I Corinthians
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“… run, that ye may obtain…”

Most modern day Christians live in a comfortable bubble. They see what they wish to see and hear what they wish to hear. They believe what they wish to believe and ignore the rest. A fully-compatible systematic approach to theology is rejected in favour of their own personalized collection of incompatible ‘Readers Digest’-type ‘doctrine’.

Modern Christians want the benefits of a war they do not personally fight; they want the comforts of a victory that is not their own; they want a peaceful co-existence with those who are enemies; they want no aggravation from anyone, but wish to be left to their own devices before a warm fire and behind supposedly safe doors of their local church.

Scripture, though, presents a very different picture: Christians as warriors ready to fight to the death, as athletes running to their very last breath to gain the goal of holiness and godly life. Do we see this struggle and onward fight today? I do not think so, except in the very, very few, who I thank God for.

Christians tend to view this effort as boring or somehow painful. Yes, exercise can be painful at times, but only if it is infrequent. Steady and continuous exercise is stimulating; it brings a person closer to true functioning; and when put to the test, the strong body can run without faltering. The exercises Paul is alluding to are meant to bring us to spiritual peaks, with strength and power. Those who do not exercise are weakened and have no reserves to fight off infection and times of hardship.

We cannot obtain God’s blessings by sitting like couch potatoes. We gain them by running the race and being handed the prize by God. Such a prize cannot be won by sitting down in comfort, without strenuous activity.

It is a fact that Christians leave fights and activity to the pastor. That, they say, is ‘his job’. They are there only to receive and to listen, so they are not equipped to fight or to run. What nonsense! Every Christian from the youngest to the oldest, the most physically fit to the most physically weak, is expected to fight and to run. (Sadly, few pastors have stomach for the fight).

We should not insult God by offering excuses for our inactivity. Nor can we claim the victory for something we have not fought for. Second-hand successes cannot feed the spirit, nor can they give us credibility before God.

Paul is telling Christians to fight and to run, to obtain God’s blessings by hard work and personal output. Controversy, opposition, loss of so-called ‘friends’, and privations, often accompany a true walk with God, but the gains far outweigh any perceived losses!

If you have ever wondered why some Christians seem to be ‘above’ others, try acting out what you ought to do in Christ. Do not just sit there, run the race and obtain the prize for yourself. Watching others win the race does not give you any strength at all. Join the ranks of God’s soldiers! (Note: This is NOT the same as signing a petition or supporting those who do the fighting. These are sedentary activities). Preachers – stop harking back in history to giants of the faith… show Christians how to do the same things TODAY, that they might enjoy the same prizes and know God’s power.

Verses 1-6

  1. “Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord?

  2. If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord,

  3. Mine answer to them that do examine me is this,

  4. Have we not power to eat and to drink?

  5. Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?

  6. Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working?”

Another issue that seems to have been raised with Paul is the matter of being paid for ministry work. There has always been confusion about this and some say full-time pastors and other ministers ought to do their ministries voluntarily; others say payment is to be expected. As always, we must glean our answers from scripture.

Paul is saying that he is a free man, an apostle who has seen Christ. He is no different and should therefore be treated in the same way. The proof of his apostleship is the salvation and spiritual growth of the Corinthian Christians.

Some wished to scrutinize his ministry, and it seems they objected to apostles receiving payment of any kind. But, Paul says he is just like any other apostle; if he wished he could marry and have a family. Even Jesus’ brothers and sisters and the other apostles, including Peter, led normal lives, had families, and required a living. So, Paul eats and drinks like any other man.

It seems the other apostles were given monetary support for their ministries, which enabled them to stop their usual ‘secular’ work. Paul asks “Surely, Barnabas and I have the same rights?” “Have not we power to forebear working?” After all, he says, you are my work (verse 1)! Ministerial work is just as full-time and worthy of payment as any other kind of work, he says. Therefore, he has the ‘power to forebear working’.

If we interpret this from the Greek it would read something like this: “Do we not have the authority and liberty (power, exousia) to not (forebear, me, none, no, not to) work (working, ergazomai, labour, do ‘secular’ work)?” A ministry is work! Very often there is a great deal of unseen work in the life of a pastor, teacher or other minister, of much greater intensity and hours than anyone else experiences in a ‘secular’ job.

For my own part, ministry involves me in spiritual work every single day of the year, with no ‘holidays’. Even when on holiday I ‘think ministry’. Yet, I also work full-time at an ordinary job. Can you imagine what I could do if I was not fettered to a ‘secular’ position and was free to work only at my ministry? (2016 note: I am now retired from ‘secular’ work, so work full time at the ministry, though unpaid).

Paul is saying, then, that a minister ought to receive pay for what he does, by God’s authority. Though I have no problem ministering freely, it greatly restricts my output and involvement and it is often very draining to have to balance a secular occupation with a spiritual one. Therefore, I find resonance with Paul’s words. Ask any voluntary (unpaid) Christian worker about this and he will give similar answers. Paul says that a Christian worker has every right under God to stop secular employment and to receive an income for his labours in Christ. (2016 note: But, what Christians will provide this income?).

Obviously, some in Corinth did not like the fact that Paul and Barnabas, though apostles, might receive money support from Christians there. His reply is blunt and to the point. Only those who have no spiritual input into ministry, and claim no calling to a ministry, can argue as they did. They wanted all the benefits of truth without offering to support those who preached God’s word.

Verses 7-11

  1. “Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? Or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?

  2. Say I these things as a man? Or saith not the law the same also?

  3. For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?

  4. Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.

  5. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?”

Paul continues his defense of paid ministries… Who goes to war (warfare, strateuomai) without a soldier’s pay and rations (charges, opsonion)? Or, to put it another way, who goes to war as a soldier and pays for his own soldiering? No, his king or other ruler gives him pay and rations, so that he receives a substitute for his normal wage. Does a vineyard owner not enjoy the fruit of the vine himself (here referring to grapes partly as food, but including the wine)? And what sheep-herder or owner does not enjoy the milk from his animals?

Paul challenges his readers, but, is he simply giving his personal views, or is he repeating what is found in ‘the law’ (Old Testament)? This appears to suggest that at least some of his readers at Corinth were Jewish converts, who knew the law of Moses by heart. Really, Christians today ought to have sufficient ‘working knowledge’ of scripture to enable them to sort out such issues without too much problem. It is rather obvious that if a man dedicates his time to God’s work, that he must have some kind of income and support.

(The amount he receives is not the real issue, but there is a strange idea amongst some Christians that a pastor or other minister must struggle on a very low income. Where this idea comes from I do not know. Conversely, there are ministers who expect a very high income even if it exceeds the incomes of their own flocks. Another odd idea is that the ‘higher’ a pastor rises, the more he should be paid; but, pastorship is the same no matter how small or large the congregation is. Yet, many ‘pastors’ apply regularly for church pastorates with higher perceived status! In effect, they merely ‘practice’ on churches with fewer congregants and lower perceived status until they can be employed by the more famed churches. I should not need to comment on this lack of integrity).

Paul reminds them that the law of Moses says we must not muzzle the ox that treads corn. Whilst the ox is tethered and made to crush corn all day, he is entitled to eat as much corn as he requires, as ‘payment’ for his work. Similarly, a minister is tethered by duty and calling to his ministry, albeit willingly, and cannot obtain another income, so he should receive a wage like any other man. God takes care of the oxen, so surely He expects us to take care of our pastors!

The ploughman does not plough for nothing; he expects that his work will one day be rewarded by a crop. This is his ‘hope’ (elpis, faith, expectation of good, joyful confidence. For the Christian worker this ‘hope’ is confidence in having eternal salvation). In the same way, the thresher of corn hopes to receive recompense for all his hard work… wheat products and flour, etc.

Even more bluntly, Paul says ‘we’ (himself, Barnabas and others) have “sown spiritual things”, which is a form of work. So, he says, is it such a burden to expect ‘earthly things’ as an income? This does not mean sinful rewards, but rewards of an earthly nature: money, food, shelter, and so on. Rightly, he reminds them that spiritual rewards of ministry do not feed the belly, or put shoes on the feet, clothes on the back, or roof over the head, or pay bills.

Many ministers work hard and long at their ministries without any kind of income. That is why they also have to work at secular employment (carnal: sarkikos, based on sarx, which alludes to what is natural or physical, not necessarily of a sinful nature). In a sense, then, they have to pay themselves for their ministries, though this is the responsibility of those who hear, read, or benefit from their ministries.

Very often such ministers work a whole working week, and then work all the remaining days or hours at their ministry given by God, as I do. But, where is the support from other Christians? Sadly, most Christians prefer to give their support to people they do not know and to charities, than to ministers in their midst, or they keep the money for their own pleasures and good.

The other question that arises is how the Corinthians valued their spiritual growth and welfare. We should ask ourselves that question today. What value do we place on these things? If we truly valued our spiritual lives would we not support those who give us spiritual benefit and aid for our growth in Christ? Is it not a fact that most western Christians have incomes they think is their own, and so do not bother much with the support of their ministers/pastors/teachers? Is this evidence of their spiritual maturity, or is their reluctance proof of their low esteem for the things of Christ?

Verses 12-14

  1. “If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.

  2. Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? And they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?

  3. Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.”

If other apostles and Christian workers have such authority over them, then surely he, Paul, and Barnabas, have similar rights (verse 12)? Then Paul delivers a powerful note: though such authority is his in Christ, he has chosen not to use it. Instead, he endures all kinds of privations and hardships, going without food, income and shelter, rather than take an income for his ministry. He does it because he does not want unsavoury arguments about income to spoil the effects of Christ’s ministry. This is selflessness! How many workers would work for nothing? (Note: His motive might have been the widespread knowledge that priests and high priests defrauded widows and took money for themselves that should have gone to the Temple or to the poor).

At this point, Paul must be speaking to converted Jews, for he again reminds them of Old Testament Jewish custom. Priests and Temple workers ate the meats of sacrifices and drank the wines that accompanied them. Money that went into the Temple was partly used for the support of these workers and priests. In the New Testament era, God has likewise ‘ordained’ (diatasso; commanded, or arranged/appointed) that a minister should receive an income from his work.

I have noted with some sadness (and gratitude) that it is often the poor who give most freely to ministers. They truly give a ‘widow’s mite’! Strangely, this follows the pattern of general charity giving – those with the least tend to give the most (relatively speaking). Is it because they understand what it is like to be without?

Verses 15-19

  1. “But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void.

  2. For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of; for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!

  3. For if I do this willingly, I will have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.

  4. What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.

Though Paul expounds the truth concerning the payment of ministers, he proclaims that he will not use any of those means for his own support. He would rather die than have his ‘glorying’ made ‘void’. He means that rather than have his joy at the salvation of others come to nothing, he would prefer to starve to death, or be killed, than to take their money for support (because of their misguided thoughts on the matter).

Preaching the Gospel is a glorious task he says, but he cannot glory personally in his own ministry, because it is something he must do of necessity. His task has been put on him by God. He was called to preach and so “woe is me, if I preach not the Gospel”. He knows that once a man starts a ministry he cannot stop, but must remain faithful at it until and if God tells him to cease. And, as the task and the gifts belong to God, Paul cannot give any glory to himself.

Paul considers that he has his reward when he ministers of his own freedom of will (hekon). This ‘freedom of will’ is the will to do something by God, a part of the call to office. But, even if he preached without willingness (as so many so-called ministers do) then he would have a “dispensation of the Gospel” against him. That is his stewardship as a minister is a done thing anyway, whether willing or not. (I must admit that there are times when I wish not to continue, but I know in my heart I have no choice and must not willingly remove my hand from the plough, unless God removes it).

So, Paul asks ‘What is my reward?’. His reward is that he has preached freely without asking anything of the people he preaches to. Bear in mind this is not a commanded model for all preachers, but operates in Paul’s own particular case, because that is the way he wished to work. I have no doubt that in a similar set of conditions, in a country where one can work without hindrance or restraints, a preacher could work for himself. But, in the West, this is impossible – a western preacher must work or not eat, or he must be supported by those who benefit from his ministry.

‘Abuse’ in this context means to ‘use up’ his power or authority in the Gospel. It might be said that we ought not seek pay for the Gospel. I agree with this, but it is nothing to do with the matter. Paul is not saying a preacher can charge for the Gospel. He is saying that when a man’s whole occupation is preaching he must be supported financially. This is entirely different. And such authority certainly enters the issue when a man works full time at an earthly job and his spiritual work is supported by such efforts… his time is used up and he is restricted by the work he has to do just to support himself.

Verses 19-23

  1. “For though I be free from all men, yet, have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.

  2. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;

  3. To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.

  4. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

  5. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

Paul, like all men called by God to a ministry, is ‘free’ from human chains and Mosaic laws, but he deliberately puts himself at his hearers’ disposal, becoming a servant. This may partly be a reference to his status in law, as a freeman of Rome. Scripture warns us never to willingly make ourselves slaves of anyone other than God. (In this text ‘slave’ is counted to be ‘servant’).

Paul is not saying he is a slave without freedom; he is saying that he metaphorically gives himself over to someone else’s needs. This is one meaning for ‘servant’ (douloo) and it applies in this context. Based on doulos, it also means that Christ uses Paul to extend His kingdom and cause.

By entering into this life work of serving others, Paul says he hopes therefore to gain even more, kerdaino. He is talking here about gaining others to Christ, not about gaining something for his own self, except for the fellowship and love of Christ.

To make this possible, Paul endeavours to talk to men as they are. If he is talking to Jews, then he will speak from a Jewish angle. If he is talking with gentiles, he will start with their viewpoint (as he did on Mars Hill before the Greek philosophers). He would speak according to what each needed. The Jews felt they were still under the law of God, but the gentiles had no such compulsion; they were solely under the law of Christ’s words and commands (as were the converted Jews, but it took a while for them to understand this).

If people were weak (impotent, sick, without power: asthenes) then he would sit with them in their feebleness and preach specially to them. Thus, he becomes all things to all men, so that he might save them. This is not taken to mean that Paul compromised, as so many modern ecumenists believe. It only means that his preaching was ‘tailored’ (by the Holy Spirit) to suit the audience, but the same Gospel was given unaltered.

Paul did all this for the Gospel’s sake, so that he could join in worship and service alongside those he preached to, including the Corinthians.

Verses 24-27

  1. “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.

  2. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.

  3. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

  4. But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”

Paul stops talking about his own approach and widens his notes to include the attitude needed by all believers. He reminds them that everyone in a race runs fast, but only one wins the prize. Many people run throughout their lives to achieve this or that prize: money, status, power, human praise, and so on, but very few, maybe one out of a whole group, will be saved and gain the only reward worth having - God’s approval and election leading to salvation.

He says a lot of people run in a race: they exert themselves in a ‘race’, stadion, where one person outruns all the rest, reaching the goal first. It does not mean that running is futile unless you get there first. It is a challenge for all Believers to run their very best race. Paul was using a term well-known to the Greeks, who had race courses and athletic events that demanded the very best athletes to give of their all for their sport. It appears that Paul must have attended such events, for he knows what was involved.

‘Every man that striveth’ is another athletic term. It is where our word for ‘agony’ and ‘agonising’ comes from: agonizomai, meaning to strive or fight hard, to enter a contest in gymnastics to contend for a prize, to struggle with difficulties, to be strenuous. (How often do we see Christians locked in this kind of activity? It is hard even to get most to pick up a Bible!. The man strives “for the mastery” of his sport. He wants to be the very best he can be.

Such a man is temperate (egkrateuomai) self-controlled; he is able to keep himself in check. Again, this is an illustration taken from athletics, where a man will not eat anything bad for his body, he refuses wine and ordinary activities while he is in training, so that he can reach top fitness. Basically, he is totally focused on his task.

Paul says athletes do what they do to gain an earthly reward that will perish, but, we commit ourselves totally to Christ to gain an heavenly reward (incorruptible crown) that will not perish. Because he can gain an heavenly reward, Paul says he runs with great certainty and knowledge. Again, he uses a picture of a Greek athlete, a boxer (fight; pukteo, a boxer). He says he boxes real opponents – he is not just boxing shadows or the air, as if in practice.

How many Christians have knowledge, but never put it into action? They know what to do but never do it, because it takes effort, or they do not wish to seem foolish before their peers, or they do not want discomfort. But, boxers literally take it on the chin! They expect to land blows and to have blows landed on them. It is part of reaching the goal of victory. Paul is more than willing to put himself in the firing line. Are you?

Paul knew his enemy and knew his craft. He boxed to win. That is why he ‘kept under’ his body, just like an athlete. He did nothing to harm his physical or spiritual being and did not take part in the usual life of families, etc., so that he could devote his whole life to those he wished to see saved.

Indeed, the words “keep under” are one in Greek: hupopiazo. Still using the boxing analogy, Paul says that, like a boxer, he ‘keeps under’ his body: he hits himself black and blue and treats himself roughly; by applying severe discipline to himself he is better able to suffer hardships. In actual terms, Paul wore himself out and put up with many annoyances, sufferings and danger, so he could reach others with the Gospel. He was no armchair preacher! He went out of his way to be outright and truthful and put up with many attacks, for the sake of others.

Why? So that when he preaches he is not made a castaway, adokimos, failing the test, made unfit for God’s service. This is a man who means what he says, and rejects personal comfort for the sake of all he preaches to. How different to preachers we know today, whose help is restricted to those they can deal with after breakfast but before lunch! Or, to those who take up very little of their leisure time. Paul was a spiritual athlete who always reached his goal, receiving the prize of a trusty and faithful servant of Christ!

Those who ‘train’ as Paul did are at the peak of strength and power. They can tackle anything because of this, and have the tenacity and doggedness to reach the goal. Maybe very tired, maybe injured, maybe stretched to the limit – but still reaching the goal to receive the prize. This is what it takes for God to speak to us; when He sees our effort and commitment, He gives us everything! How many Christians know of this reward? Very few, because they do not run like athletes or box like boxers! They want benefits without putting in any work. They want to reach the goal in comfort, sparing very little for God or His ministers. But, these lazy Christians still want help, sustenance and speedy responses).


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