May 12, 2024

All Things to All People (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2023-2024) Topic: One Mission: I am Not Ashamed Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:1


Children's Lesson (click here)

I. The Hat Dilemma

Take a moment to imagine that you are traveling in a far-off country. When some of the local leaders hear that a Christian has arrived in their remote region, they invite you to a kind of meet-and-greet, so they can hear more about your faith. As your local guide drives you to this event, he notices that you're wearing a hat. He kindly informs you that you'll need to take it off, since it is considered disrespectful to address leaders like these while wearing any kind of hat. But your hat is your signature look. Additionally (and helpfully), it also covers up your rapidly-balding head. The awkwardness you will feel without your hat starts to set in. So... what will you do? Will you keep your hat on and run the risk of offending your hosts? Or, will you take it off and push through your awkwardness? Or... will you, at the last minute, cancel the event and have the driver turn around? Keep this scenario in mind and look with me at 1 Corinthians chapter 9.

II. The Passage: “A Servant to All” (9:19-22)

We learned last time that factions had arisen in the church at Corinth, a church the Apostle Paul helped established on his second missionary journey (cf. Acts 18). These divisions reappear in chapter 8, where Paul addresses the issue of differences among believers in regard to meat that was sold in the marketplace, but had originally come from an idol's temple. While some saw no issue with this meat, others abstained. And yet, those who abstained for the sake of conscience were being judged (looked down upon) by the more 'knowledgeable' brothers and sisters.

In light of that issue, and in light of the attitude he was calling them to embody, Paul (in chapter 9) begins to describe his own practice of setting aside some of his own rights for the spiritual benefit of others. And that leads to his teaching in our main passage in vs. 19-22. He writes...

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.

Now, look back at the beginning of that final sentence in verse 22: “I have become all things to all people” (2x). In terms of a philosophy of ministry, that sounds pretty daunting, doesn't it? It sounds... overwhelming. It sounds... exhausting. “...all things to all people”? Frankly, it sounds impossible! But hold on. We should probably make sure we understand what the phrase means before we chalk it up as too difficult, right? And to be sure, Paul is calling them to follow his example here. Not only does the flow from chapter 8 to 9 to 10 argue for that conclusion, but Paul, in several places, explicitly calls them to personal application in light of his example. Two verses later in chapter 9 he reflects on the kind of discipline in serving that he's describing here, comparing it to athletes in a foot race: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (v. 24) And at the end of this section, he's even more explicit: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1)

So how might we make sense of Paul's approach, his philosophy in verses 19-22? Let's do this: let's think about the ideas here by considering four, key, repeated words from this text. Those words are “all”, “became”, “not”, and “win”

First, we find the word “all” used five times in two verses, v. 19 and v. 22. Three of those five instances of “all” clearly refer to people. Which people? “All” people. Look again at the four categories Paul uses here. He talks about “the Jews” in v. 20, then about “those under the law”, then about those “outside the law” in v. 21, and finally, about “the weak” in v. 22. I believe another way to describe these different people is found at the end of this whole section in 10:32, where Paul speaks of “Jews or... Greeks or... the church of God”. So whether describing his ministry target from a cultural or spiritual perspective, it's clear that Paul's approach here applies to every single person he encounters. That's important for us to remember on our mission fields.

Second, we find the word “became” used four times in our main text, with a fifth appearance as the word “become” in verse 22. Do you see that? This is the keyword in the passage; the word that serves as a doorway into the heart of Paul's ministry mindset, as described in this text. But what exactly does it mean? Paul “became” what? Or we might ask, what had Paul “become”? Well, Paul explains that right at the outset, in verse 19, where the idea of “became” first appears in the word “made”... “I have made myself a servant to all”. So... Paul “became” a “servant to all”. But what exactly did that look like? In the final paragraph of this section, we find a helpful summary of what Paul is saying here. Look over at 1 Corinthians 10:32-33...

Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, [33] just as I try to please every-one in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

Paul becoming a “servant to all” meant Paul surrendering or setting aside his own preferences, his own comforts, his own rights, if there was any chance that such things, in some way, might be stumbling block for the gospel. Undoubtedly, the gospel itself is offensive to spiritually rebellious people like us. As Paul wrote in the opening chapter, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1:23) But the offense of the cross was part of God's plan. Any other kind of offense should be thoughtfully avoided, as Paul explains here.

If some kind of concession to Jewish culture would help remove a distraction for Paul's listeners, he would gladly make it. If there was some way Paul needed to honor this or that aspect of the Old Testament law, so as not to unnecessarily offend his religious audience, Paul would gladly do it. If there was something his Gentile listeners might consider “too Jewish”, and the Apostle felt it could muddy the waters of his message, Paul would gladly lay it aside. If there was some-thing, any secondary thing, that might hurt the conscience of a fellow believer or a spiritually-curious seeker, Paul would gladly give it up for the sake of gospel clarity in that relationship.

An example of this 'becoming a servant', the example that Paul has just provided in chapter 9, relates to Paul's right to receive financial support as a full-time minister of the gospel. As Paul expressed it in v. 14, “...the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” But Paul set aside that right in Corinth. Why? So that, number one, his motives might not be called into question, and number two, so that he might distinguish himself from other teachers, other orators, who would charge money for their 'wisdom'. He did not want the Corinthians to think they were somehow serving him. Instead, he became a servant to them by surrendering that right to ask for support, so that the Good News about Jesus, God's exalted Servant, would shine through without any confusion or distraction. But please notice how Paul provides here qualifications to his attitude of 'giving no offense'.

This leads to our third term from the passage: the qualifications here are given through the word “not”. We see this in both v. 20 and v. 21. As we talked about a minute ago, Paul would, for example, honor some part of the Law of Moses if he felt it served his gospel preaching (cf. Acts 16:3). But his honoring the Law in those contexts should not be confused with placing himself back under the Law as a means of establishing some kind of righteousness before God. Not at all! That would contradict his message about Christ and a righteousness that comes through faith. Similarly, though Paul might at times conform to certain Gentile customs or Gentile sensibilities if it would help his listeners hear more clearly, he would never be “conformed to this world” as he warned his Roman readers about in Romans 12:2. As one commentator expressed this...

He would not sin against God to save the soul of his neighbor, but he would very cheerfully and readily deny himself. The rights of God he could not give up, but he might resign his own, and he very often did so for the good of others.” (Matthew Henry)

And so we might contextualize (i.e., wisely consider our context) in a biblical way for the sake of the gospel, but we should never compromise in an unbiblical way. In the end, compromising our methods only serves to undermine the message to which we claim to be committed.

Finally, the fourth, repeated term that is so important in this passage is the word “win”. That word points us to the critical issue of motive. Why would anyone willingly suffer discomfort, why would anyone willingly surrender his or her own rights, why would anyone willingly be put out or burdened, why would anyone willingly make sacrifices like these? Paul is abundantly clear here: fives time he emphasizes his goal: “that I might win”. “Win” what? “Win” the hearts of those to whom he was ministering; that he might “win” them for and to Christ! Notice the synonymous phrase in v. 22, “that by all means I might save some”. This lines up beautifully with what Paul would go on to express in 10:24... “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”

What motivated Paul's heart and inspired the ministry mindset we read about in 9:19-22? A Christlike love, to the glory of God, for the souls of others. For as Paul concludes this section, “ all to the glory of God” (10:31) and “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (11:1)

III. The “All People” in Your Circle

So, brothers and sisters, becoming like Jesus by becoming “all things to all people” is not some obsessive and exhausting form of people-pleasing. It's not some kind of a call to know every-thing about everyone, or try everything to reach everyone. It simply means being sensitive to and flexible for others, so as to make the gospel as clear as possible. It could be as simple as removing your hat to speak to a foreign audience, or as costly as moving you and your family into a rough area of town in order to really be heard as a member of that community. It doesn't mean adopting worldly methods or metrics. But it does mean adopting a Christlike heart that puts God's glory and the good others before my glory and my good. It does mean rejecting that cultural mindset that too often worships at the altar of my rights and my happiness and my needs and my dreams. It does mean giving yourself to the mission of God, just as Paul had done. Ask yourself this, “With the all people that God brings into my circle, am I committed to the all things... (to all the possible adjustments or sacrifices or discomforts) that may be necessary to remove any and every obstacle for the sake of gospel clarity?” Where does that commitment come from? As 2:16 revealed, it comes from the Spirit of God giving us “the mind of Christ”; that mind, that heart, that love that loves to the glory of God, for the souls of others. For as Paul would tell us this morning, the greatest example of becoming all things to all people in order to win them was not himself, but Jesus Christ. From stepping past cultural taboos to even dying on a cross, Jesus willingly sacrificed his own comforts in order to secure eternal comfort for you and me. Does that inspire you? Through Paul, God says it should. Let's pray as those won, for those we might win.