Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “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? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 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?
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. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
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. – 1 Corinthians 9:8-18 ESV
At first glance, it might appear that Paul is making a bigger deal out of all this than might be necessary. It seems that he is belaboring the point that he has the right to compensation for his work as an apostle. After all, he was the one who helped plant the church in Corinth by sharing the gospel with them in the first place. But Paul has a much greater issue in mind here: The gospel. This really isn’t about peoples’ rights to eat meat sacrificed to idols or Paul’s right to remuneration for his ministry activities. It is about the responsibility of every believer to ensure that the gospel is presented clearly and represented accurately to a lost and dying world. Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16b ESV). He was obligated by Christ to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. It was his God-given commission. And he was not going to let anything stand in the way of him accomplishing his responsibility, including demanding his rights to have all his financial and material needs taken care of by those under his care.
Paul made it clear that he had every right to expect compensation. He used the Mosaic law to defend his rights. Even an ox treading grain was left unmuzzled and allowed to eat as it worked. The man who plows the field and the one who threshes the harvested wheat both do so in hopes of getting their fair share of the crop. And there were others who ministered to the Corinthians who were being compensated for their efforts. So why not Paul and Barnabas? Were they not just as deserving? But Paul said, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:12 ESV). Paul didn’t want anyone being able to say he did what he did for money. He refused to give anyone the satisfaction of accusing him of doing ministry for self-serving reasons. The gospel was too important to him. He was willing to give up his rights for the sake of the gospel.
Paul’s whole approach to the gospel was different than that of others. He saw himself as compelled by God to do what he did. He couldn’t help but preach the gospel. It was not something he had decided to do on his own initiative. It had not been his idea. He had been called by God and given a non-negotiable command to take the gospel to the Gentiles. If Paul was doing this on his own, he would have every right to demand payment for his services, just like every other teacher or rabbi. But Paul saw his reward as coming from God, not man. He had a radically different perspective: “What then is my pay? It is the opportunity to preach the Good News without charging anyone. That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News” (1 Corinthians 9:18 NLT). For Paul, it was rewarding to be able to share the gospel free of charge. So he paid his own way. He covered his own expenses or was aided by the generous contributions of others who supported his ministry. In fact, in his second letter to the Corinthians, he explains how he was able to minister to them without demanding anything in return.
Was I wrong when I humbled myself and honored you by preaching God’s Good News to you without expecting anything in return? I “robbed” other churches by accepting their contributions so I could serve you at no cost. And when I was with you and didn’t have enough to live on, I did not become a financial burden to anyone. For the brothers who came from Macedonia brought me all that I needed. I have never been a burden to you, and I never will be. – 2 Corinthians 11:7-9 NLT
The bottom line was that Paul was more interested in spreading the gospel than getting what he rightfully deserved. He labored long and hard. He sacrificed greatly in order to travel around the known world at that time, taking the good news of Jesus Christ to lands in which the name of Jesus had not yet been heard. He suffered physically. He did without financially and materially. But he was able to tell the Philippians, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). He did what he did for the sake of Christ and in the power of Christ.
Remember what Paul has already said to the Corinthians earlier in this letter.
Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home. We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us. Yet we are treated like the world’s garbage, like everybody’s trash—right up to the present moment. – 1 Corinthians 4:11-13 NLT
Why was Paul willing to suffer such things? He gives us his answer: “We would rather put up with anything than be an obstacle to the Good News about Christ.” (1 Corinthians 9:12b NLT). When my rights get in the way of getting the good news out, I become an obstacle to the will of God. I have allowed my rights to take precedence over the primacy of the gospel. When facing the prospect of losing His own life, Jesus was able to say, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV). He gave up His rights as the Son of God to be honored and treated with the highest esteem. Instead, He allowed those He had created to humiliate Him and take His life. All for the sake of the gospel. Are we not willing to give up our rights and die to our own wills so that others might hear the good news?