READ : 1Corinthians 9:1-7
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 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.
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
1 Corinthians 9:1-7, rsv
We’ve been thinking in these weeks together about the gospel. The gospel, as you recall, means the good message, the glad tidings, the joyful news. The gospel is the thrilling report of what God has done for us in the gift of His Son Jesus Christ. Its vital center, as Paul notes here in his first letter to the Corinthians, lies in two tremendous events: Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and He was raised on the third day, according to the same Scriptures. That is, according to God’s age-old purpose, Jesus has been crucified to save us from our sins and has been raised from the dead to give us eternal life. Isn’t that great to hear?
But the gospel, as we learn of it in the New Testament, is more than a message, more than a doctrine. It is also a transforming dynamic. The apostle can call it “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The gospel works with life-changing effect.
As we’ve studied 1 Corinthians together, we’ve been looking at every doctrinal issue and every ethical problem in the light of this gospel because that’s what the apostle Paul is always trying to help us do. He wants us to see all of life in the light of the crucified and risen Jesus.
Today, looking at chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians, I want to think with you about the power of the gospel in the lives of those who preach it. Maybe they are evangelists; maybe they are pastors or priests. Maybe they are teachers of the faith. All Christians, of course, are to be communicators of the gospel. But I’m thinking especially now of those who devote their whole lives to such ministry.
THE MAKING OF A MINISTER
Notice first how it’s the power of the gospel that makes someone an authentic minister. Paul is defending in this chapter his identity as an apostle. Listen to him: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 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.”
One of the marks of the original band of apostles was that they had seen the risen Jesus and had been authoritatively commissioned by Him. Paul had not been with the original eleven, of course, when they saw the risen Lord on that first Easter, but he had met Him also on the road to Damascus. His eyes had been blinded then and his heart subdued by the glory of the resurrected Christ. He too had received a commission from the exalted One. He too had been given the gospel to proclaim. That’s what had made him an apostle.
But that claim no one else could verify, that Paul had seen the Lord and heard His voice. Something else demonstrated visibly his apostleship: the very existence of the church in Corinth. If he was not an apostle to anyone else, Paul notes, he surely was to these people. It was through his preaching, his witness, that they had become believers, that they had received new life. He could call them, accordingly, “the seal of my apostleship.” They were the sign of it, the validation of it, the living evidence of his apostolic calling. As Paul had proclaimed the Word in Corinth, the living Lord had called people to Himself, forgiving them, renewing them, making them the children of God.
Authentic ministers today are not apostles in the original sense. They have not seen with their eyes the risen Jesus. But they too have heard His call through His Word, by His Spirit. They too have the deep conviction that God has entrusted the gospel to them, and that’s what makes them ministers. But for them, also, there needs to be some corroboration of that call. Others in the church need to affirm their gifts.
Ultimately, there must be evidence also of the Lord working through them. By their fruits they are to be known. As Jesus calls them through the gospel, sends the gospel through them, and opens the hearts of people by the gospel, they are shown to be His ambassadors. Every genuine ministry has a central subject: the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. And every genuine ministry has a definite seal: lives gripped by the love of Christ, transformed through the gospel.
THE PRIVILEGES OF THOSE WHO PREACH
The power of the gospel also brings with it certain rights and privileges to those who proclaim it. Listen to Paul again: “Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?” Every messenger of the Lord has rights, first of all, that he or she shares with every believer; the right, for example, to marry, to have a spouse as a fellow-laborer in the service of the Lord. It’s striking to notice how Paul describes the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas as married men who took their wives around with them in their apostolic labors. Paul was not married, apparently, but he surely had the right to be, if he so chose.
But the right on which the apostle especially focuses in this passage is the right which Christian ministers have to refrain from other kinds of gainful employment. They have a right to be supported by their fellow Christians. Paul makes the point that those who proclaim the gospel are to get their living by the gospel. He puts it simply to the Corinthians: “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits” (v. 11)? In other words, If we have sowed the good seed among you, planted the gospel in your lives, should there not be some harvest of provision for us?”
In arguing for this, Paul appeals first to several analogies from common life. “Who serves,” he asks, “as a soldier at his own expense?” Why, the man is serving his country. He doesn’t have to support himself. He is sponsored in the enterprise by the grateful populace he defends. Again, Paul asks, “Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?” It’s obvious that those who do the work of plowing, planting, and cultivating, should enjoy the benefits at harvest time. Or again, “Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” The same principle applies again. A strategically important service deserves a recompense.”
Now the apostle appeals to the Old Testament. “For it is written in the law of Moses,” he writes, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (v. 9). In other words, animals are to partake of that on which they expend their labor. The apostle sees that word as having special relevance for humans. Those who plow should plow in hope, and that those who thresh should thresh in hope. Yes, the hope of sharing in the crop.
Next he recalls the practice of God’s servants in the Old Testament. “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings” (1 Cor. 9:13)? It had always been so in Israel. Those of the tribe set apart for priestly service received their food, their sustenance, from the offerings which the people brought for worship.
Now Paul is ready to bring forth the highest authority of all: “In the same way,” he writes, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (v. 14). This was the word of Jesus Himself. Remember how He told His followers when He sent them forth that they were not to take along provisions, “for,” he says, “the laborer deserves his food.” It was the Lord’s plan, His ordinance, that those who proclaimed His Word should be supported by those who received blessing from it. No Christian minister, accordingly, need apologize or feel hesitant about taking support from his flock. It is rightfully His, by the Lord’s clear command.
But this, notice, is not Paul’s main point. He himself has not been supported by the Corinthian Christians, nor does he want to be, apparently. He defends this God-given right for others and for himself, but then has something far more significant to say. The power of the gospel sometimes constrains ministers to relinquish their rights.
Paul had the right, in the freedom of a Christian man, to eat anything he wanted to eat. Yet he told the Corinthians that he would eat no meat while the world stands if meat caused his brother to stumble. He had the right to marry, but in his special circumstances he had decided not to. And he had a right to be recompensed for his service in the gospel, but he had chosen to forego that. Listen to what he says, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right” (v. 12). Again, “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision” (v. 15).
Paul can even say, “I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting” (v. 15). What does he mean by that? He goes on, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (v. 16). In other words, those who have been entrusted with the Word of the Lord have nothing to say about whether or not they will preach it. They have been conscripted, commandeered. A sense of constraint, of necessity, has been laid upon them. They have a stewardship to be responsible for, a trust to fulfill. They cannot say in any sense that they have volunteered. They deserve no credit. They simply do what they must. At best, they are unprofitable servants who do only what they are commanded to do.
But there is something Paul can do that brings with it, he says, a reward. He can do something of his own free will that may bring with it wonderful benefits.
Now notice what Paul is not saying here. He’s not implying that if he labors without being supported by other Christians, that God will award him a special crown. No, that kind of reward is the farthest thing from Paul’s mind here. This is what he means by reward: “What then is my reward?” he writes, “Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge” (v. 18). In other words, he has good hope that this will open the way for the Word, speed the gospel on its way. Hear how he puts it again: “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.” His reward is the joy of removing any possible hindrance to the gospel.
Do you get the picture here? Paul can envision circumstances in which his being supported by other Christians might be a stumbling block to some. Maybe it would be an obstacle to their coming to Christ. Maybe they would be hindered by it from seeing the freeness of God’s grace in the gospel. If there was any chance of this, Paul wanted by all means to avoid it.
He had a trade. He knew how to make tents. He didn’t mind the additional labor. What gave him joy in the midst of it all was that by so laboring he could remove from the minds and hearts of other people a potential stumbling block. He could help them see that God’s invitation in the gospel was to come without money, without price.
There’s something marvelous about that, I think, something refreshing, something that points to the incomparable power of the Christian gospel. Sometimes the Christian ministry in our time has been identified in the minds of people with lesser motivations. Some ministers have become notably wealthy in the pursuit of their calling. Others give the distinct impression that the financial rewards of their work are of paramount importance to them.
But that, I am persuaded, is not true for most of those who proclaim the Christian gospel. There are thousands upon thousands of devoted servants of God who have the same outlook that Paul had. Most of them, of course, receive salaries from their churches or from their sponsoring boards. But they are so gripped by the power of the gospel, so constrained by the love of Christ, that they hold these things loosely. Naturally they want to have enough for their own needs and the needs of their families, but they have no interest in accumulating wealth. That isn’t why they do what they do. Like Paul, many of them would rather die than make an issue of how much they get paid. They’d rather go unrewarded for extra services than have anyone think that the gospel is a commodity to be purchased.
And that, I suppose, is the final authentication of the Lord’s true ministers. They are so moved by the gospel they proclaim that they would do anything to further it. They would gladly let anything go that holds it back. They have rights which they cherish, like all of us, but for Christ’s sake, for love of those for whom He died, they are ready to forego them all. They are Christ-mastered, gospel-molded people. Something else now means more to them than their personal rights. Hallelujah! May their tribe increase! May the Lord keep on transforming people through the gospel, starting with those who preach it!
PRAYER: O God, may every person sharing the broadcast today know the gospel has a power, so trusting in Christ that their lives are transformed by His grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.