The previous chapter ended with Paul’s noble pledge to deny himself, even to deny himself what was rightfully his, if that self-denial would foster the spiritual interests of a Christian brother or sister. Now, in chapter 9, Paul is going to tell these Corinthian brethren that, as a matter of fact, he has already done that for their sakes. He has already denied himself what was rightfully his to foster the interests of Jesus Christ in their lives. Remember, we are in a long section of the letter devoted to the question of food sacrificed to idols and Christians attending banquets in heathen temples. Chapter 9 is still about that subject as it elaborates the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice that is necessary to maintain true brotherhood in the face of different opinions about what Christians may and may not do. We are still talking about the difference between love that builds up and a proud knowledge that tears down.
v.3 While Paul obviously expects the rhetorical questions of vv. 1-6 to be answered in the affirmative, it is clear he has received criticism from some in the Corinthian church. The criticisms, so far as they can be read back from what Paul says in this chapter, apparently were that some felt he did not measure up to the standard these sophisticated Greeks expected of a philosopher, a professional wise-man, a rhetorician. After all, he made his living for those two years in Corinth working with Priscilla and Aquila in their leather-shop. He was a tradesman for goodness sake. He made change in the front of the shop. This man is our intellectual standard bearer? This is the fellow we point to as having brought us the answer to the great questions of life? And the second complaint was that on the question of eating meat offered to idols he was inconsistent. He ate it with Gentiles and did not with Jews. He will answer that objection in vv. 19-23 which, Lord willing, we will take up next week.
v.5 As an example of the power of a spiritual culture and a prevailing philosophical outlook to deafen us to the plain words of the Bible, Clement of Alexandria wrote on this text that “The apostles concentrated on undistracted preaching and took their wives around as Christian ministers rather than as spouses…” A century and a half later, when the ascetic principle had hardened into a church law, Augustine would argue that Paul didn’t mean “wife” at all, but merely a Christian sister who came along to share in the apostles’ work. The fact is, the apostles were, by and large, married men and so was Peter, supposedly the first Pope. Whatever Roman Catholics do about this, the one thing that cannot be done is to get that fact out of the Bible. In the same way, Roman Catholic scholarship must reject the notion that “the Lord’s brothers” refers to other children of Mary, for that would be in conflict with their doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Only a convinced Roman Catholic takes seriously the artifices used to make the Lord’s brothers his cousins or the children of Joseph’s first wife.
v.6 Clearly all those rhetorical questions had to do with Paul’s right to financial support from the Corinthians.
v.9 Notice how unaffectedly Paul turns to the OT law, even to the OT case law, as an abiding authority for Christians in his time. The law must be applied to changing circumstances, to be sure, but its fundamental regulations abide forever. Jesus said that, remember, in his sermon on the mount.
v.12 Here is the point. This is what Paul did and it is this same spirit of self-sacrifice he wants to form in the hearts of the Corinthian Christians.
v.13 This is a reference to the OT and Jewish priests who shared in the sacrifices brought to the temple. The point is especially apropos because, remember, the main subject here is meals taken in temples.
v.14 Paul is referring to the Lord’s remark in Luke 10:7: “the worker deserves his wages.”
v.15 Paul has spent all of this time arguing that he has certain rights only now to say that he did not use any of them. That is his great point in this chapter. He is commending to them the self-sacrificial spirit in which Christians are to live for the sake of others.
Usually “boast” has a pejorative sense in Paul; but sometimes it is used positively, usually in connection, as here, with things that stand in contradiction to human boasting, that is, with regard to things that it would never occur to non-Christians to “boast” about. Paul boasts about what others would see as “weakness” because it is through his weakness that God demonstrates his strength. He boasts about the stain under his fingernails from long days in the leather shop because such a man being the Lord’s Apostle proves the power of the Gospel is from God not man.
v.16 God had called him to preach his gospel and he had to do it.
v.17 There are two kinds of workers: free and slave. The free man gets paid for his labor, but the slave does not. Paul has already said that in his ministry he was a servant or slave of the Lord (4:1). He is not entitled to pay.
v.18 In characteristic fashion, Paul has fashioned an argument that is swept along by his passion and, for that reason, not entirely easy to follow. But the gist is clear. My pay, he says, is the freedom to offer the gospel without charge, a ministry not limited by anything that would put a hindrance in the way of people believing the gospel and finding salvation in Jesus Christ.
Paul had worked for a living during the 1½ to 2 years he had spent evangelizing the great city of Corinth and establishing the Christian church there. He had asked for no financial help from those to whom he was preaching the good news of Christ, and, even after there were a sizable number of Christians formed into a church, some of whom were well-to-do, he neither asked for nor received a stipend for his ministry among them. He had brought life to many, the life that is worthy to be called life, and he had offered it to them entirely free of charge. It is a divine gift, this salvation in Christ, nothing can be done by anyone to earn it, and Paul thought, perhaps in proud Corinth especially, that it was important to offer this free gift freely, making his manner of offering the good news to them a picture itself of the nature of the good news: God’s free gift of forgiveness and new life to those who believe in his Son, Jesus Christ.
In this, of course, Paul was not conforming to the standard practice of the professional philosophers and wise men and rhetoricians who were stars in the Corinthians’ firmament. Those men “peddled” their wisdom, they sold it, like the modern guru on finance or marriage or success who fills a hotel auditorium with fee-paying seekers after wisdom. That is what the professionals did in the Corinth of Paul’s day, and the fact that Paul did not, that he worked in a leather shop to pay his bills, that you could tell he was a tradesman by looking at his hands, made him seem, in the eyes of some folk in the church, amateurish, unprofessional, even, perhaps, a bit disreputable. They wanted their standard bearer to fit the mold, to look himself and so make them look as sophisticated as any other group in the city. Now Apollos was such a man. He had the appearance, and, what is more, he sounded like a professional philosopher/orator. So, a number of folk were pitting Apollos against Paul, as we learned early on, in chapters 1-3.
But that worldly spirit, that readiness to measure things by other standards than the powerful grace and love of God to unworthy sinners, that failure to accept that since Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God, did not measure up to the expectations of people, did not look or act the way they expected the Messiah to look and act, it was inevitable that his followers would likewise fail to impress people who judged things by the standards of this world, was a fundamental error. Sin, human pride, self has one set of standards; Christ and the grace of God have another set.
And, says Paul, chief among those standards for Christian ministers and for Christian people is to mirror in one’s life and in one’s conduct, and especially in one’s treatment of others, the principles of God’s grace and salvation. To do this should be the joyful and eager duty of everyone who wishes to live to the glory of his or her Lord and Savior.
One of the reasons why it is so valuable for Christians to read church history and Christian biography is because there they will discover how many Christians there have been who have done just what Paul did in Corinth; who have lived, even at great cost, so as to put no hindrance in the way of the gospel. They will be reminded that it is possible to live this way, very possible, and be will inspired to live this way themselves.
It was for this purpose that Hudson Taylor chose to adopt Chinese dress and wear a pigtail as he sought to bring the gospel to the Chinese. It was not a popular move among many of his western supporters, but he wanted the people of China to embrace the good news of salvation in Christ and he did not want to put any hindrance in the way of their doing that. And so he gave up the appearance and the clothing of a Western man and, to some degree, the approval of his peers, so that the people to whom he was bringing the good news would not see a westerner, not a member of the imperialist and oppressive class, but would see a man who identified with them, loved and cared for them.
Or take Samuel Annesley, John Wesley’s maternal grandfather. He was “intruded” by the Puritan parliament into the parish of Cliffe in Kent in the place of a minister who was popular but ungodly. “Intruded” means that he was forced on the people against their will. The congregation, resenting the change, threw stones at him and threatened him with pitch-forks. For some time he actually went in fear of death. To ease the tension and to make a way forward he promised his congregation to leave them as soon as they were ready to accept another minister of his own type. The Lord used his ministry, the parish was wonderfully reformed, many people became real followers of Christ. And, then, Annesley left. The people didn’t want him to leave. They plead with him to stay. They now knew that in losing him they would lose an incomparable minister. But he left, because he had promised that he would and he didn’t want any of the young Christians in his parish to think that the man giving them the gospel was not an honest man whose word could be trusted. He didn’t want there to be any sense on their part that his word was not trustworthy to prove a hindrance to their confidence in the gospel he had taught them.
Or take the Anglican bishop of New Guinea when the eastern half of the island was overrun by the enemy during the Second World War. The British authorities ordered all the white residents to leave for Australia. Many of the missionaries insisted on remaining. The bishop broadcast this message to his staff:
“We must endeavor to carry on our work in all circumstances, no matter what the cost may ultimately be to any of us individually. God expects this of us. The Church at home, which sent us out, will surely expect it. The universal Church expects it. The tradition and history of missions requires it of us…. The people whom we serve expect it of us. We could never hold up our faces again if, for our own safety, we all forsook Him and fled when the shadows of his passion began to gather around Him in His spiritual and mystical body, the Church in Papua.” [They Found the Church There, 31-32]
What is that but a refusal, a Pauline-like refusal, to act in any way that would put a hindrance in the way of the progress of the gospel in the hearts of men. The surrender of their rights to freedom was willingly offered for the gospel’s sake. Would the Papuans continue to believe that to live is Christ and to die is gain if, at the first sign of danger, the missionaries turned tail and ran? As it happened, six weeks later, the mission steamboat was bombed and the bishop machine gunned while visiting in enemy-held territory. In fact, in proportion to their numbers, the death toll among Protestant missionaries in New Guinea during the war far exceeded that among the soldiers. And all because they would put up with anything for the Gospel’s sake.
Paul was not the first, and he would by no means be the last, who lived by the principle “put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”
Now Paul is recollecting his own practice for one reason: to encourage the same practice in the lives of those Corinthian Christians and, by the Spirit of God, the same practice in the lives of all Christians everywhere.
We know, alas, that it is not always so in Christian living. We fail in many ways. That is why we need, why we so desperately need a Redeemer. Time and again, I know, ministers put hindrances to the gospel in the way of their people. I remember working once for a minister whom no one in the church respected. He had borrowed money from a number of them, he had a reputation for not working very hard, his public work bore the marks of laziness. How can you take seriously a message about the meaning of life from a man like that?
But, it isn’t only ministers. Parents put hindrances to the gospel before their children. Florence and I know of a family, a large family of Christians. One of the daughters, only one thankfully, is an unbeliever. She is now an old woman, but all through her life she has been a very kind and loving person. Kinder, it would seem, than almost anyone else in the family. Her children, who are not Christians either, are wonderfully kind people. And we think we know where the problem lay, humanly speaking. It was a family and it was a church in which there was far too much criticism, there was too much harshness and not enough love, too much condemnation and not enough affirmation. And this daughter, as a young woman, went looking for more love and found it in the arms of an unbelieving man. Sad. Mysterious. Who can comprehend the ways of the Lord. But, surely none of us who has observed life for any length of time can doubt that parents often put hindrances to the gospel in the way of their own children. This morning, at the baptism, that promise we have heard innumerable times, was heard once more: “do you promise to bring [your child] up in the nurture and discipline of the Lord, to pray with and for him, and to make every effort so to order your own lives that you will not cause this little one to stumble.” That is, do you promise to put no hindrance in the way of the gospel in the lives of your children.
For, alas, that is too often done. Teachers can put hindrances to the gospel in the way of their students, and friends in the way of their friends, and neighbors in the way of neighbors, and family members in the way of family members, and bosses in the way of workers, and on and on.
No, says Paul, “I will put up with anything, I will give up anything – including things to which I have an absolute right – , I will disadvantage myself, make my own life more difficult and demanding, I will let others take the limelight from me, I will even take a lot of criticism I don’t deserve; I will put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel.
And why? Because it is the way someone lives who really understands what the gospel means: treating the unworthy with grace and love. That is what God did for us. And because it is the way God uses to bring others to himself, a way that reflects the way of grace and not merit. Because it is the way of humility. The person who stands on his or her rights is the person who believes that he or she is deserving. Christians know they are not. And, because it is the way to honor Christ’s name among men by living as he did, who gave up every one of his rights to redeem his people from their sins and give them eternal life.
I tell you, the more you and I feel the full impact of God’s love and appreciate the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice, the more we will embrace, we will welcome every opportunity to give things up, to make sacrifices, especially of things we have a right to. Love craves opportunities for its demonstration. Paul was a man who loved greatly. And having been saved by the same love and the same sacrifice as saved Paul, we should not rest until we are men and women who love greatly. And, if that is our desire, Paul has told us how to do it in the manner that matters most and accomplishes most. It’s a great way to live: making it our daily principle to do nothing that would put a hindrance in the way of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.