Free Bible study First Corinthians 9

As we start reading chapter 9, it seems as if Paul is turning to an entirely new subject, a defense of his authority as an apostle.  It is true that some of his opponents at Corinth questioned his authority, and he does have them in mind in some of what he says here.  But Paul has not finished with the question of food offered to idols, and will not finish until 11:1.

So far Paul has said that while those who know an idol is nothing have the freedom and the right to eat food once offered to idols, they need to willingly give up that right when eating the food would cause a weaker Christian to stumble.  Chapter 9 is Paul’s personal example of giving up his own rights so as to save others.

Notes on 1 Corinthians 9,10

9:1,2 – Am I not free?  I have the liberty to do many things, just as you Corinthians are free in the matter of food.  Am I not an apostle?  As such I have rights and privileges.  Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?  To be an apostle, one had to have seen Jesus alive after his death, to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ – Acts 1:21,22;  1 Corinthians 15:4 8.  (Obviously there are no apostles – in the original sense – on earth today; their work was foundational as witnesses of Christ.)

Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?  Christ had sent Paul as an apostle to preach in Corinth, and the converts there were living evidence of Paul’s work as an apostle.  Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you!  Many opposed the gospel Paul preached, or wanted the authority that Paul had, and rejected his apostleship.  But the Corinthians knew who had sent Paul to them.  They saw Christ’s power at work in Paul through the Holy Spirit.  They knew Paul’s sacrifices, his realness and sincerity.  For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord, the visible results of my apostleship.  Compare 2 Corinthians 3:1 3.
9:3 6 – This is my defense to those (opponents) who sit in judgment on me.  Don’t we (myself and those such as Barnabas – 9:6 – who help me in my apostolic mission) have the right to food and drink (to have our living supplied because we work in the gospel)?  Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife [KJV: a sister, a wife] along with us (to have her living supplied as well as our own), as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas (Peter)?  Notice that Jesus’ brothers (named as James, Joseph, Simon and Judas in Matthew 13:55) had become prominent leaders in the work of the gospel.  Not long before Jesus’ death, they still did not believe in him – John 7:2 5.  Apparently the resurrection of their brother convinced them of who he really was.  They and their mother were with the faithful disciples waiting for the Spirit on Pentecost – Acts 1:14.  James later became a “pillar” in the Jerusalem church.  Tradition says he died a martyr.  It is likely that the new testament letters of James and Jude were written by Jesus’ brothers.

Notice also how Paul assumes that if he married and took his wife with him on his preaching journeys, she would be a sister, a believer.  Throughout scripture the principle is upheld that God’s people should only marry believers who have a common spiritual commitment.  Of course, as we have seen in chapter 7, if a person is already married to an unbeliever, one should remain in the marriage unless the unbeliever chooses to leave.

Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living (support ourselves in secular work, while other apostles and preachers are supported by the church)?  Paul and Barnabas were originally sent out together as missionaries to the Gentiles by the congregation at Antioch – Acts 13.  They did the first great missionary tour together, Acts 13,14.  Although the two of them later decided to work in separate areas because of a difference of judgment, Paul still sees Barnabas as a fellow worker in Christ.  We can have different opinions and even work in separate places because of this, yet still be very much one in Christ.

9:7-12a – Paul’s point is, why should Paul, Barnabas and Paul’s other helpers be exceptions to the rule that faithful ministers of God’s word should receive their living from God’s people?  Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?  Soldiers are paid by the government so they can stand by at all times for action if needed.  Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes?  Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?  Paul uses similar illustrations in 2 Timothy 2:3 7 in teaching Timothy that he and other gospel workers should be supported by the church to free their full time for the gospel.  Compare Acts 6:1 6.

Do I say this merely from a human point of view?  These illustrations make sense from human reasoning, but is this not also God’s revealed will?  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.”   Farmers in Israel would spread the harvested wheat on a hard, flat threshing floor and let oxen walk round and round on it, breaking off the husks to free the kernels.  A stingy farmer might put a muzzle on the ox to keep him from taking bites of the grain.  But the ox needed food if he was going to work, and God’s law protected his right to receive food from the very work he was doing.  Is it about oxen that God is concerned?  Paul sees a spiritual application to ministers working among God’s people.  Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?  God is even more concerned about those who serve in the gospel than he is about oxen.

Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.  If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?  Compare Romans 15:26,27.  Although there are those who commercialize the gospel and use religion merely for profit, there are also sincere ministers who serve for the love of souls.  The church does not owe a penny to profiteers, but it does owe support to ministers and leaders who are real.  There is nothing shameful about a minister of the gospel expecting and receiving a decent living from the church when he devotes his time to God’s work.

If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more, as the first ones to minister to you in the gospel?  It appears that other teachers were being supported financially by the congregation at Corinth just 4 or 5 years after the founding of the church.  It is God’s will that local churches become self-supporting almost from the beginning.  This means teaching new converts from the first to put God’s kingdom first in their finances, something that is often neglected.  It is not just a question of finding money for the work of the church.  It has to do with the spiritual welfare of members.  A willingness to give is closely connected with spiritual growth.  God is love.  God so loved that he gave, and Christians cannot mature in God’s image without giving.

9:12b-14 – But we did not use this right.  Just because I have a right to do something does not mean it is always the profitable or helpful thing to do.  This is just what Paul has been telling the Corinthians on the issue of eating food once offered to idols.  On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.  Though we have a right to take pay from the church, we forego that right and support ourselves so there will be no hindrance to the gospel.  Had Paul been paid by the church, those who opposed his work would have accused him of preaching just to get into people’s pockets.  This was not his motive for preaching, but there were people who would believe this slander and close their minds to what Paul was preaching.  By supporting himself (and later taking support from Christians in Macedonia), Paul deprived his opponents of the main charge they could have made against him.

There are some situations where it serves the gospel best for the preacher not to take support from the people he is working with.  In the l970’s the government of a certain African country became communist.  The party line said that all churches and ministers were parasites taking wealth from the people.  Gospel preachers in that country found it wise at that time to follow Paul’s example so that all could see the real reason for their preaching, love for lost souls.  Such situations are exceptions to God’s general plan that those who serve in God’s work should be supported to give their whole attention to that work.  Normally much more fruit can be borne in that way.

Of course the greatest lesson from all of this is that we should love others and want their salvation more than we love any right or preference of our own.  Love should be willing to give up anything that hinders our chances of saving others, or causes others to fall away from the Lord – Matthew l8:5 9;  Romans 14:19 21;  1 Corinthians 8:13;  John 17:19.  Christ is the greatest example of giving up rights in order to meet the needs of others – Philippians 2:5-11.  He teaches us to be like him – Romans 15:1 3;  Matthew 16:24,25.  Paul himself was following Christ’s example – 1 Corinthians 10:32,33;  11:1.

Paul continues to illustrate the general rule to which his practice was an exception.  Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?  All through the Old Testament God appointed that those who served in God’s teaching and worship should be supported by the gifts and sacrifices of God’s people – Genesis 14:18 20; Deuteronomy 18:1 5;  Numbers 18:8 11.  God’s wisdom is the same for the church.  In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

That is God’s normal rule, seen throughout the New Testament.  Elders who rule well, especially those who minister in the word, are to be supported – 1 Timothy 5:17,18.  Those taught are to share all good things with the teacher – Galatians 6:6.  Those who refused to house and support the preachers sent out by Christ were in fact refusing the kingdom of God which had come near them – Luke 10:3-12.  God’s minister is not to be entangled in secular work that would distract him from God’s service – 2 Timothy 2:3 7.

The founders of the Restoration Movement in the early l800’s were reacting strongly to clericalism in the church with its abuses of money and power.  Alexander Campbell, who belonged to the landed gentry, resolved never to take pay for preaching.  Parts of the movement developed a bias against supporting workers financially.  Anyone who would take money for preaching was considered mercenary and was compared to the “hireling” or hired hand who abandons the sheep when the wolf comes, serving only himself – John 10:12.  While these Restoration Christians were right in hating the commercialization of the ministry, they over-reacted to the point of throwing out God’s command.  Comparing all paid ministers to a hireling was slanderous to those who were sincere.  The issue is not being paid, but motive.

9:15-18 – But I have not used any of these rights.  And I am not writing in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast (that I go beyond the mere duty of preaching, and voluntarily sacrifice by preaching without financial support).  This was Paul’s way of “going the second mile.”   Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  The Lord told me to do it.  I dare not do otherwise.  If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.  Paul seems to mean, “By preaching voluntarily without pay, I have the reward of participating in Christ-like sacrifice, of being like the Lord.  If I am paid, I am just doing my job.  What then is my reward?  Just this:  that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.
9:19 23 – This section explains Paul’s policy when preaching the gospel.  Nowhere is Christ’s spirit more seen in Paul than here.  Though I am free and belong to no man (am not obligated to be anyone’s slave), I make myself a slave to everyone (voluntarily) to win as many as possible.  What mattered to Paul, as to Christ, was not pleasing himself but meeting the needs of as many as possible.  He had freedom and rights but gladly gave them up in exchange for the chance to save more people.

The more different the preacher is from the hearers, the less open the hearers are to his message.  The more the ways in which the preacher can relate to the hearers, the less barriers there are to communication and acceptance.  In the sacrificial spirit of Jesus, Paul gave up his own personal preferences and rights, adjusting his life to relate to those whom he hoped to reach.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.  Paul himself had been liberated by the gospel from the need for many Jewish customs.  Yet with Jews he lived as a Jew and voluntarily observed their customs rather than offend Jews and close their minds to the gospel.  Compare Acts 16:1 3.

To those under the law (the Jews who still felt bound by the law of Moses and the Old Covenant) I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law as a means of salvation), so as to win those under the law.  Voluntarily Paul often fulfilled the Mosaic law – see Acts l8:18;  21:20 26.  To those not having the law (Gentiles) I became like one not having the law (left off Jewish customs and restrictions and accommodated himself to the Gentile way of life, as far as he could without moral and spiritual compromise).  (Though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) – Though we are under grace rather than law as a way of salvation, Christ’s law is still our standard of conduct.  Paul lived like a Gentile so as to win those not having the law.

To the weak (those with immature, unenlightened consciences, burdened with unnecessary scruples – see 1 Corinthians 8:4-13;  Romans 14:1 8) I became weak (that is, I limited my behavior as if my own conscience were restricted like theirs), to win the weak.  Paul did the same thing he counseled the Corinthians to do when associating with the weak.  I have become all things to all men [Greek:  all people] so that by all possible means I might save some.  We have all kinds of opportunity to practice this principle when working among people different than ourselves socially, educationally, economically, culturally, religiously.  The only thing we cannot do is violate our own conscience.  But short of that, the love of Christ compels us to adapt to the preferences of others rather than seeking our own.  This needs so much to be remembered in the generational and traditional struggles of so many churches today.  We should be willing to sacrifice the familiarity and comfort of our human tradition in order to make our church services and evangelistic activities connect with those who have not grown up in the faith.  This might determine the version of the Bible we use, the kind of songs, etc.  We are not here to please ourselves but to bear a redemptive, sacrificial cross like Christ did – Romans 15:1-3.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings – the blessing of Christ’s approval, of seeing many more people in heaven, of looking back on a faithful ministry.

9:24 27 – One secret of Paul’s power as a teacher was his use of illustrations to which people could relate. The Isthmian games at Corinth were almost as famous as the Olympics.  The Corinthians were very sports-minded.  Paul borrows figures from the games to describe his self-discipline for the success of the gospel.  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 (Christ’s approval and souls saved).  Discipline yourself, make the sacrifices to win souls just as I do.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  Athletes, medical students, rising leaders accept the discipline and sacrifice necessary for success.  How lackadaisical Christians often are by contrast, how unwilling to make even small sacrifices.  When you look at the price Paul was willing to pay, it is no wonder he turned the Western world upside down.  One life (even yours or mine) can save many and change the world if we begin to take our calling seriously.

They (the competitors in the games) do it to get a crown (literally, a wreath) that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  We should be even more serious and urgent about discipline than the athletes are; we have more to lose or gain.  Therefore (in my training) I do not run like a man running aimlessly without goal or purpose; I do not fight like a man merely beating the air.  No, I beat [RSV:  pommel; NASB:  buffet] my body and make it my slave – I rule it; I do not let my physical preferences and desires rule me – so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize – compare James 3:1.

Three observations here:  1) Even a church leader can fall and fail after he has taught others.  The one who thinks he cannot be tempted is in most danger of all.  2) If he wants those he leads to serve Christ seriously, one of the most important things a church or family leader can do is to demonstrate self-discipline and sacrifice for the cause of Christ – John l7:19.  They can learn more from his example than from words.  3) People will hardly take our message seriously if it is not worth urgency and sacrifice on our part.

8 by G.B. Shelburne, III (except for any graphics and scripture quotations).  May be reproduced for non-profit, non-publishing instructional purposes provided document content is not altered and this copyright notice is included in full.  Format may be altered.  South Houston Bible Institute, 14325Crescent Landing, Houston, TX 77062-2178, U.S.A., tel. 281-990-8899, email <>, web site <>.  Scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION 8 1978 and 1984 by the New York International Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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