We continue this morning in our preaching series through the book on 1 Corinthians and today we are in chapter 9. Just in case you've just joined us, and as a reminder for everyone else, let me introduce you to the main characters.
First, we have the apostle Paul, who wrote this letter 2000 years ago.
He is writing to the church he had helped start in the Greek city of Corinth. Some of the church members had been Jews before they became Christians – they used to be part of the local synagogue. And some had not been Jews. They probably had at least some involvement in one of the local pagan temples. It was a mixed church, but it really wasn't a very mature church at all and had a whole stack of issues, which he's heard about.
So Paul was writing to them to help sort out some of the mess they were in.
The letter isn't addressed to us, but what he has to say is for us because it's part of God's written word. And what he has to say in these verses really help us make the right decisions.
As I'll explain in a minute, the Corinthian Christians were getting all worked up about food – the big question they were asking was 'what am I allowed to do?'
Their specific issue may not be the exact one we face. But for Christians facing decisions both big and small, that question is a familiar one, especially perhaps if you're new to the Christian life. 'What am I allowed to do?'.
That's not a bad question to ask. If we are Christians, then Jesus is our Lord and we will want to know what pleases him and live according to his word. But the Corinthian Christians should have been taking more than that question into account when they were deciding what to do. Part of their lack of maturity was an inability to see what was missing from their decision making – and there were two issues:
- First, they were self-absorbed and concerned only about their own well-being. Instead, they should have been looking out for the best interested of others.
- Second, they had lost sight of one of the main purposes of their lives as followers of their Lord and saviour Jesus Christ: to make him know to everyone.
But let's back up so we can see what Paul is saying here.
This section begins in chapter 8, and verse 1 begins like this "Now concerning food offered to idols…"
In Corinth at that time, there were pagan temples where worship of idols and gods – with a little 'g' because they're not real gods – took place. During the worship, animals were sacrificed and the meat from the animals used in those pagan rituals were served in the temple dining room at business and social functions. The meat was also sold in a meat market.
So the big debate at Corinth Parish Church was: are Christians allowed to eat that meat?
Now some said yes, you can. And others said no, you can't. And that led to conflict. What am I allowed to do?
Right back in the beginning of the Bible, when God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the garden of Eden they were told (Genesis 2:16-17): "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
So there was a clear no-go area. Just one tree with forbidden fruit. But a whole garden of trees that were allowed.
As so it has always been. Jesus is Lord. That means he gets to decide what is good and what is evil. He draws the line between what is allowed and what is not. And he alone is worthy of our worship. We cannot bow the knee to anyone or anything else. He alone is Lord. There is no decision to make about those areas – we are not to step outside the law of God. He is good and his ways are good, so we can trust him that what is forbidden for us is not just wrong, it's also not for our good.
But for Christians, there is also a wonderful freedom. It's not that as we go through life we can only do what God has specifically said we are allowed to do. He's spoken to us and make clear what is wrong. But beyond that we have a whole garden of freedom with which to live – freedom over what we eat, drink, watch, wear, read, study, listen to. Freedoms over how we spend our time, what work we do, how we use our money, how we spend our holidays and what to do when we retire. We have huge freedoms to do what we want to do, go where we want to go, and live how we want to live. And the issue in chapters 8-10 about food is how a Christian makes decisions in those areas where there is freedom.
So, are the Corinthians Christians allowed to eat food offered to idols? Is that allowed? Is it a no-go area or an area of freedom.
Well, we saw Paul's answer last week in chapter 8, in verses 4 to 6. It is allowed. This is an area of freedom for Christians. Why? Because idols are not real. The cow sacrificed to the make-believe god Aprodite, does not belong to her but belongs to God. Food is simply food, it is a gift from God and, as Jesus himself declared, all foods are fine to eat.
A no-go area, as we'll see in chapter 10, would be for a Christian to enter the temple and participate in worship to Aphrodite. That is quite another matter. Idols are not real. But worshipping them is idolatry and that is real. And dangerous. Jesus is Lord. He alone is to be worshipped. But all food comes from God and so a Christian is free to eat and enjoy it.
So were the 'yes, you can' party right? On one level, yes. But they were far from behaving rightly. In fact, they were sinning. They had a right to eat that food. But, what they lacked was love for other believers and a concern for what was best for them. For there were some members of the church in Corinth – Paul describes them as having weaker consciences – who had previously worshipped at the temple. So they did not believe it was right for them to eat that food. And so Paul says, if they were to eat that meat when their conscience told them it was wrong, it would be spiritually dangerous for them.
So the 'yes you can' party insisted that they were free, but they used their knowledge to puff themselves up, rather than to build up their weaker brothers and sisters in love. 1 Corinthians 8:11-12:
"And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ."
So, a Christian acting in love in that situation will choose to give up his rights, his freedom for the sake of lovingly building up their Christian brother or sister.
In chapter 9, Paul continues with that theme but now he applies the principle to Christians giving up their freedom for the sake of those outside the church. For those still in the synagogue and in the temple.
He begins with an example from his own life of where he has a right yet gives it up so that he can reach those who do not know Jesus. So, in chapter 8 the missing dimension from their decision making was to ask what was most loving within the church family. In chapter 9 the missing dimension was to ask how my decision can help as many people as possible to hear the good news about Jesus.
In the first half of chapter 9, he shows them that he has the freedom, the right to be supported financially as a minister of the gospel. He piles on the evidence, so there can be no doubt. He reminds them he is an apostle. He points out that it is common practice in other professions to be paid for your work – using the examples of a soldier, a farmer and a shepherd. He takes them to the scriptures. Then verse 14 is his strongest argument: Jesus himself taught this:
"In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel."
So he has the right to be supported financially. The next verse is the key to understanding what he is saying to us. He explains that his decision about what to do when he was in Corinth was not reached by simply asking what was 'allowed'. He made his decision on what would allow as many people as possible to hear the gospel without putting any obstacles in their way. He viewed it not as a right but as a freedom.
When he was in Corinth he came to declare that Jesus died on a cross to pay the debts of sinners who had no way of getting themselves out of debt. He came proclaiming that forgiveness and new life was the free gift that Jesus bought for them, at his own expense. That was what God had called him to do. He couldn't help himself!
But he wanted to bring that gospel message to them free of charge. He decided to use his freedom to not claim what was his right, but instead he gives up those rights for the sake of the gospel.
"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."
Paul wanted the Corinthians to grow up in their faith. To make decisions not just based on 'what I am allowed to do'. But instead to make decisions that asked: first, what is most loving? And second, what will help bring the good news of Jesus to as many people as possible. The answer to those questions will almost certainly mean self-sacrifice. It will mean willingly giving up our freedoms for the sake of others. It will mean using our freedom not for our own benefit, but for the good of others.
"When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, we gave our today."
We have been reminded again this week of these well-known and moving words as we remember the sacrificial giving of the armed forces 75 years ago during the D-Day campaign that marked the beginning of the end of the second world war.
We remember those who gave up so much, the many who lost their lives in order to serve and protect freedom for others. They had been willing to give everything. Why? "For your tomorrow". The sacrifice of today was made to secure for others a tomorrow that is different and better than today.
It's the same spirit of sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross two thousand years ago, when for our tomorrow, he gave his today. And it is the same spirit of sacrifice that Paul wants us to demonstrate to reach a whole world that needs to hear of Jesus. How appropriate that we should be looking at these verses as we remember Pentecost.
Verses 19 to 23 gets us to the heart of what Paul is saying. He wants everyone to hear and respond to the gospel. He does whatever will make that as easy as possible for them, he removes anything that will get in the way even if it means giving up his rights. Verse 19:
"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them."
So when he's with his Jewish friends he gives up his right to bacon butties and follows their food laws and even elaborate washing rituals as he did in Acts 21:26, so they're not put off hearing about Jesus.
"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law."
And when he's meeting with his friends in the temple dining rooms, he's careful not to cross the line into the no-go area of participating in idolatrous worship. But in neutral areas, he uses his freedom to become like those he is trying to reach, to make it as easy as possible for them to hear the gospel.
"To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law."
Paul knew that in every culture there are elements that a Christian cannot take part in. But where there were areas where a Christian was free, he chose whatever was best for getting that message out, even if it came at a personal cost to him.
"To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings."
Do you see the principle? It's also there in verse 12: "Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ."
We do have freedoms in God's kingdom. And as we grow more and more like the King we serve, we learn to exercise them according to the values of the Kingdom – with love and self-sacrifice. And more and more we consider the implications for our own lives of the call of our king to make disciples of all people, everywhere. We put our energies into discerning the best ways to advance God's Kingdom.
So what decisions does this principle impact for you? Your career plans, your use of time, your attitude to money, whether or not to move house, where to live, what you buy? You have many freedoms in all those areas. But will you make your decisions on how they will help to advance the gospel?
This passage calls on us to rearrange our lives to help as many people as possible to hear about Jesus. We never set aside the commands of God, or seek to remove the offence of the message itself. But it does mean we are to use our freedoms to remove all obstacles to others hearing about Jesus.
This principle means that we need to be the ones who bear the cost of building bridges to those who have yet to hear of Jesus. Instead of staying in the relative comfort of our church community, expecting them to come to us and jump through our cultural hoops we will go and willingly bear the cost of adapting to others, to serve them, to put ourselves out for those who do not yet know Christ, so they can experience his love through us.
It will also mean being intentional and deliberate in taking the gospel to those who aren't yet looking for it.
Let me end with a quote from my favourite book of my sabbatical – Elliot Clark (worked in Muslim world) called Evangelism As Exiles: Life On Mission As Strangers In Our Own Land.
"…we often passively wait for gospel opportunities. We submit the call of the Great Commission to the will of those ill-disposed to our message. We defer preaching to suitable situations – or just the pulpit. We placate others by hemming and hawing about our convictions or their sin. Or we avoid awkward religious conversations altogether."
Perhaps in the past we could get by with such a hands-off approach, when we could count on a reasonable percentage of the population having a favourable view of the church.
But depending entirely on others to express interest in our gospel is less tenable as society becomes increasingly disillusioned by our faith, and we become an excluded minority. If we continue the pattern of waiting for perfect opportunities, they may never come. And our fate will be that of the wary farmer who observes the wind and doesn't sow, who considers the clouds and never reaps (Eccles. 11:4). Such farmers have empty barns in winter. We too, if we're too busy trying to discern the times, raising a moistened finger to the wind to see if someone is ready to respond to the gospel, will likely never see a harvest of souls. We'll never open our mouths to speak because we'll be waiting for a better day. But better days don't seem to be on the horizon.
So doing what Paul calls on us to do will not be easy. It requires hard work and self-discipline. Which is why he picks up the image of an athlete running a race in verses 24 to 26. Athletes are focused – not distracted. They endure the painful sacrifices required to run a race. They are single-minded and have their eyes on the prize. We too are to run for the prize of meeting Jesus on the final day and to hear him say "well done, good and faithful servant". We are to keep an eternal perspective as we use our freedom to make decisions in this race.