For The Gospel's Sake
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Wednesday, September 9, 1998, Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia: 90 minutes after takeoff from New York's Kennedy airport, an MD-11 jet, Swissair Flight 111, disappeared from radar and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. 229 people died; known only to God is the number who lost their souls. The most frequent question has been, "How could this tragedy have been prevented?" More specifically, what could we have done to prevent it? Due to our training and locations, likely little or nothing.
A more important tragedy faces us - spiritually lost people die every day; what are we doing to "snatch them from the fire" (Jude 23)? I want to focus on three actions that we may not think about often enough. Paul thought about and practiced them "for the sake of the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:19-23; cf. v. 23). Notice what he did:
He Restricted Himself
To win Jews to Christ, Paul was willing to be Jewish (v. 20). By lineage and upbringing Paul was a Jew, an above-average Jew (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5-6). He did not, however, remain a Jew when he learned the truth about Christ (Acts 9:1-22); he began preaching "the faith" he once destroyed (Gal. 1:23-24). His strong desire was to save his fleshly kinsmen. He was willing to be accursed from Christ that they might be saved (Rom. 9:1-5; 10:1). He was willing to go to any extent lawful in the gospel to win Jews to Christ. Though free from all men, he willingly became a servant to all "that [he] might win the more" (1 Cor. 9:19).
For influence's sake, Paul was willing to restrict himself in certain ways toward Jews. He would first go to synagogues to teach Jews about Christ (Acts 13:14,46). He had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). He took a vow, then shaved his head when it was completed (Acts 18:18), interesting in light of Jewish opposition at Corinth (Acts 18:4-6,9-10,12-17). On another occasion, he paid for the completion of others' vows (Acts 21:20-26). He used the Old Testament to teach Jews, rather than demanding submission to his apostolic authority (Acts 17:2-3; 18:4; etc.). "Fine," you might say, "But how is this relevant to me?" Excellent question; I'll proceed with an answer.
Occasionally we are in circumstances where, for the sake of the gospel, we should refrain from certain liberties we have. For example, several years ago a sister in Christ washed her laundry on Sunday afternoons and hung the clothes outside to dry. She was approached by a neighbor who questioned her "working on the Christian Sabbath." This sister faced a dilemma - continue her laundering on Sunday, knowing that she was at scriptural liberty to do so, or restrict herself "for the sake of the gospel." She moved her laundry- washing to another day, as I recall. When no violation of Christ's law occurs, we can (should) restrict ourselves where necessary for the greatest influence on those who are not Christians.
He Released Himself
While Paul was concerned about Jews, he knew his primary mission was to Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Eph. 3:8; Gal. 2:8-9). In Christ he was no longer obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant and its requirements to be saved (Acts 15). As he went to Gentiles he released himself from Jewish restrictions (1 Cor. 9:21).
A good example is circumcision. Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3), but refused to have Titus circumcised (Gal. 2:3-5). Was Paul hypocritical? No; the circumstances explain the difference. With Timothy, circumcision was expedient (profitable, helpful) because the Jews of that area knew his father was Greek (Acts 16:1,3). Timothy was circumcised for the sake of influence. Titus' circumstances, however, were different. The compulsion for circumcision of Titus was from Judaizing teachers as a requirement for salvation. Paul yielded not "even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (Gal. 2:5). Paul knew that circumcision was not required for salvation in the New Covenant, and he did not allow others to bind it as law when God released all men from it.
Other examples include Paul's association with Gentiles (Acts 16:34), clearly a violation of Jewish standards and practice (Acts 10:28). He taught Gentiles from their perspective, not Jewish perspectives (Acts 17:22-31), thus leading them from where they were to where they needed to be. Paul released himself and Corinthian Christians from Jewish restrictions on eating meat bought in the marketplace after it was sacrificed to idols -- as long as no homage to idols was involved (1 Cor. 10:23-27). Observance or non-observance of days as a personal scruple was allowed (Rom. 14:5-6).
We pause to note the relevance of this to us. One example will suffice. In the area where I live is a large 7th-Day Adventist population. On Saturday, one community practically "rolls up the sidewalks." If I were engaged in spiritually-acceptable activities on Saturday and learned it was a stumbling block to Adventist neighbors, I would forego them on Saturdays. On the other hand, if I were in an area where my neighbors were of some other religious group, my Saturday activities would likely not offend them. I would proceed freely with those activities. In the first case I would restrict myself "for the sake of the gospel;" in the second case I would release myself from such restrictions, even to discuss spiritual matters with my neighbors!
He Reduced Himself
In verse 22 of our text, Paul "became as weak" to the "weak" so that "[he] might win the weak." He reduced himself to the level of others so that he might "by all means save some." Who are "the weak" in this passage, and to what did Paul refer when he "became as weak"?
Perched perfectly in the middle of a discussion of personal liberties, 1 Corinthians 9 reveals Paul's practice of what he taught the Corinthians in chapters 8 and 10. In chapter 8 he makes two vital points about meat sacrificed to idols: (1) Idols are nothing (v. 4); and (2) Meat is not inherently helpful or harmful in God's kingdom (v. 8). Verse 7 is the key: "There is not in everyone that knowledge." The "weak" person of this context is without adequate knowledge and understanding of some matters. (He is not one engaged in inherently sinful actions, or one who, out of stubbornness or beligerence, is a Diotrophes, 3 Jn. 9-10). In light of one whose knowledge is incomplete, Paul would forfeit his liberty to eat meat (vv. 9-13). Why? "That I might win the weak" (1 Cor. 9:22)."For the sake of the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:23). This "reduction" principle guides one's conduct before weak Christians (1 Cor. 8) and unbelievers (1 Cor. 10:23-33) alike.
We face situations frequently where we apply Paul's teaching, especially in teaching the lost. Once I was discussing some biblical subjects with a coworker to lead her to obey the gospel. It was during the "Christmas" season and she asked why I did not celebrate Christmas as "the birthday of Jesus." I had two options in answering her query: (1) There is no authority to observe Dec. 25 as His birthday, with all the attendant aspects of Bible authority; or (2) Ask some questions on her level to provoke her thinking and study. Both options would be acceptable, but since she had no knowledge of the importance of Bible authority, it would have been futile to respond on that basis. I asked some questions that caused her to think and study for herself, and was still able, on her level, to teach about Bible authority. I'm sure you have faced similar circumstances in your Bible discussions with those whose knowledge was/is at milk stage (1 Pet. 2:1-2; Heb. 5:12-14; etc.). I am also confident that you, like Paul, became as weak to the weak "that [you] might win the weak."
Tragedies that kill people, like the crash of Swissair 111, occur daily. While they are devastating to those affected by them, a greater tragedy also occurs daily - people who die unprepared to meet God. Our work as Christians is well stated by Paul to Timothy: "Save yourself and those who hear you" (1 Tim. 4:16). By the Spirit's words and by his own life, Paul taught Christians how to better accomplish those tasks - restriction, release, and reduction. This he did, and so must we, "for the sake of the gospel."
By Richard Boone
From Expository Files 5.10; October 1998