First Corinthians is composed of at least two sections. In chs. 1-6, Paul addressed his concerns about divisions in the church and the congregation’s tendency toward libertinism—as evidenced by their lax sexual and judicial norms. In the remainder of the letter, Paul responded to the Corinthians’ questions to him, first about sexuality and marriage (1 Cor 7:1-40) and then regarding eating food sacrificed at idol temples (1 Cor 8:1-11:1). To warn the Corinthians of the dangers of casual affiliation with idol temples, Paul pointed them to the storyline of Scripture.
(1) In 1 Cor 9:9, Paul cited Deut 25:4 to substantiate his argument that those who labor in the gospel have a right to be paid for their work. In 1 Corinthians 8-11, Paul argued that submission to Christ is manifested in edifying the church more than one’s socioeconomic status. Paul confronted the Corinthians’ desire to maintain their pagan friendships—and business partnerships—while enjoying the benefits the church might afford them. While Paul acknowledged their common knowledge that idols are useless and there is only one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, he yet challenged their motives for attending festive meals at idol temples (1 Cor 8:1-13). Thus, while the Corinthians had knowledge that idols were nothing, Paul challenged them to set aside their freedom to attend idol temples so that they might avoid ensnaring a weaker brother. The Corinthians were free to go to idol temples, since they were not there to worship, but they needed to value relationships in the church more than relationships they had at those temples. Since this was asking for a significant sacrifice on the part of those Corinthians who had been attending these temple feasts, in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul reminded the Corinthians of his efforts to edify the church more than his own status. Although, as an apostle, Paul was free to receive compensation from his work in the gospel, he did not use this right because it may have hindered what God had called him to do (1 Cor 9:1-12). In Deuteronomy 25, Moses commanded Israel to maintain justice in their dealings with one another. Moses specified how Israel was to exhibit fairness toward persons and beasts. Those found guilty of a crime against a fellow Israelite were to be punished, and the ox was to receive food while it treaded grain (Deut 25:1-4). Paul quoted Deut 25:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” in 1 Cor 9:9 to argue that he had the right to be compensated for the gospel—which made his refusal to be paid by the Corinthians an example of Christ-like unselfishness. The owner of the ox was not to muzzle his animal while he benefited from the animal’s work, but if the ox refused to eat while working, so be it. Paul said, “For although I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people… I do all this because of the gospel, that I may become a partner in its benefits” (1 Cor 9:19, 23).
(2) In 1 Cor 10:7, Paul quoted Exod 32:6 to advance his argument that casual association with those who worship idols can lead one to commit idolatry. Turning the Corinthians’ attention to Israel, Paul warned them that even though those under Moses had experienced the exodus, God’s provision of manna, water from a rock, and direction from a cloud during their wilderness wanderings, they were yet susceptible to idolatry (Exodus 7-15; 32). In Egypt, Israel saw the Egyptians worshipping their gods. When Israel became impatient with Moses because he did not come down from the mountain as quickly as they thought he should, they made an idol in the form of a calf (Exod 32:4). Paul warned the Corinthians that what happened to Israel could happen to them if they continued to associate with pagans while those pagans were worshipping their gods. Though at first Israel thought their idolatry a matter of celebration, “The people sat down to eat and drink, then got up to revel” (Exod 32:6), Paul warned the Corinthians that God exhibited His wrath toward those who committed idolatry and immorality. God was angry with Aaron and Israel for idolatry with the golden calf in Exodus 32 and He later killed 23,000 Israelites because of their idolatry and immorality with the Moabites (Num 25:1-9). Paul’s point was that in light of Israel’s blessings and failures, “Whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall!” (1 Cor 10:12). Some in Corinth thought themselves strong enough to attend temple meals without temptation to actually commit idolatry and Paul was concerned that the Corinthians’ cozy relationship with pagans might well overtake them. For Paul, the Corinthians’ relationship with Christ was at stake. He wrote, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?” (1 Cor 10:21-22).
(3) In 1 Cor 10:26, Paul cited Ps 24:1 to establish the Corinthians’ freedom to enjoy the Lord’s bountiful gift of food so long as they ate as slaves of Christ and out of love for the church. In Psalm 24, the psalmist praised God for His supremacy as King over the universe and His people. “The earth and everything it, the world and its inhabitants belong to the LORD,” he wrote to begin the psalm. The psalmist went on to note that it is only those with clean hands and a pure heart that may ascend the hill of the Lord to worship Him and receive His blessing (Ps 24:3-6). Paul cited only Ps 24:1 in 1 Cor 10:26 but the flow of the entire psalm may have been on his mind.