If someone asked you now what today’s passage is about, I wonder what would you say? I was listening to another preacher preach on this passage and he preached on rights: when we should insist on our rights and when we should give up our rights. From what he said, it seems that this whole passage is all about our rights; and he went on to talk about how sometimes we need to stand up for our rights. And certainly Paul does talk about his rights in this passage. However, that’s not what this passage is really about.
Another preacher spent all his time talking about evangelism. In this passage — this preacher said — Paul is teaching us about his method for evangelism and how we should use the same method in our evangelism and become all things to all men so that we might by all possible means save some. And certainly Paul does write here about his approach to evangelism and how he preached the gospel to all. But that’s not what this passage is really about.
Yes, Paul writes about his rights as an apostle. Yes, Paul writes about his work as an apostle. But that’s not what the passage is about. The passage — like last week’s passage — is about idolatry. Paul is still talking about whether or not the believers in Corinth should eat food sacrificed to idols. If you recall from last week, I said that Paul was addressing the same topic in chapters 8 and 9 and 10. Chapter 8 began with the words:
Now about food sacrificed to idols….
And in chapter 10, Paul wrote in verse 14:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.
He was writing about idols in chapter 8; and he writes about the same subject in chapter 10; and though he doesn’t mention the word ‘idol’ or ‘idolatry’ in chapter 9, that’s what he’s writing about; and he’s writing about how the believers in Corinth should give up their right to eat food sacrificed to idols so that none of them is led astray and stumbles and falls away from Christ.
From chapter 9 we learned that there were some in Corinth — perhaps the majority of the church — who were saying that since we know there’s only one God, and since we know that idols are nothing, and since we know that food is food, then we know there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go into one of the many pagan temples in Corinth and eat the food that was offered there. So, perhaps there was some public festival or civic event which was being held in one of the temples; and some believers thought there was no problem in attending these events in the pagan temples, because idols are nothing. They’re not real. They don’t really exist. They can’t do anything. And so, since idols are nothing, eating food in the temple which has been offered to an idol cannot harm us.
And we saw last time that while Paul technically agreed with them that there’s only one God, and that idols are nothing, he went on to warn the believers in Corinth that they need to be careful, because by eating such food in the pagan temples they might put a stumbling block in the way of their fellow believer, causing him or her to fall away from Christ. He said you might damage your fellow believer’s conscience, so that it doesn’t warn him or her the way that it should that idolatry is wrong. And he said you might destroy the faith of your fellow believers if they see you in the pagan temple and start to think to themselves that there’s nothing wrong with idolatry. So, for the sake of your fellow believers, give up your right to eat such food, so that you do not cause them to stumble away from Christ and from his salvation. And I finished last week’s sermon by saying how we all need to be careful that we treat one another with love, so that we will not do anything to destroy the faith of our fellow believer, but instead will build one another up in the faith.
That’s what chapter 8 was about. In chapter 10, Paul warns his readers in Corinth to flee from idolatry. They think there’s nothing wrong with going into one of the pagan temples to eat the food that was available there, because idols are nothing. But Paul warned them that while idols are nothing, lurking behind the idols are demons who want to lure us away from Christ. And he reminded them of what happened to the Israelites in the days of Moses who committed idolatry; and as a result most of them were kept from entering the Promised Land. So, flee from idolatry, Paul said, so that you will not be led astray by it.
Chapter 8 is about idolatry; and chapter 10 is about idolatry. And, though the word ‘idol’ doesn’t appear in chapter 9, this chapter is also about idolatry and how the believers in Corinth should be willing to give up their right to eat food sacrificed to idols out of a loving concern for their fellow believers. So, having said that, let’s turn to the text. And we can divide today’s passage into two parts. First of all, there’s verses 1 to 14 where Paul writes about the rights he possesses as an apostle. And then there’s verses 15 to 23 where Paul writes about how he has given up the rights he possesses as an apostle.
Verses 1 to 14
And in verses 1 to 14 Paul establishes his right as an apostle to expect financial support for his ministry. First of all, in verses 1 and 2, he reminds his readers that he’s an apostle who has seen the Lord Jesus. He’s referring to the time which we read about in Acts 9 when he was still called by the name Saul, and when he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the believers, because at that time he didn’t believe in the Lord Jesus and he wanted to destroy the Christian church. But on the way to Damascus, a bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around him and the Lord Jesus spoke to him; and as a result of that encounter, Saul the great persecutor because Paul the great preacher, because the Lord Jesus Christ, the head and king of the church, appeared to him and commissioned him to become one of his apostles and to preach the good news of the gospel. Although he wasn’t one of the original group of apostles, chosen by the Lord during his earthly ministry and filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, nevertheless the Lord Jesus appeared to him and made him an apostle.
Perhaps some people disputed Paul’s status as an apostle, because he mentions in verse 2 that he may not be an apostle to others. Perhaps some people disputed his credentials. Nevertheless, the believers in Corinth should have no doubt about it, because — says Paul — you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. When he says ‘seal’ here, he means ‘proof’, just as people in those days applied a seal to a letter to prove who wrote it. Well, the believers in Corinth were the seal or the proof of his apostleship, because the church in Corinth was planted by Paul. We read in Acts 18 how Paul went to Corinth and stayed there for a year and a half, preaching first in the Jewish synagogue and then afterwards in the house of Titius Justus. And some who heard believed and were converted to Christ; and a church was formed. So, even if others questioned his credentials to be an apostle, the believers in Corinth knew he was an apostle, because they had come to believe through his ministry. Paul was definitely an apostle. And the point of verse 3, where Paul says ‘This is by defence’ is that this is how he answers those who questioned his status as an apostle: he defended himself by telling his doubters that he had seen the Lord and the Lord has blessed his ministry; and the church in Corinth was the proof of that.
So, Paul was an apostle. And as an apostle, he had a right to receive financial support for his work. That’s the point of the following verses and all the questions he now asks. First of all, he asks: Don’t we — Paul and Barnabas — have the right to food and drink?
Now, although he’s been talking in the previous chapter about the right to eat food sacrificed to idols, in this verse he’s referring to food in general. So: Don’t we have the right to expect that our daily needs are provided for while we serve the Lord as his preachers? I’m not expected to starve, am I? I have a right to receive something to eat and drink every day, don’t I?
Of course, he’s asking a rhetorical question; and the answer he expects is: Yes, you do have that right. So, he asks another question: Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?
Now, he’s not asking here about his right to marry; he’s still referring to his right to receive financial support. And so, his question is: If we were married, don’t we have the right to expect our wives to be provided while we serve the Lord as preachers? And the answer he expects is: Yes, you do have that right.
He then asks a third question: Is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living? In other words: Are we the only ones who must work for a living and support ourselves while we serve the Lord as preachers? And the answer he expects is: No, you shouldn’t have to work for a living while you serve the Lord in this way. You shouldn’t have to work for a living, but you should receive financial support.
He’s appealing to his readers to acknowledge that he has the right as an apostle of Jesus Christ to receive support from the churches. But Paul doesn’t stop there; he goes on to build his case and to demonstrate in other ways why he has a right as an apostle to receive financial support. So, in verse 7, he refers to other occupations to demonstrate the principle that the worker is worthy of his reward. For instance, a soldier doesn’t serve in the army at his own expense; he’s paid for what he does and receives his food each day. And the farmer who plants a vineyard will naturally eat some of the grapes he has grown. And the shepherd who is looking after his sheep up on the mountainside can take milk from the sheep to sustain him in his work. Other people in other occupations receive support and sustenance for what they do. That’s a universal principle. And so it’s not unreasonable for an apostle to expect support and sustenance for what he does.
And then Paul turns to the Scriptures. He says in verse 8 that he’s not saying this from a human point of view. In other words, he’s not relying on human authority alone to state his case. On the contrary, the Scriptures recognise the same principle that the worker is worthy of his reward. In the book of Deuteronomy, God commanded his people not to muzzle an ox whenever it’s treading the grain. The ox was made to walk round and round over the grain in order to crush it and to separate the grain from the husk. And in the Old Testament Law, God commanded his people not to prevent the ox from bending down and eating some of the grain while it worked. And Paul asks: Does God only care about oxen?
And Paul answers his own question in verse 10 by making clear that God cares for humans as well and that this law embodies a principle which God has set down for us as well that we too can expect to benefit from our labour. This is true for the farmer and the farmhand who are out ploughing the fields and threshing the grain. And therefore in the same way, apostles and preachers — who sow the seed of God’s word by their preaching — can expect to benefit from their labour. It’s not unreasonable for them to expect to receive financial support for their ministry.
In verse 12 Paul mentions that other preachers receive support from the believers in Corinth. So, if other preachers have received support, then Paul and Barnabas have the right to expect the same kind of support.
And Paul makes one final argument in verse 13. He says that those who work in the temple — and it’s not clear whether he’s referring to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem or to the pagan temples in Corinth; but it doesn’t really matter since the principle is the same — those who work in the temple get their food from the temple. So, the animals which were offered as sacrifices were given to them; it was a form of income for them. In the same way, the Lord Jesus has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. And Paul is referring to the time when the Lord Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the gospel; and he commanded them to go without any bread, and without a bag, and without money. Why? Because the people they meet would support them and provide for them. All of this is to say that preachers — those who have been called by God and set apart by him to declare the unsearchable riches of Christ — should receive the support and sustenance they need in order to conduct their ministry. They have the right to receive financial support for their ministry.
Verses 15 to 23
So, in verses 1 to 14, Paul has been building a case to demonstrate that he has the right as an apostle to expect financial support for his ministry. And now, having established that right, he goes on in verses 15 to 23 to make clear that he himself did not insist on that right, but he was willing to give up that right for the sake of the gospel.
So, look at verse 15. Paul says:
But I have not used any of these rights.
He then adds quickly — so there’s no misunderstanding — that he’s not looking for anything from the Corinthians now. You know: he’s not dropping any hints by writing these things. And he goes on to make clear that he’s proud of the fact that he preaches without charge. Look at the end of verse 15:
I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.
This is something he can boast about; and this is something he takes pride in.
But what is it he’s boasting about? Well, he’s not boasting about becoming a preacher. You see, the only reason he might boast about becoming a preacher is if he voluntarily chose to become a preacher. You know, he could have been a lawyer or a business man; but, instead of choosing a lucrative career, he chose instead to become a preacher. Now, if that’s what happened, and if he chose to become a preacher in that way, then he could boast about the way he had given up a lucrative career to become a preacher. If he voluntarily gave up one career to become a preacher, he could boast about it.
But he didn’t choose to become a preacher; he didn’t volunteer for this kind of work. Instead, God chose him and called him to this work. The Lord summoned him and commanded him to be a preacher. And that means he’s only a servant, discharging the trust committed to him, as he says in verse 17, which means he’s only a servant, doing his duty. And a servant doing his duty and doing what he was commanded to do by his master, has no reason to boast; he’s only doing what he was commanded to do; he’s only doing what he was compelled to do by his master.
So, Paul didn’t boast about being a preacher. So, what was his boast? Or what was his reward? Well, it’s there in verse 18:
that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.
This was his boast; this was his reward: that he never charged anyone for preaching the gospel. He could boast that he always preached the gospel free of charge.
And the reason he was prepared to forfeit his rights in this matter and to preach for free was in order to win as many people as possible to faith in Jesus Christ. That’s his point in verse 19: Though he was free and had the right to expect support for his work, he was prepared to make himself a slave and work for free in order to win as many as possible to the faith.
You see, Paul was aware that it can be very off-putting to an unbeliever when a preacher starts asking for money. Look back to verse 12. He doesn’t want to hinder the gospel of Christ by insisting on his right for financial support. He knows it can be off-putting; and he refused to do anything which put people off from listening to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, he was willing to give up anything which might become a barrier to preaching the gospel. And so, in verses 20 to 23 he mentions three groups of people he wanted to win over to a proper view of the gospel. First, there were the Jews. They were the ones who were under the law, which means they tried to live according to all the rules and regulations we read in the Old Testament about what to eat and what not to eat. Then there are those who do not have the law; Paul means the Gentiles who had not received God’s Old Testament law and didn’t have the same scruples about what to eat. And then he refers to the weak. He first mentioned them in chapter 9: they’re the believers who could so easily stumble and fall away from Christ. So Paul refers to these three groups to say that he was willing to become like them and to fit in with their customs and practices in order to win them over to a proper view of the gospel so that they might believe in the Saviour and be firmly established in the faith. And, of course, if you read through the book of Acts, you’ll see how Paul was prepared to mix and mingle with all sorts of people in order to get the chance to tell them about Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. He always remained faithful to the Lord and abided by the law of Christ, which he mentions in verse 21, which is probably a reference to the moral law. So, while he was prepared to fit in with others, he never went so far as to sin against the Lord. But when he had to, he abided by the customs and practices of the Jews. And when he had to, he abided by the customs and practices of the Gentiles. When he has to, he conformed to the scruples of the weak. He was prepared to get alongside everyone and anyone for the sake of the gospel; and he never insisted on his own way and he never insisted on his own rights and he was prepared to put up with anything so that by all possible means he might save some.
It’s worth bearing in mind that one some occasions, Paul did insist on his rights. I’ll give you one example from the book of Acts: in chapter 22 we read how he was arrested in Jerusalem and was about to be flogged by the soldiers when he asked whether it was legal for them to flog him — a Roman citizen — without trial. He was insisting on his rights as a Roman citizen to be treated fairly. So, on some occasions, he was prepared to insist on his rights. But when it came to preaching the gospel, Paul was prepared to forfeit his rights if it might help his ministry.
Paul the apostle was prepared to give up his rights to advance the gospel. And he referred to his own example in order to appeal to the believers in Corinth to give up their rights to eat food sacrificed to idols in order to keep their fellow believers from falling. And so, once again we learn that the Christian life is not about me and my rights. Out in the world, people are always demanding their rights: I have a right to this. I have a right to that. I know my rights and you can’t stop me. Out in the world, people are always demanding their rights. And out in the world, it’s all about me: my rights and my life and what I want and what I expect. But from what Paul says here to the believers in Corinth, we’re reminded that the Christian life is not about me and my rights. The Christian life is about loving and serving one another, putting others first, and self last of all. The Christian life is not about getting what I want or what I’m entitled to, and having everything the way I prefer it to be, but it’s about bearing with one another in order to build one another up in the faith. The believers in Corinth thought they could eat whatever they wanted and no one had the right to stop them. But Paul appealed to them to think of their fellow believers and to do nothing that would cause anyone to stumble and fall away from Christ. And so, instead of thinking about ourselves, we’re to think about one another and how we can build one another in the faith so that our faith in Christ is strengthened and not weakened. Instead of thinking about ourselves, we’re to think about one another and how we can encourage each other to remain faithful to the Saviour, instead of wandering away from him.
Who knows? Perhaps there’s someone who comes here Sunday by Sunday and they’re looking for some encouragement, something to help them to persevere as a believer and to keep going as a Christian. Perhaps they never mention it, but they’re looking for help and encouragement and comfort and consolation. So what are we to do? Well, we’re to do everything within our power to encourage one another. In Corinth, some of the members didn’t realise it, but there were Christians in the fellowship who were being tempted to stumble and fall away from Christ. And Paul had to remind his readers that this was the case and they mustn’t do anything to cause their brothers and sisters to stumble. Well, who knows? There may be some among us who are tempted in one way or another to stumble and fall away from Christ. And so, we need to take care that we encourage one another so that every believer is built up in the faith so that they will not fall.
And in doing so, we’re not only following the example of Paul who put others first and who put self last of all, but we’re following the example of our Saviour, who loved us and who was prepared to give up even his own life for our sake. Instead of thinking about himself, he laid down his life for our salvation. And so, we too are to put self on a cross and live our lives for the glory of God and for the good of one another.