The apostle Paul gets plenty of bad press. We’ve been working our way through 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote. It’s in the Bible, So it’s the word of God for us today.
It should be that simple, but there are plenty of people in the wider church who have lots of time for Jesus but not a lot of time for Paul.
It’s not hard to see why. As we’ve read 1 Corinthians together, we’ve found a lot in here that’s very counter-cultural. It goes against the grain. We’ve had teaching that same-sex relationships are wrong. We’ve had teaching that singleness is a way of life we should value in the church. We’ve had teaching on church discipline, that sometimes it’s right to expel someone from the church as a way to win them back long-term. We’ve had attendance at the temples of other religions forbidden.
Some of the shock of those topics goes away when we look at what 1 Corinthians actually says. As we worked our way through those, there was lots to say to qualify exactly what’s being said and what’s not being said, and I’d only got time for the somewhat bald headlines this morning. But even once everything is qualified, it’s counter-cultural stuff. It goes against the grain. And the modern mind is not sure if we want to hear this stuff.
Well, let me tell you that we don’t solve this problem by kicking Paul out. Jesus said things that are just as shocking and hard to hear. This week I came across an interview with Tim Farron MP about his faith, and how it is to be a Christian in public life. He said this: “If you find a culture, a worldly culture, in which you do not find yourself living a counter-cultural existence as a Christian, you are doing it wrong.”
But let’s stick to Paul for a moment. Because he’s always been the grit in the ointment. One of the reasons 1 Corinthians got written was because of growing ill-feeling in Corinth towards Paul. The church was going off its founder. They didn’t like some of the things Paul said, so they wanted to dismiss Paul. They wanted to find grounds to dismiss his authority over them.
And so Paul launches in to defend his authority. He is Jesus’ apostle. He speaks with the authority of Jesus himself. What he says is to be treated with the same respect as if Jesus himself had said it.
As we come to chapter 9, we come to Paul’s longest statement in self-defence in this letter.
He pauses the argument. Chapters 8 and 10 are both about meat that has been offered to idols. But in chapter 9 there’s a pause, so Paul can defend his authority to speak on these things.
He pauses here for a reason. What he says in his defence is also a fantastic illustration of chapter 8. If chapter 8 was about giving up your rights to eat idol-meat, Paul is an excellent example of giving up your rights. But his main focus here is on his own status as an apostle.
Just look at how the chapter starts: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?” Or verse 3: “This is my defence to those who sit in judgement on me.” Here’s Paul’s defence. Here’s why he really is an apostle. Here’s why we have to do as he says, why we have to treat his words as Jesus’ message to us.
Paul’s main argument here is not hard to understand. Let me take us through it in two stages.
Paul’s Right to Support
First, Paul has a right to financial support.
It seems Paul is being criticised because he worked for a living. In the ancient world, philosophers, public speakers and missionaries were funded in several ways. Some had a wealthy patron who would bankroll them. Others charged for their services. Paul chose to work. He was a tent-maker. That meant all manner of leatherwork, which was physically hard work, and smelly. In the ancient world, manual work was looked down on.
So as the Corinthians look for reasons to dismiss Paul and his authority, here’s one reason they latch onto. He was self-funded. He worked. Others charged a fee. They were obviously better quality. Paul gave his goods for nothing. “You get what you pay for. Pay peanuts, get monkeys.” Paul’s services were obviously second-class at best.
So Paul bends over backwards to say that he has a right to financial support.
Like the other apostles, he was entitled to have a believing wife accompany him on his travels.
He draws illustrations from many areas of every-day life. You wouldn’t use your life savings to make a career in the infantry work. You wouldn’t run a vineyard without expecting some grapes. You wouldn’t keep sheep and go to the wool shop for wool.
Even the Old Testament makes this point. If an ox was threshing grain, you were not to stop them from eating some of what they were threshing. Which Paul says applies also to his situation – he has a right to eat.
Indeed, you could think of his work as a bit like farming. We had that picture in chapter 3. He’s sowing spiritual seed – planting the seed of the word of God in people’s lives. He has a right to expect a harvest, which includes physical food to eat.
It’s a simple point. Paul has a right to financial support.
This is why, when we employ staff here – a youth worker, an administrator – it’s so important that they are properly paid. We don’t cut corners.
Paul has a right to financial support.
Paul’s Right to Waive his Support
But Paul does not make this point to beg for money. In fact, in verse 15, he realises that he’s in danger of being misunderstood. He’s made the point pretty compellingly that he should be paid. So there’s a danger that they might fail to see why he’s saying this, and send him some money. Look the second half of verse 15: “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.”
Paul is not telling them about his right to financial support so that they’ll give him some. He’s setting the backdrop so that he can explain why he doesn’t take financial support.
Why not? It seems odd to us. He’s doing a job, for which he’s entitled to be paid, and he voluntarily declines his payment. Why? He tells us in two places.
First, there’s verse 12: “But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” His priority is to help people to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Anything that gets in the way of that must go. If you have to pay to hear him. If you have to pay to book Paul up to come to your town to preach. Then people won’t hear. Or it will be harder for people to hear. So he gives up his right. Voluntarily.
He explains more in verses 16 to 18: “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! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 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 wants his preaching to be something he does for God. Something he can be proud of. Normally the word “boast” is a negative one. Someone who brags about their own achievements. Here it’s positive. Paul wants his preaching to be something he can look back on with pride. Look back with his head held high. But how can he do it so that this is the case?
If he’d been doing this voluntarily, it would be easy. But he’s doing it because he has to do it. When Paul met Jesus alive on the road to Damascus. And he didn’t only become a Christian. He got given a job for life, a job he couldn’t get out of. He’s preaching because he has to.
So what’s his boast? What can he look back on and say, “I did a really good job”. It’s this: He can offer the gospel for free. That’s above and beyond what he has to do. It makes Jesus more available, more accessible for people. This sounds slightly contrary, but it’s what he’s saying: His reward is that he gets to do this for free. For love. For no reward.
The gospel is the good news that Jesus came to give us something for free. Paul has freely chosen to offer out that news for free. His ministry embodies the way that the gospel is free of charge. And he’s proud to do it for nothing.
Paul freely gives up his right. His right to financial support. His right to waive his support.
The Corinthians think that Paul is not worth calling an apostle because he doesn’t charge a fee. In fact, this makes him far more worthy of that label. He’s not telling people about Jesus because he has to, because it’s his job, because he needs to feed his family. He’s doing it because he wants to do it, he wants to do it for nothing, he wants nothing to stand in the way of people hearing about Jesus. Now there’s a proper apostle.
Paul’s right to waive his support.
That’s his argument. And, as I say, it’s not hard to understand. Let’s bring this home to our lives today. Here are three ways this works out in practice.
Application 1: Don’t Dismiss Paul
Number 1: Don’t dismiss Paul.
This has to be the main application for today, as it’s why he wrote this chapter.
It’s true, I don’t meet many people who dismiss Paul because he didn’t take a salary. But I meet plenty of people who dismiss Paul for other reasons. And at the end of the day, whether it’s the Corinthians rejecting him because he was unpaid, or people today rejecting him for other reasons, those reasons are a smoke-screen. The bottom line is: People don’t like what Paul teaches. They never have done. The Christians in Corinth didn’t either. So they find ways to dismiss Paul. For them, it was the fact he was unpaid. For us it may be different.
But Paul wants to blow a hole in that one. He really is an apostle of the Lord Jesus. He really does speak with Jesus’ authority.
Actually, we’re not so different from them. We might not reject him because he was unpaid, but people do reject him because he was unsophisticated. He lived several centuries too early to understand life properly. We in our age, we’ve got things right. We can see clearly what’s right and wrong, but Paul was from a more primitive age.
And we do get a little thrown when we meet well-paid people who contradict Paul’s teaching. The well-paid university lecturer with post-graduate degrees in theology. The senior member of the clergy or the bishop, in flamboyant gowns that testify that here’s a man who really knows what he’s talking from. Put them up against Paul, with callouses on his hands and staining on his skin from the leather dyes, we start to wonder, don’t we?
Well don’t wonder. This kind of suspicion of a primitive Paul has been around ever since his own day. And he wrote 1 Corinthians 9 specifically to counter it. Don’t dismiss Paul.
Application 2: Don’t Dismiss Jesus
Number 2: Don’t dismiss Jesus.
By refusing to accept payment, Paul was embodying the message. The message he preached was one of God’s kindness and goodness, free of charge. So it was only appropriate that he did not charge for people to hear it.
The message of Jesus Christ really is extraordinary good news. He offers us the forgiveness of all our sins. Past, present and future. The small ones, and the scarily big ones. He adopts us into God’s family, with God as our father, with him as our elder brother, with one another as brothers and sisters. He makes known to us God’s plan for the universe. He tells us that we have direct access to God our Father in prayer, and that he promises to hear every word. He’s promised that he’ll come back one day to take us home. He’s promised a future free of suffering, sin, sickness, and death.
He offers us all that, and it’s all free! We don’t have to pay a penny. We don’t have to pay a penny because he’s already paid in full, when he died on the cross and rose again. As is the theory with the NHS it’s free at the point of delivery. It’s mind-blowing that God should offer us such blessings. But that he should pay for them himself, and offer them to us free, is simply amazing. We don’t have to contribute a thing.
And yet, bizarrely, this is what keeps many people away. People are suspicious. They’re much more comfortable with a God who makes demands. People would rather know what they have to do. If I come to church three times a month, look after my neighbours, and do a good job bringing up my children, does that mean I can go to heaven?
But it doesn’t work that way. It’s completely free. All we have to do is know and trust the Lord Jesus. You can’t measure that. You can’t prove you’ve done all that’s required. But that’s exactly the point. Nothing is required. It’s completely free.
To which I would add that a free gift like this is totally life-changing. You don’t earn it by being good, but you’re never the same again.
Think for a moment about gadgets. There are the recognised brands. The Oral B toothbrush. The Fit Bit. The iPhone. And then there are much cheaper imitations. Sometimes it’s the case that you should just get the imitation. They work just as well. All you don’t get is the big-name brand. Other times, the imitations are cheap for a reason. And certainly we are right to be suspicious if something’s too cheap to be true.
I loved it when the Royal Mail charged more for fat envelopers, because now charities don’t send me free pens that don’t write properly.
I’m a fan of free software. There are free versions of things like Microsoft Word, made by other companies who have a policy of keeping them free. But they have taken a long time to take off. That’s because people are suspicious of anything that’s free. If it’s free, it can’t be as good.
And so people are incredibly suspicious about the Lord Jesus. He’s free. So surely he can’t be as good.
Again, don’t be suspicious. Come to him, if you haven’t done so already, and drink deeply.
Don’t dismiss Jesus.
Just in passing, this is the reason we don’t pass a collection bag around at this service. We want people to be free to come and hear the good news of Jesus, without giving the impression that it’s something we have to pay for.
We have the most amazing news in the world. Every one of us has the privilege to share this with others. But the highest privilege of all is that we get to share it for free.
Paul is a curious character. Some things he says in his letters make us uncomfortable. Jesus had that effect too.
Many people look for reasons to side-line him. Many people do the same with Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth offers the most amazing privileges. All for free.
Paul was so gripped by this that he gave up his entire life to tell people about him. All for free.
That’s good news not to miss out on. That’s good news not to keep to yourself. That’s good news not to charge others to hear.