Well now please take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 9; 1 Corinthians chapter 9. We’ll be focusing on verses 15 through 18. You can find they’re on page 957 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. You will remember, if you’ve been with us, the story so far. Paul is responding to a letter that has reached him from Corinth raising a number of practical and theological questions that were troubling the believers there. And beginning last week, we saw Paul defending his ministry against those at Corinth who were dismissing and belittling it because, unlike the orators popular in Greek culture at the time, Paul refused to accept payment for his preaching. And so they’d begun to suggest that maybe he wasn’t a real apostle after all. They were trying to undermine his ministry and they did it, of course, because if he wouldn’t take their cash, he couldn’t really be controlled by his benefactors. They couldn’t pull the strings. Paul refused remuneration and so they had no favors to call in on him.
But of course Paul isn’t setting out here to give offense by adopting this strategy. Rather, he is simply embodying in his own life and ministry the same principles he has taught the Corinthians in the chapter immediately prior to this one. In chapter 8, he had been teaching them that there are circumstances in the Christian life in which, from time to time, love for our brothers and sisters in Jesus will move us to relinquish certain of our rights. Certain of our liberties will be restricted and constrained by us so as not to cause the weaker brother or sister to stumble as we exercise our Christian freedom. Love, Paul had taught the Corinthians, constrains liberty sometimes.
And that is what Paul is doing here. In his own life, he's modeling the same thing. He won't take a stipend for his ministry so that no one at Corinth could ever accuse him of only being in it for the cash and dismiss his ministry out of hand as a result. Unlike some, both then and now, Paul is now peddling Jesus like some cheap-tell evangelist trying to make a quick buck on the backs of the desperate and the unwary. No, no, the message itself for Paul is the great motive, the driving force of his life. This glorious Gospel of a free salvation in Jesus for all who believe fills his heart, inflames his soul, and he wants nothing to get in its way, not even a month's paycheck from the Corinthians if that's what it takes to get the good news into their head and into their hearts and into their lives. Love constrained his liberty. That's the situation.
And in verses 15 to 18, Paul is continuing to explain why he has adopted this policy and strategy toward them. And as he does, as I hope we’ll see both this week and again next week, God willing, he will open the lid for us, very helpfully, on the nature and the methods of Christian ministry. The second half of 1 Corinthians chapter 9 is one of the great texts on Christian service and it's full of instruction for us. In particular, I want you to see this week three things; perhaps that's not a surprise to you! They all alliterate as well, so you're getting used to my style I guess! First of all, the content of Paul's ministry. What is it that he was all about when he came to them at Corinth? The content of his ministry. Then secondly, the compulsion of Paul's ministry. What is it that drives him and constrains him to conduct his ministry in the way that he did? And then finally, the compensation of Paul's ministry. What's in it for Paul? So the content, the compulsion, and the compensation.
Before we consider those matters together, however, and read the text of God’s Word, let me invite you first to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let’s pray together.
Our hearts are as open to You as the Bible is in our laps here this morning. There is nothing hidden from Your sight. And so we pray to You, O Lord, would You work by the Holy Spirit to take the open Word and our open hearts and bring them together so that we might be transformed into the moral likeness of Jesus Christ as we trust Him and love Him and seek to follow Him? Push Your Word down into all the pores and crevices of our spiritual lives and wield it with power, for Your glory among us. And we pray for those here who may not know Jesus. O Lord, would Your Word crack open hard hearts, unstop deaf ears, open blind eyes, give life in place of spiritual death as the good news about Jesus is proclaimed? For we ask this in His name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 9 at the fifteenth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.
Rico Tice and Barry Cooper in their little book on Christianity Explored, retell the story of an experiment conducted by a London newspaper. The newspaper placed someone outside the tube station, the underground station in Oxford Circus, which is right in the center of London, one of the busiest shopping districts in Europe. And he was to offer people leaflets. On each leaflet, there was a simple instruction printed. “Bring this piece of paper back to the person who gave it to you, and they will give you five pounds. No strings attached.” Okay? So it’s a bustling shopping street, crowds of people flowing in every direction; here’s a guy handing out leaflets promising cash for free if you just bring the leaflet back to him. And upon presentation, he will hand over a fiver, as they put it – five pounds. No strings attached. So people swarmed by going about their business, and over three hours, a lot of people took the leaflet. You know how many actually came back for the money? Only eleven; eleven people in three hours.
It seems we have a really hard time believing that anything really good can be free. What is the saying? How is it the saying goes? “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Isn’t that right? We have a hard time believing that anything good can be that free. The Christian message is good news because it is in fact precisely that; it is free. It’s free. And Paul’s whole approach to Christian ministry is designed to help the Corinthians and designed to help us grasp the wonder of that truth.
The Content of Paul’s Ministry
Would you look at the passage with me, please? I want you to notice first of all what Paul says about the content of his ministry. He has been talking to them about the right of pastors to receive financial support and remuneration from their congregations and explaining to them why he does not personally exercise that right. He refuses to take compensation from them for his ministry. And as he explains all of that, in 15 to 18, I wonder if you noticed how he speaks about his work. He sums up his primary task, the burden of all he was there to do in Corinth, in a phrase he repeats over and over again in verse 16 and verse 18. What is it he has been sent to Corinth to do? He was among them, he says, to preach the Gospel. “If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Or verse 18, “What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge.”
The Purpose of Ministers
What is the purpose for which God has given ministers to His Church? Yes, they are to shepherd the flock. Yes, they are to pastor and care for the people. Yes, they are to teach and to train and to disciple. Yes, they are to lead and to administer the affairs of the congregation. But what is the overriding priority and burden of a faithful ministry? It is not preaching merely. Or maybe it’s better to say it is not pulpit talk. It is the proclamation of the Gospel specifically. If the man in the pulpit isn’t preaching the Gospel, he can’t help you! He can’t help you. You know I doubt Paul would even recognize whatever it is the man in the pulpit is doing as preaching at all if what he is preaching is not the Gospel. No, he’s quite emphatic about it, isn’t he? His approach to life and ministry at Corinth is entirely determined by his passionate commitment to delivering this message. Every other concern is subordinated to it. Every tool, every technique, every method that he might develop for their good takes its shape in relation to the Gospel. The proclamation of the good news about Jesus is his master concern.
The Urgency of the Gospel
Imagine, imagine for a moment a terrible war. The battle has been raging for days and it's vital that intelligence be passed back to command from the front lines. And so an emissary is to be sent. And he scarcely needs to be told how important the news he carries really is and all that is resting upon its delivery. And so he sets off. He has to make his way through enemy lines and there's really no risk he will not take, no sacrifice he will refuse to offer, no hardship he will not endure in order to deliver his message and fulfill his orders. The urgency of it, the necessity of the message overrides every other concern for him. And that's Paul; that is Paul. The news he carries is so vital, so urgent, so necessary that he will surrender everything, give up his rights, endure the cost to make it known.
Maybe one reason that I struggle – maybe you struggle too – to share the Gospel as much as I do, is that I have lost sight – maybe you have lost sight – of really how compelling and glorious and urgent and pressing and necessary this message actually is. It no longer constrains us and compels us and wells up within us with an excitement we can barely contain. The wonder if it so great, the glory of it so precious to us that we simply have to tell. I wonder if the Gospel has begun passé. Has the good news become old news for you? Like silver that has, you know, been left on the shelf, unpolished. It has lost its luster. It no longer sparkles and shines. No wonder we don’t share it with others because we walk right past it. It is dull and unnoticed. It stays on the shelf. I think we’re being urged to take it down from the shelf and to polish it and to make it shine again and put it back where it belongs at the center of our hearts and our lives and see the glory of the thing, the urgency of it. While we are lost and helpless, condemned before God in our sin, He has acted for us, sending His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to live a life we could not live, fulfilling God’s Law in the place of guilty sinners; dying a death we could not die. Paying perfectly the price satisfying God’s wrath at the cross instead of us.
And now if only we would bend our knee to Christ and surrender our claimed autonomy! If we would confess that, in fact, like our way on our terms has always been bankrupt and enslaving and not liberating and freeing as we once thought. If we will come and confess our sin and rebellion to Jesus, bending our knee to Him as our only King and our only hope and trusting Him to rescue us, in that moment, full, free, unassailable pardon will be ours. There is new life ready to burst in on you. There is acceptance before God; a changed heart for you. In the moment that you trust in Christ, you will have passed from death into life, from darkness into light, from an estate of sin and misery into an estate of grace and bound for an estate of glory. You will be declared righteous in the sight of God in His heavenly courtroom because Christ’s righteousness will be reckoned to your account and you will never ever again face even the possibility of being condemned in the sight of God. You will have been adopted into the family and the household of God; made an heir of God and a co-heir with Christ. Given all the rights and the privileges of a child of God. You will have been born again. The old will have gone and the new has come. The enslaving dominion of sin that once held you in bondage to lust and pride and fear and anger and unbelief and a whole host of other slave-driving sins will be broken forever and God will begin His masterpiece work in your life, chiseling away at the stubborn block of rough stone that is your life; to reshape it until it resembles the moral likeness of His Son. He will enable you to die to sin and live to God so that you can say, “By the grace of God in the Gospel, today I am not who I once was and tomorrow I will not be who I now am. I am a child of God inhabited by the Holy Spirit of God, united by grace through faith to Jesus Christ the Son of God. A new creature in Him. And though I am a sinner still, and stumble and fall often, I do not lose heart or grow weary in well-doing because I know I am bound for glory and nothing can separate me from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
That is our message and it is electric, isn’t it? We speak, perhaps through stammering, stuttering lips, this simple good news. There’s a Savior for you in Jesus Christ. And through our message, this message, Jesus saves sinners! The deaf hear, the blind see, and the dead are made alive. How, when you see the beauty and the wonder and the power of this Gospel, could you leave it sitting on the shelf forgotten? Don’t you want to display it for the world to see? Don’t you want to say, “Look at my Jesus! Look what He can do! Don’t you want Him?”
My favorite hymn was written by Charles Wesley. It is almost entirely unknown here in the United States. I think it’s worth quoting because I think in many ways it captures the driving passion of Paul’s life and ministry that actually shapes every decision he makes, including the surrender of his rights at Corinth. Listen to Wesley:
Jesus! the Name to sinners dear,
The Name to sinners giv’n;
“It scatters all their guilty fear, it turns their hell to Heav’n. Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks, and bruises Satan’s head; power into strengthless souls it speaks, and life into the dead. O that mankind might taste and see the riches of His grace! The arms of love that compass me would all the world embrace. His only righteousness I show, His saving grace proclaim; ’Tis all my business here below to cry ‘Behold the Lamb!’ Happy, if with my latest breath I may but gasp His Name, preach Him to all and cry in death, ‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’”
That is the great burden of Paul’s heart and life and ministry. He is captivated by this Gospel and he gladly relinquishes his rights to make it known. The content of Paul’s ministry.
The Compulsion of Paul’s Ministry
Then secondly, the compulsion of his ministry. Look at verses 16 and 17 with me. “Necessity,” he says, “is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship.” Latch onto that last word for a moment – “stewardship.” Paul is a steward. It’s a favorite metaphor of his for the nature of the Christian ministry. He’s used it already in 1 Corinthians back in chapter 4 at verse 1. “This is how one should regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” You may remember that a steward was usually a slave serving in a great house, entrusted with the management of the affairs and the business of the estate. That’s a steward. And Paul is saying that’s what he is. He is a steward. And as a steward, he is under orders. He is not free. He is a slave and Jesus Christ his Master.
Commissioned by Jesus
That it so say, he doesn’t preach because he has no marketable skills and, “I guess by default that means I should be a preacher!” Rather, he preaches because Jesus Christ has laid a commission upon his life and he can do nothing else. He is not free to do anything else. “Necessity is laid upon me,” he says. “If I do this of my own free will I have a reward.” That is, “I can claim some merit in my ministry and demand recompense from God for my voluntary elective contribution to His cause. But the fact is, I have no choice in the matter. It is no voluntary and elective. Rather, I was summoned by Christ to this task. He is the Master. I am His slave, His steward. So woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.”
That word, "woe," by the way, is an important one. It evokes the language of the Old Testament prophets. You may remember the language of the prophet Isaiah. In the first five chapters of Isaiah's book, he is pronouncing oracles of judgment on the people of Judah. And so chapter after chapter he says, "Woe to you! Woe to you! Judgment is coming!" And then in the year that King Uzziah dies, at the beginning of chapter 6, Isaiah is in the temple and suddenly he sees the Lord and the train of His robe fills the temple. And now, at last, this word, this oracle of judgment he has been pronouncing upon others, he pronounces upon himself. “Woe to me! I am undone! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts! The judgment that should fall on others, now,” he says, “should fall also on me.” That is what Paul is saying here. “If I shirk the responsibility laid upon me by my Master to be a steward of the mysteries of God and to open up the Gospel to the nations, then woe to me; judgment will fall on me. This is a necessity, a compulsion, an irresistible demand I am not free to avoid.”
I have a growing conviction that this is actually one of the greatest needs of the church in our day. Here’s a matter that I would ask you make a subject of prayer for our seminary students, for our pastoral staff. We need preachers who can do nothing else, be nothing else, but servants of the Word, who feel themselves under divine constraint to preach the Gospel and to apply it to our hearts and to our lives. Who say with Wesley, “Tis all my business here below to cry, ‘Behold, the Lamb!’” Or with the apostle Paul, “Necessity is laid upon me! Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” This is what, you know, will overcome natural timidity in a preacher. This sense of divine constraint. This is what will harness his native boldness and bring it into service in the cause of Christ – divine obligation and constraint to preach the Gospel. This is what will keep a preacher going when trials and discouragements come. This one great, overriding weight of divine obligation. “I have a commission from King Jesus to make Him known. I must preach. Necessity is laid upon me.” Without that sense of obligation, is it really that surprising when pastors under pressure abandon their posts or when congregations begin to wonder if their preacher really is invested in the message he proclaims and the Gospel itself it eventually undermined in their midst?
Would you pray for your pastors? Pray for me, that we might live and serve as stewards, conscious of the claim of King Jesus compelling us, obliging us to preach the Gospel in season and out of season. Pray for our interns here who are training for Gospel ministry. Pray for John and Kelley Beth Prabhakar as they head back to India. Pray for Gary and Petula Sinclair as they go to South Africa. Pray for Jason Wegener who recently left us to take up a pastoral position in Katy, Texas. Pray for Kelly Jackson at Florida State RUF. And pray for Will Nettleton at Trinity RUF in San Antonio. Remember Jonathan Hunt who is now serving as a pastor in Buffalo, New York. Pray for our supported missionaries, our church planters, and our campus pastors. Pray for the churches and pastors of our presbytery, men like Elbert McGowan at Redeemer and Joseph Wheat at Highlands and Carl Kalberkamp at Pear Orchard and the many others who are faithfully laboring within the bounds of our presbytery. Pray that God would impress upon us a sense of divine compulsion and obligation, a driving urgency and necessity to preach the Gospel at all costs and to fulfill the stewardship given to us by Jesus Christ. Without that, we simply cannot sustain Gospel ministry for long. Without that, preaching will lose its power and without it, the church will be impoverished.
The Compensation of Paul’s Ministry
The content of Paul’s ministry; the compulsion of his ministry. Finally, notice what we learn here about the compensation of Paul’s ministry. What’s in it for Paul? And here, let me invite you to focus on the difficult language of boasting that Paul uses in verses 15 and 16. Do you see it in verses 15 and 16? “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision.” That is to say, “I’m not writing to sort of manipulate you into giving me the very thing I seem to be saying I don’t want. No, not at all.” “I’d rather die,” he says, “than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting.” Isn’t that difficult language? What does he mean by boasting?
Is he saying that, because he took no money from the Corinthians, he is able to display and boast in how selfless he is being? You know, “Going above and beyond the call of duty. Aren’t I wonderful?” Is this a sort of humble brag? Social media is full of humble bragging, isn’t it? You know what a humble brag is? “My professor says I’m the best in the class. #ihadnoidea” Is that what Paul is doing? Something like, “Wanted to go the extra mile at Corinth. Preached for no pay. #soselfless” Is this a humble brag? Is Paul flattering himself and looking to get attention and the praise of men? Is that what’s going on?
Paul’s Self-imposed Limitations
I don't think so. Here's why. Paul is boasting, but his boasting is subversive. If you keep your finger in 1 Corinthians 9 and turn forward to 2 Corinthians chapter 11, 2 Corinthians chapter 11 at verse 30, you will see his principle. He uses the same language, but he uses it in a way that I think illuminates what's going on in our passage. 1 Corinthians 11 verse 30, "If I must boast," he says, "I will boast of things that show my weaknesses." Look down at verse 9 of chapter 12. Sorry, verse 10 of chapter 12. No, verse 9; I was right. "Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then am I strong." I think that's the same spirit in which Paul is writing about his boasts here in chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians. Remember, after all, what it is he's talking about. He has refused to take a salary and that is costing him a very great deal indeed. Not just financially; time. Think about the time spent tent making when he might otherwise have been free for ministry. Think about the social cost. Here he is, a tentmaker, and so the elites at Corinth despise him and dismiss him and they're actively trying to undermine his ministry. He's striving to make ends meet while still having enough emotional and mental and physical stamina and energy to pour himself out in preaching and pastoring among the Corinthians.
This is a liability, humanly speaking. Paul is actually imposing upon himself limitations that put him at a distinct disadvantage and that were stigmatizing his ministry. Why in the world would he do that and then point to it and sort of boast in it? Because it’s a way to say, “There is no way in the world Paul could accomplish all that God is doing in your lives. The Gospel, the Gospel is the thing that’s getting it done.” The story is told, famously, of Martin Luther who said about the Reformation in Germany that, “While he was sleeping or having a drink with his friend, Phillip, the Word did it all.” The Word did it all. “My reward” – that’s what Paul is saying, isn’t it, in verse 18 at the end of our passage? “What then is my reward? That in preaching, I may present the Gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the Gospel.” “What do I get out of all of this? I get to take a backseat, to step out of the limelight, that all of the attention might fall on the Gospel. That everyone might see it’s the good news about Jesus that has done it all. The Word did it all. That’s my reward. That’s what thrills my heart. Seeing the Gospel have its way in your lives.” He has extraordinary confidence in the power of the Gospel, doesn’t he? So much so that he’s willing to put himself at a distinct disadvantage, at least by worldly standards and in the eyes of the Corinthians, to embrace obstacles in his own ministry so that the Gospel might be recognized as the thing that is really mighty to save.
Confidence in the Gospel
As you look around our culture right now, as you look at the church of Jesus Christ, as you look at your own life, let me ask you where your confidence really lies. Confidence for change in your own life. Confidence for the future of the claims of Jesus Christ and His cause in our nation. Where does your confidence lie? We don't really need gimmicks and tricks, do we? We don't need a silver bullet; some new fad or fashion that if only we would embrace the church would be full and the kingdom would come. We just need to believe that the Word will do its work, and be committed as Paul was committed to being its servant. Learning to say with Paul in Romans 1:16, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe." That power's in the Gospel. It's in the Word. Get yourself out the way and let the Gospel go. Found your confidence in the Gospel. That is where the power is to be found. Be a servant of the Word, unashamed of the Gospel. Let's go! Let's go, fearfully perhaps, go tremblingly, go and speak haltingly and speak good news and see, as we do, that God opens blind eyes, unstops dear ears, takes away hearts of stone and gives new life that all the glory might be His. The Word will do it all. We can have confidence in the Gospel.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we confess to You that there are times when our own insecurities, our own weakness, and fearfulness, make us doubt that we can be of any real help in the extension of Your kingdom. And we set at a discount the one thing that we need to understand. Of course we are not capable of making a difference on our own. We were never meant to. It is the Word that will do the work. Would You help us to get ahold of that truth anew? That the Gospel is where the power lies; not in us. And would You make us so captivated and captured by the wonder of this message, as Paul was, that there is almost nothing we would not do in its service to get ourselves out the way and let the Gospel go and let the Word do the work? Hear us and use us, we pray, among our friends, in our classrooms, in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our city, and around the world. Use us to be stewards of the Gospel of grace, for the glory and praise of Your name. Amen.
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