Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians 9. The 9th chapter of what we call 1st Corinthians, which is one of the Apostle Paul’s letters that he wrote to a struggling church in the Greek city of Corinth.
Corinth, if you will remember, is a very cosmopolitan city. It is full of influence, and wealth, and power, and education. It is full of the elite; those that considered themselves influencers and noble. In that regard, it would be similar to Hollywood, or LA, or New York City. Full of people that are calling the shots, setting trends, and, in their minds at least, worth of emulation.
And this Corinthian mindset had unsurprisingly found its way into the church. This mindset that elevates the powerful, the elite, the talented, the articulate, and says that everybody else needs to change in order to look more like them. THEY are the ones that everybody else needs to be like. THEY are the trendsetters; everyone else needs to improve.
If you want to succeed, you need to speak like the elite, you need to dress like them, you need to invest like them, you need to adopt their morals and their causes. In short, you need to imitate them in every way.
Our passage tonight from Paul turns all of that on its head. Paul says that true love doesn’t force another to change. Rather, true love looks like a willingness to change, a willingness to adapt, all so that the good news of the gospel can speed ahead.
For the mature Christian, God’s grace prompts flexibility in us, which promotes gospel progress to others. God’s love to us, prompts flexibility in us, which promotes gospel progress to others.
That’s where we are headed. Let’s first read our passage, and then we will continue. 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.
We’ll see from Paul tonight three aspects of his person and ministry. Three attributes that marked who Paul was and what he was trying to do. These will be his disposition, his inclination, and his motivation. His disposition, his inclination, and his motivation.
Let’s look first at verse 19 and see Paul’s disposition, which was that he was willing to sacrifice. He was disposed to willing sacrifice for others.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
Paul has been in this chapter thus far defending his own rights. If you will remember last week, Paul defended his status as an apostle, specifically defending his own right to compensation, as is fitting for his work among them. He argued that like a soldier deserved to be compensated for his service, and a farmer deserves to taste of the fruit of his farming, so too does a minister of God, called and appointed, deserve to be compensated for his labors among the people of God.
But we also saw Paul say how he didn’t avail himself of that right. Look above to verse 12: “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” Paul defended his decision to NOT take any compensation, so that nobody could have any grounds of ignoring his gospel message on account of any alleged greediness or ambition on Paul’s part.
Nobody could say of Paul, “You’re just in it for the money. You’re merely preaching this message to line your own pockets, or to appease your own ambition.” Nobody could make that claim of Paul or Barnabas, and even if they did, it wouldn’t stick. Paul hadn’t taken any salary or benefits from the Corinthians, and so greedy ambition couldn’t have been a motivation for him.
Now in verse he’s clarifying the same principle. He says, “Although I am free from all,” that is, although he possesses genuine freedom in Christ, and is not bound to the opinions or to the will of any man, even though he is genuinely free, Paul says, “I have made myself a servant of all.”
Here’s the situation. Paul isn’t bound to any man or woman. He doesn’t owe anybody anything. He’s not limited by the consciences or the preferences or the opinions of any individual or institution. In the context of chapter 8, Paul is genuinely free to eat the idol meat, or to skip it. He’s not bound to anybody. He’s got rights, both as a free Christian and as an apostle.
And yet, Paul says that although he’s not bound or enslaved to anyone, he has made himself a servant, a slave. He’s bound himself, he’s enslaved himself to everyone. That’s what the end of verse 19 says, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”
Paul’s disposition toward others was such that he would willingly give up legitimate freedom, and bind himself, limit himself, to the weaknesses and preferences others, in order that the gospel might flourish.
His disposition was an eagerness to constrain his own freedom, to convince others of the message he proclaimed. A willingness to sacrifice legitimate rights, in order that others might have no occasion for stumbling.
This is Paul’s disposition. A willingness, indeed an eagerness, to forsake real freedom, in order that somebody else might have no occasion to ignore the message that we proclaim. That’s a disposition of love. That’s a self-less disposition. We have examined in previous sermons how such a disposition is an act of love, and is a pre-eminent picture of Jesus himself.
But I’d like to look at such a disposition from a different angle tonight, and that’s the angle of humility. To have such a disposition, like Paul had, that would incline you to sacrifice your freedoms for the good of another, that requires great humility.
A willingness to sacrifice for others requires great humility. Only meekness can motivate the true forgoing of freedom.
A proud man is unwilling to sacrifice for the good of another. He’s too concerned with his rights. It’s HIS hard-earned money, why would he give it up. His time is too important and valuable to be spent on the needs of another. His effort is not worth wasting on somebody of so little value.
A proud man looks like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan. Unwilling to engage someone else in need, because it was beneath them. He’s unconcerned with those that can only cost him, someone who can’t benefit him somehow.
A proud person looks like a parent that’s concerned more about their own comfort and peace than about the spiritual well-being of their child, and so they yell and bark orders at the child, rather than shepherding the heart of that child with tenderness and the truth of God’s word.
A proud person is somebody who’s controlled by fear, dominated by men’s opinions and by reputation, and so he’s always flattering others, kissing up to the right people, or bad-mouthing others, in order to advance his own status.
A proud person is always quick to speak and slow to listen, because, “What could he possibly have to learn from someone else?” He’s never met a topic in which he isn’t an expert, and never met a quarrel he was unafraid to win.
A proud person is divisive, never backing down, unwilling to nuance or concede, because both indicate weakness to him, and he’s certainly not that. He’s always zealous for truth, even at the expense of compassion, because compassion looks a little too much like weakness.
But a humble person, a humble person is willing to sacrifice greatly for others. He’s willing to sacrifice his reputation in the service of another, because he knows that what men think of him is irrelevant: it’s the fear of the Lord that motivates a humble man.
A humble man knows his own sin, and his own need for gentle correction, and so he’s not harsh with his children, but shows them the tenderness that Christ has shown him.
A humble man never seeks to flatter others, but speaks truthfully, and encouragingly, not in a self-interested way, but in a way that seeks to build up others for their good.
A humble man is quick to listen and slow to speak, because he knows his own fallibility very well. He’s very aware that he might be wrong, might be mistaken in his logic, might need the wisdom of someone else. And so he delivers his thoughts with humility, hedging his words, meekly offering what he believes to be true.
And a humble man is never quarrelsome. He absolutely stands for truth, but does so with tenderness, and a disposition that would give up every right he has in order to maintain unity and love. A humble man sees no tension between compassion, and a zeal for truth.
In short, a disposition like Paul, a humble willingness to love others, even if it means giving up legitimate rights. Indeed, such a disposition looks like Jesus.
Jesus was willing to mingle with those who could do nothing but tarnish his reputation among men. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, the most despised of the day. He spoke truthfully, and compassionately, to everyone, regardless of their position or status.
He wasn’t quarrelsome. He didn’t revile, even though he himself was wickedly reviled. He didn’t bite back in vengeance. 1 Peter 2 says Jesus instead entrusted himself to the Father, who would judge all things justly. He didn’t demand his rights now, because he believed that His Father would handle it all in the end, that God would finally vindicate him.
And I think that is the key to having a disposition of love like Jesus. We can humbly serve others at great cost in this life, we can give up our rights in this life and serve others, because we know that God sees it all, and that he is a just judge.
God sees everything, everything done in secret and everything done publicly, and He will give us our just reward. Any sacrifice we make in this life, any rights we give up, will be justly rewarded in the next. Anything we give up here for the sake of another, will be repaid in abundance.
The gospel of Jesus frees us from demanding our rights, and it allows us to give them up in the humble service of others, which is exactly what Christ has done for us.
For those that believe, we’ve been forgiven of prideful boasting, of flattering speech, of being quick to speak and slow to listen. We’ve been forgiven of demanding our rights, of seeking to use and dominate others in order to feed our selfish ambition. Christ has borne the penalty of that, and nailed it to the cross. It’s dead and buried in the grave.
And because he’s been raised to life, we too are raised with him. We’ve been reborn of the Spirit, granted not merely forgiveness, but granted new life in the Spirit, a life that can and should be marked with growing humility. Humility because we’ve been granted such a forgiveness, we’ve been freed by a savior who gave up his rights in order that we might have freedom from sin.
And part of that salvation, is also a promise of future reward. Not only have we been saved from sin, granted new life, granted the spirit who helps us grow in holiness, but we’ve been promised that God will reward us for the good deeds we do. Every sacrifice we make for another, every time we give up our rights so that others might be blessed, God will see, and God will reward.
And when we keep that in mind, it makes the sacrifices here seem so much smaller by comparison.
But if you’re not believing in Christ. If you’re not trusting in Jesus as your own means of forgiveness, if you’re pridefully resisting his offer and ignoring his good news, then beware that our Judge just will repay you as well. But you will not be rewarded with pleasant gifts and joyful embrace.
Rather, you will be justly rewarded with pain and misery. You will reap the fruit of your prideful sowing, and that fruit is an eternity in hell, a place where the prideful in this life are eternally humbled. The boastful and the arrogant spend forever in humiliation. Scripture describes hell as a place of miserable torment, torment that does not stop. And because you demanded your rights and freedom here, you will be enslaved forever there.
Don’t let that be your fate. Come to Christ tonight, and hear of his love again. You can avoid the wrath to come, and instead have eternal bliss in the blessed presence of God. All you must do is believe. Hear of Jesus, read of him in His word, trust in him, and you will be granted forgiveness, granted new life, granted the Holy Spirit to help you grow in holiness. Don’t delay, trust in him tonight, and you too can have your soul spared from eternal misery because your pride.
Humility, and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of another was Paul’s disposition. Now in verses 20-22 and see Paul’s inclination. Paul’s inclination.
In these verses we see highlighted Paul’s love-motivated inclination to adapt. He was inclined, by love, to adapt for the sake of others. Or to say it another way, we see here Paul’s gospel-motivated adaptability, or gospel flexibility. Let’s read verse 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.
Paul says that when he was dealing with Jews, he became as a Jew, meaning that he adopted Jewish customs. He was willing to submit to Jewish dietary laws, for the sake of not offending. Even though he was legitimately freed by Christ from such constrains on his diet, he willingly gave up such liberties in order not to offend.
That’s what he means by “though not being myself under the law.” Even though he’s not bound by the Jewish law anymore, he’s free in Christ, he willingly submitted to it, in order to win those under the law. But he wasn’t just willing to adapt for Jews. Look at verse 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.
To those outside the law (that is the Gentiles, those that were the non-Jews), Paul says he became as one outside of the law. He, as far as he was able without sinning, was willing adopt the customs and practices of the gentiles, in order that he might reach the gentiles.
Love for God and for the lost, compelled Paul to be flexible for the sake of the gospel. He was willing to adapt, to be flexible, to give up his preferences, so that nobody would be offended him, and so that the gospel might be maximally proclaimed.
But notice Paul’s parenthetical remark in verse 21. Lest Paul be misunderstood as saying he was actually under no law at all, that he was indeed law-less, Paul says, “I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ).”
This might be confusing language to some of you. Is he under a law or not? Is the law something that we can come under when dealing with Jews, and then throw off when dealing with gentiles? If so, does that mean Christians have no law at all? Is the law of God something different than from the Law of Jesus?
To clarify some of these questions, let’s talk for a minute about biblical law. The word law, which is TORAH in the Old testament, is used in several complementary ways in the bible.
Sometimes the word Law is used to refer to the entirety of the old Covenant, like when Paul says you’re not under law, but under grace. Sometimes the word law is used to refer the all of God’s writings, like when the psalmist asks God to “Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your law.” Sometimes the word law refers to the moral law of God, most clearly summarized in the 10 commandments. So whenever we read the word law, it is helpful for us to see how that word is being used in the immediate context, to help us determine what the author means.
Furthermore, theologians of the past, and our confession of faith are helpful here. They teach us that the Old Testament law can be helpfully divided up. That is, the law wasn’t a single, monolithic element. Jesus himself taught that the law was not some uniform code when he condemned the Pharisees of being guilty of neglecting the weightier matters of the law. If some parts of the law are weightier than others, that implies that some of them are more fundamental, and others are less so.
The more fundamental aspect of God’s law is the moral law. Jesus summarized the moral law when he said to Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s how he summarized the moral law, and it’s a good summary of the 10 commandments. The first table of the law, which is the first four commandments, teach us how to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And the second table of the law, commandments 5-10, teach us how to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This is the moral law, and it was distinct from the rest of the law. That’s why the 10 commandments were referred to as the law, the TORAH, and the rest of the Old Testament code, was called the Judgements. The moral law was written by the finger of God himself on the tables, the rest of the law was written by Moses. The 10 commandments were placed in the ark of the covenant, the rest of the mosaic law was not.
Is everybody still with me? I don’t want to lose anybody, because this is important, as I will explain in a moment.
So we have this category of moral law, which is the unchanging standard of morality, summarized in the 10 commandments. This moral law is a reflection of God’s character, which does not change, and thus the moral law doesn’t change. That’s why people were still guilty of sin prior to the giving of the 10 commandments at mount Sinai. There was still right and wrong, there was still a moral law, even before God wrote the 10 commandments and gave them to Moses.
And it is to this moral law, which is unchanging, that God will sometimes add additional laws, which theologians call positive laws. Positive laws are those things that are attached to specific covenants that God makes with men.
So for example, now in the New covenant, we are called to baptize believers, to take the Lord’s supper, to have elders and deacons. All of these things are not eternal, unchanging moral law. Moses was not guilty for not taking the Lord’s supper or being baptized. He wasn’t under that new covenant positive law, like we are.
Conversely, the Old covenant had positive laws attached to it as well. Some of them regulated the worship of Israel: the sacrifices, the washings, the tabernacle and temple construction. All of those we might call the ceremonial aspects of the law.
Similarly, the old covenant had laws that regulated the nation of Israel. These are the laws about slavery, and restitution, and marriage, and rebellious children. These laws we might call the judicial, or civil laws.
The ceremonial and judicial laws are built upon the foundation of the moral law of God, and were put in place for a specific time, tied to a specific covenant. And when that covenant expires, so do the positive laws.
So when we trust in Jesus today, we’re no longer under the Old covenant, with its positive laws which regulated ceremonies and the civil government of Israel. We don’t have the dietary restrictions and purity laws and washings. We don’t take rebellious children or adulterers or homosexuals out back and stone them. We’re not under the Law of Moses. That’s why Paul could choose to act like a Gentile when he was with the gentiles; he was no longer under the law of Moses.
However, the moral core of the law of Moses is unchanged. The moral law of God doesn’t change, because right and wrong does not change, because God does not change. And thus, we too are under the moral law. And in the New Covenant, we’re also under New covenant positive law, like I mentioned above (baptism, Lord’s supper, church structure, and so on).
So let me bring this back to 1 Corinthians 9. If I have lost any of you, come back on in for this part. When Paul says he’s not under the law, he means he’s no longer bound to the parts of the Mosaic law that have been fulfilled by Christ. He’s not under the ceremonial and civil law. But that doesn’t mean that he is Law-LESS.
Rather, he would affirm that he is still under the moral law of God, and any positive laws that Jesus has put into place in the New Covenant.
This status, as somebody under the law of Christ, rather than the law of Moses, frees Paul up to have maximal gospel flexibility.
He’s not bound by ceremonial codes. He’s not bound by Jewish dietary restrictions, which are fulfilled in Christ and abrogated in the new testament. He doesn’t have to dress specific ways and partake in special washings and observe a special calendar of holy days. He’s free.
But even though he is free in Christ, Paul is willing to observe whatever customs the Jews or the Gentiles might have, as long as they don’t cause him to violate the law of Christ. That’s his inclination: a willingness to adapt, a disposition of flexibility, in order to reach everyone that he can.
That’s what he says to sum it up in verse 23:
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.
That’s Paul’s inclination. Willing to become like the weak, like those who’s conscience was not fully matured, in order that he could reach the weak. Paul was willing to become all things to all people.
Now, this phrase, to become all things to all people that he might save some, we need to mention briefly, has been used to justify some problematic behaviors. Some people use this as a trump card to engage in unwise behavior. As if to say we can do whatever we want as long as we’re seeking to reach people.
For example, you see this used on the mission field often. We’re going to become all things to all people in order to reach them, so we’re going to abandon Lord’s Day worship, Sunday worship, in a Muslim country, and instead worship on Friday, because that’s when more people are free. I don’t think we have the liberty to change the day that the entire history of the church has commemorated as the Day Jesus rose from the dead, on Sunday.
Or here’s a more controversial way that some try to become all things to all men: we’re going to adopt the name Allah and use it to worship the God of the bible, because that’s was known and comfortable to Muslims. Even though God has revealed himself in the bible by many other names, we’re going to rename God and use a pagan name for him, so that we don’t offend Muslim worshippers. That’s outside the bounds of this text. Paul wouldn’t go there.
No, this text is not an infinitely elastic phrase that can be used to justify any behavior as long as our motives are evangelistic. We can never violate the law of Christ, that is, we can never violate God’s clearly revealed moral law, nor his positive laws of the new covenant, even if our hearts are motivated by genuine evangelistic zeal.
Gospel adaptability has its limits. We don’t have liberty to contradict the clear teaching of God’s word, even if we do it in the name of evangelism and missions.
Enough about that. We’ve seen Paul’s disposition, which was humble self-sacrifice. We’ve seen Paul’s inclination toward gospel adaptability.
Now let’s move on to the final verse of our passage and see Paul’s motivation. Paul’s motivation. We see here in verse 23 WHY Paul is willing to sacrifice, and WHY Paul is willing to adapt:
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
The Gospel. He does it for the gospel, the message of Good news about Jesus Christ.
And I think we can say that this motivation has two aspects. He does it for gospel advance and gospel blessings. Gospel advance and Gospel blessings.
The advance part has been a recurring theme throughout this passage. He gives up his rights, he lays down his privileges and preferences, in order that nobody would have a reason to stumble over his behavior. He doesn’t want to get in the way of the message. He doesn’t want to hinder its progress.
And that’s a good goal for any of us. Does my behavior in any way present a speed bump for the gospel? Am I behaving in a way that causes the message to be obscured or impeded? If so, that’s a problem. I’ve spoken about that more than once in the last couple of chapters, so I’ll move on.
But notice also how Paul closes this passage talking about the gospel blessings.
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
What blessings? Where did that come from? We might also translate it as fellow partaker. “That I may become a fellow partaker of it,” which I take to mean the blessings and benefits of the gospel message.
Paul wanted everyone else around him to be a fellow partaker with him in the blessings of the gospel. He knew the message, he knew the benefits that come with belief. And he wanted that to extend to everybody else. He wasn’t content with keeping it all to himself. He wanted to share in that good news.
He wanted everyone else to taste of the genuine freedom that comes with faith in Christ. To share in having a conscience that was washed clean. To share in the feeling of joy that comes when you’re no longer enslaved to sin.
To taste of the hope that we can have knowing that death is no longer victorious. To look forward with anticipation to the coming age when we will no longer experience life in a broken and cursed world, but will instead dwell forever in a perfect place, with no more sin and no more death.
That’s Paul’s motivation, and that’s the blessing of the gospel, a blessing that Paul wouldn’t keep to himself. He wouldn’t hide it under a bushel, no, he was going to let that light shine, as the children’s song goes.
How often are you hiding this gospel under a bushel? How often do we let fear, or business, or thoughtlessness, keep us from sharing this message to those who need it most? Do you have gospel motivation like Paul?
I know that very often I find the absence of such motivation within me. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of seeming like a fool, or maybe just thoughtless and unintentional with the message of hope that I have been given.
If that’s you, remember that Christ knows, he knows your fears and your failings, and he died for them anyway. He’s not ashamed of you, he gave up his own rights for you, that you might be forgiven.
And because he was willing to do that, you too can be empowered to overcome fear. No fear of man, no shame of failure, no conversational bumbling or thoughtlessness can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
You’ve been washed, you’ve been justified, and you’ve been adopted into God’s household, granted eternal blessings and an inheritance that can never be touched by this world. Linger on that, meditate on the blessings of the gospel, and let that be the fuel to re-ignite your motivation for others.
Let God’s action toward you, his love toward you, be the spark that warms your heart again, and let that gospel blessing compel you to share that message of love with others. That was Paul’s motivation. May it be our own as well.