In all aspects of his service as an apostle, Paul never insisted on his rights. It appears that his detractors tried to use this against him in efforts to discredit him. Therefore, with pointed questions, the Scriptures, and Jesus’ teaching, the apostle provided the answer to those who were making a wrong assessment of him and his course of action.
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” Paul did have the freedom to make use of the rights he had as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. On his way to Damascus, he had his encounter with the risen Lord and received his commission. Paul’s having seen Jesus proved that he was indeed an apostle. Moreover, the Corinthians had become believers through his ministry. Their being Paul’s “work in the Lord” could mean that they were the product of his labors for the Lord. It is also possible that the expression “in the Lord” applies to the believers in Corinth. As the apostle’s work, they were “in the Lord” or at one with the Lord as members of his body. (9:1)
From the standpoint of communities of believers where Paul had not ministered, he would not have been an apostle directly for them, but he was indeed an apostle to the Corinthians. As the ones who had become believers through his ministry, they were the “seal” of his apostleship “in the Lord.” The Corinthians as a community of believers, like a seal, constituted authentic proof of Paul’s being in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ as an apostle with a divine commission. (9:2)
To those who wrongly judged him, Paul directed his defense. (9:3)
“Do we not have the authority to eat and drink?” As an apostle, he had the right to be the recipient of meals in the homes of those to whom he ministered. (9:4)
“Do we not have the authority to lead a sister as a wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (9:5) Paul did have the right to be married to a “sister” (a believing wife) and to have her share the hospitality extended to him. The believing wives of other apostles accompanied them. This was also true of the “Lord’s brothers,” among whom James was the most prominent. His brother Jude, the writer of the letter bearing his name, was also married. In the second century CE, Hegesippus wrote about the grandsons of Jude in connection with an incident during Domitian’s reign, “And there still survived of the Lord’s family the grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother, humanly speaking. These were informed against as being of David’s line.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, 20 [translated by G. A. Williamson])
Although the designation “apostles” applied to any of the surviving twelve and apostles of various congregations, Paul mentioned Cephas (the Semitic equivalent for the Greek name Peter) separately. He was a married man at the time he became one of Jesus’ disciples, and his mother-in-law was then living in the home he shared with his brother Andrew. (Mark 1:29, 30) Possibly because Cephas or Peter was well-known to the Corinthians, Paul chose to mention him by name. (9:5)
Paul and Barnabas worked in order to support themselves. The other apostles to whom Paul referred depended on those to whom they ministered to supply life’s necessities. In view of this, he raised the question, “Do only I and Barnabas not have the authority not to work?” (9:6)
To prove that he and Barnabas had the same right as the others to refrain from working to obtain life’s essentials, Paul reasoned with the Corinthians on the basis of examples from ordinary life and the Mosaic law. “Who ever soldiers at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who shepherds a flock and does not partake from the milk of the flock?” (9:7) The Corinthians would not have doubted that those who rendered services were entitled to benefit from the work they performed.
Paul did not just speak on the basis of customary practice among humans. With a question he introduced the point that the law also says what can be observed regarding benefits, rewards, or wages from work. “Does not also the law say these things?” (9:8)
The apostle next referred to what is written in “the law of Moses,” quoting from Deuteronomy 25:4 (LXX), which passage contains the command not to muzzle a threshing bovine. Regarding this command, Paul raised the questions, “Is the bovine the concern to God? Or is it altogether for our sakes it says [this]? Indeed for our sakes it has been written.” This, as Paul continued, would be because both the one plowing and the one threshing ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the result of the labor at harvesttime. (9:9, 10; see the Notes section.)
The apostle knew the Scriptures well. So it is inconceivable that he meant that God cares nothing about animals, which is not a thought the Scriptures support. (Compare Psalm 104:10-22; Jonah 4:11.) Cattle were not to be tormented by being prevented from eating some of the grain they were threshing. The law, however, was not committed to writing for animals that could neither read nor understand its requirements. It was given to the Israelites as an expression of God’s loving concern for them, and they were to benefit from its teaching. Accordingly, if consideration was to be shown to animals, how much more so should this be true of humans! Those laboring should rightly expect recompense for their work, and this is evident from the law that prohibited the Israelites from muzzling threshing bovines.
Applying the principle to the labor expended in furthering the cause of Christ, Paul made the point that the spiritual sowing he did while with the Corinthians would give him the right to partake of their “fleshly” or material things. There would be nothing “great” or out of the ordinary for Paul to have shared in the “fleshly things” of their “harvest,” or the material things (primarily life’s necessities) that they had been able to obtain through their labors. Others had made use of this authority or right. Appropriately, then, Paul could ask whether he, even more so, would not be entitled to do so. (9:11, 12; see the Notes section.)
He, however, did not avail himself of this right but willingly carried his own burden, laboring with his hands to support himself. Paul did this to avoid anything that might hinder “the evangel of Christ.” He did not want anyone to think that his labor in making known the glad tidings about the Son of God had material gain as its object. The apostle was very concerned that, as far as depended upon him, nothing would distract from the message about Jesus Christ and what he accomplished in sacrificing his life. (9:12)
Continuing to emphasize his right to receive material support, Paul, with a question, reminded the Corinthians that those working at the temple ate from a portion of the offerings, as did those who officiated at the altar. (9:13) Likewise, the Lord Jesus Christ directed that those who proclaimed the evangel or the good news about him should “live” by it, or be supported by their labor in proclaiming it. (9:14) When Jesus Christ sent out his disciples, he told them not to take any provisions with them, but to rely on the hospitality of responsive ones for their needs. (Luke 10:4-7)
Paul, though fully entitled to receive material support, chose to perform manual work for life’s necessities. Moreover, he did not write about this matter so as to start making use of his rights. Expressing himself strongly regarding his position about not seeking material aid, he told the Corinthians that it would be better for him to die than to do so. He did not want anyone to deprive him of his basis for boasting, or for taking pride in his course of action. This was no false pride on the apostle’s part, but he had the satisfaction of knowing that no one could legitimately accuse him of carrying out his ministry for material gain. (9:15; see the Notes section.)
He would not have the same reason for “boasting” or taking pride in what he was doing if he had procured his means of living from proclaiming the evangel. As a divinely commissioned apostle, he regarded himself as compelled to declare the good news about Christ. Knowing that his failing to do so would merit severe judgment, Paul added, “For woe is to me if I did not preach the evangel.” (9:16; see the Notes section.)
If he proclaimed the glad tidings willingly or gladly, he would obtain a reward. Paul would then experience the joy and satisfaction resulting from having been rightly motivated to discharge his ministry in the service of Christ of his own free will. If, on the other hand, he really did not want to do the work, he would still be under the obligation of the stewardship entrusted to him. Therefore, even if he had been unwilling to carry out his assignment (as was, for example, the prophet Jonah), he would not have been discharged from his duty. (9:17)
The mere discharge of an obligation would not have been rewarding. So, fittingly, Paul raised the question, “What then is my reward?” It was to proclaim the evangel without cost, not making use of his right for financial support, so as not to abuse his authority as one entrusted with the message about Christ. For Paul, the nonobligatory choice of not making full use of his rights proved to be his reward, one to which he could point with proper pride as evidence of his unconditional willingness and sincerity when laboring to further the interests of Christ. (9:18)
The apostle was not the servant or slave of any human. With reference to all, he was free. For the purpose of advancing Christ’s cause, though, he had made himself the slave of all in order to gain the most persons possible. (9:19) In matters that had no bearing on faithfulness to God and Christ, Paul willingly chose not to avail himself of his rights but showed consideration for the scruples and feelings of others and complied with the customs of the people among whom he labored. When with Jews, he conducted himself as a Jew in order to gain them for the Son of God. To those who considered themselves bound by the law, he proved to be like a man who was likewise under its obligations. This was a willing choice on his part, for he knew that he was not under the law. His approved standing before God rested on faith in Christ, not law observance. Nevertheless, to win those who were under the law, he proved to be to them as one who was likewise under the law. (9:20; compare Acts 16:3; 21:20-26; see the Notes section.)
Among the non-Jewish peoples who were not under the law, Paul lived as one not bound by the law. He freely associated with Gentiles, making no distinction between Jew and non-Jew in his personal interactions. In his impartial dealings with them when sharing the good news about Christ, his objective was to win them. This did not mean that Paul conducted himself in a lawless manner. He lived uprightly as a servant of God and not as a person without God’s law. The apostle’s exemplary life demonstrated his being under the law of Christ. For Paul, the commands, teaching, and example of the Son of God were the law he faithfully followed. (9:21)
To the weak, those with a sensitive conscience and scruples that would have been immaterial to him, Paul came to be like one of them to gain them. He came to be “weak” from the standpoint of showing consideration for their limitations, not insisting on his rights. (Compare Romans 14:1-3; 15:1, 2; 1 Corinthians 8:13.) To help others to come to salvation through faith in Christ, Paul proved himself to be all things to all people, willingly and gladly foregoing his personal rights. (9:22)
In everything he did, the apostle acted for the sake of the evangel or the glad tidings about the Son of God, desiring to become a “sharer of it.” His actions were always consistent with his objective to advance the cause of Christ. (9:23; see the Notes section.)
Paul’s role as a “sharer” of the evangel may either be as one who would participate in the blessings or benefits resulting from faith in the good news about Christ or as one who would be making the message known to others. Modern translations commonly make the meaning explicit in their renderings. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (NRSV) “I do all this for the good news, because I want to share in its blessings.” (CEV) “All this I do for the sake of the gospel, that I may share its benefits with others.” (NJB) “I do all this for the sake of the Gospel; I want to play my part in it properly.” (J. B. Phillips) The Greek term for “sharer” (synkoinonós) can designate a fellow partner or participant, and this may favor the meaning of one who shares in the benefits or blessings the message about Christ offers to those who respond to it in faith. (9:23) “And I do everything for the sake of the Good News, that I may share with my hearers in its benefits.” (Weymouth)
The course that Paul pursued in his ministry required real effort and self-discipline. This appears to be the reason for the comments that follow, likening the life course of believers to that of participants in athletic contests. All those in the race would run, but only one would receive the prize of victory. In the case of believers, winning in their race (their life course distinguished by faithfulness to God and Christ) is not limited to one victor, but exertion is essential. Paul urged, “Run in order to receive [the prize or the divinely promised reward].” (9:24)
In preparation for athletic contests, the participants had to exercise self-control in everything, adhering to a strict regimen and submitting to supervised training under circumstances that were more difficult than would be faced during the actual events. The athletes were willing to do this for the prospect of winning and being crowned with a victory wreath fashioned from perishable plant material (wild olive leaves, pine foliage, laurel, or wild celery). Instead of a perishable garland, believers have an incorruptible victory crown awaiting them at the end of a life course completed in faithfulness. They will be rewarded with the enjoyment of life in the sinless state and share in all the benefits and blessings that have been divinely promised to those who remain loyal to God and Christ. (9:25; see the Notes section.)
With reference to his own exertions, Paul indicated that he did not run without an aim or purpose. He was not like a boxer throwing punches in the air. (9:26) Instead, he exercised control over his body as though beating (hypopiázo) it into subjection and leading it as a slave. Paul was concerned about an exemplary life course, exerting himself with all the strength that he could muster to maintain it. He did not want to be found personally disapproved after having preached to others, telling them the glad tidings about Christ and urging them to repent and to become his disciples. (9:27; see the Notes section.)
The wording of the Septuagint in Deuteronomy 25:4 and that of the quotation in 1 Corinthians 9:9 are the same in numerous manuscripts, including P46 (c. 200). Other manuscripts contain a different term for the Greek word meaning “muzzle.”
The Greek word for “says” (légo), at the end of verse 10, is third person singular and could be rendered either “it says” or “he says.” If the verb is to be understood to mean “he says,” the reference could be either to God or to Moses. In case the meaning should be “it says,” the application would be to the law or Torah.
In verses 11 and 12, the Greek verbs are first person plural. The context indicates that Paul referred to himself when using the editorial “we.”
The words of 1 Corinthians 9:15, “I did not make use of any of these [things],” are ambiguous. There is no specific plural antecedent for the neuter “these.” Translators have commonly rendered the verse as indicating “right” or “rights” to be the implied antecedent, but the Greek word for “authority” or “right” the apostle used is the singular feminine noun exousía. Perhaps “these” may be understood to include Jesus’ directive and the examples Paul had previously mentioned to show what he, as an apostle, would have been entitled to do.
According to the oldest extant manuscripts, the concluding part of 1 Corinthians 9:15 reads, “my boasting no one will nullify.” It is commonly believed that the varied readings of later manuscripts, including “that anyone should nullify my boasting,” are scribal corrections.
The Greek word anánke (in 1 Corinthians 9:16) conveys the compulsion Paul felt about declaring the glad tidings concerning Christ. This term denotes “need,” “necessity,” “constraint,” or “pressure.” The prophet Jeremiah expressed himself somewhat similarly when speaking of the pressure he felt to proclaim the word of YHWH despite the intense hostility he faced, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9, NRSV)
In 1 Corinthians 9:20, later manuscripts omit Paul’s mentioning that he was not under the law.
Instead of “but I do all things,” later manuscripts read (in 1 Corinthians 9:23), “but this I do.”
In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul’s use of first person plural pronoun “we” does not appear to be intended in the editorial sense but likely is meant to include fellow believers.
The Greek word hypopiázo (in 1 Corinthians 9:27) means to “give one a black eye” or to “strike one in the face” and is suggestive of very harsh treatment.