1 Corinthians 9:1-27

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Week 9 – Using our Freedom in Christ

1 Corinthians 9:1-27

By Brandon Wingler

Introduction

            I have always hated running. Running is challenging. Running is boring. Running is pointless. To me, anyways, that’s how it often feels. Now before all you runners start coming after me (pun intended), I know that running is not pointless. Running can be a great form of exercise, a method of challenging one’s self to persevere through physical and mental struggles, and even a social activity where people bond and support each other through the grueling process of going just one more mile, both literally and metaphorically. Running has a purpose, even if for someone like me it often feels purposeless and, for lack of a better term, “unfun.”

            One reason I find running so hard is because of the amount of discipline, self-control, and sacrifice that goes into that arduous activity. If you haven’t run in a while, the first few times back can feel so defeating. One mile in (or maybe even less!) and you can sense the stress, taste the tension, and feel the muscles shivering, knees buckling, lungs straining with every step. At a certain point, you feel like you can’t continue on any longer. However, days of consistent training makes it easier. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months. Months turn into years. As much as I hate running, I recognize that if you stick with it for long enough, you will get much better at persevering through it.

            Sometimes, the Christian life feels a lot like running. It’s often painful, comes with many sacrifices, requires discipline and self-control, and can feel purposeless if we lose sight of the goal. The Christian life beckons us to a long obedience in the same direction. That direction is to the cross, to see Christ and to be transformed by Christ, so that we might become more and more like Christ. Jesus said, “Follow me” (Mark 1:17). Jesus calls us to abide in him, to keep his commands, to remain in his love, and to love each other to the point that we are willing to lay down our lives for the sake of our brothers and sisters, just as he laid down his life for us (John 15:9-13). In this passage, Paul offers his ministry as an example of how he is willing to surrender his rights, go to great lengths to reach the lost, and endure through the pain as well as the monotony that can accompany a long obedience in the same direction, all for the sake of advancing the gospel and building up the church.

Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-27 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. How does this chapter relate to chapter 8? What principles and lessons from these two chapters can we incorporate into our lives?
  2. Why is it helpful as believers to be extra sensitive and thoughtful in what we do and what we say in public?
  3. Can you think of a time where you or someone you know surrendered their right(s) in order to advance the gospel? Can you think of a way in which you might do that now?
  4. How can Paul’s athletic metaphor in vv. 24-27 shape how you approach perseverance and endurance in the Christian life?
  5. Is there any area of your ministry and life that could use greater focus, discipline, or perseverance?

Commentary

            In chapter 8, we saw Paul respond to questions about food sacrificed to idols. Paul’s instruction stated that the act of eating meat sacrificed to an idol, on its own merit, was not a sin as long as the person doing so was not worshiping the idol in any way. In verse 8, he also emphasizes that neither eating meat nor abstaining from meat will commend us to God. So Paul’s instruction expressly allowed the Christians in Corinth to eat meat sacrificed to idols, with the caveat that they “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9).

We concluded that Paul’s instruction here offered us two general principles to follow. The first is that our actions should be based out of love and not selfishness. The second is that we should be willing to give up certain rights and liberty we may have as believers, even if only for a time, if doing so would prevent us from causing a brother/sister in Christ to stumble. The ultimate purpose of these principles is to point back to Christ and his sacrificial love. In chapter 9, Paul provides his own ministry as an example of how he has tried to follow these principles, all for the sake of advancing the gospel and building up the church. Paul offers his example to urge the Corinthians (and us) to follow his example (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” – 1 Corinthians 11:1).

9:1-18 – Paul begins by asking four rhetorical questions, all meant to be answered with a “yes.” He implies that he is free, an apostle, that he has seen the risen Christ, and that the Corinthians are his workmanship in the Lord. He then suggests that where others may question his status and authority as an apostle, the Corinthians ought not do so because they are the fruit of Paul’s faithful ministry. Their change in heart and conversion to Christianity under Paul’s ministry is the “seal” (v. 2) that authenticated Paul’s ministry in Corinth.

In verses 4-14, Paul asks twelve rhetorical questions to convey his thoughts regarding the rights of the apostles and present examples of ways in which he surrendered some of his rights and liberties. Paul, who chose to remain unmarried, implies that the apostles and other Christian ministers had the right to travel in their missionary journeys with a believing wife (v. 5). Paul, who worked as a tentmaker while in Corinth, implies that the apostles (and other Christian ministers more generally) had the right to earn a living through their ministry to the church (vv. 6-12). In Paul’s ministry, he surrendered both of these rights (to travel with a wife and to earn his living from his ministry to the Corinthians) in order to better advance the gospel.

In regards to the right of the apostles to earn a living from their ministry to the church, Paul uses three examples – a soldier, a person planting a vineyard, and a shepherd – to demonstrate that the worker should benefit from their labor (v. 7). In the same way that these individuals receive their sustenance from their occupations, Paul implies the apostles share this right. He then demonstrates that this principle was not merely human wisdom but could actually be found in the Old Testament in the Law. Citing Deuteronomy 25:4, Paul demonstrates the Lord’s care for his creatures. Paul shows that the oxen were not to be muzzled while they tread out the grain. From this, Paul reasons that if the oxen were not to be muzzled and were permitted to share in the fruit of their work, how much more should that principle remain true for the apostles to share in the fruit of their ministry and to reap a material harvest from their spiritual sowing.

Paul and some of the apostles have surrendered this right: “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (v. 12). Just as Paul stated in the previous chapter that “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13), Paul demonstrates how he has given up the right to earn a living from his ministry to the Corinthians if it means advancing the gospel of Christ. He reminds the Corinthians that the priests in the temple received provisions from their service in the temple and shared in the sacrificial offerings (see Leviticus 7, Numbers 18, and Deuteronomy 18:1-8). Paul concludes, “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (v. 14).

Despite maintaining that he and the other apostles have this right to compensation, Paul does not seek to assert that right and instead surrenders it and clearly states that he does not seek any provision from the Corinthians. Paul knew that his commission to preach came from the Lord and he did not seek fame, money, or material reward through his service. Instead, Paul emphasized that his joy and his sustenance in ministry, his reward, came from serving without pay. Although Paul had the right to be compensated for his service, he surrendered this right in order to advance the gospel. Paul’s instruction and example are an indictment on any who would question his genuineness in his ministry and any today who would cling to this right so tightly rather than sacrifice for the sake of advancing the gospel.

A final note on this section. Paul’s example is certainly admirable and we should follow him in being willing to surrender our rights in order to advance the gospel. However, we should not take this passage to mean that those who do receive compensation for their ministry are less commendable. Nor should we take this passage to mean that no one should ever earn any compensation for their ministry. This would completely miss Paul’s point and contradict Paul’s other teachings on compensating and providing for the workers in the church. Paul’s instruction and example here are not meant to question those who do take advantage of this right. Rather, the instruction is meant to question those who would deny them this right. At the same time this demonstrates that surrendering one’s rights to advance the gospel, while certainly challenging and trying at times, can be seen as worth it because an eternal reward awaits those who remain faithful. Whether paid or unpaid, Paul wants the gospel to be preached and for sinners to hear the good news of God who offers a way of salvation for them through his son Jesus Christ. We should want the same.  

9:19-23 – Paul demonstrates his flexibility and willingness to surrender his rights and liberty in order to more effectively minister to different groups of people and advance the gospel. He describes himself as free from all yet makes himself a servant to all. In the original Greek, the word translated as servant here comes from the Greek word for slave. Paul’s recognition of his freedom and his subsequent decision to make himself a servant (or slave), to all would be especially provocative to the Corinthians, many of whom were wealthy, well-connected to society, and valued status and public recognition. Paul’s surrendering of his rights and willingness to humble himself to the role of a servant struck directly at the value system of many Corinthians and challenged them to consider a different way of living than many of them were accustomed to following. Paul’s example not only challenges the Corinthians; it ought also to challenge us.

In his ministry to the Jews, Paul willingly set himself under the expectations and teachings of the Jewish law although he knew that he was no longer required to follow all of stipulations in the law. For example, pork would have been expressly forbidden to eat in the Jewish law, so Paul willingly gave up pork in his ministry to Jews. This is a direct application of the last verse in the previous chapter. You may know that there are some Christians and Christian Jews today who willingly give up eating pork and follow the instructions in the Old Testament law in order to more effectively minister to Jews. Their surrendering of their rights and willing subjection to the law (while not placing their trust or confidence in the law for their salvation because the law was not meant to save – Christ alone is the way of salvation), is an example of going to great lengths to advance the gospel like Paul did.

In his ministry to the Gentiles, those outside of the law, Paul became “as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)” so that he “might win those outside the law” (v. 21). This does NOT mean that Paul approved of any sinful conduct or character that the Gentiles would have engaged in, nor does it mean that Paul wanted Christians to live in the same way the Gentiles do in order to gain their favor and then preach the gospel. Paul’s instruction throughout his other letters makes that clear. Instead, Paul’s point is that he demonstrated flexibility and willingness to forego traditions, cultural expectations, and surrender his rights, all for the sake of presenting the gospel to all more effectively and to do so without compromising the gospel. When he ministered to Gentiles, Paul became as one outside the law but did not become lawless as he was still under the law of Christ (v. 21). Paul still lived a principled life. Where no principle was at stake and no compromising of the gospel would occur, Paul went to great lengths to meet people where they were to minister to them more effectively. Paul sums up this section with the declaration, “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” (vv. 22-23). His heart is for people to hear the gospel, believe the gospel, and be completely transformed by the gospel. Paul surrendered his rights and willingly subjected himself and humbled himself in a multitude of ways in order to advance the gospel. Are we willing to do the same?

9:24-27 – Paul then uses an athletic metaphor, as he often does in his other writings, to further demonstrate his teaching. As Corinth was the site of the Isthmian games (which were held every two years), the second most famous athletic competition behind the Olympic games, this metaphor would have had added significance to the Corinthians. Paul notes that “in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize” (v. 24). Paul doesn’t mean to imply that Christianity is like a race where there is only one winner (one person saved). Paul simply means that Christians, like a runner in a race, should give their best effort and persevere with purpose.

Athletes also have to exercise self-control in their training and in their competitions. For example, athletes have to follow various dietary restrictions and guidelines to prepare themselves for their task. How fitting that much of Paul’s conversation up to this point has centered particularly on food and the ways in which the Corinthians might exercise self-control in their ministries to Jews and Gentiles, specifically as it relates to food. He also contrasts athletes who competed for a “perishable wreath” (picture the laurel wreaths worn as a crown on an athlete’s head) with Christians who have an imperishable wreath as their reward after this life (see 2 Timothy 4:8). Paul’s illustration here sounds like this: “Look at how the athlete can exercise self-control and go to great lengths in their training and competition, all for a crown that will quickly wither away. How then can we not, as Christians, train just as hard (or harder!) knowing that we have an imperishable wreath awaiting us?”

Paul says he does not run aimlessly or box by only hitting the air (v. 26). He is purposeful. His ministry choices and perseverance were guided with purpose to hit the mark and cross the finish line. Paul sought to glorify God and preach the gospel so that others might come to trust Christ and be saved. Paul disciplined his body and ensured that he kept it under control so that he did not live hypocritically and instead practiced what he preached (v. 27). Paul refused to be enslaved by his bodily desires. I think it’s important to note that Paul does not see the physical human body itself as evil. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Paul does see the flesh, the temptations and natural inclination of humans to sin, as evil. There is a history where some have come to see the body as evil and have sought to “discipline” the body through extreme measures and ascetic practices, such as those who punished their own bodies or adopted harsh diets as an attempt to control their bodies. Paul is not advocating for this. Instead, he simply means that Christians should seek to control and discipline their bodies by refusing to be enslaved to our bodily desires and led astray by our fleshly temptations.

A final note on this section: We must remember that works do not save us or earn us any salvation. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. As we live out the reality of our salvation, we are then called to discipline ourselves, to exercise self-control, to grow in spiritual maturity, and to walk in the good works which God has prepared for us to walk in. In all things, we should desire to glorify God. Through exercising self-control, discipline, and sacrifice, we can glorify God through our bodies and build up the church, the body of Christ. As you run this race, know that you are not alone. The Lord of the universe calls you into intimate community with Himself and with His church. Run the race, but do not run it alone. Join together with the other runners and press forward, knowing that one day you shall also say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

The Main Point

We should be willing to remove anything in our lives that hinders our ability to advance the gospel. As we run the race of the Christian life, we should run with purpose and perseverance, knowing that an eternal reward awaits us at the finish line.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Acts 21:23-26 – Paul participates in Jewish purification rites as an attempt to build a bridge with Jews in order to present the gospel to them.
  • Philippians 2:3-4 – “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
  • Philippians 3:12-4:1 Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead
  • Hebrews 12:1-2 – Run the race with endurance and look to Christ and his example
  • 2 Peter 1:3-11 – Strive to confirm your calling and election by growing in spiritual maturity
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