In 1 Corinthians 9:1-18, Paul is dealing with comments made by his critics. We already know that three of the factions were not his fans. When you’re not a fan of a teacher, then you find it easy to find fault with him.
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
One question that seems to be up for debate was to whether or not Paul was really an apostle. After all, eleven of the twelve were Jesus’ chosen disciples. The twelfth was voted in as a replacement for Judas but had at least been a disciple – not one chosen, but one who had followed Jesus and been with him by his own choice. Paul – as Saul – didn’t really like Jesus until after he died and met him on the road. Scriptures tell us that hundreds of people also met Jesus in a similar manner – the two disciples walking on the road, wouldn’t that make them apostles, too? Or does that make Paul like them?
This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
I keep on thinking about the question of marriage. When the rule was written that leaders in the church had to be husbands of one wife, did they realize they were demoting the Pauls and Barnabas’ of the church? For so long churches are either for it or against it, never able to strike a balance of: both. You’d think after a few thousand years we’d learn not to push people into marriages they aren’t ready for or to demand that people not get married at all in order to pursue a spiritual calling and to not let a person’s marital state determine how spiritual their spirituality can be. I just read this one hundred year old short story where the women viewed the single minister with mistrust and realized how sad it was that single pastors today often are discriminated against. Some things never change, I guess.
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
It seems like Paul felt that a quote from Deuteronomy 25:4 was appropriate here and he uses it completely as written as far the NIV goes – but he doesn’t mean it literally but figuratively. This is something that’s been a bit of an overdue topic. We’re literalists. When we read our documents like the Bill of Rights or the Constitution, we don’t see a lot of metaphorical or figurative languages. The Bible speaks to a culture that believes in metaphor and poetic language. That’s why Paul can arrive at the conclusion he does to support his assertion – he knows that his audience won’t rush out to buy oxen and land and wheat. He knows they get his point – he is their ox, they are the wheat on the farmer’s (God’s) land – they’re supposed to provide for him.
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
Perhaps the church is feeling slighted that Paul chooses to act as he does. In their culture, accepting gifts would make Paul a client and the church his patron. The patron provides for traveling expenses, food, shelter, clothing, legal protection, that sort of thing. The client owes the patron his favor and his services. Paul spends so much time here saying that (1) the church ought to be providers (2) but he personally doesn’t want to be provided for. Could that be a slight as if Paul doesn’t like them? After all, in Philippians 4:10-20 he acknowledges that gifts were sent to him. Isn’t he breaking his own rule? Perhaps he had his reasons for this – we’ll never know.
Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
Now he’s reinforcing his earlier assertion with the direct statement – that the Corinthians have an obligation to provide for those who serve them.
But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
Paul might not have been like the other apostles from the very beginning, he might not have been like them in the sense of doing things as they would do it and that might have singled him out as the odd man out. But like it or not, he is, in fact, an apostle and that comes with rights that are up to him whether or not he wants to use them. Other people may have expectations, about things he could do differently so that they could like him – if he’d just accept our gifts, if he’d just get married, if he’s just etc. But all Paul really wants to do is preach, he doesn’t want to beholden to anyone or for there to be any diversion from preaching. I think he’s letting them know that just because Paul is different than other apostles, they shouldn’t treat him as anything less than what he is.