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Message # 28 | 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 | October 9, 2016


Abraham Bininger, a Swiss boy from Zurich, came with his parents to this country on the same ship that brought John Wesley. The father and mother of the lad both died on the voyage and were buried at sea, and he stepped alone from the gangway on to a strange continent, where there was not a single familiar face. When he had grown to manhood, he asked to be sent to tell the story of the cross to the negroes of the island of St. Thomas, having heard of their great misery and degradation.

When he arrived at the island, he learned that it was against the law for any person but a slave to preach to the slaves. It was the policy of the planters to keep the blacks in ignorance and superstition. Shortly after this the governor of St. Thomas received a letter signed Abraham Bininger, in which the writer begged urgently to become a slave for the rest of his life, promising to serve as a slave faithfully, provided he could give his leisure time to preaching to his fellow-slaves.

The governor sent the letter to the King of Denmark, who was so touched by it that he sent an edict empowering Abraham Bininger to tell the story of the Messiah when and where he chose—to black or white, bond or free.[1]

Purpose Statement. Limit your liberty to expand the kingdom.[2]

Paul’s model – become all things to all people.

The implication inherent in becoming.

Just briefly, let’s acknowledge that Paul states that he is willing to become all things to all people.  The fact that he will become implies that he is not, at present, those things. He admits that he became a Jew in order to win Jews. He became as one outside the law that he might win those outside of the law. He became weak that he might win the weak.

So then, might the charge be levied at Paul that he was a bit duplicitous? Wasn’t he fake? Maybe a hypocrite at times? [Note the sarcasm.] He was a Jew for the Jews and a Gentile for the Gentiles. Come on Paul, figure out who you are and stop trying to placate everyone! We might struggle with what might appear to be hypocrisy on Paul’s part. We are going to further explain this throughout the message, but consider what Augustine wrote to Jerome. “Paul was not pretending to be what he is not but showing compassion.”[3]  Paul didn’t find his identity in being a Jew, or conversely in being a Gentile. Paul rooted his identity in being in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:26–28 (ESV) for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Examples of becoming all things to all people.

It’s worth noting that Paul’s use of his freedom or liberties was in service to others and not to satisfy his own personal desires or enjoyments.

Paul and eating meat. Paul was willing to live like a Gentile when he was living among and ministering to Gentiles. The passage says, “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law” (1 Cor 9:21). We will look more at this shortly, but he doesn’t mean that he was lawless or lived by no moral standard.  He simply is referring to Gentiles, those who were not given the law.  They did not live their lives under the law that had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  They were outside the law. When Paul was living among Gentiles, he did not insist on the rites and ceremonies of the Mosaic law. He did not insist or urge Gentiles to conform to those standards. He knew that the binding obligation to those standards and ceremonies had ceased. Not only did he not press the Gentiles to conform to the standards of the Mosaic law, he as well did not practice those ceremonies and observances when he was with them.  A simple example of this would be in the eating of meat offered to idols. When with Jews or those offended by the eating of the meat, he would refrain from eating the meat.  On the other hand, if he was with a Gentile that offered him meat that had been offered to an idol, he ate the meat set in front of him. He was willing to set aside his Jewish background and practices to minister to the Gentile unbeliever.

Paul has reference only to those things which he regarded as in themselves indifferent, and not a matter of conscience; and his purpose was not needlessly to excite the prejudice or the opposition of the world. Nothing is ever gained by provoking opposition for the mere sake of opposition. Nothing tends more to hinder the gospel than that.[4]

He gave up meat for the weak. Paul ate meat sacrificed to idols so he could minister to Gentiles.  In the same way and driven by the same motivation, he didn’t eat meat offered to idols so that he could minister to the weak. We already discussed earlier in this passage that Paul considered weak those who struggled thinking that a believer could glorify God in the gray areas of life. Instead of attacking them or looking down upon them, he deferred to them. He didn’t shock them. He cared for them.

1 Corinthians 8:7–9 (ESV) 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Paul’s purification in the Temple. Paul’s third missionary journey has completed and he is determined to return to Jerusalem to present the gift from the churches in Asia Minor to the believers in Jerusalem. Paul comes to the leadership and shares with them the gift. While they accept it gladly, they quickly bring up a pressing issue with Paul.

Acts 21:20–24 (ESV) And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. 23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; 24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law.

It doesn’t appear that these Jews are saying that a Christian had to meet up to the law to be saved, but they did desire Christians, who had come to Christ, to reflect their Jewish heritage and culture.  Christianity is, in essence, the fulfillment of their law. Why wouldn’t they continue to hold as precious their Jewish heritage and practices?

Thousands of them. This number is added in the passage for emphasis.  This was not a small group of people that needed to be shushed in their corner.  This was a huge number of Jewish believers in Jerusalem.  This is why the apostles and elders were concerned about what they might do to Paul when he was in Jerusalem, and rightly they should have been concerned. Paul submits to the request of the Jerusalem leadership and goes through this observance. He sacrificed his liberty to advance the gospel.

Timothy circumcised. This may not have been a huge sacrifice for Paul, but it most certainly was for Timothy. The context for this event starts in Acts 15. In Acts 15 we read about the Jerusalem council.  The question posed to them is found in verse 1. “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The council decides to communicate only a few expectations and one of them is not circumcision.

Acts 15:28–29 (ESV) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Shortly after this council in Acts 15, Timothy joins Paul in his missionary trip. In Acts 16:3 we are told that “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3). Paul could foresee that the Jews would struggle receiving the Gospel from him and Timothy due to Timothy being a Greek.  Paul was proactive, in this scenario, and he had Timothy circumcised so that they would be more effective in their ministry to the Jewish people. Timothy was likely momentarily disturbed. Had not the Jerusalem council just decided this was not necessary? Timothy had the liberty to remain as he was, but he surrendered his rights to further advance the gospel. He limited his liberty to expand the gospel.

 Paul received 40 lashes 5 times by the Jews. One of the most sacrificial ways in which Paul worked out this principle – when he received Jewish punishment to preserve his ability to interact in the synagogue. The Mishna lists thirty-six sins that would result in a Jew being cut off from the Jewish community – being cut off from their people. One of these is blasphemy, of which it is likely that Paul was often accused. Instead of being cut off from Judaism, a Jew could be flogged and be once again welcomed into the synagogue. The Mishna says the following:

 “All those who are liable to extirpation who have been flogged are exempt from their liability to extirpation, “as it is said, And your brother seem vile to you (Dt. 25:3) — “once he has been flogged, lo, he is tantamount to your brother,” the words of R. Hananiah b. Gamaliel.[5]

Second Corinthians 11:24 tells us that Paul received forty lashes, five times at the hands of the Jews. Five times, Paul received a beating so that he could continue to minister to the Jewish people.  He could have embraced excommunication and been cut off from the Jews and avoided the forty lashes, but instead he “became a Jew in order to win Jews.” He limited his liberty to expand his ministry. [6]

What is the Law of Christ?

In ministering to the Gentiles, Paul says that he “became as one outside the law” (1 Cor 9:21). He is quick to add to this acknowledgment that he is not “outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). This can be a challenging statement to understand.  What is he referring to by the “Law of Christ”? This idea is found in a couple of other passages.

Romans 8:2 (ESV) For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Galatians 6:2 (ESV) Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

When Paul refers to the Law of Christ, it seems clear that he is referring to something different than the Law that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.  This “Law of Christ” is not necessarily contrary to the Law of Moses, but it is different. The Law of Moses was the Jews special possession. This “Law of Christ” is something different than that. Galatians 6:2 tells us that to fulfill the law of Christ we must bear one another’s burdens.  This sounds quite similar to Christ’s discussion on the law in Matthew.

Matthew 22:35–40 (ESV) And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

1 John 3:11 (ESV) For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

2 John 5 (ESV) And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another.

Leviticus 19:18 (ESV) You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Christ’s admonition to love one another seems to be the most likely understanding of the Law of Christ. When we carry one another’s burdens, we display our love for them.

We also could say that Christ’s life, and the sacrifice of his life in his death, exemplifies to the uttermost the law of Christ. That is, Christ’s life and death are the paradigm, exemplification, and explanation of love. However, Romans 13:8–10 guards us from oversimplifying the nature of Christ’s law, for love is expressed when believers fulfill moral norms. The law of Christ is exemplified by a life of love, but such love is expressed in a life of virtue. . . . It is clear, then, that Paul was free from the Mosaic law. Yet, he adds a qualification, emphasizing that he was still subject to Christ’s law. Freedom from the Mosaic law does not mean that Paul was liberated from all moral norms. Freedom from the law does not mean freedom from ought; it is not the pathway to libertinism. . . . Paul adjusted his lifestyle, whether he was with Jews or Greeks, weak or strong, because of his love for others, so that he could win them to the gospel of Christ.[7]

The boundaries for becoming all things to all people.

(1) Paul never changed the message of the Gospel to accommodate to people’s thinking or desires. Paul may have changed his appearance. He may have changed what he drank and ate with certain people.  He may have avoided certain customs depending on the group he was with. But, he never changed the content of the Gospel.  Paul didn’t attempt to remove the offense that is inherent in the Gospel, but he did attempt to remove any unnecessary hurdles for someone getting to the Gospel.

We’ve considered a number of examples in which Paul removed hindrances to people coming to Christ, but let’s consider one where he refused to remove the hindrance. Do you recall when Paul insisted that Timothy be circumcised (Acts 16:3) so that the Jewish people would more enthusiastically receive the gospel? There is another example similar to this that involved Titus, but in this example Paul refused to have Titus circumcised.

Galatians 2:3–5 (ESV) But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— 5 to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

In this instance the message of the Gospel would have been warped by false teachers, so Paul refused to yield to these Jews. In Acts, Paul was preemptive. He knew that Timothy not being circumcised would be a challenge for some of the people they were going to present the gospel to, so they removed the hurdle. In Galatians, there were false teachers claiming that believers needed to be circumcised to be saved. Because this was a perversion of the Gospel, Paul refused to cater to them. He would never act in a way that would undermine the truth or clarity of the Gospel.

(2) Paul never joined in sinful practices to win someone to Christ. While Paul would change his apparel, his observations of certain festivals and ceremonies, the food and drink that he consumed; he would never propose that a believer sin so as to win someone to Christ.

Paul’s purpose

Win some to Christ.

Five times Paul says that his purpose in becoming all things to all men is so that he may win them. He becomes a Jew to win Jews. He becomes as one outside the law to win those outside the law. He becomes weak to win those who are weak. The idea of win includes obtaining an advantage or profit. It means that someone gained something, that they profited in some way.[8] The definition implies a gain.  What is it that the individual gains? John tells us what it is we win when we receive the gospel, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36).

Consider the end of John 3:36, “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  It is here that we find what we saved from.

Save some from God’s wrath.

After having consistently stated that his purpose was to win people, he changes his phrase to “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).  To save carries the idea of “preserve from harm, rescue; (1) of natural dangers and afflictions . . . (2) in a religious sense, in relation to spiritual dangers and threat of eternal death.”[9] Paul is quite clear in Romans 5:9 as to what we are saved from. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

Share in the blessing.

Paul is not just a salesman for the gospel, and refuses to consume it himself. He not only wants others to be saved from God’s wrath and win eternal salvation, he as well wants to benefit from the good news of the gospel.

Chrysostom: Do you perceive Paul’s humility, how in the recompense of rewards he places himself as one of the many, even though he had exceeded all the others in his labors? It is obvious that his reward would be greater also, but he does not attempt to claim the first prize. On the contrary, he is content simply to share with the others the crowns which are laid up for them.[10]


Should we imitate Paul’s strategy?

1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 (ESV) 31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. 1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

A caution. In striving to be all things to all people, it is easy to fall into two traps. First, we can become so much like the people we are trying to win to Christ, that we actually become too worldly minded, forsake our own holiness and fail to win them at all. On the other hand, motivated by a fear of being negatively influenced by the world, we can isolate ourselves and become entirely irrelevant to the world.  The result is the same either way – the world remains without the gospel.



[1] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 1176.

[2] I appreciated how Paul Apple word his “Big Idea.” The goal of winning souls drives us to restrict our freedom in ways that would serve others in love rather than offend them. Paul Apple. Identifying with the Lost for the Sake of the Gospel. Accessed October 6, 2016.

[3] Gerald Lewis Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 86.

[4] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament: I Corinthians, ed. Robert Frew (London: Blackie & Son, 1884–1885), 167.

[5] Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah : A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 619.

[6] Garland. 1 Corinthians. 430.  He bowed to synagogue discipline to maintain his Jewish connections. Jews were given special privileges to settle their disputes in their own courts. If one wanted to stay a member of the Jewish community, one had to submit to its discipline. Paul accepted these penalties to keep open the option of preaching the gospel message in the synagogue.

[7] Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law, ed. Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010), 103.

[8] “κερδαίνω (1) procure advantage or profit, get gain, make a profit (JA 4.13); (2) figuratively gain, win over someone (MT 18.15; 1C 9.19)”  Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 229.

[9] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Baker’s Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 372.

[10] Gerald Lewis Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 87.

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