Christian Freedom and Ministry (preaching resource for Epiphany 5: February 4, 2024)
This post exegetes 1 Corinthians chapter 9, to provide context for the RCL Epistle reading on 2/4/2024 (Epiphany 5). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").
|Paul the tentmaker (with permission from Pixabay)
In the last sermon in 1 Corintihans, we received instruction from Paul concerning three principles to guide the way we live and minister out of the freedom that is ours in union with Jesus Christ:
- Balance knowledge with love (1 Cor. 8)
- Balance experience with caution (1 Cor. 10:1–22)
- Balance freedom with responsibility (1 Cor. 10:23–33)
Now we return to 1 Corinthians where in chapter 9 Paul expounds a fourth principle: Balance authority with discipline. Paul illustrates this guiding principle with the example of his own ministry in Corinth—specifically the way he exercised his freedom (“rights”) involving his personal finances.
As an apostle, Paul had authority to ask for financial support from the Corinthian church. Yet he waived that right, supporting himself instead by working as a tentmaker. This was radical in the city of Corinth where the Greek populace despised manual labor, which was usually assigned to slaves. Free citizens (like Paul) would normally enjoy sports, philosophy, and leisure. But Paul balanced his freedom (authority) with personal discipline to deny himself some of that freedom in order to benefit others.
Paul defends his authority to seek their support
1 Cor. 9:1–14
With five related arguments, Paul points out that he has the authority (right) to ask for financial support from the church at Corinth.
1. His apostleship
1 Cor. 9:1-6
The title "apostle" means “one sent under commission,” and refers primarily to the 12 apostles and Paul. These men had a special apostolic commission, along with the New Testament prophets, to lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). One of the qualifications for these founding apostles was a personal and visible experience with the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:21–22). Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–9). The apostles also performed special signs and wonders (Heb. 2:4) to validate their ministry. Paul performed many miracles in founding the church in Corinth (2 Cor. 12:12). In fact, he considered the Corinthian church a special “seal” of his apostolic ministry (1 Cor. 9:2b).
As an apostle, Paul had the “right” (which means “authority”) to receive support from the people to whom he ministered (1 Cor. 9:4). He was the special representative of Christ; he deserved to be welcomed and cared for. Paul was unmarried; but if he’d had a wife, she too would have had the right to be supported by the church (1 Cor. 9:5). Paul also had the right to devote his full time to his apostolic ministry. He did not have to make tents (1 Cor. 9:6). The other apostles did not work to support themselves because they gave themselves completely to their apostolic ministry. However, both Paul and Barnabas labored with their own hands to support not only themselves, but also others who served in ministry with them.
2. Human experience
1 Cor. 9:7
Everyday experience teaches us that a worker deserves to be rewarded for their labor. If a man is drafted to be a soldier, the government pays his wages and provides a certain amount of supplies for him. The man who plants a vineyard gets to eat the fruit, just as the shepherd or herdsman has the right to use the milk from the animals. The lesson here is clear: the Christian worker has the right to expect benefits for their labors.
The “Law” (the Old Testament) was the “Bible” of the early church, since the New Testament was in the process of being written. The first believers found guidance in the principles of the Law, even though they were no longer “under” it as their rule for life. Here Paul quotes Deut. 25:4 which notes that it is cruel for a farmer to bind the mouth of his ox and thus prevent him from eating grain. After all, the ox was doing the work. Paul correctly sees here a spiritual principle: The laborer has the right to share in the bounties. The ox had plowed the soil in preparation for sowing, and now he was treading out the grain that had been harvested. Paul had plowed the soil in Corinth. He had seen a harvest from the seed he had planted. It was only right that he enjoy some of the fruits of that harvest.
1 Cor. 9:11 enunciates a basic principle of the Christian life: If we receive spiritual blessings, we should in turn share our material blessings. For example, the Jews gave spiritual blessings to the Gentiles; so the Gentiles had an obligation to share materially with the Jews (Rom. 15:25–27). Those who teach us the Word have the right to expect us to support them financially (Gal. 6:6–10). We have reason to believe that Paul did accept financial support from other churches (2 Cor. 11:8). Apparently other ministers had accepted support at Corinth (1 Cor. 9:12), but Paul preferred to remain independent lest he should “hinder the gospel of Christ.” For Paul, his example was more important than his “rights.”
4. Old Covenant practice
The priests and Levites under the Old Covenant lived off of the sacrifices and offerings brought to the temple. The regulations governing their part of the offerings, and the special tithes they received are described in Num. 18:8–32 and Lev. 6:14–7:36; 27:6–33. Paul’s point is clear: If Old Covenant ministers were supported by the people to whom they ministered, should not ministers of the New Covenant also be supported?
5. The teaching of Jesus
Paul was no doubt referring here to Jesus’ words in Luke 10:7–8 and Matt. 10:10. The Corinthians did not have a copy of either Gospel to refer to, but Jesus’ teaching would have been given them as a part of the oral tradition shared by the apostles. That the laborer is worthy of his hire is a fundamental principle that the church dare not neglect.
So with these five arguments, Paul makes his point: he had the right to expect the Corinthian church to support him in his ministry while he was with them. Yet he deliberately refused their support. Why? This he now explains.
Paul defends his freedom to refuse their support
1 Cor. 9:15–27
Paul had the authority (right) to receive material support, but being a mature Christian, he balanced his authority with discipline. He did not have the right to give up his liberty in Christ, but he did have the liberty to give up his rights; and that is exactly what he did. And now his appeal to the Corinthian believers is that they would follow his example. The stronger believers in the church should be able to set aside some of their rights for the sake of the weaker ones. Was their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols really more important than their responsibility to edify the church? Paul is here addressing their priorities. It is unfortunate that some Christians have their priorities confused and, as a result, hinder the work of Christ.
Paul gives three reasons that explain why he refused financial support from the church in Corinth:
1. For the Gospel’s sake
1 Cor. 9:15-18
Paul did not want to “hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12). In that day, Greek cities were frequented by all kinds of itinerant teachers and preachers, most of whom were in it for the money. Not only had Paul refused to use their kind of oratory and argumentation (1 Cor. 2:1–5), but he also refused to accept money from those to whom he ministered. He wanted the gospel message to be free from any obstacles or hindrances in the minds of his audiences. Paul could not claim credit for preaching the gospel, because he had been called of God to preach. God had given him a divine stewardship (trust), and “it is required of stewards, that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2, NASB). God would see to it that Paul would receive his reward (same word translated “wages” in Luke 10:7). What was that reward? The joy of preaching the gospel freely! This meant that no man could accuse him of underhanded motives or methods as he shared the good news of Jesus Christ.
2. For the non-believers’ sake
What a paradox: free from all people, yet the servant of all -- “for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). Paul exercised his freedom by setting aside some of his rights in order that he might more effectively serve others. His tactics did not mean that he was a chameleon who changed his message and methods with each new situation. Nor was Paul a compromiser who adjusted his message to please his audience. Rather, he was a master at relating the gospel to diverse audiences. Whenever he went into a new city, Paul headed straight for the Jewish synagogue, if there was one, and boldly shared the gospel first to his kinsmen Jews. If he was rejected by them (which was usually the case), he turned to the Gentiles.
What separated Jews and Gentiles in that day? The Law of Moses (the Torah) which establishes the Old Covenant between God and Israel. And thus, in his personal life, Paul sought to live in such a way that he offended neither Torah-observant Jews, or non-observant Gentiles. He also sought not to offend “the weak”—those Christians who did not have the freedom of conscience that he possessed. Thus Paul did not parade his freedom from the Law before Jews, nor did he impose the Law upon Gentiles. Was Paul thus behaving inconsistently? No. What he was doing was adapting his evangelistic approach to the needs and consciences of different groups.
We find this adaptation of Paul in operation in his sermons in the book of Acts. When preaching to Jews Paul started with the Old Testament patriarchs; but when preaching to Gentiles, he started with creation and its Creator. From these points of common ground, Paul led both groups to an awareness of Jesus—the God of the Old Testament and the Creator of all. As a good evangelist, Paul built bridges, not walls. But to immature people, Paul’s tactics looked inconsistent; even scandalous. But in reality, he was being very consistent—his overriding purpose was always to lead people to Jesus. In fact, consistency can itself become legalistic—we can become so bound by man-made rules and standards that we lose our God-given freedom to minister.
Paul had the right (freedom) in Christ to eat whatever he wanted, but gave up that right in order to reach Jews for Christ. He had a high regard for the Law of Moses (Rom. 7:12), but gave up his right as a Jew to be Torah-observant in order to reach Gentiles. He even identified himself with legalistic weak Christians so that he might help them grow up in Christ. This approach was not compromise, but rather total abandonment to the law of love (“Christ’s law). This abandonment meant humbling himself in order to be the servant (bond-slave) of all. This is the way of Jesus; the way of love.
3. For his own sake
Paul was fond of athletic images and used them often in his letters. The Corinthians would have been familiar with the Greek Olympic Games as well as their own local Isthmian Games. Knowing this, Paul used a metaphor very close to their experience. An athlete (whether a runner or boxer) must be disciplined if he is to win the prize. Discipline means giving up the good and the better for the best. And so it is for the Christian who “competes” in Christ’s service. They strive, not to be saved, but because they are saved. Only Greek citizens were allowed to participate in the games, and they had to obey the rules both in their training and performing. Any contestant found breaking the training rules was automatically disqualified.
In order to lead others to Jesus, Paul was willing to give up his rights by disciplining himself. That is the emphasis of this chapter: Authority (rights) must be balanced by discipline. If we want to serve the Lord effectively, and thus win his reward (“crown”), we must pay the price. At the Greek games, there was a herald who announced the rules of the contest, the names of the contestants, and the names and cities of the winners. He would also announce the names of any contestants who were disqualified. Paul saw himself as both “herald” and “runner.” He was concerned lest he be so busy helping others in the race that he ignore himself and find himself disqualified. Again, it was not a matter of losing salvation (the disqualified Greek athlete did not lose his citizenship, only his opportunity to win a prize).
The whole emphasis here is on rewards, and Paul did not want to lose his. Only one runner could win the olive-wreath crown in the Greek games, but every believer can win an incorruptible crown which will be given them when they stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ their King. This crown will be given to those who have disciplined themselves for the sake of serving Christ. This discipline involves keeping their bodies under control and their minds fixed on the goal.
We learn from Paul that we all have great freedom in Christ—a freedom we are to exercise in the balanced way that glorifies God and advances Jesus’ work reaching out to a world that does not yet know him. May we all, like Paul, balance personal authority with self-discipline. To do so will at times require that we sacrifice temporary personal gains and comforts for the joy that is eternal. This is our calling to partcipate with Jesus, the servant of all, in his ministrry.
Live free as Christ’s servant!