THE MUZZLED OX
“For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shall not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?”
Notes of a sermon on I Corinthians 9.9.
This is a very practical part of the word of God and there are some very practical things to say about it. The chapter deals with our attitude to the ministry of the word, and particularly does it deal with the practical support that we give to that ministry. It always has been a very sensitive subject, indeed, the apostle Paul found it to be such a sensitive subject that when he ministered the word of life amongst the churches, he took nothing from them for his services. He and Barnabas, as they went about preaching, supported themselves with their own labours, but it is very clear from this chapter that he looks upon his own position as being, in this particular, quite distinct from the common condition of ministers and the whole burden of the earlier part of this chapter is that those who preach the gospel shall live of the gospel. That is the simple principle to bear in mind as we read through this chapter. So this raises a number of questions about attitudes, and particularly the attitude of our hearts to the preaching of the word. If the things that we preach mean anything then they mean everything. If they have any importance then they are the most important of all things that we can consider in this life. If these things are true, and I believe they are true, then it is certainly a fact that we can consider nothing more important than the things of the gospel, and so it is a great question as to how we look at the truths that are preached. What is the attitude of our hearts, towards the things that we hear and consequently what is the attitude of our hearts to those who preach these things?
Now Paul in this chapter uses some very plain language. He says “who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges?”. If a man is called to serve his country in war time then that man expects that his country will supply’ him with food and drink and suitable clothing and the equipment which he needs to fight in that battle. No-one ever heard of a soldier having to pay his own way in order to fight for his own country. “Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges?”. That is an unheard of thing; a thing we should never ask men of this country to do.
“Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof?”. If a man planted a vineyard, and tended the vine and waited until the vines produced their fruit then he would be the first to eat the fruit and no-one would question his right to go into his own vineyard and eat the fruit. Paul is saying in this chapter that those who live of the gospel have this God-given right to practical support through the gospel.
Then he says “who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?” You would never question the farmer’s right to go into
the milking parlour and take a glass of milk when the cattle were being milked. You would not think that dishonest. He would not be accused of theft if he did that. It is his, rightfully his. He has been feeding the flock, caring for it, the flock has produced its milk, and he has a perfect right to drink of that milk first.
“Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?” Paul is saying, I am not just speaking as an ordinary man. He is speaking with the authority of God and has the word of God behind him, and he goes back, and says, “it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.”
In Deuteronomy this was part of the law given to the people of Israel by Moses. “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn”. You may know that in those days, the thrashing of the corn, after the harvest, was not done as it is today. There were no such things as mechanical harvesters. The corn in the field was reaped by sickle, gathered together in bundles and carried to the thrashing floor. This was usually some flat piece of rock, or hard ground where the corn was laid on the ground and then very often oxen were used to tread on the corn. Sometimes the oxen were tethered to a bar which was pivotted at the centre, and the oxen just tramped round and round and round on the corn until all the corn was broken, the ears of corn were broken down, and the grains of corn were separated from the chaff that grows round them. Now it was a law of God that when oxen were used in this way to thrash out the wheat from the chaff they should never have a muzzle on their mouths. There should never be any restriction over their mouths. If they wished they could at any time stop, and bend down and eat from the corn they were trampling on. They were working beasts and had to be treated with real care and concern. “Doth God take care for oxen?” Yes, He does. God has concern for His creatures although they be like oxen. If he is concerned for creatures like oxen, He is surely concerned for men. Yes, Jesus said, you are of more value than many sparrows. He does take care of men. He does so in a general way. He is good to all. He does so in a special way; He loves his own. Surely, then. God will take special care of those who are His ministers. I am sure of that. “Truly”, says David, “I am thy servant”, and God will take care of his servants, make no mistake of that, and whatever you do to His servants, I am sure God will take care of them. But the point of this chapter is that you should be concerned in your hearts in the same way, not to the same extent, but in the same way as God is concerned.
Just a simple illustration on this point for a moment. In my childhood when we lived in Rochdale, and my father was the pastor of the church there. We used to walk very often to the chapel, and we went down a very long and very steep hill. At the bottom of that hill there was a board sticking out from the side of one of the factories, and there were a lot of factories in Rochdale in those days, and on the board was a very strange notice. For a long time, as a
child, I used to puzzle over this notice, “Please give the horse its head when going up this hill”. I used to think, well, I have never seen a horse without a head, whatever can it mean, and so one day I asked my father. “Well,” he said, “in the days when there were lots of horses and carts, some of the horses had to pull very heavy loads and when they came to a hill, the horse wanted to put its head down so that it could pull better and those who were driving the horses were never to pull on the reins to lift the horses head up. They were to let the reins go slack so that the horse could pull against the load in its own way”. So, you see, even as recently as that in our own country, men were concerned for their beasts and if men are concerned for their beasts, surely God is concerned for His people. If these beasts are our servants, surely God is caring for His servants.
Next Paul says, “saith he it altogether for our sakes?” Was this just written in the book of Deuteronomy to instruct Israel years ago? We might ask another question today; Is this Law so old-fashioned, and so out of date that we need take no notice of it today? “No!” says Paul, “it has a continuing importance”. “For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope.” If you see a man plowing today, you know that soon he will sow the seed. You know that when he has sown the seed, he is hoping for a harvest. He is plowing in hope. Well now, if the farmer plows in hope, surely the preacher must be like the farmer, like the husbandman, and do his work hopefully. He is hoping for results, and he that thrasheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. If there is a blessing when he has been thrashing, if he finds there has been a good harvest, then he should be partaker of the benefit. He should have his proper part of the profit. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? Paul argues simply. He argues first from scripture, and then he argues from ordinary human feelings. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, if we have been like the husbandman with the seed in his hand, and we have sown spiritual seed in the ground of your hearts, surely then it is not a great thing if we reap your carnal things, that is not something you are going to be begrudging the minister, surely not! Now friends, the point is this; that if you begrudge the minister your carnal things, it reflects the attitude of your heart to spiritual things, that is the burden of this verse. I am sure that your attitude to spiritual things will be reflected in your use of the carnal things; and the carnal things are pounds and pence nowadays, sometimes expressed in other ways, for example, a sack of potatoes to use a very relevant illustration at the moment. * These are carnal things.
Your attitude of heart to spiritual things will be reflected in your use of such carnal things, and if all your carnal things are spent to satisfy your own carnal desires, then you cannot be spiritual. It is as bIunt and as simple as that; but if in your heart there is a love of
spiritual things then there will be a most gracious and careful use of your carnal things. “If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power;” Paul is saying in effect, “I have this power, this is my right, I could very justly take from you means of support but I have not done it.” The burden of the chapter is simply that those that live of the gospel should live of the gospel, and live properly and live comfortably.
“Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple?” The tribe of Levi had no inheritance in the land of promise, they had no land allocated to them, they had no place which they could say belonged to them. They had no fields to grow corn in, and they had no part of the land to put their cattle on to graze, and they were bound by God to be dependent upon the rest of the people. That is not just an old fashioned relic of Jewish history, Paul says, there is a lesson in this. Those that God calls to the work of the ministry are separated to that work and for that work, and they are to be like the Levites, they are to be dependent upon the others. They have no inheritance in the land with regard to these carnal things, they have no fields, flocks or herds, they must live of those things of the temple, and they who wait at the altar are partakers with the altar. When the people brought their sacrifices there was a part appointed by God for those who served at the altar, “even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel”. Now that seems like the final declaration. The apostle can say no more than that. If you want the very last word, then you have the word of Jesus, and that must be indeed the final word.
This is how the Saviour directed His disciples. “These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them saying, go not into the way of the Gentiles and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and as ye go preach saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand, heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils, freely ye have received, freely give. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, neither script for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes nor yet staves for the workman is worthy of his meat.” Now there is the principle of the Lord Jesus. The workman is worthy of his meat and ‘into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, enquire who in it is worthy, and there abide till ye go thence, and when you go into a house salute it, and if the house be worthy let your peace come into it, but if it be not worthy let your peace return to you, and whosoever shall not receive you or hear your words when you depart out of that house or city shake off the dust of your feet. Verily, I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gommorrah in the day of judgement than for that city.” These are solemn words. The disciples were sent first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There are some things here that apply to that period of time while the Saviour was still here on the earth. But there are principles here which apply now that Jesus has sent His disciples to preach the gospel into all the world; and the apostle Paul evidently believed so.
“So hath the Lord ordained”. Do notice that word “ordained”. This is God’s most plain declaration through Jesus Christ. It is not a question of opinion. He has ordained that those that preach the gospel should live of the gospel. Now I want to ask you a simple question. Would the money that you pay your preacher on the Lord’s day, keep him for one week? If it would not, then there is something wrong. This is God’s ordination. God did not ordain, and the Lord Jesus Christ did not tell his disciples to go into a town or city and there labour for six days in some ordinary calling, and then preach the gospel on the seventh day, and then go back to six days labour because they could not live on what they received from preaching the gospel.
The Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel, not for one day out of the week. I sometimes feel that what is paid to ministers would not keep them for one day of the week, let alone seven days of the week. I ask you that are church members very carefully to consider these things in your own church life. For you see, the Lord said it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of Judgement than for that city which treats God’s own messengers with careless unconcern and indifference. That is a solemn thing, .and it concerns the future. What happens more immediately? The Lord commands these men to turn their backs upon towns and cities where they are not welcome and to wipe the dust of the place off their feet. You say, “that sounds very severe.” Friends, I believe the Lord will take away a faithful ministry from people who do not value it. I believe that the Lord will remove faithful preaching from churches which do not show their practical concern and express their value of that ministry in a practical way. For the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
“Thou shalt not muzzle the ox which treadeth out the corn”. Think for a few more moments about this. If a man is called to go to preach the word, then he is called to a work which is hard labour. The oxen had to tread on this corn. Now you know what a pile of corn is like, and if you have ever tried to tread on it you know how difficult it is. I suppose the nearest thing that some of you would ever have found is loose sand at the seaside. You cannot walk quickly on it. It is hard work, because it is soft under your feet, and your feet slip backwards. Now the preaching of the word is hard work. It may not be hard work so much physically, but it is hard work mentally and spiritually, and it is as though the ground is soft and you often slip backwards, and as you push against the corn under your feet, the feet slip and slide, and that makes it twice the work, often enough. Well now, a man called to preach the gospel is a man on whom God places a great burden. He has a great burden of responsibility for he is accountable to God. “Oh”, says Paul “I run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” The minister has a great concern personally; and he has
a great concern for those to whom he preaches. There is a great concern to be faithful before God, and these are heavy weights to carry.
Then again, the oxen tethered to its post would walk round and round, over the same ground; and it is not easy to preach week by week to the same people! People come to me sometimes and say we just do not get on with so-and-so, his preaching is so much the same. Well, I have often wondered if t he reason why his preaching is so much the same is that for six days of the week he has hardly had time to think, and so the poor man comes to the Lord’s day worn out with the cares of another week in the world. No, Paul says to Timothy, “study to show thyself approved, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth”. There is work to do;
there is work to do secretly, there is work to do in the study, there is work to do on the knees before the Word of God, there is work to do personally amongst the people which cannot be done from a pulpit. Oh, there is work to be done, and “thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.” It was told me once that a minister had spoken to some people about these matters, and they turned on him, and said “Oh, you don’t want to be worrying about things like that, they preach better if they are poor”. My friends, I believe just the opposite. I believe that it is a very important thing to be concerned out. If preachers are poor then it shows that we have a poor estimation of the gospel. We sometimes set a very low value on the truth. The preached word surely cannot then be the very word of life to our hearts, or else we should value it more highly. People, they say, will soon be paying 20 pence per pound for potatoes. Why? because they have to eat them! Now friends, if your soul is alive you must have food, and if that food is expensive you have to pay the price; and this is exactly what Paul is saying – there is a price to be paid. Yes, say people, that is quite right, our ministers should not have a job in the week, they should depend on the Lord; but that is as far as they go. Yes, ministers should depend on the Lord, and friends if they do depend on the Lord, the Lord will not fail them, of that I am certain. The Lord will not fail those He has called to depend on Him. But the great question is: who will the Lord use? Who will the Lord use to support them? Through whom will the Lord’s support come? “They that honour me”, says the Lord, “I will honour”. “They that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” Those who receive a prophet in the name of a prophet shall have a suitable reward, and those who receive a prophet with that practical concern in their hearts will not loose their reward. They will find there is a minister to minister to them in spiritual things. A friend said to me the other day, “I have wondered lately whether there is so much money spent on maintaining large, old chapels, and so little spent of maintaining the ministry, that people are saying that we cannot afford to have a pastor we have got the chapel to keep up”. Now, friends, what worth is a chapel if there is no ministry of the word, if there is no gospel life and light? Better meet in a field and have faithful preaching than in an elaborate chapel and have none,
or have preaching which is unprofitable. I believe that things which are looked at as being very spiritual, often have a very simple practical background to them which is easy to overlook. If a man is called to preach, the Lord will bless him in his ministry and make him useful. That is true; but the question is; where and to whom will the Lord make him useful? There is the point so far as the hearers are concerned; where will be the Lord make him useful? Yes, the Lord will use his servants. Their work is a spiritual work. He does not send them out to waste His time, but God will deal with those who are unconcerned and indifferent.
You may go away saying, “that was not much of a gospel sermon.” But I hope it might lay a foundation for many hundreds of gospel sermons in this place, and others too. This is part of the gospel. It is part of the practical side of the gospel. I read somewhere recently of an old lady who said: if you look in most people’s bibles, you find that the Psalms are dirty, and the Gospels are dirty, but you come to books like James and the pages are wonderfully clean. You know, friends, I think there are some wonderfully clean pages in some people’s bibles; they have never fingered over this side of the gospel! May God grant that we shall finger over this side of the gospel.
*Potatoes were scarce and very expensive at that time.