He then prayed to the Lord for their daily food. Immediately, there was a knock on the door. It was the baker, who could not sleep the night before from thinking about the children. He had arisen early and baked three batches of bread, just enough for breakfast. Soon there was another knock at the door. It was the milkman, whose cart had broken down nearby. Knowing the milk would quickly spoil, he asked if Müller could use the ten large cans of milk. That was also just enough for his 300 thirsty children.20
Over the years many Christian workers, even those working in foreign lands, have ministered using the principles of George Müller. In Israel, we met a number of ministers going out to foreign countries and using Müller’s principle of depending only on God. There were also several workers ministering in Israel who looked only to the Lord for their provision. They were not disappointed, and what a blessing they were.
A SERVANT TO EVERYONE
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 1 Corinthians 9:19
Martin Luther summed up the Christian duty in these words: “A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” 21 Of course, this concept was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. In the Book of Isaiah he was long before prophesied to be the Servant of Israel (Isa. 49:5-6; 53:11). We read of him in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” No doubt, we all remember how Jesus girded himself and washed the disciple’s feet just before his crucifixion (Jn. 13:5-10). Paul was intent on following the Master’s great example.
“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” (9:20). We remember how in Acts 16:3, Paul circumcised young Timothy. He did it so that Timothy could work in the midst of Jews and not be an offense. However, Paul really believed that circumcision had become a thing of the heart, not of the flesh (Rom. 2:29). We know that Paul, at the instruction of James and the elders, went to the temple and joined in purification rites with four others who had taken vows. Paul even paid their way. He did it so that the Jews of Jerusalem would not see him as an offense (Acts 21:22-24).
“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” (9:21). We must never think that Paul was opposed to the law or without law (anomos). We remember how Jeremiah the prophet had spoken many centuries before: “‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Jer. 31:33). Paul had the law written on his heart by the Holy Spirit. He strictly held to the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). The law of the Spirit had set him free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2).
Most often, Paul preached in the Jewish synagogues throughout the Mediterranean world. However, occasionally he preached strictly to Gentiles. His sermon in Athens was a masterpiece of conforming himself to the Greek way of thinking in order that he could win a few. He won some indeed, as Acts 17:34 tells us.
“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” (9:22-23). Bruce remarks about this statement saying, “…today when a religious leader is said to be all things to all men, it is more likely to be in blame than in praise.” 22 However, Paul’s purpose was pure. We see that purpose revealed in his teaching about meats in the previous chapter. Paul was willing to give up eating meat if doing so would be a stumbling block for those weak in conscience.
Comfort formulates some sensible rules for not offending others. He says: Paul was willing to go to great lengths to meet people where they were…. find common ground with others; avoid a know-it-all attitude; make others feel accepted; be sensitive to others; their needs and concerns; and look for opportunities to tell about Christ.” 23 This is what the gospel is all about. This is sharing in its blessings and allowing others to do so.
Some might misunderstand Paul’s desire to “save some.” Obviously, neither Paul nor anyone else could by themselves save a soul. This was merely a figure of speech. Saving is the business of God. We can help deliver a new birth but we cannot in any way cause the birth.
WINNING THE CHRISTIAN RACE
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. 1 Corinthians 9:24
Paul was quite fond of athletics and used the picture many times in his writing (cf. Gal. 2:2; Phil. 2:16; 3:14; Col. 4:12; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:7). The Greek contests gave Paul plenty of opportunities to use athletic imagery to convey biblical truth. The Olympic games were held every four years and the Isthmian, or Corinthian games every two years. The Isthmian games were second only to the Olympics. All the games took much preparation. Candidates had to take an oath that they had been ten months in training; that they had violated none of the requirements; that they had denied themselves wine and pleasant foods; and that they had undergone rigorous discipline and training.24
The contests, which consisted primarily of racing, boxing and wrestling, were attended by people from all over Greece as well as from nearby countries. Large throngs viewed the contests (cf. Heb. 12:1). For the winners, a crown of pine, parsley or wild celery was awarded.25 Only one person could win each contest. How different is the Christian race where many people can win and where the crown is not one that fades away.
“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” (9:25). Clark cites some lines of the Roman poet Horace (65 – 8 BC) which read:
A youth who hopes the Olympic prize to gain,
All arts must try, and every toil sustain;
Th’ extremes of heat and cold must often prove;
And shun the weakening joys of wine and love. 26
These ancient athletes trained themselves relentlessly only for the sake of a perishable crown, but we Christians pursue a crown that will last forever (2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 5:4). This is the crown of righteousness of which the Bible speaks. It is the crown of life (Rev. 2:10).
“Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air” (9:26). In Paul’s Christian life he did not run aimlessly. He ran with his eyes on the goal and that alone. He did not fight (pukteuō) like one beating the air. Some commentators see this as shadow-boxing, but more than likely it speaks of missing punches or fighting with uncertainty.27 Keener says, “Boxing was one of the major competitions at Greek games; boxers wore leather gloves covering most of the forearm except the fingers, and boxing was a violent sport. Shadow-boxing or ‘beating the air: was insufficient preparation for a boxing competition; a boxer had to discipline his body better than that to win.’” 28
“No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (9:27). Paul was tough on his own body always exercising discipline. However, he knew that in the end bodily exercise only helped a little. It was spiritual exercise which was of most importance (1 Tim. 4:8). The race or contest for Paul was always a spiritual one and he was concerned that in the end he might be disqualified. The Greek word is adokimos, and it means rejected after testing or reprobate.29 The famous preacher Chrysostom remarks: “If Paul, who had taught so many, was afraid of being rejected at the end, what can we say?” 30