For an introduction to this series, click here.
This chapter continues Paul's teaching on not being an offense or a stumbling block to anyone. This is a very practical chapter. This chapter also gives us a lot of insight into the life of an apostle. Paul first talks about how he does not demand money for his services as an apostle: "This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 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? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 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? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 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? Does he not speak entirely 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. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?" (9:3-11)
People always get nervous when preachers talk about money. Here Paul is baring his soul a little bit, so we can see that he was just like most of us who worry about money and the way people treat us. It is kind of sad that Paul could not make enough money from the people he had taught through the years to make ends meet. But unfortunately that's the way life as a servant of the Lord is. Of course we know that Paul often had to stop and make tents to make some money.
Paul continues in the same idea: "Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (9:12-16)
Paul does not want to be a burden on the churches he visits, and so he is willing to do without in order to preach the gospel. Now I don't begrudge people who make their living today from ministry. It's a tough life. But I think if more people were like Paul and did not have a list of demands (lots of people do this; your pastor just doesn't tell you) they would be better off spiritually, I think, and I think the Lord would probably bless more financially as well.
Finally Paul gets down to the real purpose of not being a stumbling block: to reach people with the Gospel: "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings." (9:19-23, ESV)
You can't minister to people if you are an offense to them. Oh, you can go through the motions of a service, but if the people have a problem with you, they are not going to listen. You have to be real and you have to get down on the level of the people to whom you are ministering. This is what Paul means when he says he becomes all things to all people. Not that he joins them in their sin, of course, but that he does what he can to be like them, whether that means living like a Jew or as a weak person.