9. Understanding a Leader's Passion (1 Corinthians 9)

Audio (41:26)

Pompeo Giralamo Batoni (1708-1787), St. Paul, Basildon Park, The National Trust, UK.
Pompeo Giralamo Batoni (1708-1787), St. Paul, Basildon Park, The National Trust, UK.

It is imperative that influential members of the Corinthian church stop participating with their neighbors at feasts held in the pagan temples, eating food offered to idols. For teaching purposes, I've put chapters 8 and 10 together in one lesson, since this is the theme of both chapters.

But chapter 9 is an important support for this cause. Underlying Paul's conflict with his opponents at Corinth is their disrespect for his authority as an apostle. If he is to be successful in his appeal to them to stop attending feasts in pagan temples, he must convince them that his word is authoritative.

Paul Defends His Apostleship (9:1-2)

 "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. 3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me." (9:1-3)

Much of the discussion that Paul has had with the Corinthians so far is about responsible exercise of Christian freedom. Paul told them:

"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." (8:9)

Now Paul asserts his own freedom to act -- especially as one of Christ's apostles -- even if it is contrary to their desires. "Am I not free320?" (9:1a) It is the first of four rhetorical questions, the answer to each of which is, "Yes."

In a few verses he argues convincingly that they should view him as an apostle.

1 Paul has seen Jesus, referring to his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (15:8; Acts 9:3; 17). Note that this is somewhat different from the qualification to fulfill the place of Judas as one of the Twelve. Two men were put forward for the position based on their being with Jesus throughout his ministry (Acts 1:21-22). On the question of whether there are apostles in our day, see the discussion in Lesson 11 on 12:28.

2 Paul founded the church at Corinth. Hence, the Corinthian believers themselves are the "seal321" or attestation of his apostolic ministry.

With these two arguments he defends322 his apostleship against the stuffy Corinthian rebels who seek to discredit323 Paul in order to maintain their own budding heresies.

Paul Defends His Right to Material Support in His Ministry (9:4-12a)

One of the problems seems to be that Paul had refrained from asserting his rights as an apostle in Corinth, with the result that his opponents are arguing that he didn't have such rights, that he was some kind of second-rate church worker. Perhaps they resented that he refused to accept their patronage. So Paul lays out his case that as an apostle he has a right to be supported by the church.

"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 must work for a living? 7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?" (9:4-7)

First, Paul asserts two rights -- (1) the right to material support (food and drink), and (2) the right to bring324 a wife with him. "Right" (NIV, NRSV), "power" (KJV) is exousia, a word used several times in this passage -- "a state of control over something, freedom of choice, right."325

Certainly, Christian workers "work for a living,"326 but Paul is referring here to secular work. Paul was a tent-maker; we don't know what Barnabas did to earn his living.

Now Paul gives a series of examples of how people labor and expect their employer to pay them their wages.

  1. Soldiers were hired either by the government or by a private individual raising an army. In any case, they expected to be paid.327
  2. Vineyard workers were paid by getting to share in the harvest of grapes.
  3. Shepherds typically were entitled to drink the goat's or sheep's milk as part of their sustenance.

Now, lest his opponents discard these examples as merely secular, Paul offers an argument from the Mosaic Law:

"8 Do I say this merely from a human point of view? 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.'328 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 when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest." (9:8-10)

Paul is using a common rabbinic approach of arguing from the lesser to the greater.329 If oxen must not be prevented from eating the grain they are trampling out, how much more this is true of a human worker. Paul uses the same verse when he explains to Timothy, who is ministering in Ephesus,

"The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages.'330" (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

Though in 1 Corinthians, Paul is arguing the case of an apostle's right to support, the principle extends to local church leaders as well -- at least those who "direct the affairs of the church" and labor in "preaching and teaching."

Notice the final examples to prove Paul's point that the workman is worthy of his wages.

"... Because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest." (9:10b)

  1. Plowmen expect to receive a share of the harvest as part of their wages, just like tenant farmers do today.

  2. Threshers, too, expect their share of the harvest. Threshing was done mostly with oxen, which trampled the harvested grain stalks to separate the grain from the hulls. Winnowing brought about the final separation, the process in which the trampled stalks were thrown up into the wind, which carried away the chaff, but left the heavier grain to drop into a pile on the threshing floor.

Now Paul summarizes by applying all these examples to his own situation.

"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?" (9:11-12)

His final argument makes two points that he has supported by five examples: (1) spiritual labor should be rewarded with material331 support, and (2) the Corinthians recognize this right for others, so, since he is the founder of the church, how much more should he be granted this right. What can they say? His argument is powerful.

Why Paul Doesn't Receive Support from the Corinthians (9:12b-18)

But it isn't that simple. Paul has argued strongly for his legitimate right to support. But now he is forced to explain just why he has chosen not to use this right. The Corinthians were confused by this, and it's important for the sake of them recognizing his apostolic authority that they understand his reasons. The first is clear.

"12b But we did not use332 this right333. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ." (9:12b-c)

In this verse we see an evangelist's and pastor's heart. Let's examine it further.

Paul had a mission, not only to preach the gospel of Christ, but to help it find its way into the hearts of his listeners. As a missionary, he was quite aware that expecting his brand new hearers to pay for his support would get in the way of his mission. The word "hinder" (NIV, KJV), "put an obstacle in the way of" (NRSV) is enkopē, "that which holds back the progress of something, hindrance,"334 from the verb enkoptō, "to make progress slow or difficult, hinder, thwart." Cynics, then as now, inevitably say: "You're just saying that because you are paid to say it," or "all he's interested in is the money." Also, some people just stay away because they don't feel they can afford to pay for the teaching, or give an expected offering. Paul doesn't want his need for money to get in the way of winning people to Christ. And after the church became established, it was difficult to change the status quo and ask for support.

So he is willing to "put up with" (NIV), "endure" (NRSV), "suffer" (KJV) anything. The word is stegō, "to bear up against difficulties, bear, stand, endure."335

What do missionaries, evangelists, and pastors have to put up with? A lot! Their families often suffer because they aren't receiving enough to live on. Or they work two jobs -- Paul did -- and aren't home as much as their family needs. Then it's extremely sensitive for a pastor to ask for a raise. Especially, when there are people on the church board that see their task as keeping the pastor "spiritual" (translate, "poor"). Why do pastors do it? For the sake of the gospel, their calling.

There are some clergy who see a handsome salary as their "right." They see the ministry as just another profession that ought to pay commensurate with their education and experience. And it should! But, it's possible for a pastor's heart to be hurt and move to the wrong place. We pastors need to monitor our own hearts and not let bitterness fester there -- nor a sense of entitlement!

This is no excuse, however, for a church not to pay their pastors commensurate with their education and experience. I know this is hard, but we need to find a way to be just! Jesus himself said, "the worker deserves his wages" (Luke 10:7). God requires wage-justice of church board members and will hold them accountable for this on judgment day.336

Now Paul gives two more examples of appropriate compensation, this time directly relating to spiritual ministry.

"13 Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and 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." (9:13-14)

If you've studied the Pentateuch, then you know that God provided no property inheritance for the priests, but rather a continual share of the sacrifices that were offered by the people to God, a portion of the people's tithe (Malachi 3:7-12; Numbers 18:21-28; Leviticus 27:30-32). And, if you've studied the history of Israel, you know that when Israel sinned by neglecting their tithes, the priesthood went into decline, and faith waned in the nation. A return to tithing and providing for the priests was one of the signs of the revivals under Josiah, Hezekiah and Nehemiah.

Paul also cites Jesus' command.

"In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living337 from the gospel." (9:14)

Paul is citing, though not directly quoting, Jesus' instructions to his disciples when they prepared to go out on their missionary journeys two-by-two.

"Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth338 his keep.339" (Matthew 10:9-10)

"Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages340. Do not move around from house to house." (Luke 10:7)

Notice that for Paul, Jesus' instruction for the support of gospel workers was not a suggestion, but a command.341

Q1. (1 Corinthians 9:4-12) Why does Paul argue for the right of apostles and other Christian workers to be supported, if he has decided not to exercise this right himself? Why would it hinder missionary work for a missionary to expect his new converts to support him?

Q2. (1 Corinthians 9:13-14) Why did Jesus command his disciples to receive support on their journeys? What scriptural obligation do Christian congregations have to do their best to support their pastor -- and, if possible, other workers? What accountability will church board members experience when they pay their pastor less than they should?

Preaching Is Paul's God-Given Duty (9:15-18)

Paul has strongly defended his right to support. But now he continues to explain why he has decided not to exercise this right.

15 But I have not used342 any of these rights343. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. 16 Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for 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 charge344, and so not make use of345 my rights in preaching it." (9:15-18)

Paul has stated one reason for preaching the gospel free of charge -- so that there will be no hindrance to people receiving his message. Now he introduces a second reason -- to receive a reward in heaven. Let's follow his reasoning.

In verses 15 and 16, Paul says that preaching the gospel free of charge is his "boast" (NIV), "ground for boasting" (NRSV), "glorying" (KJV). The word is kauchēma, "act of taking pride in something or that which constitutes a source of pride, boast."346 I don't think the idea is prideful in a worldly sense, however.347 Whatever the exact idea, it is clear that preaching free of charge is one of Paul's core values.

The next piece of Paul's unique perspective is his sense of calling and duty.

"Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." (9:16)

Paul preaches because he has to, as matter of simple obedience. As he related to King Agrippa at a hearing to decide how his case would be handled, he explained Jesus' words to him:

"'I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' 19 So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven." (Acts 26:16-19).

The key idea is obedience. Here Paul uses the phrase translated "compelled" (NIV, "obligation is laid on" (NRSV), "necessity is laid upon" (KJV). The Greek employs two words, a verb and a noun. The verb is epikeimai, "to act upon through force or pressure," here, impersonal force.348 The noun anankē, "necessity or constraint as inherent in the nature of things, necessity, pressure of any kind."349 Paul is in trouble if he doesn't obey. He says, "Woe350 to me," if I don't obey.

Paul is required to preach -- and his Boss is required to provide for his needs in return. It's a simple sequence: work, reward. Jesus taught his disciples about the difference between working for an earthly reward and a heavenly one.

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-4)

So, to follow Paul's logic, to receive support for his labors from the church, he would have already received his reward. But to work "voluntarily," he will receive a special reward from his heavenly Father.

"If I preach voluntarily351, I have a reward352; if not voluntarily353, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me." (9:17)

Notice the term for his assignment. The phrase "discharging the trust committed to me" (NIV), "entrusted with a commission" (NRSV), "a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me" (KJV) consists of two words in Greek. The first is the noun oikonomia (from which we get our word "economy"), "responsibility of management, management of a household, direction, office," here "commission, task."354 The second word is the verb "believe," here, "entrust something to someone."355

God has entrusted Paul with the responsibility and he must do it. He has no choice. But he does have a choice in whether he accepts remuneration from the church for it.

This raises several issues. First, should all Christian workers follow Paul's example of working free of charge? The answer is simple: no, not usually. There are several reasons for this:

  1. God has not called most Christian workers to celibacy, so they must support their families.
  2. It is important for the church not to take their leaders for granted.
  3. Working a second job takes a lot of time, which might be profitably used in Christian work.

I've been in situations where being paid adequately as a church's pastor, I was able to devote a great deal of needed time to the ministry. I've also worked bi-vocationally because the church couldn't afford a full-time pastor -- even though that is what they really needed.

In Western church culture we have a couple of tidy expressions that describe our values. One of these is "full-time Christian service." In some minds, that is the most desirable status. But Paul wouldn't have qualified. He was a bi-vocational pastor -- his tent-making made it possible for him to fulfill God's calling.

Another expression I've often heard is, "I'm only a layman." That is, no one pays me to fulfill my ministry -- as if pay was what validates a person's ministry! Dear friend, this isn't about money!

When you consider what Paul has just told us, in heaven, paid Christian workers will be honored for faithful service, I am sure. But those who have performed their ministries without pay will receive a special reward. Dear friend, never consider yourself a second-class citizen if you aren't a paid Christian worker. Serve Jesus out of love, and when you get to heaven you'll have a surprise in store.

Another issue I see in this passage is one's calling to ministry. God spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus and called him into ministry. Paul obeyed, and though his path was fraught with hardship and danger, God blessed him.

Dear friend, has God called you to a ministry that you have resisted? Are you saying "No, not yet," to God. Woe to you! When God calls us we must obey. Yes, we need to investigate and "pray through" the call and make sure it is God, but then we need to take steps to follow what he has called us to do. If God is calling you to do something for him, now is the time to begin to take steps to obey. You step out, God will guide and provide and bless others through your obedience.

Q3. (1 Corinthians 9:15-18) Why doesn't Paul have a personal choice about preaching? Will volunteer and bi-vocational Christian workers receive a greater reward in heaven than those who are paid here on earth? If so, why? If not, why not?

Paul Becomes All Things to All Men (9:19-23)

Paul is still trying to defend his apostleship against those who criticize him for being wishy-washy, sometimes strongly Jewish and at other times fitting nicely into a Gentile culture. Now Paul continues to explain the extent to which he is willing to go to fulfill God's calling -- an inspiration to all of us who seek to serve God faithfully!

"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." (9:19)

Paul emphasizes that he is a free man -- a big deal in a society that had perhaps 10% to 30% of the population as slaves. He probably is emphasizing that he is "financially independent of all,"356 referring to his tent-making strategy.

But now, in a great paradox, he turns that freedom on its head, announcing that he voluntarily makes himself a slave to everyone.357 Many people voluntarily give themselves to loving service of a spouse or a parent serving children for nearly two decades until they leave the home. We understand that. But to make yourself a slave to everyone, with a pledge to serve everyone, that is an amazing commitment! For Paul it was the reality of his life.

His purpose is "winning" as many to faith in Christ as possible.358 "Win" (NIV, NRSV), "gain" (KJV), used several times in verses 19-21, is a commercial term, kerdainō, "to acquire by effort or investment, to gain."359 The word is used literally by Jesus. In the Parable of the Talents, the servant "put his money to work and gained five more [talents]" (Matthew 25:16). "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36). The word is also used in its figurative sense, as in our passage. "If [the brother that sins against you] listens to you, you have won your brother over" (Matthew 18:15). "[Unbelieving husbands] may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives" (1 Peter 3:1).360 By his preaching, Paul seeks to win people over to belief in Jesus. You may not be a preacher, but you can win people over to faith in Christ by your clear witness, your life, and your abounding love.

"20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law." (9:20-21)

Paul seeks to win both Jews and Gentiles ("those not having the law"). When he is with Jews he is kosher, even to the point of undergoing a Jewish purification ritual (Acts 21:23-26). When he is with Gentiles, he is non-kosher. In the process of ministering to these widely different groups he was probably misunderstood and criticized by elements of both. Perhaps they say he is wishy-washy or has betrayed the faith. But Paul isn't there to avoid all criticism. If he that were his goal, he wouldn't have taken any risks at all. Rather, his purpose is to win as many over as possible to faith in Christ, no matter what the risk.

"To the weak I became weak361, to win the weak." (9:22a)

Who are these weak people he seeks to win? Paul has talked about weak consciences of people who are easily tempted to fall back into idolatry, destroying their faith (8:9-12), but here he may be referring (without much specificity) to the majority of the Corinthian believers who are worldly in their mindset and thus weak in their faith (3:1-3). In this letter, Paul is earnestly trying to win them over to the way of Christ. Church leaders often have to handle people "with kid gloves" because they are easily offended and stop listening completely when they are upset. They are weak.

Now Paul summarizes. In the face of those who demand consistency, he is a puzzlement. But if they can understand his evangelistic purpose, they can understand what makes him tick.

"I have become362 all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (9:22b)

Paul will do anything necessary to win people to Christ -- "by all possible means."363 His goal is their salvation, their rescue from a way of life that will destroy them forever if they don't turn from it. Here the verb sōzō means to "save/preserve from eternal death."364 Paul knows he can't save everyone, but that doesn't keep him from going all out to save some.365

Some people might object that we don't save anyone, that Christ does the saving. Yes. But you are Christ's hands. If you see a person about ready to be swept away by a flooding stream, you grab him and pull him ashore. Yes, it is the strength that Christ gave you that enables you to do the pulling, but in a very real sense you are the immediate rescuer. Deal with it!

Q4. (1 Corinthians 9:15-22) Why did Paul "become all things to all men"? What was his purpose? Was he able to be authentic in doing so? What is the difference between Paul's chameleon ministry and mere role-playing? What are you willing to give up so that you can reach the people God has called you to minister to?

Fellow Participants in the Gospel (9:23)

"I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." (9:23)

The first part of this sentence is clear: Paul is working for the sake of366 the progress of the gospel in people's lives, in cities, and in the Mediterranean region. But what about the second half of the sentence? Literally, the text reads, "that (hina) I may become a fellow-partaker of it." The noun is synkoinōnos, "participant, partner," used in secular literature, for example, of business partners. Here, "that I might jointly share in it."367 There are two primary possibilities:

  1. Fellow participant in the work of the gospel.
  2. Fellow participant in the benefits and promises of the gospel.

Paul probably means the latter. Hodge points out, "It is necessary to live for the gospel, in order to be a partaker of the gospel."368

Isthmian Games

Wrestlers on the base of a funerary kouros found in Athens, built into the Themistokleian wall, 510 to 500 BC.
Wrestlers on the base of a funerary kouros found in Athens, built into the Themistokleian wall, 510 to 500 BC.

Paul concludes this unique defense and insight into his apostleship with a series of analogies to the Greek games that underscore that he is deadly serious about fulfilling his mission as an apostle -- to declare the gospel.

Corinth was home to the important Isthmian Games, held since the sixth century BC, and second in importance only to the Olympic Games on Mt. Olympus. The Isthmian Games were held every two years -- the year before and the year after the Olympic Games. They were extravagant festivals of religion, athletics, and the arts, attracting thousands of contestants and visitors from across the empire. Winners were awarded with a wreath, originally made of celery, later woven of pine needles. Paul would have witnessed these games during his stay in Corinth in the Spring of 51 AD.

Six core events made up the games -- racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, hurling the javelin, and throwing the discus. Other competitions included chariot races, and musical and poetical contests. Of these, Paul selects two in his exhortation to the Corinthian believers -- running and boxing.

Paul's Continual Self-Discipline (9:24-27)

"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets369 the prize370? Run in such a way as to get the prize." (9:24)

Paul's first point is that they are to serve the Lord with the same whole-hearted, all-out effort as a runner who seeks to come in first. The prize here, of course, is the award for exceptional performance in achieving the goal -- not achieving salvation. Paul is following the explanation of his apostleship talking about doing everything to accomplish the mission -- proclaim the gospel and win as many to faith in Jesus Christ as possible.

Paul's second point is the importance of the self-discipline of strict training prior to the games.

"Everyone who competes in the games371 goes into strict training.372 They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." (9:25)

To qualify for the Olympic Games (and we have no reason to suppose it was different for the Isthmian Games), an athlete had to swear an oath that he had been in training for ten months, exercising great self-control during that period to prepare himself to be fit to compete at his best. Paul notes that athletes in the games would do this for a perishable wreath. How much more should we be willing to deny ourselves to train for the prize of God's approval that lasts forever!

Paul's third point is that his training and self discipline is not without purpose.

"Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly.373" (9:26a)

His first example is the sprint. The original Olympic event of running the stadion, a sprint the length of the stadium. Paul doesn't train hard in order to jog to the finish -- aimlessly, as with no fixed goal -- but to win an all-out race to the finish. He has his eye on the goal.

Paul's second example of training to win is from the ancient Olympic sport of boxing.

"I do not fight374 like a man beating375 the air." (9:26b)

You've probably seen a boxer "shadow-box," that is jabbing at a non-existent opponent while warming up. You've also probably seen a boxer take a powerful swing at his opponent, only to find that his opponent had moved, and his punch finds nothing but air. Paul's point here is that he trains to make every punch find its mark. This is not a game. This is training to win.

Finally, we consider a verse that displays Paul's intense passion about his self-discipline to accomplish his mission.

"No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (9:27)

Paul isn't talking here about self-flagellation as an ascetic practice. The word translated "beat" (NIV), "punish" (NRSV), "keep under" (KJV) is hypōpiazō, literally, "strike under the eye, give a black eye to," used figuratively here to mean, "to put under strict discipline, punish, treat roughly, torment."376

In other words, Paul doesn't spare himself or coddle himself. He compares himself to an unremitting athletic competitor who continues his intense 10-month training period so that he won't be disqualified when it comes time to compete. He isn't easy on himself. He isn't casual about his spiritual life.

Of course, Paul has introduced this paragraph about the intense discipline of the games to shame and rebuke the Corinthians who weren't exercising care to distance themselves from pagan worship. They were way too close to idolatry, as Paul emphasizes in chapter 10.

Bruce explains:

"These vividly figurative words do not denote literal self-flagellation, but describe the moral discipline to which he constantly subjected himself, lest anything else should displace the paramount aim of his life, the proclamation of the gospel. Self-discipline involves a voluntary curtailment of one's rights and liberties, so these ... verses provide a further answer to those who criticized Paul for not availing himself to the full of the freedom to which an apostle was entitled."377

What makes this verse controversial is the question of what it means to "be disqualified for the prize" (9:27). Is he talking about losing his salvation? I find it interesting that what you make of this verse often has to do with your presupposition. Those who believe one can lose his salvation line up on one side; those who do not believe you can lose your salvation line up on the other.

The term translated "disqualified for the prize" (NIV), "disqualified" (NRSV), "castaway" (KJV) is the adjective adokimos, originally, "not standing the test," then "unqualified, worthless, base."378 I think that the NIV over-translates the word by adding "for the prize." Technically, those who don't undergo rigorous discipline prior to the games are disqualified from competition.

I don't think Paul is concerned about losing his salvation if he doesn't strive hard enough. To come to this conclusion negates Paul's clear teaching on grace, which is taught extensively in Romans and Galatians. Probably the key verse on grace is found in Ephesians:

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul separates church-planting performance from salvation.

"If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (3:14-15)

No, salvation is not attained by self-discipline or works of righteousness. It is solely attained by faith in God's grace, through the death of Jesus for our sins. This is basic. Rather, Paul is concerned about being disqualified from his reward for acceptable service.379

However, Paul's purpose in chapter 9 is two-fold -- (1) to reestablish his authority as an apostle, here to explain why he doesn't exercise all his rights as an apostle; and (2) to warn his opponents in Corinth about the dangers of skating too close to sin, which he underscores further in chapter 10 where he hammers again at idolatry.

Earlier, he has been extremely clear that continuing in unrepentant sin gave no assurance of salvation -- rather the opposite.

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters....." (6:9)

You may not like this passage, but you must let it speak. He is saying to his "liberal" opponents in Corinth (as chapter 10 bears out), you must stay away from idolatry, or you will be judged. The self-discipline Paul draws by analogy from the games is applied to staying away from sin, especially participating in pagan rituals at feasts held in the pagan temples of Corinth.

Q5. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) What point is Paul trying to make by using athletic analogies? What place does self-discipline have in our effectiveness as Christian workers? What place does self-discipline have in keeping us from falling into gross sin, such as idolatry? How might lack of self-discipline disqualify us for all God has for us?

1 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

In chapters 8 and 10 Paul writes to help the Corinthians understand the absolute seriousness of participation in idolatry. In chapter 9 he seeks to reestablish with them his authority as an apostle by explaining his ministry to them, and to call them to discipline themselves so that they aren't disqualified by failing to forsake the sin of idolatry.

It is a hard lesson for us, but Paul realizes that we are in a life and death struggle with sin, and we must not let it overcome us. Praise God that there is both forgiveness and the opportunity for strengthening and growth in Jesus Christ! We serve a Savor who loves us and gave his life for us. Hallelujah!


Father, we have sometimes taken for granted our salvation, so that we have been easy on ourselves, and neglectful of our ministries. Strip away from us our complacency. Make us willing to sacrifice where necessary to be fully obedient to you. Help us to do whatever it takes to fulfill our calling. And help us to keep in spiritual shape by constant discipline. Thank you for the example of Jesus -- and our brother Paul. Help us to follow you as he did. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?" (1 Corinthians 9:11)

"... We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ." (1 Corinthians 9:12b)

"When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16)

"I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (1 Corinthians 9:22b)

"I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." (1 Corinthians 9:26-27)



320. "Free" is eleutheros, "pertaining to being free from control or obligation, independent, not bound" (BDAG 316, 1).

321. "Seal" is sphragis, "seal," here figuratively, "that which confirms or authenticates, attestation, confirmation, certification" (BDAG 980, 4a).

322. "Defense" (NIV, NRSV), "answer" (KJV) is apologia (from which we get our term "apologetics"), "a speech of defense, defense, reply" (BDAG 117, 1).

323. "Sit in judgment" (NIV, KJV), "would examine" (NRSV) is anakrinō, "question, examine," here, an administrative term used with irony, "to conduct a judicial hearing, hear a case, question" (BDAG 66, 2).

324. "Take with us" (NIV), "be accompanied by" (NRSV), "lead about" (KJV) is periagō, "take someone about or along with oneself, have someone with oneself (constantly) or accompanying oneself" (BDAG 798, 1).

325. Exousia, BDAG 352, 1.

326. "Work/working for a living" (NIV, NRSV), "working" (KJV) is ergazomai, "to engage in activity that involves effort, work," "work, be active" (BDAG 389).

327. "Expense/pays the expenses" (NIV, NRSV), "charges" (KJV) is opsōnion, originally, "ration-(money)" paid to a soldier, then, more generally, "pay wages" or "provision" (BDAG 747, 1a).

328. Deuteronomy 25:4.

329. We discussed this rabbinic approach in Lesson 7, noting that the Rabbis argued that if a slave wife has the right to food, clothing, and conjugal rights (Exodus 21:10), how much more a free wife would have these rights.

330. Paul is quoting Jesus here (Luke 10:7).

331. "Material" (NIV, NRSV), "carnal" (KJV) is sarkikos, "pertaining to being material or belonging to the physical realm, material, physical, human, fleshly" (BDAG 914, 1a).

332. "Use" is chraomai, "make use of, employ" (BDAG 1087, 1a).

333. "Right" (NIV), "rightful claim" (NRSV), "power" (KJV) is exousia, "a state of control over something, freedom of choice, right" (BDAG 352, 1).

334. Enkopē, BDAG 274.

335. Stegō, BDAG 942, 2.

336. See my article entitled, "Does Your Church Run a Spiritual Sweatshop?" https://www.joyfulheart.com/church/sweatshop.htm

337. "Receive their living" (NIV), "get their living" (NRSV), "live" (KJV) is zaō, "to live," here, "obtain one's living from something" (BDAG 425, 1b).

338. "Worthy" is axios. In both the Matthew and Luke passages it means, "pertaining to being correspondingly fitting or appropriate, worthy, fit, deserving" (BDAG 93, 2a).

339. Trophē, "nourishment, food," (BDAG 1017, a).

340. Misthos, "remuneration for work done, pay, wages (BDAG 643, 1).

341. "Commanded" (NIV, NRSV), "ordained" (KJV) is diatassō, "make orderly arrangements," here, "to give (detailed) instructions as to what must be done, order" (BDAG 237, 2).

342. "Use" at 9:12b and 9:15 is chraomai, "make use of, employ" (BDAG 1087, 1a). A related compound verb is used in 18, katachraomai.

343. The word "rights" (NIV, NRSV) is not in the text here, but inferred from the preceding verses, especially 9:12a.

344. "Free of charge" (NIV, NRSV), "without charge" (KJV) is adapanos, "free of charge," typical of many Greco-Roman benefactors (BDAG 18).

345. "Make use of" (NIV) is katachraomai, here and in 7:31, "use," though, as a rule, the preposition gives the simple verb a special coloring ('make full use of', 'misuse', 'use up') (BDAG 530). The simple form of the verb, chraomai, is used in verse 12b and 15.

346. Kauchēma, BDAG 537, 1.

347. Usually, Paul uses the word negatively, of human boasting (1:29; 5:6). When he uses the word positively, it is usually concerning things that stand in contrast with human boasting, such as Christ crucified, weakness, sufferings (1:29-31; 2 Corinthians 10-12; Galatians 6:14). We probably ought to see Paul's boast of preaching the gospel free of charge in this light, boasting in what the Lord is doing through him.

348. Epikeimai, BDAG 373, 2b.

349. Anankē, BDAG 60, 1.

350. "Woe" is ouai, "a state of intense hardship or distress, woe, calamity" (BDAG 734, 2).

351. "Voluntarily" (NIV), "of my own will" (NRSV), "willingly" (KJV) is the adjective hekōn, "pertaining to being favorably disposed to do something without pressure, willing(ly), glad(ly)" (BDAG 313).

352. "Reward" is misthos, "pay, wages," in verses 17 and 18, "recognition for the moral quality of an action, recompense," here, "in affirmation of laudable conduct, reward" (BDAG 653, 2a).

353. "Not voluntarily" (NIV), "not of my own will" (NRSV), "against my will" (KJV) is the adjective (here translated as an adverb) akōn, "unwilling" (BDAG 40).

354. Oikonomia, BDAG 697, 1b.

355. Pisteuō, BDAG 818, 3.

356. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 426.

357. "Make myself a slave/servant" is douloō, "enslave," here used figuratively, "to make one subservient to one's interests, cause to be like a slave" (BDAG 260, 2).

358. "As many as possible" (NIV), "more of them" (NRSV), "the more" (KJV) is polys, "pertaining to being a large number, many, a great number of," here, with the article, "the majority, most" (BDAG 848, 1bβAleph).

359. Kerdainō, BDAG 541, 1b.

360. We also see the idea in the Old Testament: "He who wins souls is wise" (Proverbs 11:30), influencing others to adopt the way of wisdom. "Wins" is lāqaḥ, "take, lay hold of," a very common verb that has the connotation here of, "capturing people with ideas or influences" (Derek Kidner, Proverbs (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; InterVarsity Press, 1964), p. 94). Paul's idea of "winning" probably doesn't derive from this passage, since the Greek Septuagint translates the phrase, "the souls of transgressors are cut off before their time."

361. "Weak" in verse 22 is asthenēs, "pertaining to experiencing some incapacity or limitation, weak," probably here, "weak in faith," as in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 (BDAG 142, 2c).

362. "Become/became" (NIV, NRSV, mostly KJV), in verses 19-22, "am made" (KJV, 9:22b) is the very common verb ginomai, "to be or become," here, with the connotation, "to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition, become something," here, used with an adjective to paraphrase the passive (BDAG 198, 5b).

363. "By all possible means" (NIV), "by all means" (NRSV, KJV) is pantōs, "expression of lowest possible estimate on a scale of extent, 'at least' (though 'by [any and] all means' is also probable at 7:22b) (BDAG 755, 4).

364. "Save" is sōzō, which means literally, "to preserve or rescue from natural dangers and afflictions, save, keep from harm, preserve, rescue," here referring to transcendent danger or destruction, "save/preserve from eternal death, from judgment, and from all that might lead to such death, for example, sin," also in a positive sense, "bring Messianic salvation, bring to salvation" (BDAG 982, 2aβ).

365. "Some" is the very common indefinite pronoun tis, "a reference to someone or something indefinite, 'anyone, anything; someone, something; many a one/thing, a certain one," used of persons and things concerning which the writer either cannot or will not speak more particularly (BDAG 1006, 1a).

366. Dia, a marker of something constituting cause, the reason why something happens, results, exists: "because of, for the sake of" (BDAG 225, 2a).

367. Synkoinōnos, BDAG 952. A compound word from syn-, "with" + koinōnos, "one who takes part in something with someone, companion, partner, sharer." Other uses are at Romans 11:17; Philippians 1:7; and Revelation 1:9.

368. Charles Hodge, An Exposition of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians (1873; reprinted Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1970), p. 98. "To be a partaker of the gospel, means, of course, to be a partaker of its benefits; the subject of the redemption which it announces. It is necessary to live for the gospel, in order to be a partaker of the gospel." So Morris, 1 Corinthians, p. 139; Barrett, 1 Corinthians, p. 216. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 442.

369. "Get" (NIV), "win" (NRSV), "obtain" (KJV) is katalambanō, generally, "to seize, lay hold of' (of forceful seizure). Here it means, "to make something one's own, win, attain" (BDAG 519, 1).

370. "Prize" is brabeion, "an award for exceptional performance, prize, award" (BDAG 183, a).

371. "Competes in the games" (NIV), "athletes" (NRSV), "striveth for the mastery" (KJV) is agōnizomai (from which we get our English word "agony"), of an athletic contest, literally and figuratively, "engage in a contest." The word is also used as "to fight, to struggle," though our passage speaks of struggle in the Greek games (BDAG 17, 1).

372. "Goes into strict training" (NIV), "exercise self-control" (NRSV), "is temperate" (KJV) is enkrateuomai, "to keep one's emotions, impulses, or desires under control, control oneself, abstain" (BDAG 274).

373. "Run/running aimlessly" (NIV, NRSV), "not as uncertainly" (KJV) is the negative particle with adēlōs, "uncertainly," here, of a race, "not aimlessly," i.e. not as one who has no fixed goal (BDAG 19).

374. "Fight" (NIV, KJV), "box" (NRSV) is pykteuō, "to fight with fists, box" (BDAG 897).

375. "Beating/beateth" is derō, originally, "skin, flay," here, "strike, beat, whip," perhaps a reference to unskillful boxers who miss their mark (BDAG 219).

376. Hypōpiazō, BDAG 1043, 3.

377. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 89.

378. Adokimos, BDAG 21.

379. So Norman Hillyer, "1 and 2 Corinthians," D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer (editors) The New Bible Commentary: Revised (Eerdmans, 1970), p. 1063.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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