Freedom! Its one of the great rallying cries of our age, isn’t it? Freedom is something that everyone agrees is a good thing. Most of us believe our freedom is something to value – something to preserve and protect. No one wants a life without liberty, no one wants to live under a regime like North Korea. I remember visiting Washington D.C. about 15 years ago, and seeing the famous Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial. Inscribed on that stone memorial are four freedoms promoted by that former president. Four freedoms that I expect we would all agree with and value today. They are: Freedom of speech; Freedom of worship; Freedom from want; and Freedom from fear.
Freedom is certainly something that was prized by the young church in Corinth, two thousand years ago. “Freedom!” certainly seems to have been one of their rallying cries.
But freedom needs to be exercised responsibly, doesn’t it? Freedom can all to easily become an excuse for selfishness. All too often, people use their personal liberty as an opportunity to indulge their sinful nature – as an excuse simply to please themselves. It seems this attitude was being adopted – even advocated – by some in the Corinthian Church. But selfishness is not the Christian way. So in 1 Corinthians chapter 9, the apostle Paul gives them (and us) a guiding principle to help us use our liberty well. Paul gives a ‘rule of thumb’ to help Christians exercise our freedom responsibly. Because in today’s passage Paul teaches us that:
- For the sake of the Gospel, Christians are free to surrender their rights;
- For the sake of the Gospel, we are free to be a servant of all;
- And for the sake of the Gospel, we are free to exercise self-control.
But before we dive in, let’s pray: Lord, as we come to your Word today, teach us how we can serve you freely, faithfully, and for the sake of the Gospel. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
- Christians are free to…surrender our rights (v.1-18)
Rights are ‘all the rage’ aren’t they? Whether its on the TV, the radio or simply at the supermarket checkout, we’ve all heard people asserting their rights. We are used to hearing about consumers’ rights, workers’ rights, animal rights, human rights, civil rights – you name it.
And many of these rights are good things, aren’t they? Right can protect the weak and vulnerable from exploitation and abuse. They can help to ensure that people made in the image of God are treated with the respect they deserve. Rights aren’t necessarily wrong!
In fact, in the opening verses of our passage today, Paul vigorously defends his own rights as an apostle. It seems that there were some in Corinth who questioned Paul’s apostleship. After all, he wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles, was he? So in verse 1 and 2 Paul cites two compelling pieces of evidence in his defence: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 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.”
Paul is a true apostle, he says, because he has met the risen Jesus. On that famous road to Damascus, Paul was commissioned by Christ to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. And the success of Paul’s ministry confirmed this great commission. Paul’s ability to plant churches in places like Corinth was a sure sign (a “seal” he says) that the Lord is with him. A sure sign that he is an authentic apostle.
And as an apostle, Paul has certain rights. Specifically, in verse 3 he defends his right to “eat and drink”. In other words, Paul claims a right to material support to sustain him in his ministry. Today we might say that Paul is claiming a right to a workers’ wage, an employees’ salary or a minister’s stipend. In the verses that follow, Paul reels off five reasons why he is entitled to this right. Do follow them with me:
- Firstly, in verse 5 Paul appeals to precedent. He says that “the other apostles” are granted these rights, as well as “the brothers of the Lord and Cephas” (Peter). Why should Paul be treated any different?
- In verse 7, Paul appeals to natural justice, and gives examples of three professions who naturally expect a reward for their labours – a soldier, a vineyard owner and a farmer. As a labourer for the church, surely Paul is entitled to an income as well?
- When we come to verse 9, Paul quotes the Law of Moses in his defence: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Even animals are entitled to some of the fruit of their labours – so why not Paul?
- And lastly, in verses 13 and 14, he cites both Jewish custom and the command of Jesus to defend his rights. “Do you not know” he says, “that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
In short, Paul has a “rightful claim” to material support from those he serves spiritually.
So rights are not necessarily wrong. But there are times when Christians should voluntarily surrender our rights for a greater cause. And there can be no greater cause than the spread of the Gospel.
I hope you agree with me that there is no greater purpose in life – no greater privilege – than to tell people about Jesus and see them saved by him. Paul certainly felt that compulsion strongly, because in verse 12 he says he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ”. And in verse 16 he even says “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
And so – for the sake of the Gospel – Paul surrendered his rights to any income from his ministry. He presented his Gospel “free of charge”! You see, by preaching for free, no one could question Paul’s motives. No one could say he preached the Gospel simply to earn a fortune or to ‘feather his own nest’. On the contrary, Paul preached solely out of obedience to Christ and out of love for the lost.
And by preaching for free, Paul also underlined the fact that the Gospel is a free gift. This year we celebrate 500 years since the start of the Reformation – that great re-discovery of the Gospel of grace. As Martin Luther discovered, God’s forgiveness is freely available through faith in Christ alone. Our salvation was paid for in full at the Cross. Paul’s decision not to charge a fee when he preached the Gospel helped to reinforce that glorious truth.
The question for us today, of course, is what rights are we willing to surrender for the sake of the Gospel? What rights are we willing to forego to reach the lost?
- For example, are we willing to give generously to Gospel ministries at home and abroad, to our church or a mission agency or charity? This will mean surrendering our right to spend all our income on ourselves?
- Or are you prepared to surrender some of your free time to bring someone to the next course of “Christianity Explored”? Or to attend the church prayer meeting? Or to serve in some other way at church?
So, I wonder, what rights does God want you to surrender for the sake of the Gospel? What sacrifices are you prepared to make for Christ?
- Christians are free to…become a servant to all (v.19-23)
I guess its safe to assume that all of you here today are human! But if you weren’t human, which animal would you like to be? Which animal’s characteristic most appeals to you? Perhaps you wish you had the wisdom of an owl, could fly like an eagle or had the courage of a lion.
But can I commend to you the characteristics of a chameleon? As you probably know, a chameleon has the amazing ability to change its colour. I’m reliably informed by Wikipedia that there are eleven colours that a chameleon can adopt to blend into its surroundings.
And its this quality of a chameleon that the apostle Paul models for us in verses 19 to 23 of our passage this morning. He tells us that he’s used his freedom to become “a servant of all”, and be “all things to all people”. Once again, Paul’s motive is the Gospel. He tells us he’s become a servant of all to “win more of them” for Christ. He’s become “all things to all people” so that “by all means I might save some”. Paul has become a chameleon because it helps him gain an audience for the Gospel amongst both Jews and Gentiles.
We need to take care to understand what Paul is saying here. After all, at first glance it seems to contradict Jesus’ command that Christians should be ‘salt and light’. Shouldn’t we be distinct and different to the world around us? Isn’t that the way we should commend the Gospel?
Well its certainly true that our doctrine and ethics should always be distinct. Paul is certainly not saying we should ever abandon our faith or compromise our morals. After all, in verse 21 Paul tells us that he is always “under the law of Christ”. We are never to compromise on what Christ says is right and wrong, true and false.
But what Paul is commending is cultural integration. Paul is saying we should be willing to adopt the culture of those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. That means taking an interest in the language and lifestyle of those we want to introduce to Jesus:
- So if you want to share your faith with friends at the local golf club, it makes sense to take an interest in their sport, learn some course etiquette and play a few rounds!
- Or if you want opportunities to talk about Jesus with a colleague at work or a parent at the school gate, it is wise to show an interest in their lives, sample their favourite food, and show some appreciation of their musical tastes.
- And if you want to reach an immigrant community for Christ, it is only courteous to learn some of their language, show an interest in their culture and do all you can to avoid causing unnecessary offence.
No doubt God has laid on your heart certain people you know. People he wants you to introduce to Jesus. For the sake of the Gospel, use your freedom to get alongside them. Take an interest in their lifestyle. Learn a lesson from the chameleon, and accommodate yourself to their culture!
- Christians are free to…exercise self-control (v.24-27)
I turned forty last year, and I’ve finally come to the realisation that I will never make it as an Olympic athlete or professional footballer. I’ve just about come to terms with the fact will never grace the world’s sporting stage. As well as seriously lacking their speed and skill, I couldn’t cope with top athletes’ training regime.
You see, to earn an Olympic or FA Cup medal requires great self-discipline. You need to be able to cope with strict diets, early morning starts and practice, practice, practice. As Paul puts it in verse 25 today, “every athlete exercises self-control in all things”. And they do it to receive a “perishable wreath” – a medal, prize or title that they know will pass on to someone else in a year or two’s time.
But as Christians we run after a greater prize. The Gospel promises us a glorious future, an inheritance kept in Heaven which neither rust, moths or thieves can touch:
- It’s a reward we’ll receive if we persevere to the end.
- Its a Gospel promise we will receive if we keep trusting and obeying the Lord Jesus.
- It’s a prize, says Paul in verse 27, that we’ll receive if we use our freedom to “discipline our body and keep it under-control.” We should avoid being “disqualified from the race” by giving our sinful desires free rein.
So listen to Paul’s warning of disqualification, and practice self-discipline. Don’t use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature. Don’t give greed, lust, jealousy or anger an inch in your life. With God’s help, use your freedom for self-control – don’t be a slave to sin!
As I draw to a close, I hope our passage today has reminded to use our freedom for the sake of the Gospel, not for self-indulgence. As Christians we have, of course, one supreme example of someone who used his freedom for the sake of the Gospel:
- Someone who surrendered his heavenly status to come to earth for our salvation.
- Someone who became a servant of all by going to the Cross.
- Someone who always showed complete self-control.
That someone is of course the Lord Jesus – the author and perfector of our faith.
So let’s pray: Lord Jesus, thank you for using your freedom for our salvation. Help us to use our freedom in the service of the Gospel. In your name we pray. Amen.