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First Corinthians 9--Ministerial rights, part 1

May 02, 2017

In chapter 9 Paul seems to stray briefly from the topic of a believer’s freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols to a discussion of apostolic freedom as a whole. Apparently, Chloe’s letter brought up someone’s criticism of financial support for the apostles in their work of ministry.

In those days, when the church was small and often quite poor, many pastors worked at secular jobs to support themselves or to supplement their income. But the apostles, who traveled from city to city, were not always in a position to support themselves in their gospel ministry. So most of them relied upon gifts from the believers to do their work, though Paul supported himself as a “tent-maker,” or as some believe, a maker of taliths, “head coverings.” Acts 18:1-3 says,

1 After these things he [Paul] left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they were working; for by trade they were tent-makers [skenopoios].

Paul had no choice but to work to support himself when he first arrived in Corinth. But in his letter, he reminds the Corinthian believers that during those 18 months that he remained there, he had continued to support himself (1 Corinthians 9:12). On what basis, then, came this criticism that Paul felt constrained to answer? Unfortunately, we do not have a copy of Cloe’s letter, and Paul does not quote from it in this case.

Paul’s Apostleship

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:1, 2,

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

Yes, Paul was “free.” He was apparently saying that he was not a slave, other than to Jesus Christ. This implies, as we will see shortly, that he has the rights of a freeman to be compensated fairly for his labor. That labor was apostolic in nature. He lays claim to apostleship on the grounds that he had “seen Jesus” on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4, 5), who had commissioned him directly as an apostle.

There were many, especially among the Jewish faction, that did not accept Paul’s position as an apostle, for they disagreed with many of his teachings. Even today there are those who reject Paul as an apostle, some even claiming—strangely enough—that he was a Jewish infiltrator from the Herodian party (i.e., Jewish supporters of Herod’s dynasty).


The criticism is based largely on Paul’s statement in Romans 16:11, saying, “Greet Herodion, my kinsman,” as if Paul was admitting his connection or kinship to King Herod himself. Of course, the name Herodion was not exclusively connected to the Herods. To make such a claim is akin to claiming that everyone named James was a kinsman and supporter of King James.

In the first century Paul was opposed mainly by Jewish factions who revered Peter, the apostle, and James, Jesus’ brother, who was the head of the Jerusalem church. Both of them acknowledged Paul’s apostleship, but many of their followers did not. Many of them were of the opinion that Paul had put away the law and had led people to “forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21). But even James agreed with Paul in the matter of circumcision at the first Church Council in Acts 15.

Like the Jewish party of the first century, many modern theologians accuse Paul of putting away the law. Rather than questioning their belief, Paul’s critics today either take up the first-century cause in favor of carnal Judaism, or they castigate the apostle for trying to destroy the church from within by subversion.

Yet we know that Paul did not put away the law (Romans 3:31). He only put away physical circumcision, animal sacrifices, Levitical priesthood, the earthly Jerusalem, and such fleshly things that were attached to the Old Covenant. He put the law into a New Covenant context, so that it might be written upon our hearts. Hence, the criticism of Paul, both then and today, is totally unjustified.

The Corinthian church itself was the fruit of Paul’s labor, since he had established it. So Paul refers to that church as “the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” To the Corinthian church, Paul was indeed an apostle, even if others disagreed with Paul.

Paul’s Defense

Cloe’s letter showed that Paul was under attack by some who did not consider him an apostle. On those grounds, they seemed to be criticizing Paul for claiming the same right of support as did the other apostles. 1 Corinthians 9:3-6 begins Paul’s defense, saying,

3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?

Paul starts by claiming “a right to eat and drink,” a Hebrew expression for living a normal life. Then he goes on by including one’s wife. Not only an apostle, but also his wife needs to eat and drink, so that is part of the apostle’s right to be supported in the work of the ministry.

What is interesting is that it shows that both Paul and Cephas (Peter) were married. The fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, tells us plainly that Peter, Philip, and Paul were all married men. He quotes Clement, third bishop of Rome, in Eccl. Hist., III, xxx,

“Clement, whose words we have just been reading, goes on from the passage I have quoted to rebut those who deprecated marriage, by listing the apostles known to have been married men. He says, ‘Or will they condemn even the apostles? For Peter and Philip had families, and Philip gave his daughters in marriage, while Paul himself does not hesitate in one of his epistles to address his yoke-fellow, whom he did not take round with him for fear of hindering his ministry’.”

In the footnote, we read a comment: “Phil. iv. 3: though 'yoke-fellow' (syzygos) would naturally mean ‘wife,’ it could mean ‘comrade’.” In other words, Paul's syzygos might refer to Luke as a “comrade,” but the most natural meaning of the word is WIFE. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 9:5 strongly implies that Paul was married. Paul appears to have sent money to his wife in Antioch or Tarsus.

Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:7,

7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?

Everyone knew that soldiers were paid from the public treasury. Paul considered himself and every minister of the gospel to be a type of soldier. He says in Philippians 2:25,

25 But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need.

Again, in 2 Timothy 2:3, he says, “suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”

In the next analogy, everyone understood that he who planted a vineyard had the natural right to eat its fruit. In 2 Timothy 2:6 KJV Paul says,

6 The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.

By this same law, God had planted a vineyard when Joshua led Israel into Canaan (Isaiah 5:1). After an appropriate time of growth, He came looking for fruit but found only sour grapes that could not be eaten (Isaiah 5:4). The Corinthian church was Paul’s vineyard, where he had labored to plant the seed of the word. He then had every right to eat the fruit of his labor.

Finally, it was commonly known that a shepherd had the right to “use the milk of the flock.” Jesus is “the Great Shepherd” (Hebrews 13:20), but all who care for the “flock” of God are shepherds as well. There are evil shepherds who take advantage over the flock, as we see in Ezekiel 34:2, 3, 4), using their wool and eating their meat, but refusing to care for them or feed them properly. Such evil shepherds will be judged, God says, because they claim authority over the flocks without fulfilling their responsibilities inherent in their authority. They claim the benefits without doing the work.

Paul then appeals to the law itself in 1 Corinthians 9:8-10, saying,

8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.

Here Paul cited Deuteronomy 25:4. An ox was not to be muzzled while it walked in a circle, turning the threshing stone to grind the grain. If God showed such concern for oxen, would He not be even more concerned about those laboring for the sake of the gospel? Here is a good example of how the law of Moses ought to be interpreted spiritually and its principles applied according to a New Covenant understanding. The “oxen” are ministers of the gospel, who labor as servants under Jesus’ “yoke.”

Whether one labors as a “plowman” or a “thresher,” all labor “in hope of sharing the crops.” Paul’s conclusion is in 1 Corinthians 9:11,

11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you?

The church, then, is the vineyard or field in his metaphor. The seed sown is spiritual, for it is the gospel of Christ that begets Christ in all who are part of that field. When a person accepts that spiritual seed by faith, he is seen to be part of God’s vineyard, and after a time of growth, it ought to bear fruit of the Spirit that God can enjoy eating. Likewise, those laboring in His vineyard too are able partake of the fruit of their labor.

This is part 37 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones