In 1 Cor 9:22, Paul says, “I have become all things to all men that by all means I might save some.” This should not be seen as a declaration of ministry pragmatism, but a rhetorically powerful restatement of the great depths of slavery Paul embraced to make Christ known to all men. Indeed, one could very well see it as a fulfillment of what Christ told Ananias that he himself would do with the Apostle: I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9:16). The Apostle Paul, back when he was a blind, new convert hunkered down and praying in Damascus days after his conversion, was even then being identified as the one Christ had chosen to suffer for him. Anyone who willingly suffers for something (or someone) greater and more precious than himself yields personal rights. That is how Paul became all things to all men, not by embracing “When in Corinth, do as the Corinthians do,” but by laying down his rights, his liberties, and eventually his very life for the sake of making Christ known.
Patient readers of this weblog will remember that I have offered several installments on 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. The series began several weeks ago with a discussion of the context of chapters 8 and 9. The second post suggested several Pauline doctrines that I believe must ground our understanding of 9:19-23. The following two posts explained the meaning of the passage itself, first verses 19-20, then verses 21-22. I have noted that Paul’s words in verse 19 control the whole paragraph. In fact, the chiastic structure of the passage infers that verse 22b (“I have become all things to all people”) is actually a re-emphasis of Paul’s sacrificial, evangelistic drive in verse 19 (“I have made myself a servant to all”). My goal throughout this series has been to show that 1 Cor 9:19-23 is not a call to worldly accommodation in evangelism and ministry, but a call to renounce rights for the sake of the Gospel.
In this post, the matter before us is the final section of verse 22 and verse 23. Then I’ll suggest a parallel passage that I think help us understand the passage even more clearly. The next post will offer a few more parallel passages.
That By All Means I Might Save Some
In our English Bibles, we have a bit of a misleading translation in 22c. It’s not a bad translation as far as it goes–it captures a necessary emphasis on “all” that’s in the original language. Yet the phrase “by all means” is ambiguous. Many people take the phrase “by all means” to mean “by whatever means necessary,” almost as a reference to pragmatism. In other words, they think that when Paul says “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some,” he means that he is pragmatically willing to do whatever it takes to see people converted. But that’s not the way “by all means” is being used here. Paul is saying that, for those who believe his Gospel–for those who are won and saved–they are certainly saved. The phrase by all means does not justify pragmatism in ministry. I take it the way the church father and native Greek-speaking John Chrysostom does, to mean that the “some” who are saved are certainly saved. They will never be lost when they are saved by the redeeming blood of Christ.
The word win itself, used throughout verses 19-21, helps us understand that Paul’s willingness to “accommodate” (if such a word even fits what Paul is trying to do here) unbelievers is not absolute. He wants sinners to repent. His goal is not that they remain bound to sin, but that they repent of their rebellion to the Gospel. The Apostle wants them to change, to leave where they’re at and become subjects of the Lord Jesus. He wants them to be saved from this empty age and made heirs of Christ’s eternal kingdom. He is seeking that they be won to Christ.
I Do It All for the Sake of the Gospel
Paul says in verse 23, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” When Paul says, “the gospel” here, he refers to the gospel preaching. I believe that Paul’s point is that, by leaving his rights unused for Gospel preaching so that some may be saved, he has a role (even though merely secondary) in the Gospel’s success.
Paul knew the Gospel was powerful. God was saving pagans through Christ’ s power. Paul was happy to be a part of this mission, and he gladly laid aside his rights to make salvation through Christ come to men and women without prevention or offense. In this way, he participated in the glorious results of Gospel preaching. The Corinthians, on the other hand, wanted to destroy the one for whom Christ had died with idol food (see ch 8). They undermined the Gospel. Yet Paul played a role in seeing the Gospel’s success, laboring that he might certainly save some.
An Initial Parallel Passage
First Corinthians 9:19-23 is Paul’s explanation of the renunciation of his rights for the sake of evangelism. Paul gave up his liberties from the Mosaic law that he could remove obstacles to the Jews. Paul gave up his rights as an Apostle (to receive from the churches) so that he might see Gentiles believe. He came as one, not under the law of Moses, but under the law of Christ, living a holy, upright life, to see unbelievers saved. He became a servant of all so that he might see some sinners saved. This passage is not about Paul embracing the mores or culturally subversive practices of the prevailing culture around him in order that he could save a few, but, quite on the contrary, about him giving up the things he had a right to do. This passage is neither about the wild experimentation with the boundaries of Christian rights nor the abuse of Christian liberty.
As we’ll see in the next post (when I offer more parallel passages to reconfirm this interpretation of 1 Cor 9:19-23), this was Paul’s constant mindset–he looked for ways in which he could serve others spiritually through suffering. Another passage in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians make this especially plain. Toward the end of chapter 10, Paul is encouraging the Corinthians with the ways they themselves should approach idol-food. The middle of the chapter (1 Cor 10:14-22) argues that association with idols amounts to a participation with demons. Then he returns to the theme that ended chapter 8–that Christian love should drive how they handle food offered to idols.
In 1 Cor 10:23-24 he says, “”All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Idol-food does not only amount to a participation in demons, but it hurts others spiritually. Therefore the Corinthian believers needed to let a concern for others’ spiritual good guide their thinking to a much greater extent. The verses that follow (1 Cor 10:25-30) show that, because of the unbelievers around the Christians, that they should not knowingly eat idol food. It will simply do too much damage. The unbelievers will denounce them and dismiss their confession. Their “liberty” will be “determined” or “judged” by the unbelievers when they see the believers eating something that honored the gods. Paul rhetorically asks in vv 29-30 why they would even want to dabble in such spiritually radioactive activity as idol-food if the validity of the faith is at stake.
Although idol-food bore great cultural significance in Corinth, Paul does not tell the Corinthians to indulge a bit of idol-food so that they will be more relevant to the pagans around them. They are not to become more hip or engaging to the idolaters by eating idol-food. Quite to the contrary, Paul expects them to stay away from idol-food because of what it meant to the pagans. Paul understood idol-food. He understood that it represented an act of honor to the false gods. He knew that the unbelievers in Corinth, when catching professing Christians indulging in some idol-food, would see right through the Christians’ claim of salvation exclusively through Jesus Christ. He could hear them asking, “If Jesus is the only way, why are you eating to my god?” Worse yet, he might even have envisioned some pagans being tempted to think that Jesus could be added to their panoply of Greek and Roman gods and local deities.
Consequently, this is the point of the well-known verse, 1 Cor 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” The Corinthians were to eat and drink so as to win the unbelievers to Christ, and this meant not eating idol-food. In this way, they were renouncing their own (imagined) rights of eating idol-food, with the ultimate goal of seeing God glorified through exclusive devotion and winsome evangelism. That this is the point of verse 31 can be seen, not only in the relationship between verses 30 and 31, but in the relationship between verses 31 and 32-11:1: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 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. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
In other words, in 1 Cor 10:32-11:1, Paul is calling the Corinthians back to the point in 1 Cor 9:19-23. Paul tried to please everyone in everything he did by putting nothing before them that would undermine the faith. The clearest connection is seen in the phrase that ends chapter 10: but that of many, that they may be saved. Paul wants the Corinthians to do the same thing he was calling them to in 9:19-23. He wants them to serve others by giving up rights. He wants to them to stop “seeking their own advantage,” just as he had. In this way, he was himself imitating Christ and his magnanimous servanthood for our salvation. He who was rich became poor so that we by his poverty might become rich. Once again, this is not in making the faith more like the false religions and worldviews and philosophies all around us, but by living in a way consistent with our faith, so that those who observe us see that we live what we preach. Once again, it means yielding rights so that hindrances to the Gospel may be removed.