Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (23)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (23)

1 Corinthians 9:1-27

Broadcast: July 26, 1998; Message Number 1482

Christian Liberty (3)

In I Corinthians 9 Paul continues his discussion of Christian liberty. As we saw last time, the Corinthians considered themselves strong and knowledgeable Christians. So they felt they were free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. If their weaker brethren had a problem with this that was too bad. They insisted on their right to exercise their freedom in Christ.

Paul's way of answering this argument is to set forth several privileges to which he was entitled, but which he did not insist on, lest they should prove to be stumbling-blocks to others and hinder the cause of the Gospel. The most important of these privileges was that as an apostle of Jesus Christ he was entitled to receive material support from the Corinthians. "The labourer is worthy of his hire" is a principle that applies as much to the spiritual as the secular realm. Yet, although Paul had every right to ask for material support, he chose not to exercise that right. At least, he refused such support from the Corinthians. He did apparently accept some sort of remuneration from other churches. Also, other ministers had accepted support while labouring in Corinth (vs.12), but Paul chose not to do so. Why? In order to teach them the real meaning of Christian liberty.

His aim was to demonstrates by his own conduct that strong or mature Christians should be prepared to set aside their rights for the sake of the weaker saints. Eating meats is far less important than edifying the saints and bringing sinners to Christ.

There were many self-appointed teachers in Corinth who expounded their philosophies for a fee. Everybody knew they were after the money. Therefore, when Paul came to this sophisticated city he realized that if he accepted financial support from the Corinthians he might be identified with the false teachers and philosophers. So, in order not to hinder the Gospel of Christ, he thought it better to support himself by making tents.

Paul was a truly committed servant of Christ. He preached the Gospel neither for material gain nor for the praise of men, not even for any recognition that he did everything for free! He says in verse 16, "Though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of, for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!" Paul was under the constraint of love. Love for Christ first of all, but also love for sinners. Verse 19 shows this. Here is one of the best passages about soul-winning in all of Scripture. "Though I be free from all men yet have I made myself servant to all that I might gain the more."

Paul is free, yet bound. He is free in Jesus and yet he has voluntarily made himself a slave in order to win people to his Lord. Paul uses the word gain four times in verses 20 to 22 and sums up his point by saying: "I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some."

Paul mentions several ways in which he was prepared to adapt himself to different people and their cultures in order to win as many souls to Christ as possible. To the Jews I became as a Jew, he says. When he talked to a Jew, he would act like one within the parameters set by the Gospel. As a Christian, he was no longer bound to the ceremonies, rituals and traditions of Judaism. Whether he observed any of these things or not, made no difference to his spiritual life. If by observing some of those rituals he would have an opportunity for witnessing to Jews, he would gladly accommodate. For the sake of his fellow Jews Paul was willing to observe special days or refrain from eating certain foods if by so doing he could win those who were under the law. For instance, when he wanted to take Timothy with him on a missionary journey he had him circumcized because he knew this would help him in his contacts with Jews living in the areas where he wanted to go (Acts 16).

In his dealings with Gentiles who lived without the law, however, the apostle could also accommodate himself. Not that Paul would violate the moral law in any way. As he explains in verse 21: "to those who are without law as without law" [being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ]. In all matters not involving a direct commandment of God he was flexible, so that he would eat what the pagans ate and dressed as they dressed and talked as they talked.

"To the weak I became weak," he continues. He was willing to identify with those, whether Jew or Gentile, who lacked the ability to grasp the Gospel in all its implications. When he was among these weak Christians he acted weak. He stooped to the level of their weakness of comprehension. To those who needed to hear simple sermons he gave such sermons. When they couldn't make themselves eat meat sacrificed to idols he ate only the food they served. His purpose was always the same: to promote the cause of his Lord. He became all things to all men, that he might by all means save some.

Would that Christians today were more like the apostle in this respect! How this would benefit the cause of Christ! Experience shows that Christians who have a burden for souls are among the least critical of others. They don't make trouble in church. They don't cut up the preacher and his sermons. They're too busy with doing the real work of the church: building up fellow believers and reaching out to the lost.

Why was Paul so concerned to go all out in his efforts to lead sinners to Christ? Why was he willing to forego every right and privilege to which he was entitled? We have his answer in verses 24 to 27, where he uses the illustration of an athlete competing for a prize. Paul was not an athlete himself, but he evidently knew quite a bit about athletic events. Don't you know, he says, in verse 24, that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? The Christian race, of course, is different in that all contenders will win, provided they run according to the rules and keep their eyes fixed on the Prize: eternal life. But what Paul emphasises here is that winning a race requires exertion and the willingness to give up many things. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things, Paul says in verse 25.

Athletes have a right to stay out late at night, but they deprive themselves of this and many other rights in order to stay in good shape so they may obtain the prize. The amount of sleep they allow themselves or the diet they keep and the kind of exercises they engage in are not determined by their rights or feelings but by the requirements of their training.

They do all this, Paul says, to receive a perishable crown or wreath, but we an imperishable. Christians do not run for a wreath that will wilt in a few days. They are not concerned for short-lived fame. They run to receive a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award on that day (2 Tim. 4:8).

Paul not only ran with great vigour and exertion, but he also knew why he was running. He had a goal, namely to win as many people to the Lord as possible by as many means as possible. In verse 26 he says, "Therefore I run in such a way as not without aim." I fight, I box in such a way as not beating the air. Paul was no shadow boxer. He did not just work up a sweat, but he was fighting a real fight, the good fight of faith. A big part of that fight was directed against himself. "I keep under or buffet my body and bring it into subjection." I want to control my body and make it my slave.

For most people the reverse is true. They are slaves to their bodies. Their bodies decide when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat, when to sleep and get up, and so on. A good athlete won't do that. He follows the training rules, not the cravings of his body. He runs when he would rather be resting. He eats a balanced meal when he would rather eat a chocolate sundae. He goes to bed when he would rather stay up, and he gets up early to train when he would prefer to stay in bed. An athlete leads his body instead of following it.

That's what Paul did spiritually speaking. He trained rigorously. Why? "Lest that by any means when I have preached to others I myself should be a cast away" or be disqualified. An athlete who failed to meet the training requirements was disqualified. He could not even run, much less win the race. Paul did not want to spend his life preaching to others only to find out that he himself was rejected. Preaching in the context here means telling others about the requirements for living the Christian life, including soul winning, and then being disqualified for not meeting those requirements yourself.

That was Paul's fear and it should be ours as well. Many believers start the Christian life with enthusiasm and devotion. They train for a while, but soon tire of the effort and begin to slacken off. Before long they become useless. They do nothing for the Lord and His Church. They are of no help to other Christians, nor do they put forth much of an effort to reach unbelievers for Christ. They are loathe to give up their favourite pleasures and recreations.

They are disqualified because they are not willing to pay the price. Paul is not saying that such people will necessarily lose their salvation, although if there are no fruits of faith whatsoever one can hardly escape the conclusion that there probably is no saving faith at all. Yet Paul is not suggesting that his salvation is in jeopardy. What he means is that he may lose his reward. He is concerned lest he will have nothing to show for on judgment day--that he will see no fruits upon his labours. In other words, what he was afraid of was that all his efforts might turn out to be wood, hay and stubble which will be consumed in the fire. He himself will be saved, yet so as by fire (cf. Dan. 12:3; I Thess. 2:19).

The prospect of being saved like that

Additional Info

  • Audio: 120515480
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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