LIBERTY IN BONDS
1 CORINTHIANS 9:15-23
The context for this section of Paul’s epistle begins in chapter 8 where he began to deal with a problem that had arisen in Corinth. It was the problem of those who were eating meat that had been offered to idols. The pagan temple in Corinth was located right next to the marketplace and it was customary for many of the sacrifices that were offered in the heathen temple to find their way into the marketplace butcher shop. In such a case, it would receive the official stamp of approval from the various pagan deities in question.
The church was divided in its understanding of the implications of this situation. There were those who realized that this pagan ceremony did not affect the quality of the meat. They knew that Christian cookies are no more spiritual than pagan peanuts. And so, they enjoyed their liberty in Christ and they freely ate of such food.
There were other Christians in Corinth who did not realize these basic truths. They had been indoctrinated into believing that the quality of the food was somehow changed by the pagan ceremony. They felt that to partake of such food would be to open one’s self up to idolatry or worse.
Paul presented the principle that sometimes it is better for the stronger Christian to limit his liberty rather than to cause his brother to stumble.
From there, he turns to a personal illustration of this principle. The illustration is taken from Paul’s own life. He shows how he has limited his own freedom and his own Christian liberty for the benefit of others. The liberty on which he focuses is that of the spiritual leader who has the prerogative of being paid for his services.
A call to limit liberty for the sake of the weaker brother
An example of this type of limited liberty seen in Paul’s limitation of his liberty to be paid in the ministry
Paul has the right to be paid in ministry
Paul has limited his liberty for the sake of the Corinthians
THE LIMITING OF PAUL’S LIBERTY
But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one. (1 Corinthians 9:15).
One of the liberties that Paul has limited is the liberty to be financially compensated for his work in the gospel. He has spent the first part of this chapter establishing that a spiritual leader has the right to be paid for his work in preaching the gospel. Now he points out that he has not partaken of that right.
1. The Regularity of Paul’s Practice: But I have used none of these things (9:15).
Paul’s regular practice in ministry was that he generally did not take money from those to whom he was ministering.
For you recall, brethren, our labor and hardship, how working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God (1 Thessalonians 2:9).
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you; 9 not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, that you might follow our example. (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
“You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35).
Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself and his entire missionary team. This meant working long hours. He describes it in 2 Thessalonians 3:8 as being “night and day.” It was a labor of sacrifice.
2. The Reason for Paul’s Relating of the Practice: And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one (9:15).
Paul has just given a number of compelling reasons why the church should always be ready to pay its spiritual leaders, but he is not making this point so that he can drum up support for himself from the Corinthian church. This is not a subtle play to prick their consciences and get them to make a donation to the St Paul Missionary Fund. He has no desire for their money.
Paul isn’t in the ministry for the money. He is in the ministry because he has no choice in the matter. He is in the ministry because God called him.
THE COMPULSION OF PAUL’S CALL
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16-18).
Paul was not sitting around Jerusalem contemplating a career change when he got the idea that he would go into ministry. Going into the Christian ministry had been the furthest thing from Paul’s mind.
Paul started out as the greatest enemy the early church had ever confronted. He made Caiaphas and Herod and Pontius Pilate look like pussycats. He seems to have been the primary witness against Stephen when he was sentenced to death. He chose as his calling in life the persecution of the infant church. He was so good at persecuting Christians that he finally ran out of Christians in Jerusalem. They had all left town and gone into hiding.
Paul received permission from the Jewish authorities to travel to Damascus and persecute the Christians there. It was while he was on the Damascus road that God knocked him to the ground and struck him blind and commissioned him to be an apostle.
With this commission, Paul was given a job to do. He was given a message to preach. This is what he means when he says that he is “under compulsion.”
1. A Need To Preach: For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the (9:16).
Paul realized a basic truth. It is that when God tells you to do something, you had better do it. But obedience to a command is not in itself deserving of a reward. It is to be expected. The reward is to be determined by the attitude that accompanies such obedience.
2. A Rewarded Attitude: For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward (9:17).
Paul realized that it is only if his attitude toward his ministry is positive that he will be approved by God. The act of preaching does not make him more or less spiritual. Rather it is his attitude in his preaching that makes a difference.
I have a gift for teaching. I recognize this ability as a gift from God. I did not do anything to earn it. I did not do anything to deserve it. Before I was even born, God determined that he would give me a special gift of being able to communicate the Scriptures to people. I have a responsibility to use that gift in building up the body of Christ.
The fact that I teach the Bible does not mean that I am deserving of rewards from God. On the contrary, if I ever stop teaching, then I am in trouble, for I would not be fulfilling the responsibilities that God has given to me. How then can I receive any reward? It is only by exercising the proper attitude toward my ministry of teaching.
Lest you think that I am the only one who has that kind of responsibility, the Bible teaches that every believer has a spiritual gift from God. The Lord has given you some special abilities. You are under a divine obligation to use those abilities for the building up of the body of Christ.
3. A Stewardship Entrusted: For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me (9:17).
Elsewhere in his epistles, we find that Paul sees himself as a soldier in the army of God. A soldier’s job is to obey orders. If he obeys the orders given to him by his superior officer, then he doesn’t land in the brig. On the other hand, he doesn’t get a medal for simply obeying orders. Medals are only awarded for going above and beyond the call of duty.
Let’s say a soldier is called by his platoon sergeant and told that today he has K.P. He is given his assignment. It is to peel a thousand potatoes. Does he get a medal for peeling those potatoes? Of course not! He is only doing that which is expected of him. It is only when he goes above and beyond the call of duty that he is awarded a medal.
Paul says the same is true in the Lord’s army. Medals are only given to those who go “above and beyond.”
4. A Basis of Reward: What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (9:18).
How did Paul go “above and beyond” the call of duty? He did it by refusing to charge for his services. He did it by not taking a salary for the preaching of the gospel. He had a right to be paid for his work in the ministry, but he chose not to be paid for that work.
THE SACRIFICE OF PAUL’S FREEDOM
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.
22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23 And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Paul has maintained from the outset that the Christian enjoys liberty. He is free. What do we mean by this? It means that the Christian is free to do whatever is not forbidden, as long as it does not go against his conscience.
As a Christian, you can eat what you want to eat, read what you want to read, marry whom you want to marry, and be what you want to be as long as it has not been forbidden by the Lord and as long as it does not go against your conscience.
However there are still times when it might be wrong to do what is right. There are times when the exercising of your liberty might hurt another person. It is with this in mind that Paul decided to limit his own liberty.
What do you call one who has no liberty? A prisoner. A slave. Paul points this out when he says, “Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more” (9:19).
Notice Paul’s reasoning. Why did he give up his liberty. Was it because it is more spiritual to be under the Law? Was it because he enjoyed being a slave to others? Was it because he had masochistic tendencies? No. It was so that he could win more to Christ.
Paul gives three examples of how he has sacrificed his freedom for the benefit of others:
· To the Jew he became as a Jew (9:20).
· To the Gentile he became as a Gentile (9:21).
· To the weak he became as weak (9:22).
In each case, Paul ends the example by giving the reason that he sacrificed his freedom. In each case, it is “that I might win the more”
1. A Jew to the Jews: to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law (9:20).
Paul realized that he was no longer bound by the legal ceremonies and customs of the Mosaic Law. He had been set free from that. Christ died to fulfill the requirements of the Law and we are no longer under its rule. Although he was free, Paul often limited his liberty by following the Jewish customs when he was dealing with the Jews.
For example, Paul circumcised Timothy, his young half-Jewish apprentice, when they were going to be working among the Jews of Galatia. The rite of circumcision was of no spiritual benefit. On a later date, Paul would refuse to have Titus circumcised because the issue had arisen as to whether circumcision was necessary for salvation and for Titus to submit to circumcision would have compromised the gospel.
This brings forth a principle. When the truth and clarity of the gospel are at issue, Paul refused to compromise. But when the gospel was not at issue, he would follow Jewish customs.
Another example is seen when Paul came to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey.
And after he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
20 And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; 21 and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. 22 What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses in order that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.” (Acts 21:19-24).
As Paul comes to the Jerusalem church, there is a problem. Rumors have reached Jerusalem to the effect that Paul has been telling Jewish Christians not to follow the Mosaic Law. Has Paul been saying that? Not at all. He has been telling both Jews and Gentiles that they do not have to follow the Law in order to be saved, but he has not told Jews to turn from the Law. There is nothing wrong with a Jewish believer continuing to live in accordance with the traditions and the customs of his Judaism as long as he realizes that these traditions and customs cannot save him.
The elders of the Jerusalem church come to Paul with a plan. Their plan is that he partake in a Jewish ceremony. They want him to join several others in taking a Nazarite vow. This is a Jewish ritual. It will mark him as a Jew. What is Paul’s reaction to their request? It is seen in verse 26.
Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple, giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them. (Acts 21:26).
Paul consented to partake of this ceremony because it did not involve compromising the gospel. To the Jews he became as Jews. To those under the Law, he became as under the Law, even though he himself was no longer under the Law.
2. A Gentile to the Gentiles: To those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law (9:21).
When Paul was working and ministering among the Gentiles, he lived as a Gentile. He did not follow the Jewish dietary laws. He did not follow the distinctively Jewish dress code. He did not partake in the daily ceremonial purification. He did not insist that other Gentiles become circumcised.
This does not mean that he led a life of sin. Although he lived like the Gentiles, he also lived according to the “law of Christ.”
What is the law of Christ? It is the law that Jesus gave to His followers. It is the law that we are to love one another. Jesus gave this command to His disciples on the night that He was arrested.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).
We are not subject to all of the Laws of the Mosaic Covenant. We are not under the sacrificial ordinances. We are not under the Mosaic dress code. We are not under the Jewish dietary laws. But we are under the Law of Christ -- the Law of love. This is the law of the kingdom. It is the royal law.
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8).
Does this mean that we have done away with the Law of Moses? Not at all. Christ did not come to do away with the Law, but to fulfill it. He fulfilled the righteousness of the Law by living a perfect life. He fulfilled the ceremonies of the Law by becoming Prophet, Priest and King to all who believe in Him. Most of all, He fulfilled the Law by his demonstration of His live. Love is the fulfillment of the Law.
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14).
The Law is God’s perfect standard of righteousness. But love fulfills the Law. If you love your neighbor, then you do not need the Law to tell you not to murder him. If you love your neighbor, then you do not need the Law to tell you not to commit adultery with his wife. If you love your neighbor, then you do not need the Law to tell you not to steal from him or to bear false witness against him or to covet his possessions. When there is love, there is no need for the Law because love fulfills the Law.
When Paul was with Gentiles, he did not live according to the ceremonies of the Mosaic Law. He did live in accordance with the Law of Christ. That Law will penetrate any culture. Love has never gone out of style.
3. Weak to the Weak: To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak (9:22).
This takes us back to the concept of those who had an incomplete knowledge of their liberty in Christ. When Paul was with those who, in their weakness, did not realize that a Christian can eat any type of food, he limited his liberty for their sakes.
When Paul was with those who were uneducated, he knew how to make his message simple so that they could understand it.
4. All Things to All Men: I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some (9:22).
Paul was willing to go to any lengths short of compromising the truth of the gospel to win men to Christ. Notice that his goal was to “save some.” He knew full well that he could not bring salvation to all men. He could reach out to all men, but only some would respond.
Paul would BE anything to bring men to the gospel, but he would not SAY anything that would compromise the truth of that message.
There were many who were offended because of the message that he preached. Earlier in this epistle, Paul taught that the message of the gospel is offensive to those who do not believe. Paul did not mind that his message offended people. He was only concerned that they not be offended at him.
This brings us to a question. What is there in your life that is offensive to others? Is there something about you that rubs certain people the wrong way? You need to ask the Lord to take off those rough edges. You need to allow His love to mold you into “all things to all men.”