Comments and Observations
On this fifth Sunday after Epiphany, this lesson from the epistles seems to have nothing to do with Epiphany, until we take a wider and deeper look. A review of the wider context reminds us that Paul is writing here to a church that is deeply divided—by the abuse of spiritual gifts, by a lax toleration of sin, by a proud assertion of Christian freedom, by troublesome ethical questions, by doubts about central Christian doctrine. In chapter 1 verse 10 Paul summarizes his purpose in writing to these battling Christians: “that all of you may agree with one another so that there will be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” The effectiveness of the church’s mission depends on such unity, as Jesus said in his last prayer before his death. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23) The greatest contemporary Epiphany of Christ’s glory is a church standing united in a hopelessly divided world. Our text today is a continuation of Paul’s plea for unity, focusing particularly on the way our insistence on Christian freedom and personal rights can destroy that unity.
Paul uses his own life and ministry as an example of what he has just said in chapter 8 about putting love ahead of rights. Chapter 8 focused on eating meat offered to idols, which mature Christians know they can do. They have a perfect right because of the Gospel, but Paul calls them to set aside their rights for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters. Love for others must take priority over your rights. Paul ended that chapter with a very personal pledge. “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
Now in chapter 9 Paul talks about how he has set aside another right for the sake of the Body of Christ, namely, his right to earn a living from preaching the gospel. Here a deeper look into Paul’s evangelistic ministry will help us make the connection between this text and Epiphany. Paul routinely sacrificed his right to be supported by the church and his right to live his life freely, so that the church would grow, not only in the quality of its unity, but also in the quantity of its membership. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means, I might save some.” If the Body of Christ is the Epiphany of Christ’s glory among the nations, then growing the church by “winning” more people to Christ will more clearly show Christ’s glory to the world.
But what is the best way to grow the church? What did the church’s first and greatest missionary do to “win” people for Christ? Of course, he preached the Gospel faithfully and fearlessly, but our text here focuses on how he related to the people to whom he preached. First of all, he never accepted pay for his services, even though he had a perfect right to such pay. That’s the point of the compelling argument in verses 1-15. The other apostles used that right. Common sense says that every worker has a right to be paid. The Bible (the Old Testament) said that was perfectly legitimate. Jesus himself commanded that “those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel (verse 14).” But Paul had not “used these rights,” either to eat whatever he wanted (chapter 8) or to earn his living by preaching the Gospel (chapter 9).
Paul wasn’t writing this to suggest that the Corinthians should start paying him now. Indeed, he gets so choked up with emotion as he writes about this, that his next sentence in verse 15 is a grammatical train wreck. “I would rather die than….” His thought breaks here in the Greek. We don’t know what he was going to say exactly. When he collects himself he says something like “I won’t let anyone deprive me of this boast,” that is, the boast that he never accepts pay, that he preaches the Gospel free of charge, even though he has the perfect right to such support.
In the near background here are Paul’s ubiquitous critics (cf. verse 3), claiming that he wasn’t really an apostle at all, that he was leading the church away from its God given roots in Judaism, that he was a self-serving fake. Paul met these vicious accusations wherever he went. He always defended himself fiercely, because the attacks on him were finally attacks on the Gospel he preached. And that put the whole enterprise of the church at risk. So, he fought back, and he made sure that his own life didn’t become an issue in the controversy.
That’s why he never accepted pay. He wanted the Gospel to be free of charge, so that no one could ever say that he got rich by preaching, thus throwing the Gospel itself into question. Think of the effect on the Gospel of the public moral failures of some modern mega-preachers. That’s why Paul “boasts” of sacrificing his right to remuneration. He didn’t give up the right to receive pay because he wasn’t really an apostle (as his critics said), but because he would do anything to promote the cause of the Gospel.
That brings us, at last, to our text for today, where Paul picks up on that word “boast” in verse 15. I will always boast of my practice of supporting myself for the sake of the Gospel, but when it comes to actually preaching the Gospel, “I cannot boast….” I’ll boast about my tent making, but not about my preaching. I chose to live by my trade, but I didn’t choose to be a preacher. Undoubtedly thinking back to his conversion and commission in Acts 9:1-16, Paul says, “for I am compelled to preach.” Then he utters that word of discipline and judgment we hear in the prophets and from Jesus, “Woe! Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.”
Then we have this peculiar business about reward. Paul says that he doesn’t deserve a reward because he isn’t doing this voluntarily. He is “simply discharging the trust committed to me.” He uses the word oikonomos, or steward, who was a slave entrusted with the care of his master’s possessions. Though he was “free” of all human obligation (cf. verses 1 and 19), he is a slave of Jesus Christ. So he deserves no reward for simply doing his duty. Paul may have been thinking of the words Jesus in Luke 17:10. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Paul isn’t seeking a reward, and doesn’t think he deserves one, but he does have a reward. He gets to preach the gospel “free of charge and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” His reward for preaching the gospel is that he gets to preach the gospel. His highest pay is to serve with no pay.
As a preacher who has always enjoyed being paid, I find Paul’s practice tough to understand on a gut level. Intellectually, I understand the principle of sacrificing everything for the sake of the gospel. But the practice of such sacrificial living looks like an insurmountable challenge. Thank God, Paul doesn’t tell me that I have to make the same sacrifices he did. He says right up front that this is just his personal way of doing ministry. Peter and the other apostles did otherwise, and had a perfect right, even a Christ-commanded right to do so. So do I. And thank God that my salvation depends not on my sacrificial living, but on the sacrifice of Christ who emptied himself and became a servant and a victim who obeyed unto death, even death on a cross. But Paul’s practice confronts me and you and our congregants with the question, how committed are we to the progress of the Gospel and the growth and unity of the church? What rights might we sacrifice for the sake of unity? What freedoms might we surrender for the sake of winning people to Christ?
That’s where Paul turns next in his letter—to the issue of winning people to Christ. That’s a term out of favor in our pluralistic postmodern culture where everyone has a right to his or her own beliefs. “Winning” people sounds like cultural imperialism. “We’re right, you’re wrong, so come over to our side.” Paul and the early Christians (and most Christians for the last 2000 years, in fact) didn’t see it that way. Paul knew that all of us are lost, but Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Then Jesus sent the found to find the rest of the lost and bring them to himself. Because the lost are all part of another kingdom, they must be won away from that kingdom and into the reign of Christ the King. The desire to win people for Christ propelled Paul and the church all over the world.
The big question is, how do we win people to Christ? Some of the church’s evangelistic practices have rightly earned the wrath and scorn of the world. Think, for example, of the Crusades, where winning meant defeating by force of arms. Paul’s method was the exact opposite of force. As a citizen of the Kingdom of Christ, Paul had authority, rights, freedom to be himself in all his Christ-given glory. He won people to Christ not by insisting on his rights and freedom and authority, but by identifying with the lost. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.”
What does it mean to “make myself a slave to everyone?” Does it mean that we do whatever others tell us to do? Does it mean that we give up all our convictions in order to relate to others? Does it mean that we serve people’s felt needs and never speak to their deeper spiritual needs? Does it mean that we honor their beliefs and practices, never calling them to repent of their sins and come to Christ in faith? That is how some have taken Paul’s words, but clearly that’s not what he meant, as is clear from verses 20-22.
Paul says that he adapted his lifestyle to the people he was trying to win to Christ. If he was with Jews, he acted like a Jew, observing their feasts and rituals. So, he had Timothy circumcised in order not to offend the Jews (Acts 16:3). He observed the rites of being a Nazirite (Acts. 21:23-26). He honored Jewish dietary restrictions (I Cor. 8). If he was with Gentiles, he acted like a Gentile, following Jesus’ example of eating and drinking with sinners, even though that earned Jesus the slur of being a “friend of sinners.” (Matt. 11:9) To those who didn’t know the law of God, Paul “became like one not having the law.” This “loose” behavior was behind the accusation that Paul was undercutting the law of God and leading the Jews away from Torah. Actually, when Paul was with Gentiles, he ignored the ceremonial and civil parts of Torah, but never the moral part. That’s what he means when he adds, “though I am not free from God’s law, but am under Christ’s law.”
In other words, to win people to Christ, Paul didn’t stay in his own little world, safe in the holy huddle of the church. Rather, he entered into the lives of those outside the church. He identified with them, adapting to their lifestyle, becoming like them, as much as he could without violating God’s law and without compromising his own central Christian convictions. Instead of saying, “Come over here and become like I am,” Paul always began the process of winning people by “going into the world” and becoming like they were.
Paul was free and obligated to no one, as he says in verse 19. But he was obligated to preach the Gospel and he knew that the Gospel travels most effectively over the bridge of relationships. Relationships are built when we enter someone else’s life and identify with them as much as we can without losing our identity as Christ followers. Of course, that is very hard and very risky, which is why Paul talks in the verses following our text about the self discipline he exercises as he preaches this way (verse 27). But the discipline was worth it to Paul, because of his commitment to follow Christ’s great commission to the ends of the earth. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Such “flexible” living might be interpreted by fellow church members as wishy-washy, unprincipled, worldly living. But Paul was anything but loose. Indeed, what we see here is Paul walking a tightrope, as one commentator put it, “blending sacrifice with reward, freedom with constraint, boasting with humility, law with love in order to optimize the Gospel.”
Those last words are what Paul ends with. He doesn’t live this way in order to prove something about himself or in order to walk the border of Christian propriety, but in order to preach the Gospel to maximum effect. “I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” He doesn’t mean that he won’t be saved if he doesn’t live and preach this way. He means that by living and preaching this way, he will get to see the blessings of the Gospel fulfilled in the church and the world. He will see a unified church. He will see a growing church. He will see the Body of Christ in all its glory. Through the church, he will see Jesus in the world, shining as a light to the nations. He will get to see the Epiphany of Christ. That was his motive. And it should be ours.
Paul’s last words in verse 23, “I do all this (or all things) for the sake of the Gospel,” got me thinking about all the reasons we do what we do. Sometimes we know our reasons, but often we say with Paul in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do.” Psychologists have proposed multiple theories about the central driving force in human life. It’s the hunger for sex, or the drive for power, or the search for meaning. An entrepreneurial friend of mine hired the motivational guru Tony Robbins to help him grow his company. In a talk entitled “Why We Do What We Do,” Robbins says that all human behavior is driven by 6 fundamental needs: the need for certainty, the need for uncertainty or variety, the need for significance, the need for connection or love, the need for growth, and the need to help or contribute. All of those are undoubtedly part of our lives, but they don’t capture the central motivation of Paul’s life, the need to do God’s will by preaching and living the Gospel. To the extent that Paul’s motivation is ours, the world will see Christ and come to the light.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Commentary