Paul begins a defense of his apostleship. First he points to the fact that he brought the gospel to the Corinthian believers. They would not exist as a church without him.
Paul defends the right of apostles to be supported for their ministry work. Common sense shows that a soldier expects pay, a shepherd expects milk from his flock. Thus it is right that ministers of the gospel receive payment to keep their ministry going.
Paul proves that not only common sense shows the right of ministers to be financially supported for their work, but the Old Testament Law illustrates this as well. Do not muzzle an ox while he works, so that he can eat and continue to work.
Paul points to the Levitical priesthood which feeds itself with a portion of the sacrifices brought to the temple. It is right for ministers to be paid for their ministry. But, Paul does not participate in this compensation. For his ministry, it would get in the way.
Paul preaches the gospel because Jesus has called him to. While he defends the right for ministers to be financially supported, he does not want payment. He preaches the gospel without charging people for it, out of voluntary obedience to Jesus. This supports his higher aim.
Though Paul is not beholden to any man since he is not paid by man, his ministry’s purpose is to meet every person right where they are to share the gospel. He continues to practice Judaism to witness to the Jews, he works and lives among the Gentiles to witness to them.
Paul uses an analogy about athletes competing for a prize to show the ultimate goal in his ministry. He runs, and he urges the Corinthians to also run, to win the race of life so that they might win the prize of life. Paul works to support himself and has made his life purposefully difficult so that his entire focus is on bringing the gospel to all men, avoiding temptation and temporary reward, so that Jesus will reward him and be pleased with his obedience.
Paul defends himself against some who have cast doubt on his apostleship. He points to the fact that he has seen Jesus. He argues that the Corinthian church would not exist without his ministry as an apostle, because he brought the gospel to them. It seems that some people were questioning his apostleship because Paul did not take financial support for his ministry. Paul explains that it is very proper and right for ministers of the gospel to be paid for their ministry, just as a soldier expects pay, a vintner eats his own grapes, and a shepherd takes milk from his flock. This is common sense. Even the Old Testament Law affirms this, declaring that no one should muzzle an ox while it works, so that it can eat and replenish its strength. Thus, ministers of the gospel have the right to be paid for their ministry.
But Paul does not take advantage of that right; instead, he works a job to pay for his own ministry. He does not want to hurt his witness by having other men give him money to preach, but would rather offer the gospel without expectation of monetary reward. Paul serves all men, Jews and Greeks, and meets them where they are so that they might believe in the gospel of Jesus. He runs the race of life like an athlete, denying himself comfort so that he can focus on serving Jesus at his very best, like a runner who trains to win the race. To be financially supported by other men would tempt Paul to serve their interests, or to abuse his power as an apostle, so he denies himself this right. He does not want to fail to win the race of life. To win the race of life is to do all God asks of us. In Paul’s case that is to take the gospel to the Gentiles. He urges the Corinthians to likewise run the race to win. His hope is to earn the ultimate prize from Jesus in reward for obedience.