In the last essay we studied 1 Cor. 8:1-13, in which Paul took up the next issue in the Corinthians’ letter. It had to do with food that had been sacrificed to idols. In this essay we are studying 1 Cor. 9:1-15a. In the first two verses, Paul thrusts into the discussion a defense of his apostleship. This indicates that some of the believers in Corinth not only were questioning Paul’s command not to eat at the pagan temples, but they also were questioning Paul’s authority as an apostle, which was an even more serious matter. Therefore Paul lays out a vigorous defense of his apostleship using a series of rapid-fire rhetorical questions. The first, “Am I not free?” has to do with the fact that he chose to limit his freedom out of love for them. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t free.
The second, “Am I not an apostle?” goes right to the crux of the matter, because his apostleship was being challenged. As we work our way through the chapter, we will see that Paul did not take advantage of the privileges of apostleship, but that did not mean he was not an apostle.
His third question, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” points to an important aspect of Paul’s understanding of apostleship. To be an apostle, one had to be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection, be commissioned by the Lord Jesus, and confirmed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:21-26; 1 Cor. 15:5-8). Paul absolutely believed that the risen Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road and commissioned him, and that the Holy Spirit had confirmed him in the office.
The fourth question, “Are you not my work in the Lord?” indicates that the Corinthians themselves were evidence of Paul’s apostleship. Paul believed that a successful evangelistic ministry was another characteristic of apostleship. And Paul certainly had fulfilled that qualification. In order to drive home his point, Paul says that the Corinthians are the “seal” of his apostleship, by which he means that their existence is a visible sign of his apostleship.
In verses 9-14 Paul focuses on the privileges of an apostle. He strongly points out that he is entitled to these privileges, whether or not he exercises his right to them. Evidently, some at Corinth were sitting “in judgment” (NIV) of Paul. That is, they were questioning his authority as an apostle. Therefore he continues the defense of his apostleship by continuing his series of rhetorical questions. His fifth question is, “Do we not have the right (literally “authority”) to our food and drink?” It was standard practice to house and feed traveling philosophers as well as Christian apostles and prophets. Therefore Paul was stepping outside the norm by refusing such support.
The sixth question, “Do we not have the right (authority) to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles . . .?” Paul is making an interesting point here, since he is unmarried. I would say that he simply wants to establish the truth that apostles have the right to receive support for a wife as an apostolic privilege. Some of the apostles, including Peter and the Lord’s brothers, were married and traveled with their wives. And they were supported by the churches. The reference to Jesus’ brothers is interesting, because except for James, we have no record of them in ministry, let alone traveling in ministry. The separate naming of Cephas (Peter) from the “other apostles” even though he was one of them suggests that there was some reason for that. You will recall that Peter was mentioned earlier in the letter as being associated with Corinth (1:12, 3:22). The mention of him here in 9:5 indicates that he not only visited Corinth at some point, but he was accompanied by his wife.
Question seven is a bit sarcastic. “Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right (authority) to refrain from working for a living?” Apparently, Paul’s opponents at Corinth even seized on the fact that Paul did not accept support from the Corinthians as a reason to dispute his authority as an apostle. The other apostles accepted it, so if Paul did not, he must not be an apostle.
Questions eight through ten, all in verse seven, are illustrations of Paul’s main point. Soldiers do not pay their own expenses; vine growers eat the fruit of the vines; and shepherds share in the milk of the flock.
But there is an even more compelling argument, namely, scripture. Paul asks in questions eleven and twelve, “Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same?” Then Paul quotes Deut. 25:4, which required that an ox not be muzzled as it works grain, because it had the right to eat its fill. Then Paul asks questions thirteen and fourteen in order to make the point that the scripture referred to was written for “our sakes,” not for the sake of the oxen.
In verses 11-12a Paul applies the scripture to his situation with questions fifteen and sixteen. Changing his point into statement form, he has sown spiritual things (NIV “seed”) among them (notice the continuance of the farming analogy). Therefore he has a right to share in the material benefits. Clearly Paul believed that sowing the gospel among people created a right to material support from those people. As he says in verse 12a, others have received material support from them. The “others” here most likely were Apollos and Peter, whom Paul mentioned in the larger context. Therefore he concludes that he also has a right to material support, even more of a right than them, because he first brought the gospel to them and founded their church.
However, Paul does not avail himself of the material benefits. And in 12b he gives his reason. He will “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Although he whole-heartedly supports the idea that apostles have a right to material support from those whom they are serving, he refuses to accept that support himself. He did that so that his motives could not be questioned. However, as we saw in verse seven, his policy regarding material support caused some at Corinth to question his apostleship, because the other apostles accepted support.
In verse 13 Paul adds, with a seventeenth rhetorical question, another reason why he as an apostle has a right to financial support. He reminds the Corinthians of the fact that the priests and others employed in the temples received their food from the sacrificial offerings. Thus by analogy, the same was true of Christian leaders.
Finally, on the basis of the analogy just set forth, in verse 14 Paul closes his argument with a reference to a saying by Jesus, “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Lk. 10:7b). The context of that saying was the financial support of the seventy (or seventy-two, depending on the textual tradition followed) when he sent them out two by two to preach the good news of the kingdom of God. As you can see, Paul was applying Jesus’ saying to his situation. He was saying that even Jesus commanded that the apostles and other ministers of the church are to be supported by the people they serve.
We can summarize the entire passage in the words of C.K. Barrett: “Reason and common experience; the Old Testament; universal religious practice; the teaching of Jesus himself; all these support the custom by which apostles (and other ministers) are maintained at the expense of the church which is built up by their ministry.” “But Paul declares once again, very emphatically this time, “I have made no use of any of these rights” (15a).