Paul is writing to the local church at Corinth to admonish the congregation toward unity through maturity in the faith. He expounded on Christian liberty and pay for pastors. Now, he writes about the Christian as a voluntary slave even though he is free. Basic Christian servanthood means much for the way we treat others. The way we treat others reveals whether or not we are in the faith and have eternal life. I want you to think, for a moment, about all the different types of people in the world: drunkards, babblers, gluttons, liars, thieves, perverts, swindlers, brawlers, and so forth. What do you believe the Christian’s attitude is to be toward such people in the world?
1 Corinthians 9:19-27
19 Ἐλεύθερος γὰρ ὢν ἐκ πάντων πᾶσιν ἐμαυτὸν ἐδούλωσα, ἵνα τοὺς πλείονας κερδήσω· 20 καὶ ἐγενόμην τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις ὡς Ἰουδαῖος, ἵνα Ἰουδαίους κερδήσω· τοῖς ὑπὸ νόμον ὡς ὑπὸ νόμον, μὴ ὢν αὐτὸς ὑπὸ νόμον, ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον κερδήσω· 21 τοῖς ἀνόμοις ὡς ἄνομος, μὴ ὢν ἄνομος θεοῦ ἀλλʼ ἔννομος Χριστοῦ, ἵνα κερδάνω τοὺς ἀνόμους· 22 ἐγενόμην τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν ἀσθενής, ἵνα τοὺς ἀσθενεῖς κερδήσω· τοῖς πᾶσιν γέγονα πάντα, ἵνα πάντως τινὰς σώσω. 23 πάντα δὲ ποιῶ διὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, ἵνα συγκοινωνὸς αὐτοῦ γένωμαι.
24 Οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι οἱ ἐν σταδίῳ τρέχοντες πάντες μὲν τρέχουσιν, εἷς δὲ λαμβάνει τὸ βραβεῖον; οὕτως τρέχετε ἵνα καταλάβητε. 25 πᾶς δὲ ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος πάντα ἐγκρατεύεται, ἐκεῖνοι μὲν οὖν ἵνα φθαρτὸν στέφανον λάβωσιν, ἡμεῖς δὲ ἄφθαρτον. 26 ἐγὼ τοίνυν οὕτως τρέχω ὡς οὐκ ἀδήλως, οὕτως πυκτεύω ὡς οὐκ ἀέρα δέρων· 27 ἀλλὰ ὑπωπιάζω μου τὸ σῶμα καὶ δουλαγωγῶ, μή πως ἄλλοις κηρύξας αὐτὸς ἀδόκιμος γένωμαι.
Paul’s heart (v. 19)
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.
What does Paul mean when he claims to be free from all men? Paul specifically means that, as a missionary and preacher, he does not preach the Gospel, plant churches, or disciple Christians into maturity under people’s compulsion (v. 16). At Corinth, it means he refuses to accept a paycheck from the Corinthian believers even though God has directed those who preach the Gospel to get their living from the Gospel because he does not want them to hold any sway over him (v. 14-15). Corinth is an immature church. The preacher-teacher, missionary, elder, or church-planter is bound to follow Christ and not the preferences of people. He is bound such that he is not compelled by people to do things any certain way. He is compelled, instead, by God’s word. So, if a local church wishes to control its pastor by offering a paycheck, it is in sin. If, however, the paycheck is offered giving a pastor freedom to follow Christ, Christ is honored—which Paul got at in the previous pericope. Paul will not be compelled by people. He is free from all men.
How, then, does he make himself a slave to all? In what sense does Paul strive to win more? We will see these questions answered as we move through the text. We know, since Paul figuratively applies biblical truth to his own life (cf. 4:6), that he hopes his First Century readers and we will adopt his free-slave lifestyle in our own contexts whether or not we are in full-time ministry.
Paul’s method (v. 20-22a)
To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak…
Paul’s method is what modern missionaries refer to as contextualization. Paul’s language is not methodological. Paul isn’t merely doing certain things to appear relevant or attract people. It is a identificatory. He is becoming as a Jew to win Jews. To the weak he becomes weak. To those who are not under God’s Law, he becomes as one who is not under God’s Law (a Gentile). Paul follows Christ’s example. Christ condescended to humanity, assuming human flesh and a human nature to Himself in the hypostatic union. In a sense, Christ became a man in order to reveal God to humanity in a perfect way. Paul is encouraging us to be like Christ by assuming the identity of the wretched people around us. Christ condescended without sinning. Identifying with people does not require sin from anyone.
Paul’s purpose (v. 22b-23)
I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.
To be all things to all people, in this sense, does not mean we are available at everyone’s beckoning call at all times every day to serve their preferences or support their agendas, morality, or social causes. Paul does not claim to be a social activist, movement creator, or political change agent. His purpose is not changing the world but seeing some people come to salvation. To be all things to all people is to be willing and convicted to identify with people from every walk of life, religious and irreligious.
Similarly, when Paul refers to using all means, he isn’t saying that he would host a concert or draw people in using the entertaining woo of temple prostitutes—which was a popular method of the time. He is saying that he will, by means of becoming impoverished seek to reach the impoverished. By means of living according to the religious rules of those under the Law he will reach those under the Law (abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols). By means of becoming like a Gentile he will reach the Gentile (not abstaining from meat sacrificed to idols). The Gospel is the same. It does not change. The Gospel needs no contextualization. We do. Just as Christ condescended to us becoming like us, we become like those we desire to reach culturally. This is how we do missions like Christ. The local church body identifies with the culture outside the church walls. The local church, if she is to obey Christ’s Bible, must not have its own subculture. We must pop the religious bubble. We must tear down these walls. There is no real divide between the secular and sacred; All things belong to Christ—they are His inheritance (cf. Genesis 14:19, 22; Exodus 9:29; Leviticus 25:23; 19:5 Deuteronomy 10:14; Job 41:11; Psalm 2:8; 24:1; 50:10-12; 74:16; 89:11; 95:4, 5; 104:24; Daniel 2:20; Romans 12:19; 1 Corinthians 10:26; Hebrews 1:2).
Paul became a philosopher to the philosophers on Mars Hill (cf. Acts 17:22-34). Jesus was a soldier to the centurion (cf. Matthew 8:9-10). When Peter failed to be all things to all people, Paul rebuked him (cf. Galatians 2:11-13). Further, Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard because He came eating and drinking (grapes and wine in context) and because of the company He kept (cf. Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Those who wish to be like Jesus, who live like the church ought to live, will be slandered by overtly religious people because they care too much about being with sinners and identifying with them. Those who do not know Christ but are religious will refuse to identify with those they perceive to be wretches, live with sinners, eat with gluttons, drink with drunkards, live like a poor person around the impoverished, and edify the lowest of people rather than being puffed up in their religiosity. Those who are religious but lost will most likely condemn those who try to live like Christ like Paul is exemplifying here. Remember the goal, that we may save some—which means not sinning in our identification but by way of identification calling sinners to repentance and belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not identify with others for the purpose of selfish gain, but instead:
I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
If we do not identify with others outside the church, those wretches and sinners, we show fruit that proves we are not partakers of the gospel. The way we treat others is an indication of whether or not we are really in Christ, which should terrify many people who claim to be in Christ today.
Running the Christian race (v. 24-27)
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
In the context of his own ministry and basic Christian living, being a slave to all people through contextualization, Paul explains why it is important for each one to grasp this basic concept. What is the prize, here? If we look at verse 25, we see that Paul is referring to being a partaker of the gospel as the prize of life. Paul has taken all this dialogue about Christian liberty, ministry, and slavery and related it to the doctrine of salvation.
We are all running a race, life. In a race, only one receives the prize. Not everyone will win the game of life. Paul admonishes the local church to run life’s race in such a way as to win, to be a partaker of the gospel. We are all competing in the Olympics of life (Greek Games, which included boxing). Paul admonishes the local church to box as if to win the wreath, to be a partaker of the gospel. We are not without aim. Salvation is the prize we compete for in this life. Some will win, and some will not. We discipline ourselves, particularly concerning contextualization, so that we will not be disqualified. Not our mere words but the way we live wins us the prize according to Paul’s illustration, here. Woe to us if we preach to others but are ourselves disqualified because we have not run the race or competed well in the Olympics of life.
Paul does not, here, provide an order of salvation. So, we shouldn’t read some kind of works-righteousness into his illustration. What we know for sure is that works do matter, particularly our treatment of others in contextualization for the purpose of saving some. It is not wrong for Paul to indicate that he saves some because he is a partaker with Christ who does the saving. Neither is it wrong for Paul to insist that our works reveal whether or not we are in the faith. It is wrong for us to make this into a sort of works-righteousness. For works-righteousness is the very thing Paul condemns in this passage in favor of identifying with sinners as the Christian’s primary evangelistic work. Our evil, selfish works really do disqualify us from salvation. Christ calls us and sanctifies us so that we are qualified. He does not call the qualified but qualifies the called.
You have heard it said that you should stay away from certain places or people because you don’t want to ruin your witness. Scripture teaches that we should identify with people instead. Like they did Christ, ungodly people will persecute us for living Christian lives—which doesn’t look very religious from the world’s point of view. This is why we invite sinners, not the righteous, to Christ and to join the local church. Christ came for the sick, not the well (cf. Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31). Sadly, I have experienced more persecution by teaching these things than almost any other doctrine. Why? People get puffed up in their religion (cf. 8:1).
Here is our calling to basic evangelism. Go be with sinners, the worst of them. Don’t sin, but identify with sinners. Be in the world, not of it. Have a drink with drunkards like Jesus did. Eat with gluttons. Have coffee with coffee snobs. Eat meat with those who eat meat. Barter in the marketplace. Do what you do well to serve others. Your secular life is more sacred than you know. Share the true gospel so that you may by all means save some. Especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching, don’t neglect living like Christ because of your office—in order to present yourself as somehow better than others. You are not. Do not let your preaching disqualify you from partaking of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To those who are sinners. You are welcome here. Salvation is in Christ alone. Our sin earns us death. Christ died on behalf of His people. If He is calling you to Himself, come. Come and see that the Lord is good.
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