I am writing a series of posts on the meaning of 1 Cor 9:19-23, in particular his comment in verse 22, “I have become all things to all people.” The first post in the series looked at the broader context in chapters 8 and 9. Then I explored some interpretative principles in Paul’s greater writings that I believe must govern the interpretation of his rather heightened language in 9:19-23. A third entry explained the meaning of verses 19-20. I stressed that Paul’s words in verse 19 control Paul’s meaning throughout the paragraph. Indeed, in verse 19, Paul is summarizing his discourse on giving up his Apostolic rights and freedoms and became a servant to all so that he could win some to the Savior. Like Christ, Paul gave up his rights, like the right to receive a living compensation from the Corinthians, in order to minister more effectively. He explains in verse 20 that this is how he ministered to Jews. Though Paul was not under the Law because of his union to Christ, Paul at times voluntarily followed the Law in order that every obstacle to the Gospel would be removed.
A Gentile to Gentiles (v21-22a)
In verses 21-22a, Paul writes, 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. Paul came to Gentiles, those outside the law, as one outside the law. In other context, the word for outside the law means lawless, but it clearly means something more innocuous here, as it’s translated. Paul immediately notes that it does not mean “lawless.” He says, as one outside the law, not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ. Paul is not under the Mosaic law, but he regarded himself as one who submitted to God’s law under Christ’s law.1 One might say that Paul regarded himself to be neither Jew nor Gentile, but as under the law of Christ, which means that he serves others for the sake of the Gospel.
So how did Paul specifically come as one outside the law? Well, it certainly was not something like “when in Corinth, do as the Corinthians do.” For example, just a few chapters later in 15:32, Paul shows no great fondness for the Epicurean attitude that prized earthly pleasure. Commentator David Garland is right: Paul’s “accommodation has nothing to do with watering down the gospel message, soft-pedaling its ethical demands, or compromising its absolute monotheism.”2 No, Paul lived among those outside the law as a Christian. He says it himself, he lived under the law of Christ which was for such Gentiles who saw him as one outside the law.3 To be specific, out of a burning heart of holy love Paul made continued personal sacrifices so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be advanced (cf. 1 Thess 2:6).
I think Paul means something similar when he says that he came to the weak. I don’t think Paul has in mind the references to the weak he speaks of in chapter 8. Here Paul speaks about winning them (i.e., seeing them converted), and in chapter 8 the weak are Christian brothers. It’s difficult to get at Paul’s specific idea with the word “weak,” but I take the weak to mean those who are helplessly weak before God. Rom 5:6 says, For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Paul identified with such sinners: while we were still weak, he says in Rom 5:6. Paul referenced such broken human weakness earlier: God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Cor 1:27). In giving up his rights, especially the right to receive, Paul was weak. For this reason, Paul breaks the pattern he’s been using previously in this paragraph: as a Jew, as under the law, as outside the law; here he comes to the weak, not as weak, but weak. In 2 Cor 12:10, he says, For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Paul came to the weak weak, so that, through God’s power, he might by the surpassing power of God win the weak to Christ.
In I have become all things to all men, Paul returns to the thought that began the paragraph. This paragraph is chiastic (or symmetrical in a cascading-kind-of-way), and so it is best to see verse 22 as a reiteration of Paul’s thought in v 19.
A For though I am free from all,
I have made myself a servant to all,
that I might win more of them.
B 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.
B’ 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 the weak I became weak,
that I might win the weak.
A’ I have become all things to all people,
that by all means I might save some.4
Again, in becoming all things to all men that he might by all means save some, Paul is reemphasizing his Christ-like sacrificial renunciation of his rights (expressed in verse 19) as a servant of all men for the Gospel’s sake with a sweeping statement emphasizing his zeal in this mission. Paul is reemphasizing that he, as a freeman, has voluntarily embraced slavery to others for Christ’s sake. Augustine helpfully illustrates the idea in v 22 like this: A person who nurses a sick man, becomes, in a sense, sick himself, not by pretending to have a fever, but by thinking sympathetically how he would wish to be treated if he were sick himself.5
Again, Paul does not compromise any part of his submission to the law of Christ (v 21). Paul is happily identifying with the suffering servant, Jesus Christ. His words in 2 Cor 8:9 come to mind here: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. In a way very similar to how he viewed Christ’s ministry to sinners, Paul became all things to all men by renouncing his rights. Death is at work in us, but life in you. Winning souls in evangelism is not so important that we hazard holiness to obtain it, but winning souls in evangelism is so important that we hazard riches, rights, reputation, comforts, rights, and liberties, that we may win the more to Christ.
The next post in this series will make some concluding observations on verse 23, and also suggest a couple parallel passages that provide an interesting way of understanding Paul’s words here in 1 Cor 9:19-23.
- Paul and the law is a huge, complex topic outside the scope and focus of these blog posts. If I could suggest a quick, deliberately simple way of understanding Paul’s teaching on the law in verse 20, it’d be that believers should not think of themselves as under the Mosaic Law. Yet, as verse 21 adds, we are under the law of Christ, which means that we through the indwelling Spirit follow Jesus’s teachings—the New Testament—best encapsulated in the two great commandments, to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. At the same time, as the New Testament teaches elsewhere, the law still provides us with valuable instruction. Paul is saying here that he is controlled by the overarching impulse of love encapsulated in the “law of Christ.” [↩]
- David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 435. [↩]
- I believe I picked up this idea from one of Mark Minnick’s sermons on 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. [↩]
- This is loosely based on the chiastic structure in Ciampa & Rosner’s commentary (PNTC; Crossway). [↩]
- David Garland is one of the commentators who provide this quotation from Augustine’s Letters (1 Corinthians, 450). [↩]