The Right to Relinquish Rights
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:1–27
During last Sunday’s “Miss USA Pageant,” Kara McCullough raised a firestorm in both the mainstream and social media when, in response to a question, she said she believed that health care was a “privilege” and not a “right.” Her remark drew immediate and harsh criticism from many who seemed to imply that people are “entitled” to have every need somehow provided for them.
We hear a lot of talk about “rights” these days. Regardless of the source from where you get your news, seldom a day goes by without hearing advocates clamoring for everything from “the right to life” to “the right to die with dignity.” It certainly makes you wonder what the signers of our Declaration of Independence may have had in mind when they confirmed 240 years ago that “All men...are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Within a decade they must have recognized the vagueness of their original statement because a number of those same men reconvened and drafted the first ten amendments to our Constitution, a document that became known “The Bill of Rights.”
But what is a “right”? And how does it differ from a “privilege”? A standard definition is that a “right” is “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” As American citizens we have been granted certain “rights” by our government.
But when the Bible speaks of “rights”—namely the “rights” of Christians—it does so in a somewhat different way. In fact, the Apostle Paul has a great deal to say about this subject in 1 Corinthians 9. You may recall that he began his discussion on this topic in chapter 8 when he urged believers to restrain their freedom in Christ and to restrict the exercise of their “rights” for the sake of one who was weaker in faith.
You see, as the followers of Jesus, the lives we live are not all about us. Having been to the cross and received the forgiveness of our sins, we are now free to live for the glory of God and for the benefit of others. And, as we noted last week, that newly granted liberty is to be limited by same love that first drew us to Christ.
Throughout this chapter, we find Paul addressing no fewer than nineteen rhetorical questions to his readers. All of them point to a central theme, which is that Christians should be willing to forego their present rights in order to gain a future reward.
Some years ago, an older and wiser brother in the Lord explained to me that the “rights” that we have been granted by Christ may either be “spent” upon ourselves or be “invested” for the glory of God and the good of others. In order to be “invested,” they must be surrendered. And when they are surrendered, our “rights” are returned to us in the form of “privileges.” That distinction is more than just semantic, because “rights” carry the connotation of “entitlement,” whereas “privileges” present opportunities to demonstrate the grace of God, who gave them to us in the first place.
We will be looking at the entire 9th chapter of 1 Corinthians this morning. And while Paul has much to say here, these twenty-seven verses may be sub-divided into just two main sections of nearly equal length. In the first half of the chapter, we find Paul defending his “rights” as an apostle, specifically his “right” to receive financial support from the church at Corinth. And in the second half, we see him defending his “right” to refuse their support. By laying out his case in this manner, he uses himself as an example of one willing to sacrifice or surrender one’s “rights” for the sake of the Gospel.
So, let’s begin with verses 1 through 14, where the apostle defends...
The right to receive support (verses 1-14)
Within these verses, he presents four arguments why financial support for the minister of the Gospel is warranted. The first reason he cites is his apostleship. There seems to have been a “crisis of authority” within the church at Corinth that characterized Paul’s relationship with the believers there. Repeatedly he is forced to defend his role as an apostle and his ministry among them
In verses 1 and 2 we find a series of brief questions, each of which anticipates a positive reply. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.”
Paul had been set “free” by Christ. He had been called by God as “an apostle.” He had “seen Jesus,” meeting Him suddenly and unexpectedly on the Damascus Road in Acts, chapter 9:1-9. In fact, “seeing Jesus” was a mark of his apostleship.
There are some in our day who declare themselves to be “apostles.” As Paul makes clear in this passage, he was an “apostle,” at least in part because he had seen the risen Lord. No one can legitimately make that claim today. “Seeing Jesus” was an event that had radically transformed Paul’s life. In fact, his ministry in Corinth and their positive response to the Gospel he had preached had become “the seal,” the attesting and authenticating mark of his “apostleship in the Lord.” This work of the Lord to him and through him was his “defense to those who would examine” him.
It is at times easy for us to put others on trial, including our fellow believers. But here Paul is putting himself on trial. Building upon the forensic terms of verse 3, he then asks in verse 4, “Do we not have the right to eat and drink?” It was a rhetorical question, implying an affirmative response. Of course he and the other apostles could expect to be compensated for their work of ministry. Mind you, Paul was not here requesting that he and the other apostles be paid for his preaching. He was simply making the point that it was reasonable to assume that they would be provided for while they served among the believers in Corinth.
To emphasize that point, Paul then follows up with two more questions in verses 5 and 6: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?” As a minister of the Gospel, Paul was entitled to all of these privileges. As we learned from chapter 7, there were no strict sanctions imposed upon him by the Lord in terms of marriage or vocation. And certainly he was entitled to have been financially supported by those among whom he ministered. But that was not what he was seeking. Instead, he is building a case, one in which he will demonstrate his willingness to work with his own hands and not live off the income his ministry might have generated.
Retaining the legal motif, Paul next calls three witnesses to the stand in verses 4 through 6: the “soldier,” the gardener, and the shepherd. Each deserved and expected to be supported from the fruit of their labor. Should not the minister of God expect the same?
Moving on to verses 8 through 12, the apostle gives a second reason for his “right” receive support. It was because of the Old Testament Law. Human reasoning by itself was insufficient evidence to prove Paul’s point. So, ever the Bible scholar, he next reaches back to the Book of Deuteronomy and quotes a passage found in chapter 25 and verse 4, which reads “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.”
“Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake?” Paul asks, thereby stating the obvious. In his characteristic manner, Martin Luther quipped that “oxen can’t read.” “It was written for our sake,” Paul continues, “because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.” It would have been cruel and incredulous to imagine the farmer preventing the ox from eating from the grain. After all, it was the animal who was doing the work and deserved to be fed.
So Paul draws his conclusion on this point, declaring in verses 11 and 12, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?” But quickly Paul inserts a rejoinder, saying, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” It is here that he gets to the core of his argument. His mention of “the gospel” in verse 12 is the first of eight times it is found in the rest of this chapter. What he argues is his willingness to forego his “rights” as an apostle so that the progress of “the gospel” will not be impeded among those to whom he preaches.
“So, let’s be clear,” Paul seems to say, adding a third reason in verses 13 and 14, namely that the example of the Levitical priesthood supported the “right” of the apostles to receive support from those they served. Just as those priests partook of a portion of the “sacrificial offerings,” so those who ministered the Gospel were entitled to support. By asking, “Do you not know,” he employs an introductory phrase that is used ten times throughout this epistle (cf. 3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 16, 19; 9:13, 24). Paul is again expecting an affirmative reply on their part. Of course, they knew. Perhaps they had let it slip to the back of their minds or maybe they were not connecting the dots biblically, but they knew.
There was yet a fourth important line of reasoning given by Paul in order to stabilize his argument, and that was the teaching of Jesus. Paul inserts this point almost covertly in verse 14, writing, “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” The apostle is evidently basing this premise on the statement made by Jesus in Luke 10:7. There, in sending out disciples to preach “two by two,” He had stated, “the laborer deserves his wages.” Later on, when writing to Timothy, Paul himself applied both of these passages to the church in supporting the elders who served among them (cf. 1 Timothy 5:18).
Remember, Paul is not arguing to be paid for his services by the Corinthians, but rather to make the point that he had a “right” to be supported by them because of his work among them. As he moves into the next section of the text, the logic of his premise becomes clearer. Just as he had established his “right” to receive support from them, so also he had...
The right to refuse support (verses 15-27)
Beginning in verse 15, he cites three motivations in defending his “right” to refuse the very support that he was entitled to receive. We have already alluded to the first of these, which was for the sake of the Gospel.” Notice how he expresses it: “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.”
These are the words of a man who lived for a purpose and higher ambition than just pleasing himself. He understood his call from God and he did not want to do anything to hinder the advancement of the Gospel. We can learn a great deal from Paul in this regard.
There can be, at times, a subtle seduction in the ministry that has the potential to trip up the minister, making him think that he is more important than he really is. I believe it was Chuck Swindoll who I first heard say, “A preacher is in trouble when he starts believing his own press clippings.” The only legitimate “boasting” a minister of the Gospel is entitled to is his willingness to refuse his “rights” for the sake of the Gospel.
Paul fleshes this out in verses 15 through 17 through the use of four explanatory phrases, each beginning with the word “for.” He says, first of all that he “would rather die” than to forfeit his “right” of refusal to receive support.
Then he adds that “preach(ing) the gospel” provided “no ground for boasting,” because he was only doing what he had been called and entrusted by God to do. He was merely fulfilling the task that had been assigned to him.
Indeed, in the third place, “necessity (had been) laid upon” him to “preach the gospel.” In fact, he says that a “woe” would be pronounced over him if he did not faithfully fulfill that call. We think of the words of Jeremiah, who spoke of his own call to preach in this way: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Charles Spurgeon often told his students, “If you can do anything other than preach, then do it.” Preaching the Gospel is never an easy task. In fact, it can at times be difficult and painful. But what is worse is not fulfilling one’s call in the Lord (cf. Colossians 4:17).
As verse 17 points out, willingly or unwillingly, Paul could not escape his responsibility to preach the Gospel because a “stewardship” had been entrusted to him. He was “under orders” by God to preach. And even if he never received a penny for his labor, that was “reward” enough.
Paul defended his “right” to refuse support not only for the sake of the Gospel, but also for the sake of sinners. He explains by means of a paradox in verses 19 through 23, writing, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Paul was not content to carry out his ministry only among those who were just like him. Stephen Um calls this paragraph “the quintessential passage concerning Christian witness in the world.” Although Paul had been raised and trained in the exclusive Hebrew tradition, when Christ invaded his life, his perspective of the world broadened to include all peoples. Five times in this paragraph he reveals that he “became” like those whom he hoped to reach with the Gospel.
When the Lord called Hudson Taylor to take the Gospel to the Chinese people in the latter half of the 19th century, Taylor broke with what until that time had been standard missionary protocol by completely immersing himself in traditional Chinese culture. He lived among the Chinese in Chinese housing. He learned to read, write, and speak Chinese. He dressed in Chinese clothing. He ate Chinese food with Chinese food implements. He carefully observed and practiced Chinese customs and etiquette. He went so far as to refuse the guardianship and protection of the British military which he had at his disposal. He devoted more than fifty years of his life to the Chinese people and left an impact for Christ that remains there generations later.
Paul would have readily identified. In fact, five times in this paragraph he refers to “winning” others for Christ. That particular word (“κερδαινω”) means “to gain” or “to acquire possession of.” In other words, his goal was to “claim” them for Christ. He was well aware that they were “lost” apart from having the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel. He makes that quite clear in the latter half of verse 22, where he explains, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” Could there be a more meaningful goal for one’s life? It is what Oswald Sanders called “the power of a master ambition.” Does a similar affection to make Christ known to others drive your life?
A qualifier needs to be added to Paul’s statement that he was willing to employ every available means of reaching others with the Gospel. Far too many churches that would consider themselves evangelical have gone overboard in adapting their message to the times. Those churches have become obsessed with entertainment, pop culture, and style, and in doing so no longer have the message Paul preached and the Gospel Christ died for at its core.
No one believed more strongly in the sovereignty of God than did the Apostle Paul. The passion of his life was to proclaim the Gospel of the cross to “all” so that, through his preaching, the Lord would be pleased to save “some.” “I do it all,” he adds, “for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” This was the “reward” for which he labored. No amount of earthly compensation could compete with that.
Paul insisted on his “right” to refuse support for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of sinners who would perish without it, and finally he did it for the sake of himself. The chapter concludes with an illustration drawn from the athletic arena. Every two years athletic contests, known as the Isthmian Games, were held in the city of Corinth. They were popular and drew spectators from both near and far. They are described by one historian in a way in which Paul may have known them to be.
These were extravagant festivals of religion, athletics, and the arts, attracting thousands of competitors and visitors from all over the empire. Its sponsors and greater athletes were honored along the Isthmus by monuments, statues, and inscriptions. Paul would have been in Corinth during the games of A.D. 51 (in the Spring). Since there were no permanent facilities for visitors until the second century A.D., they had to stay in tents. It has been conjectured that Paul would have had ample opportunity to ply his trade as a tentmaker and share the gospel with the crowds visiting the Games of that year.
The main event would have been the footrace and boxing, which Paul describes in verses 24 through 27, writing, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
The language is both colorful and descriptive. The residents of a “sports town” are generally familiar with athletic terminology. The Corinthians would have likely honed in right away on the illustration Paul employed. Through a series of athletic metaphors, he is providing an inspirational image of someone who exercised remarkable self-discipline in the pursuit of excellence. Although a number of contestants competed in a race, only one would cross the finish line first and be declared the winner. I believe Paul’s use of the word “prize” connects this paragraph with the earlier one in which he made reference to his “reward.” His exhortation to these Corinthian Christians is for them to live faithfully for Christ so as to “win” or “receive the prize” that awaited. There were no “participation trophies.”
Winning “the prize” requires discipline, “self-control in all things.” That is true for athletes, and it is true for the followers of Jesus Christ. Once again, Paul speaks of “all things” in verse 25. Serving the Lord is not a part-time calling. It requires saying “no” to some “good” things in order to pursue the “better.” And it means saying “no” to the “better” in order to lay claim to the “best.” Athletes do this for the sake of gaining a temporal reward—“a perishable wreath.” By way of contrast, the Christian’s pursuit of Christ yields a “prize” that is “imperishable” and eternal. In fact, the word Paul uses is “στεφανοs,” which spoke of “the victor’s crown.”
With regard to himself and the restraining of his rights, Paul concludes by stating his resolve. Like a well-trained runner and mentally-focused boxer, he is well aware of the goal set before him and it is that toward which he strives. Such a perspective required great discipline and self-control. As he points out in his closing phrase, the Christian who is unwilling to discipline himself risks facing serious peril. Much more than the loss of an athletic event is at stake. Despite the boldness that we find in his preaching and writing, Paul seems to have had the latent fear—or at least entertained the real possibility—that “after preaching to others (he himself) should be disqualified.”
What it means to be “disqualified” (“αδοκιμοs”) carries a range of possible interpretations from being “rejected as unusable” to being “shown to be counterfeit.” The word was used of athletic competitors who had been declared ineligible to compete because they had either violated training rules or had taken unfair advantage of an opponent during the contest itself. However Paul had meant in using the term, he clearly did not want to risk being “disqualified,” and being “cast aside” by God.
It is reminiscent of what he had told the Corinthians earlier. In chapter 4 and verse 2, he had written, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” That was true of apostles in Paul’s day, and it is true of the ministers of Christ today. But its application extends to all Christians, because it is to every believer that the mysteries of the Gospel have been entrusted. Thus, this warning is for us all. No Christian is excluded.
Paul has been intensely personal in applying the truths of this passage to himself, but their application extends to everyone who knows Christ as Savior and Lord. Are you guarding your heart and mind and being careful with the life you live and the words you speak so that the Gospel loses none of it credibility because of you? Have you yielded up your “rights” to the One who gave up His “rights” in order to not only save you but to claim the “privilege” of being the instrument of the Father’s glory? We have been entrusted with a great “privilege” of making that One and His Gospel known to others. Are we being faithful to that trust?
On October 28, 1949, Jim Elliott wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” A little more than six years later he, along with four missionary companions were slain by a members of a primitive people group in Ecuador whom they were attempting to evangelize. Jim and his companions were well prepared for that day because they were willing to set aside their own personal plans and agendas for the sake of the Gospel.
That is the very subject that Paul addresses in chapters 8 through 10 of 1 Corinthians. This apostle was unwilling to allow anything to hinder the effectiveness of the Gospel in reaching the people to whom he had been called to preach and minister. His was willing—no, he was eager—to forfeit every “right” he had for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of sinners, and for the sake of his own soul. To him, serving as a minister of Christ—although, at times, filled with burdens and pain—was a “privilege.”
There is an even more fitting example of radical surrender found in the Scriptures. It is that of our Lord Jesus Himself, who set aside all of His “rights” to the point of dying on a cross in order to save those whom the Father would call. Are you included in that number? Have you turned from your sin and are you depending solely on His finished work as the means of your salvation?
Let us never forget that His “rights” were inherent...they were not given to Him by another as our “rights” are. His “rights” had always been His by virtue of His position as the second member of the Godhead. By being willing to relinquish them on our behalf, He provided for us what we could never get for ourselves. Through His sinless life and sacrificial death, He absorbed the full wrath of God that we deserved and credited to us the merits of His righteous life. The writer of Hebrews wrote that “for the joy that was set before him (He) endured the cross, despising the same, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
It is to Him that we must continually look, yield, and serve lest we “should be disqualified.”