Evidently, the first-century Corinthian church had problems with Paul’s manner of life that caused them to doubt his Apostleship even though the church in Corinth was planted under Paul’s ministry (see Acts 18:1–11). That Paul experienced suffering caused many Corinthians to think that maybe God had not really called him to ministry (see 1 Cor. 4). Apparently, they reasoned that the Lord would not allow His servants to go through hardships.
From today’s passage, we learn that the Corinthians’ doubts about Paul’s Apostolic call were grounded also in the fact that he did not take financial support from his congregations or have a wife. The reasoning of the Corinthians seems to be similar to their reasoning against Paul’s Apostleship because of his suffering. They thought that surely God would have His faithful Apostles get married and not engage in manual labor. (The Corinthians, like many first-century people, looked down on manual labor such as tentmaking; see Acts 18:3.) Therefore, they concluded, since Paul was single and did manual labor, he must not really have been called by God. We infer all this from the questions Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 9:3–7.
Paul’s answer to the Corinthians’ charge amounts to this: “Apostles have the rights to a wife and congregational support, but they are also free not to take advantage of these rights, so my failure to embrace my rights is no proof against my Apostolic call.” First, Paul defends his rights as an Apostle. Using a series of rhetorical questions, Paul argues that like other Apostles, he could be married (vv. 3–4). Furthermore, these questions demonstrate the right for him to be paid for his gospel labors. Barnabas and he, along with the other Apostles, have the right to refrain from “working for a living”—that is, from supporting themselves through manual labor. This implies a right to earn a living through gospel ministry. All occupations, in fact, entitle one to payment for that specific work (vv. 5–7).
These commonsense observations about the laborer’s right to a wage are also justified by the law. Deuteronomy 25:4 commands that oxen not be muzzled while treading out grain so that they can eat some of the edible grain that they labor to separate from the rest of the plant. This law, though beneficial to the oxen, is not only for the oxen but for the good of people (1 Cor. 9:8–10). As John Calvin comments, the argument here is from the lesser to the greater. If oxen can be fed by their labors, how much more human beings, especially Apostles?