1 Corinthians 9 opens with Paul’s defense of his income. Seriously: apparently there had been some argument that he did not deserve to be supported by the churches in his work, and much of that seems to have been coming from Corinth. He goes on to ask why other apostles were permitted to draw a salary, but the expectation was that he and Barnabas should provide for themselves. It’s a fair question, and Paul draws from both normal life and the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 25:4) to highlight that it is appropriate for those who lead the church in spiritual matters to draw their living from doing so.
Though I expect Paul would take a dim view of those who live above the ordinary soldier, shepherd, or vinedresser (9:7).
He goes on, though, to point out how he has not claimed his rights as an apostle for the sake of spreading the Gospel. He did not want the Corinthians, or anyone else, burdened by supporting them. He wanted the Gospel to be preached without charge, though he had every right to expect the Corinthians to begin covering his expenses as they continued to listen to him. (See the book of Philippians to answer whether or not Paul ever took financial/material support from a church. TL:DR: he did.)
He goes from there to point out that it was his goal to reach this end: that nothing in Paul’s life would be a barrier to anyone hearing and receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If they were Jews, he would be observant to the Law, if they were weak, and so forth. Why? That some may come to a knowledge of Christ and follow Jesus.
This focus brings us to the end of the chapter. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 gives us Paul’s motivation. He believed that it was important to run hard after Jesus because that was the reason he was there. He uses the illustration of the games (likely drawn from the fact that Corinth often hosted athletic competitions), where the runners focus on their purpose—but there would still be only one winner. He intended to do all he could.
After all, when we return to 1 Corinthians 9:1-2 we see (as Chrysostom points out) that it is not simply knowing Jesus that proved one was an apostle. It was the fruitful ministry resulting in the next generations of Christians. Judas, after all, was an apostle—but knowing Jesus did not benefit him well at all.
As we draw some practicals:
First, to the issue of paying ministers: many is the time that 1 Corinthians 9 is used to justify that a minister should be unpaid because Paul was unpaid. That misses the point of this passage entirely. Paul’s point is that he was due the pay but he willfully chose to forego it. For a practical extension: let’s suppose that I become a millionaire blogger—or even someone with a livable income from legitimate Internet work—at that point, while I could claim it was my “right” to be paid to preach, it would be prudent for me to forego the income. That would enable more ministry at the church. Until then, though, I serve as a soldier but not at my own expense. (As such, though, it is for me to be content what I get rather than pursue/demand luxurious life.)
Second, to the more important parts: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who Paul preached about, is straightforward: there is one way, one truth, one name under heaven whereby we can be saved. If one dies apart from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, without trusting in His death in place of your own, without trusting in the reality of His resurrection, then one will die and face the wrath of God for eternity.
That’s a lot to wrestle with. There is no cause for anything else to be a stumbling block to belief—if it can be avoided. If you know, for example, that your opportunity is to share Jesus with someone who must kosher or halal, then don’t spend half your time on the grandeur of bacon. (Save that for Bible studies on grace later!)
Everything we do as Christians should center on these two realities: Jesus is Lord of all and some people need to know Him. That should affect how we handle everything. Not our rights, though those do matter in other ways, not our desires, but our Lord and Savior.
Nerd point 1: 9:1 suggests that being an actual eyewitness to Jesus is connected to being an apostle. What does that mean for those who claim to be apostles now?
Nerd point 2: 9:5 can be taken as evidence Paul was married. It is definitely evidence that many of the apostles, include James and Jude (brothers of Christ) and Peter (Cephas) were.