1 Corinthians chapter nine represents the midpoint of a three-part Biblical discussion on the subject of Christian liberty. Having already encouraged the members of the Corinthian church to voluntarily lay aside their rights for the benefit of others when necessary, Paul the Apostle will go on to demonstrate his commitment to leadership by example within this area by detailing the extent to which he was willing to follow his own advice.
Paul probably anticipated that some members of the Christian community at Corinth would reject the idea that it might be appropriate to curtail one’s liberty in deference to others. For those who held to that position, Paul will go on to demonstrate that even an Apostle of Christ was under the obligation to put this principle into action. To effectively convey this message, Paul turned to a series of rhetorical questions here in the opening verse of 1 Corinthians chapter nine.
A rhetorical question is a figure of speech that asks a question for emphasis or effect. Unlike most questions, a rhetorical question is not designed to elicit information for the answer to a rhetorical question is clearly implied. This is a tool that the Apostle has already used to great effect within this letter to the Corinthians and he will employ it once again in 1 Corinthians chapter nine…
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1 ESV).
Each of these questions serves to direct the reader to take a position. If the Corinthians chose to agree with Paul on these subjects, they would naturally arrive at the correct conclusion regarding the subject of one’s liberty in Christ. But even if some were inclined to respond by saying “no” to one or more of these questions, we’ll soon find that Paul was well prepared to address that answer as well.
Unfortunately, it seems that Paul’s motive in voluntarily laying aside his rights was something that was misunderstood (and misinterpreted) by a number of those who attended the church at Corinth. Yet even though Paul’s actions may have been misread by some within the congregation at Corinth, he was still willing to limit his freedoms for the benefit of others- even at the risk of being misrepresented by those he was trying to serve. In doing so, Paul provides us with a good example for us to follow as well.
“Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1).
The question, “Am I not an apostle?” clearly anticipates a positive response, especially considering the way in which the Apostle Paul opened this letter to the Corinthians: “From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (1 Corinthians 1:1 NET). Of course, the fact that Paul felt it necessary to reiterate his calling as an apostle by way of this rhetorical question tells us a lot about the attitude of the recipients of this letter.
When used in a Biblical context, an “apostle” is someone who has been entrusted with the authority to act as a representative, emissary, or spokesperson for God. In the original language that was used to author the New Testament, the word “apostle” carries the idea of an ambassador who carries a message on behalf of someone else. While this term originally served as a generic reference to a messenger, it eventually began to be associated with a specific office within the church.
Now in one regard, we can say that every follower of Jesus is an “apostle” in the sense that every Christian is (or should be) a representative or ambassador of Christ. However, it’s crucial to understand that God gave the New Testament apostles some important qualifications that set them apart from others who represent Jesus.
For example, the passage quoted above implies that a person who holds the title of “apostle” must be someone who personally saw Jesus during the New Testament period. Then there is 2 Corinthians 12:12 which says, “When I was there (in Corinth), I certainly gave you every proof that I was truly an apostle, sent to you by God himself, for I patiently did many wonders and signs and mighty works among you” (TLB). This description allows us to further identify an apostle as a person that God has also used to perform miraculous works (also see Acts 19:11).
So while it’s true that every Christian is an apostle in a limited sense, it’s also true that no one today can speak with the same authority as those first century apostles whom God selected to communicate His message within the New Testament Scriptures. Unfortunately, there were some within the Corinthian church who disputed Paul’s apostolic authority- and as we’ll see, Paul will go on to vigorously defend himself against such charges.
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1 NET).
This passage features a short question that merits closer attention: “Am I not free?” With this question in mind, we might ask, “what is ‘freedom'”?
While many things may come to mind regarding the concept of freedom, its possible to arrive at a rather simple definition: freedom represents the ability to decide between alternatives and the liberty to act on such decisions. Of course, someone may prefer to define freedom as the ability to choose to do whatever he or she may wish to do. While this may sound like a suitable definition, there are some issues with this idea when we stop to consider it more closely.
You see, “freedom” cannot refer to the unlimited ability to do whatever we wish, however we wish, whenever we wish to do it. Some commentators illustrate this reality in a humorous manner by asking the following question: “Can you flap your arms and fly to Jupiter?” While this may represent a laughable example, it does serve to illustrate the point. While someone may desire to flap his or her arms and fly to Jupiter, he or she is not free to do so.
To have “freedom” in this context simply means that we possess the ability to make unforced decisions between alternatives as well as the liberty to act upon them. One source clarifies this idea in a spiritual sense by saying, “This is the use of ‘free’ in the sense of spiritual freedom in Christ (cf. 1Co_9:19; 1Co_10:29), not Roman freedom (i.e., political rights). In Christ the believer, now indwelt by the Spirit, now informed by the gospel, has the freedom ‘not to’!” (1)
The Apostle Peter provides us with some additional counsel as he discusses the spiritual limitations of our freedom in 1 Peter 2:16…
“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil…” (NIV).
But perhaps the best-known Biblical statement on the subject of true freedom can be found in Jesus’ message from the Gospel of John…
“…’If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free… Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed'” (John 8:31-36).
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, 1 Corinthians 9 [9:1] Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_09.html
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1 HCSB).
We now come to the third of the Apostle Paul’s four rhetorical questions here in 1 Corinthians 9:1: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”
Paul the Apostle may represent the best example of the effect that a true encounter with Jesus can have upon someone. You see, the Biblical book of Acts identifies Paul (then known as Saul) as a person who once made it his business to go from house to house to identify Christians and put them in prison for their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.
To this end, Saul asked for letters of recommendation which he planned to deliver to the synagogues in the town of Damascus in order to incarcerate Christians there (Acts 9:1-2). But while he was on the way, Saul had an encounter that transformed his life and continues to impact untold numbers of people to this day…
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do'” (Acts 9:3-6 NIV).
The book of Acts also goes on to document the Lord’s commission of Paul as an Apostle: “…he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” ([Acts 9:15], see also Acts 26:12-18).
So for those within the Corinthian church who disputed Paul’s claim to apostolic authority, Paul countered by offering the reality of his physical, visible encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. But this was not an isolated meeting, for as one scholar reminds us, Paul not only encountered Jesus personally on the road to Damascus, but several times during his ministry Jesus, or an angel as Jesus’ representative, appeared to him to encourage him (cf. Act_18:9-11; Act_22:17-21), in Act_27:23). (1)
As another source observes regarding Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road, “This was so important in the life and ministry of Paul that Luke who records the story of his conversion mentions it three times, twice in Paul’s own words (Act_9:3-6; Act_22:5-11; Act_26:12-20). In the list of ‘appearances of Our Lord, Paul gives this humble but significant testimony: ‘and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also’ (1Co_15:8).” (2)
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, 1 Corinthians 9 [9:1] Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_09.html
(2) T. R. Applebury, Studies in First Corinthians, College Press Bible Study Textbook Series © Copyright 1977 College Press. All Rights Reserved.
“Don’t you agree that I’m a free man? Don’t you agree that I’m an apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord? Aren’t you the result of my work for the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1 GW).
It seems that everyone has encountered a person who wasn’t what he or she claimed to be. Perhaps it was someone who claimed to possess knowledge, skill, or expertise in a particular area but was later found to be less than competent- or in some cases, blatantly dishonest. Regardless of the circumstances involved, such examples each have something in common: these individuals failed the test when provided with an opportunity to verify their claims.
Unlike those who were less than what they claimed to be, the Apostle Paul instead sought to validate his ministry by holding a mirror to the Corinthians themselves: “…aren’t you yourselves the result of my work for the Lord?” (CJB). You see, it would not be unreasonable to ask for evidence to validate Paul’s calling if he was truly called to be an Apostle. In this instance, the community of believers at Corinth provided such evidence by virtue of their very existence.
But Paul didn’t stop there…
“If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:2).
Much like the modern-day seal that often exists on an official document, an ancient seal was also utilized for authentication purposes in Paul’s day. It generally consisted of a small amount of softened wax that was placed over the enclosure of a document or letter. The soft wax was then imprinted with a signet ring or other identifying mark to validate its contents. This simple act offered a number of benefits…
- It served to establish a document’s origin.
- It helped to verify a document’s authenticity.
- It could be used to validate an agreement, transfer of ownership, or other type of legal arrangement.
Thus, the image of an ancient seal became such an important metaphor that Jesus Himself made use of it in John 6:27 to establish the certainty of God’s provision and protection for those who belonged to Him.
In a similar manner, one source paraphrases Paul’s argument within this verse by saying, “Your conversion by my preaching, accompanied with miracles (‘the signs of an apostle,’ Rom_15:18, Rom_15:19; 2Co_12:12), and your gifts conferred by me (1Co_1:7), vouch for the reality of my apostleship, just as a seal set to a document attests its genuineness (Joh_3:33; Rom_4:11).” (1)
(1) A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown [v. 2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/jamieson/jfb.xi.vii.x.html
“My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?” (1 Corinthians 9:3-6).
There were any number of reasons to explain why some among the church at Corinth might have challenged Paul’s apostolic authority. For instance, the Corinthians may have mistakenly believed that Paul preached the gospel as a way of making money. Some may have considered Paul to be less than an apostle since he had not been a member of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. Others may have felt that Paul’s message differed in some way from the “real” gospel.
Whatever the reason, Paul sought to address such concerns by establishing the equivalent of a legal defense here within this chapter. In fact, the word translated “defense” in 1 Corinthians 9:3 carries the idea of a person who seeks to clear his or her name in the face of an accusation. (1) So in a manner reminiscent of an attorney, Paul effectively “cross-examined” those who disputed his claim to be an apostle within these verses.
In presenting his case to the Corinthians, Paul began by laying the foundation for his argument: “Don’t I have the right to be given food and drink for my work?” (GNB). You see, even the most unspiritual human being recognizes that a person who works should be compensated for his or her effort. If even those outside the church recognize this principle, how much more should the members of the Corinthian church have followed Jesus’ own teaching in this respect: “…the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7 ESV).
He next asked, “Don’t we have the right to be accompanied by a Christian wife like the other apostles, the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas?” (HCSB). Although Paul recognized the benefits associated with a single lifestyle (as he discussed earlier within 1 Corinthians chapter seven), he clearly recognized the benefits associated with marriage as well- and even those who were undisputed Apostles held the right to be accompanied by their wives in their ministerial travels if they desired.
The point is that Paul had the liberty to partake in these things just like any of the other apostles. So why had he declined such rights? Well, Paul will go on to provide us with the answer but not before he offers a few additional points in his defense.
(1) G627 apologia From the same as G626; a plea (apology): – answer (for self), clearing of self, defence. Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries
“This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 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? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?” (1 Corinthians 9:3-6 NIV).
The concept of a “right” has served as an important motivator for many groups and movements throughout the years. For example, some have marched for their rights, some have fought for their rights, and many have even died for their rights. But what do we mean when we say that a person or group possesses “the right” to engage in an action or activity?
As mentioned earlier, the idea of a “right” refers to an act that conforms to justice, law, or morality. For example, whenever someone claims a right to pursue a course of action or to engage in certain behaviors, he or she means that the act or behavior in question is permissible because it is just, lawful, or moral.
In the course of defending his apostolic authority, Paul appealed to the example of other apostolic leaders who took advantage of the right to be accompanied by their spouses as part of their ministerial work. Yet conspicuously absent from that group were two important New Testament era leaders- Barnabas and Paul himself.
According to Acts 9:26-27, Barnabas was the person who originally introduced Paul to the leadership of the early church. Barnabas also worked together with Paul in ministering to the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-26) and traveled together with him during Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-2). Even though Paul and Barnabas eventually had a disagreement over the direction of their ministry that led them to part company (see Acts 15:36-39), it appears that these two leaders still remained close.
In any event, this passage tells us that both men declined their right to financial compensation for their efforts, at least from the members of the Corinthian church. Apparently there were some within the Corinthian fellowship who saw this as an indication that Paul did not believe that he was entitled to such support when the reality was just the opposite.
But even though Paul had the right to such compensation, there were other reasons to explain why he elected to forego it- and Paul will continue to build his circumstantial case by way of some additional rhetorical questions next.
“Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk?” (1 Corinthians 9:7).
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul turned to some familiar, everyday analogies to illustrate a number of important truths here in 1 Corinthians 9:7. These analogies included the familiar images of a soldier, a farmer, and a shepherd in support of his contention that those who labor to minister God’s Word are entitled to be adequately compensated for their efforts.
These illustrations are important because they serve to draw our attention to an unfortunate double-standard that may exist in regard to those who receive financial compensation for their ministerial responsibilities. You see, while professionals are often widely respected in their various fields, there are some who may be inclined to hold a lesser opinion of those who are members of the “professional clergy.”
Now to be fair, the Apostle Paul identified one reason to explain why some may tend to think less-highly of paid ministers when he referenced certain “…hucksters—and there are many of them—whose idea in getting out the Gospel is to make a good living out of it” in his subsequent letter to the Corinthians. (1) And of course, we cannot deny the occasional reports that surface concerning those ministers who are said to enjoy lavish and extravagant lifestyles at the expense of the congregations they serve.
Yet even if there are some ministers who are motivated by a hidden pursuit of financial and material gain, their isolated examples do not absolve us of the responsibility to support those sincere, hardworking, and dedicated Pastoral leaders who are called by God to serve the needs of His people.
If we are willing to acknowledge the fact that those who labor in secular vocations are entitled to be adequately compensated for their work, why then would we seek to deny the same for those members of the clergy who undertake the serious responsibility of leading God’s people? While it is true that ministers should not live above the level of their congregations, this should not prevent a minister from being appropriately compensated by those who are served whenever it is possible to do so.
One Pastoral author puts it this way: “After all, who goes to war and pays for his own equipment? …Those who enlist in the navy don’t have to provide their own ships. Those who join the air force don’t have to bring their own planes. No, if you serve in the army or navy, your needs are covered.” (2)
(1) See 2 Corinthians 2:17 (TLB).
(2) Courson, J. (2003). Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (p. 1050). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
“Do I say this merely on human authority? 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.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?
Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest” (1 Corinthians 9:8-10 NIV).
After utilizing the images of a soldier, a farmer, and a shepherd to support his contention that ministers are entitled to be adequately compensated for their work, the Apostle Paul next appealed to a Biblical principle: “…the law of Moses says, ‘You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain'” (NLT). This image of an ox treading out grain was well-known to both Old and New Testament audiences but may not be so familiar to those who are accustomed to more modern forms of agricultural production.
For example, when a grain harvest was completed in the Old Testament era it was generally taken to a “threshing floor.” This usually consisted of a large, flat area with exposure to the prevailing winds. The grain stalks were then placed on the floor to a depth of several inches while oxen repeatedly walked over them until their hooves separated the valuable grain kernels from the surrounding husks.
Once the grain was loosened from the rest of the stalk in this manner, it was then “winnowed.” Winnowing referred to the act of tossing a pile of grain into the air so the breeze could take away the remaining straw and chaff while the heavier grain fell to the ground at the winnower’s feet. Following this, the grain was sifted to remove any remaining foreign matter and then stored for later use.
The Law of Moses prohibited farmers from preventing the animals who labored in this process from eating some of the grain that was produced through their efforts. This led Paul to follow through with a thought-provoking question: “Do you think Moses’ primary concern was the care of farm animals?” (MSG).
This question clearly anticipated a negative response, for the standard established within this Old Testament Law went beyond the equitable treatment of animals and established a principle that could be used to support Paul’s contention that ministers possessed the right to support from those they served.
We’ll consider some additional aspects related to the application of such Biblical principles next.
“For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop” (1 Corinthians 9:9-10 HCSB).
The analogy found here within 1 Corinthians 9:9-10 provides us with an opportunity to consider how we might employ similar Biblical principles in our daily lives today.
In thinking about the application of these verses, we should recognize that a general Biblical principle exists behind the Old Testament Scripture referenced within this passage, a principle that extends beyond the specific type of relationship mentioned here. The Apostle Paul alerts us to this reality in asking, “Is God’s concern here limited to oxen, or does He speak here ultimately for our benefit?” (Voice).
In this instance, the application is relatively straightforward: “God requires that ministers should be paid for their work just as He requires beasts of burden to be compensated for theirs.” (1) However, there are a few cautions that we would do well to observe whenever we seek to apply the Scriptures in this manner.
For instance, we should remember that Paul was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in utilizing this Old Testament analogy. In light of this, one commentator reminds us that it is best to seek the intent of the Biblical author as the determinant meaning of a passage or verse while allowing for many applications that are related to the original intent. (2)
We should also remember the importance of context in applying the Scriptures to everyday life. The word “context” is defined as “the part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” (3) In other words, the surrounding chapters and verses of the Scriptures help determine the meaning of each individual passage- and without a good contextual basis for interpreting the Scriptures, it’s possible to make the Bible say some very unbiblical things.
These parameters can help us make good decisions as we seek to apply God’s Word in the choices and decisions we make. As we examine the Laws, admonitions, teachings, and life examples found within God’s Word, we can develop general principles that can help us honor God as we encounter the variables of everyday life, even in those areas where the original set of Biblical circumstances no longer exist.
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (1 Co 9:3–18). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
(2) Dr. Bob Utley, Free Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 9 [9:10] Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_09.html
(3) “Context” American Heritage Dictionary Of The English Language 3rd Edition © 1992 Houghton Mifflin Company
“If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:11-12).
Paul the Apostle spent a large portion of 1 Corinthians chapter eight exhorting the Corinthians to voluntarily refrain from exercising their rights if it would serve to benefit others. Here now in 1 Corinthians chapter nine, Paul will go on to offer himself as an object example of that message.
As a man who was used by God to establish the church at Corinth, Paul might have prevailed upon the members of the congregation to provide him with financial and material support. But if he had chosen that course of action, others might have accused Paul of being little more than a spiritual charlatan who was only seeking to gather followers for the purpose of enriching himself.
So by declining his right to receive support from the Corinthian church, Paul effectively prevented others from assigning an ulterior motive to his efforts. This would serve to benefit the members of the Corinthian church by undercutting those who might seek to damage their faith with the claim that Paul was “only in it for the money.”
Unfortunately, there was another aspect to consider: “If others are sharing in this right to be supported by you, don’t we have a greater claim to it?” (CJB). In light of this statement, it appears that the Corinthians had decided to support other teachers while leaving Paul (as the man that God used to found the church) to fend for himself.
As Paul’s example shows us, others may sometimes enjoy the benefits that accompany a particular ministry yet fail to participate in supporting it. A more contemporary example might be found in a widely-used free Bible study application that is reportedly supported by less than one percent of those who download it.
For those who serve within various ministries, Paul’s experience reminds us others may sometimes fail to acknowledge or support such efforts. This reality often represents the price one must pay to fulfill God’s calling. For those who profit from the work of a particular ministry, this passage should prompt us to consider our support (or lack of it) for those who labor on our behalf.
“If you support others who preach to you, shouldn’t we have an even greater right to be supported? But we have never used this right. We would rather put up with anything than be an obstacle to the Good News about Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12 NLT).
While Paul the Apostle could have pressed the members of the Corinthian church to provide financial or material support, he chose not to do so for the following reason: “…we endure everything so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ” (NET).
While some may be familiar with the term “gospel” as it relates to a particular style of music, others may be less familiar with this word in the sense that Paul uses it here. You see, the word “gospel” as used within the passage quoted above means “good news.” It refers to the fact that human beings can escape the permanent death sentence that results from our actions and enter a relationship with God by accepting Jesus’ death as the payment for the things we have done wrong.
Now admittedly, there are many who fail to see a need for such a sacrifice. In fact, it may be fair to say that most people probably consider themselves to be good people who really haven’t done anything wrong or offensive to God. The problem is that God’s standard for humanity is perfection; He has every right to require that we adhere to this standard for that is how He originally created human beings (see Genesis 1:31).
This brings us to an uncomfortable reality. As the all-knowing Creator, God has seen every secret thought, every hidden motive, every shameful thing, and every wrong or inappropriate act (no matter how small) we have ever committed- and as we’re told in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, “…God will judge us for everything we do, including every hidden thing, good or bad” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
Fortunately, God has provided a solution in the substitutionary death of Christ. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross bridges the gap between God’s perfection and our imperfection and rescues humanity from the sentence of death, punishment, and an eternity of separation from God.
In accepting the sentence that humanity deserved, Jesus satisfies this death penalty requirement and thereby enables us to establish a relationship with our Creator. As we’re told in the New Testament book of 1 Peter…
“He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
“If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more? However, we have not made use of this right; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12 HCSB).
The “gospel of Christ” referenced within this passage serves to remind us that Christianity is not based on what we can do for God but on what God has done for us through Christ. In speaking of Jesus for instance, Acts 4:12 tells us, “There is salvation in no one else. Under all heaven there is no other name for men to call upon to save them” (TLB).
Unfortunately, there are a great number of counterfeit “gospels” found outside the Scriptures, both religious and non-religious in nature. For example, there are spiritually-oriented gospels that tell us that we can get right with God by “living a good life” or by following certain rules that will permit us to enter heaven when we pass from this life. Others teach that we must spend great amounts of time in meditation, or participate in certain ceremonies, or do various good deeds to assure ourselves of salvation.
Then there are gospels that purport to be good news but are entirely non-spiritual. For instance, there are irreligious “gospels” that include the “gospel” of obtaining as many material possessions as possible or the “gospel” of popularity -being seen with the right people and so forth. Others represent life philosophies that are so ubiquitous that they have almost become clichés: “If it feels good, do it,” “You only live once,” and “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,” just to name a few.
Each of these choices may seem to represent “good news” (at least for a while) but they all fall prey to a critical error- they are each about something rather than Someone. You see, the real issue for a person who trades the genuine gospel for a substitute is that he or she always trades a Person for a thing.
The real gospel message is at the center of Christianity and Christianity is about Christ. It’s not about an organization, or an idea, or a set of rules and principles that will supposedly ensure success in life- it’s about a relationship with a Person. Whenever someone attempts to substitute a real relationship with Christ for an idea, a belief system, or a set of principles, he or she will invariably end with a counterfeit gospel, no matter how good it may initially sound.
“Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).
The Old Testament book of Numbers details the responsibilities that were entrusted to the members of the Israelite tribe of Levi. The “Levites” were descendants of Levi (a member of one of the original tribes of Israel) who served as assistants to the priests. For instance, the Levites were primarily responsible for the care and maintenance of the Old Testament tabernacle and later, the Temple in Jerusalem. The Levites were also tasked with a number of other responsibilities including teaching and leading others in worship.
To support the Levites in these ministries, each member of the tribe of Levi was to receive a portion of the offerings that were given to God. (see Numbers 18:21-24). Unfortunately, the Old Testament book of Nehemiah later goes on to report that the Levites had to abandon their responsibilities and fend for themselves at one point because the portion of the offerings they needed to live on had not been provided to them (see Nehemiah 13:10).
In any event, this is the word picture the Paul the Apostle used to illustrate the legitimacy of support for those who ministered the Word of God. But Paul went one step further in this regard by appealing to a directive from Jesus Himself: “In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it” (NLT).
Many commentators believe that Paul is referencing Jesus’ statement from Matthew 10:10 and/or Luke 10:7 where He is quoted as saying, “…the laborer is worthy of his wages.” However, it is also possible that Paul is referring to a command from Jesus that does not appear within any of the Gospel accounts. Another example can be found in Acts 20:35 where Paul is quoted as saying, “…remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive”, a statement from Jesus that is not found within any of the Gospels.
So while Paul was willing to engage in outside employment in order to support the work that God had called him to do, he also made certain to communicate the complete legitimacy of vocational ministry to the Corinthian church as well as their responsibility to support such ministry.
“Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple eat food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar receive a part of the offerings? In the same way the Lord commanded those who proclaim the gospel to receive their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14 NET).
Although Paul is primarily known as a teacher and evangelist, Acts 18:1-3 tells us that he was a tentmaker by trade. During his travels, Paul employed these professional skills to provide for his material needs while pursuing God’s calling to teach and evangelize. In this respect, Paul was a tentmaker by vocation but a minister of God’s Word by avocation.
However, we also should note that Paul established the absolute validity of vocational ministry here within 1 Corinthians chapter nine. In addition, Philippians 4:15-18 indicates that Paul was supported entirely through his ministerial efforts at various times.
We should also understand that Paul did not view himself as a tentmaker who also taught and preached- Paul’s life work was found in his calling to an apostolic ministry as we’ll see later in verse sixteen. He resorted to outside employment simply as a means of carrying out that ministry in a more effective manner.
One commentator makes a number of important points in this regard…
“Lack of adequate support for the ministry has often hindered the progress of the gospel of Christ. Those who argue that Paul recommended “tentmaking” as a proper way to support the ministry fail to see the underlying reason for his attitude toward receiving support from the Corinthians.
No minister, Paul is particular, can do his best in presenting the gospel if he has to give too much time to the task of making a living, or, as it often happens, to living on what he makes. On the other hand, no man should enter the ministry as a means of gaining a livelihood. When churches awake to their opportunities and privileges, the minister and the missionary will be more adequately supported” (1)
So while we are responsible to honor God in whatever tasks we undertake, there are a few questions that can help us differentiate between a calling and profession…
- What work would I do even if I wasn’t paid for it?
- What ministry would I pursue even if no one was available to support it?
- Would I be willing to follow Paul’s example and engage in outside work to support a ministry?
- Am I willing to continue doing what I am doing only if someone is willing to pay me for it?
The first three questions generally serve to identify a calling while the last is generally associated with a profession.
(1) T. R. Applebury, Studies in First Corinthians, College Press Bible Study Textbook Series [pg. 164] © Copyright 1977 College Press. All Rights Reserved. https://archive.org/stream/BibleStudyTextbookSeries1And2Corinthians/121And2Corinthians-Applebury_djvu.txt
“But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void” (1 Corinthians 9:15).
In light of Paul’s discussion of his unclaimed rights as an Apostle, some among his audience may have been led to speculate that he had a hidden agenda- namely, a thinly veiled request that was designed to subtly coerce the Corinthians into providing support for him. So to help eliminate any such conjecture, Paul was careful to clearly state his intent: “…I have never used any of these rights. And I am not writing this to suggest that I want to start now” (NLT).
Paul’s decision to relinquish these apostolic rights was rooted in his belief that it would be better to forego them if doing so would serve to benefit others. In this instance, Paul made the decision to pursue outside employment in order to maintain the ability to communicate the Word of God to others without cost.
This was clearly an important subject for Paul. In fact, Paul was so committed to this principle that (in his words), “…I would rather die than lose my right to boast about preaching without charge” (NLT). This not only enabled Paul to avoid becoming a financial burden to the members of the Corinthian church but also served to afford him with a great degree of personal satisfaction as well.
So while Paul accepted the complete legitimacy of vocational ministry as illustrated within the previous verse (“Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel”), he held that truth in tension with another principle: “If the pursuit of my right to financial and material support will compromise my ability to accurately represent Christ and engage in the work He has called me to do, then I will choose to decline such support and pay my own way.”
Finally, Paul’s example serves to contrast those churches, individuals, ministries, or religious organizations that choose to participate in fundraising strategies that may have more in common with questionable marketing techniques than with genuine Biblical stewardship.
While it is good and appropriate for ministries to make their financial needs known in a respectful and God-honoring manner, there should be no place for coercion, manipulation, or compulsion in the pursuit of financial support. Instead, we would do well to observe a far better principle in regard to such ministerial efforts: “Where God guides, God provides.”
“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” (1 Corinthians 9:15 NLT).
Paul the Apostle’s reference to boasting in this passage may seem unusual to those who are familiar with the Scriptural admonitions against pride. However, it might be wise to exercise caution before we attempt to read a meaning into this passage that may not be supported by the text.
You see, the word translated “boast” in the passage quoted about refers to “that of which one glories or can glory, (and/or a) matter or ground of glorying” (1) Thus, this word represents a term that can take on different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. So while the act of boasting may often be identified with someone who possesses an inflated self-opinion, it can also be associated with the legitimate feeling of satisfaction that occurs whenever someone takes justifiable pride in a job well done.
To help illustrate this idea, let’s take the example of two friends. Let’s say that one friend is considering an ill-advised course of action and asks the other for advice. After the second person counsels his or her friend against making such a choice, the first person decides to disregard the second person’s recommendation and move forward anyway.
If the action in question subsequently fails, the second person can take a measure of personal satisfaction in the fact that he or she was right. Regardless of whether the second person in our illustration is a person of arrogance or humility, he or she can make the same boast in saying, “I told you so.” The difference between them is largely one of attitude.
You see, a pretentious person might seek to utilize this situation as a platform to gloat or show off. On the other hand, a person of humility can take quiet satisfaction in the confirmed wisdom of his or her counsel with the hope that it will establish a foundation where any future advice might be taken more seriously.
Much like the second person in our illustration, Paul’s decision to decline his right to support from the Corinthian church demonstrated his God-honoring attitude and served to undercut those who may have assumed that he was simply gathering followers in order to enrich himself. Thus, this decision was something that provided Paul with the moral authority that enabled him boast in an appropriate manner.
(1) G2745 kauchema Thayer’s Greek Definitions
“For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship.
What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16-18).
Much like the Old Testament examples of men like Moses, Jonah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Paul the Apostle felt similarly compelled to deliver God’s message. For Paul, the responsibility to teach and preach was an obligation from which he could not escape. Thus while Paul could take satisfaction in the opportunity to communicate the Word of God without charge, he could not boast of his calling to do so- that was a responsibility that was entrusted to him by God.
One commentary explains this difference in the following manner…
“By this, the apostle is not implying that he was an unwilling servant of the Lord (cf. Rom 1:5; 11:13; 15:15–16; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:15–16; Eph 3:8). He is simply drawing a distinction between what was optional for him, and what was obligatory upon him. Paul was given a stewardship to preach. That was enough (cf. 4:1–2; Lk 17:10). A steward received no pay. He was merely a slave doing his assigned task faithfully.” (1)
In light of this, it may be a good time to revisit a parable from Jesus that was referenced earlier within this study, one that provides us with an illustration that serves to explain Paul’s attitude in this regard…
“When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, he doesn’t just sit down and eat, but first prepares his master’s meal and serves him his supper before he eats his own. And he is not even thanked, for he is merely doing what he is supposed to do. Just so, if you merely obey me, you should not consider yourselves worthy of praise. For you have simply done your duty!” (Luke 17:7-10 TLB).
So Paul did not feel himself worthy of any special commendation simply because he sought to fulfill God’s call upon his life. This attitude of practical humility helps provide us with a good example to follow as we seek to use our God-given talents, skills, and abilities in fulfilling God’s individual calling upon on own lives as well.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2305). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because an obligation is placed on me. And woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward, but if unwillingly, I am entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? To preach the gospel and offer it free of charge and not make full use of my authority in the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16-18 HCSB).
Like any good communicator, Paul the Apostle took the opportunity to reinforce a concept that he had already established within his letter to the Corinthians. In this instance, the passage quoted above reiterates something that Paul said earlier in 1 Corinthians chapter four: “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).
In speaking of this stewardship, Paul employed the imagery of a person who had been entrusted with a management responsibility. One source clarifies this responsibility with the following observation…
“This was a person given oversight of a wealthy person’s assets as well as the management of the other servants of the house. Thus we see here that even though the position of the person in the Lord’s work is not to be exalted, he is nonetheless given responsibility to give effective direction within the church so as to bring about the effective progress of God’s household.” (1)
While it is a great honor to be given the responsibility of managing the things of God in whatever capacity we serve, we should also recognize that there may be times when it is not always easy, attractive, or safe to do so. In fact, our commitment to wait upon God in those less-than-desirable circumstances of life may serve to demonstrate the true quality of our stewardship and faithfulness to Him.
Another commentator illustrates this idea in a very honest and forthright manner…
“There is nothing wrong with a sense of duty. There is nothing wrong with this feeling that God has given you a job to do, and you have to do it whether you like it or not. Many of us are uneasy with that kind of a motivation, but Paul felt it. He said, ‘There is no choice for me in the matter of preaching. Whether I like it or not I have a commission to fulfill, and if I want my life to be worth anything at all, I had better do it.’ That drives him out to preach.” (2)
(1) Bob Caldwell, 1 Corinthians 4 Stewards of the Mysteries of God [v.1]
(2) Ray C. Stedman, Rights or Wrongs http://www.raystedman.org/new-testament/1-corinthians/rights-or-wrongs
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19).
A person who is antagonistic towards Christianity might seek to pull 1 Corinthians 9:19 from its context and challenge an unsuspecting Christian to follow the Apostle Paul’s example and immediately begin to carry out whatever orders he or she may wish to impose. After all, if Paul the Apostle made himself a slave to everyone, why should we do any less?
If this example may seem implausible, then a discussion with a believer who attends a secular educational institution where self-identified Christians are routinely challenged to defend the Scriptures in this manner may prove enlightening.
In any event, one commentary helps provide us with the proper context for these remarks…
“Not only did Paul not use his right to material support in preaching the gospel but he also deprived himself—curtailed his personal privileges and social and religious rights—in dealing with different kinds of people.” (1)
A more thorough response might be found within the New Testament book of Acts. When an administrative issue arose among the members of the early church, the Apostles responded in the following manner…
“…It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2-4 NIV).
In saying, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables“, the Apostles acknowledged God’s calling on their lives to minister the Word of God. This recognition then enabled these men to decide on how to best serve others. To use Paul’s terminology, they became “slaves to everyone” in ministering God’s Word but they allowed God’s calling upon their lives to determine the form that service took.
So Paul’s use of the phrase “slave” does not necessarily imply that we must attend to every request that is made of us. After all, Jesus was the greatest servant of all and even He refused to act on a request that was once made of Him (see Luke 12:13-15). Paul will go on to provide a few additional examples that will serve to clarify his intent over the next few verses.
(1) Barker, Kenneth L. Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Fully Revised): 1 Corinthians. 1786. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1985, 1995, 2002.
“While working with the Jews, I live like a Jew in order to win them; and even though I myself am not subject to the Law of Moses, I live as though I were when working with those who are, in order to win them” (1 Corinthians 9:20 GNB).
If the Apostle Paul was ministering in today’s social media age where daily activities are often documented and commented upon, some might be tempted to accuse him of inconsistency as he sought to relate to different people groups. Yet Paul’s approach actually represented a carefully planned strategy that was designed to establish common ground with those he encountered.
One example that serves to illustrate the length that Paul was willing to go in this regard can be found in the Biblical book of Acts…
“…They said to Paul, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews are now believers, and all of them are deeply committed to Moses’ Teachings. But they have been told that you teach all the Jews living among non-Jewish people to abandon Moses. They claim that you tell them not to circumcise their children or follow Jewish customs. What should we do about this? They will certainly hear that you’re in town.
So follow our advice. We have four men who have made a vow to God. Take these men, go through the purification ceremony with them, and pay the expenses to shave their heads. Then everyone will know that what they’ve been told about you isn’t true. Instead, they’ll see that you carefully follow Moses’ Teachings’
…The next day, Paul took the men and went through the purification ceremony with them. Then he went into the temple courtyard to announce the time when the purification would be over and the sacrifice would be offered for each of them” (Acts 21:20-24, 26 GW).
We should keep in mind that Paul’s agenda involved bringing others to salvation- and if that involved adhering to the social customs and cultural practices of the people he encountered, then he was willing to do so as long as it did not compromise the message of salvation through Christ alone. As one commentator observes…
“When he was among the Jews, Paul honored their Jewish scruples and lived as they did, ate what they ate, abstained from that which they considered unclean, observed their days and seasons. However, when any Jewish brother demanded that Paul keep the law of Moses as a necessity for salvation or membership in the kingdom of God (the church), he vehemently and immediately denounced it as apostasy…” (1)
(1) Studies In First Corinthians By Paul T. Butler [pg. 172] College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri Copyright © 1985 College Press Publishing Company
“To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:21-23 ESV).
Just as Paul the Apostle made certain accommodations in acknowledging those who followed the Law of Moses, he also made similar concessions to others who had no connection with the Old Testament Law. You see, non-Jewish people held an entirely different set of cultural beliefs and Paul was quick to recognize and adapt to those differences as he sought to communicate the message of salvation in Christ.
While the first-century Jewish community generally viewed the Gentiles to be “lawless” in the sense that they were without the Law of Moses, Paul instead sought to establish a foundation for mutual understanding within this group by adjusting his conduct accordingly. However, Paul did offer one important caveat in this regard: “When with the heathen I agree with them as much as I can, except of course that I must always do what is right as a Christian…” (1 Corinthians 9:21 TLB).
This served to reiterate the fact that Paul was not an authority unto himself. Whether he was careful to observe the various Mosaic laws while interacting with the members of the Jewish community or meeting with others who held no such sensitivities, Paul remained under God’s authority regardless of those he encountered in his missionary work.
Paul expressed this foundational responsibility by adhering to what he referred to as the law of Christ. While the exact meaning of “Christ’s Law” may be open to some degree of interpretation, we might understand this citation at its most basic level today as a reference to the teachings of Jesus as recorded within the New Testament. Paul used a similar term in the book of Romans when he referenced “…the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (that) has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
Thus, we can say that Paul provided us with an example to follow as he adhered to the foundational tenets of Jesus’ teachings while adapting the message of the gospel to the cultural sensitivities of the people he met.
“To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:21-23 NIV).
The basic message contained within this passage involves Paul the Apostle’s effort to meet others wherever they happened to be stationed in life.
Much like the coach or manager who strategizes to win by adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of the various athletes on his or her team, Paul did not employ the same approach with everyone. Instead, he made an effort to recognize the individual qualities of those he encountered and identify with them where possible. This helped enable Paul to develop relationships that provided him with an opportunity to direct others to Jesus.
Of course, this should not be taken to imply that Paul sought to compromise the teachings of the Scriptures in an effort to establish rapport with others. Nor does “I have become all things to all people…” mean that Paul diluted the Word of God in order to get along, fit in, or encourage others to think better of him. Instead, Paul’s agenda was clearly defined: “With all kinds of people I have become all kinds of things, so that in all kinds of circumstances I might save at least some of them” (CJB).
For Paul, this meant accommodating those who were highly religious, those who were non-religious, those who possessed sensitive consciences, and anyone else who came along. In such instances, Paul adapted himself to the customs, habits, and prejudices of such people in order that he might win them to the Lord. (1) One source illustrates this idea with a number of valuable precepts that can be useful in helping us follow this good example…
“Paul gives several important principles for ministry:
- (1) Find common ground with those you contact;
- (2) avoid a know-it-all attitude;
- (3) make others feel accepted;
- (4) be sensitive to their needs and concerns;
- and (5) look for opportunities to tell them about Christ.
These principles are just as valid for us as they were for Paul.” (2)
(1) Believer’s Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 9:1-27 William MacDonald, edited by Arthur Farstad. Thomas Nelson Publishers Nashville Copyright 1995, 1992, 1990, 1989 by William McDonald. All rights reserved.
(2) Life Application Study Bible 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24).
1 Corinthians 9:24 signals a shift in the Apostle Paul’s thought as he turns to a sporting analogy to support his commitment to “…voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people” (MSG).
You see, when Paul speaks of an athletic competition within this passage, he is probably alluding to an event (or a series of events) that would have been very familiar to the people of Corinth. These first-century athletic events consisted of the Pythian Games, the Isthmian Games, the Nemean Games, and the Olympic Games.
Much like our modern-day track and field competitions and other, similar events, the participants in these Games competed in various athletic contests such as boxing, wrestling, and foot-racing, among others. Modern-day NASCAR and Formula One auto racing enthusiasts might be interested to know that chariot racing was also a featured event during these Games while poetry reading and singing were available for spectators with an interest in cultural pursuits.
Each of these Games took place on an annual schedule that alternated every few years. While the Olympic Games are probably most familiar to 21st century readers, the Isthmian Games in particular would have provided an immediate association for the original readers of this epistle. This was due to the fact that the Isthmian Games were held every two years in the vicinity of Corinth in honor of Poseidon, the alleged god of the sea.
According to various sources, the appeal of the Isthmian Games in first-century Corinth was so apparently great that they were comparable in popularity to Football in Europe, Hockey in Canada, American Football in the United States, Rugby in Australia and New Zealand, and Cricket in India today. Thus, the Games made an excellent analogy that enabled Paul to illustrate the spiritual idea behind this passage: “You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win!” (CEV).
So how did this analogy support the attitude of self-denial that Paul has speaking about over the last two chapters of 1 Corinthians? Well, there were a number of material and immaterial qualities that helped enable an athlete to succeed while participating in these Games- and we will go on to examine those qualities (and why Paul associated them with a truly God-honoring life) over the last few verses of this chapter.
“Surely you know that many runners take part in a race, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24 GNB).
Becoming the best we can be in any area of life usually involves a number of sacrifices. For instance, a commitment to excellence in any endeavor often requires a strong dedication to things like practice, hard work, study, perseverance, and discipline in order to reach a personal goal or achievement.
Students, athletes, military personnel, and many others often recognize the importance of such things, for these individuals undoubtedly know that those who lack these qualities usually don’t perform very well when a period of testing arrives.
This same idea also holds true for our spiritual lives as well- and 1 Corinthians 9:24 provides us with an athletic illustration that helps convey this important spiritual truth: “Do you remember how, on a racing-track, every competitor runs, but only one wins the prize? Well, you ought to run with your minds fixed on winning the prize!” (Phillips).
In this regard, we might compare such spiritual disciplines as prayer, regular church attendance, and personal Bible study to the perseverance, dedication, and hard work exhibited by a winning athlete. A prayerful commitment to these (and other) spiritual disciplines will equip a man or woman of God for spiritual growth in much the same manner as an athlete who is diligently training for an important competition.
Finally, this commitment may also involve any number of daily decisions that can help to determine if we are truly running to win, jogging in place, or simply watching others take part in a spiritual race. One commentary provides us with some additional perspective regarding this illustration that serves to link this idea with the corresponding theme of self-denial that the Apostle Paul has been developing throughout this section of 1 Corinthians…
” During the long days of preparation, the athlete is free to do as he pleases. He still has personal liberty. But if his intent is to win the crown, he restricts himself in all things: his diet, his activities, his associations, and probably even his friendships. He ‘laid aside every weight.’ And all for temporal glory. But, counters the apostle, the crown for which we strive is incorruptible. If temperance and self-discipline are so important in the temporal realm, much more in the spiritual.” (1)
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (pp. 2306–2307). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:25).
Unlike the type of crown that might be worn by a monarch, the crown referenced here in 1 Corinthians 9:25 is one that would be awarded to a victorious athlete. Thus, the “crown” mentioned within this passage is synonymous with “…the wreath or garland which was given as a prize to victors in public games.” (1)
The garlands awarded to the winners of these first century athletic contests generally varied according to region. In some areas, these wreaths were made from evergreens such as pine. In other areas, olive, laurel, grape, and apple leaves (or even herbs such as parsley) were used. But no matter what materials composed these garlands, they each had one thing in common- they all eventually withered away.
In light of this reality, the meaning behind this illustration is easy to understand: if a diligent athlete is willing to expend the time, effort, dedication, and hard work necessary to win an event that will yield little more than temporary fame and a perishable wreath, how much more diligent should a Christian be in seeking to receive the incorruptible “…crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12 NIV).
Nevertheless, there is an important difference between the type of spiritual “race” mentioned within this passage and a field competition that features sprinters, hurdlers, marathon runners, and so forth. You see, an ordinary racing competition produces one winner- and as soon as that first runner crosses the finish line, every other athlete is subsequently disqualified from taking first place.
However, those who are involved in the type of spiritual race mentioned in verse twenty-five do not compete with one another. Moreover, a win by one does not disqualify anyone else who is running to win as well. In other words, every Christian runs his or her spiritual race in a complimentary (rather than competitive) fashion.
Once source provides us with a helpful observation in this regard…
“Paul’s emphasis in this verse was on the last statement. We should run our race so we will receive a reward from the Judge. In the Christian race we do not compete with one another for the prize. We compete with ourselves. The emphasis is on self-discipline, not competition. In a foot race only one person is the winner, but in the Christian race all who keep the rules and run hard will receive a reward (cf. Mat_6:19-21; 2Ti_2:5).” (2)
(1) G4735 stephanos Thayer’s Greek Definitions
(2) Dr. Thomas L. Constable Notes on 1 Corinthians 2016 Edition [9:24] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm
“Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
Judging from the number of athletic references that appear within his Biblical letters, it seems that Paul the Apostle had a keen interest in the sporting exhibitions of his day. For instance, Paul made use of a racing analogy as part of his message to the Galatian church when he wrote, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7 NIV).
In his second letter to a young Pastor named Timothy, Paul said, “…if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). But perhaps the best known use of such illustrations among the writings of the Apostle Paul can be found in some of his final recorded words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
In a similar manner, Paul employed the imagery of a boxer here within the final verses of 1 Corinthians chapter nine to help communicate the important qualities of focus, purpose, and determination in the pursuit of a life that honors Christ. One paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 9:26 serves to illustrate these qualities by rendering this verse in the following manner: “…I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I fight to win. I’m not just shadow-boxing or playing around” (TLB).
A number of commentators believe that Paul’s reference to “one who beats the air” actually refers to wild, undisciplined punches that did little to actually help a boxer defeat or outpoint his opponent. In any event, one source develops this analogy further by providing us with a brief description of first-century boxing exhibitions…
“Boxing was one of the major competitions at Greek games… boxers wore leather gloves covering most of the forearm except the fingers, and boxing was a violent sport…
Shadowboxing or “beating the air” was insufficient preparation for a boxing competition; a boxer had to discipline his body better than that to win. In the same way, Paul had to discipline his life to sacrifice what he needed to sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, lest he himself be disqualified from the race…” (1)
(1) Craig S. Keener The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament pg. 479
“So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27 NET).
In contrast to an unprepared athlete who wobbles to defeat through lack of training, (1) Paul the Apostle subjected himself to the authority of God’s Spirit rather than allow his natural inclinations (or “sinful nature”) to disqualify him from leading the kind of life that truly honored God.
Paul touched on this idea in his letter to Galatian church when he said, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want” (Galatians 5:17 NIV).
You see, a person who is alive to God though Christ seeks to pursue a lifestyle that is aligned with His desires. Paul spoke more extensively regarding this subject in the Biblical book of Romans….
“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:5-14 NIV).
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament”. [v 26] <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=009>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27 HCSB).
Much like the world-class athletes who compete in the modern-day Olympic Games, the contestants in the first-century version of the Olympics followed a strict training regimen that enable them to compete successfully. Many sources report that all who sought to compete in these New Testament-era Games engaged in ten months of strenuous physical training and were even made to swear an oath to that effect.
Another source provides us with some additional background information on the illustration found here in 1 Corinthian 9:26-27: “At the beginning of the games, a herald called out the names of the contestants, who were then examined to be certain they were qualified to compete. After the contest, each of the competitors was again examined and judged on the basis of how well they had competed. If the judges felt they had not done their best, they were disqualified and lost the prize.” (1)
The term “disqualified” (2) was also used to refer to coinage that was unfit or unapproved- and for Paul, the possibility that he might be spiritually disqualified in some manner represented a very real concern. As the next chapter will go on to reveal, Paul was very much aware that God had once disqualified large numbers of people from enjoying the blessings that He had prepared for them. Later, Paul will also go on to document the disciplinary action that God had taken against some within the Corinthian church as a result of their conduct as well
In other portions of the New Testament, Paul also speaks of “…Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be disciplined and taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20 AMP), and “…Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10 NIV). Therefore, it should come as no surprise to read Paul’s warning in the following chapter: “…let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
So we can say that Paul was clearly concerned that he might be set aside because he had not “practiced what he preached” in some respect. Thus he sought to avoid the irony of being disqualified after having preached to others. We’ll take a closer look at what this disqualification means (and doesn’t mean) over the final two messages in this chapter.
(1) Ice, Rhoderick D. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:27“. “The Bible Study New Testament”. https://www.studylight.org/commentary/1-corinthians/9-27.html. College Press, Joplin, MO. 1974.
(2) G96 adokimos Thayer’s Greek Definitions
“I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NLT).
In Luke 4:23, Jesus was famously quoted as saying “Physician, heal thyself” (KJV). In the context of that passage, Jesus communicated His expectation that some among His hometown audience would press Him to perform the same miracles that He had worked elsewhere.
However, we commonly understand this proverb to imply that a doctor who prescribes a treatment for others should not be someone who needs the same treatment as well. It was this second interpretation that Paul the Apostle sought to avoid in saying, “I fear that after enlisting others for the race, I myself might be declared unfit and ordered to stand aside” (TLB).
Much like the physician who is told to “heal thyself,” it is often easy to tell others what they should do while neglecting to take our own medicine, so to speak. So in one sense, the application behind Paul’s statement here in 1 Corinthians 9:27 is clear: its important to take steps to ensure that our lives reflect the things we say we believe.
Yet what did Paul mean by using the word “disqualified” within this verse? While some may point to the use of this term as evidence to support the belief that a Christian can lose his or her salvation, there are a number of other Scriptures that should be taken into account when considering this passage.
For instance, Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).
Jesus also said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
Because of this, its unlikely that Paul is referring to a loss of salvation within this verse. As one commentator observes, “We must be careful not to confuse the fear of disqualification with the fear of damnation… In the context what he could lose was a reward. How ironic and pathetic it would be for Paul to forfeit a crown through his own lack of self-discipline or by breaking the Judge’s rules since He had instructed others concerning how to win one.” (1)
(1) Constable, Thomas. DD. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:4”. “Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable” [v. 27] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm.
“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27 ESV).
The final portion of this devotional commentary on 1 Corinthians chapter nine will be turned over to two commentators who make a number of particularly valuable observations regarding 1 Corinthians 9:27…
“The Greek word for disqualified means ‘disapproved after testing.’ Although some have cited this verse as evidence that Christians can lose their salvation, this clause most likely does not refer to salvation. A careful distinction should be made between the prize and the gift. The free gift of justification cannot be the result of good works (Rom. 4:1–8). However, the prize or crown is the reward for endurance and suffering for the cause of Christ (Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 2:12).” (1)
“The race that Paul prepared himself for, the race that all Christians need to prepare themselves for, was the calling of God. Paul taught that Christians are rewarded for the calling that God gives them. Paul had an apostolic ministry for which he sacrificed all things. He knew that if he was faithful to his calling he would receive a reward from the Lord for his service (4:2). Paul also knew that if he ignored or treated lightly his mission he would not receive from God the victor’s crown for service. Having seen some of his close friends forsake their calling (2 Tim. 4:10), Paul recognized that the loss of the victor’s crown was a very real possibility for any believer, regardless of his or her standing in the Christian community” (1)
“This statement has often been used as evidence that Christians can lose their salvation. The witness of the NT and of Paul in particular is that those whom God has brought to Himself are His forever (Rom. 8:28–30) because the life they have been given in Christ is eternal in character (John 5:24; cf. Heb. 7:16). What God has begun He will bring to completion (Phil. 1:6).
However, it would be wrong to dismiss or minimize Paul’s concern (cf. 15:2; Phil. 3:11; Col. 1:23) by suggesting that it is merely hypothetical or relates only to rewards and not salvation. Paul was confident that absolutely nothing would be able to separate him from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39), but he never presumed that he was saved regardless of what he did. No Christian can afford to take lightly the warnings of Scripture (10:12), because these warnings are the God-appointed means by which true believers persevere to the end. Those of faith heed these warnings, as the Spirit works through them to make them will and work ‘for his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:12–13).” (2)
(1) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (1 Co 9:27). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
(2) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2029). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.