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Living Out the Centrality of the Gospel (I Corinthians 9)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

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Introduction: The Infinite Importance of the Gospel

It was the great C.S. Lewis who wrote that:

"Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

Unfortunately, many, if not most Christians, live their lives as if their Christian faith is just an addition to an already busy schedule that has to somehow be fit into a myriad of other important things in life. It is seen as some sort of an inconvenient duty that may or may not get accomplished that week depending on whether or not your job or your family obligations get in the way.

What many don't seem to realize is that the family, the job, the friends, the vacation plans, and all other things are in their world because God first gave them their life in the first place. And it is He who gives them the health and the wealth to do all the other seemingly important things that they do.

Because of this, a person's faith in God should be the number one priority. And living out the Lordship of Christ needs to be above all else.

Also, out of all the accomplishments one could have in this life, there is none more significant than one's actions and words which will lead to the furtherance of the gospel, the good news of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection on behalf of the people of this world. For this will bring eternal salvation to all who believe or place their trust in Him alone. To everyone who will accept Jesus' sacrifice for their sins, there is the hope of a place in heaven where there will be no more mourning or crying or pain. And we become heirs and joint heirs with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Not only that but also knowing the eternal state of one who hasn't placed their trust in Christ alone for salvation, that is the fact that they are facing a Christless eternity in Hell, should give us compassion for the lost world all around us and make getting out the gospel message a primary concern in our lives each day.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples in Scripture of living the Lordship of Jes Christ and putting the message of God's grace above everything was the apostle, Paul. He gave his whole life for the sake of Jesus Christ and the good news that He offers everyone. And in I Corinthians 9 we get his thinking on this subject

Here, from the website bibleref.com, is a summary of this magnificent chapter of Scripture. They tell us:

First Corinthians 8 ended with Paul's declaration that he would give up his right to eat any meat rather than cause a brother in Christ to stumble. He shows in this chapter that he is already giving up his right as an apostle to be financially supported by those he serves. He doesn't want anything to get in the way of anyone believing the gospel. He limits his freedoms further by becoming all things to all people to win some for Christ. He disciplines himself like an athlete in training, to get a prize and to avoid being disqualified. The next passages will expand on this idea of distinguishing what is ''allowed'' from what is ''best.''

From this website summary, we can glean three ways in which Paul made the good news of Christ central to his life:

  1. He Gave Up His Apostolic Rights (1-18)
  2. He Limited His Freedoms Around Others (19-23)
  3. He Served for an Eternal Reward and Not a Perishable One (24-27)

Let us look more closely at these three ways of making the gospel a priority and see what they have to tell us today in our walk with our Savior.

I. He Gave Up Apostolic Rights (1-18)

Paul is continuing his discussion, begun in the previous chapter, of telling the Corinthians to focus on the needs of others ahead of their own freedom. He asks the Christians in chapter 8 to do this by refraining from eating meat offered to idols in order not to offend the weaker brother in Christ.

Paul now showed, beginning in chapter 9, by his own words and actions, that demonstrating love for others, in proclaiming the gospel, should be something that trumps our desire for freedom as a priority in our life. God's love, which is agape love, always puts the needs of others ahead of self.

He made the case that he himself was practicing what he was preaching by giving up his apostolic rights. Because, as a minister, he had the right to be financially supported by the people whom he served. But then he went into detail about why he refused to receive that benefit from the Corinthians.

To demonstrate his rights, he substantiated his apostleship with two arguments:

  1. He had seen the resurrected Christ.
  2. The church at Corinth was his work in the Lord, a seal of his apostleship.
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In verses 3-18 he told the Corinthians that he, as an apostle, had the right to eat and drink whatever he wanted. Paul and his fellow laborer Barnabas, if they wanted to, could also take a believing wife along with them as other apostles did. He further had the right to receive wages for his ministry. However, he didn't exercise any of these rights for the sake of furthering the gospel.

God required ministers to be paid for their labor. After all, a person who goes to war doesn't live at his own expense. And someone who plants a vineyard eats from the fruit trees that are planted (6-7).

Even in the law of Moses it said that you shouldn't muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. This also is referring to ministers and not just to oxen. A minister should be compensated just as a beast of burden is given what is needed for living.

This is how Paul puts it:

"...Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless, we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ." (9b-12).

The apostle continues by saying that even the priests in the temple were to be supported for their work. And his conclusion from this is that:

"Even so, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel." (14).

However, Paul's dedication to the good news of Christ was so great that he refused to take advantage of the rights that he possessed. He even said that it would be better if he died than to have someone rob him of his boast that he didn't take any finances for preaching.

He didn't see preaching the gospel as a thing to be boasted over anyway. Indeed, he saw it as a necessity. Paul went so far as to say:

"Woe is me if I don't preach the gospel!" (16b).

Paul further said that if he preached willingly, he would be rewarded. If unwillingly, it was a stewardship that had been entrusted to him.

According to the website Christianity.com:

"Christian Stewardship in the Bible regards the obligation of Christians in managing and utilizing intelligently the gifts that God has given. The Christian steward is not only responsible for the financial blessings provided by God but also the spiritual gifts that are given through the Holy Spirit. God wants human beings to be His stewards in the work of creation, redemption, and sanctification."

Paul saw himself as a steward of the gospel. It was entrusted to him to tell others about God's gracious salvation that He offers to all who believe in Christ. His reward for seeing it this way was the fact that he was able to do it free of charge and thus not abuse his authority. (18)

Over the centuries there have been many who have simply preached and taught God's Word, and the good news of Christ, in order to get rich off of those whom they were supposed to be helping to come to Christ. Paul could never be accused of this by the Corinthians because he never asked for remuneration for doing it.

II. He Limited His Freedoms Around Others (19-23)

However, not only did Paul give up his apostolic rights, but he also limited his freedom around different people with whom he came in contact, in order to serve all men and women. In verses 19-23 he told the Corinthians:

"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant of all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law, (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I may win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be a partaker of it with you."

Within the limits of God's Word, Paul would become as culturally and socially Jewish as possible whenever he witnessed to the Jews, in order to gain an audience with those who would never listen to him otherwise. He was no longer bound to the traditions and ceremonies that the law required. He was bound, however, by his love for the Jewish people.

The ones without the law, that Paul became like, were the Gentiles. Paul wasn't suggesting here that he should violate the moral law as they did. He wasn't lawless toward God. He rather obeyed the law of Christ while allowing himself to live according to the non-sinful customs and culture of the Gentile people which he was trying to evangelize.

To the weak Paul stooped to make the gospel clear at the very lowest level of comprehension. Once again, this was within the bounds of God's Word. Paul would become all things to all men in order to save some. He would not change the Scriptures or compromise the truth. But he would condescend in any way, other than these things, to lead people to salvation. Paul saw people's eternal destinies as far more important than fully exercising his freedom in Christ.

III. He Served for An Eternal Reward and Not a Perishable One (24-27)

The final way in which Paul made the gospel central in his life was by serving it for the eternal reward offered by Christ and not a perishable reward which is the only thing that can be gotten by being rewarded on this earth.

He began here by comparing the eternal rewards of heaven with some things that people of this world compete for in order to win. In this letter to the Corinthians, the apostle drew a direct comparison between the Christian life and an athletic competition. Corinth was the site of the Isthmian games, a great athletic competition that could be compared to the Olympic games. Anyone who competed in the Isthmian games had to endure ten months of mandatory training in order to be part of the action. Those who failed to train were barred from competing at all.

The highlight of these games was a great endurance race. It was this race to which Paul compared the Christian life. In verses 24-26a he told the Corinthians:

"Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore, I run thus: not with uncertainty."

The word temperate here is self-control. That was crucial to earning an earthly victory wreath that was given to the winning athlete of the games at the time. And it is also crucial for one who preaches the gospel. We must live a life that pleases God and shows others what the Lord has to offer them with His saving grace.

In the Isthmian games several people competed for one prize. But only one received the wreath or crown. And that wreath was perishable. On the other hand, all Christians can win the race of life in which God has placed us and we can receive eternal rewards from the Lord. This is called an imperishable crown.

In the last two verses, Paul changes his metaphor from a race to a boxing match. He uses this to illustrate that fact that he was no shadow boxer, that is one waving his arms in the air to no effect. Rather he disciplined his body. The Greek word for discipline here literally means 'to hit under the eye.' He knocked out all sinful bodily impulses to keep them from preventing him from his mission of winning souls to Jesus Christ.

He did this so as not to be disqualified from receiving the reward in eternity after having preached to so many people. Paul is not talking about losing salvation here, as some would say. Though the King James Version of the Bible uses the term 'become a castaway.' That, unfortunately, gives the wrong sense of the Greek word here. The term literally means 'disapproved after testing."

The free gift of justification and salvation is one received totally by grace through faith and cannot be earned or lost. However, the rewards for enduring for the cause of Christ can be lost. The apostle talked about this earlier in I Corinthians 3:5-17 where he said that a Christian's works could be like wood, hay and stubble and be totally burned up, but they would be saved 'yet so as by fire.'

Conclusion

So, when all is said and done, most people, unlike the apostle Paul, don't have an eternal perspective on life. They are so worried about prioritizing the things of this world, in the here and now, which won't last, and in getting their lives in order, that they forget about what will happen in the endless days in which we will be living. Those days beyond this present existence on earth.

And though none of us is a Paul, with his unique gifts and abilities, we all should have a compulsion, like him, to see that every person hears the gospel. It should be a priority for us that we tell the people who come into our lives the good news of salvation. For without it, the world is headed to an eternity without hope and without God, in hell.

We should be willing to give up our rights, if it means one more person will come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. We must limit our own freedoms and become all things to all people so that we might, by all means, save some.

And we should not be seeking for the perishable rewards that this world offers us. Rather, we should seek for those that God will one day give us at the Judgment Seat of Christ.

There are so many distractions in this life that it is easy to lose all perspective on what is really important. God, His Word, people, and the gospel must become the top priorities of our lives. All other things will one day perish. May God help us to focus on that which will last forever.


© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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