Winning the race

Paul’s ministry of preaching the gospel began to wind down after his second missionary journey (A.D. 49-52). During the transition of him being in a teaching/training role rather than preaching the gospel himself, Paul started writing more about the truth he had learned directly from Jesus. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians contained many examples of what he considered to be appropriate Christian behavior. One of the topics that Paul covered was Christian workers being paid for their labors. Paul began his argument by pointing out that he and Barnabas had not taken anything they were entitled to from the Corinthians. Paul worked as a tent maker (Acts 18:3) and traveled at his own expense. And yet, he argued, “Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” (1 Corinthians 9:6-7, ESV).

The case Paul made for receiving wages from the churches he ministered to was founded upon the Old Testament example of God’s temple. He said, “Do you not know 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” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14, ESV). After he made it clear that he was entitled to be paid for the work he had done at the church in Corinth, Paul went on to say that he had intentionally refused to take any payment because he didn’t want anyone to be able to claim responsibility for his success (1 Corinthians 9:15). Paul’s motivation for preaching the gospel was not to gain notoriety or to become rich. Paul explained that he was only interested in spiritual rewards. He stated, “What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel. For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant to all, that I might gain the more” (1 Corinthians 9:18-19).

Paul apparently believed there was a connection between the payment he received and the results of his work; the less payment he received, the better the outcome of his preaching. Paul wanted to retain all the spiritual power of the gospel in order to win more souls for Christ. Paul went on to explain that his behavior had to be controlled in order for others to be receptive to his message. He stated, “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). In his concluding argument, Paul openly declared his intent of becoming the best preacher he could possibly be and used the analogy of winning a race to describe the kind of outcome he was hoping for. Paul stated:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV)

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