In our study of 1 Corinthians chapter nine, we will look at this question and find its answer based on the life and words of the apostle Paul. This may not be the proper religious question to ask but, if we are honest with ourselves, at some point we have all asked ourselves the question.
"Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord." NIV translation
Paul begins this section of his letter with some questions and a very obvious answer. Throughout Paul's ministry, there were those who denied his apostleship and here he reminds the readers about the qualifications for being called an apostle. He first asks the question of whether he physically saw Jesus or not and the obvious answer is yes as there were witnesses to his experience on the road to Damascus. He also points out the fact that the readers of this letter are the fruit from his ministry as an apostle. There are many today who give themselves the title of apostle and there are many schools who will sell you a supposed degree to be called an apostle but they have no basis in Scripture. An apostle is one who had Jesus physically appear to them and commission them for His work. There is evidence of this commission in the fruit of that ministry.
"This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don't we have the right to food and drink? Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?" NIV translation
Now that Paul has established the fact that he was an apostle, he turns to the rights that the title gives him. He asks whether he does not have the right to support as he works for the Lord and to even take a wife with him as the others did. The obvious answer is that Paul deserved these things as Jesus taught that a worker deserves his wages. As we see, Paul did not demand this right but instead worked as a tentmaker so that he did not need the support of the church. There are many, today, that serve the Lord for what they get out of it either directly from the congregations or indirectly by peddling their books, tapes, etc. to the churches. They are free to do that just as we saw, in chapter 8, that the people were free to eat the meat.
"Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of the grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view?" NIV translation
Paul uses basic human experiences to show how abnormal it would be to work without being paid. We must admit that most of us would not work full time without receiving a paycheck.
"Doesn't the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.' Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest." NIV translation
Paul backs up the human experiences with the Law as he quotes from Deuteronomy 25. It may seem like Paul is justifying getting paid to do his ministry work but he is not. He is, in fact, saying that those who serve the Lord and receive a paycheck do what is right morally and legally.
"If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ." NIV translation
Paul uses logic to show the Corinthian believers that he and his team deserved financial support from the church but goes on to say they did not want that support. We see that the reason that Paul and his team did not take money from the churches was that they wanted the money to be used for other ministry. When he says "hinder the gospel", it is talking about the fact that the "church" only has so much funding and, if they were to demand a paycheck, that money would have to be taken out of some other ministry area such as feeding the widows, etc. Today, there are many "pastors" who are demanding high wages so that they can live in style and they have a right to receive this compensation but they are already receiving their reward for the work that they are doing. Paul was looking forward to his eternal rewards and not focused on the here and now. Those that are receiving their rewards here are also hindering the gospel because their wages could be used to serve others and bring them to faith in Jesus Christ.
"Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel." NIV translation
Paul says again that the biblical pattern is for God's servants to be taken care of by God through the offerings at the temple.
"But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" NIV translation
We see Paul's heart in the fact that he does not preach for personal gain but because of what Jesus Christ did for him. He could brag about how he did not take money from the church for his ministry but he does not because he realizes that it is a minor thing compared to what Christ has done. He could not have done anything else but preach the gospel. There are many today who view preaching the gospel as a career instead of a calling. Those that hold that view are the ones that will be in it for the earthly rewards and it will be obvious.
"If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel." NIV translation
Paul's greatest joy was to be able to freely preach the gospel. He did not charge a speaking fee or sell books and tapes but instead freely gave what he was given by Jesus Christ. He did not have to take up a "love offering" or worry about stepping on people's toes as he often worked to support himself.
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." NIV translation
Paul demonstrates his humility in the fact that he does not demand his rights as an apostle but instead serves all men. The "make myself a slave" is not simply talking about serving but instead is speaking of an attitude. Paul considered everyone else to be better than himself (that is the attitude of a slave). The purpose of this attitude was to win others to Christ and that should be our purpose in life as well.
"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." NIV translation
Paul did not walk around with an air of superiority but instead he met people where they were in their life. He put himself in their shoes in hopes of showing them the freedom that he had in Jesus Christ. What is meant by sharing in the blessings of the gospel? The short answer is that it is a freedom from worry based on the fact that we are Christ's bondslaves.
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." NIV translation
Now, Paul begins to answer the question of what is in it for us. He compares the Christian life and walk to the sport of running. There are many people who train for a very long time to run a marathon. There can be thousands of runners at a race but usually only one man and one woman are the winners. They run for a temporary reward such as a trophy, title, and money but that reward is quickly forgotten and in the last days will mean nothing. As Christians, Paul urges us to treat our walk with Christ with the same urgency. The crown that he speaks of is not salvation but speaks of the judgment of rewards.
"Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it a slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." NIV translation
Those that run a race expect a reward when they win and Paul tells us that he is expecting a reward for his service in preaching the gospel. This reward is not salvation (like many people teach) because salvation is by grace (a gift) and, here, Paul tells us that he is working for this reward. He tells them and us that he puts into practice what he preaches so that he will not be disqualified from the race and lose his reward. So, what's in it for us? We do not know what these rewards will be on the last day but we can trust God that they are worth all the things that we go through on this earth.