In 1 Cor 9:22, Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” This is series on the meaning of 1 Cor 9:19-23, and those words in particular. In the first post, I introduced the problematic way many evangelicals and missiologists interpret this passage. Many understand this passage to be vindicating pragmatism in ministry. They read Paul to be essentially saying “I do whatever it takes to see people saved.” Then I surveyed the immediate context leading up to vv 19-23. The second post provided a handful of interpretative guidelines for understanding these verses.1 Because Paul’s words in v 22 are highly structured and somewhat general, we should be careful not to read them without considering his clearer writings elsewhere.
Free from All (1 Cor 9:19)
What is the actual meaning of these verses? The first verse of the paragraph (v19) controls the ideas that follows. As I argued in the first post, when Paul opens up v 19, he is not launching into isolated, abstract theology. He just finished saying that he makes no use of his rights to receive from the churches in order that the Gospel is not hindered. In fact, this very renunciation of financial support is the very thing that is his reward! What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge. He’d rather die than have someone remove this his ground of boasting, of preaching the gospel free of charge so as to remove all obstacles in the way of the gospel of Christ.
This renunciation of rights for the Gospel’s sake is the very thing Paul refers to in v 19: For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. The word free is in the place of emphasis as the first word in verse 19.2 Close readers of these chapters will find the word free significant. In 9:1, Paul opened up the entire section on his unused rights by asking, Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Paul is conceding that, although he is free from all men, although he is an apostle, serving his Lord Jesus Christ under a very high divine calling, he has relinquished his rights in order to serve others.3 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all. Again, This statement governs the whole paragraph.
The idea is that Paul is a freeman, but he embraces the life of a slave or servant for the sake of the Gospel. Paul is ready to live a life below others so that he can win them to the Gospel. He gives up that he might win them–he wants to see unconverted sinners believe in Jesus. This is why he gave up his right to eat and drink by the church’s support, to win Corinthian pagans to Jesus Christ. Now, contrast that sacrifice with the actions of the Corinthians that introduced the whole idea in chapter 9. They were using rights they did not have—they were eating food offered to idols—to the spiritual damage of weaker brothers. No wonder he lambasted the Corinthians in chapter 4: Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! He offers this same idea in the eloquently expressed words of 2 Cor 4:5, For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.
What follows in vv 20-23 is a rhetorically powerful explanation of his extreme self-renunciation. Paul shows the lengths to which he went in yielding up his rights so that he might become a servant to all. This passage is not about becoming a chameleon Christian that changes color in whatever environment he’s in, but about yielding rights and becoming a servant to prevent obstacles to the Gospel.4
A Jews to the Jews (v20)
In verse 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 lived so that in his apostolic ministry he personally would avoid offending Jews in order to see them believe in the Messiah. This was especially important during a transitional time in which he ministered.5 I don’t think that Paul means for us create a great distinction between “Jews” and “those under the law.” To his Jewish kinsmen, he became as a Jew to them–he came as under the Mosaic Law–so that they might win them.
Paul did not consider himself to be “under the Law.” He had a right to disregard its commands (it becomes clear later in verse 21 that Paul did not consider himself lawless), but he laid aside that freedom from the law so that he might be not be offensive to unconverted Jews. In fact, Paul explicitly said earlier in 1 Cor 7:18-19 that those uncircumcised should not pursue circumcision, and that those circumcised should not seek uncircumcision, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”
But how did Paul become “as a Jew to the Jews”? How did he, though not being under the Law, become as one “under the Law” in order to win the Jews? The New Testament testifies that Paul actions, though consistent, looked different in different contexts.6 Perhaps the best example of how Paul became a Jew to win the Jews is seen in Acts 21. Some Jewish believers wrongly understood Paul’s teaching, and so the pastors in Jerusalem asked Paul to accommodate himself to them. At the pastors’ request, Paul joins with four Jewish Christians in observance of a purification rite. This is not an empty, meaningless act. Paul assumed significant financial cost and sacrifice in such steps. He did not have to shave his head, pay the purification costs, or go the temple at all. Yet he did so that he might win the Jews.
Again, though this did not look the same in every situation, Paul was ready to lay his own rights and freedom from the law aside if it meant that he might see more of his Jews kinsmen saved. His servant-like disposition comes through most clearly in Romans 9: I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Summary (until the next post)
To review, Paul’s words in verse 19 govern the whole paragraph–verse 19 is extremely important to understanding vv 19-23. There Paul is summarizing what he has been saying throughout all of chapter 9. Namely, Paul gave up his rights and freedoms as an Apostle and became a servant to all men so that he could win some people to the Savior, very much like the Lord Christ who had called him into ministry. He renounced his rights–just as he had in giving up his right as an apostle to receive compensation from the churches–so that he could have a more effective ministry. This is the same kind of sacrificial life for Christ’s sake that he was calling single believers to consider in chapter 7.
This is how he lived before the Jews. Even though as one united to Christ who had fulfilled the Law he was not under the Law, Paul at times put himself back under that Law so that he would not put any obstacle in the way of the Gospel.
- The five principles I presented in the second post were as follows: (1) Paul preached an offensive gospel; (2) In embracing a Christ-like ministry of suffering, Paul was a misfit to Corinthian sensibilities; (3) Paul’s primary goal in ministry was to serve God, and he expected believers to do likewise; (4) Paul never commands Christians to live like the world; he repeatedly commands Christians to live holy, separated lives before the world; and (5) in 1 Cor 8-10, the specific examples that connect to Paul’s words in vv19-23 entail the renunciation of rights, not cultural compromise. [↩]
- In the original, verse 19 reads: Ἐλεύθερος γὰρ ὢν ἐκ πάντων πᾶσιν ἐμαυτὸν ἐδούλωσα. [↩]
- When we recall Paul’s words in the great hymn to Christ in Phil 2:5-11, we see nearly identical similar ideas. I think we can safely conclude that Paul gave up rights because Jesus gave up rights. [↩]
- Dr. Mark Minnick helpfully uses the analogy of a chameleon in his exposition of this passage. [↩]
- What might be most striking in these verses is that Paul, in a certain sense, did not consider himself a Jew. He had to become as a Jew. Elsewhere we see that he still believed that the Jews were his kinsmen and still considered himself “of the tribe of Benjamin.” (See Rom 11:1 and Phil 3:4-6.) But here there seems to be some space between his Jewish heritage and his identity in Christ. [↩]
- See D.A. Carson, “Pauline Inconsistency: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 9.19-23 and Galatians 2.11-14” Churchman (Nov 1983): 6-45. [↩]