To Keep from Losing His Reward
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. (9:16–18)
the reward was not for the message or the ministry of the gospel
Paul spoke of boasting in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31), “boasting in things pertaining to God” (Rom. 15:17), and such. Even more often he spoke of rejoicing in the gospel, of glorying in the cross, and supremely of glorying in Jesus Christ. But he says, if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of.
He gloried in the gospel but not for it. He had absolutely nothing to do with the giving or the content of the gospel. He simply received the revelation. Nor was he boasting of his commitment to or ability in preaching the gospel. He did preach the gospel, more diligently than anyone of whom we know, but for this he was under compulsion. The Lord stopped him short one day on the road to Damascus, as he was on his way there to persecute Christians. At that time he was set apart as the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:3–6, 15; 26:13–18; cf. Rom. 11:13). Paul chose God’s call in the sense that he was not “disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19), but he really had no choice. He was under compulsion.
As Paul realized later, God had set him apart even from his “mother’s womb” (Gal. 1:15). Like Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:13–17), Paul was called and ordained by God before he was born. And like Jeremiah, Paul could refrain from preaching. When frustrated and despondent because of rejection and ridicule, Jeremiah tried to stop preaching but could not. “But if I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer. 20:9). To the Colossians Paul said, “I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me” (Col. 1:25).
At some time or another, every preacher whom the Lord has called will realize that he is under God’s compulsion. It is not that God’s calling cannot be ignored, neglected, or slighted, but that it cannot be changed. The man who resists God’s call or tries to give it up will, like Jeremiah, experience a “burning fire shut up in [his] bones” until he obeys. He has no choice.
Ramond Lull, the Spanish mystic, lived a careless and luxurious life for many years. He wrote that in a vision one night Christ came to him carrying a cross and said, “Carry this cross for me, Ramond.” He pushed Christ away and refused. In a later vision the same thing happened: Christ offered the cross and Ramond refused it. In a third vision Christ laid the cross in the man’s arms and walked away. “What else could I do,” Ramond explained, “but take it up?”
Added to that sense of constraint is a serious and compelling responsibility, which Paul articulates in the words, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. In effect, he says that failure to obey that call would result in his suffering serious chastisement. The severest judgments are promised on unfaithful ministers (James 3:1).
Paul gladly preached the gospel, but he did not do it voluntarily. Against my will does not indicate he was unwilling to obey but that his will had no part in the call itself. It was not his choice to serve Christ, so consequently, he did not receive a reward but a stewardship. He was under obligation to preach, for which he neither deserved nor expected reward.
Stewardship indicates that someone gives us something or some responsibility that is valued to them, which we are to care for properly. That is the case in every call to minister. God gives the minister what He highly values for safe care, and promises stern discipline to the one who falls short. Paul uses the interjection woe (ouai) to indicate the impending pain.
the reward was for preaching without charge
Having mentioned what his reward could not be for, Paul now mentions what it would be for.
What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (9:18)
The gospel was thrust on Paul; he was under compulsion to preach it, and would have been in serious trouble with the Lord if he had not. But he was not under compulsion in regard to payment for it. In that he was entirely free to expect support from those he served. He chose not to be paid because he wanted it that way, not because it was necessary. In that choice he found great satisfaction and joy, and for that choice he knew he would receive a reward.
He was determined not to make full use of [his] right in the gospel. He would work after hours, day and night, to earn his own living rather than be a burden to those he served or cause them to think he was in the ministry for the money.
With great happiness and satisfaction Paul forsook a liberty, he refused to take advantage of a right, in order to make a contribution of his very own to the work of Christ.
16–17 If Paul, then, does not preach in order to support himself financially, what does motivate him? While he offers other motivations elsewhere (e.g., 2 Co 5:14), here Paul says that there is simply within his heart an inner “compulsion” (anankē, GK 340) to preach—a trait apparent in certain of the OT prophets (e.g., Jer 20:9; Am 3:8). Moreover, Paul goes so far as to pronounce a prophetic “Woe!” upon himself if he does not preach the gospel—and do so free of charge. The word ouai (“woe,” GK 4026) occurs frequently in the OT prophets to denote coming disaster and even divine judgment (e.g., Isa 3:11; 5:8–25; Eze 13:3, 18; Am 5:18). The notion that Paul is looking ahead to a heavenly reward is very much a part of the picture in this section (vv. 18, 24–27).
18 Paul does not want to receive any monetary reward for his work as a missionary-apostle. What, then, is his payment (misthos, GK 3635, “wages,” “recompense,” “reward”)? It is the inner reward that comes from knowing that he is preaching voluntarily, offering the gospel free of charge, and not making use of his right to gain his support from preaching. In this way, Paul shows his own application of the principle offered in his earlier discussion on whether to eat meat sacrificed in an idol temple. While he felt a personal right to eat such meat, he voluntarily would not exercise that right so as not to put a stumbling block in the way of the gospel (8:13).
But in the present discussion of receiving support for his ministry, how could accepting money from his converts hinder the progress of the gospel? David Garland, 419, points out several possible answers to this question: (1) Some people might not believe the gospel if they knew it would lead to financial obligations. (2) Others might see a contradiction between Christ’s grace being free but becoming a Christian not being free. (3) Paul perhaps did not want to become a “slave” to a patron donor who supported his ministry and who could then control the content of his preaching (“money is power”). (4) Paul wished to dissociate himself from other religious hucksters in the ancient world, some of whom made a good living from flowery rhetorical appeal.
9:16 / This verse lays out the situation Paul faced in preaching the gospel. He preached because God had commissioned or commanded him to do so. It is not to his credit that he preached; he would be in a deplorable situation had he not done so. God’s commission made it necessary for Paul to preach the gospel, and for him to fail to fulfill that charge would be awful, unthinkable.
9:17 / Paul explains how he derives a benefit from his obedience to God’s command to preach that he would not have received had he taken his rightful payment for his services. By not taking support, Paul did not claim his rights. He gave up his own rights for the benefit of being able to offer something to God and to others that he would not have had to offer otherwise. Paul’s practice is simple, although it is so selflessly odd, so God-centered, and so much for the sake of others that we have difficulty grasping his line of thought. Above all, Paul aims to contribute something to the accomplishment of the mission that God gave him.
9:18 / As he concludes this section of the letter, Paul continues to explain why he preached without pay or support from the churches that he founded and to which he ministered. Amazingly, Paul’s reward is that he takes no reward! Paul preached because he was commissioned to do so, and by not taking his due he gave up his own rights as an offering to God. Paul made an offering of his preaching to God, and in so doing he demonstrated his freedom (9:1) by providing his services freely to the church. By refusing to accept support, Paul preached according to God’s commission, but he did not take advantage of the rights of support that God afforded him in conjunction with the command to preach. Paul gave his services to God free of charge, so that ironically his dividend was found in registering no charge.
9:16–17. Paul wanted to continue the practice of preaching without pay. He explained that he could not boast simply because he preached the gospel. He insisted, I am compelled to preach. In other words, he had no choice. God had called him to preach, and he had to fulfill that obligation or fall under divine judgment.
How did Paul enhance his preaching ministry? He preached voluntarily so he might receive a reward. Paul frequently spoke of himself and of other Christians being motivated to service by a desire for reward and praise (Rom. 2:29; Gal. 6:4–10; Col. 3:24). Eternal reward motivated him as it should all believers. Paul did not want to lose his eternal rewards for preaching willingly and eagerly and without pay. If he preached begrudgingly or received pay, he believed he would be doing nothing more than simply discharging the trust committed to him. To raise his preaching above the level of mere obedience, Paul voluntarily gave up his right to remuneration.
9:18. To sum up the matter, Paul asked what his reward was. This verse presents a number of complexities. If one reads the verse as a question and answer, then two understandings are possible. First, many interpreters have understood Paul to say that preaching was a reward in itself. To preach the gospel free of charge, and in so doing not to make use of his rights for pay, was sufficient reward. But in the light of 9:17, it seems better to understand Paul in another way. The second interpretation is that Paul knew he would one day receive a reward for having preached without remuneration. Christ would reward Paul for not seeking his own benefit in this world.
This verse may also be translated entirely as a question. It would thus read, “What then is my reward so that, when I preach the gospel, I offer it free of charge so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel?” Paul may have been asking what great reward motivated him to forfeit his rights by offering the gospel free of charge. In this case, his answer would come in 9:23: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
16. For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast about. I am compelled to preach, for woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.
When Jesus called Paul on the road to Damascus, he told him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and to the people of Israel (Acts 9:15; 26:15–18). When he began his ministry, Paul proclaimed the good news to the Jews in the synagogues of Damascus and Jerusalem. He then taught in the church in Antioch and from there went to Cyprus and Asia Minor to acquaint Jews and Gentiles with Christ’s gospel. As he reveals in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, “I testified to both Jews and Greeks that they turn in repentance to God and faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Because Paul was appointed to preach, he did not see that task as a reason for boasting. Instead, his commission from the Lord compelled him to preach. Paul wanted to complete the task which the Lord Jesus had given him, namely, preaching the gospel to both Jews and Greeks.
“For woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” Paul raises the lament which the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles raised. Like Paul, these men were overcome by the urgency of uttering the message God gave them. Jeremiah said that God’s Word was like a fire in his heart and in his bones (Jer. 20:9) and Amos writes that because God has spoken he must speak (Amos 3:8). Peter and John, standing before the Sanhedrin, tell this ruling body that they cannot help but speak what they have seen and heard concerning Jesus Christ (Acts 4:20).
The phrase woe to me describes the greatest misery imaginable for Paul. He would bring this misery upon himself if he proved disobedient to his divine mandate to preach. He must preach the gospel of salvation—in his own words to Timothy, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). If not, he would incur God’s wrath and its consequences. Paul is a slave of Jesus Christ, as he often notes in his epistles (see, e.g., Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Titus 1:1), and as such he faithfully executes his task (Luke 17:10).
17. If I do this of my own choice, I have a reward. But if I do so under compulsion, I simply fulfill the stewardship entrusted to me.
This verse is obscure, and the first part fails to correspond properly to the message of the previous verse (v. 16). The second sentence fits the context, for Paul indicates that he is under divine obligation to preach the gospel. The problem, then, lies in the first part of the verse, particularly with the word reward. Paul seems to retrace his steps in the following verse (v. 18), where he asks and answers the question what his reward is. With his repeated use of the first person pronoun (four times), he calls attention to himself.
- “If I do this of my own choice.” If we see this verse as continuing the explanation about Paul’s rights as a preacher, the difficulties remain but no longer appear insurmountable. The Corinthians cannot understand how Paul fails to defend his rights as a preacher. They view him as a preacher who has come to them of his own free will. But Paul informs them that if he had come to them of his own choice, he would have expected monetary compensation from them. Then he would have a reward.
- “But if I do so under compulsion, I simply fulfill the stewardship entrusted to me.” Paul writes the word stewardship to show that although he is an apostle with rights (vv. 1–6), he serves Jesus as a steward (see 4:1). In Paul’s day, stewards were slaves who were given the responsibility of managing their master’s household, estate, or financial affairs.
Paul knows that he has received his stewardship from Jesus himself. Whether a steward does his task by choice or under compulsion, his responsibility remains unaltered. If such a person fulfills his task not of his own will but because his master assigned it to him, he is merely a steward. He is like the servant in the parable who plowed his master’s field, prepared his master’s supper, waited on him, and finally had a free moment to eat and drink. He received no expression of gratitude for his labors, because he was his master’s servant. Similarly, God’s servants should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10).
18. What then is my reward? When I preach the gospel, I offer it free of charge so as not to make full use of my authority in the gospel.
- “What then is my reward?” Paul realizes that in his discourse he failed to explain the word reward in the first sentence of the preceding verse (v. 17). Now he turns his attention to it and gives his explanation. Paul’s desire to be obedient to his divine commission is evident in many epistles (e.g., 15:9–10; Gal. 1:15–16; Eph. 3:8–9). He regarded his commission to preach as a privilege. As a slave of Christ he willingly obeyed his Sender and thus received a reward. This reward is not something Paul desires for himself. He proclaims the gospel free of charge (v. 18).
- “When I preach the gospel, I offer it free of charge. “Jesus commanded that the worker should receive his pay (Luke 10:7). In a sense, the phrase preach the gospel denotes as much the preaching as the actual living in accordance with the gospel. Those who preach the gospel should receive their income from the gospel (v. 14). But Paul refuses to avail himself of his apostolic right and calls his preference to preach the gospel without pay his “boast” (v. 15). He labels his action not to accept payment for his work in the ministry his “reward” (v. 18). Conversely, if he had been told to preach for a certain sum of money, he would have been thwarted in his purpose. The gospel would have been proclaimed, but Paul’s reason for boasting would have been taken away.
By not receiving remuneration for his services, Paul was free from obligation to anyone. No one could ever lay a claim on Paul because of some monetary accountability (see 2 Cor. 11:7). In this freedom, Paul could actively proclaim the good news to everyone.
The purity of Paul’s motive is aptly illustrated with a parallel taken from the medical world. “A physician may attend the sick from the highest motives, though he receives a remuneration for his services. But when he attends the poor gratuitously, though the motives may be no higher, the evidence of their purity is placed beyond question.” Paul preached the gospel free of charge—indisputable evidence of his pure motive.
- “So as not to make full use of my authority in the gospel.” This second part of the sentence not only further explains the first part, but also concludes the entire segment on Paul’s apostolic rights. Paul knows full well that he has the apostolic right to make his living from the gospel, but he chooses to ply the trade of the tentmaker. He uses his other rights but does not receive financial recompense. The last three words of the sentence, “in the gospel,” should be taken with the word authority and should not be understood as an abbreviated reference to preaching the gospel. Paul gratuitously offers his services in regard to the gospel.
We raise two questions. First, why did Paul choose to preach the gospel without charge? He certainly did not do it to gain higher praise than the other apostles, who did exercise their apostolic right. Even though Paul writes that he worked harder than the others, he attributes praise and thanks to God (15:10). The thought of performing work for his own advantage was repugnant to Paul. He worked for the sake of the gospel and its increasing influence in the world.
Second, is Paul asking preachers of the gospel to imitate him? The answer is a resounding no. Nowhere in Paul’s epistles do we find any evidence that preachers should abrogate the command Jesus gave the workers in his kingdom. If a minister of the gospel has an independent source of income and offers his services free of charge, he is free to make that choice. But that choice is his own and he can never require it of others. In the same way, Paul made a choice to supply his financial needs by working at his trade, but he could never demand this of his fellow workers.
9:16 Paul is saying that he cannot boast in the fact that he preaches the gospel. A divine compulsion is laid upon him. It is not a vocation that he chose for himself. He received the “tap on the shoulder” and he would have been a most miserable man if he had not obeyed the divine commission. This does not mean the apostle was not willing to preach the gospel, but rather that the decision to preach did not come from himself, but from the Lord.
9:17 If the Apostle Paul preached the gospel willingly, he would have the reward that goes with such service, namely, the right of maintenance. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, it is clearly taught that those who serve the Lord are entitled to support from the Lord’s people. In this passage, Paul does not mean that he was an unwilling servant of the Lord, but is simply stating that there was a divine compulsion in his apostleship. He goes on to emphasize this in the latter part of the verse. If he preached against his will, that is, if he preached because there was a fire burning within him and he could not refrain from preaching, then he had been entrusted with a stewardship of the gospel. He was a man acting under orders, and therefore he could not boast in that.
Verse 17 is admittedly difficult, and yet the meaning seems to be that Paul would not claim his right of maintenance from the Corinthians because the ministry was not an occupation which he chose by himself. He was placed in it by the hand of God. The false teachers in Corinth might claim their right to be supported by the saints, but the Apostle Paul would seek his reward elsewhere.
Knox’s translation of this verse is as follows: “I can claim a reward for what I do of my own choice; but when I act under constraint, I am only executing a commission.”
Paul could not escape his responsibility to preach the gospel, because a stewardship (responsibility) had been committed to him and he was under orders to preach even though he was never paid (cf. Luke 17:10).
9:18 If then he could not boast in the fact that he preached the gospel, of what would he boast? Of something that was a matter of his own choice, namely, that he presented the gospel of Christ without charge. This is something he could determine to do. He would preach the gospel to the Corinthians, at the same time earning his own living, so as not to use to the full his right for maintenance in the gospel.
To summarize the apostle’s argument here, he is making a distinction between what was obligatory and what was optional. There is no thought of any reluctance in his preaching the gospel. He did that cheerfully. But in a very real sense, it was a solemn obligation that rested upon him. Therefore in the discharge of that obligation there was no reason for his boasting. In preaching the gospel, he could have insisted on his right to financial support, but he did not do this; rather he decided to give the gospel without charge to the Corinthians. Since this was a matter of his own will, he would glory in this. As we have suggested, Paul’s critics claimed that his working as a tentmaker indicated that he did not consider himself to be a true apostle. Here he turns his self-support in such a way as to prove that his apostleship was nonetheless real; in fact, it was of a very high and noble character.
In verses 19–22, Paul cites his example of the waiving of legitimate rights for the gospel’s sake. In studying this section, it is important to remember that Paul does not mean that he ever sacrificed important principles of the Scripture. He did not believe that the end justified the means. In these verses he is speaking about matters of moral indifference. He accommodated himself to the customs and habits of the people with whom he worked in order that he might gain a ready ear for the gospel. But never did he do anything which might compromise the truth of the gospel.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1984). 1 Corinthians (pp. 209–211). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 338). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Soards, M. L. (2011). 1 Corinthians (pp. 186–187). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Pratt, R. L., Jr. (2000). I & II Corinthians (Vol. 7, pp. 148–149). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 300–303). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1776–1777). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.