Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27
Date: February 12, 2023
Today, China is one of the largest Churches on the planet, and its majority under state sponsored persecution. What’s happening in China with the gospel is incredible. Before the gospel ever made major inroads into China, there was a man named Hudson Taylor (1800’s) who moved to China to become a missionary. This is before airplanes and email. He moved. He spent the number of years laboring tirelessly to reach the Chinese. He became fluent in the language. He made many friends. He saw some conversions take place, but his work was limited. He realized, the Chines aren’t listening to us because we look so foreign to them. So, though he was very uncomfortable, he changed what he wore to match the typical Chinese Garb. He wore his hair in a long pigtail and shaved his forehead which was was common for Chinese men at the time. This little act, of identifying, in way that was uncomfortable for Hudson at the time, proved to be incredibly meaningful, and gave Hudson Taylor an opening to speak with many Chines about the Gospel. Through Hudson Taylor the great China Inland Mission was founded.
If you’re a Christian, are you passionate about doing whatever it takes to help others know Jesus in the way you know Jesus. How far are you willing to go to prioritize those whom God has placed around you in your life, to help them meet Christ? What would you be willing to sacrifice towards that end? What does it say about us if the answer is in all honesty, ‘Not that much—it’s just not a priority.”
Remember where we are in our journey of 1 Corinthians. Beginning in chapter 8, a new turn in this book emerged where Paul started confronting cultural issues. The way that Christians engage the culture around them. Particularly in their context, he began to address a question they had around whether or not it was permissable to eat meat that had previously been offered to a false god. While not relevant for us, what we discovered was that we ask many of the same questions whenever we are wondering what parts of culture Christians can participate in, and what parts of culture Christians must reject. Paul’s driving principle in determining that was we must be driven by a desparate desire to build others up in Christ. Then last week, Paul illustrated that point by explaining how he manages money. For Paul, he was willing to be radically generous with money—to not hold on with too tight a grip—in order for others to built up in Christ. Today he continues to develop this theme by discussing the extent to which Christians should apply these principles.
Big Idea: A Christian heart is willing to do whatever it takes, short of sin, to win others to Christ.
Move 1: Becoming a Slave
Paul begins in verse 19 as follows,
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 “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.”
Paul opens his discussion with this sentence that defines his ministry. He says, “Though I am free from all.” In Paul’s day, the imagery of slavery was all over Greco Roman society. It is estimated that up to 15% of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. Many of the first Christians were slaves of whom we meet in Scripture. Onesimus, Tertius, and Quartus, were all slaves and yet followers of Christ. Others were slave owners who had come to Christ. In fact there is an entire New Tesament book that I have preached on at length titled Philemon, written to a slave owner with instructions about how to treat his runaway slave with grace. The point is that is Paul opens with very important and culturally weighted language. He was a free man. And in those days, there were rights, privileges, and cultural expectations associated with freedom. People worked their whole lives to gain the status of a freeman in those days.
Then in that very same sentence Paul says, “Though I free from all, I have made myself a servant to all.” That term servant is doulos which can also be translated slave. This would have been shocking langauge in the first century in a way that will take some work for us to fully appreciate today. No free man willingly chose slavery. In the eyes of the world, that would be foolish. Not only were slaves commissioned with manual labor. But they were not afforded many privileges in society, and were often harshly treated.
Paul says, “I willingly choose to give up my rights of freedom, and I choose to be a slave to you all, in order that I might win more of them.” The Apostle Paul was driven by one godly ambition, to honor God with his life and win as many people to faith in Jesus Christ while he had breath. Paul say his life as something to be poured out in service to others. Notice the language of “winning more of them.” it’s interesting language actually, because the term really is often used in terms of investment gains. In light of the entire context of the chapter where he has been talking about going without a paycheck, he now says, ‘seeing others come to saving faith in Jesus Christ is my paycheck.’ Paul has a right understanding of a wise investment portfolio and the type of gains we ought to be seeking.
How did Paul become a servant to all? He gives three specific examples.
1 Becoming a Jew to Reach Jews: The first group are the Jews who were still living underneath the Mosaic Laws of the Old Testament. Paul himself was ethnically Jewish. He grew up with all the rules and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. But then he believed that Jesus was the messiah that the Jewish Scriptures had foretold. That’s we talk about the Church as ‘true Israel’, it is Judaism fulfilled in the promised messiah. Paul still had a marvelous heart for the Jews who had not yet believed in Jesus as their messiah. He says,
1 Corinthians 9:20 “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.”
How did Paul become a Jew and place himself under the law to reach the Jews. This doesn’t mean that he started going to the temple with them and offering sacrifices again. No, that would be sin, and he clearly forbids that in his writings. Jewish tradition helps us understand Paul’s language here. Under rabbinic tradition there is a statement that goes like this, “If they brother seems vile to thee, when he is scourged he is your brother.” So the law of the Jews was that if another Jewish man did something to become vile in your eyes, if he was whipped, the relationship would be restored. As a result of Paul’s repeated efforts to reach the Jews with the message of Christ, he was regularly found vile in their eyes. We read of those accounts regulalry in the book of Acts. Then in 2 Corinthians 11:24 Paul describes that on five separate times he had been scourged by the Jews,
2 Corinthians 11:24 “24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.”
Paul received 39 lashes of the whip, on five separate occasions at the hands of the Jews. This was something he did willingly. This was the method whereby a relationship could be restored with his Jewish community. So he went underneath their laws, their laws of scourging those whom they found vile, in order to attempt to restore peace with them. He did this for one reason—that hopefully some of them might believe in Jesus.
It makes me ask a simple question of myself, What am I willing to do to reach my neighbor with the love of Jesus.
2 Becoming Outside the Law to Reach Those Outside the Law: The second group are those who are outside the law. This group are the non-Jews, who didn’t have the laws from Moses, in the community where he is living. He says,
1 Corinthians 9:21 “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.”
Again, he had a desparate desire to reach the Gentiles in his community, and so he did whatever he could to reach them. He clarifies that he didn’t break laws in order to reach lawbreakers. He didn’t actually commit sin in order to sinners. Rather, he associated with them. He lived among them. He befriended them. He became their neighbor. He went on walks with them. He ingrained his life into theirs, for the sake and hope of winning some of them to Christ. Paul truly believed that Christ was the greatest treasure any human could ever discover. And he would do whatever it took to let people know.
3 Becoming Weak to Reach the Weak Lastly, paul longs to reach the weak.
1 Corinthians 9:22 “22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak…
Note that Paul changes his formula here. He does not say, “To the weak I became as one who is weak.” He says, “To the weak, I became weak.” This was not a facade of weakness. This was not putting on a charade to make a quick friend. Paul actually became weak. How? Well, for starters, he identifies himself as a slave, the weakest in society. He refused to take a salary, as we saw last week and so he worked at a trade building tents during the week. Tradesmen were considered lower class, less than. As we’ve seen, he joyfully opted into beatings and lashes, which take weeks and months to recover, all while being in community with those around him. To those who were not Christian who were around Paul, there must have been times where they thought he was utterly foolish. He closes this section with the most startling statement
1 Corinthians 9:22 “22 … I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
I have to ask the question, ‘What are you willing to do, and who are you willing to become, to reach those around for Christ?’
To all of this, you might be saying something like this, “Pastor—I hear you. I know evangelism is important. But right now, I’m just trying to keep my head above water. I’m just trying to keep my family together. I’m just trying to find a job. Or, I’m just trying to stay healthy and help my parents.” If that is you today, I want to to take a moment and deeply encourage you. If you hear Paul’s bar he is setting, and in your heart you say, “I’m inadequate for that level of work.” That knowledge of your inadequacy is, assuming you’re a Christian, the base of where this all begins. Many Christians get this all wrong and we are tempted to believe that to be effective in the Kingdom of God, I must exert myself in a way that shows that I am powerful. I must be strong in the right ways. I must have my life organized in a particular way. I must have finances in order in a particular way.
And frankly, I think a lot of people find their way into a Church like this who are not Christians, but they’re checking it out. And they come in, and they look around the room, and they think, “Look at all these people with their life together.” I don’t belong here. I’ve heard that exact testimony from people.
There’s a wonderful shot book titled the Way of the Dragon and the Way of the Lamb, contrasting the two ways to go through life. The author writes
“In the Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way. The way of weakness, as I understand it, has two basic aspects. One is that the watching world sees you as weak in the sense of being limited and inadequate. The second aspect is that you yourself are very conscious of being limited and inadequate. In that respect, we are all to walk in Paul’s footsteps, knowing God’s strength in the midst of our human weakness.”The Way of the Dragon and the Way of the Lamb
The way of weakness. The way of becoming a slave. The way of confessional inadequacy. When a Christian filled by the Holy Spirit actually becomes weak—not becoming as one who is weak—but becomes weak, they become a vessel for extraordinary work to be done through them by their mighty God.
If you get this, it is remarkably freeing. The life of trying to be impressive for Christ is exhausting. The life of surrendering your own strength, and permitting God—through the Holy Spirit—to exert his strength through your weakness is exchilirating. On my best days I understand this well. And on my worst days, I still try to be an impressive Christian, or an impressive Pastor.
But who are we trying to impress. To live in any other way than out of our weakness is to not understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus has freed us from the chains of the constant pursuit of others approval. Paul says
1 Corinthians 9:23 “23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
How is Paul connecting this to the Gospel. This whole conversation is at effort to live out the gospel. Jesus became human to reach humans. Jesus became weak to reach the weak. His suffering was not an illusion. He literally became weak, all for love. A love for his bride who had gone astray. He suffered died and was buried. There is no further distance Jesus could have gone, than what he did. And the Scriptures say
Romans 5:8 “8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The Gospel says that we were sinful, broken, cut off from God, and that while we were still sinners, Christ made himself like us to pursue us for relationship. And of course the only way to receive that relationship is by personally placing our faith in Jesus Christ. Until that moment, we have no relationship with God.
What does this have to do with Paul’s words today? Everything. Paul became as one under the law, to reach those under the law, because that’s what Christ did to reach Paul. Paul became weak to reach the weak, because that’s what Christ did to reach Paul. Doing things Christ’s way not only frees you from the rat race of trying to be impressive. Ugh. But its where the power is all along, because it permits you to fade into the background, and Christ to get all the glory.
Move 2: Becoming a Victor
Paul continues with this classic section of Scripture.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 “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.”
He’s describing the way that athletes train for their competitions. In Corinth especially this would have been very natural language, as Corinth was the site of the annual Isthmus games where international athletes would come to gain the crown. But Paul says that we have a far greater crown coming our way. These athletes excercise so much discipline all for a momentary crown. Paul then turns to us and says, “Ought we not also discipline ourselves in our love and service towards others.”
“Lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” That term disqualified can mean “counterfeit” or “false.” This is vital. One of the negative fruits of modern Christianity is that we have separated personal salvation from missional living. We’ve tried to create an environment where it is possible to be a Christian saved by God, and have little to no passion about the work of God. This is the height of Western Individualism. Paul’s point here is that there will be many people at judgment day who discover were counterfeit. They looked shiny on the outside, but inwardly they actually did not know Jesus. Paul’s point is I don’t want to be counterfeit. Paul’s love for God—his gratefulness for the gospel—drove a desperate desire to reach others with that same gospel. Big Idea: A Christian heart is willing to do whatever it takes, short of sin, to win others to Christ.
How do we live this out practically? Remember, this section is a collision of Christ and Culture. And that is your whole life. Every day, you wake up in Chicago and you are on a collision of Christ and Culture. We can choose to live with a radical gospel intentionality. Or we can choose to go through life as if it’s all about us, and not see what God is up to all around us.
This Cannot Be Pasted On / Repent: We cannot fake a desire to see others come to know Christ. If you’re hearing me preach and you’re saying there is very little desire there, the first step is to repent. It’s to say, “God I do love. And I’m sorry, I don’t have your vision yet. Grow this in me. I want to see the world the way you see the world. I want to see souls. And be concerned for souls.
Recognize Who Is Near You: Second, recognize who is near you. Who has God placed in your life? Family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, baristas, business owners. We worship a sovereign God. You may be the only Christian that person knows. Do you know their story? Do you know their faith? Have you ever asked them about their upbringing.
Learn to Relate to People: This is the hardest one. Remember Hudson Taylor who changed his clothing, and shaved his head to reach those around him. Most of us don’t need to do that. But this a passage about doing whatever it takes to relate to somebody, to keep that relational door open. Be prayerful, and be willing to do whatever it takes.