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The first instance which the apostle gives of his freedom and liberty was this, That when he preached the gospel amongst them at Corinth, he had a liberty either to live on the gospel, and take maintenance of them for preaching, or to live upon his labour, following his trade of tent-making, according as he saw it best for the furtherance of the gospel.
Am I not free? As if he had said, "Have not I as good a claim to freedom and Christian liberty as any man?
For, Am I not an apostle? or an extraordinary messenger of Jesus Christ? And though I never saw the face of Christ upon earth, yet have I not seen him and heard him speaking to me from heaven? And is not the conversion of you, the Corinthians, to the Christian faith by my ministry, a fruit and seal of my ministry, a fruit and seal of my apostleship? Now if I be all this, certainly I have as great a right and claim to the use of Christian liberty as any of you can pretend to have; yet will I only make use of it for the benefit of others, and for the furtherance of the gospel."
Learn we from the apostle's example in abstaining form that liberty and power which God had given him for receiving maintenance from them to whom he preached the gospel, how much it is the duty and concern of all Christians, to the end of the world, to abstain from the exercise of that liberty and rightful power granted to them by Christ, for avoiding the scandal of the weak, and promoting men's spiritual welfare.
As if he had said, "Whatever others do, you of all men should not question my apostleship, for you were converted by it. You confirm and ratify my ministry, that it is of God, and that God is in it of a truth: the conversion of sinners, and the building up of saints, is God's seal to our ministry."
Learn hence, That there is no such argument to prove a minister sent of Christ, as the success of his ministry in the conversion of souls unto God. This is God's seal to his office, that he is a minister called of God, and sent by God. Happy those ministers who can say unto their people, Ye are our work, and the seal of our apostleship are ye in the Lord.
Yet must it not be concluded from hence, that a person is not a true minister of Christ, because he cannot produce this seal: the good of our ministry is not always known to ourselves, much less published to the world; more good is done many times by the ministry of the word than the minister knows of; the seed sometimes lies long under the clods before it fructifies; what is sown in one minister's time, comes up in another's; so one soweth, and another reapeth, but both he that reapeth and he that soweth shall rejoice together. But where this seal can be produced, it is a certain sign that such a minister is sent from God, and that God is with him, and owns him; yet it must be added, that though the success of our ministry to others is a seal of our office, and assures us that we are true ministers, yet it is the efficacy of the word we preach, upon our own hearts and lives, that is the witness of our sanctification, and the seal of our salvation.
Lord, how sad will it be for any of us to have been instruments for the helping of others to heaven by the soundness of our doctrine, and go to hell ourselves for the badness of our example, and the wickedness of our lives?
Here the apostle instances in another branch of his Christian liberty, and that was marriage; he could have taken a wife, as Peter and other apostles did, had he pleased, and have put the church to further charges in maintaining himself, a wife, and family, as did others, without blame: and he and Barnabas had power to forbear working for their living, and maintaining themselves with their own labour in tent-making; they had power to ask maintenance of the Corinthians, if they pleased. But they considered the low circumstances which the church was in and under at that time, and continued both in a single state, and wrought with their hands to maintain themselves, when they might have expected maintenance from the church. Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife? that is, to marry, if we saw fit.
Hence learn, 1. The lawfulness of the ministers of the gospel marrying, as well as other men: neither the prophets of the Old Testament, nor the apostles of the New, did abhor the marriage-bed, nor judge themselves too pure for an institution of their Maker. The doctrine forbidding marriage to any, (which the apostle says is honourable in all,) is called a doctrine of devils.
Learn, 2. That no Christians, much less ministers, have power, (that is, any lawful power,) to marry such as are no Christians: their wives must be their sisters in Christ, that is, Christian women, at least by external and visible profession.
3. That husband and wife ought to be undivided companions one to another. Have we not power to lead about a wife? that is, to take her with us in our travels and journeyings from place to place, for our comfort and assistance. Husbands and wives are to be mutual companions, sharers in each other's sorrows, and partakers of one another's comforts.
As if the apostle had said, "As soldiers are paid by those that employ them, and as husbandmen and shepherds live upon the fruits of their labours, so may I, and all the ministers of the gospel with me."
Where note, 1. That the ministerial function is represented here as a warfare: the ministers of Christ are spiritual soldiers, they have many enemies to encounter with, and contend against. They are also planters, vine-dressers, husbandmen, shepherds: all which titles given to them do intimate and signify what care and painfulness, what diligence and watchfulness, should be found with them.
Note, 2. That maintenance, a comfortable maintenance, from the people, is a debt due to the ministers of the gospel, who labour in the word and doctrine amongst them: Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof?
This is the first argument which our apostle here makes use of, to prove the minister's maintenance a duty, taken from the law of nations, equity and custom; which do appoint and allow in soldiers, vine-dressers, and shepherds, yea, to all that labour for the use of others in their respective callings, a due reward of wages. What soldier goes to war at his own charges?
A second argument produced by the apostle for the people's cheerful maintenance of the ministers of the gospel, is taken from the Levitical law: Say I these things as a man; or saith not the law the same also?
As if he had said, "I do not speak this only rationally, as a thing very agreeable to the light of nature, and the law of nations, but the Levitical law says the same. For when God, in Deuteronomy 25:4 forbids to muzzle the mouth of the ox, who by hard labour treadeth out the corn with his feet, his design therein is more than the bare taking care of the ox; for thereby he shows in general what equity should be used in the just rewarding of all men that labour for us; and in particular the spiritual labourers, and such as plough, and sow, and thresh, in the spiritual husbandry, should labour, in hope of a livelihood and subsistence, and eat their bread when they have earned it. If all men are encouraged to work, by a just expectation of the fruit of their own just labours, why should not the ministers of the word meet with the like encouragement, which all mankind look upon as their just due?
A third argument for the ministers' maintenance is here taken from common justice: they sow spiritual things. That is, they dispense the word and sacraments, and endeavour to make men spiritual and holy here, and happy hereafter; and therefore they ought to reap some of their people's carnal things, things for the support of their lives, and subsistence for themselves and their families: so that the ministers of God are not indebted both to God and them; they give their people things of a much greater value, and more excellent use, for things of a much lesser value, and more inferior use; for their carnal things they give them spiritual things.
Here we have a fourth argument for the Corinthians allowing St. Paul and other apostles a sufficient maintenance; namely, from their own example to other teachers at Corinth: as if he had said, "You maintain others, why not us? do not you owe more to us, who first laid the foundation of a Christian church amongst you, and have begotten you through the gospel, than you do to others?"
Nevertheless he tells them, that himself and Barnabas, although they had this unquestionable liberty, yet they never made use of it, but suffered hunger and thirst, weariness and want, lest it obstruct the course, and hinder the progress, of the gospel; whilst some might, though very unjustly, charge them with covetousness; and others, to save charges, might decline hearing of them.
A fifth argument is here produced for the ministers' maintenance, which is taken from the example of the Levites, who lived upon the things that were offered in the temple, and at the altar, and had a considerable part of the sacrifice allowed them by God himself for their ministration, under the law.
In like manner, says the apostle, "It is the Lord's pleasure and appointment now under the gospel, Matthew 10:10 ; Luke 10:7 that they who preach the word should be maintained for it, and not diverted from their work by the cares and business of the world, but have a livelihood from their labour.
Hence it clearly appears, that a maintenance for the ministry under the gospel; for so, says the apostle, God has ordained. God's will in this matter is the same under the New Testament as it was under the old; and and as a maintenance in general is of divine right, so tithes may make thus far a claim to be of that nature, that it is believed the wisdom of man cannot find out any better expedient, than by them to support a ministerial maintenance for the preachers of the gospel to the end of the world.
The apostle having thus asserted his liberty, now shows his great moderation in the use of it: although he had a liberty to marry, and to demand maintenance for his ministry as well as others, yet he denied himself in both.
The apostle was charged by false teachers, that he preached the gospel for his profit and advantage; whereas he gloried in the contrary, that he made the gospel without charge; looking upon it as his great honour, that he could and did preach the gospel freely, for sincere ends, and not out of sinister respects; and professes he had rather die by starving, than lose his advantage of glorying.
Now the inference which St. Paul draws from all this discourse, of his declining the use of his lawful liberty, is this: If I your minister, for your profit, and the advantage of the gospel, abate of my own just right and unquestionable liberty, why should not you abate of yours, in the case of eating things offered unto idols, to keep your weak brother from destroying his soul by sinning against God?"
That which the apostle glories in, is not his bare preaching of the gospel, but his preaching of it freely and without maintenance: "For, says he, though I preach the gospel, that has nothing singular in it, others do it as well as myself, and I am bound to do it as well as others; for necessity is laid upon me, by special call and command from Christ, so to do; yea, woe is unto me for my disobedience to Christ in the heavenly vision, Acts 26:12-Job : if I preach not the gospel.
Now if I do this thing willingly, that is, freely, without demanding any thing of you for my pains, which I might do, I have a reward: that is, a special reward from God, and may glory in it: but if I preach unwillingly, (demanding a maintenance for my pains, and refusing to preach without it,) all that can be said is this, that a dispensation of the gospel is committed to me; and so in preaching I only discharge a trust of which I cannot boast or glory."
The strength of the apostle's argument lies here: "No man can reasonably boast of, glory in, or expect an extraordinary reward for, the doing of that under a command from his superior to do, and that under a penalty too."
Now this was his case: necessity was laid upon him to preach the gospel, but no necessity but what he laid upon himself to preach it freely; therefore for him to do it without demanding any reward from them for doing it, this made it matter of glorying to him, which he declares he had rather die than any should take from him.
But was it the apostle's own glory that he was thus fond of, and concerned for, that he had rather lose his life, than lose?
No, it was the glory of God, the honour of the gospel, that was so inexpressibly dear unto him: the great apostle did, upon pure principles of faith and love from his heart and soul, design the glory of God, pursuant to which he did cheerfully and willingly apply himself to the preaching of the gospel, waiting upon God for his acceptance and reward, without expecting any wages (as he might) from them his Corinthian converts; and this was the matter of his boasting and glorying in the face of the false apostles, who insinuated that he preached the gospel for filthy lucre' sake.
The scene is, "This gives me hopes of a reward extraordinary from God; namely, that I have preached the gospel to you, without being chargeable to any of you; for had I received maintenance from you, I found my reproaches would have brought an ill report upon me. To prevent which, I made use of my Christian liberty, and took nothing of you; which he calls, his not abusing his power in the gospel."
Learn hence, 1. That ministers, generally speaking, lawfully may expect, yea, require maintenance from their people, to whom they preach the gospel.
Learn, 2. That although they may expect and demand maintenance for their ministry, yet in case people are so poor that they cannot give it; or enemies so malicious as to open their mouths against them for it; or if it will hinder the progress of the gospel, by keeping people from coming under the preaching of it, fearing it should be chargeable to them; under such circumstances, if the minister can subsist without it, 'tis his certain duty to preach freely, and for such extraordinary services he may expect a more than ordinary reward.
Learn, 3. That the liberty which God hath entrusted us with, must never be abused by us, to the prejudice of his glory, or the detriment of his gospel, or to the disadvantage of others. All such use of our liberty in any thing is indeed an abuse of it; therefore says the apostle here, I abuse not my power in the gospel.
In these verses our apostle proceeds to show the Corinthians farther, how mightily he did abridge himself of his Christian liberty, which was the argument he was insisting upon.
For, says he, though I be free from all men, as being a servant to none, yet have I made myself as a servant to all, that I might gain the more to embrace the gospel.
To the unconverted Jews he became as a Jew, circumcising Timothy for their sakes, Acts 16:3 that he might gain the Jews.
To them who in their opinion were yet under the obligation of the ceremonial law, he carried himself as a person under that law, and accordingly he purified himself in the temple, Acts 21:26 .
To them that were without law, that is, the Gentiles, who were without the ceremonial law, he became as a person without law, abstaining from the use of all ceremonies as they did.
But yet, not being without law of God, but under the law of Christ; that is, as to the moral law of God, which was not abolished, but reinforced by Christ he did never account himself free from that, nor durst do any thing contrary to the eternal rule of righteousness; and all this, that he might gain them that are without law.
To the weak converts, either among Jews or Gentiles, he became as weak, by abstaining from what might hurt their weak consciences, that so he might gain the weak.
Finally, he became all things to all men, by compliance with them in all lawful and indifferent things, that he might gain as many as possibly he could.
And all this he did for the gospel's sake, that the gospel might be the better esteemed, and farther propagated, and he might himself partake of the promises and rewards of it, together with them to whom he preached it, and had effectually entertained it.
Behold here the humility and charity of this great apostle; his ready condescension to the pitiable weaknesses of all men; his compliance with them in all lawful and indifferent things, for the glory of God, and the advantage of the gospel: a rare and singular pattern for all ministers and private Christians to imitate and follow.
Now from this example of St. Paul's becoming all things to all men, and making himself a servant unto all,
we learn, 1. One great duty of a gospel minister is not to be a slave to any, but a servant to all; not a servant to their lusts, but to their weaknesses and infirmities.
Our apostle did not turn, as the flattering and false apostles did, with the tide and times, nor conform to them in what was sinful. He did not symbolize with all colours; nor was he a man for all hours or humours; For, says he, if I please men, (he means in any thing that is sinful) I am no more the servant of Christ, Galatians 1:10 . But wisely considering the case and state of all men, he did accommodate his ministry for the gaining of as many as possibly he could.
Some are all things to all men, that they may gain by all; a spirit not only unworthy of a minister, but of a man. But St. Paul complied with all men, and made himself the servant of all, that Christ might thereby gain, his gospel gain, yea, and they themselves gain; which hints to us
a second observation, The great end which the holy apostle aimed at, in this his compliance with, and condescension towards, the weaknesses of his people: This I do for the gospel's sake.
As if he had said, "Though I thus stoop and yield to all men, it is to serve my Master, not myself. Think not that I thus put myself into all forms towards men for my own preferment in the world; but that Christ may be preferred in the hearts and acceptations of all men.
I please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved." 1 Corinthians 10:33 .
Behold here the noble mark which this minister of Christ had in his eye, the saving of souls. That he might hit it, he wisely observed the temper and state of his people, striving to render himself agreeable and acceptable unto all, that he might by all means save some; yet had he also an eye to himself in all this; he had respect to the recompence of reward, as lawfully he might.
This I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker thereof with you; that is, that I may have a share myself in the promised rewards of the gospel which I have preached to you.
Blessed be God, it is lawful for all the ministers and members of Christ to do good out of hope of reward; and that his glory and our own happiness are so inseparably connected and knit together, that by promoting the former we secure the latter.
Our apostle, according to his custom in sundry epistles, does in the end of this chapter fall upon the use of terms agonistical, borrowed from the olympic and other Grecian games, celebrated near Corinth, in which the contending parties did put forth all their strength, to out-do one another. These games were running, cuffing, and wrestling: all which the apostle here alludes unto, and first to running: They which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize. So run the Christian race, that ye may obtain the prize.
Learn hence, That Christianity is a race which God hath set us, and it is our duty faithfully and perseveringly to run it. In a race, the foundation of it is a prize; in a race there is a considerable distance between one goal and another; in a race-plat for the racers to run in, there are certain laws to run by, and there is a certain judge to determine who wins the crown fairly.
Now this race of Christianity vastly differs from all other races thus: This is a spiritual race, it strains not legs and lungs, but faith and patience. Other races are performed by natural abilities, but this by a supernatural power and strength. Those races might be run without disturbance, but not this. Their reward but a garland of bays, ours a crown of immortality.
But what is it to run this race?
Ans. It supposes a motion, it imports a vehement and intense motion, it implies progress and proficiency; every step brings the racer nearer the goal: and it implies perseverance; the racer must hold it to the last, or he loses his labour and reward: every one that thus runs shall obtain the prize, whereas in other races but one receiveth the prize.
It was a custom amongst those that used at Corinth the fore-mentioned games of running and wrestling, to tie themselves to a strict prescribed diet, both for quality and quantity, by way of preparation. They did not indulge themselves in gluttony, or any sort of excess, but were temperate in all things, that the crown might be won by them; which, alas! was nothing but a garland of leaves or flowers. In imitation of whom, he advised the Corinthians to be very moderate in the use of all worldly things, and to abstain from whatsoever may hinder their running the Christian race, and their receiving the incorruptible crown.
That is, "I run this race of Christianity myself, which I advise you unto. But my care is to run sure, not at uncertainties; to make sure of the crown at the end of the race, and I do not only run, but fight; I oppose whatever opposeth me."
Here observe, The apostle changes the metaphor from that of running to the other game of cuffing; and says he did not fight like one that beats the air, but never hurts the adversary; no, he fought in good earnest with all his spiritual enemies, the flesh, the world, and the devil. It is not every running that will gain the prize, nor every fighting that will obtain the victory; but it must be a running with all perseverance, and a fighting with our utmost power, that will bring us to heaven and eternal happiness.
The original word may be fitly rendered, I give myself blue eyes; alluding to the olympic game of cuffing, in which the combatants were wont with their blows to beat one another, till they made each other livid, their eyes black and blue. The sense is, that by mortification he used great severity upon himself, contending against and combating with that body of sin and death which did obstruct and hinder him in running the Christian race which was set before him.
The word it in the Greek is an allusion to the other exercise of wrestling, wherein the antagonists or contenders do strive to cast each other to the ground, and to keep them under. So he, the better to subdue his body of sin, was careful to keep down the body of flesh, which if pampered is apt to rebel.
He concludes all with a reason why he exercised all this care and caution; namely, That is, lest when he had acquainted them with the laws and rules of Christianity, and proposed to them the way of striving and getting the crown, he himself should at last prove a cast-away, or one unworthy to be approved or rewarded by God.
From whence observe, 1. That it is possible for him who has been all his life preaching to others, and furthering them in their way to heaven, to be thrown himself into hell at last. Many that have prophecied in Christ's name shall yet perish in his wrath; and such as have cast devils out of others, shall yet be cast to the devil themselves.
Observe, 2. That such ministers as indulge their unruly appetites, giving the flesh whatever it craves, and can deny it nothing it desires, pampering the body to the prejudice of the soul, go not in St. Paul's road to heaven, but the contrary: they gratify what he mortified, they indulge what he subdued; he administered to the wants, they to the wantonness, of the flesh: he knew that Hagar would quickly perk up, and domineer over Sarah; that the body would quickly expect and command more attendance than the soul, except it were kept under: and for this reason, says our apostle here, I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection; lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29