A Sacred Responsibility
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A Sacred Responsibility

Like the prophet Jeremiah, Paul was called to preach the Word of God. Preaching was fashioned into the fabric of his being; he could do nothing else. In 1 Corinthians 9, the apostle explains that his obligation to preach was not forced but a divine compulsion for which he expected no reward. Alistair Begg encourages anyone considering this sacred responsibility to look to Paul to gauge his own motivation.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 4

Christian Freedom 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1 Series ID: 14604

Sermon Transcript: Print

First Corinthians chapter 9.

Our God and our Father, you, by your Spirit, are our teacher. We are here to listen to what you have to say through your Word. Give to us real clarity in speaking and in hearing, sensitivity to your prompting as we look through this material, and grant that as we crown our worship around your Table, we may do so with gladness. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

There’s hardly a day goes by without somebody somewhere doesn’t mention rights. Rights. It’s not uncommon in conversation for somebody to say, “You have no right to say that,” or to affirm, “I have my rights, you know!” or to have the face of some enterprising lawyer on our screen saying words like “If you have reason to believe that your rights have been violated, call this number now,” and it is a great appeal to the rights of individuals. We have civil rights, human rights, gay rights, women’s rights, animal rights. We could say that it really just isn’t right how much emphasis there is upon rights.

And yet, despite the fact that we, in this advanced state of civilization, pride ourselves on being so different from our forebearers, Cleveland is not too far removed from Corinth. Because when you turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 9, you discover that there is one word which is the predominating word, and it is the word “right” or “rights.” And Paul is addressing with the Corinthian believers this question of his rights. He is affirming the fact that he has a right to maintenance, as does his wife if he chooses to have a wife and take her with him; and also he says, “Surely it is right that I would be able to get my livelihood from the gospel. It would be right that this took place.” And he deducts from this that there would be no problem whatsoever with him receiving this kind of remuneration.

In fact, in the first fourteen verses, when we studied them, we saw that Paul provides five reasons as to why it is right that he would be able to have these rights. I just want to enumerate them for you by way of reminder. In verse 7, he says it’s right because it is in keeping with common practice; soldiers don’t pay their own wages, and the people who tend vineyards eat the grapes. Secondly, in verse 9, it is in keeping with biblical precept, and he quotes the law of Moses. Then in verse 10, it is in keeping with intrinsic justice: “When the plowman plows and the thresher threshes,” when they go home in the evening, you would expect them to be able to look forward to anticipating their share of their work, and that is intrinsically just, he says. Then in verse 13, it is right because it is in keeping with the Old Testament pattern of ministry: “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple …?” And then, finally, in verse 14, he says it is right because it is in keeping with the Lord’s directives: “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” So that’s what he’s talking about. The question has come up, and he addresses it very fairly.

An Unusual Perspective

Now, just when we might expect him to be taking off his sandal and banging it on the table, as it were, and saying, “Therefore, in light of all this, give me my due,” he changes gears and adopts what was and is an unusual perspective. If you want to take notes this morning, I suggest that you look at verses 15–18 under the heading “An Unusual Perspective.” He adopts an unusual perspective on three things.

First of all, on rights. On rights. He has just laid down, and very clearly so, the legitimacy of him being able to gain and use his rights, but he has chosen not to. In verse 12, he says, “If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” Answer: yes. Decision: “But we did not use this right.” And in verse 15, again, “I have not used any of these rights.”

Now, he explains his unusual perspective. First of all, he says, “The reason that I didn’t use the right was because I didn’t want to dig up the entrance road of the gospel.” On Solon Road down here the other day, when I came back from the little visit that Andy and I made, they had the sign up. It said, “Road Closed Down Here.” I have to be honest and tell you that I don’t often pay a lot of attention to those signs, because in my experience, the road is often not closed. It is the same as these large barrels on the motorway. They are everywhere, and they have a sign which says, “Men at Work.” Have you ever seen any men at work? Okay. So what reason have we been given to believe that the sign will actually be true? So I assumed that there was no road closed down Solon Road, and since I needed to go down there, I would proceed in any case. So I got so far down the road, and the road was closed. Not only was the road closed, but the road was dug up something fierce, and it was impossible to move. What only a few days before had been a means of access down into Chagrin Falls was now completely torn up, and forward movement was dramatically impeded.

That is the exact word which Paul uses here. He said, “If I take money for what I do, I am concerned that my exercising that right will dig up the roadway in front of people who might otherwise be the recipients of the good news of Jesus Christ.” The word is variously used for the cutting down of a tree. And so he says, “I have an unusual perspective on rights, and the reason is that I don’t want that in the lives of those who have received the seeds of faith, that my right would become the basis for their ruin.” And what he immediately affirms and what he comes back to again and again is this: that the ultimate exercise of freedom for Paul was the freedom to restrict his freedom. That’s how he showed how free he really was: by not using the freedom that he really had. And he does what he cautions that should be done in 8:9: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” So he says, “As that relates to me, this is my perspective.”

Secondly, his unusual perspective on rights was because he didn’t want them to think that he was coming by the back door looking for material gain. I think that’s the explanation of the second sentence here in verse 15. It first of all says, “I have not used any of these rights,” and people would be able to concur with that; and then he immediately adds, “And I[’m] not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me.” He’s not coming at it the way somebody comes whereby they tell us all the things that they don’t want when in actual fact, they’re telling us all the things that they do want. Our children come and say, “There’s this wonderful thing, and it’s in this store, and of course, I don’t want it; I don’t want it”—when in point of fact, they really do want it, but they couldn’t find a way to come flat out and say they want it, so they talk about what they don’t want so that by the back door they may actually get it. Paul closes down that option. He doesn’t want them thinking that.

The ultimate exercise of freedom for Paul was the freedom to restrict his freedom.

And thirdly, he didn’t want them to fall into the trap of thinking that they paid him to preach. If he were to take money for his preaching in the Corinthian context, then he would be deprived of his boast. What is his boast? His boast was that he took nothing for preaching. And if he then started to take it, he wouldn’t be able to boast about the fact that he didn’t take it. You don’t have to be too smart to understand that, right? That’s straightforward.

Turn for a moment to 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, just to get a flavor of this. Just go forward a little bit. First Thessalonians 2:8: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well,” he says to the Thessalonians, “because you[’d] become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.”

There’s an interesting thing here, insofar as Paul never takes remuneration from the place where he’s actually preaching. Money has come to his support from different places at different times, but when he was in Thessalonica, doing the preaching, he didn’t take money from the Thessalonians. When he’s in Corinth, he doesn’t take it either. Money comes from Macedonia to support him, but he’s able to say to the group, “Hey, I’m not up here on a per-sermon basis. And if I were,” he says, “then the good news would be hindered in the lives of some, others would think that I’m trying to manipulate for more, and by and large, it would be a dreadful perspective on what is a legitimate privilege.”

So that, then, is his unusual perspective on rights. His great boast is that he took nothing for preaching. He’s not boasting of his accomplishments. He is simply affirming this truth.

Now, the unusual perspective extends not only to his rights but also to his preaching. And we come to this in verse 16. He says, “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach.” Now, what does he mean by that? He’s telling the Corinthians that he can’t take any special pride in the fact that he is a preacher of the gospel. Why? Well, because he had absolutely nothing to do with it! He didn’t invent the gospel. He’s not responsible for its content. He did not give it out, nor did he actually choose, as we will see, to become a preacher himself.

The perspective of Paul should be the perspective of all who are entrusted with a similar responsibility. You can find it if you turn forward a page into 1 Corinthians 11:23: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.” That’s how we ought to judge the preaching that we receive Sunday by Sunday: Does it fit that framework? Is this an individual who has received from the Lord in the Word, passing the Word on to you? That’s the great test. Not “Was he entertaining?” Not “Was he good, or short, or long, or apparently effective?” But “Did he take what he received from the Lord and pass it on to you?” Such a perspective on preaching was unusual then, and frankly, it is unusual now.

Compelled to Preach

I think we can get to grips with it if we note down two words. The first word is the word compulsion. Compulsion. “I can’t boast,” he said, “when I preach, because I’m compelled to preach. It’s inside of me,” he says. “I can do nothing else except preach.”

Now, let’s just do a little bit of cross-referencing here. Turn to Galatians 1:15 and notice what he says. Speaking of his life before he came to Christ, he then picks up, verse 15: “But when God, who set me apart from [my mother’s womb] and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” And Paul explains his coming to faith in Christ in direct relationship to the fact that he proclaims this good news.

You find the same thing in the Old Testament, with the prophets there. We could go to different places. We could go to Amos, or we could go to Isaiah, but let’s just go to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 1:5: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’”[1]

“Jeremiah, why do you exist?” “I exist to be a prophet to the nations.” “Jeremiah, do you think you’re a great speaker?” “No.” “What’s your perspective?” Here it is in verse 6: “‘Sovereign Lord, … I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a child.” You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,’ declares the Lord.”

We had a conversation this week in the course of our routine with various people, and one individual volunteered the fact that he could find no call in the Bible to the task of preaching. No call in the Bible! Now, we didn’t engage in a prolonged conversation; I had already embarked on my studies here. But I said to myself, “Well, either I am finding it, reading it into the Bible, or it’s actually in the Bible.” This sounds a little bit like a call to me. Does it sound like a call to you? “I formed you in the womb, and when I formed you in the womb, you were going to preach to the gentiles.” “I formed you in the womb, and as I formed you in the womb, you were going to proclaim my name before the nations.” It is a compulsion. It is a fire in his bones. Despondency can’t rid it out. Nobody can gainsay it.

You turn forward in Jeremiah and listen to him in chapter 20. He’s complaining now. Remember, Jeremiah’s a wailing prophet. He was a whiner. Verse 8: “Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction.” “Oh,” he says, “this is dreadful!” “[Every time I go to preach,] the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long.” He says, “I say what I’m supposed to say, and what do I get? Nice letters? Lousy letters! I say what I’m supposed to say, and what do I get? Benefactors? No, insulters.” So he says, “I’m going to chuck it. I’m not going to speak anymore.” Then he says, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’” now notice this:

his word is in my heart like a fire,
 a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
 indeed, I cannot.

That is an unusual perspective on preaching. That is a biblical perspective on preaching. And it is understood in terms of divine compulsion.

“Well, then,” you say to yourself, “if that is the case, why is it that people who stand up and around pulpits seem to do so with such little impact? Indeed, from time to time, they appear totally unconcerned about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.” Well, listen, loved ones: by this kind of standard, much of what passes for preaching is not preaching. Every performance or discourse from behind a pulpit should not be equated with preaching—not this divine compulsion.

J. I. Packer gives a very helpful definition of preaching in this specific sense when he says, “Christian preaching is the event of God bringing to [a congregation] a Bible-based, Christ-related, life-impacting message of instruction and direction [from himself] through the words of a spokes[man].”[2] That’s what it is. People say, “Well, you know, I was going to another church, and we used to spend an awful long time on the sacraments, but there was hardly any time given to the homily.” That’s what they say. “Why do you give so much time to the homily, Mr. Begg, and, in comparative terms, not so much time to the Lord’s Supper? Can you answer that?” Because our conviction is that Christ is made known in the Word; and that individual believes that Christ is made known in the sacrament, therefore the key is to receive the sacrament. We say the key is to receive the Word, and the sacrament sets alongside but does not replace.

So, one word, then, is compulsion. I think you can understand that. He says, “There’s no reason for you to applaud me if I preach. I can’t help preaching. Indeed, I would be utterly miserable if I failed to preach.”

A Sacred Responsibility

The second word is the word conscription. Compulsion and conscription. Any young men here like to join the army? Nope? I mean, you can put up your hand if you’d like to join the army. Not a single taker. Okay. That’s fine. That’s clear. Can you imagine what it would be like, then, if you got a letter through your mailbox tomorrow morning saying, “Mr. X: Congratulations! You are now a member of the forces of the United States of America.” What are you going to say? You’ll say, “Hey! I didn’t volunteer for this!” That’s right. “I didn’t call an 800 number. I mean, I didn’t send in one of those cards, did I, like to get free CDs? Good grief! I must not hae read it all. I got eight free CDs, and I also joined the navy! This is unbelievable! Well, I’ll have somebody phone. I’ll just phone up and tell them, ‘Hey, I’m not in it. I checked the wrong box. I’m not in this.’” The day that you or I get conscripted, you can check any box you like; you’re in! There is a difference between being a volunteer and a conscript. Paul says, “I didn’t volunteer for this. I was conscripted. Nobody in their right mind is going to volunteer for this.”

Now, look at it. Preaching wasn’t a choice. He says in verse 17, “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward.” But, says Paul, this is a sacred responsibility. And it is a very freeing thing, because he is now liberated from the need for applause. He’s not tyrannized by the prospect of criticism. He’s got things in perspective. That’s why back in chapter 4 we heard him saying—verse 3—“I care very little if I[’m] judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does[n’t] make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” He recognizes that when he’s done his best, he’s just an unworthy servant.

That’s what Jesus was teaching in Luke chapter 17 to his disciples so that they would understand, so that there was no reason for them or any who followed them to get a fat head about their task, especially as it relates to the gospel. Luke 17:7:

Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, “Come along now and sit down to eat”? Would he not rather say, “Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink”? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?

It’s a rhetorical question, assuming the answer “No.”

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we[’ve] only done our duty.”

That’s an unusual perspective, isn’t it, in a world that exists with applause and plaudits? In a world where men cannot get by without always knowing that somehow it was wonderful or it was good or it was great or it was… There is a lesson here. He was under an obligation to preach. Because he was under obligation, he neither expected nor he desired a reward.

How many of our self-pity parties are directly related to our constant, all-consuming longing to have our rights?

And that brings us, finally, to his perspective on rewards. Paul had to preach, but he didn’t have to preach without charge. He’s already laid down that his rights made it possible for him to do these things. But he says in verse 18, “What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” His highest pay is to serve without pay.

Now, I have to tell you that that was the first part of this morning’s message. It then goes from preaching to a lesson in adaptability—to the question of “How do we reach people who live in a different cultural environment from our own?” The second half of this message is quite good, you know, but I don’t want to begin and stop halfway. And so I would rather take the time to ask you to think out the implications of what’s being said here—an unusual perspective in a world of rights. He’s applied it in relationship to his own life. Why don’t you apply it in relationship to yours? Ask yourself how many of your hernias—hiatus hernias—and how many of your headaches and how many of our tummy ulcers and how many of our disappointments and how many of our self-pity parties are directly related to our constant, all-consuming longing to have our rights. And how different from the example of Jesus and the illustration of Paul! An unusual perspective. May God make us increasingly unusual people.

Let us pray together:

Our God and our Father, as we come around your Table, where we saw Christ, who had every right to have people wait upon him, wrap a towel around his waist and wash the feet of his apostles, teach us, Lord, to live in the realm of sacred privileges and awesome responsibilities, and set us free from the tyranny of demanding our rights: “This is my right as a wife,” “This is my right as a husband.” Break our hearts afresh, we pray, and fill our lives with an understanding of your truth. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] Jeremiah 1:4–5 (NIV 1984).

[2] J. I. Packer, “Some Perspectives on Preaching,” in Preaching the Living Word: Addresses from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, ed. David Jackman (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1999), 28.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.