Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 9:15-18
15 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. 16 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! 17 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. 18 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.
After arguing again for his right to receive compensation for his work, in the previous verses, Paul again returns the argument for why he will not exercise these rights. Self-denial is an important part of the message of Christianity and Paul lays out why. Looking first at verse 15 in The Pulpit Commentaries:
I have used none of these things. None of the forms of right which I might claim from these many sanctions. He is appealing to his own abandonment of a right to encourage them to waive, if need required, the claims of their Christian liberty. His object in waiving his plain right was that he might give no handle to any who might desire to accuse him of interested motives (1 Corinthians 9:4; Galatians 6:6, etc.). Have I written; rather, do I write; the epistolary aorist. That it should be so done unto me. Do not take my argument as a hint to you that you have neglected your duty of maintaining me, and have even seen me suffer without offering me your assistance. Better for me to die. Not “to die of hunger,” as Chrysostom supposes, but generally, “I should prefer death to the loss of my independence of attitude towards my converts.” Than that any man should make my glorying void. The Greek is remarkable. Literally it is, than my ground of boasting—that any one should render it void. Another reading is, better for me to die than—no one shall render void my ground of boasting.
The note above explains Paul’s purpose: “His object in waiving his plain right was that he might give no handle to any who might desire to accuse him of interested motives.” The way that Paul makes this explanation is to frame it as a desire to protect his own right to boast. That’s a little confusing, so we’ll continue on. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary, at verse 16:
(16) For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of.—Better, For though I preach the gospel, I have no ground of boasting. St. Paul proceeds now to show how his maintenance by the Church would deprive him of his right to boast or glory in his work. The mere preaching of the gospel supplies no ground of boasting; it is a necessity; God’s woe would await him in the judgment-if he did not so. A man can have no ground of boasting in doing that which he must do.
This seems to pull from an idea that we find in Matthew 6:
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Paul glories, or boasts, or a treasure he is accruing in heaven. He does not want payment because earthly payment is not a thing over which to boast. Paul is also clear that he does not want anyone to attribute his work to an earthly financial reward, not because he cares about his reputation, per se, but because that type of attribution might hinder his success in sharing the Gospel. Continuing in Ellicott at verse 17:
(17) For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward.—The previous words, “Yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel,” are a parenthesis; and now the writer proves the truth of his assertion—that the necessity of preaching the gospel deprives the mere act itself of any grounds of boasting—by showing that if there were no necessity there would be a ground of boasting. The argument is this:—Suppose it to be otherwise, and that there is no such necessity, then, by voluntarily undertaking it, I have a reward. The undertaking it of my own free will would entitle me to a reward. But if (as is the case) not of my free will, but of necessity, then I am merely a steward—a slave doing his duty (1 Corinthians 4:1; Luke 17:7-10).
A dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.—Better, I am entrusted with a stewardship.
The note here does a great job of clarifying Paul’s point. He is stating that he has no choice except to preach the Gospel. Taking payment might create the impression that his service is voluntary. Paul’s glory is that he is a slave to Christ and that he is compelled to share the Gospel. Returning again to the Pulpit Commentaries to see the note for verse 18:
What is my reward then? The answer is that it was not such “wages” as would ordinarily be considered such, but it was the happiness of preaching the gospel without cost to any. I abuse not; rather, I use not to the full, as in 1 Corinthians 7:31. It may be said that this was a ground of boasting, not a reward. It was, however, a point to which St. Paul attached the highest importance (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Corinthians 11:7-12; Acts 20:33, Acts 20:34), and he might therefore speak of it, though almost with a touch of half unconscious irony, as his “fee.” There is no need to adopt the construction suggested by Meyer: “What is my reward? [none] that I may preach gratuitously;” or that of Afford, who finds the reward in the next verse.
Paul’s glory is thus found in self-denial.
Self-denial is such an important aspect of Christianity that even secular Wikipedia pages are written on the theme.
Self-denial can constitute an important element of religious practice in various belief systems. An exemplification is the self-denial advocated by several Christian confessions where it is believed to be a means of reaching happiness and a deeper religious understanding, sometimes described as ‘becoming a true follower of Christ’. The foundation of self-denial in the Christian context is based on the recognition of a higher God-given will, which the Christian practitioner chooses to adhere to, and prioritize over his or her own will or desires. This can in daily life be expressed by renunciation of certain physically pleasureable, yet from a religious stand-point inappropriate activities, sometimes referred to as ‘desires of the flesh’, which e.g. could entail certain sexual practices and over-indulgent eating or drinking. In the Christian faith, Jesus is often mentioned as a positive example of self-denial, both in relation to the deeds performed during his life, as well as the sacrifice attributed to his death.
Matthew 16:24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
I find myself suspicious of anyone claiming on behalf of Christ that earthly prosperity, or earthly pleasures, are rights that must be acted upon. Paul gives us guiding principles here. First, you must establish where the right exists at all. If there is a law prohibiting something, then the right does not exist, and that settles the matter. Second, though, if one does have a right, or if one arguably does, then the right must not be acted upon if it hinders the Gospel.
We continue on in the next section.