These notes are based on the NASB text.
In chapter 8, Paul discussed the rights and wrongs of rights! He urged the more mature and knowledgeable believers to protect their influence and witness by giving up their rights in questionable matters. Paul emphasized the fact that exercising love is more important than exercising rights. In chapter 9, Paul illustrated the importance of giving up personal rights for the sake of the gospel, of putting the interests of Christ above our own personal interests.
9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?
To illustrate his point, Paul used himself as an example. He cited that while he had the right to receive financial support from the churches he served, he had given up that right for the sake of the gospel and in order that he not become a source of stumbling to anyone in the churches.
Paul began by discussing the basis of his apostleship. He asked four questions that implied a positive answer.
[A] “Am I not free?” Paul was indeed free in Christ Jesus and as a Roman citizen.
[B] “Am I not an apostle?” The word apostle refers to one sent by God to deliver the message of God. The answer: Yes!
[C] “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” This was a qualification of an apostle (see Acts 1:21-22). Paul met the qualification by virtue of his experience on the Damascus Road (see Acts 9:1-9). He also referred to this experience in 1 Corinthians 15:8.
[D] “Are you not my work in the Lord?” The Corinthian believers were further evidence that Paul was an apostle. God had used him to plant a church in difficult soil.
9:2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
While others might try to deny or speak against Paul’s apostleship, the Corinthians were certainly not in a position to do so. They were the very evidence that Paul had indeed been commissioned by God to preach the gospel. They were, in fact, the very seal of Paul’s apostleship in the Lord. The Corinthian believers authenticated his apostleship and the effectiveness of his ministry.
9:3 My defense [“apologia” or answer] to those who examine me is this [that is, not only what he had just written but what was to follow]:
Paul here painted a courtroom scene. He indicated that there were some who questioned his apostleship. Paul was not without his critics. He was however, not intimidated in the least by those who examined (judged) him. In fact, he had an answer, a strong case of his own, to submit as evidence.
9:4 Do we not have a right [power, authority] to eat and drink?
As an apostle, Paul had a right to expect the churches he served to provide for his physical necessities while he provided for their spiritual necessities. Some feel that this may be a reference to the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols, a right which Paul refused to exercise lest he cause a weaker brother to stumble.
9:5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas [see Mark 1:30 regarding to Peter’s mother-in-law]?
As an apostle, Paul had a right to take along a wife and expect the churches he served to care for her needs as well. This was a privilege that had been extended to and received by the other apostles. The implication is that “the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas” had passed through Corinth in their itinerant ministries. (Refer to 1 Corinthians 1:12. There is no record that Cephas was ever in Corinth.)
9:6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?
As an apostle, Paul had a right to expect the churches he served to financially support him so that he could serve the Lord without the worry of financial pressures. Yet neither he nor Barnabas asserted this right, but instead had secular occupations (see Acts 18:3 regarding Paul’s trade) to provide for the support of their missionary endeavors (as well as support those who traveled with them).
9:7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?
Using illustrations from the secular world, Paul strengthened his argument that those who labor in spiritual matters have a right to receive compensation for their labor. In the following cases, it was both logical and customary that the soldier, farmer, and shepherd be supported by the cause they served.
[A] A soldier in an army is supported by the government he serves. Should it be any different for a soldier of the cross?
[B] A farmer has the right to eat the fruit of the vineyard. Should it be any different for a planter of churches?
[C] A shepherd has the right to use the milk of the flock he tends. Should it be any different for an under-shepherd?
Is it wrong for an individual to expect to receive support from that to which he devotes his life and energies? Certainly not!
9:8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things?
Lest any man think that Paul was speaking “according to human judgment,” he grounded his argument in the Old Testament, the “Bible” of the early church.
9:9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing” [cf. Deuteronomy 25:4]. God is not concerned about oxen, is He?
The Old Testament Law made provision for oxen that were used to tread out the grain. The oxen were permitted to eat some of the grain on the threshing floor while they worked. If God is concerned about oxen, how much more is He concerned about His servants.
Vernon McGee tells of “a preacher in Kentucky who drove a very fine, beautiful horse, but the preacher himself was a very skinny fellow. One day one of his church officers asked him the question (which had been a matter of discussion), ‘How is it, preacher, that your horse is so fine looking and you are such a skinny fellow?’ The preacher answered, ‘I will tell you. I feed my horse, and you are the ones who feed me.” Or as someone else said, “The Lord keeps our preacher humble and we keep him poor!”
9:10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.
Paul contends that the principle stated in Deuteronomy 25:4 is for people. Those who labor and invest their lives and energies in an enterprise ought to expect that their support will come from that enterprise. Those who labor for God ought to expect the same privilege as the oxen on the threshing floor.
9:11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you?
Vernon McGee illustrates this verse by saying that people ought to support the individual(s) or the place where they receive their spiritual blessings. He said that if you enjoy a fine meal in one restaurant you don’t go around the corner and pay your bill at another restaurant. You pay the restaurant that fed you. Unfortunately, “many people do that sort of thing with their spiritual food. They get their spiritual blessings in one place, and they give their offerings in another place.”
Paul wrote to the Galatians, “And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches…So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:6 and 10).
9:12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.
The Corinthians had supported others materially (refer to verses 4-5). As the founder and spiritual father of the church (1 Corinthians 4:15), Paul had every right to expect the same support from his spiritual children. But instead, he chose not to assert his right for support from them. Paul chose rather to endure hardships so that the gospel would not be hindered in any way. He did not want to be a burden upon the Corinthian church (read 2 Cor. 11:7-9).
9:13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar?
Citing an example from the Old Testament, Paul pointed out that the priests and Levites were supported by a prescribed portion of the offerings and sacrifices.
9:14 So also the Lord directed [see Matthew 10:9-10 and Luke 10:17] those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.
The Lord Himself had directed that it was both right and acceptable that those who preached the gospel should receive remuneration for their service.
9:15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.
Paul, in the preceding verses, demonstrated that it was the right of apostles and preachers of the gospel to be supported by those they served. In addition, the church had an obligation to support its ministers. Paul however, had not asserted his rights, but rather endured hardship and labored with his own hands for the sake of the gospel. Nobody could say that Paul was “in it for the money.” Paul refused to exercise his right to receive support from the Corinthian church for the sake of the gospel. That is exactly what he asked the Corinthians to do in regard to meat sacrificed to idols.
9:16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.
Paul stated in Romans 1:14, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” The expression “I am under obligation” is rich with meaning. Paul felt that he had a debt to pay. Ray Stedman comments, “Paul sensed a deep imperative to tell all people the gospel because he knew they desperately needed it.” Phillips notes, “Those who have found the treasure of the gospel must share it with all mankind. It is a debt.” Paul would never have been content apart from preaching the gospel. He was “under compulsion,” God had called him to preach the gospel.
9:17 For if I do this voluntarily [rather than “under compulsion”], I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.
Paul had to preach the gospel because God had laid it upon his heart to do so. If he were simply a volunteer he might think differently about the matter. But he was a man under obligation to the Lord. Paul “preaches not because of what he will receive but because of what he has received from the Lord” (BBC, Vol. 10).
9:18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
Paul’s reward was not what he might receive from others, but the fact that he could preach the gospel without being a burden to anyone. His reward was the joy of serving Christ and spending himself for others without others spending anything on him.
9:19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave [servant] to all, that I might win the more.
9:20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law;
9:21 to those who are without law [Gentiles], as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.
9:22 To the weak [spiritually immature] I became weak [Paul tried to be sensitive to the spiritually immature], that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.
9:23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
These verses reveal Paul’s passion and plan. Paul’s passion was to preach the gospel and to win as many people as possible to Christ. Paul’s plan was to be sensitive to other people and identify with their needs. He was willing to become like others in the sense of understanding how they thought and felt in order to more effectively communicate the gospel to them. Paul was aware that all men needed to hear and respond to the same gospel, but that he could not use the same method of sharing the gospel with all men.
9:24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
Using the illustration of the Isthmian Games (held in honor of Poseidon, god of water and sea), one of the four great national festivals of the Greeks held on the Isthmus of Corinth, Paul likened himself to the athletes who competed in the demanding and grueling events. The athletes who entered the events entered to win. An athlete ran “in such a way” that he might be declared the winner. The phrase “in such a way” is the key phrase in this verse. It is the manner in which a runner competes that will determine whether or not he will win. The “in such a way” of a runner is determined and perfected on the practice field. The “in such a way” of a runner is the product of discipline and self-sacrifice. The “in such a way” of the athletes who competed in the Isthmian games was perfected through ten months of rigorous training, the final thirty days of which were especially grueling.
9:25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
The athlete must exercise self-control or discipline in every area of his life if he is to run in such a way that he may win. The phrase “in all things” defines the scope of that discipline. It is a phrase that reminds us of the inter-relatedness of the different areas of our life. It is a phrase that reminds us that a decision made in one area of our life will have an impact on other areas. The athlete must lay aside every encumbrance and distraction. He must delay gratification in order to run to win. The athletes who competed in the Isthmian Games denied themselves many of life’s pleasures in order to be better prepared. They followed rigid restrictions regarding both their diet and habits of life. They did so however, with a vision of winning. The believer must adopt the attitude of the athlete knowing that his reward will be an imperishable wreath, indeed a greater motivation.
9:26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air;
Once again we come across the phrase, “in such a way.” A disciplined and prepared runner does not run aimlessly or get off the path. A disciplined boxer does not miss the target and expend his blows on the air. A disciplined athlete competes purposefully. A disciplined athlete who competes successfully in public is thankful that he paid the price in private. An athlete whose event may last only minutes is thankful that he invested hours upon hours to prepare for those minutes.
9:27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
Like the athlete, Paul exercised discipline and self-control. He sought to live his life in a manner that was pleasing to the Lord. He laid aside personal comfort and compromise in order to keep from being disqualified. He knew that countless hours of disciplined investment could easily go to waste with a wrong decision. He knew the importance of remaining diligent and playing by the rules to the very end. That is why Paul could write to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day…” (II Timothy 4:7-8a).
It is hard to argue against a life of effective service for God.
Paul’s life and ministry was an open book, especially in regard to his work among the Corinthians. He had founded the church and labored tirelessly and selflessly among them. Paul had given them no occasion to stumble. Those who sought to examine and judge Paul found themselves without a case. We too, should seek to live our lives in a manner that does not give others an occasion for stumbling or grumbling.
God’s people should support God’s servants.
It is not wrong for those who labor in the church to receive remuneration for their labor. God’s people should support God’s servants in such a manner that they can serve the Lord without the distraction or hindrance of financial pressures.
We should “run to win” rather than “run to get by.”
“Running to get by” means that we become satisfied with “less than,” “good enough,” and “that’s o.k.” Yet if that is the sum of the effort we invest, then we do not have a right to complain when we are rewarded in kind. Those who “run to win” have learned to exercise self-control in all things and to compete purposefully. They are people who have learned to pay the price in private that they might run successfully in public.