1 Corinthians 9:16-23


1 Corinthians 9:16 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!

We have an unusual cluster of "for" or "through" participles in this section. One in verse 15, three in 16, one in 17, and one in 19. Because of the context, NIV renders this verse as above. As noted, there are three participles in this verse. Each explains the preceding thought.

The first clause in this verse is a present general condition. It holds true in all cases. It is axiomatic in the life of Paul. The apodosis reads literally "There is not to me a ground of boasting." Note the emphatic order of words.

In the second phrase "compelled" means "compulsion, necessity, obligation." God is the agent in this case. Paul is utterly obligated to do what God laid upon him.

The third clause begins with a very strong interjection denoting God's judgment and punishment. Look at a concordance for the many occurrences of this word both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, threatening people with punishment. Again we have a present general condition. It is true in all cases of Paul's preaching. Read Jeremiah 20:9 for a similar thought. Jeremiah had no other course but to preach what God laid upon him.

Read Luke 17:7-10. All commentators call our attention to this passage at this point. Paul is implying that the same principles, stressed in this verse, pertain to  all  Christians. I have much to repent of when I read this verse.

Morris: Necessity presses upon all who have experienced the power of the Gospel in their lives.

1 Corinthians 9:17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.

"If" introduces an explanation, two fact conditions. This is not an easy verse. We agree with Lenski who says: "The two conditions contemplate two realities, and are treated as such by Paul." JB and TEV make the first condition contrary to fact. JB: "If I had chosen this work myself, I might have been paid for it." TEV: "If I did my work as a matter of free choice, then I could expect to be paid." That idea is very attractive but it treats the grammar quite arbitrarily.

"With my consent" or "without my consent," in both cases the same is true. In the first case the reward is satisfaction and the heavenly reward.

Kretzmann: The very fact that a person is engaged in the glorious ministry of teaching and saving souls for Christ makes it worthwhile and constitutes a reward; but, in addition, there is the reward of grace, Matthew 19:28-29, which the Lord has intended for them that abide faithful in the performance of their office to the end.

"Reward" in this verse does not mean money.

In the second instance Paul has an obligation with which he has been entrusted. He has no choice but to do it.

Rienecker: The stress here is on obligation, responsibility, and faithfulness of the servant to his master in carrying out the entrusted task.

Read Luke 17:7-10 again. Paul is saying: "No matter what my attitude, God owes me nothing. All is by grace and what He requires of me is my heaven-sent obligation. He owes me no thanks." "Trust" means "I have been lastingly entrusted with." 

This verse should also be the motto of every Christian. Salvation is wholly a gift of God. Christian living is an obligation for which God owes me no thanks.

1 Corinthians 9:18 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.

The verse begins "Well then, what, etc." When Paul preached the Gospel free of charge, the people owed him no money.

Kretzmann: The Corinthians have spent nothing on him, but he spent everything, including himself, on them.
Lenski: Paul makes no use whatsoever of his right to receive support in connection with the Gospel . . . Even as a slave-steward Paul has the right, here again this key-word, to be fed, clothed, etc., while administering his Master's trust; the Master himself so ordained . . . Truly Paul dispenses the Gospel by his ministry, asking absolutely no return.
Grosheide: Paul does have a certain liberty but he does not use it to the full for that would be abusing it and it would hurt the progress of the Gospel.

Paul here is a model to the Corinthians who were sometimes misusing their right with reference to the weak Christians who had conscience scruples about eating meat which had been sacrificed to idols.

1 Corinthians 9:19 Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.

Like the Nestle Greek text, NKJV, NIV, JB, and NEB make verses 19-23 a paragraph. This section could be captioned "Everything to Everyone." Here Paul's self-denial, in the interest of the salvation of others, comes out clearly. And he is a model for us all. He is repeating a word from verse 1. And he uses the last of six explanatory "for" or "though" clauses.

He says "as many as possible" because unless he had denied himself severely he would have gained less people. He will use forms of "to gain" four more times in this paragraph. The words "free" and "to enslave" are prominently contrasted here. In verse 1 Paul used the word  "free" in the full sense of Christian liberty as at Galatians 5:2. But here, as Grosheide points out,  "He does not depend on anyone, not even for his sustenance." 

Old Concordia Bible with Notes: Free from obligation to men to preach the Gospel without charge.
Kretzmann: But this liberty he asserted in a very peculiar way, from the standpoint of man, namely, in complete self-denial.
Lenski: Luther had caught Paul's secret, when he wrote regarding the liberty of a Christian man: 'A Christian man is a free lord over all things, and subject to nobody. A Christian man is a ministering servant in all things, and subject to everybody.' . . . 'Being free from all men' means to be free from an obligation that might result if Paul accepted support for preaching.

Lenski notes the paradox in the words: "to all men I will make myself a slave." He calls attention to parallel thoughts at Mark 10:43-45 and Luke 22:26-27. And then comments:

Lenski: Paul too is moved by the motive of Jesus who made himself lowly and poor in order to make as many as possible great and rich.

1 Corinthians 9:20 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.

Now are presented four examples of his self-denial. Paul was a Jew nationally. But he was no longer a Jew in religion. But, when with Jews who had scruples concerning the Mosaic Law Paul would accommodate himself to them so long as it was adiaphoral and did not deny the Gospel. Instances are Acts 16:3 and 21:20-26. Also check 18:18.

"Law" is used four times in this verse. In all cases it means the Mosaic Law. "Those under the Law" indicates those Gentiles who, though not Jews nationally, are following Jewish principles in religion. "Though I myself am not under the Law" is concessive, and means that Paul was not under the Law's condemnation or compulsion. So far as Law was concerned he was completely free. But in dealing with people whom he hoped to gain he made himself "as under the Law." He is implying that even after they became Christians he was very careful not to offend their religious scruples.

Kretzmann: Paul was willing to conform to the customs, modes of life, and methods of instruction in vogue among them, so long as these matters were really things indifferent.
Franzmann: He sought and found the Jew where he lived . . . He sought and found the Gentile where he was without imposing the Law on him, fighting for the Gentile's freedom from the Law.
Morris: Paul conformed to practices which would enable him to approach 'them that are under the Law' with greater acceptability.

Paul carefully avoided anything which would needlessly antagonize anyone. But note again that Paul reminds them all, like all Christians, he was not under the Law. That does not mean that Paul was an antinomian. By no means. He knew the obligation which the Law placed on him. But he felt no condemnation or compulsion.

1 Corinthians 9:21 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.

"Those not having the Law" is practically a synonym for "the Gentiles." When Paul dealt with them he was without the Law, said nothing about those things which had been required of the Jews.

Now follows a third concessive "though." The first was in verse 19 and the second in verse 20. By the way, all three concessives are paradoxical. Although free Paul made himself a slave. Although not under (the condemnation of the) Law, when dealing with those who were under Law, he accommodated himself to them. And, thirdly, although without Law of God to those who were without Law he lived as one without Law.

But Paul qualifies lest he be misunderstood. The Law (the moral Law) was not his tyrant but in Christ had become his servant, his friend. The new man delights to do what the Law requires. In that sense, though, Paul is dealing in a way which is without the Law (not coming on as a Jew) nonetheless he is not without the Law of God but rather in the Law of God. He is not a pagan. He is not an antinomian. He is a redeemed child of God, free from the condemnation and dictates of the Law, for whom the Law has become friend and servant.

Kretzmann: When in a heathen community Paul omitted all reference to regulations of the Old Testament which were strictly Jewish in character . . . In the midst of the idolatry of heathenism, Paul found points of contact for the application of the Word of Grace.
Grosheide: Paul is accommodating himself to the conduct of those who are not bound to the Mosaic Law . . . Paul is not only subject to God as God's creature, but, having been redeemed by the blood of Christ, he is also subject to his Savior, 7:22.
Lenski: With perfect liberty Paul uses ceremonial regulations when with Jews, and with the same perfect liberty discards all such regulations when among Gentiles.

1 Corinthians 9:22 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.

The fourth and last group is "the weak." The problem of dealing with the weak was thoroughly discussed at 8:1-13. The weak were believers but had insufficient knowledge. They considered things sinful which were not sinful. The strong, who had more knowledge, were unsympathetic toward the weak. Paul is saying that he puts himself out to strengthen the weak, to meet them on their ground. Though "save" in this context basically means "to gain for Christ" it sometimes also has the meaning of "to strengthen in the faith." 

Paul concludes this verse with a paranomasia "all -- all -- all" which reaches into verse 23. He grand summary ends with a different verb, "save," which he uses as Jesus used it at Luke 19:10. Though Paul knew that he would save only "some," yet he always denied himself at all times toward all men in the interest of all.

Kretzmann: Every true servant of Christ must learn from the apostle not to despise anyone, not to permit disgust over foolish weaknesses to enter his heart.
Morris: Where no principle was at stake Paul was prepared to go to extreme lengths to meet people.
Grosheide: Paul did in Corinth what the stronger brethren at Corinth refused to do. Although agreeing that the strong are basically right he nevertheless refrains from using his right in order to win the weak.
Lenski: In his practice Paul followed Jesus who could dine with Pharisees and with publicans and come into contact with harlots without receiving a stain or leaving a false impression. What Paul describes is the practical wisdom of a love that is both truly strong and thus fully considerate.

1 Corinthians 9:23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

"All" is the fourth member of the paranomasia begun in verse 22. By God's grace Paul was totally dedicated to his work. "For the sake of the Gospel," for Paul the Gospel was everything.

Kretzmann: The faithful servant of the Gospel will himself reap the rich benefits of his work.
Grosheide: Paul has his own salvation in view.
Lenski: He has spoken about the interest for others, and now he speaks about the interest for himself.

Paul truly loved his neighbor as he loved himself. He wanted no more, no less for others than he wanted for himself. Therefore he was wholly devoted to the successful proclamation of the Gospel. AAT and TEV consider this verse as part of the next paragraph, verses 24-27, not with verses 16:23. In keeping with that thought, some commentators mention the similarity and relationship between verses 23 and 27. Everything that Paul does for the sake of the Gospel is not only in the interest of others but also of himself. We shall come back to this thought when we discuss verse 27 in the following pericope.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Epistle Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1987, pp. 48-51. Used with permission.

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