Text: 1 Corinthians 9:1-18
Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
My defense to those who examine me is this…
Some of you out there currently work with or have worked with Christian schools. And those of you who homeschool have basically created your own school. When you do this work in Christian education, you have probably had to look at what the other schools around you are doing, as well as what various colleges expect, in order to create for yourself an understood standard of academic rigor and excellence. The term that people have coined for this process in a formal way is “accreditation.” Accreditation sometimes implies an outside agency who conducts the work but really the point of accreditation is credit. It’s a way to let people know that a school has passed muster with a wider audience. Some very good schools, most famously Harvard, never even seek accreditation, but they do this because their name and reputation already is a sort of accreditation. People know and recognize their excellence.
Accreditation is basically just a way to say “you can trust us,” and here in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is having to prove his credentials. He is having to explain to the Corinthians why they should listen to him, why he has authority. This is a very important section of Scripture because Paul briefly mentions his commissioning by Christ, which is otherwise his main answer, but here he treats it as a mere footnote. Paul’s main answer as to why he has credit is in his example that he has set before the Corinthians, particularly in how he has used Christian liberty. In this case, Paul’s case of Christian liberty is in what he has not claimed. Why should they listen to Paul? Because he could have laid claim to payment. He could have required the Corinthians to pay him for his services, but he freely chose to not claim that right.
The matter of payment isn’t really the issue though. Paul goes out of his way to point out that churches should pay their pastors. He also mentions marriage briefly. Both payment and marriage are rights that he could have claimed but chose not to. The reason that he didn’t claim these rights is that he didn’t want anyone to be able to take away his boasting—not boasting in himself but boasting in the gospel. He didn’t want anyone to have anything to take away from Paul’s relationship to the gospel alone.
What we see here is this message for us today. The way to gain authority, influence, and credibility in the church is not by way of degrees, where you come from, and not even your intellectual ability but instead it is in the ability to not claim everything that you have a right to. It’s in showing your Christian freedom in love to let claimable rights to go unclaimed for the sake of the gospel and the good of the church. What we’ll see this morning is that when we imitate Paul after this manner, we are also going to be imitating Jesus.
Paul Defends Himself
So why is Paul having to defend himself like this? Well, this is 1 Corinthians. The book is like this. It’s a contentious letter. The divisions in the church have led to people calling Paul into questions. When Paul says, “Am I not an apostle?” that’s a rhetorical question with a bit of an edge to it. People are basically saying “Why should we have to listen to Paul?” and Paul is responding with a string of rhetorical questions. “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (vs. 1). The answer to all of these questions is supposed to be “Of course!”
Indeed, Paul puts the burden on the Corinthians themselves. “Are you not my work in the Lord? …You are the seal of my apostleship” (vs. 1, 2). So how do we know that Paul is an apostle? Look at the church at Corinth. The Corinthians wouldn’t be there had it not been for Paul, and so it’s absurd for them to start questioning his authority.
Giving Up Rights
Now, those questions are “power” questions. They really are the kind of thing that would end the conversation. But Paul doesn’t use them to end the conversation. He doesn’t say “Boom!” No, he goes on to shift the focus to his example. Why should we listen to Paul? Well, look at how he lived.
Let’s go back to that illustration of school accreditation. Now, how do you get accredited? Most schools have to bring in some sort of outside inspector, produce a list of their textbooks, show that their teachers have the right kinds of degrees, and prove that the students are actually having to do what the schools says that they will do. One of the most important things about the whole process, however, is doing what you say that you will do. There’s actually a lot of leeway in school standards, but the thing that the accreditation agencies are looking for is in consistency of doing what you say is required. And that’s what we see with Paul. It’s not just about his degrees on the wall, but rather, does he do what he says to do and does he do what he asks the Corinthians?
Look at verse 3. This is the central verse to know what’s going on. “My defense to those who examine me is this…” Here it comes. Here’s the big answer. Paul’s defense is… well, it’s actually quite interesting. He doesn’t play a trump card of authority. He doesn’t just say that Jesus put him in charge. He doesn’t appeal to his great knowledge. No, instead he points out the fact that he has chosen to pass up otherwise claimable rights so that the gospel can flourish among the Corinthian Christians. He is a true apostle because he has not taken full advantage of everything that he had a right to.
Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? (vs. 4-6)
We shouldn’t miss the fact that Paul is using the language of “rights.” He isn’t saying that he chose not to try to get something that he had no connection to. No. He is saying that something that he had a right to, he chose to pass up. He had the authority to lay claim to payment for his work and a wife for his romantic companionship, but he chose not to in order to better serve the church.
This won’t work if we water this down. Some people say that it’s wrong for pastors to be paid, and they argue this because of Paul’s example. But here Paul is arguing the opposite. He is arguing that pastors should be paid, and he says that it is a matter of right. It’s just he chooses to forgo this right.
Paul expands on this by pointing to nature—the way that war or farming works. He also points to the Law of Moses. Deuteronomy 25:4 says that you should feed your oxen, and Paul says that this gives us a principle for paying all laborers, even pastors. This is an example of reasoning by analogy and finding the underlying logic of a law, by the way. You don’t just use the Old Testament in a cut-and-paste fashion. You are supposed to meditate upon the law day and night and extract all of the wisdom from it. And here, Paul says, the law about oxen teaches us that we should ordinarily pay our pastors.
Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. (1 Cor. 9:9-10)
Paul shows us how to use the Old Testament here as well. The Old Testament was never meant to be cut and paste, for readers to simply take what they read and apply it directly to their own situation. Many people are confused about this today. They often warn us against taking the text “literally,” by which they usually mean that we shouldn’t take it all. In their desire to avoid “taking it literally,” they end up saying that it means nothing at all to us today. But Paul says that this text wasn’t about oxen, or it wasn’t only about oxen, and so you should think more deeply about it. We should ask what the logic behind it is all about. What are the principles that make sense of it?
Deuteronomy 25:4 comes right at the end of a section on proportional punishments. Deuteronomy 25:1-3 prescribe a maximum penalty for a crime and thus no more. Then verse 4 says to not muzzle the ox. What’s the connection? Both are bout justice or desert. The section on punishment is about not giving more punishment than is deserved, and the section on the oxen not being muzzled is about not preventing them from getting what they deserve. So the principle is what we might call retributive justice, giving someone what is owed. That’s what Paul is doing here. He is highlighting the principle of “just deserts.” He says that the law of Moses says that workers are to be paid and thus workers in the church are to be paid. Those who serve at the altar partake of the things at the altar. Thus they should be paid. Can that be abused? Yes. But abuse does not nullify what someone is rightfully owed.
But Paul doesn’t claim it. That’s what’s amazing. He has a right to this. This is a matter of retributive justice. “Nevertheless we have not used this right” (1 Cor. 9:12a). We could have, and had you tried to stop us that would have been wrong. “Nevertheless we have not used this right but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12). Paul decided that he would forgo receiving payment for the ministry in Corinth so as not to hinder the gospel of Christ.
How exactly would Paul’s receiving pay for the ministry have hindered the gospel of Christ? We are not told exactly, but it probably had to do with the specific situation in Corinth. Paul didn’t want them to think of him like an employee. He also didn’t want them to think he was in it for the money. Most of all, however, he is setting an example.
He had a right to be paid, but he chose not to exercise that right. And this is, amazingly, how Paul’s authority over the Corinthians becomes most clear. Instead of being their hireling, he is their apostle. The right unclaimed is his accreditation. The mere fact of having a right to something and choosing not to take it is an illustration of the gospel.
The Deeper Right: Foolishness in the Gospel
This is the message for us. We are to follow this example. Now it doesn’t work the same way in every situation. It’s not just about money, and some scenarios wouldn’t make the same kind of sense. The underlying point is about how not claiming rights out of love can be an illustration of the gospel. At the end of the day, what we see is the principle that “there is always a deeper right than being right.”
There is always a more fundamental right that will win, convince people, and achieve the goal than merely being right or claiming what’s yours. We see this with examples of magnanimity. Think about the rich man who chooses to pay the poor man’s debt in the parables. He has no reason to have to do it but he does. That act of paying the debts sent a bigger signal than merely claiming the debts.
Or how about when Jesus tells His apostles:
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)
That doesn’t sound right does it? If someone is saying false things about you, shouldn’t you set the record straight? But Jesus says no. He says to rejoice.
This is also what “turn the other cheek” is all about in Matthew 5:39. The word sometimes translated “strike” there isn’t a punch in the face or a hit over the head with the club. It’s actually the word “slap.” When you are disrespected or slapped in the face, you do not have to return evil for evil. Instead, bless those who hate you. And something about doing that wins.
There’s something about not responding equally, even “justly” on an earthly level, but instead responding in a way that shows deference, humility, grace, and sacrifice—there’s something about that that wins.
This is the great gospel mystery to it all. You might say, “You sound like a crazy person talking this way.” But if I sound like a crazy person, then that means I sound like 1 Corinthians. So I’m doing good. Do you remember what it says in 1 Corinthians 1?
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? (1 Cor. 1:18-20)
What is the ultimate sign of the power and wisdom of God which confounds the whole world? What is it that God does that no one can get? Paul says it’s this:
…it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:21-25)
The message of the gospel is weak and foolish because it says “God created a world, and Satan was able to mess it up. He was able to deceive humans into sinning against God, which is a slap against His holiness and righteousness. The world was brought down into sin and ugliness. And God could have destroyed it all. But instead of doing that, God sent His Son to be born like one of those people, and He bore the burden of other sinners. He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted because of what they did. He went to the cross and suffered and died.”
That really is foolishness. That is weakness. But that is how God chose to solve the problem of sin and death. It doesn’t “make sense” form a worldly perspective. You wonder, “why did He do it that way?” It was to show His power in grace. It was to show His strength in weakness.
And so when we do the same thing, it is foolish. It’s weak. But it’s gospel.
When we do what Paul did, not laying claim to a right that we could claim by right, when we do that, we’re doing what Jesus did. Jesus was in the form of God, but He did not count equality with God a thing to be held on to or clutched tightly, but rather poured Himself out and humbled Himself. He made Himself to be nothing. At the end of the day, when we imitate this example, we are imitating what God did.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, there’s a really amazing conversation. It’s a conversation between demons and so lots of errors are in there on purpose. But there’s this great conversation around Letter 18. It says something like, “This God is lying to people. He is saying that we can all grow together. But we know that for one of us to grow is for the other to get smaller.”
The reason that is so profound is that it does look like God is cheating a bit, doesn’t it. God is getting to be both just and gracious, and the way that He does so is by paying the penalty Himself. The reason He can do all of this is that He is perfect love.
And that is the example. That’s what we are to look up to. We are to look up to a God who can claim certain things but chooses not to. Then we look at ministers who do that as well, and this should flow out to the whole people of God.
Why should people listen to you? Why should people take your Christianity seriously? Perhaps we could put it another way—how should all men know that you are Christ’s disciples? By your love for one another (John 13:35) and your love embodied towards service and exalting your neighbor.
Christian liberty in this sense is an accreditation. What you could claim as yours you choose not to, and you have the freedom to do that knowing God has made it all equal in His divine mathematics. You can do this because you love your neighbors and you know it will boost them up. In the end you know it will also boost you up because it exalts the gospel.
This is our message. Why should we trust one another? Because we choose to give up what is ours for the sake of others and for the sake of the gospel.
This is a message that is hard. It’s easier said than done. It’s
If we are all doing this, it won’t be easy. It won’t magically solve whatever happens. But if we are all of this mindset, then really there are no problems that can take us down. There is nothing which will stop our community. There’s nothing which will stand in the way because if we are doing this we are already saying “We’ll take the hit.” Trust God. He will work it out.
This is a sort of message of invincibility. We won’t be defrauded. Everything we give up will be repaid to us and more. This is the glory of gospel
Let us pray.
 I took this line from Pastor Douglas Wilson who, in turn, credits his father Jim Wilson.