Am I not free? 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.
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 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 9:1-7 ESV
While Paul was on the issue of rights and the Christian’s need to die to them, he took the opportunity to address his rights as an apostle. There were evidently those in Corinth who were questioning if he really was an apostle at all. Others may have been by confused by some of Paul’s actions, because at times he did not appear to behave as an apostle. Some of this had to do with how Paul had handled himself when he had ministered among the the Corinthians. Rather than allow the Corinthians to meet all his financial needs and provide him with food and shelter, Paul and Barnabas had chosen to work (Acts 18:3). Evidently, other apostles, like Peter, had a reputation for bringing their wives with them while doing ministry and the churches were expected to cover their expenses as well. Paul didn’t fall into this category because he had no wife. But Paul’s point is that he had every right to expect the Corinthians to care for him while he was ministering among them. And if he had been married, he would have had the right to bring his wife with him and expect the church to pay her way. But Paul didn’t do those things. And yet that did not make him any less an apostle of Jesus Christ. He met the criteria. First of all, he had seen the risen Lord and had been commissioned by Him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He was every bit an apostle as much as Peter, James or John. And the Corinthians themselves were living proof of his apostleship, because their lives had been changed because of his ministry.
Paul gives three illustrations from daily life to prove his right to expect compensation and care from the Corinthians. First of all, he uses the example of a soldier. No member of the military is expected to pay his own way. He serves on behalf of the people, giving his time and, if necessary, his life in defense of his nation. In return, the citizens of that nation pay his salary and supply his needs for food, clothing and shelter. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. The second illustration Paul uses is that of a farmer and his vineyard. No farmer in his right mind would plant a vineyard and not expect to benefit from the fruit that it yields. He is the one who tilled the soil, planted the vines and harvested the grapes. As a result, he had every right to enjoy the fruits of his labors. The final illustration Paul gives is the shepherd. To deny a shepherd the benefit of the milk his flocks provide would be ludicrous and unfair. He is the one who has provided for and protected the sheep, keeping them well-fed and safe, so he should be the one who enjoys some of the benefits of his hard work.
As we will see a little later on in this same chapter, the main concern Paul had was not regarding his rights but about the integrity of the gospel. His primary goal was that the gospel not be hindered in any way. That is why he and Barnabas had chosen to work rather than demanding their rights and expecting the Corinthians to pay their way. These two men did not want the Corinthians to resent their presence or reject the gospel because of a financial burden. So they willingly gave up their rights. Remember, this goes back to chapter eight and Paul’s warnings about those in the church who were allowing their “knowledge” of right and wrong to cause their brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. They were allowing their rights to cause them to do wrong. And Paul was simply using himself as an illustration of how dying to one’s rights is the right thing to do some times.
At the core of the gospel is the message of love – God’s love for mankind. He sent His Son to die in the place of sinful men and women, out of love. Jesus had told His disciples that they were to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12 ESV). In the very next verse, Jesus gave what He believed to be was the greatest expression of love for another human being. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). And in keeping with His teaching, Jesus would do just that, giving His life as the consummate expression of His love for mankind. The apostle John wrote, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:12 ESV). And that was Paul’s primary point in his letter to the Corinthians. Just as Paul had been willing to give up his rights and lay down his life for them, he was expecting them to do the same. The gospel is not about rights, but about righteousness. It is about dying to self and living for God, which means loving those whom He has made in His image. God did not save us to make us isolated islands of self-righteousness where our rights rule the day. He saved us so that we might die to self and live for Him. And one of the best ways we can express our love for God is by loving those around us, sharing the gospel message of reconciliation in both words and actions. Jesus Himself made it perfectly clear and simple: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 15:35 ESV).