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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Corinthians 9

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-23

Chapter 13

MAINTENANCE OF THE MINISTRY

IN the preceding chapter Paul has disposed of the question put to him regarding meats offered in sacrifice to idols. He has taken occasion to point out that in matters morally indifferent Christian men will consider the scruples of weak, and prejudiced, and superstitious people. He has inculcated the duty of accommodating ourselves to the consciences of less enlightened persons, if we can do so without violating our own. For his own part, he is prepared, while the world standeth, to abridge his Christian liberty, if by his using that liberty he may imperil the conscience of any weak brother. But keeping pace, as Paul always does, with the thought of those he writes to, he no sooner makes this emphatic statement than it occurs to him that those in Corinth who are ill-affected towards him will make a handle even of his self-denial, and will whisper or boldly declare that it is all very fine for Paul to use this language, but that, in point of fact, the precarious position he holds in the Church makes it incumbent on him to deny himself and become all things to all men. His apostleship stands on so insecure a basis that he has no option in the matter, but must curry favour with all parties. He is not on the same platform as the original Apostles, who may reasonably stand upon their apostleship, and claim exemption from manual labour, and demand maintenance both for themselves and their wives. Paul remains unmarried, and works with his hands to support himself, and makes himself weak among the weak, because he has no claim to maintenance and is aware that his apostleship is doubtful. He proceeds, therefore, with some pardonable warmth and righteous indignation, to assert his freedom and apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1-2), and to prove his right to the same privileges and maintenance as the other Apostles (1 Corinthians 9:3-14); and then from the fifteenth to the eighteenth verse he gives the true reason for his foregoing his rightful claim; and in vv. 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 he reaffirms the principle on which he uniformly acted, becoming "all things to all men," suiting himself to the innocent prejudices and weaknesses of all, "that he might by all means save some."

Paul then had certain rights which he was resolved should be acknowledged, although he waived them. He maintains that if he saw fit, he might require the Church to maintain him, and to maintain him not merely in the bare way in which he was content to live, but to furnish him with the ordinary comforts of life. He might, for example, he says, require the Church to enable him to keep a wife and to pay not only his own, but her, travelling expenses. The other Apostles apparently took their wives with them on their apostolic journeys, and may have found them useful in gaining access for the Gospel to the secluded women of Eastern and Greek cities. He might also, he says, "forbear working"; might cease, that is to say. from his tent making and look to his converts for support. He is indignant at the sordid, or malicious, or mistaken spirit which could deny him such support.

This claim to support and privilege Paul rests on several grounds. 1. He is an apostle, and the other Apostles enjoyed these privileges. "Have we not power to take with us a Christian woman as a wife, as well as other Apostles? Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working?" His proof of his apostleship is summary: "Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?" No one could be an apostle who had not seen Jesus Christ after His resurrection. The Apostles were to be witnesses to the Resurrection, and were qualified to be so by seeing the Lord alive after death. But it seems to have been commonly urged against Paul that he had not been among those to whom Christ showed Himself after He rose from the dead. Paul therefore both in his reported speeches and in his letters insists upon the fact that on the way to Damascus he had seen the risen Lord.

But not everyone who had seen the Lord after His resurrection was an apostle, but those only who by Him were commissioned to witness to it; and that Paul had been thus commissioned he thinks the Corinthians may conclude from the results among themselves of his preaching. The Church at Corinth was the seal of his apostleship. What was the use of quibbling about the time and manner of his ordination, when the reality and success of his apostolic work were so apparent? The Lord had acknowledged his work. In presence of the finished structure that draws the world to gaze, it is too late to ask if he who built it is an architect. Would that every minister could so prove the validity of his orders!

2. Paul maintains his right to support on the principle of remuneration everywhere observed in human affairs. The soldier does not go to war at his own expense, but expects to be equipped and maintained in efficiency by those for whom he fights. The vine dresser, the shepherd, every labourer, expects, and is certainly warranted in expecting, that the toil he expends will at least have the result of keeping him comfortably in life.

However difficult it is to lay down an absolute law of wages, this may at least be affirmed as a natural principle: that labour of all kinds must be so paid as to maintain the labourer in life and efficiency; and it may be added that there are certain inalienable human rights, such as the right to bring up a family the members of which shall be useful and not burdensome to society, the right to some reserve of leisure and of strength which the labourer may use for his own enjoyment and advantage, which rights will be admitted and provided for when out of the confused war of theories, and strikes, and competition a just law of wages has been won. Happily no one now needs to be told that one of the most striking results of our modern civilisation is that the nineteenth-century labourer has less of the joy of life than the ancient slave, and that we have forgotten the fundamental law that the husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.

And lest anyone should sanctimoniously or ignorantly say, "These secular principles have no application to sacred things," Paul anticipates the objection, and dismisses it: "Say I these things as a man? or saith not the Law the same also?" I am not introducing into a sacred religion principles which rule only in secular matters. Does not the Law say, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn"? It must be allowed to live by its labour. As it threshes out the wheat, it must be allowed to feed itself, mouthful, by mouthful, as it goes on with its work. And this was not said in the Law because God had any special care for oxen, but in order to give expression to the law which must regulate the connection between all labourers and their work that he that plougheth may plough in hope, may have a personal interest in his work, and may give himself ungrudgingly to it, assured that he himself will be the first to benefit by it.

This law that a man shall live by his labour is a two-edged law. If a man produce what the community needs, he should himself profit by the production; but, on the other hand, if a man will not work, neither should he eat. Only the man who produces what other men need, only the man who by his industry or capability contributes to the good of the community, has any right to profits. Quick and easy manipulations of money, shrewd and risky dexterities which yield no real benefit to the community, deserve no remuneration. It is a blind, sordid, and contemptible spirit that hastes to be rich by one or two successful transactions that profit no one. A man should be content to live on what he is worth to the community. Here also our minds are often confused by the complexities of business; but on that account it is all the more necessary that we firmly adhere to the few essential canons, such as that "trading ceases to be just when it ceases to benefit both parties," or that a man’s wealth should truly represent his value to society. Conscience enlightened by allegiance to the Spirit of Christ is a much more satisfactory guide for the individual in trade, speculation, and investment than any trade customs or economic theories.

3. A third ground on which Paul rests his claim to be supported by the Church is ordinary gratitude: "If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?" Some of the Churches founded by Paul spontaneously acknowledged this claim, and wished to free him from the necessity of labouring for his own support. They felt that the benefit they had derived from him could not be stated in terms of money; but prompted by irrepressible gratitude, they could not but seek to relieve him from manual labour and set him free for higher work. This method of gauging the amount of spiritual benefit absorbed, by its overflow in material aid given to the propagation of the Gospel would, I dare say, scarcely be relished by that monstrous development the niggardly Christian.

4. Lastly, Paul argues from the Levitical usage to the Christian. Both in heathen countries and among the Jews it was customary that they who ministered in holy things should live by the offerings of the people to the Temple. Levites and priests alike had been thus maintained among the Jews. "Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel." Were there no recorded command of the Lord to this effect, we might suppose Paul merely argued that this was the Lord’s will; but among the original instructions given to the seventy who were first sent to preach the kingdom of heaven, we find this: "Into whatsoever house ye enter, there remain, eating and drinking such things as they give, for the labourer is worthy of his hire."

That evils may result from the existence of a paid ministry no one will be disposed to deny. Some of the most disastrous abuses in the Church of Christ, as well as some of the gravest political troubles, could never have arisen had there been no desirable benefices. Lucrative ecclesiastical posts and offices have necessarily excited the avarice of unworthy aspirants, and have weakened instead of strengthening the Church’s influence. Many wealthy ecclesiastics have done nothing for the benefit of the people, whereas many laymen by their unpaid devotedness have done much. In view of these and other evils, it cannot surprise us to find that again and again it has occurred to good men to suppose that on the whole Christianity might be more effectively propagated were there no separate class of men set apart to this work as their sole occupation. But this idea is reactionary and extreme, and is condemned both by common sense and by the express declarations of our Lord and His Apostles. If the work of the ministry is to be thoroughly done, men must give their whole time to it. Like every other professional work, it will often be done inadequately; and I dare say there is much in our methods which is unwise and susceptible of improvement: but the ministry keeps pace with the general intelligence of the country, and may be trusted to adapt its methods, even though too tardily for some ardent spirits, to the actual necessities. And if men give their whole time to the work, they must be paid for it, a circumstance which is not likely to lead to much evil in our own country so long as the great mass of ministers are paid as they presently are. It is hardly the profession which is likely to be chosen by anyone who is anxious to coin his life into money. If the laity consider that covetousness is more unseemly in a Christian minister than in a Christian man, they have taken an effectual means of barring out that vice.

Paul felt himself the more free to urge these claims because his custom was to forego them all in his own case. "I have used none of these things; neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me; for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void." Here again we come upon the sound judgment and honest heart that are never biased by his own personal circumstances or insist that what is fit for him is fit for everyone. How apt are self-denying men to spoil their self-denial by dropping a sneer at the weaker souls that cannot follow their heroic example. How ready are men who can live on little and accomplish much to leave the less robust Christians to justify on their own account their need of human comforts. Not so Paul. He first fights the battle of the weak for them, and then disclaims all participation in the spoils. What a nobility and sagacity in the man who himself would accept no remuneration for his work, and who yet, so far from thinking slightingly of those who did or even being indifferent to them, argues their case for them with an authoritative force they did not themselves possess.

Nor does he consider that his self-denial is at all meritorious. He has no desire to signalise himself as more disinterested than other men. On the contrary, he strives to make it appear as if this course were compulsory and as if no choice were left to him. His fear was that if he took remuneration, he "should hinder the Gospel of Christ." Some of the best incomes in Greece in Paul’s day were made by clever lecturers and talkers, who attracted disciples, and initiated them into their doctrines and methods.

Paul was resolved he should never be mistaken for one of these. And no doubt his success was partly due to the fact that men recognised that his teaching was a labour of love, and that he was impelled by the truth and importance of his message. Every man finds an audience who is inwardly impelled to speak; who speaks, not because he is paid for doing so, but because there is that in him which must find utterance.

This, says Paul, was his case. "Though I preach the Gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel!" His call to the ministry had been so exceptional, and had so distinctly and emphatically declared the grace and purpose of Christ, that he felt bound by all that can constrain a man to the devotedness of a lifetime. Paul felt what we now so clearly see: that on him lay the gravest responsibilities. Had he declined to preach, had he complained of bad usage, and stipulated for higher terms, and withdrawn from the active propagation of Christianity, who would or could have taken up the task he laid down? But while Paul could not but be conscious of his importance to the cause of Christ, he would arrogate to himself no credit on account of his arduous toil, for from this, he says, he could not escape; necessity was laid upon him. Whether he does his work willingly or unwillingly, still he must do it. He dare not flinch. If he does it willingly, he has a reward; if he does it unwillingly, still he is entrusted with a stewardship he dare not neglect. What then is the reward he has, giving himself, as he certainly does, willingly to the work? His reward is that "when he preaches the Gospel he makes the Gospel of Christ without charge." The deep satisfaction he felt in dissociating the Gospel of self-sacrifice from every thought of money or remuneration and in offering it freely to the poorest as His Master’s fit representative was sufficient reward for him and incalculably greater than any other he ever got or could conceive.

In other words, Paul saw that however it might be with other men, with him there was no alternative but to preach the Gospel; the only alternative was-was he to do it as a slave entrusted with a stewardship, and who was compelled, however reluctant he might be, to be faithful, or was he to do it as a free man, with his whole will and heart? The reluctant slave could expect no reward; he was but fulfilling an obligatory, inevitable duty. The free man might, however, expect a reward; and the reward Paul chose was that he should have none-none in the ordinary sense, but really the deepest and most abiding of all: the satisfaction of knowing that, having freely received, he had freely given, and had lifted the Gospel into a region quite undimmed by the suspicion of self-seeking or any mists of worldliness.

In declining pecuniary remuneration, Paul was acting on his general principle of making himself the servant of all and of living entirely and exclusively for the good of others. "Though I be free from all men, yet have 1 made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more." It was from Paul that Luther derived his two propositions which he uttered as the keynote of the resonant blast "on Christian Liberty" with which he stirred all Europe into new life: "A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone." So Paul’s independence of all men was assumed and maintained for the very purpose of making himself the more effectually the servant of all. To the Jew and to those under the Law he became as a Jew, observing the seventh day, circumcising Timothy, abstaining from blood, accommodating himself to all their scruples. To those who were without the Law, and who had been brought up in Greece, he also conformed himself, freely entering into their innocent customs, calling no meats unclean, appealing, not to the law of Moses, but to conscience, to common sense, to their own poets. "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some"-a course which none but a man of wide sympathy and charity, clear intellect, and thorough integrity can adopt.

For Paul was no mere latitudinarian. While accommodating himself to the practice of those around him in all matters of mere outward observance, and which did not touch the essentials of morality and faith, he at the same time held very definite opinions on the chief articles of the Christian creed. No amount of liberality of sentiment can ever induce a thoughtful man to discourage the formation of opinion on all matters of importance. On the contrary, the only escape from mere traditionalism or the tyranny of authority in matters of religion is in individual inquiry, and ascertainment of the truth. Free inquiry is the one instrument we possess for the discovery of truth; and by pursuing such inquiry men may be expected to come to some agreement in religious belief, as in other things. No doubt righteousness of life is better than soundness of creed. But is it not possible to have both? It is better to live in the Spirit, to be meek, chaste, temperate, just, loving, than to understand the relation of the Spirit to God and to ourselves; but the human mind can never cease to seek satisfaction: and truth, the more clearly it is seen, will the more effectually nourish righteousness.

Again, Paul had an end in view which preserved his liberality from degenerating. He sought to recommend himself to men, not for his sake, but for theirs. He saw that conscientious scruples were not to be confounded with malignant hatred of truth, and that if we are to be helpful to others, we must begin by appreciating the good they already possess. Hostile criticism or argument for the sake of victory produces no results worth having. Vain exultation in the victors, obstinacy and bitterness in the vanquished-these are worse than useless, the retrograde results of unsympathetic argument. In order to remove a man’s difficulties, you must look at them from his point of view and feel the pressure he feels. "The greatest orator save one of antiquity has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not still greater, intensity than even his own"; and certainly those who have not entered into the point of view of those who differ from them are not likely to have anything of importance to say to them. In order to "gain" men, you must credit them with some desire to see the truth, and you must have sympathy enough to see with their eyes. Parents sometimes weaken their influence with their children by inability to look at things with the eyes of youth, and by an insistence upon the outward expressions of religion which are distasteful to children and suitable only for adults. Children have a high esteem for justice and courage, and can respond to exhibitions of self-sacrifice and truth, and purity; that is to say, they have a capacity for admiring and adopting the essentials of the Christian character, but if we insist upon them exhibiting feelings which are alien to their nature and practices necessarily distasteful and futile, we are more likely to drive them from religion than to attract them to it. Let us beware of insisting on alterations in conduct where these are not absolutely necessary. Let us beware of identifying religion in the minds of the young with a rigid conformity in outward things, and not with an inward spirit of love and goodness. Are you striving to gain some? Then let these words of the Apostle warn you not to seek for the wrong thing, not to begin at the wrong end, not to measure the hold which truth has over those you seek to win, by the exactness with which all your ideas are carried out and all your customs observed. Human nature is an infinitely various thing, and often there is the truest regard for what is holy and Divine disguised under a violent departure from all ordinary ways of manifesting reverence and piety. Put yourself in the place of the inquiring, perplexed, embittered soul, find out the good that is in it, patiently accommodate yourself to its ways so far as you legitimately may, and you will be rewarded by "gaining some."


Verses 24-27

Chapter 14

NOT ALL WHO RUN WIN

IN the preceding part of this chapter Paul has proved his right to claim remuneration from those to whom he preached the Gospel, and he has also given his reasons for declining to urge this claim. He was resolved that no one should have any ground for misapprehending his motive in preaching the Gospel. He was quite content to live a bare, poor life, not merely that he might keep himself above suspicion, but that those who heard the Gospel might see it simply as the Gospel and not be hindered from accepting it by any thought of the preacher’s motives. This was his main reason for supporting himself by his own labour. But he had another reason, namely, "that he might be himself a partaker of the benefits he preached" (1 Corinthians 9:23). Apostle though he was, he had his own salvation to work out. He was not himself saved by proclaiming salvation to others, any more than the baker is fed by making bread for others or the physician kept in health by prescribing for others. Paul had a life of his own to lead, a duty of his own to discharge, a soul of his own to save; and he recognised that what was laid before him as the path to salvation was to make himself entirely the servant of others. This he was resolved persistently to do, "lest that by any means, when he had preached to others, he himself should be a castaway."

Paul had evidently felt this danger to be a serious one. He had found himself tempted from time to time to rest in the name and calling of an apostle, to take for granted that his salvation was a thing past doubt and on which no more thought or effort need be expended. And he saw that in a slightly altered form this temptation was common to all Christians. All have the name, not all the reality. And the very possession of the name is a temptation to forget the reality. It might almost seem to be in the proportion of runners to winners in a race: "All run, but one receiveth the prize."

In endeavouring to warn Christians against resting in a mere profession of faith in Christ, he cites two great classes of instances which prove that there is often ultimate failure even where there has been considerable promise of success. First, he cites their own world-renowned Isthmian games, in which contests, as they all well knew, not everyone who entered for the prizes was successful: "All run, but one receiveth the prize." Paul does not mean that salvation goes by competition; but he means that as in a race not all who run run so as to obtain the prize for which they run, so in the Christian life not all who enter it put out sufficient energy to bring them to a happy issue. The mere fact of recognising that the prize is worth winning and even of entering for it is not enough. And then he cites another class of instances with which the Jews in the Corinthian Church were familiar. "All our fathers," he says, "were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea." All of them without exception enjoyed the outward privileges of God’s people, and seemed to be in a fair way of entering the promised land; and yet the majority of them fell under God’s displeasure, and were overthrown in the wilderness. Therefore "let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."

The Isthmian games, then, one of the most ancient glories of Corinth, furnished Paul with the readiest illustration of his theme. These games, celebrated every second year, had in ancient times been one of the chief means of fostering the feeling of brotherhood in the Hellenic race. None but Greeks of pure blood who had done nothing to forfeit their citizenship were allowed to contend in them. They were the greatest of national gatherings; and even when one State was at war with another, hostilities were suspended during the celebration of the games. And scarcely any greater distinction could be earned by a Greek citizen than victory in these games. When Paul says that the contending athletes endured their severe training and underwent all the privations necessary "to obtain a corruptible crown," we must remember that while it is quite true that the wreath of pine given to the victor might fade before the year was out, he was welcomed home with all the honours of a victorious general, the wall of his town being thrown down that he might pass in as a conqueror, and his statue being set up by his fellow citizens. In point of fact, the names and deeds of many of the victors may yet be read in the verses of one of the greatest of Greek poets, who devoted himself, as laureate of the games, to the celebration of the annual victories.

But however highly we raise the value of the Greek crown the force of Paul’s comparison remains. The wreath of the victor in the games was at the best corruptible, liable to decay. No permanent, eternal satisfaction could result from being victorious in a contest of physical strength, activity, or skill. But for every man it is possible to win an incorruptible crown, that which shall always and forever be to him a joy as thrilling and a distinction as honourable as at the moment he received it. There is that which is worthy of the determined and sustained effort of a lifetime. Put into the one scale all perishable distinctions, and honours, and prizes, all that has stimulated men to the most strenuous endeavours, all that a grateful nation bestows on its heroes and benefactors, all for which men "scorn delights and live laborious days"; and all these kick the beam when you put in the other scale the incorruptible crown. The two are not necessarily opposed or incompatible; but to choose the less in preference to the greater is to repudiate our birthright. As victory in the games was the actual incentive which stimulated the youth of Greece to attain the perfection of physical strength, beauty, and development, so there is laid before us an incentive which, when clearly apprehended, is sufficient to carry us forward to perfect moral attainment. The brightest jewel in the incorruptible crown is the joy of having become all God made us to become, of perfectly fulfilling the end of our creation, of being able to find happiness in goodness, in closest fellowship with God, in promoting what Christ lived and died to promote. Must we say that there are men who have no ambition to experience perfect rectitude and purity? Are we to conclude that there are men of so grovelling, besotted, and blind a spirit that when opportunity is given them to win true glory, perfect expansion and growth of spirit, and perfect joy they turn away to salaries and profits, to meat and drink, to frivolity and the world’s routine? The incorruptible crown is held over their head; but so intent are they on the muck rake, they do not even see it.

To those who would win it Paul gives these directions:-

1. Be temperate. "Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things." Contentedly and without a murmur he submits himself to the rules and restrictions of his ten months’ training, without which he may as well not compete. The little indulgences which other men allow themselves he must forego. Not once will he break the trainer’s rules, for he knows that some competitors will refrain even from that once and gain strength while he is losing it. He is proud of his little hardships, and fatigues, and privations, and counts it a point of honour scrupulously to abstain from anything which might in the slightest degree diminish his chance of success. He sees other men giving way to appetite, resting while he is panting with exertion, luxuriating in the bath, enjoying life at pleasure; but he has scarce a passing thought of envy, because his heart is set on the prize, and severe training is indispensable. He knows that his chances are gone if in any point or on any occasion he relaxes the rigour of the discipline.

The contest in which Christians are engaged is not less, but more, severe. The temperance maintained by the athlete must be outdone by the Christian if he is to be successful. There are many things in which men who have no thought of the incorruptible prize may engage, but from which the Christian must refrain. All that lowers the tone and slackens the energies must be abandoned. If the Christian indulges in the pleasures of life as freely as other men, if he is unconscious of any severity of self-restraint, if he denies himself nothing which others enjoy, he proves that he has no higher aim than they and can of course win no higher prize. The temperance here enjoined, and which the Christian practises, not because it is enjoined, but because a higher aim truly cherished compels him to practise it, is a habitual sober mindedness and detachment from what is worldly in the world. It is that temper of spirit and that sustained attitude towards life which enable a man to rule his own desires, to endure hardness and find pleasure in so doing. No spasmodic, occasional efforts and partial abstinences will ever bring a man victorious to the goal. Many a man denies himself in one direction and indulges himself in another, rile macerates the flesh, but pampers the spirit by vanity, ambition, or self-righteousness. Or he denies himself some of the pleasures of life, but is more besotted by its gains than other men.

Temperance to be effectual must be complete. The athlete who drinks more than is good for him may save himself the trouble of observing the trainer’s rules as to what he eats. It is lost labour to develop some of his muscles if he do not develop all of them. If he offends in one point, he breaks the whole law.

Temperance must be continuous as well as complete. One day’s debauch was enough to undo the result of weeks during which the athlete had carefully attended to the rules prescribed. And we find that one lapse into worldliness undoes what years of self-restraint have won. Always the work of growth is very slow, the work of destruction very quick. One indiscretion on the part of the convalescent will undo what the care Of months has slowly achieved. One fraud spoils the character for honesty which years of upright living have earned. And this also is one of the great dangers of the spiritual life: that a little carelessness, a brief infidelity to our high calling, or a passing indulgence suddenly demolishes what long and patient toil has been building up. It is like the taking out of a pin or a ratchet that lets all we have gained run down to its old condition.

Beware then of giving place to the world or the flesh at any point. Be reasonable and true. Recognise that if you are to succeed in winning eternal life, all the spiritual energy you can command will be required. So set your heart on the attainment of things eternal that you will not grudge missing much that other men enjoy and possess. Measure the invitations of life by their fitness or unfitness to develop within you true spiritual energy.

2. Be decided. "I run," says Paul, "not as uncertainly," not as a man who does not know where he is going or has not made up his mind to go there. To be among those who win as well as among those who run, we must know where we are going, and be quite sure we mean to be there. We have all some kind of idea about what God offers and calls us to. But this idea must be clear if we are to make for it straight. No man can run straight to a mere will-o’-the-wisp, and no man can run straight who first means to go to one house or station and then changes his mind and thinks he should go to another. We must count the cost and see clearly what we are to gain and what we must lose by making for the incorruptible prize. We must be resolved to win and have no thought of defeat, of failure, of doing something better. It is the absence of deliberate choice and reasonable decision which causes such "uncertain" running on the part of many who profess to he in the race. Their faces are as often turned from the goal as towards it. They are evidently not clear in their own minds that all strength spent in any other direction than towards the goal is wasted. They do not distinctly know what they mean to be at, what they wish to make of life. Paul did know. He had made up his mind not to pursue comfort, learning, money, respect, position, but to seek first the kingdom of God. He judged that to spread the knowledge of Christ was the best use to which he could put his life. He knew where he was going and to what all his efforts tended. Every life is unsatisfactory until its owner has made up his mind what he means to do with it, until it is governed by a clearly conceived and firmly held aim. Then it flies like the arrow to its mark.

What, then, do the traces of our past life show? Do we see the straight track of a well-steered ship, which has deviated not a yard from its course nor wasted an ounce of power? Has every footfall been in direct advance of the last, and has all expenditure of energy brought us nearer the ultimate goal? Or are the traces we look back on like ground trodden by dancers, a confused medley all in one spot, or like the footsteps of saunterers in a garden backwards and forwards, according as this or that has attracted them? Has not the course of many of us been like that of persons lost, uncertain which direction to pursue, eagerly starting off, but after a little slackening their pace, stopping, looking round, and then going off in another direction? For some weeks a great deal of ardour has been apparent, the whole man girt up, every nerve strained, the whole attention directed towards spiritual victory, arrangements made to facilitate communion with God, new methods devised for subordinating all our work to the one great aim, everything gone about as if now at last we had found the secret of living; and then in a surprisingly short time all this eagerness cools down, doubt takes the place of decision, discouragement and failure breed distrust of our methods, and we lapse into contentment with easier attainments and more worldly aims. And at length, after many false starts, we are ashamed to begin any arduous spiritual task for fear of ceasing it next week. We think that the surest way to make fools of ourselves is to adopt a thorough-going Christian practice, so much do we count upon ourselves flagging, wearying, altering our course. How many times have we been rekindled to some true zeal, how often have we gathered up our scattered energies and concentrated our efforts on the Christian life, and yet as often have we gone back to a dreamy, listless sauntering, as if we had nothing to secure, no end to reach, no work to accomplish.

Are we likely ever to reach the goal thus? Will the goal come to us, or bow are we ever to reach it? Are we nearer to it today than ever before? Are not our minds yet made up that it is worth reaching, and that whatever does not help us towards it must be abandoned? Let us be clear in our own minds as to the matters which tempt us aside from the straight path to the goal and are incompatible with progress; and let us determine whether these things are to prevail with us or not.

3. Be in earnest. "So fight I, not as one that beateth the air," not as one amusing himself with idle flourishes, but as one who has a real enemy to encounter. What a blush does this raise on the cheek of every Christian who knows himself! How much of this mere parade and sham fighting is there in the Christian army! We learn the art of war and the use of our weapons as if we were forthwith to use them in the field; we act over and learn many varieties of offensive and defensive movements, and know the rules by which spiritual foes may be subdued; we read books which direct us about personal religion, and delight in those which most skilfully lay open our weaknesses and show us how we may overcome them. But all this is mere fencing school work; it kills no enemy. It is but a species of accomplishment like that of those who learn the use of the sword, not because they mean to use it in battle, but that they may have a more elegant carriage. A great part of our spiritual strength is spent in mere parade. It is not meant to have any serious effect. It is not directed against anything in particular. We seem to be doing everything that a good soldier of Jesus Christ need do save the one thing: we slay no enemy. We leave no foe stone dead on the field. We are well trained: no one can deny it; we could instruct others how to conquer sin; we spend much time, and thought, and feeling on exercises which are calculated to make an impression on sin; and yet is it not almost entirely a beating the air? Where are our slain foes? This apparent eagerness to be holy, this professed devotedness to the cause of Christ-are they not mere flourish? We do not mean to strike our enemies; we for the most part only wish to make ourselves believe we are striking them and are zealous and faithful soldiers of Christ.

Even where there is some reality in the contest we may still be beating the air. We may be able to say that we have apprehended the reality of the moral welfare to which every man is called in this life. We may be able honestly to say that if our sins are not slain, it is neither because we have not recognised them, nor because we have aimed no blows at them. We have made serious and honest efforts to destroy sin, and yet our blows seem to fall short; and sin stands before us vigorous and lively, and as ready as ever to give us a fall. Many persons who level their blows at their sins do not after all strike them; spiritual energy is put forth; but it is not brought fully, fairly, and firmly into contact with the sin to be destroyed. In most Christian people there is a great expenditure of thought and of feeling about sin; their spirit is probably more exercised about their sins than about anything else: and a great deal of spiritual life is expended in the shape of shame, compunction, penitence, resolve, self-restraint, watchfulness, prayer. All this, were it brought directly to bear on some definite object, would produce great effect; but in many cases no good whatever seems to result.

Paul’s language suggests that possibly the reason may be that there remains in the heart some reluctance quite to kill and put an end to sin, to beat all the life out of it. It is like a father fighting with his son: he wishes to defend himself and disarm his son, but not to kill him. We may be willing or even intensely anxious to escape the blows sin aims at us; we may be desirous to wound, hamper, and limit our sin, and keep it under control; we may wish to tame the wild animal and domesticate it, so as to make it yield some pleasure and profit, and yet be reluctant to slay it outright. The soul and life of every sin is some lust of our own; and while quite anxious to put an end to some of the evils this lust produces in our life, we may not be prepared to extinguish the lust itself. We pray God, for example, to preserve us from the evils of praise or of success; and yet we continue to court praise and success. We are unable to sacrifice the pleasure for the sake of the safety. Therefore our warfare against sin becomes unreal. Our blows are not delivered home, but beat the air. Unconsciously we cherish the evil desire within us which is the soul of the sin, and seek to destroy only some of its manifestations.

The result of such unreal contest is detrimental. Sin is like something floating in the air or the water: the very effort we make to grasp and crush it displaces it, and it floats mockingly before us, untouched. Or it is like an agile antagonist who springs back from our blow, so that the force we have expended merely racks and strains our own sinews and does him no injury. So when we spend much effort in conquering sin and find it as lively as ever, the spirit is strained and hurt by putting out force on nothing. It is less able than before to resist sin, less believing, less hopeful, inwardly ill at ease and distracted. It becomes confused and disheartened, disbelieves in itself, and scoffs at fresh resolves and endeavours.

Finally, Paul tells us what that enemy was against which he directed his well-aimed, firmly planted blows. It was his own body. Every man’s body is his enemy when, instead of being his servant, it becomes his master. The proper function of the body is to serve the will, to bring the inner man into contact with the outer world and enable him to influence it. When the body mutinies and refuses to obey the will, when it usurps authority and compels the man to do its bidding, it becomes his most dangerous enemy. When Paul’s body presumed to dictate to his spirit, and demanded comforts and indulgences, and shrank from hardship, he beat it down. The word he uses is an exceptionally strong one: "I keep under"; it is a technical term of the games, and means to strike full in the face. It was the word used of the most damaging blow one boxer could give another. This unmerciful, overpowering blow Paul dealt to his body, resisting its assaults and making it helpless to tempt him. He thus brought it into subjection, made it his slave, as the winner in some of the games had a right to carry the vanquished into slavery.

It was probably by sheer strength of will and by the grace of Christ that Paul subdued his body. Many in all ages have striven to subdue it by fasting, by scourging, by wakefulness; and of these practices we have no right to speak scornfully until we can say that by other means we have reduced the body to its proper position as the servant of the spirit. Can we say that our body is brought into subjection; that it dare not curtail our devotions on the plea of weariness; that it dare not demand a dispensation. from duty on the score of some slight bodily disturbance; that it never persuades us to neglect any duty on the score of its unpleasantness to the flesh; that it never prompts us to undue anxiety either about what we shall eat or drink or wherewithal we shall be clothed; that it never quite treads the spirit under foot and defiles it with wicked imaginings? There is a fair and reasonable degree in which a man may and ought to cherish his own flesh, but there is also needful a disregard to many of its claims and a hardhearted obduracy to its complaints. In an age when Spartan simplicity of life is almost unknown, it is very easy to sow to the flesh almost without knowing it until we find ourselves reaping corruption.

Probably nothing more effectually slackens our efforts in the spiritual life. than the sense of unreality which haunts us as we deal with God and the unseen. With the boxer in the games it was grim earnest. He did not need anyone to tell him that his life depended on his ability to defend himself against his trained antagonist. Every faculty must be on the alert. No dreamer has here a chance. What we need is something of the same sense of reality, that it is a life-and-death contest we are engaged in, and that he that treats sin as a weak or pretended antagonist will shortly be dragged a mangled disgrace out of the arena.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-corinthians-9.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, December 15th, 2019
the Third Week of Advent
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