The gospel is a matter of life and death—eternal life and eternal death. The gospel is the good news that repentant sinners have a Saviour: Jesus the promised Messiah, the sinless son of God, the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Because of our sin, we were separated, alienated, estranged from, and at enmity with God. But despite our rebellion, God sent his Son into the world as a human being. In this incredible act of humility and humiliation, God’s Son took on human flesh. He lived a perfectly sinless life, and then, continuing to die to his rights, was willingly crucified on a cross, experiencing God’s hoy and just wrath in the place of sinners. He rose from the dead three days later and is able and willing and committed to saving repentant sinners who trust in him and in him alone for forgiveness and acceptance by holy God. This is the gospel of God. This is why we any of us are born again; this is why, in everything we do—particularly as we live before a watching world and church—we live for the sake of this good news. We live for the sake of the gospel.
Paul wrote much about our responsibility to guard the gospel (see 2 Timothy 1:1–14). This was his constant concern, as is evident in each of his epistles, including 1 Corinthians—and especially in chapters 8–10.
Paul is cautioning those “in the know’ (8:1) against running roughshod over the conscience of those who might stumble in coming to Christ because of the “knowledgeable” participating in feasts where meat offered to idols was being served. Some might be tempted to fall away from following Jesus Christ, not believing the gospel as they fell into idolatry, thereby facing eternal destruction (8:10–11). He therefore counsels to think twice about exercising their “rights” and, like himself, to refuse to eat meat—forever. They are to refrain from their “rights” for the sake of the gospel. He passionately concludes chapter 8 saying that he was willing to become a vegetarian for the sake of the gospel (v. 13). The eternal well-being of others was more important than his gastrointestinal preference! But Paul has a lot more to say about this, and hence chapter 9.
Here, Paul provides a personal example of what dying to self and restraining from using one’s rights looks like. It is a powerful argument that both drives home the urgency of adorning the gospel and practically demonstrates the Christian’s responsibility to live for the sake of the gospel. By pointing to himself, Paul is not boasting but is instead demonstrating the practical nature of love in action (8:1).
In a rather long argument, Paul drives home that the Christian is called to lay aside his rights for the sake of others, both those being discipled as well as those being evangelised.
At the end of the chapter, Paul soberly indicates that a refusal to take up one’s cross, by dying to self and sacrificing one’s “rights,” is, in fact, a perilous denial of the gospel, resulting in eternal loss. Hence, chapter 9 needs to be studied with sobriety in the fear of the Lord. This is the path to true knowledge (Proverbs 1:7).
The chapter can be divided into four major sections:
- The Christian’s Rights (vv. 1–14)
- The Christian’s Restraint (vv. 15–18)
- The Christian’s Reasoning (vv. 19–23)
- The Christian’s Race (vv. 24–27)
The Christian’s Rights
Paul begins by addressing the Christian’s rights:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you 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.
This is my defence to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?
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. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
(1 Corinthians 11:1–14)
The word translated “free” speaks of being unrestrained, with the ability to do as one pleases. It is related to the concept of authority or inherent right (cf. vv. 4–6, 12, 18). Paul will use the word again in v. 19. His point can be summarised: “Am I not free to do what I want [under the law of Christ, v. 21] when it comes to my apostolic ministry?” Paul had lots of rights, and plenty of biblical authority to receive certain privileges, yet he chose to not use those rights.
In an avalanche of screen rhetorical questions, Paul points to his rights as an apostle. Others might question this, but surely the Corinthian church could not.
He was an apostle and hence an eyewitness of the risen Jesus Christ. The risen Jesus was the seal of the gospel (15:3–4) and the church was evidence of his apostolic ministry.
Paul’s main point is that he had the right to be provisionally cared for by those to whom he ministered (v. 4). Like the other apostles and leaders in the church, he had the right to marry (v. 5). He (and Barnabas for that matter) had the right to not be bi-vocational but to be cared for at the expense of others (vv. 6–7).
Further, Paul rights were not merely according to human custom but Scripture itself teaches Paul’s right to be supported by those to whom he ministered (vv. 8–12a). Paul strongly argues for his rights, indicating that the Corinthians had a responsibility to see that these material rights were honoured in response to his gospel investment in their lives.
In v. 12, Paul makes a rhetorical appeal to emphasise his rights: “If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?” That is, “Think about it: I am an apostle and you serve as proof of my calling and of my credibility. Therefore, you have a responsibility to me, and I have a right to expect you to fulfil it.” Yet as Paul argues in the rest of the verse, and in the rest of the chapter, he refused to exercise those rights.
In the second half of v. 12 Paul gets to the point of his rhetorical questioning, highlighting that he chose to refuse those rights for the sake of the gospel. Though entitled to receive material support as an apostle, he, for the spiritual well-being of others, chose to minister without charge.
The word translated “obstacle” means hindrance. It was used in the ancient world to describe an army cutting a furrow in the road to impede the approach of an army. Paul is saying that he chose to not receive funds from the Corinthian church while he was there but to rather work with his hands because he was fearful of hindering the advance of the gospel. And it seemed to work (Acts 18:10).
Again, Paul had the right to be supported materially by the church. God, in fact, had revealed a pattern under the old covenant (13–14). Those who served at the altar were cared for provisionally by a portion of the sacrifices offered there. The implication is that God’s new covenant temples is likewise to materially provide for those who serve its worshippers. He had a right to be paid. But he chose the freedom to preach for free.
Paul was truly free, as evidenced by his choice to be a servant to others. He was free, in more ways than one—for the sake of the gospel. His choice was deliberate so that he would not obscure the message of the cross. His “boast” was that he lived for the sake of the gospel—to the glory of God (1:31).
Before proceeding we need to see why this was such a big deal.
We should note that manual labour was looked down upon and therefore Paul’s decision to forego his rights for material provision was an act of humiliation—at least before some.
Keeping in mind the context of this chapter (i.e. chapter 8), it is clear Paul’s example would have had quite an impact upon those who lived for the sake of the gospel.
It is essential that we observe Paul’s cruciform motives and manner. By doing manual labour, he would most likely have offended some listeners. The way of the cross does so. Yet what Paul would not do is exercise rights that would mitigate humiliation. If people rejected the gospel because of its scandalous message, so be it (1:18ff). However, if, by clinging to his rights, hearers were turned off by what appeared to be human hubris, that was inexcusable, and he would do all he could to avoid this.
Hubris or humiliating. Those who live for the sake of the gospel choose the latter and shun the former.
The Christian’s Restraint
In vv. 15–18, Paul addresses the Christian’s restraint:
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. 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! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
(1 Corinthians 9:15–18)
Paul now expands on what he has indicated about not using his rights. Having rhetorically emphasised and reemphasised his rights, he clearly states his choice to refrain from cashing in on any of those rights—rights that were both humanly (8) and divinely (8–9; 13–14) substantiated. He also makes clear that he was not raising this issue in order to raise funds (v. 15b)!
Paul is not being merely pragmatic. Rather, this is a matter of principle. His passion for the principle is seen in the statement, “For I would rather die.” The break in the sentence should be indicated by a hyphenation. Paul, as it were, catches himself perhaps in a passionate moment, and then more calmly completes the sentence, “than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting.” This, of course, is no sinful, arrogant bragging but rather it is one “right” he would not give up: namely, the right to preach the gospel without receiving material provision in return. The right to preach the gospel “free of charge” (v. 18) was Paul’s great reward. Why was this so important?
In much of the ancient world, particularly in Corinth, one’s value as a speaker was measured by their paycheque. A community leader (influencer) was deemed a success and worthy of listening to if he or she demanded a big honorarium. If they didn’t live the high life, they were deemed unworthy to listen to.
Many rhetoricians were sponsored by patrons—wealthy individuals who materially provided their needs. Of course, this meant that the content of their message would be influenced by the views of the patron. Think of the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules”!
Receiving your removal from patrons might colour the content of the message. It was precisely because of this that Paul would not preach for financial support, lest accusations and inuendo float around that he was indebted to someone(s) for his ministry. In other words, he was avoiding an accusation of conflict of interest and hence a message whose integrity would be questionable because motives would be questionable, which would impede the gospel (v. 12).
It is this in which Paul was able to “boast.” His preaching freely gave him freedom from unnecessary impediments in his gospel message. Again, this was not an arrogant, look-at-me boasting but rather a contented, praise-the-Lord-I-can-sacrifice-like-this kind of boasting (see 2 Corinthians 1:12–14).
Paul says that he cannot boast in his apostolic calling to preach the gospel, for this was by divine necessity. God has “entrusted” him “with a stewardship” of gospel proclamation. In preaching the gospel, he was merely doing his duty (see Acts 9:4–16).
Of course, this was a wonderful and delightful privilege—make no mistake. But it was not a sacrifice. Stewardship is not sacrifice. Stewardship is an expectation. Stewardship is the faithful fulfilment of a responsibility.
Therefore, in light of this stewardship, to refuse to preach the gospel would be to reject a God-given responsibility. That would be wrong. For Paul to receive material support for his apostolic duty would not be wrong. It would, in fact, be both right and a right. But to give up this right was a sacrifice. To choose to labour with his hands to support himself as he carried out his apostolic duties was a sacrifice and one in which he could rightfully boast.
Too often, we speak of doing something as a sacrifice that is, in fact, no sacrifice. Jesus illustrated this in his parable of the unworthy servant:
Will any one of you who has a servant ploughing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come at once and recline at table”? Will he not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink”? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.”
Gathering with the church, tithing, evangelising, discipling, serving the church, etc. are not acts that deserve applause. These are mere obligations.
Though doing our God-appointed duty is not a sacrificial act, if we do our duty reluctantly or grudgingly, the Lord will not be pleased and we will not receive a reward (whatever that looks like). Even so, we are still required to do our duty and we bring judgement upon ourselves if we fail to do so.
Paul realised his rights and yet, at the same time, made the commitment to restrain himself from standing on them, for the sake of the gospel. In doing so, he felt the joy of being able to boast in the Lord (1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17). Like David, he rejoiced that he could give to the Lord that which cost him (1 Chronicles 21:24).
This is more clearly developed in what follows; nevertheless, let us learn here that each of us, as members of the local church, are entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel. The church exists for the sake of the gospel. We are responsible for the proclamation of this gospel. That is our duty. And sometimes gospel proclamation will require sacrifice within that stewardship: sacrifice of reputation, relationships, resources, and cultural comforts. Let us joyfully and willingly make sacrifices that we might boast, not in ourselves, but so that we and others can boast in the Lord.
The Christian’s Reasoning
In vv. 19–23, we learn of the Christian’s rationale:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
(1 Corinthians 9:19–23)
Here, Paul provides the rationale for his decision to forego his right to remuneration while expanding the scope of his self-denying, sacrificial, cross-shaped, gospel-informed decision.
Unfortunately, these five verses are sometimes misunderstood, resulting in unbiblical compromises in gospel ministry. Whatever Paul is saying, as we will see, his “accommodating approach to his ministry is not a license for unlimited flexibility.” Failure to grasp this results in ministry that undermines rather than promotes the gospel. Let me explain.
Once again, Paul reminds his readers that he was “free” to avail his rights as an apostle. Yet he chose rather to be “a servant to all” by restraining this freedom. He does so in order that he “might win more of them.” Paul, the soulwinner, was therefore wise (Proverbs 11:30). He desired to legitimately “capture” souls for Christ, rescuing them from eternal condemnation by reconciling them to God through the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18–20). His passion for the gospel, and for saving souls, made him wisely sensitive to and wisely sacrificial to avoid hindrances to hearing and responding to the message of the cross. He was committed to appropriately contextualising the gospel message. That is, his evangelistic approach to people of various religious and cultural backgrounds was shaped for the sake of the gospel.
For example, when engaging and evangelising Jews, he was aware of their religious sensibilities and therefore was careful to not cause unnecessary offence by running roughshod over them (v. 20; see Acts 16:3).
Likewise, when engaging and evangelising Gentiles, he was sensitive that they were ignorant of Torah and so he approached them in terms and concepts they could understand (v. 21).
But note that, in contextualising the gospel, he remained within the parameters of truth. He expressed this by the parenthetical, (“not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ”). He never became less Christian in order to produce Christians!
His loyalty was to Jesus Christ, which regulated his missional adaption. His love for Jesus Christ and for the lost kept his cultural flexibility from becoming “infinitely” and unhelpfully “elastic” (Schreiner). As Schreiner elaborates, he “was willing to adapt culturally, as long as he did not contravene the law of Christ.” His adaptation was cultural not missional. That is, he didn’t mess with the message of the mission!
In vv. 22–23 Paul’s contextualisation argument climaxes and brings the issue close to home for the Corinthians when he mentions the “weak” (8:7, 10). How did he do this? He told us in 8:13: He refused to “eat meat, lest his brother stumble.” He expected the Corinthians at this point to respond, “Oh, now we get it! For the sake of the blessings of the gospel we are to sacrifice our comfort zones.” He would respond with a hearty amen!
Note that, in dying to self, not only would those being evangelised be blessed, but so would the evangelist, who, in this case, was Paul. He says that, in dying to his rights, he will “share with them in its [gospel] blessings.”
He would share in the blessing of seeing souls transformed by Jesus Christ—the sacrifice is worth it. This is very rational and reasonable! He would share in the blessing of seeing families serving the Lord. He would share in the blessing of seeing the church grow numerically and spiritually. He would share in the blessing of realising the extension of the kingdom. He would share in the blessing of experiencing the fame of the name of Jesus being spread. He would share in the blessing of knowing the Lord had used him thus giving him purpose. He would share in the blessing of knowing that he pleased the Lord for he emulated the Lord.
This chapter has, unfortunately, been misused to justify a seeker-centred, seeker-sensitive approach to church life. But, as should now be clear, it does nothing of the kind. What it does is highlight a sacrificial lifestyle informed by the message of the cross. Sadly, what is often called “seeker-sensitive” is actually an attempt to deny the scandal of the cross while at the same time providing self-protection for the Christian in also denying self-sacrifice.
For the sake of the gospel, we need to be willing to “become all things to all [kinds of] people” that we not unnecessarily hinder the gospel.
Brothers and sisters, for the sake of the gospel, let us commit to giving up our rights. Moved by love for our Saviour, moved by love for the lost, be reasonable. Let go of your rights so that others can be made right with the Lord.
The Christian’s Race
Finally, we hear from Paul about the Christian’s race:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
(1 Corinthians 9:24–27)
Some commentators make a literary break at these verses, arguing that they have more to do with chapter 10 than with what Paul has just written. I beg to differ. These closing verses are closely connected with all Paul has said since 8:1. Let me review.
As I said when we studied chapter 8, Paul is concerned about the eschatological danger of those associated with the church as well as those onlookers from outside the church (8:10–11). The words “destroyed” and “stumble” are used predominately in the New Testament to describe those who eternally perish. This is why Paul writes so strongly and at length about the necessity of dying to our rights lest we trip someone up from trusting Jesus Christ. In chapter 10, he will strongly warn about the danger of apostasy. Aware that those under the old covenant did not all persevere to the end (most perished), he is similarly concerned for the souls of those in Corinth. But he does not exclude himself from the warning, and we read of this in these closing verses of chapter 9, which forms a perfect segue to chapter 10.
Paul moves from focusing on evangelising outsiders to evangelising oneself and uses a stadium race to do so. The Isthmus Games were held every second year near the city of Corinth, so his illustration was apropos. The Corinthians would be familiar with races held in the local stadium where the athletes ran, not to receive a participant trophy, but rather to receive the victor’s prize, which was usually dried celery twisted into a wreath-crown. Paul makes the analogy that each church member is to run the race of faith with the goal of receiving a crown that is imperishable: a crown of life (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10). That is, full and final salvation.
The Christian is focused and self-disciplined rather than aimlessly and pointlessly handling the gospel. The Christian knows what is at stake, not only concerning his own soul, but also the souls of others. This is Paul’s burden. He is at least making the point that our attitude towards the spiritual well-being of others is reflective of the state of our own soul.
He has just said that he wants to share in the gospel blessings of other believers. But if he lives his life “freely,” for the sake of himself rather than for the sake of the gospel, then it is quite possible that he himself has no “share with them in [gospel] blessings.” In other words, he is not saved. Therefore, in the end, though he participated with those who are the real deal, he himself will be disqualified as a fraud. He may be saying more than this, but he is not saying less.
Brothers and sisters, if we are not focused and committed to sacrificing our rights for the sake of the gospel, we need to seriously examine ourselves whether we are in the faith.
If we are obsessed with our rights, freedoms, and comforts, perhaps we have no share in the gospel, despite our church membership and despite our “knowledge.” That is, our arrogance is a pointer to the sobering reality that we are merely religiously puffed up to be finally blown away, like a lost and hopeless balloon.
Don’t miss that Paul recognises that proclaiming the gospel is not identical with having been saved by that gospel. It is only those who live out the practical implications of the gospel who can say that they have been saved. In other words, in the word of Ryle, “No cross? Then no crown.”
We have every reason to live for the sake of the gospel. Because Jesus Christ willingly died on the cross, taking our punishment, paying our penalty, securing our pardon, we are the freest people on earth: free to serve. As Ciampa and Rosner comment, “The gospel leads us to live in ways that will win others to Christ and promote their best interests, not to promote our personal interests and freedom at others’ expense.”
So, looking to Jesus, let us take up our cross, taking ourselves in hand, dying to self, giving up our rights so that others can be right with God. That is what Jesus did. That is what Jesus calls his disciples to do, for the sake of the gospel.