Exposition of 1 Corinthians 9:15b–18 Paul’s gift to Corinth

1 Corinthians 9:15b–18

15b And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 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.

At times, strong emotions break into Paul’s thinking and writing; 1 Cor. 15b is one such verse. Here are three translations of verse 15b:

(NIV) “. . . for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.”

(NET) “In fact, it would be better for me to die than — no one will deprive me of my reason for boasting!”

(Thiselton[1]) “I would rather die than — well, no one shall invalidate my ground for glorying!”

The last two translations are much closer to Paul’s Greek text and demonstrate his strong feelings about what his life is about — telling people about Christ crucified and seeing them grow into mature believers.

Verse 16 is rather simple in concept, though it sounds a bit strange to our ears. Just recall how many amazing heroes — from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan or some death-risking rescue — say that they were not a hero because they were only doing their duty. Paul sees himself as a steward of the gospel (“I am simply discharging the trust committed to me” 1 Cor. 9:17b). Christ commissioned him to take the gospel to the gentiles. If he did not do so, he would be miserable over failing Christ (“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” 1 Cor. 9:16b). In preaching the gospel, Paul was doing his duty.

Paul thoroughly grasps the position he is in, because the prophet Jeremiah wrote eloquently of being under similar compulsion (Jer. 20:7–9). Jeremiah suffered severe persecution for speaking God’s message and considered remaining silent. Jeremiah tells what happened then (Jer. 20:9b): “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.” Paul understands that inner fire by personal experience. Since Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples in every nation, the fire of witness is to spread through us.

The only way Paul would be entitled to a reward is if he did something “entirely by personal choice.”[2] Thus, the first half of verse 17 says, “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward.” Thiselton explains, “If Paul cannot ‘freely’ give his apostolic work (since to this he is pressed by God without choice), what is left to give freely is his toil and labor as a leather worker and salesman in the commercial [market].”[3] So, Paul surrendered his right to financial support as his own gift (1 Cor. 9:18). In this way he is going “the second mile” (Matt. 5:41).

So, how does this apply to the Corinthian church? Thiselton relates the ideas of Dale Martin by saying, “Paul does not ask every reader to give up a right, but those who have ‘rights’ to give up, i.e. the strong or socially influential. . . . Low-status persons, the weak, by definition have no [‘rights’] to give up.”[4] The socially influential are exactly the people exhibiting spiritual pride and trying to form stronger factions within the church. By example, Paul calls on them to imitate him instead.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 676.

[2] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 696.

[3] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 697.

[4] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 697–98.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!