This is the time of year when some Christians are practicing Lent, which is when they decide to give up something – usually some sort of food — for 40 days. There are many things that I would be glad to give up for Lent – spinach, squash, Brussel sprouts. Unfortunately, though, Lent is about giving up something that you enjoy – like chocolate, bread or soft drinks. The Bible never tells us to give up any of those things, although it certainly may be helpful to do so from time to time.
But there is something that the Bible does tell us to give up, and I think it’s a lot harder than giving up chocolate for 40 days. It’s giving up our rights. In this country, we consider our rights to be one of the most valuable things we possess. And so, we will insist on our rights. We demand our rights. And it’s not an easy thing to hear Paul tell us that, as Christians, we should be willing to give up our rights.
Last week, we saw in chapter 8 that Paul talked about whether it was okay for Christians to eat meat which had been offered to idols. As I said, that’s not something we struggle with, but there are a lot of things that we do struggle with that are in what I call “gray areas” – things that the Bible doesn’t specifically say are wrong and it doesn’t specifically say it’s alright, and so we have to decide for ourselves whether these things are right or wrong for us to do as a Christian, and sometimes we come to different conclusions.
Is it okay to listen to certain kinds of music or watch certain kinds of movies? Is it okay to have a Christmas tree or Easter eggs? Is it okay to buy a lottery ticket or go to the beach for mixed swimming?
In Corinth, they weren’t asking those kinds of questions. Their big issue was, can I go down to the pagan temple and have a Zeus burger for dinner? That was the issue, eating meat that had been offered to idols. Was it permissible for a Christian to do that and still be a faithful Christian?
Now, I would suggest that whenever we ask questions like this – “Is it okay for a Christian to do this or that and still be a Christian?”, we’re asking the wrong question. Because essentially, what we want to know is, what’s the most I can do and get away with and still be a Christian? In other words, what is the absolute minimum requirement to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
But why would we ever want to do the absolute minimum requirement necessary to be a Christian? Why would we not want to grow in our faith? So, the proper question isn’t, what can I get away with? But rather, how can I best live my life in a way that will honor and glorify my Lord?
So, we’re asking the wrong questions. But Paul is dealing with those kinds of issues in chapter 8 and on into chapter 9. And he tells us that my personal liberty, what I can and cannot do, is connected with my responsibility. It may well be that all things are lawful for me, but I have a responsibility to other people around me.
And that’s why Paul said at the end of chapter 8, if eating meat that’s been offered to idols is going to cause someone in the church to stumble and go back into idolatry, then I won’t ever eat that meat again. I would rather give up my right to do what I’m allowed to do in order to show love to a weaker brother or sister. Because, while we may have the right to do many things, our liberty is always restricted by love. Love always, always, takes priority over our liberty.
So, Paul lays all of that out in chapter 8. And now, in chapter 9, he’s going to show us how he put this into practice in his own life. Because Paul was not one of those preachers who didn’t practice what he preached. Nobody could ever accuse him by saying, “You’re telling us to give up our rights, but that’s easy for you to say. You’re not here. You don’t have to give up anything.”
And so, Paul says, “Let me tell you what I’ve been willing to give up for the sake of the gospel, for your sake, for the sake of others. I’m not asking you to do anything that I haven’t already done.”
Now, as we go into chapter 9, you need to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. As we go through 1 and 2 Corinthians, we learn that there were some people in Corinth who had a problem with Paul’s authority as an apostle. They questioned his authority. And so, Paul is going to deal with that criticism at the same time he uses himself as an example of limiting our liberties. You’ll see how all this fits together.
Verse 1: “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 defense to those who would examine me.” (I Corinthians 9: 1-3)
You can tell that Paul gets just a little bit defensive here. There were some people in Corinth who apparently didn’t like Paul’s instructions, Paul’s commands. So, their strategy was to discredit Paul so that they could ignore what he said. And they were doing that by questioning whether or not Paul was really an apostle. He says he’s an apostle, but is he really an apostle?
We’ve got this VBS song, “Jesus called them one by one, Peter, Andrew, James and John….” There’s 12 men in that list of apostles, and Paul’s not one of them. In fact, Paul never even spent any time with Jesus during his ministry. So, they’re questioning Paul. They’re questioning his credentials.
I heard about a preacher who had an experience with the Social Security office that I can relate to. He called to describe his situation and to try to get an answer as to what he should do. The woman who took his call was trying to find a category in which to place him. She asked if he was an “ordained minister.” And he said, “no.” So then she asked him if he was the “pastor” of the church where he served. And because he wasn’t an elder, he had to say “No.” To which she responded, “When you get to be a real minister, call me back.”
The Corinthians had the same problem with the classification of an “apostle.” There were some who said to Paul, “When you get to be a real apostle, call us back.” For one thing, to be an apostle, you had to have seen the resurrected Lord, you had to have seen Jesus after he was raised from the dead. So, Paul tells us that he did see him, on the road to Damascus.
To be an apostle, you had to have been commissioned by Jesus himself. Paul was. Your sign of being an apostle was made evident by the miracles you did, the signs and wonders like Paul did in Corinth. So, Paul says to the Corinthians, even if somebody else might doubt who I am, you of all people should know, because you’ve seen my credentials.
So, having established the fact that he was an apostle, Paul goes to say that he had all the rights that all the other apostles had.
Verse 4, “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?” (I Corinthians 9:4-6)
Paul says I’ve got a right to do all the things that all the other apostles are doing. I’ve got the right to be married if I want to be married. But, as he’s already said back in chapter 7, Paul gave up that right so that he might be able to serve God more effectively.
And Paul says, “I’ve got the right to eat and drink.” Now, the Corinthians weren’t questioning his right to eat food. The implication here is, “I’ve got the right to eat and drink at your expense.” In fact, that’s how the New Living Translation translates this verse, “Don’t we have the right to live in your homes and share your meals?” (I Corinthians 9:4, NLT)
All the other apostles have these rights and privileges. Is it only me, Paul, and my partner Barnabas who have no rights whatsoever, so that we have to work and provide for ourselves?
And we know that Paul worked when he came to Corinth. We read in Acts 18 that Paul came to Corinth where he met a couple by the name of Priscilla and Aquila. They were all tentmakers by trade, so they spent time together. As some people might say, Paul wasn’t just a preacher, he had a real job.
Paul’s point in all this is to say – all of the other apostles are supported by the generous giving of other Christians. And because I’m an apostle, I have the right to be supported by Christians, too. And then he goes on to make several arguments as to why apostles or preachers have the right to be supported by the people that they work with.
His first argument is this – verse 7, “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? (I Corinthians 9:7)
Paul makes the case that, in the real world, a soldier doesn’t go out and protect us at his own expense. When you join the Army, nobody says, “Welcome to the Army! Oh, by the way, you have to buy your own gun and your own bullets. And if you use a tank or a helicopter, you’re going to have to pay for that out of your own money, too. Which you’re going to need to come up with on your own because we’re not paying you.” No! Nobody goes to war at his own expense. The government takes care of that. That’s just the way it works.
The same goes for a farmer or a shepherd. Or, to put it in modern language, if you call a plumber tomorrow morning, then you expect to have to pay him for that service. When you go to a lawyer or a doctor, or whatever, you expect to pay for those services.
So, Paul says, why would it be any different in the church? Why would you expect something for nothing? Why would you not expect for preachers to be paid for the work that they do?
His second argument is this. Verse 8, “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.” (I Corinthians 9:8-10)
The law Paul refers to here is in Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” After the Jews harvested their wheat or other grain, they would take it to a threshing floor. They would lay all the grain out on the floor and then they take an ox that would go around and around, crushing the grain, separating the edible portion of the wheat from the chaff.
But since you’ve got the ox walking around all day long on the threshing floor, doing the work for you, you don’t put a muzzle on its mouth. You let that ox eat whatever it finds on the floor.
It would be cruel to put a muzzle on an ox while he’s doing the work for you. No, you let him eat part of it. But Paul says, “This passage is not so much about oxen.” It’s about all of us. It sets forth God’s principle that whoever does the work is entitled to the benefits of his labor.
Paul goes on to say in verse 11, “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?” (I Corinthians 9:11-12)
Paul says, we came to Corinth and we shared the good news about Jesus with you. Many of you responded, and now you have a relationship with God and your lives have been blessed beyond measure. You’re part of a vibrant Christian community. You’re growing in your faith.
All of that is the result of the spiritual work we’ve been doing in Corinth. Is it really such a big deal for you to share with us some of your material blessings, for you to support those of us who did this for you?
Paul mentions this same principle in Romans 15. The Christians in Jerusalem were struggling financially, possibly because of the persecution that was taking place. So, Paul was gathering up some money from different areas to send to those Christians.
In verse 26, “The believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially.” (Romans 15:25-27, NLT)
These Gentile Christians received spiritual blessings from the Christians in Jerusalem, so they felt the least they could do in return was to help them financially. Paul says, “That’s the way things normally work.” I came to Corinth as an apostle, I helped all of you spiritually, so it would have been within my rights to expect you to give me financial assistance.
Verse 12, “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.” (I Corinthians 9:12)
Remember what we saw back in chapter 8? I may have the right to do everything, but for the sake of love, I will choose not to do certain things. If eating meat offered to idols causes you to stumble, then I won’t do it. Even though I know that it’s okay. I have that knowledge, but I balance out my knowledge with love.
And now Paul is applying that same principle to himself. He says, because I am an apostle, I have the right to receive offerings from you, to be supported by you. Peter does it. All the other apostles do it. The brothers of the Lord, James and Jude, they do it.
But even though he had this right, Paul says, “nevertheless we have not made use of this right.” Paul was willing to give up his right to be paid for his work as a preacher. “But we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
He goes on to make a further argument that he had a right to be paid. Verse 13, “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?” (I Corinthians 9:13)
As I mentioned last week, every sacrifice that was brought to the temple in Jerusalem, part of it was offered to the Lord, and then the priest always got a portion for himself and his family.
Verse 14, “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (I Corinthians 9:14)
Here’s Paul’s last argument. The reason why it’s okay for apostles or preachers to receive financial support from those that they work with is because Jesus himself said so. The Lord commanded that those who preach the gospel should be paid for preaching the gospel.
Well, where did Jesus command that? In Matthew 10, when Jesus sent the twelve apostles out to spread the good news about the kingdom of God, he said, “Don’t take any money in your money belts — no gold, silver, or even copper coins. Don’t carry a traveler’s bag with a change of clothes and sandals or even a walking stick. Don’t hesitate to accept hospitality, because those who work deserve to be fed.” (Matthew 10:9-10, NLT)
So, Paul has given several arguments for why preachers should be paid. He says, everybody else in society gets paid for what they do. In the Old Testament, the priests got paid for what they did, even the oxen got paid for they did. And Jesus said that the apostles should receive support from the people they preached to.
All in all, Paul presents a good, strong argument for why preachers should be paid. And I’ve heard a lot of preachers use this passage to tell the congregation how much they have a right to be paid. But that’s where they usually stop. But, Paul’s main point in this chapter is not about how we have a right to be paid. We do, but his main point is this – “I’m willing to give up my right to be paid if it will help the spread of the gospel.” And that’s the part that I don’t hear too many preachers preaching about.
In verse 15, “Yet I have never used any of these rights. And I am not writing this to suggest that I want to start now. In fact, I would rather die than lose my right to boast about preaching without charge. Yet preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled by God to do it. How terrible for me if I didn’t preach the Good News!
“If I were doing this on my own initiative, I would deserve payment. But I have no choice, for God has given me this sacred trust. What then is my pay? It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News.” (I Corinthians 9:15-18, NLT)
Now, it’s worth mentioning that there were some occasions when Paul received money from churches that he worked with, like the church in Philippi. But his general rule was this – I have a right to be paid, but I think giving up that right benefits the spread of the gospel.
Before I say more about that, I just want to make a brief comment about Paul saying he felt compelled to preach the gospel and how he didn’t have a choice. It reminds me of a conversation I had with an elder of the church when I was a senior in high school. As a high school student, I had given a few talks at church on Wednesday nights and considered the possibility of becoming a preacher. But I also had a love for math and computers and thought about going into that field.
So, I asked this elder for his advice and what he said was this, “If you can do anything else in the world besides preach the gospel, then do that instead.” Which may seem like strange advice coming from an elder, but I think what he meant by that was this, “Being a preacher shouldn’t be something you take lightly, that you do it going, maybe I’ll try this. No, if preaching the gospel isn’t something that compels you, then you’ll never last. You’ll end up quitting.”
So, I guess you all know what I did with that advice. I said, “I don’t feel compelled to preach, so I’m going to do something else.” And I went to college majoring in Mathematics, with a minor in Computer Science. But somewhere around the middle of my freshman year, I said, “I can’t do that. I feel compelled to preach the gospel.” And so, I changed my major to Bible. So, I can relate to Paul when he said, “Preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled by God to do it.”
But, back to Paul’s main point. Paul said, “I have the right to paid for being a preacher. But I’m willing to give up that right to help spread the gospel.” How did refusing financial support help to spread the gospel of Christ?
For one thing, Paul’s work as a tent-maker put him in touch with people who were lost. The truth is, preachers often live in a kind of seclusion, finding it difficult to get close enough to people who are lost in order to talk with them. Working in a secular workplace puts you in contact with non-Christians who need to hear the gospel. It gives you the opportunity to be a witness by the quality of your work and the way you behave.
And not taking money from people is something that 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 asking over and over for money. It certainly gets people’s attention that you’re willing to share the gospel without expecting anything in return. The same was true in the first century. Paul set himself apart from many of the religious charlatans of his day and caused people to look on him and his message with a measure of respect.
So, what is the application of all this for us? It would easy to say that the application is that all preachers should give up their right to be paid. And perhaps, some of us should. But, for all of us, the application comes from Paul’s statement in verse 12, “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.” (I Corinthians 9:12)
Let me ask you a question, “What is it that you have a right to do that you are willing to give up for the sake of the gospel?” Because we can all get very defensive about what we do. We will say, “I have a right to go there. I have a right to do that. I have a right to spend my time doing this. I have a right to spend my money this way.”
But, as I said at the beginning of this lesson, we’re asking the wrong question. The question isn’t, “Do I have a right to do these things?” The more important questions are, “How can I best live my life in a way that honors and glorifies God?” and “What am I willing to give up for the sake of the gospel?”