The Inescapable & The Optional
Perhaps at some point you’ve heard or received the following counsel, ‘Don’t go into preaching unless you have to.’ The idea being – unless God’s Word is like a fire shut up in your bones (cf. Jer. 20:9), and unless you can say like Amos, “the LORD God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8), and unless that burden is an inescapable part of life, you are likely not called into preaching. That’s kind of the idea of the transitional thoughts of 1 Corinthians 9:16-17. Before we get there, however, let’s briefly create a little context by looking at what’s before and after it.
In the previous verses of this chapter the apostle, Paul laid out the apostolic/ministerial rights that he had and forewent so as not to obscure the Gospel. He, most specifically, had a right to financial support (1 Cor. 9:3-14). Using Old Testament laws, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provided a Biblical basis for the principle “…those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (vs.14b). But he refused that right (vs.15). The Corinthians provided him with no love offerings, no paycheck, and no material support. This (in this context) was his boast – that he could set forth the Gospel free of charge (vs.15,18). No one, then, could accuse him of getting on the Gospel-bandwagon because it was more like a ‘gravy train.’ Not to mention, it formed a stark contrast between himself and the phonies that peddled the word of God for profit (2 Cor. 2:17). As one who had been made free, he freely became a servant. And isn’t it so appropriate that the priceless gift of salvation proclaimed in the Gospel of grace would not come with a price tag but an invitation to come and drink from the water of life freely?
Back to the Text
So, when Paul wrote, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of (vs.16a),” he was setting up a contrast between what his boast was and wasn’t. He could not boast that he was a preacher – listen to the beginning of his argument: “for necessity is laid upon me” (vs.16b). He didn’t locate a ‘Christian recruiter’ so as to enter the Gospel army; he was drafted! Personally, by the risen Christ. And that same Jesus not only drafted him but commanded him, “Depart, for I will send you far from here to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21; cf. Gal. 1:15-16). After experiencing what Paul experienced on Damascus Road (see Acts 9) you could say that going AWOL after receiving such an order was not really an option. A point he emphasized further when he wrote, “yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel (vs.16c)!” He would have been miserable, undone, assailed by the pangs of his conscience, and chastened by his heavenly Father if he didn’t preach the Gospel. So there was no boasting concerning the fact that he preached the Gospel. And in case we or the Corinthians missed it, there’s another opportunity to get it as Paul came at that those points again in another way saying, “For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship” (vs.17). The argument being – ‘If I was a volunteer, who out of the inclinations of my own soul entered into the Gospel ministry, well then I’d have a reward. But it wasn’t like that. I got assigned against my will.’ Paul didn’t choose the assignment; His Savior did. He was made a bondservant of Christ and he was required to be faithful to proclaim the mystery of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1-2). So, again, per Paul’s argument in these verses (9:15-18) his boasting was not based upon preaching the Gospel; rather, his boast and his reward was that he preached the Gospel to the Corinthians free of charge (vs.15,18). In other words, it was a joy for him to embrace a measure of self-denial and self-inflicted hardship in order to remove potential obstacles from the Gospel.
Missional/ Pastoral Application
There is a sense in which every Christian, but especially those who are in pulpits and mission fields must be able to say, “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). And oh how thrilling to be able to say such a thing! Is it a cause for boasting? No. But is it cause for worshipping? I’d say so. For those of us called to pastoral ministry and the mission field, who are we that we can share in that compulsion? We may have met Christ in a worship service and not on Damascus road, we may have been commissioned by a local church and not the resplendent appearance of the resurrected Christ, but we share with the apostle Paul a divine compulsion to preach, speak, and give our lives to the ministry of the Gospel. That reality, that fact of being personally gifted, called, and sent under the auspices of a sovereign, gracious God, ought to be a means of refreshment and encouragement that inspires confidence that the God who enrolled us in the race will keep granting us a sense of ‘divine necessity’ to see that we not only finish the race but also the work He gave us to do (cf. Jn. 17:4). And along the way, let us, like Paul, look to voluntarily seize opportunities to forego our rights and embrace self-denial for the sake of the Gospel and its hearers. In sum, we’d do well to embrace both that which is of necessity and that which is optional, all for the sake of the Gospel.