Text: 1 Cor. 9:11-18
If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.
This morning I am going to preach a sermon to myself. I don’t mean for this to be a gimmick, and I will try to open it up towards the end to include everyone, but as I read this part of 1 Corinthians 9, I can’t help but feel that it’s a message that pastors need to hear. And that means it’s a passage that I need to hear.
The big idea of this passage is gospel stewardship. Paul is saying that his ministry is a stewardship given to Him from God, and therefore he must be careful to use every aspect of it in a way that glorifies God and prioritizes the mission of the gospel over and above his own personal needs, desires, and rights. The bigger picture of stewardship in service to God must dictate how Paul uses his Christian liberty.
When we get to the end of the sermon I will try to include you all in this message as well, because you too are stewards of the gospel in your lives and your callings. And you too will have to learn how to use your liberty in Christ. So your message will not be a different message from mine. You must use your liberty as a faithful steward in the service of your Master. And in order to do this, we will all have to come to a full Biblical understanding of just what stewardship actually is. That’s something I hope we can see from our passage this morning.
Paul is Talking about his Pastoral Office
As we mentioned last week, Paul is here defending his role as pastor, but he is also explaining the nature of the pastoral office. He is trying to explain why it is that he has not been accepting payment for his labors in the gospel, even though he ordinarily should have been paid. He argues from nature, pointing out how those who go to war, plant a vineyard, or tend a flock all take a portion from their labors (1 Cor. 9:7). Paul also reasons from the Old Testament, pointing out both the law about oxen in Deut. 25:4 and the custom of the priests eating from the altar (1 Cor. 9:9, 13). On top of all of this, Paul says that Jesus Christ has actually commanded that preachers be paid for their labors. “Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (vs. 14).
This would seem to be a pretty strong case for paying pastors. Also, notice that this moves the question beyond simply the rights of the Apostles. Paul is talking about paying those who “preach the gospel” in a more general sense. But, after all of this, Paul does not accept payment but insists on his “freedom” to carry out his ministry without pay:
If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ …But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me now. (12, 15)
Why does Paul feel so strongly that he should not accept the pay that he is owed? This is where I was personally humbled by the text. But in order to explain it, I need to present the argument, as best I can, from the original text. When we see it laid out very strictly, we can actually get a look into Paul’s personality and state of mind.
Paul is a Steward
Paul’s argument runs through verses 14 and 15, but verse 15 is actually quite choppy in the Greek. It seems to be at least three different sentences, and there’s a mark in the original, the equivalent of our modern dash, which shows that Paul was breaking off the sentence midway. He’s making an emphatic point, or perhaps just running of words, and the point is left hanging. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in most English translations, and so I will do my best to put it together for you now. It goes something like this:
The Lord has commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have not made use of this, nor am I writing this so that something will be done for me. For it would be better for me to die! No one will make my boasting void!
Paul doesn’t want to receive payment from the Corinthians because that might take away his ability to boast, and he would rather die than give up that boast. What is the boast? The boast is in the fact that the ministry has been laid upon Paul from the outside, by God. The boast is in the fact that the preaching of the gospel was something Paul was called to. The boast was in the fact that Paul had been given a stewardship:
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel. (vs. 16-18)
What we see here, then, is that Paul is foregoing a salary in order to better ensure that his ministerial calling be a true stewardship. This was what was so important that Paul could say that he would rather die than send the wrong message to the watching world. He must preserve the understanding that the ministry of the gospel was something given by God as a specific office with a specific purpose. And he wants to preserve the understanding the One who ultimately has authority over it is God.
Since this is the big deal for Paul, we need to know what it is. Gospel stewardship is so important that Paul would give up his paycheck for it. So what is it? What does stewardship mean?
What Are Stewards?
In my experience, “stewardship” is one of those words that the church has more or less taken over. We only hear it used in church. And it’s mostly been given one truncated meaning—to donate money. Churches will often have what they call “Stewardship Sunday,” and that’s where the pastor makes a pitch to the congregation to give to the church. That’s certainly connected to what the word “stewardship” means, but it’s hardly the whole thing.
The word for steward is literally “house-warden.” You might think of a butler, someone who carries out the household affairs of the owner of the house. This is more than just janitorial services, of course. Especially for a large estate, a castle perhaps, the butler would be in charge of an entire system of operations, the kitchen, the plumbing, the outdoor equipment, the animals, and perhaps even the daily routine for the other family members. It might be better, then, to call him a “manager.”
We see the picture of stewardship very famously in the parables of Jesus. Luke 19 presents the parable of the minas. “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come’” (Luke 19:12-13). Then it says, “When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business” (Luke 19:15). The master proceeds to inspect each servant’s work. That’s stewardship.
Stewards have been given a measure of responsibility from some other source, and they must use that responsibility in such a way that pleases their master. They are “free” in regards to all other men, but they must still give an account of how they use their freedom and their authority to their master. In this case, we are stewards, and our master is God.
This is what Paul is so concerned about with his ministry. He wants to conduct himself as a faithful steward of God, and he wants to be sure to appear as a steward. He doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and think that either, A) he works for himself, or B) he works for them. No, as he puts it, “I have been entrusted with a stewardship” (1 Cor. 9:17). His master is God. The ministry is a stewardship.
This is a very heavy passage of Scripture, and it’s primarily focused on the office of pastor or preacher. I confess that I have not always viewed my office in the proper light. I have not been as sober about it as Paul is here. And I stand convicted. Could I give up a salary in order to protect God’s authority? Could I even give up my routine or privileged lifestyle? This passage convicts me of my own lack of discipline, self-awareness, and fear. I will have to give an account of how I use my time and my resources before God, and part of what He will be looking at to decide what sort of job I have done is you.
I confess my failings here and cry out to God for His grace. I must do better on this point, and I can only hope to do so with His help and with His blessing. I must become a steward of the gospel.
Christian Liberty is Founded on Stewardship
Now it’s true that this passage is particularly aimed at the ministry. But, having said that, Paul is holding himself up as an example to the Corinthians. He is holding himself up as an example of how to use Christian liberty. In that case then, it does apply to all of the people of God, and there is a real sense in which we can say that all Christians are also stewards of God.
In fact, Paul has already used the expression “stewards of the mysteries of God” in chapter 4. There he said, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1-2). That still sounds like he’s talking about the ministry, but back up just one verse. The end of chapter 3, which leads right into that statement about stewardship, says this, “you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:23). Then he says, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards…” Thus we can see that the whole church is called to see themselves as “belonging” to Christ and therefore to God.
Indeed, this is a point that appears throughout the New Testament. 1 Cor. 6:20 says, “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Or how about Romans 14:7-8?:
For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
We do not live to ourselves because we belong to God.
Interestingly, there’s another parable about stewards in Luke 12, and after it’s over Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, do You speak this parable only to us, or to all people?” (Luke 12:41). Jesus answers that He is talking about all kinds of stewards, and He concludes by saying, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more” (Luke 12:48). Everyone who has been given gifts from God will have to give an account of those gifts. This is stewardship. And this means we are all stewards.
So this also then means that stewardship is the universal rule for how to use one’s Christian liberty. This can get a little tricky because you really are free. It is not my business to judge another man’s stewards. But you should judge yourself. Are you using your liberty as a good steward? When God comes to ask what you’ve been doing with His gifts, are you confident in your answer? What sort of work will He find?
We are all stewards, and that means we all have the same guiding rule to know how to use our Christian liberty and how to use our authority. We must use what we have been given as a steward, as if we are only holding it on loan from God and He will come back one day to take it back—Because He will. All that we have is from His. It’s a gift. And we have to use it for Him.
Now, you might be wondering what you have authority over. As a pastor, this passage hits me directly. I have to be a steward over this congregation. But stewardship extends to all callings. You should think about your calling, including your calling in your family and your calling out in the world, at work, as a divine mandate from God with a divine purpose. To use God’s gifts and make a good return on them so that you can give them back to Him.
All political authorities are stewards of God. They merely reign as placeholders for Him. There is no power but of God (Rom. 13:1). Parents are stewards. You can’t really “make children.” We talk like that, but it’s not true. “Children are a heritage from the Lord” (Ps. 127:3). God gives them. As parents, we are merely borrowing them. We must use our parental authority as gospel stewardship over our family for God.
This doctrine should give you at least three things. It should give you a sense of humility. You are using God’s things. You are not really “in charge” here, and, though you are free, your purpose should be God’s purpose. Pay attention to His desires. Handle with care. If you mess up, confess it. Don’t dig in. Keep the bigger picture in your mind.
Stewardship should also give you motivation. The reason to do your job is to have something which to present to God. You will show Him what you’ve been doing with His things. And so you have to stay busy, and you have to stay excited.
Finally, the doctrine of stewardship should give you determination. Your calling was not chosen by you. It was given to you by God. This means that you are doing what you were created to do. You should have a divinely-inspired resolve which creates a relentless drive to stay at it, don’t quit, and bring it to success. This is God’s business, God’s house, and God’s world. Because of that you are free. It’s not anyone else’s but God’s. But because of that you are also bound. It’s God’s. We must use our freedom with the knowledge that nothing is just ours at all. It all belongs to God.
We use our gifts freely then because no one else needs to tell us how important things are. We are using our gifts for God because they are God’s. We are using our gifts for God because we are God’s.
Let us pray.