16. When a Right May Be Wrong (1 Cor. 9:1-23)
Years ago, I found it necessary to deal with the Social Security office in Austin. When I phoned to describe my situation and to seek an answer as to what I should do, the woman who took my call began trying to find a category in which to place me. Certain options were open to those classified as “ministers,” and this was the category about which I was inquiring. Immediately, the woman asked if I was an “ordained minister.” When I told her “No,” she was obviously troubled. I believe she then asked if I was the “pastor” of the church where I served. Again, I had to say “No,” to which she responded, “When you get to be a real minister, call me back.”
The Corinthians have the same problem with the classification of an “apostle.” The Corinthians could well say to Paul, “When you get to be a real apostle, contact us again.” Some of the Corinthians have several problems with Paul’s apostleship. The first is Paul’s message. Paul’s message is simplistic (Christ crucified), and it is one that does not find general acceptance. Second, Paul’s methods are unappealing. He does not (indeed, he will not) use the persuasive techniques of some, which many find appealing. His speech is far from eloquent, and this is by choice. Finally, Paul does not charge for his services. They think that no one worth their salt would teach and preach for nothing, because after all, you get what you pay for!
Paul’s apostleship is under fire, but this is not Paul’s primary reason for writing 1 Corinthians 9. This ninth chapter of Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians is the centerpiece of three chapters devoted to the question they raise about eating meat offered to idols (see 8:1). In reality, there is really nothing to inquire about concerning this matter, because the Jerusalem Council has decreed that meats offered to idols are forbidden for the Gentile saints (see Acts 15:28-29; 21:25). Paul chooses not to mention this, but to temporarily grant the premise of some that meat offered to idols is permissible for the “strong” Christian. Even if the knowledge of the “stronger brother” freed him to eat idol-meat, love should constrain him to avoid it for the sake of his “weaker” brother. Since foods do not determine one’s standing before God, eating this meat does not make one the better for it, nor does abstaining from eating it hinder one’s walk with God. The Christian who walks in love will abstain from any liberty which hinders another believer.
Now, in chapter 9, Paul presses further this option of refraining from one’s rights by illustrating it from his own life and ministry. He first sets out to prove, without a doubt, that he is an apostle and that as such, he has the right to eat and drink at the expense of those to whom him ministers. Having done so, he then explains why he has chosen to refuse this right, at great personal cost. Not being supported at the expense of those to whom Paul ministers is 1) the basis for anticipated rewards related to his ministry and, (2) a means by which the gospel can be proclaimed more effectively.
Paul’s practice in this matter of eating and drinking at the expense of others is given to the Corinthians and to us as an example. It sets the benchmark for those who are truly spiritual. Let us listen and learn, and then put these truths into practice, motivated by love for the Savior and for our fellowman.
1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 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.
Paul makes two claims here, which are the basis for rights he will surrender in his service to the Corinthians as a servant of Christ. He does not need to defend one of these claims; the other will be extensively defended. The first claim is obviously not challenged by the Corinthians. Paul is a free man and not a slave. As a free citizen of the Roman Empire, he has great liberties. In verse 19, Paul tells his readers that in spite of his freedom, he has made himself a slave to all men.
The second right Paul claims is that of an apostle. This claim is challenged or doubted by a number of the Corinthians, some of whom claim apostolic authority themselves:
5 For I consider myself not in the least inferior to the most eminent apostles. 6 But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things. 7 Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge? … 12 But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:5-7, 12-13).
Because of the simplicity (Christ crucified) of Paul’s message and of his method of delivery, some are ashamed of Paul and seek leadership from others, who have a more popular method and message. They also question Paul’s apostolic authority because he does not charge for his services.
Paul’s words in the first verses of chapter 9 are intended to remind the Corinthians that Paul truly is an apostle, with full apostolic authority. He is an apostle on a par with the other 11 apostles of our Lord. Some (including myself) go so far as to say Paul is God’s replacement for Judas, and thus the 12th of the 12 apostles. The apostles are men who were witnesses to the resurrection of our Lord (see Acts 1:21-22; 2:32; 3:15, etc.). Paul too claims to have “seen” the resurrected Lord Jesus. His unique conversion experience makes him a witness of the resurrection, like the other apostles (see Acts 9:1-9; 22:14). Paul’s first words in this epistle concern his divinely appointed apostleship: “Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother” (1 Corinthians 1:1).
If anyone should be convinced of Paul’s apostleship, it is the Corinthians. They are the fruit of his apostolic labors. He is the one who came, sowing the seeds of the gospel. Those who are now looked up to as leaders are reaping the fruits of what Paul has sown. As an apostle, he came preaching Christ crucified, and as a result of his ministry, many of the Corinthians come to faith. They are the seal, the proof,96 of his apostleship. Others might question Paul’s apostleship, but surely not the Corinthians.
3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?
Paul’s apostleship is under attack. Some are actually examining him (verse 3). This term is used of Jesus being examined by Pilate (Luke 23:14), of Peter and John on trial (Acts 4:9), and of Paul being interrogated by the Romans (Acts 28:18). We know that Paul is also being examined by the Corinthians:
3 But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. 4 For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).
It should not come as a surprise that the all-wise Corinthians set themselves above Paul, judging his spirituality (2 Corinthians 10:1), his ministry, and even his apostleship.
The Corinthians are Paul’s work (9:1), and thus it is only right that he should be supported by them. Paul does not speak of “support” or “money,” but rather of his “right to eat and drink.” Supporting an itinerate preacher is primarily a matter of giving him room and board (see Acts 16:15; 3 John 5-8). Paul uses “food and drink” for good reason, because the issue at hand is the eating of meat offered to idols. Paul first claims the right to “eat and drink” at the expense of the Corinthians, and then explains why he refrains from doing so. Throughout this chapter, the imagery of eating and drinking is maintained in Paul’s examples and proof texts.
Paul’s right as an apostle to “eat and drink” extends not only to himself, but to a wife. As an apostle, he has the right to be married and to take his wife along with him as he proclaims the gospel. Those to whom he ministers have the obligation to provide both he and his wife with food and drink. This, as Paul points out, is the case with all of the other 11 apostles. Only Paul and Barnabas have chosen not to exercise this right.
Paul’s words here, linking his right to eat and drink and his right to “lead about” a wife, strongly imply one of the reasons Paul chooses to remain single. If Paul does not exercise his right to be provided with his meals (and lodging), then he is in no position to support a wife. He is willing to “pay the price” of his convictions, but he does not wish for a wife to suffer the hardships he has chosen to endure.
Being an apostle then is having the right to be supported by those to whom he ministers. His right to “refrain from working” (at a secular job) enables him to devote himself to those to whom he ministers, his “work in the Lord” (verse 1). All of the other apostles except Barnabas have chosen to exercise the right to be supported and to lead about a wife. Paul and Barnabas have gone above and beyond the call of duty. They have chosen not to exercise their rights in these matters.
7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? 8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. 11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more?
In verses 7-12, Paul amasses an overwhelming collection of proofs for his right as an apostle to be provided food and drink by those to whom he ministers. In verse 7, Paul cites three examples from the secular world of work to show that the worker in each case expects to eat of the fruit of his work. In each of these three cases, the occupation is a biblical image applied to the Christian minister. In Ephesians 6, Paul speaks of the Christian life in terms of spiritual warfare and describes God’s provisions in terms of the armor of the soldier. Israel is likened to a vineyard, the people of God as vine tenders (see Isaiah 5; Matthew 20:1-16; 21:33-46). The image of the shepherd is applied not only to our Lord (e.g., John 10), but also to those who minister (see 1 Peter 5:1-5). In verses 8-12a, Paul turns to the Old Testament Law, as setting down the principle of support. A little later, in the next paragraph, Paul offers further proof. There, Paul turns to those engaged in temple ministry (verse 13). The final proof, which is sufficient on its own, is the teaching of our Lord Himself (verse 14).
Paul turns to three occupations in which the worker labors with the expectation of eating or drinking from the fruit of his labor. The soldier does not have time to produce his own rations,97 and so they are provided for him. The keeper of the vineyard expects to eat some of the grapes and to drink some of the wine he has labored to produce. The shepherd tends the flock with the expectation that he can drink of the milk of the flock. In every case, the laborer expects to eat or drink some of the fruits of his labor.
These are basically secular examples. Some might object that Paul is not speaking so much from divine wisdom, as from that which is merely human. Paul therefore turns to the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly to the Law of Moses, where we read this instruction: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” (Deuteronomy 25:3-4).
One hardly expects this text to bear upon the situation in Corinth. It is an Old Testament text, not a New Testament instruction. It is addressed to the ancient Israelites, as they are about to possess the land of Canaan. It is a command which was handed down to the Israelites by Moses, recorded in the Law of Moses. It is a passage which refers to oxen, not to preachers. The only thing it appears to have in common with Paul’s topic in our text is that it is a reference to food—food for the oxen.
Paul’s use of this Old Testament commandment is most instructive, not only for its teaching, but as an example of Paul’s method of interpreting and applying the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul indicates that his use of this text is not an indirect or secondary application of the text, but a direct application. He informs us that God did not give this command because of His great compassion on animals (though He is compassionate toward His creatures), but rather as an instruction primarily for us. He is speaking “altogether for our sake.” Since the ox labors by treading the grain, producing food for man, it should not be muzzled, so that it may partake of the food which is the fruit of its labors. In other words, this commandment was given to the Israelites to teach them the principle that the “laborer is worthy of his wages,” and should therefore benefit from his labors by being allowed to eat some of the grain.
By the way, this principle which God set down for the Israelites, and which Paul sets down for the Corinthians, is practiced by the more progressive and successful businesses of our time. It is known as “profit sharing.” If an auto worker is only paid a certain amount of money per hour, he may lack the motivation to work hard and to produce as many cars (at as high a quality) as possible. But when this same worker is given a share of the profits, he is motivated to produce qualitatively and quantitatively, because the better he does his job, the more he will benefit from his labors.
The laborer should labor in hope, in the expectation of benefiting from the fruit of his labors. The plowman, who prepares the field for sowing, and the thresher (the ox), should both benefit from their labors. In all of the examples Paul has named so far, the laborer has benefited directly from the food which his labor has helped to produce. The ox labors to thresh the grain, and thus is given the freedom to eat some of the same grain. In Paul’s case, it is different. He labors among the Corinthians in spiritual things. He has the right to benefit from them in a material way. If he labors in the greater (spiritual) work, then surely he will do so in the hope of benefiting in the lesser (material) work of the Corinthians. Paul reminds them that they are already practicing this principle. At the time of Paul’s writing, some who labored among the Corinthians were also being supported materially by the saints. If these late comers (the reapers) can expect to benefit materially from the Corinthians, how much more so the earliest comers, the sowers, like Paul and Barnabas?
Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. 15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one. 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:12-23).
This right, clearly established by God in the Old Testament Law of Moses, evident in the world of Paul’s day, and practiced by his fellow apostles, Paul (along with Barnabas) chooses to set aside rather than use it to his advantage. He does this at great personal expense, and thus Paul states in verse 12 that it is necessary for he and Barnabas to “endure all things.” Paul’s refusal to exercise his rights results in the adversities and difficulties he has already described in chapter 4: “To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure” (1 Corinthians 4:11-12). Paul’s decision to set aside his right to support is costly. It is a cost he purposes to endure, and this for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How does declining financial support remove a hindrance to the advance of the gospel of Christ? For one thing, Paul’s work as a tent-maker puts him in touch with the lost. Preachers often live in a kind of seclusion, finding it difficult to get close enough to the lost to be a testimony. Working in the secular work place puts one in contact with people, heathen people who need to hear the gospel. Working in the secular work place gives one the opportunity to be a witness by the quality of our work and of our relationships. Not seeking or taking funds from people is something which takes the world by surprise. We all know that many unbelievers, not to mention many Christians (including most of us), roll our eyes when we hear the televangelists on television asking over and over for money. Paul is a man who not only refuses to exercise his right to be supported by the Corinthians, but often labors so that he can support the needy. In doing this, Paul sets himself apart from many of the religious charlatans of his day and causes people to look upon him and his message with a measure of respect.
If Paul has not already made his point about having the right as an apostle to eat and drink at the expense of the Corinthians, Paul now gives two final proofs of this right in verses 13 and 14. The first is his reference to the temple workers, who by virtue of their labor obtain a share of the temple offerings. Whether this is in the pagan temples of that day, or whether in the Israelites temple in Jerusalem, the right of those who labor in this religious work is obvious.
The final argument Paul offers in support of his apostolic right of food and drink is the teaching of our Lord Himself: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (verse 14).
The question the scholars ask is this: “Where does our Lord teach this?” I think His teaching of this principle is very clear in His sending out of the disciples:
1 And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons, and to heal diseases. 2 And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to perform healing. 3 And He said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece. 4 “And whatever house you enter, stay there, and take your leave from there. 5 “And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 And departing, they began going about among the villages, preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:1-6).
1 Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them two and two ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come. 2 And He was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. 3 “Go your ways; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 “Carry no purse, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way. 5 “And whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ 6 “And if a man of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him; but if not, it will return to you. 7 “And stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house. 8 “And whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat what is set before you; 9 and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 “But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 “I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city” (Luke 10:1-12).
Our Lord Himself is supported in His ministry (see Luke 8:1-3), and He likewise expects His disciples to be supported by those who benefit from their preaching and ministry of healing. The church is taught by the apostles that it is obligated to care for the needs of those who minister the Word of God (see Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18).
Paul refrains from receiving this support from the Corinthians for two primary reasons, which he articulates in verses 15-23. First, Paul refrains from exercising his right to be supported because his resulting sacrificial service will bring him a reward. Paul is called as an apostle. As such, it is his duty to proclaim the gospel, a duty of which he was informed at the time of his conversion. For him to carry out his duty by preaching the gospel is not service worthy of a special reward. We are expected to fulfill our duty (see Luke 17:9-10). When we exceed the speed limit, we can expect to be given a traffic citation and to pay a fine. But when we obey the speed limit, we have no right to expect a police officer to pull us over, praise us for our obedience, and then reward us with a $20 bill. Our duty is what we are required and expected to do, for which there is no hope of reward.
The rewards come when we act “above and beyond the call of duty.” A number of years ago, a plane crashed shortly after take off in Washington, D. C. It was a cold winter day, and there was ice on the Potomac River into which the plane crashed. A number of rescue workers rushed to the scene, and quite of few of the passengers were rescued. None of the emergency workers were cited for their bravery, even though they risked their lives to rescue some of the crash victims. One man was singled out for praise by the media. This man happened to be nearby when the airplane crashed. He was watching the rescue efforts from one bank of the river when he noticed a women in the icy water in front of him. Many of the media were there, cameras rolling as people were sinking in the frigid waters. They didn’t seem to think of throwing down their cameras and jumping into the river to help someone. But this man did jump into the river, risking his life to pull the woman to shore. He was praised for his actions because they were not required; they were above and beyond the call of duty.
A Christian is not really free to refrain from proclaiming the gospel. It is our duty to do so. When we tell others about Christ, we should not expect to be rewarded for doing so. If we wish to be rewarded, we must do something above and beyond our duty. Paul’s duty is to preach the gospel, and his right is to be supported in so doing. But when Paul chooses to set aside this right to food and drink, he enters into the realm of voluntary sacrifice, and thus into the realm where he can anticipate a divine reward. Surrendering our rights is a basis for rewards, and so Paul gladly surrenders his right to be supported.
Paul’s second reason for setting aside his rights to food and drink is to promote the gospel. Once in verse 19 and again in verse 23, Paul tells us that this is his reason for abstaining from the free exercise of his right to be supported:
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.
23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Corinthians 9:19, 23).
The first statement, in verse 19, is a reference to Paul’s freedom. He is not a slave. He is, indeed, a “native Roman citizen,” a man born free as a Roman citizen, as opposed to those who have purchased their citizenship, or to those who are slaves and have no rights as Roman citizens (see Acts 22:22-29). This liberty and these rights, Paul gladly surrenders, thus becoming the slave of all men whenever this advances the cause of Christ.98
In verse 23, Paul again draws attention to the fact that he sets aside his liberties or rights when doing so is for the sake of the gospel. The gospel is an offense to the unbeliever, and only when chosen of God and quickened by the Spirit will men be able to get past the offense of the gospel to be saved. Whatever liberties Paul can sacrifice, he will sacrifice, in order to advance the gospel. As much as possible, Paul will accommodate the Jews, so that they might come to Christ. Likewise, when Paul is among the Gentiles, he refrains from any liberties which they find offensive, so that they might more easily hear and heed the gospel. To those under the Law, he seeks to conduct himself in a way that does not offend their sensitivities, so that they might come to Christ. To those Gentiles not under the Old Testament Law, Paul likewise adjusts his conduct, so that they might not needlessly be offended, and turn away from the gospel as they turned away from him.
What Paul is saying here in verses 19-23 is similar to what the writer to the Hebrews writes:
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).
There are “sins which easily entangle us” in our Christian walk. These must be put aside because they are sins. But other things are not sins; they are encumbrances. These hinder us from excelling in the race we are running. Thus the author urges us to set these encumbrances aside.
Paul is saying nearly the same thing, or at least applying the same principle. If the goal of the Christian is the salvation of souls, then the Christian should willingly set aside anything which hinders this goal. Some of our rights or liberties as Christians may actually be hindrances to the goal of winning souls. For Paul, being married and being supported by the church were hindrances to his mission as a called apostle. Consequently, he happily set them aside, knowing that this not only enhances his ministry, but increases his rewards.
It is vitally important for you to understand that in verses 19-23 Paul is not teaching: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Paul is not speaking about the sins of others with which he is willing to participate. Paul is talking about accommodating himself to the weaknesses of the lost, by surrendering any liberties which might prove offensive to them and thus hinder his preaching of the gospel. One might be invited to make a gospel presentation in a retirement home. One could go with drums, guitars, and an electronic keyboard. But it is possible that an organ or piano accompaniment would be received more readily. Why insist on your rights, when practicing them might needlessly alienate someone who is lost, keeping them from hearing the gospel? Paul is willing to sacrifice the free exercise of any liberty if doing so will further the gospel. Never will Paul think of committing a sin in order to identify with the lost. One does not need to win an alcoholic to Christ by getting drunk with him, or to convert a drug addict by getting high with him. It is one thing to commit a sin in the name of furthering the gospel; it is quite another to sacrifice a liberty for the sake of the gospel.
It may be needless to say, but I will nonetheless say it again as I conclude this message: This passage proves that Paul has the right to be supported in his ministry, and that he also has the privilege of not exercising it, for his own benefit (his reward) and for the advance of the gospel. This text does not teach that individuals or churches have the right not to support those who preach.
In our text, Paul has spent a great deal of time defending his right as an apostle to be supported (to eat and drink) by those to whom he ministers. He has spent no time attempting to defend his status as a free man (not a slave). Why is there this emphasis on his rights as an apostle? First, because his apostleship is being challenged by some in Corinth, especially by those who are false apostles (see 2 Corinthians 11). Paul will not give ground on the matter of his apostleship, because he will not surrender the truth of the gospel to those who would change it. Second, Paul emphasizes his rights as an apostle because these rights are the most evident and least disputed. Aside from Paul and Barnabas, all of the other apostles not only support these rights, they exercise them in their ministries. If anyone wishes to challenge Paul on the matter of being supported, they will also have to take on Peter and all the rest of the 11. The “liberty” to eat idol-meats, claimed by some Corinthians and exposed by Paul in chapter 8, is based on very thin reasoning, which is directly opposed to the decree of the Jerusalem Council (which includes the apostles). Paul wants his “right” to be understood as indisputable, before he goes on to decline it for the sake of the gospel.
(1) Paul’s use of the Old Testament in our text has much to teach us about the role of the Old Testament Scriptures in the life of the New Testament saint. We dare not write off any portion of the Old Testament Scriptures as irrelevant to our lives. Paul tells us that this passage in Deuteronomy 25:4 was “altogether” written for our edification and instruction. He directly applies it to his right to support as an apostle. While we are not Israelites, living in the promised land under the Mosaic Covenant, the commandments found in the Law of Moses are nevertheless applicable to us. Behind the commandment, there is a principle, and that principle should not be overlooked or set aside.
Let me seek to illustrate what I mean from another Old Testament command, given three times in the Law of Moses: “You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil into the house of the Lord your God. You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother” (Exodus 23:19; see also 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21).
This Sunday has been set aside by many evangelical churches as the “sanctity of human life Sunday,” because of the slaughter of millions of unborn children through abortion, legalized by the decision of the Supreme Court over 20 years ago in the case of Roe v. Wade. This case, incidentally, was filed in Dallas by a couple of young law students. “Roe” is a pseudonym for the woman who was denied an abortion and then filed suit against the prosecutor, Henry Wade.
One may not immediately see the relevance of this ancient command to abortion, but it is very real and direct. The Israelites were commanded never to boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Now what were the chances in ancient times that this would ever happen? This command, like the command not to muzzle the ox, was given to teach a very important principle. God did not care any more for the mother goat or the young kid than He did the ox. God wanted to teach an important truth. A she goat or cow becomes “fresh” (that is, she begins to give milk) when she delivers her offspring. The mother’s milk is provided to preserve the life of the offspring and to promote its health and growth. To boil a kid in its mother’s milk is to “profane” the milk by causing it to serve a purpose exactly the opposite of what God intended. How can one destroy the life of a kid with the very milk intended to preserve and promote its life? It would be a great travesty.
The mother’s womb is a haven for the unborn child. It is a place of safety, a place where the life of the unborn child is protected from danger. The womb is the place where the child who has been conceived can grow to the point where it can enter into the world and live independently of the mother’s body. How horrid to think that there are now abortion clinics which prosper by invading this place of safety, this sanctuary of human life, and destroy that life. How unnatural it is that the mother who has given life to this unborn child now sets out to destroy it, when her body is designed to protect it. This ancient commandment, which seems so out of place in the modern world, stands before our society to condemn it for the evil of abortion.
(2) Paul teaches us that we should willingly forego the exercise of any right which would prove to be a hindrance to the gospel. We can see this principle at work in the person and work of our Lord. It was evident in this incident, recorded by Matthew:
24 And when they had come to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter, and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” 26 And upon his saying, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Consequently the sons are exempt. 27 “But, lest we give them offense, go to the sea, and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a stater. Take that and give it to them for you and Me” (Matthew 17:23-27).
Jesus, as the Son of God, had every right to consider Himself exempt from the temple tax. He had every right not to pay this tax. And yet, He did pay it, lest the exercise of His rights hinder the preaching of the gospel. His message brought much offense to the Jews, but He would not add to the offense by the exercise of a right which could easily be set aside.
The greatest example of the principle of setting aside one’s rights for the sake of the gospel is seen in the incarnation of our Lord and in His sacrificial death for the sins of men:
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
Some wrongly conclude that what our Lord set aside in His coming to the earth was some portion of His deity. Jesus is fully divine and fully human. He did not set aside any of His deity to come to this earth as a man; He simply added perfect humanity to His deity. When Paul speaks of our Lord emptying Himself, He does not mean that Jesus became less than the God He was in heaven, seated at the Father’s right hand. He means that when Jesus came to the earth as the God-man, He surrendered His rights as God. He did not cease to be God; He set aside His rights as God. And because of this, you and I, along with every believer, have been forgiven of our sins and entered into eternal life. It is at this point of sacrificing His rights that our Lord, like Paul, enters into the place of blessing and reward. And so Paul speaks not only of our Lord’s resurrection and ascension, but also of His being highly exalted with a name higher than any other name. Jesus, who surrendered His rights and stooped lower than any Old Testament saint could ever imagine, was also exalted higher than any could imagine, as a result of His sacrifice.
It is the surrender of our Lord’s rights which makes salvation possible for you. Have you received the gift of salvation which our Lord’s sacrifice made possible? If not, I invite you to receive His gift of salvation now. You simply need to confess that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal punishment, and to receive by faith the forgiveness of sins and divine righteousness which our Lord accomplished through His death, burial, resurrection and ascension to the Father. And if you have received this gift, then you are obligated to walk in our Lord’s steps, willingly setting aside your rights, for the advancement of the gospel (see 1 Peter 2:18-25).
(3) In the light of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, many of the things he has written earlier come into sharper focus. In chapter 4, Paul speaks of his suffering and humiliation, contrasted with the pride and lofty attitude of the Corinthians. We can now see that Paul experienced what he did for the sake of the gospel. Those Corinthians who began to look down on the gospel because of Paul are dead wrong. Paul’s attitudes and actions are completely consistent with the gospel. To distance themselves from Paul is to stand apart from the gospel as well.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul speaks of the Corinthians going to court with one another. We can now understand why. They are intent not only on practicing their rights, but in protecting and preserving them. Law courts are about rights. If the Corinthians will not sacrifice their rights for the good of their brethren and for the advancement of the gospel, we would expect to see them in the courts, where rights can be protected. Later in chapter 6, Paul writes that while all things might be lawful, all things do not edify. We now can see that chapter 9 is a much fuller explanation of his words in chapter 6. Anything which causes a weaker brother to stumble (chapter 8) or which hinders the advancement of the gospel should be set aside.
Paul’s words in chapter 7 about marriage and about staying single also come into sharper focus. For one to follow Paul’s example regarding support, it would be a virtual necessity to remain single. When one sets aside the right to support, he nearly always sets aside the right to “lead about a wife.” Marriage is a privilege, a right, and as such, it is also that which can be set aside, for the edification of others and for the promotion of the gospel. No wonder Paul can speak of not seeking to gain the full measure of all that life has to offer. And no wonder Paul can speak as he does in chapter 7 about being content with the status of a slave. Even one born free, as Paul was, should be willing to make himself the slave of men by surrendering those rights which hinder the gospel.
(4) Paul’s teaching in chapter 9 sheds light on those who insist upon exercising their alleged right to eat meat offered to idols in chapter 8. For many, the requirements of the Law or of any New Testament commands, are the high water mark of spirituality. To keep the rules is to be spiritual. To exercise every right not forbidden by the rules (or made possible by finding a way around the rules) is also the epitome of spirituality. Avoiding what is prohibited and begrudgingly doing what is commanded is as far as the legalist will go. The Law is the stopping place for the legalists, who will then indulge themselves in their liberties. For Paul, it is just the opposite. The requirements of the Law are the starting point. The bare minimum is what the Law requires or forbids. To abide within the Law is not proof of spirituality or the basis for rewards. Rewards can be hoped for only when one goes above and beyond the requirements of the Law (is this not what Jesus speaks about in the Sermon on the Mount?). One should think of acting sacrificially only when one willingly gives up the exercise of a right, for the sake of a brother or for the sake of the gospel. Those who think themselves spiritual for keeping the rules are wrong. The Law set the starting point, not the stopping point.
Let me seek to illustrate what I mean. The Law called for men to tithe. I do not wish to get into all the intricacies of what contributions the Law required. You should know, however, that in addition to the required offerings and gifts, there were the free-will offerings. Those who believe in tithing often take pride in the fact that they give their 10 percent. As I understand Paul’s words in our text, giving what is required is not a basis for rewards. Our rewards begin when we willingly choose to give sacrificially, beyond the tithe. This is what the Corinthians do, and this is why Paul commends them for doing so (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-15). It is also why Paul indicates that what he encourages them to do is not a command—it is beyond the requirements, entering into the area of true sacrifice (see 8:8).
(5) Paul’s words should be seriously pondered by those enamored with the teachings of the church growth movement. This movement has the lofty goal of drawing men and women to church and to faith in Christ. The trouble with this movement is that growth in numbers becomes the measure of spirituality and success. Too many churches who pursue church growth are willing to sacrifice the gospel to get growth. Is the Lord’s table offensive or unappealing to the lost, they say? Then let us do away with it, or hide it away in some obscure time and place, so that the lost will be attracted to church. Are the doctrines of God’s holiness, man’s sin, and eternal torment unappealing to the lost, they say? Then play them down. Seek to lure the lost to faith without these essentials, and let them learn the “fine print” of the gospel later. Although Paul speaks to us about surrendering our rights for the sake of the gospel, we are more inclined to surrender the gospel for the sake of our rights. Let the church growth movement (and all the rest of us) take heed!
(6) Paul’s words also challenge the current mindset that those who are spiritual are those who have a “full-time ministry.” I cannot tell you how many times I have seen and heard words and actions which betray the presence of a two-story spirituality. Those who are really spiritual go to seminary or devote themselves to full-time ministry. If this is so, then Paul must not be all that spiritual. No wonder some Corinthians challenge his spirituality (2 Corinthians 10:1-2). Paul’s spirituality is evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his rights for the sake of the gospel. One such right is that of having a full-time ministry. Let us beware of false standards of spirituality. Let those who think they will be more effective by ministering “full-time” pause to reflect on Paul’s “part-time” ministry, for the sake of the gospel.
(7) Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 9 sheds new light on the matter of pleasing God. Pleasing God does not result from merely keeping the rules. Pleasing God comes from personal sacrifice, for the glory of God, the good of others, and the advance of the gospel. Many Christians talk about “knowing the will of God.” What they really want is a rule book, much like that of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They want to know what is right and what is wrong. They want to avoid only what is sin and to enjoy everything else. They want the Christian life all spelled out in terms of do’s and don’ts. They want to know all the don’ts, so that they can indulge themselves in the do’s. Paul informs us that God is pleased when we “just say no” to the things which could be a “yes.” God is pleased when we choose to refrain from a right because of our love for God and for our brother, and because we do not want to hinder the advance of the gospel. This is why I believe God does not lay down more do’s and don’ts. He wants to give us as many liberties as possible, and then to see what we are willing to sacrifice for the gospel and for His glory. Pleasing God goes far beyond keeping the rules. Pleasing God begins when we have kept the rules, and when we start to sacrifice our rights for the sake of the gospel. May God cause us to reflect on this text, and on its many implications for our lives, for our good and His glory.
96 “A ‘seal’ was important in an age when many could not read. A mark stamped on clay, or wax, or some similar substance, was first of all a mark of ownership, and then a means of authentication.” Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), p. 132.
97 The term employed here does not just refer to money, which the soldier is paid, but to “that part of a soldier’s support given in place of pay [i.e. rations]… .” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, p. 471.
98 We must also point out that Paul sometimes insists on his rights as a Roman citizen, but this is only when it is for the good of the gospel (see Acts 16:35-40; 22:22-29).