Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 4, 2024

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Commentary

Motivation is an immensely complex and mysterious force. The Psychology Today website identifies two sources of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. So 1 Corinthians 9:16-23’s preachers might fruitfully ask whether Paul’s motivation is intrinsic. Does it come purely from within himself? Or is his apostolic work’s motivation extrinsic? Is Paul, in other words, compelled by his desire to share in the blessings that come from doing that work?

There are a number of ways that the Spirit might prompt preachers to organize a message on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. One way we might respond is to help our hearers think about just what the apostle means when he professes that “I do all this [panta]* for the sake of the gospel [dia tou euangelion] (23).”

After all, while English translators strongly imply that Paul’s panta refers to what he speaks of earlier in the chapter, the Greek verb is actually far broader. It suggests that the apostle doesn’t just do what he describes in 1 Corinthians 9 for the sake of the gospel. He does everything for the sake of the gospel. The gospel is Paul’s motivation for everything he does and says.

Preachers should help our hearers keep that in mind as we explore what things Paul reports that the gospel motivates him to do. After all, verse 23’s panta opens the way for Jesus’ friends to consider our own motivations for everything we do and say, even as we study what the gospel motivates the apostle to do. It also opens the way for preachers to explore how the gospel motivates God’s adopted children to do and say.

Biblical scholars generally agree with Jeehei Park in pointing to this Lesson’s context that’s the rather precarious relationship between Corinth’s Christians and Paul. They exchanged at least two letters over the course of time. Park notes that the apostle and his readers’ relationship had its ups and downs. Among the sources of controversy were Paul’s apostolic authority.

The gospel compels [epikeitai] the apostle, according to verse 16 to preach [euangelizomai]. Preaching the gospel isn’t, in other words, one option among many for Paul. It’s not just one possible answer to a multiple choice question. Preaching the good news is literally an utter necessity for him. The New Revised Standard Version Update Edition of the Bible refers to preaching as “an obligation” that’s “laid on” him.

The gospel is, in fact, such great news that Paul seeks no “reward” [misthos] for proclaiming it. He, instead, offers it “free of charge” [adapanon] (18).” The apostle doesn’t, as some of his teaching contemporaries did and preachers, in one sense still do, “charge” his hearers for his preaching. Preaching isn’t for Paul, to quote The Message’s paraphrase, “another way to make a living.” It’s his obligation.

So if he doesn’t get paid for preaching, what does the apostle “get out of it”? Paul himself, in fact, poses that very question: “What then is my reward [misthos]?” (18). His answer is, admittedly, a bit unclear: “That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not to make use of my rights [exousia] in preaching it.”

The Message paraphrases the apostle’s reward as “the pleasure of proclaiming the Message at no cost to you.” Park (ibid) interprets Paul to mean that he would be miserable if he didn’t preach the good news. Preachers might land somewhere near here: Paul considers his reward for preaching the gospel to be the joy he derives from being able to proclaim the best news anyone will ever hear without needing people to reimburse him for it. He rejoices in the way that God has graciously put him in a place where he can preach the good news without demanding that his hearers pay his expenses.

Paul goes on in verses 19-22 to assert that the gospel motivates him to make himself “a slave [edoulosa] to everyone, to win [kerdeso] as many as possible” (19). In verse 22 he adds, “I have become [gegona] all things to all men, so that by all possible means [pantos] I might save [soso] some.”

Preachers can admit these assertions are at least somewhat mysterious. In fact, scholarly study has produced only minimal consensus on it. In fact, verses 19 and 22 have produced a fair bit of heretical interpretation. In verses 19-22 Paul essentially admits that he’s made himself almost chameleon-like in order gain more followers for Jesus Christ.

He says he has adapted not his message, but his approach and style to a wide range of people so that they too may come to receive God’s grace with their faith. Park (ibid) suggests that Paul thinks of himself as “a free agent with no supervisor to report to or company to exclusively work for, other than the Christ who called him.”

Preachers who proclaim the gospel in the 21st century’s multi-cultural and religious setting want to let the Spirit guide their thinking about this mysterious concept. I would suggest that Paul is at least advocating here for a holy curiosity and humility in our dealings with people who don’t yet share our faith. It, what’s more, requires deep empathy to tailor our presentations of the gospel to the people with whom we share it.

On top of all that, being all things to all people in order to try to save them implies that Jesus’ friends share that gospel not just by what we say, but also by what we do. Christ-like actions and attitudes may, by the power of the Holy Spirit, create openings that mere words, no matter how well-spoken and intended, can’t.

This, in one sense, continues Paul’s theme of renouncing his own rights for the sake of the gospel. The New Testament scholar Carla Weeks  notes that Paul is far less interested in pleasing people than pointing them to their only Rescuer. Those who would proclaim that great news act like Christ when we do something similar. We, in some ways, renounce the rights to our own culture and self-identity so that we may share in others’ perspectives and, as a result, point them to the Christ who loves them passionately that he gave up his rights in order to rescue us from our rebellion against God.

Paul ends this Lesson by asserting that he does all this for the sake of the gospel that he “may share in its blessings [synkoinonos]” (23). But that translation almost sounds like a form of prosperity gospel. It almost makes Paul sound as if he’s motivated by the hope of sharing in the gospel’s material rewards.

However, synkoinonos (“blessing”) actually has a more nuanced meaning. It literally means to be a “fellow partaker” in something. So Paul might be saying that he wants to “be in on” the gospel so that he may share in not just its spiritual blessings, but also the joy, purpose and meaning that comes with living a gospel-shaped life.

*I have here and elsewhere bracketed the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In her September 22, 2015 article “Extreme Altruism: Should You Care for Strangers At The Expense of Your Family?” on The Guardian website Larissa McFarquhar writes, “For many years, Julia Wise wondered if she would ever meet another person who thought as she did … Julia believed that because each person was equally valuable, she was not entitled to care more for herself than for anyone else; she believed that she was therefore obliged to spend much of her life working for the benefit of others.

“As she grew older, she worked out the implications of this principle in greater detail. In college, she thought she might want to work in development abroad somewhere, but then she realized that probably the most useful thing she could do was not to become a white aid worker telling people in other countries what to do, but, instead, to earn a salary in the US and give it to NGOs that could use it to pay for several local workers who knew what their countries needed better than she did.

“She reduced her expenses to the absolute minimum so she could give away 50% of what she earned. She felt that nearly every penny she spent on herself should have gone to someone else who needed it more. She gave to whichever charity seemed to her … to relieve the most suffering for the least money…

“What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder? What if everyone believed that his family was no more important or valuable than anyone else’s? What if everyone decided that spontaneity or self-expression or certain kinds of beauty or certain kinds of freedom were less vital, or less urgent, than relieving other people’s pain …

In fact, some do-gooders are happy, some are not. The happy ones are happy for the same reasons anyone is happy – love, work, purpose. It is do-gooders’ unhappiness that is different – a reaction not only to humiliation and lack of love and the other usual stuff, but also to knowing that the world is filled with misery, and that most people do not really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things.

“What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.” 


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