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Living by the Gospel

*1 Corinthians 9:1-13
June 24, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 15:35 in the audio file.

Or, The Rhetoric of Refraining from Using Your Rights

If a man wanted to prove his strength, he might set up an opportunity for everyone to watch. Let’s say that he decides to knock over a wall in front of others. He could construct a wall made out of Lego bricks, but of course this wouldn’t really prove his strength at all, though it would perhaps say something about his sense of theatrics (or lack thereof). A serious man would build a tall, thick wall of concrete blocks. To knock that wall down, everyone agrees, would be a strong man’s work.

1 Corinthians 9 is sort of like the wall. Paul builds up a case only to knock it down. The analogy breaks down somewhat, since there is a sense in which the wall in chapter 9 stands on its own. The principles that Paul uses to prove the rightness of providing for those who proclaim the gospel do not actually get torn down. But he gets them to agree that providing is right, clearly right, lawfully right, and only then does he show that he refrains from using this right.

It’s an illustration of refraining, really renouncing the use of a right for sake of something else. This is exactly the call for all Christians in chapter 8, and Paul finished that chapter by claiming that he would never eat meat again if it caused a weaker brother’s conscience to be destroyed. The key verse in this section is verse 14: “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Paul argues with his own life that he is living by the gospel by not taking their money though he had every right to do so.

He uses over seventeen rhetorical questions in the first fourteen verses of chapter 9 (as translated in the ESV). The questions have obvious answers, some Yes and others No, and they pull the Corinthians in to realize something they may not have connected before. Paul wasn’t taking their money. He shows them that of course it was right for him to do so, but that he wasn’t asking them to give up something (meat in chapter 8) that he wasn’t willing to do himself (money in chapter 9).

Apostolic Freedom to Eat (verses 1-2)

The chapter break is fine, but remember that this immediately follows his vow not to offend a brother (8:13). But surely, as an apostle, he had the freedom to eat, right?

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? These all expect positive answers. Yes he is free, yes he is an apostle, yes he saw Jesus. The freedom that he’s speaking of goes beyond Christian freedom, it includes his authority as one called directly by the Lord Himself. In Paul’s case he was called by the risen Lord on the road to Damascus.

His apostolic credentials are in order, and their existence as a church proved God’s use of Paul. Are you not 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. They were his workmanship, the result of his labor. So also they were a seal, official documentation. This isn’t an Arminian proof text about man’s abilities, it’s proof that God’s sovereign ministry has personal means. So they knew that he was an apostle, even if other churches didn’t because he was the human reason they existed as a church at all.

How would he use his freedom? And why?

Apostolic Right to Support (verses 3-14)

Having made a general case for his freedom to eat whatever he wanted, now he makes a more particular case for his right to be supported financially by them. The key word is “right,” used in verse 4, verse 5, verse 6, and again in verse 12. There are even more rhetorical questions, and more arguments that build his case.

Right from Everyday Life (verses 3-7)

Some translations take verse 3 as referring to his apostolic freedom, but he needs no defense of it. The questions in verses 1 and 2 depend on their agreement. His defense is what follows. This is my defense to those who would examine me, an examination of his income, his W-2, so to speak.

More questions. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Again, this isn’t just as Christians, but as apostles while doing their work. Speaking of apostles, Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? The expected answer is, Yes. The phrase believing wife is actually “sister wife,” highlighting the double relationship in a marriage between Christians (husband/wife are also still brother/sister). Some of the apostles traveled with their Christian spouse and their wife also lived off the support of the believers (Cephas, that is, Peter, is mentioned because the Corinthians were familiar with him and he clearly had a mother-in-law, Matthew 8:14). The only other one who Paul knew paid his own way was Barnabas. Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? This is the contrast with verse 14 and “living by the gospel,” being supported by those who hear the gospel.

Verse 7 has three illustrative inquiries, one from the army and two from agriculture. Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? The military provides food and clothes, the soldier doesn’t have to pay his own way or bring his own supplies and sword. Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Of course the vinedresser would enjoy some of his own labor. Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Got milk? Only Socialists could come up with a way to keep a shepherd from drinking his own dairy. All of these everyday situations make the same, obvious point that only junior high boys would argue with for fun.

Right from the Mosaic Law (verses 8-12)

The right to remuneration isn’t a natural law only, it is God’s written law. Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? Is this merely a manmade, social construct? No. The Old Testament also teaches it. But where?

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” A couple things about this quote of Deuteronomy 25:4: it is in the Bible, and it could be related, but it seems to be for animals, not apostles.

Is it for oxen that God is concerned? The law itself is and isn’t for oxen; as Luther observed, “Oxen cannot read.” So it is for humans at least in how to think about their tools.

But it’s more than that. Does he not certainly speak for our sake? Okay, Paul, so in what way? This isn’t merely an illustration, it’s not an allegory, it is the God-given principle behind the law. The law about how to treat oxen while they’re working covers one instance, like there are many colors of baby blankets to use but the point is: keep the baby warm. And the point of the law is: let the worker enjoy some of the outcome of his work.

It was written for our sake, because, the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. Disinterested work, without regard for pay, without hope, is dumb work (including ministry work). Everyone in the production chain gets benefit.

If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? Paul argues from the greater to the lesser. The spiritual seeds of the gospel produce eternal life, peace with God, clean consciences, and joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. Is it too much for the recipients of spiritual things to share some of their material things? Of course not. This isn’t an argument for dualism, just for distinction. Spiritual, invisible, intangible things are of one kind, and the physical, visible things are of another.

Besides, the Corinthians already paid some of their preachers. If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Maybe Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:5)? It’s right by nature, right by law, and a right known already in the church. And as Paul pointed out at the beginning of the chapter, they knew his apostolic work as much as anyone. In an earlier chapter he stated that he planted the church. If anyone deserved financial support it was himself.

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right. He didn’t take any of their stuff. The ESV starts a new paragraph in the middle of verse 12, and nevertheless is a transition word. But verse 15 is when he really starts to talk about renouncing his rights; this is a temporary quick point, so not worthy of it’s own paragraph.

It wasn’t because it wasn’t right, it was because he had another right in mind: we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Any number of things could put an obstacle in the way, like a stumbling block to the weaker brother in chapter 8. Here the hindrance would be to the gospel. In the set up in Corinth, giving money to a man might make it hard to hear his message as anything other than manipulation to get more money. This doesn’t have to be the case, but Paul’s take was that it would cause them to pay more attention to him than to the gospel.

Was it more tricky for a traveling minister/apostle or a stay-put preacher? Which was more likely to have credibility issues? Those who could con and get out, or those who could be bought?

He would gladly give up his right for sake of someone else, and this is exactly what he called them to do in chapter 8. This is exactly what Christ Himself did at he cross. Paul was living the gospel.

Right from the Lord’s Teaching (verses 13-14)

There is one more proof that Paul uses to build his wall before knocking it down in verses 15-23. Not only is it natural and lawful in ordinary (agricultural) occupations, it is lawful in ministerial occupations as well. 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? This illustration probably comes from the Jewish temple rather than pagan temples (see for example Leviticus 6:9-11). There were pagan temples in context, and obviously in Corinth, but Paul wouldn’t use those as argument for apostolic support. He also wouldn’t be able to connect that observation with the Lord’s teaching.

In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. There are no more sacrificial offerings since Christ finished His “once for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27). But dedicated work still continues, in the same way, though now it looks like those who proclaim the gospel. That is also full-time work for some. It is right, then, for apostles, evangelists, pastors, to get their living by the gospel. We use the same vocabulary; it means to earn support for the bills of life. There are those who are “working for a living” (verse 6), and some who do a different kind of work “for sake of the gospel” (verse 23).

The Lord commanded, found for us in Matthew 10:10 and Luke 10:7.

It is normal and good to reap material benefits from those who receive spiritual benefits.


These are good things to consider for a few reasons. As those who receive spiritual benefits, you should know about the relationship between preachers and money. 1 Corinthians 9 obviously doesn’t say anything about the structure of support, salary and 401ks and such, but it does say that getting a living by the gospel is right.

Maybe the only thing more awkward to talk about (at least in the church) than sex is money, especially what pastors get paid. Some preachers seem as if all they can talk about is money, other preachers would rather have all their teeth hammered out with a crowbar than talk about money. But soldiers, farmers, shepherds, plowers, threshers, and priests, reading the Old Testament, obeying Jesus, all know.

The pastors who are supported among us are well supported. We have no need or wish that our church would “get” the point. You already do.

The biggest reason why this passage is important is because it is part of Paul’s bigger argument about giving up our rights for serving others. (Possibly more preachers today should give up money on purpose.) The right of preachers to be paid is unquestionable, and so when Paul goes out of his way not use that right he is making another statement to the believers about their own choices in light of the cross. There is powerful rhetoric in living out the gospel of “self-denying love” (Lenski), and more on that in the rest of chapter 9.


I love the imagery in 2 Kings as Isaiah told King Hezekiah the word of the Lord about the surviving remnant of the house of Judah. He said they would again “take root downward and bear fruit upward” (19:30). This was a promise for Judah, and it is a good prayer for us. May the Lord cause us to live by the gospel. May our lives be rooted deeply in it, and may He grow great fruit from it.


And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philippians 4:19–20, 23)