Thirteenth in a series
1 Corinthians 8:1-13

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. (1 Corinthians 9:19)

1 Corinthians 8; 1 Corinthians 9; 1 Corinthians 101 Corinthians 11:1 deals primarily with the theme of Christian freedom.

Last week we dealt with the issue of whether or not the Christian should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. I do not know any person at St. Andrew’s who has ever struggled with that first-century issue. It’s a non-issue issue for us in the United States. It continues to be a real issue for Asians who come to faith in Christ and are tempted to go back into Buddhist temple worship. Although we today find the issue of meat offered to idols irrelevant, the underlying spiritual truths with which Paul was grappling apply as much today as they did then.

Paul was the first one to agree with some of the Corinthians that it didn’t really make any difference whether or not one ate meat offered to idols. The idols were powerless. Jesus is supreme. Meat was meat. To eat a good meal at the restaurant attached to the temple, to buy some excellent cuts at the temple butcher shop, or sit down as a guest at someone else’s home and eat meat purchased at the temple made no difference as far as one’s own standing with God was concerned.

However, Paul was quick to note that this kind of knowledge, as liberating as it is, can puff up. In Christ, you and I are free. However, freedom bears with it responsibility. So, much better than allowing yourself to become puffed up with the knowledge that you are free to do what you want to do on the nonessential gray areas not spoken to clearly in the Bible, it is important to realize that love builds up.

Or to put it a bit differently, my willingness to put the well-being of someone else ahead of my well-being has positive results. I am not an island. The freedom that I have in Jesus Christ is important. Even more important is my responsibility for my weaker brother or sister that I not be a stumbling block to them. Therefore, I am called on to take very seriously the tender conscience of my brother and sister in Christ.

It is with this background in mind that the apostle Paul plunges into what we call 1 Corinthians 9. He is not going to let this issue drop. The Corinthians are free; but for God’s sake, their sake and the sake of their fellow believers, that freedom must be subordinated to the well-being of others.

Paul, heartsick at the self-aggrandizing superiority complexes of some of the Corinthian Christians, becomes highly autobiographical. He declares that it is possible to think that you have arrived at a point of spiritual superiority and end up exploiting your Christian privileges. That’s right. Those Corinthians who were determined to live the Christian life individualistically without concern for weaker brothers and sisters went ahead and ate the meat offered to idols. It made little difference to them whether or not some new Christian was confused by this liberty and, in the process, slid back into observing pagan temple worship.

Instead of castigating those who insisted on their rights, Paul autobiographically describes the rights that were his and how he subordinated those rights to the greater good of the Christian community.

The primary thesis of 1 Corinthians 81 Corinthians 10 is that you can’t go it alone in the Christian faith. The more advanced you are, the more mature you are, the greater responsibility you have for others.

The stated theme of 1 Corinthians 9 is a declaration of both the rights and duties of the Christian leader. The fact is, every one of us who professes the name of Jesus Christ is a Christian leader to some significant group of people!

There are many ways we could approach this passage. Let’s look at it from three different angles.

I. Angle One: The rights of a leader.

Every leader has certain rights. If you and I think we have these rights, Paul even had more.

He uses a fascinating rhetorical device with which to make his point. He outlines autobiographically the rights that are his behind which he could hide. He declares the freedom that is his if he wanted to use it.

First, he certifies his position as an apostle.

He writes, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2).

He had seen the risen Christ. Acts 1:21 notes this as a requirement for apostleship. If anyone wanted to debate this issue with him because his Damascus Road conversion had happened after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, Paul points to the way he had been used by the Lord at Corinth. The very existence of the Corinthian church was evidence to the high calling that was his. His ministry had been effective.

Second, Paul states the specific rights that are his and those of any full-time Christian worker. He defends these rights.

One is the right to food and drink. The grace of Jesus Christ had set him free from a legalistic bondage to Old Testament dietary laws.

Two is the right to be accompanied by a wife, as were the other apostles. If Peter had a wife, why couldn’t Paul and Barnabas? Paul emphatically states that this was his privilege. Singleness and celibacy were not requirements for full-time Christian service.

Three is the right to refrain from working for a living. Paul was a tentmaker. He prided himself in being gainfully employed. The rest of the apostles and itinerant preachers were dependent upon the Christians they served for their financial requirements. He and Barnabas were two noticeable exceptions. Paul gives a case for Christian workers being financially supported by their fellow believers.

He then uses three illustrations of this right but does it in the form of rhetorical questions.

He uses the analogy of the soldier. What soldier serves his country at his own expense? No. The soldier is paid by the government.

He uses the analogy of the landowner, who plants a vineyard. What landowner who plants a vineyard refrains from eating its fruit? That doesn’t make any sense, does it?

He uses the analogy of the shepherd. What shepherd tends a flock and is denied the privilege of drinking the goat’s milk?

Up to this point, he is using human analogies. Now he refers back to the Old Testament where, in Deuteronomy 25, Moses declared, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Not only is God concerned about the oxen. If He is that concerned about the oxen, how much more concerned is He about the circumstances of human beings who are created in His image? The full-time Christian worker should be paid. The plowman is paid. The thresher does his work in the hope of receiving some percentage of the crop. Paul states, “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?” (1 Corinthians 9:11-12). The principle is that the workman and the workwoman are worthy of their hire. This is their right. This is their privilege.

II. Angle Two: The privilege of subordinating rights to the well-being of others.

It is at this point that Paul shifts gears after having built a clear case for the privileges and rights that are his. He stops and declares that he is not going to function in a way that demands his rights. He is more concerned for the ultimate good of others. He is willing to subordinate his rights and privileges to the welfare of others.

His privileges and rights are clear. His practice, however, was not to automatically take that which was rightfully his. Why? Because he didn’t want to put any obstacle in the way of the Gospel. He did not want to trip up others who would think that he was simply in this full-time ministry for the financial gains which would be his. He writes, “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” (1 Corinthians 9:12). Paul had been appalled by the abuses of other religious leaders. The excesses of Jewish priests were well known.

William Barclay notes that, while the ordinary Jewish family ate meat at the most once a week, the priests suffered from an occupational disease that came from eating too much meat. They took advantage of their rights and their privileges. Their lives were marked by luxury. The greed was notorious. Paul knew this. They were using religion as a means to grow fat. He was going to model what it was to go to the other extreme and take nothing.

Bishop N.T. Wright, in his commentary titled Paul For Everyone, reminds us of the haunting song by Joni Mitchell describing a clarinet player standing by the side of the road in a busy city. He wasn’t like the ordinary buskers, playing mediocre music in a bored sort of way and hoping for enough small change from passersby to make it through the next day or two. He was brilliant. He stood there with music pouring out of the instrument, seeming to come from his very soul. And he wasn’t collecting money. He was doing it for free. Mitchell in her song contrasts this with her own life as a professional musician. She is used to singing in concert halls with a limousine to take her from place to place, with plenty of money coming in from people who pay to hear her perform. The fact that the clarinet player is playing without any intention of earning of reward shows her an authenticity, which she fears her own work may be starting to lack. He is playing “for free” and, she implies, his music is echoing, embodying, celebrating a deeper freedom as a result.

Paul was going to make very clear his right and the right of all Christian leaders to be reasonably compensated for their work. But in his case, he would do it for free. He would be self-supporting. And the means of his self-support would be his practicing his tent-making trade.

There was a Greek tradition that despised manual labor. Aristotle had declared that all men were divided into two classes–the cultured, wise people and the hewers of wood and drawers of water, who existed solely to perform such menial tasks for others. Paul was determined to model what it was to be a thinker, a spiritual leader and a blue-collar laborer.

How about you? Are you demanding all the rights and privileges that are yours? Are you determined to live with all the perquisites of your station in life? Or are you willing to subordinate your own rights to the greater good of the family of God?

I have to ask this of myself. Am I determined to leverage everything I do for remuneration, or am I willing to give my time and energy to serve Jesus Christ sacrificially in ministries that have nothing to do with my job here at St. Andrew’s and have no remuneration involved? My happiest moments are when I’m doing something for the Lord for which I am not paid, for which there is no honorarium attached. In fact, no one even knows what I’ve done.

We live in an era in which all around us people are selfishly demanding their rights. Is this the way you and I are determined to live? Well, those rights are ours. We have them coming. The question is, are we willing to subordinate them willingly to the well-being, the health of the family of God.

I’m reminded of that wonderful slogan of Rotary International that declares, “Service Above Self!”

This is what Paul is talking about. How you implement this is between you and the Lord. You and I have our rights. The workman is worthy of his hire. At the same time, you and I have the privilege of subordinating those rights to the well-being of others.

III. Angle Three: The duties of the leader.

Let me mention four specific duties of a leader.

Duty #1: Be willing to sacrifice.

Charles Swindoll describes a baseball team that is playing a very important game. It has the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning. It is trailing by one run. One of the strongest batters comes to the plate. He looks down at the third-base coach and sees the sign to bunt. Bunt? His immediate reaction could very well be, “I’m the best batter on this team. I’m leading the league with my percentages. I want to swing away. No one is going to tell me to bunt! I have a right to swing hard for the bleachers. Just think what a grand-slam home run would do for my reputation.”

But the manager wants him to make a sacrifice bunt, knowing that he will be thrown out at first base. This will enable the third-base runner to score, tying the game, and leaving two more outs with which to score the winning run. After all, what is baseball all about? Is it the establishment of individual batting averages? As important as they are, making the World Series is more important. It is who wins the game that counts, not who the individual star is.

In every church I’ve served, there have been some men and women of great privilege who, because of their social standing and economic influence, could live lives of unmitigated pleasure. They could buy the services of others, having all of their own individual needs met. They could live lives of isolation from other believers. While some have luxuriated in their individualism, it has been a joy to observe the few who have turned their backs on such potential lives of ease and have gotten their hands dirty serving others.

For example, Dr. Nelson of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh had an active dental practice. Each year, he would leave that practice and go abroad to some third-world country where he would, at his own expense, provide free dentistry for impoverished persons. When he came to his retirement, he devoted half of each year to foreign medical mission projects.

My heart is filled with joy as I’ve observed an occasional woman who does not need to work to support her family but is willing to work just as hard with no remuneration, visiting cancer patients or working in the Children’s Education Department or teaching Bible Study Fellowship. This person has a sense of vocation. This person is not out to grab everything she can get out of life, exploiting her privileges for herself. These persons are stewards of the resources that God has given.

Are you willing to sacrifice?

Duty #2: See through to the ultimate reward.

Paul saw his ministry in much larger terms than financial reward and human creature comforts. He was called. He had a mission. The rewards were of an eternal nature. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:15-18:

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that–no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

What is your reward in life?

The apostle Paul refused to take payment. He functioned as a tentmaker. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get some rewards. As far as he was concerned, his reward was preaching the Gospel, seeing lives changed and not having to depend on the churches he served to pay him a salary.

I do want to challenge you to see your reward as being much greater than any monetary payment.

One of our members, Bruce MacDonald, is a retired airline captain. He and I play golf together on many a Monday morning. I remember back when he was flying left seat in one of those big 747s for TWA and the airlines were making good money and paying good money. He would tell me how fortunate he was to be able to fly. And to think that he actually got paid for doing it. One time, he said he actually felt like he ought to pay the airline for giving him the privilege of flying.

Isn’t that a liberating way of seeing one’s self in your calling? How revolutionizing it is to one’s spirit to move beyond one’s rights and see the privilege of what one is doing.

One of the great world heroes during my youth was Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He modeled this lifestyle of which Paul writes. For him, the biggest thing in the world was not to have a job with a large salary. Instead, it was to do a job in which one’s happiness depended entirely on the inner satisfaction one received from doing it. Dr. Schweitzer described the moments that brought the greatest happiness to him. It was not when he was writing some great theological essay or playing one of the great European cathedral organs. It was when someone suffering intensely was brought into his hospital in Africa. He would soothe the person by telling him that he would be put to sleep, have an operation and all would be well. He described how, after the operation, he would sit beside the person waiting for him to regain consciousness. Slowly the person would open his eyes and then whisper in sheer amazement, “I have no more pain.” That was Schweitzer’s great moment. There was no financial or material reward in it. In fact, he had to go back to Germany and raise funds just to keep the hospital going. There was a satisfaction that was as deep as the depths of the heart itself.

Some of us pastors are envious of Rick Warren, our colleague whose book The Purpose-Driven Life has sold close to thirty million copies. A jealousy that there might be should not be for his popularity, his financial wealth, his high visibility, his access to the media and to the world’s political leadership. The jealousy, if that’s an appropriate word, at the deepest level, should be where he’s been able to turn back to his church every penny they’ve paid him since the day he started working there and now is able to work for no financial remuneration.

And while most of us will never be in the position to be able to do that, at least there are areas of our lives in which we can go beyond what we’re paid to do. And even more subtly, do what we’re paid to do with a sense of calling that says what a privilege it is to be doing what I’m doing.

William Barclay puts it in these words: “To have mended one shattered life, to have restored one wanderer to the right way, to have healed one broken heart, to have brought one soul to Christ is not a thing whose reward can be measured in financial terms, but it is a thing whose joy is beyond all measurement.”

Do you see through to your ultimate reward?

Duty #3: Have a strategy of identification.

Paul didn’t function from a position of superiority, as brilliant as was his mind. He made a conscious endeavor to be adaptable so as to identify with as many people as possible. Very few passages of the Bible give such a clear outline of a strategy for ministry as does 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Take a careful look at it.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Do you catch this? He’s saying, “Whatever it takes, I’ll do to serve the Lord.”

This does not involve a compromise of essentials. It is identification with other human beings, letting them know how human you are. It is ministry done not from a position of superiority, but ministry rendered in the servant mode.

Paul is saying that, when I am with Jews, I will act like a Jew in order that they might see Jesus in me. He is not going to subject himself to a narrow orthodox Jewish understanding of the Law. But in that environment, he will live under the Law, so as to lead those under the Law to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

Then, when functioning in a Gentile environment, he will act like a Gentile, so as to reach those who are not Jewish in background with the claims of Jesus.

In the environment of people who are weak, he will share in their weakness. I believe here he’s talking about the matter of meat offered to idols. Although there is nothing wrong with eating the meat, for the idols are impotent, he will avoid eating such meat if it will cause a weaker brother or sister in Jesus Christ to stumble.

I’ve always thought that Paul was referring here primarily to evangelism, when he talks about “winning some.” The more I have studied this passage the less certain I am that this is his intent. I believe it is part of his consideration. Friendship evangelism is the best kind of evangelism. Give of yourself to that neighbor or friend. Let them know by your actions how much you love them, and I’ll guarantee they will be much more open to the Lord you love.

My discovery this week is that this does not refer only to evangelism. We are talking about the family of God. We are talking about the privilege of functioning not just as individuals, protective of our own rights, our own privileges, our own positions, but our willingness to subordinate all of those to the well-being of the family of God.

One of the reasons we built this sanctuary in a semi-circle is so that you can see your brothers and sisters in Christ. Look into their faces. Realize that you are not alone in this world. You are not an island. You need others. Others need you. Go out of your way to share yourself with someone else.

Last week, we ordained and installed new classes of deacons and elders. I thank God for hundreds of men and women who have, without any financial remuneration, served this congregation so selflessly. I could tell you story upon story about elders and deacons who have been there identifying with others at their point of need, ministering in the name of Jesus Christ so effectively. And you don’t have to wait to be elected an elder or a deacon or be a full-time Christian worker to have this joy in service. God’s strategy for this week is to deploy every person who has repented of sin and put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation in servant ministry. There is no way that your full-time paid pastors can get to the places you’re going to be this week. Imagine the revolutionary impact it would be if every one of us left this sanctuary determined to be God’s representative wherever we go in the next seven days. You are His ambassador with the privilege of identifying with people who would be scared to death if John Huffman, Jim Birchfield, Lydia Sarandan, Tim Yee, Dave Rockness or Leah Stout showed up on their doorstep. They can identify with you. You can identify with them. In a way, you’re a “tentmaker,” serving Jesus Christ wherever you go. That’s what fueled the growth of the early church. That’s what the future of St. Andrew’s will be, not luxuriating in our professionalism but understanding that every member is a minister!

Do you have a strategy of identification?

Duty #4: Understand the importance of discipline.

Paul concludes this important passage by declaring that discipline is part of a leader’s lifestyle. He writes in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

The Isthmian Games were held every three years at Corinth. Like the Olympics we’re observing now, they were made up of athletes who brought their bodies under tremendous discipline in order to win the victor’s wreath, a prize that would quickly wither.

You and I have sat mesmerized this week in front of our TVs watching world-class athletes, who have trained for years, compete in competition where a fraction of a second distinguishes a medal winner from an also-ran. In the marketplace of the gold, silver or bronze medals, the prize itself is not worth very much money. Oh, there may be some endorsements that will follow. But it’s the honor, is it not, and the self-discipline that leads to the victory? Think of the amount of discipline that goes into each competitor’s preparation.

Paul knew he could not survive the Christian life without discipline. Neither could the Corinthians. And, frankly, neither can you and I.

He is urging those who wanted an easy way to understand that the Christian life is one of dedicated discipline. If the athlete could train month after month with the hope of receiving a little crown of laurel leaves or a gold medal, how much more should we as followers of Jesus be willing to discipline ourselves in the service of our Savior.

The Christian life is athletic in nature. It involves an inner stabilization, a self-control. We are running a race. We keep our eye on the finish and move forward toward it, knowing that the Lord is cheering us on. We are engaged in a battle, not play-acting in which we are shadow-boxing an imaginary opponent. We are coming up against Satan. He would love to nail us at our point of weakness. Paul was aware of the warning that those of us who stand need to take heed so as not, in our pride, to take a crashing fall. We’ve seen evidence this week of what it is to make a “hotdog maneuver” when one is way out in the lead and that split-second forfeit of the gold medal.

As Christians, we’re aware of the truths of that Black spiritual, “This world is not my home. I’m just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”

Do we really believe that? Do we really understand that? Or do we live dominated by the world’s value schemes? I have to ask myself that question.

The most poignant moment for me in the entire Olympics thus far was the awarding of the medals for the skating pairs in the long program. There, receiving the bronze medal, was a Chinese couple in which he, Zhao Hongbo, had battled back six months after tearing his Achilles tendon. There, receiving the silver medal, was a Chinese couple in which she, Zhang Dan, came crashing to the ice in the early moments of their performance. Most of us thought she would be carried away on a stretcher, but she battled back. And there, receiving the gold medal, was another Russian couple. Many months ago, he, Maxim Marinin, had made a mistake at a competition in Pittsburgh that had caused her, Tatiana Totmianina, to crash to the ice with an intensity that caused her to remain in a coma for an extended period of time. He had to battle back from his guilt, remorse, self-doubt. And there they were receiving the highest reward.

Juxtapose next the imagery of those three pairs who triumphed by discipline over the greatest of adversity and others this week who have disqualified themselves by straddling the gate, falling short of the victory line, slipping on the ice. We understand why Paul says, “. . . I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

Do you understand the importance of discipline?

My prayer for myself and for you is that we may understand our rights as leaders, may see the privilege of subordinating our rights to the well-being of others, and may discover the privilege and romance of the duties of leadership, understand the sacrifice, see through to the ultimate reward, having a strategy of identification with others, understanding the importance of discipline.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

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About The Author

Dr. John A. Huffman Jr. served many years as pastor of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Early in his ministerial career, Huffman served as an assistant under Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He has published several books, including “The Family You Want,” “Forgive Us Our Prayers,” and his memoir, “A Most Amazing Call.” He has served on the boards of several influential evangelical organizations, including Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.

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