Life on Mission

1 Corinthians

Week of May 28, 2017


The Point:  We can better serve the gospel when we step into the shoes of others.

For the Sake of the Gospel:  1 Corinthians 9:19-27.

[19] For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. [20] 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. [21] 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. [22] 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. [23] I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. [24] Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. [25] Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. [26] So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. [27] But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.  [ESV]

“[19]  Because Paul’s concern is to be an effective communicator of the gospel, he reacts wisely to the prejudices and hesitations of those with whom he comes into contact, both Jews and Greeks. Similarly, the Corinthians need to come to terms with the sensitivities of fellow-Christians. In this context, one signal difference between the apostle and the church is that whereas he has triumphed, they have failed. This is the issue he continues to address, asserting his freedom to dispense with what some might consider to be solemn obligations. Paul implies that the principle of flexibility always affects his attitude to those to whom he speaks about Christ, in this manner bringing the argument of chapter 9 full circle: if he is adaptable, yet always maintaining his integrity, why should his readers not imitate him? To win Gentiles, Paul adopts their lifestyle, although never descending to idol worship; and to win Jews, it is essential for him to conduct himself as a Jew; such is the racial divide that he has no alternative. Nevertheless, a Jewish critic would have abhorred someone who had discarded his culture to live like a Gentile, and a Greek sceptic would have protested that Paul was a fervent Jew scheming to turn gullible Greeks into Hebrews. To each, Paul seemed to be unprincipled, an entrepreneur ready to exploit the situations into which he injected himself. At a deeper level, the apostle has to be alert to the accusation of assimilating his ministry to prevalent cultures, hammering out one gospel for Jews reared on the law of Moses, and another for Greeks who let themselves be guided by the relatively dim light of defective conscience [Rom. 1:19-21; 2:14-15]. This is why the present chapter, as indeed the whole letter, shows that his message needs, and asks for, no cultural modification. In other words, Paul exhibits the truth that fixed principles give rise to flexibility in relationships, an adaptability that breaks no law. And he shows that where there is scant knowledge of the truth and little concern for one’s neighbor, there can remain only a harsh and damaging rigidity. The whole subject is addressed by 9:19-27, the apostle’s policy being elegantly simple: in the task of evangelism he has been more than willing to accommodate to all, but will never allow himself to be dominated by the prevailing norms. Not only will he not revert to his former Jewishness by embracing Old Testament feasts, ceremonies and dietary laws as part of an outdated legislation, but he is unprepared to commit himself to being a Hellene, someone who, even if not a devotee of the gods, would be culturally non-Jewish. In short, he steps back from being perceived as essentially either a Jew or a Gentile. So, following the Damascus-road conversion, there is now only one who is his Master: he is dominated by Jesus. This is why in 9:19 he expounds his commitment to freedom: because he remains free from all, maintaining his independence, he is no man’s lackey and is under no obligation to conform to the demands of a paymaster. Further, because he is answerable to Christ, he considers himself at liberty to become a servant to all, meaning that it has long been his policy to identify with others, displaying friendship in order to win more of them for his Savior. [20]  Here, Paul has in mind those who allow their knowledge free rein, and who by eating sacrificed meat damage weaker brethren [8:1,10]. This verse develops the previous verse: Paul behaves as a Jew when with Jews, observing the law of Moses as one under the law, although it is not now his final authority in matters of faith and conduct. Hence the rider: (though not being myself under the law). The plan is that he might win Jews, those who regard Moses’ legislation as absolute. When with them Paul will adjust to their practices, though not accepting their convictions, so that they might comprehend Moses and abandon him in favor of the Messiah. The apostle does not acknowledge his conduct to be irregular, the reason being that he believed that the law had never been more than a provisional apparatus in the plan of salvation. Although he never encouraged fellow-Jews to disregard Moses’ legislation, he regarded it neither as an instrument leading to justification nor as an ultimate rule for believers within the new dispensation. Yet he was prepared to observe its stipulations, never wrong in themselves, in order to empathize with fellow Hebrews. And this is borne out by the book of Acts. For example, Sabbath days were normally the occasions when Paul preached to Jews in their synagogues, although the seventh day was never instituted as the churches’ statutory day for worship. Timothy, who was Jewish, was circumcised, but not because the rite was reckoned as mandatory. Paul was shaved in accordance with the Nazirite vow, submitted himself to Jewish purification, confessed himself a Pharisee and was ready to acknowledge that Ananias was a high priest, even though, in his view, the man was a whitewashed wall [Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:24-26; 23:3-6]. [21]  The sentence commencing at 9:20 continues, Paul stating that he associates with Gentiles who are outside the law. Elsewhere in the bible, without law – which could also be translated as ‘lawless person’ – is often derogatory. It may seem at first sight that Paul confesses to finding his place in low society. But it is not so simple. The apostle is aware that Gentiles are people for whom the law of Moses, even if acknowledged by them as the focus of Jewish piety, has no authority. Therefore without law alludes to the status of Gentiles who live beyond the pale of Moses’ law. Nevertheless, because he realizes that his words will make his critics’ antennae twitch with anticipation, he feels the need to explain. Although he remains outside the law, Paul is not outside the law of God: a God-given propositional code has been imposed upon him as his rule, and he aspires to honor it. This admission is revolutionary, bearing in mind the statement of 9:20 that Paul is not under the law of Moses. What ‘law’ can it be that has claimed his allegiance? Specifically, it is the law of Christ within which he finds himself, meaning that Jesus as Lord has replaced Moses as his legislator. Nor does he permit the Corinthians to overlook the seemingly incidental fashion in which the term the law of Christ is introduced, suggesting to them that they are to be aware of its significance and that for Paul it has become the definitive ‘law of God’. This explains not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ. But, we again ask, what was the content of this new ‘law’? To be under the law is to be subject to a system of law. It may be supposed that the law of Christ incorporates at least two distinct yet inseparable elements: firstly, the body of teaching bequeathed to the churches by Jesus and His apostles – all of which is recorded for us in the complete New Testament; secondly, the Lord’s personal example and, at least as far as the Corinthians were concerned, its reflection, Paul. If so, Paul sees the law of Christ as the absolute guide for God’s people, both Jews and others. In his day he was aware of this radical development, and an example of the principle has appeared already in 6:15-20: immorality is wrong, not now because of the seventh commandment but because a Christian’s body belongs to the Lord by right of purchase. The apostle never teaches that justification denies obedience. Aware that believers need to be transformed outwardly by the inward renewing of their minds [Rom. 12:2], he understood also that the new-covenant saints were being given on-the-record, written teaching to guide them. So, as a man not now dominated by Moses’ law, Paul strives to win those who recognize no written, God-given code. He does this so that they will capitulate to the law of Christ. [22]  As in 8:7-9, the weak may have been those in the churches who had not finally made up their minds about the existence or otherwise of the gods. Paul has resolved to win them by sympathizing with their hesitations. Or, he may be saying that he displays concern for underprivileged and unconverted members of an idolatrous society [cf. 1:27]. If so, the weak have yet to be won for Christ, rather than this being a reference to less robust Corinthian believers. Yet again, he may be inclusive, referring to the unconverted as well as to naïve believers: all need his support. In short, he has become all things to all people so that he might save some. He is confident that some who hear him, a man happy to live at their level, will turn to Christ and progress to maturity. [23]  Therefore, all Paul’s activities are in the interests of the gospel in that he yearns to be its fellow-partner. This could mean that he desires to share the wonder of serving Christ with his fellows, or that he expects to be recompensed by the churches for services rendered, or that he might not be disqualified from the gospel, or simply that he looks towards the end when both he and his converts will be raised in glory. The last seems preferable: although Paul’s salvation is certain, he longs to see a continuous accession of believers, both at Corinth and elsewhere. For this he is prepared to do all that is necessary to please the Lord whose standards have become his rule of life. [24]  The apostle now ends the parenthetical chapter 9 in which he has presented himself as an example to those who feel that they are strong in the faith: if he has surrendered so many rights, yet remains obedient to Christ, should they not show consideration to those with misgivings about flesh sacrificed to the gods? He will return to this sensitive issue in chapter 10. Paul appeals to reality for the last time in this letter: Do you not know, as he challenges the more knowledgeable converts to advance, introducing the imagery of athletics to make his point. Paul asks, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run? He focuses upon exertion because athletes enter an arena to strive for honors. He continues, but only one receives the prize. Paul then applies his point: so run that you may obtain it. Learn from a would-be champion: keep running, especially when it hurts, so that you receive a prize. That is, eyes should look to the Lord [Heb. 12:2], individuals being allowed to obtain a prize only if they push themselves to the limit. [25]  For this reason, every runner who contends will endure strict training. Paul may have in mind a competitor renouncing a diet that would lessen the possibility of winning. By analogy, the Corinthians must give up meat killed in sacrifice even if in some circumstances it is not wrong to eat it [10:27]. They have to take this step to avoid giving offense to others and thus please their Master. Knowing that athletes will do virtually anything to grasp a perishable wreath, how much more should a believer control himself in order to receive an imperishable trophy? The apostle, emphasizing that the occasion for receiving the award lies in the future, contemplates the moment when Christians stand before their Lord. For him, one component of discipleship is holy self-interest, which he commends to his readers. [26]  Paul presents himself as a runner and a boxer: he runs as fast as he can, and as a boxer he strives to hit his target. Just as an athlete who mismanages his training will fail, so too the Christian who fails to exercise self-control will fail. Instead every believer should strive to do all for the glory of the Lord. [27]  But, because Paul is committed to effectiveness, he will discipline his body in order to bring his body under control. Beaten into submission, his body is at his mercy, rather than his being subject to its urges. Paul’s physical body, though not intrinsically evil, is the seat of much that is sinful [Rom. 8:13]. Here, the sense is that even legitimate desires are to be abandoned should necessity arise. The apostle discloses a fear that, when time is past, the Lord will inform him that his activities as a herald have been ineffective. In consequence, he will remain disqualified or ‘unapproved’. The metaphor of the athlete drops away, Paul writing that because this world must retreat in favor of a better, he remains determined to honor the gospel by his conduct as well as by announcing it. Did he fear for his salvation or, alternatively, dread finding himself in the sad position of a thoughtless minister of the gospel [cf. 3:15]? Although the former view seems to be strengthened by the occurrences of the Greek word translated here as disqualified in 2 Corinthians 13:5-6; 2 Timothy 3:8; and Titus 1:16, the apostle knew that the Lord who had called him would keep him [cf. 15:51-57]. In context, Paul, in discussing the salvation of others but not their perdition [9:22], does not intend to be like a half-hearted boxer who puts up some sort of a fight, and the athlete who, win or lose, does not push himself to the limit. And this accords with common sense. If the warnings delivered to believers were hollow, we should be complacent, and in his day Paul might have been no exception. We do our best so that when our travelling days are done the Lord will not be dissatisfied with our efforts. The crown, then, for which the apostle strives is that of the divine ‘Well done’ within the eschatological kingdom [cf. Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Rev. 2:10].

Application.  Paul’s setting aside of his rights to marry, not to work, and to receive payment [9:4-7] was not intended as a precedent for ministers of the gospel. Indeed, would a minister be wise were he to decide never to marry or were he to decline his pay? But the principle of self-denial is an abiding one. In his day, the apostle realized that the welfare of the churches demanded from him sacrifices unique to his particular calling. We have to contemplate our situation as Christians, asking ourselves what we ought to give – or give up – in order to edify the body of Christ. This being so, no one should be allowed to dictate to us what we should or should not do: ultimately, it all comes down to private judgment, even though loving advice and comment, if offered, must be heeded. When in 9:24 Paul likens himself both to a fighter and an athlete, he does not mean that he competes against fellow-believers. His concern is for maximum efficiency and a personal accolade. If we look to Jesus we shall be free from envy, whereas if we are jealous of others and perhaps seek to outdo them we automatically turn our gaze away from the Savior [cf. John 21:22]. It is then that we find ourselves in difficulties.”  [Naylor, pp. 232-243].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What was Paul’s fundamental philosophy in the way he went about evangelism [19-23]? How does this apply to you? What would it mean in your life to make yourself a servant to all? How do you decide what things of the Christian faith can be compromised and what things cannot be compromised; what things are necessary and what are indifferent?
  1. Running the race is a popular metaphor for Paul. But what does he mean that he might be disqualified? Disqualified from what? In what ways do you need to discipline your body and keep it under control? What things are interfering with your spiritual growth and your service to the Gospel? Pray that God will enable you to lay these things aside, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith [Heb. 12:2].
  1. In this passage Paul is encouraging believers to ask themselves the right question. The wrong question to ask concerning our Christian behavior is: “What is wrong with me doing this thing? There is nothing in Scripture forbidding me from satisfying this desire in this way.” The right question is: “Does this particular action bring the most glory to God? Does it enable me to be the best possible witness to the Gospel?” Are you prepared to give up legitimate desires if they interfere with you bringing the most honor to God?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, ECNT, Baker.

1 Corinthians, Peter Naylor, Evangelical Press.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter Varsity.

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