Ox Food and Stuff Like That (1 Corinthians 9:1-18)

I will confess to you that it was not without a good measure of reticence that I pushed forward in my long-range planning to do this series on the Corinthian letters. Apart from whatever sense of divine leading I might claim, there is the simple fact that I have not actually covered these books in the recent past at TSF, if at all; and there is the Scriptural obligation to preach the whole Word of God. But again, I’d rather do a more fun-to-preach book like Hebrews (except for the hairy warning passages).

This Corinthians stuff is filled with sex, marriage complications, church fighting, controversial spiritual gifts stuff … just lots of icky and awkward passages. And then there is this one about financial remuneration for those who serve in ministry … you know, applicationally like pastor dudes, etc. Ugh!

Over the past four to five decades, the material gains being reaped by some in ministry have sadly come out of the corners of Christendom and into the worldwide spotlight. Televangelists have especially done some creepy and untoward things that combined the work of the Spirit with personal wealth attaintment. And also contributing to this has been the unprecedented expanse of mega-churches with mega-pastors with mega-egos with mega-salaries (and mega-explaining to do on the other side, I would think). Only a couple of miles from the home where I lived in Texas was a church that built a landing strip out back … so that members could fly in and park their airplanes, and for the pastor’s aircraft to take him to his gigs around the country and world. (We have enough land out behind our parking lot to do this … let me bring it up at our next congregational meeting! Hey, wealthy people need Jesus too! And I could fly to Kazakhstan, Togo, Scotland, Australia, and Kyrgyzstan to preach in our partner churches there!)

OK, I’m having too much fun now, and we’d better get to the text …

1 Corinthians 9:1 – 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? 2 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.

The Apostle Paul could be a lightening rod of criticism sometimes, especially in Corinth. In the second letter we will spend a couple of chapters in reading about his defense of his apostleship, and apparently the detractors were already throwing up some doubts about this designation.

You may wonder how this fits with the content of the immediately preceding context. There, Paul said he would give up eating meat if it detracted from ministry and the progress of the gospel in the life of others. He could prove that this was more than just words, because he had given up his “right” to be compensated for the work he had done with the Corinthians. He had supported himself while there.

9:3 – This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 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? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

So Paul and Barnabas did not take anything from the Corinthians, though apparently Peter and Apollos had been compensated. He follows with arguments as to why he could have rightly expected to be paid for his services …

9:7 – 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? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 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? 10 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. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Soldiers and farmers are compensated for their work. Even the Old Testament taught that an ox is worthy of eating while he is working. But Paul didn’t insist upon his rights. And there’s more …

9:13 – 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? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

Whether the readers were from a Jewish or secular background, they both had the experience of knowing that those who worked in the temple (in Jerusalem, or even of the Greek temple idols), were supported by a fractional share of what was brought in worship.

9:15 – 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. 16 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! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 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 did not insist upon payment, and he still is not doing so. It was payment enough that in doing what God merely told him to do, he was blessed to see the fruit of that gospel message. And he could even boast about this. Again, he was just doing what he was told to do, and he could do it without them compensating him. There was reward in that.

Once more, the context here is Paul talking about exercising freedoms and rights, not to expound especially about ministry remuneration. And he’ll circle back to this primary idea by the end of chapter 10.

But on this topic today, let me say personally that it has been an adventure. When one sets out (as I did 45 years ago) toward a church ministry career in accord with God’s leading in your life, you know that it is not a step in the direction of lucrative endeavor. That never bothered me, as I knew that where God guides, God provides. You’ve all heard my famous story of the one time I had nothing saved but a small amount, and so I thought it would be funny to give it away and be able to say I had absolutely nothing. I sent it to a missionary. Mere hours later, while driving in Dallas, a little dog ran under my car at a stoplight; and when I opened the door to make sure it was not under the wheels when I pulled ahead, it jumped into the back seat. About a minute later, seeing a “lost dog” sign on a telephone pole, I went to the house to return their dog. The reward was, by the standards of my life at that time, substantial. God took care of me. And He has done so for all these years.

At my churches, I’ve never given numbers for salaries. I’ve simply said to do the best they could, and God would take care of me in any event. And He has.

Maybe we can get on to some easier topics next week, or maybe not.