1 Corinthians 9-10

1 Corinthians 9 and 10 – Part 2


The previous article offered (i) an introduction to 1 Corinthians 9, (ii) an outline of the chapter and (iii) some expository comments on verses 1-18. The first part of the present article provides expository comments on verses 19-24 of that chapter, and the second part provides an introduction and outline of chapter 10, together with expository comments on verses 1-10. For ease of reference, the outline of chapter 9 is reproduced below.


  1. Paul’s refusal, for the sake of others and of the gospel, to exercise his apostolic right to support and maintenance at the expense of others, vv. 1-18
    (i) Paul vindicates his office as an apostle, vv. 1-3
    (ii) Paul establishes his right to be supported as an apostle and denies that he has exercised that right, vv. 4-15 – his denial being expressed in the second half of verse 12 and in verse 15
    (iii) Paul explains the ground of his glorying, vv. 16-18
  2. Paul’s refusal, for the sake of others and of the gospel, to exercise his freedom to live as he pleased, vv. 19-23
  3. Paul’s self-control and self-denial, vv. 24-27 – where the apostle draws an illustration from the Greek games to sound a warning against complacence and selfconfidence.


Paul’s refusal, for the sake of others and of the gospel, to exercise his freedom to live as he pleased, vv. 19-23

Paul was personally ‘free’ from the control of any man or group of men, v. 1. The apostle was no slave; indeed, not only was he freeborn, but he was a Roman citizen.1 But here in verse 19 he is saying that he chose to use his freedom from all to willingly enslave himself to all. His overriding concern lay with the welfare and the salvation of others – and he therefore waived his right to live as he pleased that he might ‘gain’ some. We should note the sixfold ‘that I might’ in this short section – five times in verses 19 to 22a ‘that I might win’ ('gain’) and once, in verse 22b, ‘that I might … save’, which, after all, is what Paul meant by ‘winning’ (by ‘gaining’) people.

It seems likely to me that Paul’s opponents at Corinth had picked up on the different approaches he adopted with different groups of people, and charged him with being fickle and inconsistent in his service for the Lord – that in both his preaching and his practice he was as changeable as the wind. But Paul makes it clear that he is entirely innocent of the charge; his varied approaches and methods sprang from one single goal (which he consistently pursued), namely, to win people to Jesus.

We know, from his courageous action reported in Galatians 2 when he confronted the apostle Peter at Antioch, that Paul wasn’t the sort of man to yield on matters affecting the truth and content of the gospel. We know too, from comments he made in Galatians 5 and 6, that neither was he the sort of man to change his message so as to escape the offence of the cross and to avoid persecution.2 And we know from the first two chapters of our letter that, under no circumstances, was he prepared to become ‘as the wise’ to the supposed ‘wise’ of this world’.

But Paul makes it clear here that he was always ready to adapt and accommodate himself – that he was always ready to make all possible concessions – to differences of culture, custom and way of life – whether these related to race (’to the Jews’), religion (’to those under law’ or ‘those without law’, literally) or conscience (’to the weak’).

This section is largely self-explanatory. In connection with ‘to the Jews’, v. 20, it is sufficient to cite just one of several examples in the book of Acts – the circumcision of Timothy at Lystra.3 The expression ‘to those under law’, v. 20, went wider than the Jewish people and included proselytes as well.4 ‘Those without law’, v. 21, was how Jews spoke of Gentiles.

Yet, once having said that, for the sake of such, he became as those ‘without law’, Paul clearly felt that he needed to clarify what he had said and to make it clear that he did not mean that he was willing to become ‘lawless’ and unruly. But it is important to note that, when, in verse 21, Paul says that he was ‘under law towards Christ’, he does not use the expression translated ‘under law’ which he had in verse 20. In verse 21, the apostle uses a word which means literally that he is ‘in-lawed to Christ’ – which, as I interpret it, has nothing to do with the law of Moses, and means that he saw himself as brought under the rule and authority of the Lord Jesus, as one subject to His will.

The expression ‘to the weak’, v. 22, is directly relevant, of course, to the case of eating idol-meats which Paul had addressed in the previous chapter. As he had made clear at the end of that chapter, Paul ever stood ready to abstain from meat for the sake of those who were ‘weak’, and who would be stumbled if he did eat.

In summary, Paul says he had ‘become (the tense indicating, ‘I became and I continue to become’) all (things) to all (people) in order that by all (‘by all means’, that is) … I might save some’, v. 22, literally. It is striking that Paul later uses much the same words to draw the whole section about idol-meats to its conclusion, ‘as I also please all in all, not seeking my own profit, but that of many, that they may be saved’, 10. 33, literally.

Paul’s self-control and self-denial, vv. 24-27 – drawing on an illustration from the Greek games to sound a warning against complacence and self-confidence

There can be no doubt that this section is directly linked to what has gone before – not least because in this section Paul is still concerned, among other things, with self-control and with one’s denial of legitimate things. But, in fact, the section’s main links are with what follows in the beginning of chapter 10. That Paul has now reached a new stage in his argument is borne out by the absence of any conjunction at the opening of verse 24, whereas chapter 10 commences with a connecting ‘for’ (rather than the ‘moreover’ of both the KJV and the NKJV – which rendering loses the connection). As I see it, the whole section from chapter 9 verse 24 to chapter 10 verse 13 sounds a very serious warning against complacence and self-confidence – following which, in chapter 10 verse 14, Paul picks up again the subject-matter of chapter 8 and deals directly once more with the subject of eating idol food.

Verse 24. Paul begins with an allusion to the then-famous Isthmia games, held every two years in honour of the Greek god Poseidon on the sea coast about nine miles north of Corinth. Held under the patronage of the city of Corinth, the Isthmia Games attracted thousands of competitors and visitors from all over the empire, and, among the many Greek games, ranked second in prestige only to the ancient Olympics.

Paul had been in Corinth during the Games held in the Spring of AD 51. From what I have been able to discover, there were no permanent facilities for visitors to the Games until the 2nd Century AD. Those who came needed therefore to stay in tents. I suspect therefore that the Games afforded Paul ample opportunity, not only to share the gospel with the vast crowds of spectators which came, but, along with Aquila and Priscilla, to ply his trade of tent-maker to support himself, Acts 18. 1-3.

I take it that Paul saw the Christian life as corresponding to two distinct phases in the athlete’s life, both of which involved the keeping of strict rules; first, the athlete’s preparation and training, vv. 25, 27, and, second, the athlete’s actual participation and competing, vv. 24, 26.

Because not all who run receive the prize (only ‘one’!), to win an event required tremendous effort and determination. ‘So run’, the apostle says, to the Corinthians – that is, with the same degree of commitment and determination as shown by the competitors in the Games.

Verse 25. But to win an event required tremendous ‘selfcontrol’ (translated ‘temperate’ in the KJV and the NKJV). The contestant who aims to win must be willing to pay the price for winning – and the thing which most sets apart a winning athlete from the rest is his self-control. Every aspect of his life is subject to rigid discipline that he may win the prize.

All competitors in the Greek games were required to undergo the most severe training. Indeed every candidate was required to swear that he spent ten months in training and that he wouldn’t violate any of the regulations.5 Among other things, his training required him to follow a carefully prescribed diet of rather unpleasant and unappetising food. He was required to abstain from all wine, luxury foods and delicacies. Throughout their training, that is, the competitors had to deny themselves foods which were otherwise perfectly legitimate. No cream cakes for them! In their case, self-control was all about waiving their rights and entitlements and curbing their lawful freedom. Do you get the point, Corinthians?

‘And all for what?’ Paul asks. To win a ‘corruptible’ crown! I can’t be dogmatic about the exact nature of the crown – or wreath – which Paul had in mind. What I know is that, although the crowns at Olympus were made of olive leaves, those at Isthmia were made of either pine needles or, more often, of withered celery leaves. Yes, withered celery leaves66 I was fascinated to learn that the crowns granted to the victors at the Nemean games – held about 12 miles southwest of Corinth – were made from fresh celery leaves.7 Paul’s likely allusion to the Isthmia crown of withered celery, throws into even sharper relief his intended contrast between the corruptible crown of the Greek games (available to only one contestant in each race) and the incorruptible crown available to every triumphant Christian.

Paul’s point then is clear and simple: if heathen athletes exercise extreme self-denial in the hope that they might obtain a ‘corruptible crown’, how much more should the Christian be willing to exercise self-denial and self-control to obtain an incorruptible crown – an eternal and unfading crown of glory?8

Verse 26. Note Paul’s progression from ‘you’, v. 24 and ‘we’, v. 25 to ‘I’ and ‘my’ in verses 26-27.9

Paul insists that, having his eye set firmly on the incorruptible crown10, he doesn’t waste any energy … that there isn’t anything random or haphazard about his service for Christ … that he runs as someone who knows where he’s going and fights as someone one who knows where his opponent is! As the Christian athlete, he doesn’t run ‘with uncertainty’ (‘unclearly, aimlessly’), and, as the Christian boxer, he doesn’t play around ‘shadowfighting’11 (punching the empty air). The apostle was determined that there would be no wasted blows. He insists that he has one fixed, overriding purpose in life – to which all else is subservient.

He expressed the very same point in Philippians 3; ‘one thing I do … I press towards the goal for the prize’, Phil. 3. 13-14. In the context of 1 Corinthians 9, this means to be a blessing to others – by all possible means to save as many as possible and to be approved by Christ. It is an extremely sobering thought that my epitaph might be ‘Here lies Malcolm Horlock, who spent his entire Christian life beating the air. Always busy but accomplishing nothing’.

Verse 27. Paul ends the section by making reference to his body. This, he says, he treated most severely, making it his slave and treating it as his slave. It was not that he saw his physical body as the seat of sin, but he knew it to be the vehicle and channel through which sin operated and acted. It seems that even Paul had to battle with the love of ease, and needed to be hard on himself if he was going to obtain the crown.

The expression ‘I keep under’ (‘my body’, that is) is literally ‘I strike under the eye’ – so as to inflict a black eye or to disfigure the face. Clearly, whatever Paul means by this expression, he is using the word metaphorically. It may be that he still has in mind the image of the boxer as at the end of verse 26 – in which case he is saying, ‘I pommel my body – not, like the boxer – his opponent’s!’ And it may be worth noting that, in the Greek games, boxers were equipped – not with boxing gloves – but with what was called the ‘cestus’ – a fearsome weapon consisting of thongs or bands of leather, loaded with lead and iron, which were tied round the hands and which were frequently covered with knots and even nails.

I suspect, however, that here Paul is alluding rather to the rigid self-control and strict athletic exercises performed by the contestants in the games.12 I take Paul to be saying that, in his case, keeping himself spiritually fit meant subjecting his body to the harshness and severity of his apostolic ministry, including, it seems, regularly fasting, 2 Cor. 11. 27.

The word ‘castaway’ at the end of verse 27 gives entirely the wrong impression. The word that Paul uses refers to someone who fails a test … to someone who, following trial, isn’t approved. In the context of this passage, it describes someone who is disqualified and therefore obtains no crown.

This possibility of disqualification has nothing at all to do with the loss of salvation – any more than a competitor who failed to observe all the rules in the Games (and thereby forfeited a crown) stood to lose his Greek citizenship. It has everything to do with the loss of reward – with losing one’s ‘prize’, v. 24.

Paul is saying that he exercised strict self-discipline for fear that otherwise he might disqualified on the ground that he had failed to fulfil the necessary conditions. He has in mind the scrutiny of the competitors at the close of a contest; when, if the victor is proven not to have kept all the rules, he forfeits the prize. In Paul’s case, such an outcome would prove all the more galling, because, as he says, he wasn’t only a contestant – he was one who ‘preached to others’. That is, he was also a ‘herald’ – a different word to the words translated ‘preach’ in verses 14 and 16; being there the words ‘to announce’ and ‘to evangelize’ respectively. In effect, he was also the one who summoned the contestants and who announced the rules of the contest.

Paul clearly took very seriously the possibility that he might yet be disqualified. We know that one of his keenest ambitions throughout his Christian life was that he might finish his race well. He had expressed it clearly to the elders of Ephesus, ‘now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy’, Acts 20. 22- 24.13

And so, in both chapter 8 and chapter 9, we are faced with the noble example of Paul, a man willing to waive his rights for the sake of weak Christians in chapter 8, and for the sake of non-Christians in chapter 9. Here we see the example of a man willing to bend over backwards that believers might go on and unbelievers might be saved.



In terms of its subject matter, chapter 10 is very closely connected with chapter 8. At the end of chapter 8 and throughout chapter 9, Paul has made it clear that the grand principle on which he acted – and on which, by implication, the Corinthians should act – was that of selfdenial.

The apostle now returns to deal further with the specific subject he began to tackle in chapter 8 – that of eating meats offered to idols.

In the latter section of chapter 10, Paul will consider three different questions which the Corinthians were doubtless compelled to ask regularly: (1) whether it was right for the Christian to eat idol-meat if the meal involved direct association with one or more of the various false gods on offer, vv. 15-22; (2) whether it was right for the Christian to eat meat bought at the meat market, when the history of the meat wasn’t known, vv. 25-26; and (3) whether it was right for the Christian to accept a dinner invitation from an unbeliever – when, again, the history of the meat being served up was by no means clear, vv. 27-28.

But first, in the opening section, verses 1-14, he points the Corinthians to one of the great lessons to be learnt from the experience of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. The ‘For’ with which Paul opens the section (not ‘Moreover’ as in the KJV and the NKJV14) directly links it to the closing verses of chapter 9, which pictured the Christian life as a race and which ended with the terrifying possibility of disqualification from the prize. As he had earlier done in verses 7-10 of chapter 9, Paul now proceeds to back up his illustration from contemporary life with clear biblical evidence and support.

The truth was that the Corinthians were far too complacent and self-confident – even to the point of throwing themselves in the way of temptation by partaking of idolatrous feasts. And the main point which Paul wishes to draw from the history of ‘the Exodus generation’ of Israel is that spiritual privileges never guarantee spiritual victory – that great blessings in themselves are no insurance against falling into temptation. And there is always the grim possibility that one who begins well may end badly. Just as for a contestant to compete in a race wasn’t for him to win the race, so for a generation of Israelites to set out into the wilderness wasn’t for them to enter the land. Indeed, in the case of Israel, all started but almost all were disqualified before the end. In the race described at the end of chapter 9, all start, all run but only one wins; in the history detailed at the beginning of chapter 10, all started, all were equally favoured but only two reached the finish.

If then, at the close of chapter 9, Paul observed that it is self-control which largely distinguishes the winner of the race from the other runners, he now shows that selfindulgence lay at the root of Israel’s failure to reach the promised land.

Warnings from Israel’s history in the wilderness, 10. 1-14

Israel’s blessings, vv. 1-4
Israel’s sins, vv. 5-10
Conclusions :
Don’t ignore, v. 11, Don’t presume, v. 12, Don’t despair, v. 13, Don’t dabble, v. 14

Fellowship – with whom or with what? 10. 15-22

The ‘wise’, v. 15
The fellowship of Christ, vv. 16-17
The fellowship of the Jewish altar, v. 18
The fellowship of demons, vv. 19-20
Conclusion, v. 21
The ‘strong’, v. 22

Christian liberty, 10. 23-11. 1

Seeking the profit of others, vv. 23-24
Freedom to buy in the market, vv. 25-26
Freedom to eat at an unbeliever’s meal, v. 27
‘But what if?’ vv. 28-30
General guiding principles, vv. 31-32
Seeking the profit of others, 10. 33-11. 1


Warnings from Israel’s history in the wilderness, 10. 1- 14.

(i) Israel’s blessings, vv. 1-4
Paul uses the adjective ‘all’ five times in this sub-section to stress that the blessings of the Exodus generation of Israel were common to everyone of them. They all enjoyed supernatural direction and protection (‘all … were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea’), they all enjoyed supernatural identification (‘all were all baptized into Moses’), and they all enjoyed supernatural provision (‘all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink’).

When Paul says ‘all our fathers were under the cloud’ he uses a tense (the imperfect), which speaks of some continuing action in the past. From the very moment the people left Egypt, they all experienced the guidance of the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. But when he says ‘all passed through the sea’, he uses a very different tense (the aorist), which suggests a completed, finished experience. Israel had been boxed in, with the Red (Reed) Sea before them, the wilderness on both sides, and the chariots of Pharaoh behind them. But at the critical moment God acted swiftly and decisively, parted the waters of the Sea and let Israel through.

The children of Israel are the only people of whom I know who were properly baptized without even getting their feet wet!15 Indeed, the only people who did get wet that day were the Egyptians – and they weren’t baptized … they were ‘drowned’, Heb. 11. 29! When Paul says that they ‘all were baptized into Moses’, he uses a form of the verb (the middle voice) which may suggest the voluntary nature of the act; that is, they chose to submit to this ‘baptism’ and in doing so submitted themselves to the leadership and authority of Moses.

And they were all sustained by the same divinely provided food and drink. In describing both the food and the drink as ‘spiritual’, Paul isn’t denying that it was literal food and drink. It certainly was that. Only literal and physical food could have met Israel’s need. As I understand it, Paul uses the word’ spiritual’ to remind the Corinthians that both the food and the drink were of undoubted supernatural origin.

Paul’s statement in verse 4 that ‘Christ’ was the ‘spiritual Rock that followed them’ raises some interesting questions. I suggest that Paul was giving the word ‘rock’ a double meaning. There can be no doubt that Paul has in mind the fact that the water which God gave Israel to drink had (on at least two occasions) come quite literally from a rock, Exod. 17. 1-7; Num. 20. 1-13. But, by playing on the word, he switches the meaning from a literal rock to a well-known title of God Himself – ‘the Rock’.16

It is worth noting that this particular title of God occurs five times in Deuteronomy 32 – from which chapter the apostle will cull two of his Old Testament references later in our chapter.17 I suggest that ‘the Rock’ was a particularly appropriate divine title for God to reveal Himself by in the wilderness – conveying, as it does, ideas of stability, permanence, immutability and faithfulness, and standing in stark contrast to Israel’s own fickleness and faithlessness at the time. It was Christ, Paul is saying, who accompanied Israel through the wilderness – and it was therefore ‘Christ’ of course who they ‘tempted’ there, v. 9. It was, Paul is saying, Christ who constantly provided them with water to drink … it was Christ who was their true source of refreshment for forty years. This passage certainly speaks volumes about Paul’s convictions concerning the deity of the Lord Jesus.

I don’t suppose we can altogether rule out that Paul has in mind some kind of parallel between Israel’s ‘baptism’ and Christian baptism – and some kind of parallel between Israel’s ‘table in the wilderness’ (as the psalmist described it, Ps. 78. 19) and ‘the Lord’s table’, 10. 21. If this is so, I suspect that Paul was warning the Corinthians (by means of the way in which these things link the one to the other) that neither their baptism nor their observance of the Lord’s Supper would afford them any magical protection if they chose to dabble with idol worship, any more than the corresponding experiences of Israel had saved them from spiritual disaster.

Whether this is so or not, it seems clear that Paul chose the instances of Israel’s failures very carefully indeed – and with an eye to the particular issues currently facing the Christians of Corinth. I regard it as no coincidence that each of Israel’s falls resulted from temptations very similar to those now surrounding the Corinthian church. We will note the relevance of each episode in the following article.

To be comtinued.



Acts 16. 37; 22. 25-29; 23. 27.


Gal. 5. 11; 6. 12.


Acts 16. 3; compare 18. 18; 21. 26; 23. 6; 26. 4-6, 22, 27. And it is worth noting that Paul circumcised Timothy immediately following the so-called ‘Council at Jerusalem’ (which met to decide the issue of the circumcision of gentiles, at which time, Titus {the test-case}, ‘being a Greek’, wasn’t ‘compelled to be circumcised’, Gal. 2. 3) and while Paul was carrying the decree from Jerusalem which officially freed the gentiles from the yoke of the law. He circumcised Timothy ‘because of the Jews who were in that region, for they all knew that his father was Greek’, and that Timothy would not therefore have been circumcised even though his mother was a Jewess, Acts 16. 1. Wherever Paul travelled, he first preached in the Jewish synagogues. If one of his fellow preachers had been uncircumcised, it would have aroused Jewish prejudices and probably shut their ears to the gospel. And then again, Timothy was by parenthood half-Jew and had been brought up to know the Old Testament from a child.


Compare Paul’s words, ‘I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law’, Gal. 5. 3. We should note also that Paul added at 1 Corinthians 9. 20 the important qualification ‘not being myself under law’, which is in all the early manuscripts except the so-called Western Text, and which Paul expanded later in Rom. 6. 14; 7. 4, 6.


Compare 2 Tim. 2. 5.


Archaeologists have uncovered a stone head at Isthmia carved with a crown of pine leaves – and a mosaic of an athlete at Corinth with a crown of withered celery leaves.


Paul and the Pagan Cults at Isthmia, O Broneer, HTR 44 (1971) page 186 – quoted in Church and Gentile Cults in Corinth, Mark Harding, Grace Theological Journal, Vol.10, Fall of 1989, page 214.


See 1 Pet. 5. 4.


Compare the similar change from ‘we’ and ‘you’ in chapter 8 verses 1-12 to ‘I’ and ‘my’ in verse 13.


‘I accordingly so run’, 1 Cor. 9. 26 lit.


Technically known as the ‘skiamacia


Compare the metaphorical use of the word in Luke 18. 5 – where it is translated ‘weary’.


Compare 2 Tim. 4. 7.


See the opening note to chapter 9 verses 24-27.


See Ps. 66. 6.


I note that, by giving the word a capital letter, the translators of the KJV and NKJV thought so too.


Historically, the book of Deuteronomy follows immediately after the period covered by 1 Cor. 10. 1-11. Paul makes several interesting quotations from (or allusions to) Deuteronomy 32 in 1 Corinthians 10 as a whole :
1 Cor. 10. 4 speaks of ‘the Rock’ – which is a divine title, occurring no less than five times in Deuteronomy 32; vv. 4, 15, 18, 30 and 31. No other section of the Old Testament boasts so many references to the title in such a small space.
1 Cor. 10. 15 refers to ‘wise men’ – a possible allusion to the words, ‘O that they were wise’, Deut. 32. 29. (Paul uses the same word as in the Septuagint of Deut. 32. 29.)
1 Cor. 10. 20 is a direct quotation from Deut. 32. 17 – and follows very closely the wording of the Septuagint.
1 Cor. 10. 21 refers to the ‘cup’ and ‘table’ associated with idolatry – and may provide a parallel to Deut. 32. 37-38 – ‘Where are their gods … who ate the fat of their sacrifices, and drank the wine of their drink offering?’
1 Cor.10. 22 asks, ‘Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?’ – that is, in having fellowship with ‘demons’ – for, as Paul had earlier pointed out, the idol itself is nothing – it is not a god, v. 19. It is quite possible therefore that Paul is alluding to Deut. 32. 21 – ‘They have provoked me to jealousy by what is not God’. (Paul uses the very word meaning ‘to provoke to jealousy’ which appears in the Septuagint of Deut. 32. 21.)
It may well have been, therefore, that the apostle was reading through (or studying) Deuteronomy 32 when he dictated 1 Corinthians 10. (I say ‘dictated’ because of 1 Cor. 16. 21.)


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