Studies in 1 & 2 Corinthians
5. 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 - All for the Sake of the Gospel
The gospel is Paul’s priority: “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me” (9:16-17). Paul feels compelled, not quite sure whether he is a volunteer or a slave. As he does his duty, he also feels rewarded.
“What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel” (9:18). Paul felt good in being able to preach without asking for money. That approach may be good when preaching to unbelievers, but eventually the time comes, as it has here for Paul, when believers must be taught about the Lord’s command. Those who accept the gospel of grace must become gracious.
A slave of everyone
Paul again uses himself as an illustration of how believers should respond to the gospel with self-sacrifice: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (9:19). His goal is the gospel, not himself. He sets aside his rights, gives up his freedom, to do the work Jesus has given him.
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law” (9:20). Jesus, as a Jew, was born “under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Jews were under the law, and Paul obeyed the law when he was with Jews. Why? To win the Jews, to help them accept the gospel.
But Paul also notes that he is not under the law. Rather, he is free to live like a gentile (Gal. 2:14), to live as though he does not have the law, as we see in verse 21: “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.”
Paul’s priority is to win people, to make the gospel attractive. He is obligated by the law of Christ to set aside his personal preferences so that he can serve others. He uses his freedom in Christ to be a slave, to adapt his behavior to the situation. His main goal is not to uphold tradition or to fight tradition, nor to side with one ethnic group or another, but to preach Christ.
“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (9:22-23).
Paul does not want to disqualify himself (9:27) by living a self-centered life. The eternity that Jesus wants us to enjoy is a life of love, not one of selfishness, and if we choose selfishness, we are rejecting what what Jesus offers. So Paul goes out of his way to serve others, to serve the gospel. His example is consistent with his message: the message that God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus to die for us. Although we were enemies, Jesus gave up his rights and gave up his life as a ransom for us. The example Jesus set includes a command for all of us: Those who receive spiritual blessings should be willing to share material things.
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 2001, 2013