Summary: Paul tells how he gave up his right of material support for the sake of the gospel.
In chapter 8 Paul told the Corinthians that they should not to eat in the pagan temples. (That was a common practice in Corinth. Eating in a temple was sort of like going to a restaurant today.) One thing Paul knows about the Corinthians is that many of them are questioning whether he is a real apostle or not. After reading Paul’s words on the issue of eating in the temples, many of the Corinthians probably said, “This may be your point of view, Paul, but we don’t think you have the authority to tell us what to do because we don’t believe that you’re really an apostle.”
Why are some of the Corinthians questioning Paul’s apostleship? It seems that one reason for their doubts is that, unlike the other apostles, Paul doesn’t accept material support from them. There was a time when he did accept patronage from other Christians (for example, Paul and his companions stayed in the home of a wealthy woman named Lydia while in Philippi, Acts 16:15), but he later abandoned that practice and started supporting himself by working as a tentmaker (cf. Acts 18:3). Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you” (2:9). This was also Paul’s practice while he was in Corinth. He said back in 4:12, “We work hard with our own hands.” To the Corinthians, this was demeaning—both to Paul and to themselves. (If I refused support from this church and decided to work at McDonalds to support myself, some of you would probably see that as demeaning both myself and the church.) Because Paul worked instead of accepting support from the Corinthians, they say him as inferior to the other apostles. They were saying, “If Paul doesn’t accept our support, maybe it’s because he’s not entitled to it. Maybe he’s not an apostle like the others.”
I. PAUL’S DEFENSE: “I am a genuine apostle of Jesus Christ” (vv. 1-2)
Paul asks four questions in verse 1. Each of these questions demands a positive answer. The first two questions introduce the main topics of this chapter. The first question is, “Am I not free?” Of course he is free, and he will address this issue in verses 19-23. The second question is, “Am I not an apostle?” Of course he is an apostle. There were two requirements for apostleship: (1) you had to see Christ following His resurrection; and (2) you had to be given a special commission (job) from Him. Paul shows the Corinthians here that he fulfills these two basic requirements.
A. Paul had seen the Risen Lord.
The first reason why the Corinthians should not doubt Paul’s apostleship is because Paul had seen the Risen Lord. He asks, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” In chapter 15 Paul lists some of the appearances of Christ following His resurrection. In verse 8 he says, “And last of all he appeared to me also.” (In Acts 9 the ascended Jesus confronted Paul, formerly Saul, as he traveled to Damascus.) Paul believed that his experience on the Damascus road was more than a mere vision. For him it was a resurrection appearance.
B. Paul had established the church at Corinth.
The second reason why the Corinthians should not doubt Paul’s apostleship is because Paul had established the church at Corinth. He asks, “Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?” The Lord said of Paul in Acts 9:15, “This is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles.” Paul obeyed the Lord’s commission and took the message of Jesus Christ to the Corinthians (Gentiles).
He says in verse 2, “Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” The word “seal” in this context refers to authentication. Some people (especially teens), when shopping for clothes, will check the tags for a certain name or logo. If it’s not a certain name-brand, they won’t buy it. The name or logo on the tag authenticates the article of clothing. It proves that it is the real thing, the genuine article. The Corinthians are Paul’s “seal.” Their changed lives prove that Paul is an apostle.
II. PAUL’S RIGHTS: “I deserve to be supported by you” (vv. 3-14)
Paul writes in verses 3-6, “This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?” Paul lists three of his rights: (1) he has the right to have the Corinthians supply his daily needs (“food and drink”); (2) he has the right to have a wife (who would also be supported by the church); and (3) he has the right not to work at a trade in order to make ends meet.