Chapter 9 appears at first to be an off-subject interruption between the discussions of meat sacrificed to idols in chapters 8 and 10, but Paul is actually making a point regarding Christians and the exercise of their rights at the expense of others.
Mathematicians would call this a “lemma,” or a proof made in order to prove a larger theorem. (“Lemma” is Greek for something received.)
To show the Corinthians how to live in love toward their weaker brothers, Paul gives himself as an example.
(1 Cor 9:1–2 ESV) 1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
Paul first establishes his position as an apostle — in order to show that he is among the “strong” and so has certain rights.
(1 Cor 9:3–7 ESV) 3 This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Paul then notes that the apostles, in general, have wives and are also paid for their services — an assertion with all sorts of interesting ramifications. It appears from this passage that most of the apostles had married, although Paul and Barnabas had not. This is quite contrary to the familiar teaching that we only know that Peter was married, since his mother-in-law is mentioned in the scriptures.
Notice how most of Paul’s examples deal with the right to food. He really is building his case on meat sacrificed to idols.
And it’s interesting that Barnabas is called an “apostle,” when he obviously wasn’t one of the original 12. Paul often uses apostolos, meaning envoy, to refer to a fellow missionary. Notice that BDAG prefers “envoy” to the traditional “ambassador,” evidently because the word carries with it the sense of a messenger with a special mission. An ambassador has a general charge and may do very little, depending on the need. An envoy is sent to handle a particular task. (For you DS9 fans, I would think “emissary” would work well, too.)
(1Co 9:8-10 ESV) 8 Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.
Paul continues to pound the point home. It’s not just the practice of the other apostles that establishes his right. The Torah (Deu 25:4) does the same.
To modern ears, a reference to treating oxen humanely seem a bit of a stretch, but the argument carries weight. If it’s inhumane to force an animal to produce for its owner without letting it eat, all the more so for one of God’s own apostles!
In b. Baba Meṣiʿa 88b the Mishnah’s teaching that men may eat from the loose produce of the field in which they work (cf. m. B. Meṣiʿa 7:2) is defended on the basis of an argument from the lesser to the greater from Deuteronomy 25:4, perhaps influenced by Deuteronomy 23:24 as well. …
The command of Deuteronomy 25:4 comes soon after these passages which are concerned to make sure that not only those who work get to benefit from the product of their labor (eating it), but that other needy and marginalized people should also be able to eat it. Given that context it is natural to understand the command as an extension of an already implied principle that those who work are allowed to partake of the fruit of their labors since, when it comes to humans, that benefit even extends beyond those whose labors contributed to the harvest or production of food.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 405.
But isn’t the Torah repealed? Well, not exactly. This is not the first time in 1 Corinthians that Paul applies the principles of the Torah in a Christian context. In 1 Cor 5, he applies the laws against incest in Lev 18. Here he references a law regarding the humane treatment of animals — but within a larger context of allowing humans to enjoy the fruit of their labors — as authority for his statement.
And so the Law does not save or forgive sin, but the Law does reveal the heart of God when read through the lens of Christ. In short, we should study the Law — but we should first learn Jesus so that we’ll be equipped to interpret and apply the Law in this new age.
And while we’re on hermeneutics, remember that it’s always important to read Paul’s allusions to an Old Testament passage as an allusion to the broader context, not just the quoted or paraphrased section. They had no chapter and verse numbering system. This was how the rabbis referenced a passage.
Hence, Paul’s reading of Deu 25:4 is likely colored by such passages as,
(Deu 23:24-25 ESV) 24 “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. 25 If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.”
(Deu 24:19-22 ESV) 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”
The spirit of the Torah is one of generosity towards one’s fellow Jew. “What’s mine is mine” is for the pagans. God’s people share and do so happily.
Paul is not so much applying law as reading through the text to the Heart behind the text. The text reveals God who cares about those in need, neighbors, and animals. He wants his people to be like him, generous and quick to help.
Paul’s hermeneutic is more relational, agape-driven, than legal. It’s contextual — the entirety of the Torah re-thought through the prophets and Jesus.
Hence, to Paul, it seems that the question is not so much: Which parts of the Law remain binding? as: What does the Torah reveal about the heart of God in light of his revelation through the prophets and Jesus?