Surrendering Our Rights 1 Corinthians 9:15-18
Americans first thought about their rights in July of 1776 when the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote that we were endowed by our Creator certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Over the years since 1776, we have claimed many other “rights” in addition to the three Jefferson mentioned. Reading 1 Corinthians 8 about the meats offered to idols controversy, we learn Americans were not the only ones concerned about “rights.” The “Knowledge group,” the self-styled mature ones in the church, claimed they had the “right” to sit down and eat in the idol temples. If the less elite believers were hurt, that was their problem. The Apostle Paul warned the “knowledge group” their self-granted “right” could cause them to sin against God. “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)
By way of illustrating his point, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul wrote about how he too had “rights.” His “rights” were God given. No one could take them away from him, but he has willingly surrendered them for the benefit of God and His Church. The paragraph before us is Paul’s surrender of these rights to God. Paul wrote:
Paul wrote that he had “rights.” What did the fact he had these God given rights mean? Was he demanding the Corinthians owed him back pay? Lest they think this was so, Paul wrote, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting.” (1 Corinthians 9:15)
Paul did not want these rights provided for him. He did not use any of these privileges. He also did not seek to have them make these provisions for him. Moreover, Paul wasn’t hinting they had fallen down on their responsibility to him. Rather, he wanted the Corinthians to get the principle that he was willingly surrendering these rights to God.
Several years ago, Kathy and I met a man named Amin when we were at Michigan State University. He came to the University from Jordan. His brother was also in this country. Amin’s brother told us about a time he fasted in the day and could eat after sun down. When he was fasting, he was living with an American couple. They, as good hosts do, offered him something to eat after sundown. In his culture when anyone offered you anything, the polite answer was always no, even if you wanted it very badly. When offered food Amin’s brother answered no politely. His host took the food away and did not offer it again.
Coming from a culture in which you were expected to say no when you really wanted to say yes, Paul worked hard to make his intent exceedingly clear. He wrote: I have given these rights to God and I would rather die than take them back. I want to boast in the fact that I am not making a penny on the gospel.
Do we recognize before God we have no rights? This was the heart of Job’s assertion when trouble bearged into his life. He bowed and said, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Then he blessed God. God had the right to give blessing. He also had a right to take His blessing away. We easily accept the former, but we want to deny the latter unless we understand that before God we have no rights. He can do with us as He pleases.
Every true right we possess is not a right granted by a politician, but a right given to us by God. We are quick to be like the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 8 and assert we can do many things because we have the “right.” However, in asserting these “rights,” we forget who else may be hurt spiritually because of our privileges. Do we recognize when we claim our rights, we may become the occasion for someone else to sin? Are we willing, as Paul was, to surrender our rights irrevocably to God and not think such surrender makes us more spiritual?
While Paul willingly surrendered his rights and privileges to the Lord, he did not want the Corinthians to think this made him somehow more spiritual or earn him brownie points with God. Paul did not deserve merit because he did not preach the gospel because he made a vocational choice. “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:16) He couldn’t boast about his preaching the gospel because he really had no other choice, but to preach. He did not choose to preach; God chose it for him. He had to preach and it was not because he was afraid God would judge him if he did not preach. He had to preach because God had put the need to preach in his heart. Do you remember the prophet Jeremiah in Jerimiah 20? Jeremiah did not have a lot of fun being God’s prophet and he told God about it. “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” (Jeremiah 20:7-8).
Paul then expanded on the two possible motivations for his ministry. “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:17-18)
If I do my apostolic ministry out of my desire to please God and not out of obligation, I have a reward. God blesses all our work on His behalf. Paul reminds us often that God sees everything we do for Him and it counts for all eternity.
On the other hand, if he does his work not because he wants to do it, but because he obeys God in doing it, he still deserves no praise because God commanded him to do it. In Luke 17:10, the Lord Jesus Christ reminded his disciples that all ministry done for Christ is not a means of earning grace from God. “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” If we serve God completely and perfectly in this life we can never deserve any praise because we have only done what is expected of us. The good news is that God is very gracious to praise us and bless us even though we do not deserve it.
The point is, Paul did not lay aside his rights to gain some kind of merit badge from God. Surrendering his rights did not make him more spiritual or put jewels in his crown in heaven. Paul willingly laid aside his rights and gave them to God so that he might be even more usable to God in this present world.
How do we apply this? Are we willing to give up our rights for God because we love Him? Remember giving up our rights will not buy indulgences from God. It will not make us more spiritual, or more saved. Yet, if we give up our rights for the right reason, God honors it and uses it for His eternal glory.