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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 9

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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2. Paul’s apostolic defense ch. 9

The absence of the key phrase "now concerning" is the clue that this chapter does not deal with a new subject. It is a continuation of the discussion of eating in idol temples that Paul began in 1 Corinthians 8:1. Subjecting our freedom for the welfare of other people is not something any of us does naturally. Paul knew his readers would profit from more instruction on this subject. He used himself as an illustration of the proper attitude toward one’s freedom and responsibility in Christ.

Evidently the Corinthian Christians had misunderstood Paul’s policy of limiting the exercise of his activities to help others (1 Corinthians 8:13). Some in the church had apparently concluded that because he did not exercise his rights he did not have them, for example, his right to material support (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:13). His apparently vacillating conduct also raised questions in their minds about his full apostolic authority. For example, he ate marketplace food with Gentiles but not with Jews. Paul responded to this viewpoint in this chapter. There have been evidences of the Corinthians’ unwillingness to yield to Paul’s authority throughout this letter (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 1 Corinthians 5-6; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:36-37). This was an appropriate place for him to confront the issue.

Verse 1

The apostle’s four rhetorical questions all expect a positive answer, and they become increasingly specific. Certainly he enjoyed the liberty that every other believer had. Furthermore he possessed the rights and privileges of an apostle. The proof of his apostleship was twofold. He had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22) on the Damascus road (Acts 22:14-15; Acts 26:15-18), and he had founded the church in Corinth, which was apostolic work (cf. Romans 15:15-21). Clearly Paul’s apostleship was at stake in Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 1 Corinthians 4:8-21; 1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

Verses 1-2

Apostolic identity 9:1-2

Verse 2

Others might have doubts about Paul’s apostleship, but the Corinthians certainly should not in view of his ministry among them. They themselves were the proof that he was an apostle.

Verse 3

If anyone challenged his practice of forgoing his rights as an apostle, his response follows.

Verses 3-14

Apostolic rights 9:3-14

The issue of Paul’s right to their material support underlies this whole pericope.

"Philosophers and wandering missionaries in the Greco-Roman world were ’supported’ by four means: fees, patronage, begging, and working. Each of these had both proponents and detractors, who viewed rival forms as not worthy of philosophy." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 399.]

Paul did not begin by justifying his renunciation of his apostolic rights but by establishing that he had these rights. He evidently had to begin there because the Corinthians were challenging these rights. They were assuming that Paul had worked with his hands because he lacked apostolic rights, not because he had chosen to forgo them.

Verse 4

Paul used the series of rhetorical questions that begins here to force the Corinthians to recognize-they should already have known-that he possessed full apostolic rights. In view of the other rights that follow, Paul’s reference to eating and drinking here probably means to eat and drink at the expense of others. It means to accept financial support in his ministry.

Verse 5

Evidently it was customary for the other apostles and the Lord’s physical brothers to take their wives with them when they traveled to minister. The churches they served covered the expenses of these women as well as those of their husbands. Paul may have mentioned Peter in particular because he had a strong following in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:12). His references to the Lord’s brothers in this verse and to Barnabas in the next do not necessarily mean that these men had visited Corinth. Perhaps the Corinthians knew about their habits of ministering second-hand.

Verse 6

The Corinthians had acknowledged the right of the other apostles to refrain from secular employment. Paul and Barnabas chose to work with their hands at times so their financial support would not burden their converts (1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9; Acts 20:34). Evidently the practice of Barnabas was well known. Paul had stooped to the demeaning work (in the Corinthians’ eyes) of making tents while he ministered in Corinth (Acts 18:3). Apparently some of the Corinthian Christians took Paul’s action as an indication that he did not think of himself as worthy of support because he was not equal with the other apostles.

Verse 7

Paul used six arguments in the following verses to support his point that those who work have a right to receive pay. First, it is customary. Three illustrations support the fact that Paul as a servant of the Lord had a right to accept support from those to whom he ministered. The Lord’s servants are certainly not inferior to soldiers, farmers, and shepherds.

Verses 8-9

Second, the Old Testament supported this point. God made special provision in the Mosaic Law for the oxen that served people by threshing their grain (Deuteronomy 25:4). In so doing, Paul said, God was teaching His concern for the maintenance of all who serve others, not just oxen. [Note: See Jan L. Verbruggen, "Of Muzzles and Oxen: Deuteronomy 25:4 and 1 Corinthians 9:9," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49:4 (December 2006):699-711, for a study of various ways Paul may have understood and used Deuteronomy 25:4.]

"Keep in mind that, for the most part, the Greeks despised manual labor. They had slaves to do manual labor so that the citizens could enjoy sports, philosophy, and leisure. The Jews, of course, magnified honest labor." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:599.]

Verse 10

God meant to encourage human laborers with His provision for animals that labored. He wanted human laborers to work with the hope of pay. The people who profited from those services should consider those who served them worthy of support.

"Not muzzling an ox . . . was probably a proverbial expression concerning just remuneration, properly understood and interpreted as such by Paul. A modern parallel would be the adage, ’You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ which is commonly applied in contexts other than canine obedience." [Note: Lowery, p. 523.]

Verse 11

Third, the basic principle of community reciprocity supports Paul’s point. Spiritual things are intrinsically more important than physical things. The former will last forever whereas the latter are only temporary. How much more then should those who benefit from spiritual ministry support physically those who minister to them (cf. Galatians 6:6). "Is it too much" reveals that Paul was contending with the Corinthians, not just exhorting them.

Verse 12

Fourth, the precedent of the practice of other Christian leaders supported Paul’s point. As the planter of the Corinthian church Paul had a right to the support of the Corinthians more than any of their other ministers did. Yet he did not insist on his right. He chose rather to support himself so his work of establishing the church might not suffer from criticism that he was serving for the material benefits he derived from his converts.

Verse 13

Fifth, the practice of the priesthood further supported Paul’s point. Paul appealed to the common Jewish practice, which was also prevalent in pagan religions, of allowing those who minister in spiritual matters to gain physical support from those they serve.

Verse 14

Sixth, Paul appealed to the teaching of Jesus to support his point. The Lord Jesus taught the same right (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7).

"All too often, one fears, the objective of this text is lost in concerns over ’rights’ that reflect bald professionalism rather than a concern for the gospel itself." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 414.]

Verse 15

Paul had this right, but he chose not to use it. He did not want his readers to interpret what he had said on this subject as a veiled request for support. He had made his decision to support himself while he preached freely; the Lord did not require this of him. Consequently he could take justifiable pride in it, as anyone who makes a sacrifice for the welfare of others can.

Verses 15-18

Apostolic restraint 9:15-18

Having argued vigorously for his right to the Corinthians’ support, Paul now proceeded to argue just as strongly for his right to give up this right, his point from the beginning. He explained why he had deliberately not accepted their patronage. This pericope gives the reader a window into the apostle’s soul. We see here what made him tick.

Verse 16

He could not take justifiable pride in the fact that he preached the gospel, however. Even though it involved sacrificing for the benefit of others, he had made those sacrifices in obedience to the Lord (Acts 26:16-18; cf. Matthew 28:19-20). He had no choice about preaching the gospel as he did about how he would live while he did so. Preaching was his divine destiny. Indeed he would be in serious trouble with his Lord if he did not preach the gospel. (And so will we.)

Verse 17

If he preached the gospel willingly, he would receive a reward (pay) from the Lord. If he did so unwillingly, he would not receive a reward but would be simply doing his duty as a steward (manager of a household; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; Luke 17:7-10).

Verse 18

Paul’s reward for preaching the gospel willingly was the privilege of preaching it without cost to his hearers. His highest pay was the privilege of preaching without pay. [Note: Morris, p. 137. See also Barrett, p. 210.] This choice may seem as though it was Paul’s decision rather than a reward from the Lord, but he viewed it as a privilege that came to him from the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:7-12).

Paul had all the rights of an apostle and was free to insist on them if he chose to do so. He also had the freedom not to insist on them. Relinquishing his right to support corresponds to giving up his right to eat in a pagan temple (1 Corinthians 8:13). In both cases it was the welfare of others that led him to forgo a legitimate right.

Verse 19

Paul was a free man, not a slave of any other human being. Nevertheless as the Lord’s servant, he had made himself subject to every other human being so he might win some to Christ. Serving people rather than commanding them is the way to win them (cf. Mark 10:45).

Verses 19-23

Apostolic freedom 9:19-23

The extent to which the apostle was willing to lay aside his rights comes out in this pericope. Since Paul chose not to receive pay for his ministry in Corinth, he was free from the restrictions that patronage might impose. This left him free to become the slave of all.

Verse 20

It was the apostle’s custom to follow Jewish ways when he was in the company of Jews. He did so to make them receptive to him and his message rather than antagonistic (cf. Acts 21:20-26). He did not do this because he felt obligated to keep the Mosaic Law. He did not feel obligated to do so (Romans 6:14). The salvation of Jews was his objective in observing Jewish laws and customs, many of which dealt with abstaining from certain foods (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13). He had circumcised Timothy at Lystra for this purpose, namely, more effective ministry to and among Jews (Acts 16:3).

Verse 21

Likewise when Paul was with Gentiles he behaved as a Gentile. This would have involved eating what they did, among other things.

The references to law in this verse may be confusing. In describing Gentiles as being without law, Paul did not mean that Gentiles are totally lawless (cf. Romans 2:14). He meant they were not under the Law of Moses as the Jews were (1 Corinthians 9:20). Paul wanted his readers to understand that even though he did not observe the Mosaic Law when he was with Gentiles (Gr. anomos) he was still under God’s authority (ennomos). As a Christian he was not under the Law of Moses, but he was under the Law of Christ (cf. Galatians 6:2). The law of God for Jews before the Cross was the Law of Moses, but His law for Christians in the present age is the Law of Christ. The Law of Christ is the code of responsibilities that Christ and His apostles taught, which the New Testament contains. Some of the same commands are in the Mosaic Law though the codes, the Mosaic Law and the Law of Christ, are not the same. [Note: Femi Adeyemi, "The New Covenant Law and the Law of Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra 163:652 (October-December 2006):438-52, correctly equated the Law of Christ with the New Covenant Law (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34).]

"This is one of the most difficult sentences in the epistle, and also one of the most important, for in it Paul shows how the new relation to God which he has in Christ expresses his debt of obedience to God." [Note: Barrett, p. 212.]

Verse 22

The weak are those who have extremely sensitive consciences in the area of amoral practices (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:9) such as the Jews. Here the apostle meant unbelievers, as is clear from what he said about them. Paul accommodated himself to their scruples. This policy undoubtedly led some people to conclude that Paul was inconsistent. His superficial inconsistency really manifested a more fundamental consistency. He did everything amoral with a view to bringing people to the Savior. [Note: See H. Chadwick, "’All Things to All Men’ (I Cor. IX. 22)," New Testament Studies 1 (1954-55):261-75.]

Verse 23

The work of the gospel was the great axis around which everything in Paul’s life revolved. He made it such so he might share in its blessings. He proceeded to explain what this involves in the following verses.

Verse 24

The Corinthians were familiar with athletic contests. The Isthmian Games took place in a nearby town every two or three years. They were second only to the Olympic Games in importance in Greece. [Note: Morris, p. 139.] The Greek word translated "race" is stadion, the word used to describe the standard 600-foot Greek race. [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 89.]

Paul’s emphasis in this verse was on the last statement. We should run our race so we will receive a reward from the Judge. In the Christian race we do not compete with one another for the prize. We compete with ourselves. The emphasis is on self-discipline, not competition. In a foot race only one person is the winner, but in the Christian race all who keep the rules and run hard will receive a reward (cf. Matthew 6:19-21; 2 Timothy 2:5).

Verses 24-27

Apostolic exhortation and example 9:24-27

This passage is transitional, concluding Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority (1 Corinthians 9:1-23) and returning to the argument against participating in cultic meals (ch. 8). Metaphors from the athletic games fill the pericope. Philosophers and other orators in Paul’s world frequently used athletic metaphors to describe their labors. [Note: Keener, pp. 81-82.]

Verse 25

"Competes" is a translation of agonidzomai from which we get the English word "agonizes." To receive the prize of our Lord’s "well done" we need to give all our effort. We also need to exercise self-control. Competitors in the Isthmian Games had to train for 10 months. [Note: Morris, p. 139.] An athlete in training denies himself or herself many lawful pleasures to gain an extra edge of superiority. Likewise we may need to limit our liberty for a higher goal as spiritual athletes.

Winners in the Isthmian Games received a wreath of parsley, wild celery, or pine. [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 89.] In the Olympian Games the prize was a wild olive wreath. [Note: Robertson, 4:149.] However the victorious Christian’s reward is imperishable (cf. 2 Timothy 4:8), and it lies in the eschaton. [Note: See Wall, pp. 79-89.] How much more important it is to be willing to forgo our rights for the spiritual advancement of others than it is to train for a physical footrace (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18)!

Believers’ Crowns
An Imperishable CrownFor leading a disciplined life1 Corinthians 9:25
A Crown of RejoicingFor evangelism and discipleship1 Thessalonians 2:19
A Crown of RighteousnessFor loving the Lord’s appearing2 Timothy 4:8
A Crown of LifeFor enduring trialsJames 1:12;
Revelation 2:10
A Crown of GloryFor shepherding God’s flock faithfully1 Peter 5:4

Verse 26

In view of the comparative value of these rewards, Paul ran the Christian race purposefully, not aimlessly or halfheartedly. He wanted to gain a prize at the judgment seat of Christ. To use a different figure to make the same point, he did not throw wild punches but sought to make every punch score. Christian service is not just activity. It is activity focused on a target, namely, the building of the church and the defeat of the enemy who wants to destroy people. It is the work of the gospel.

Verse 27

In another sense Paul viewed his flesh as his enemy. He recognized the need to exercise strict self-discipline. Obviously Paul was not speaking of self-discipline in the physical realm alone. He also had in mind moral discipline and discipline in the amoral areas of his life including voluntary curtailment of personal rights and liberties (cf. ch. 8; 1 Timothy 4:8). [Note: See Jerry M. Hullinger, "The Historical Background of Paul’s Athletic Allusions," Bibliotheca Sacra 161:643 July-September 2004):343-59.]

We must be careful not to confuse the fear of disqualification with the fear of damnation. Paul had no fear that he would lose his salvation (Romans 8:1; Romans 8:29-39). In the context what he could lose was a reward. [Note: See Smith, "Can Fallen . . .," pp. 466-67.] How ironic and pathetic it would be for Paul to forfeit a crown through his own lack of self-discipline or by breaking the Judge’s rules since He had instructed others concerning how to win one.

This whole chapter is an explanation of the last verse of the preceding chapter. More generally it clarifies the importance of limiting our legitimate liberty as Christians for higher goals, namely, the glory of God and the welfare of other people.

"Almost in reaction against . . . globalization, many people are responding with increasing nationalism, sometimes with almost frightening ethnocentrism. Christians are not immune to these sweeping currents of thought. They, too, can be caught up in flag-waving nationalism that puts the interests of my nation or my class or my race or my tribe or my heritage above the demands of the kingdom of God. Instead of feeling that their most important citizenship is in heaven, and that they are just passing through down here on their way ’home’ to the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22-23), they become embroiled with petty priorities that constitute an implicit denial of the lordship of Christ." [Note: Carson, p. 116.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-9.html. 2012.
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