“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became 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.
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. 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Let us pray.
Now may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
In 1998, in a journal called Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Volume 34, there appeared a short article called “The C1 to C6 Spectrum: A Practical Tool for Defining Six Types of ‘Christ-centered Communities’ (‘C’) Found in the Muslim Context.” The name of the author was John Travis. The name was, in fact, a pseudonym for a husband and wife team who had been living and serving in an Asian Muslim community for 20 years.
The C in C1 through C6 stood for “Christ-centered community.” So perhaps it should have been CCC, but they called it C1, C2, and so forth. It’s important that you understand what they meant by these Christ-centered community categories.
- C1: Traditional church using outsider (non-indigenous) language. Its believers exist as an ethnic or religious community. The church is viewed as a foreign entity. It’s as if, for example, you planted an English-speaking church in Japan.
- C2: Traditional church using insider (indigenous) language. Apart from the change in language factor, so that you’re now using the local vernacular, the church looks, sounds, and feels like a Western church, with Western architecture, Western music, and so forth.
- C3: Contextualized Christ-centered communities using insider language and religiously neutral insider cultural forms. In other words, a Christ-centered community in the indigenous language that is happy to adopt the cultural features of the local environment that are non-religious. If the converts were once Muslims, they now think of themselves as former Muslims, and they are perceived to be former Muslims by their surrounding culture; however, they may go in for the kind of architecture that is more dominant in their culture, and so forth.
- C4: Contextualized Christ-centered communities using insider language and biblically permissible cultural and Islamic forms. These communities use the indigenous language but are now adopting many (let’s say Islamic, if it’s an Islamic culture) Islamic forms wherever it is believed the Bible does not actually forbid the practice. So many forms of worship are, let’s say, Islamic, but the converts are not viewed, perhaps, as Muslims by Muslims.
- C5: Christ-centered communities of “messianic Muslims” who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. Believers in these communities are now viewed as Muslims by other Muslims. They are sometimes called messianic Muslims, by analogy with messianic Jews. They will reject or modify specifically unbiblical Muslim practices, perhaps, but they are pretty generous in their estimates of what is unbiblical.
- C6: Small Christ-centered communities of secret/underground believers. An example of this would be the church in Saudi Arabia.
That two-page essay exerted huge influence in the missiological world. It has produced endless debate, scores of books, hundreds of essays. Those who defend a C5 approach.… That is, an approach where, in the case of Islam, Muslims remain within the Muslim community. It’s not only that they adopt Muslim forms in their form of worship, for example, but they’re essentially Muslims who have added Jesus in some sense, and they become followers of Jesus and think of themselves as Christian Muslims, messianic Muslims.
Those who defend the C5 approach to evangelism at conversion, especially in the Muslim world, appeal, for a start, to Acts 15. The Gentiles are not forced to change to become Jews, so why should Muslims be forced to change when they become Christians?
Even the Shahada, the basic Muslim creed, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” can still be recited by such people because, “After all, we do believe in one God, and Muhammad inevitably does say some true things, and if he says some true things, so far as he is saying true things, he is representing God, so in some sense he still remains a prophet of God.”
C5 supporters also regularly appeal to our text. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, that I might win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I am not myself under the law), in order that I might win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not myself lawless, but I am under Christ’s law). To the weak I became weak …” “To the Muslims I became a Muslim.”
Similar arguments, of course, are deployed in some wings of the emerging church. “To the postmodern I became a postmodern.” After all, those who aren’t are really saying, though they don’t admit it, “To the modern I became a modern.” They just got snookered. Now we’re doing it intelligently so we can actually understand how to accommodate a little better so as to win the postmodern.
After all, are there not other indications in the Bible about how flexible early Christians could be? Listen to Paul preach in a synagogue in Acts 13. He assumes all kinds of things, and he focuses most of his attention on the truth that the Old Testament promised Messiah had to be a crucified, risen Messiah.
But when he comes to Acts 17, he doesn’t quote those Old Testament texts. Psalm 2 doesn’t show up. He starts all the way back with monotheism, creation. There’s a different frame of reference. He cites pagan poets, for goodness’ sake. In other words, there is evidence in the Bible Paul knew how to accommodate his different audiences and adapt the message accordingly, isn’t there?
Then there are specific instances of choices which, on the face of it, seem initially a little contradictory. There is Titus. According to Galatians 2, no one compelled Titus to be circumcised when he brought him to Jerusalem. Some wanted Titus to be circumcised, but not only Paul, but the other apostles also agreed he did not have to be circumcised. Then Paul goes and takes Timothy and circumcises him so he can be a little more flexible when he’s trying to reach Jews.
In fact, one of the charges against Paul in Galatia was that he was a man-pleaser, changes his message, changes his tune, and changes his emphases. Wasn’t that a function, in fact, of his flexibility? If we seek to be faithful to the gospel, should we not also seek to be flexible in different cultural contexts? “To the Jew I became like a Jew. To the Muslim I became like a Muslim. To the postmodern I became like a postmodern.”
Are there not some limits? “To the adulterer I became like an adulterer. To the child molester I became like a child molester. To the drunk I became like a drunk. To the rich dude I became like a rich dude.” Where are the limits? How do you demand faithfulness and flexibility? What does it look like? What does this text say?
To understand this paragraph aright, we must follow the flow of the argument in chapters 8 and 9. The reason for this, in part, is because our paragraph finds Paul mentioning the weak (verse 22). “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak,” but the weak are introduced in chapter 8, so let me start with the argument there since the whole flow of this argument shapes how we must understand chapter 9, verses 19 to 23. As a run-up, then, to our paragraph, we must see two things.
First, Paul’s approach to the weak and the strong in chapter 8. “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols …”
Do you hear what Paul has done here? He wants to talk about food that has been sacrificed to idols, and he begins by saying, “We know quite a lot about this,” but before he actually gets to his subject, he backs off just a little bit and says, “Knowledge is important (I’m going to deal with that), but knowledge regularly simply has the effect of generating inflated egos. It puffs people up. Anything I’m going to say about what we know and don’t know and who knows it and doesn’t know it needs to be put under an even bigger banner of how we love.”
Then he comes back to the subject again about eating food sacrificed to idols. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world.” We heard from Tim Keller on the first day there is a kind of tension in the Bible. On the one hand, idols are dismissed. They’re nothing. They’re not real gods. You don’t have to be afraid of them. This is one of those passages. An idol is nothing. You don’t have to be afraid of an idol.
Yet, by chapter 10 in this same book, the apostle Paul will warn you against participating in idol worship. “You cannot be compromised in this way. You may be involved in the actual worship of demons.” Before we have too much flexibility behind this idolatry, we had better see there is something deeper that may be going on.
About eating food sacrificed to idols, here it is not actually participating in the worship service in one of the pagan temples in Corinth. Rather, there were guilds (we would call them unions today) for all kinds of disciplines and skills and so forth. Butchers had their unions. Coppersmiths had their unions. They all had patron deities. Some of them worked out of the back side of a temple, so as a result, some of the meat offered in pagan worship in the temple was then butchered properly outside afterward and sold.
It was food that had been sacrificed to idols. Do you eat it or not? What Paul says is, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone possesses this knowledge.”
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he responds in the first four chapters to reports that come from Chloe’s household, and he’s pretty direct. In chapters 5 and 6, he’s responding to some further reports. At the beginning of chapter 7, he says, “Now for the things you wrote about.” So there is a letter that has come through in some way, too.
As he handles the things in that letter, you begin to perceive most of the topics he handles in that letter reflect a divided church. As a result, he has a kind of “Yes, but” form of argument, because he turns to one group in the church and says, “Yes, you’re right, but …” Then he turns to the other group in the church and says, “You’re right, too, but …”
“Yes, I thank God. I speak in tongues more than all of you, but in the church I’d rather speak five words to communicate intelligibly than 10,000 words in a tongue.” Here. “Yes, yes, we all have knowledge. An idol is nothing. By all means, eat the meat, but …” This “Yes, but” argument constrains a lot of his argumentation from chapter 7 on.
There is one remarkable exception when he comes to the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11, and he says, “In the following matters I have no praise for you.” It’s all “but.” There’s no “yes.” But at this point, he’s still giving the balance because he is not only trying to articulate the truth; he’s trying to bring the warring sides together.
Pastorally, it is wonderfully wise and shrewd trying to get the different sides to see they absolutize insights that have some partial validity but cannot claim the exclusiveness each side is mandating. Why does he introduce this “but”? “But not everyone possesses this knowledge.” From the first part you would infer you could eat this meat offered to idols; now, not all have knowledge.
“Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat it and no better if we do.” It’s not the idol meat itself that is the issue, he says.
The issue is.… How do you preserve the integrity of the individual conscience? He says, “Be careful that the exercise of your rights …” That is, your rights to exercise this freedom from the fear of idols so that you can eat this meat that has been offered to idols, your perfect right to do so as a Christian. Now you know there is but one God. This meat is not affected.
“Be careful that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience …” That’s what weak means here. Someone who has sensitivities to right and wrong even though, in the issue itself, it’s not a matter of right and wrong. Somebody who has sensitivities and thinks that something is wrong even though it’s not. That’s what makes it a weak conscience.
“If someone with a weak conscience sees you with all of your knowledge …” You’re a mature Christian. “… eating in an idol’s temple, they say, ‘Well, Pastor Bloggs has been a Christian a long time. He’s my pastor, and he eats this food, so I guess I can, too,’ ” but deep down he has just been converted out of paganism.
Deep down he has sensitivities in this area. Deep down he still thinks he shouldn’t do this, that he’s somehow betraying Jesus, that he’s letting down the side, but emboldened by you he goes ahead and eats it anyway. The result? He has hardened his conscience. The conscience function is now not functioning so well.
Isn’t it remarkable Paul does not want you to harm your conscience even if your conscience is so weak it is ill-informed about what is right and wrong? “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed.” That is, he has learned now to harden his conscience, and if he learns to harden his conscience in this domain, he may harden his conscience in other domains until he no longer is listening to the sweet whisper of the Spirit saying, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that!”
You can argue rightly on this issue he’s still not very well formed, and no doubt on the long haul, part of Pastor Bloggs’ job is to reform his conscience in the light of God’s Word. That’s also true, but meanwhile, while he still thinks something is wrong, even though Paul openly says it’s not wrong in and of itself, mature Christians should not be leading that person astray. That’s remarkable.
This passage is often abused in some conservative circles. It’s less so today than 30 years ago, but today still in some circles … “I don’t think you should drink any alcohol, and if you do, you will be offending me, so 1 Corinthians 8 says you mustn’t do it because you would be offending me.” Most of the people who have said things like that to me really don’t have weak consciences. They are control freaks. They are legalists in the worst possible sense. I inevitably say in that case, “Do you think no Christian can drink? That a person who drinks is not a Christian or can’t be a Christian? Do you think it’s essential to be a teetotaler to be a Christian?” If they say yes, I say, “Pass the port,” and I’m not being a smart aleck, because the Word of God will not allow anyone or anything to jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus. It’s not Jesus plus being a teetotaler. In fact, in this country I wander around as a teetotaler. When I go to France I’m not promising anything, but in this country I’m a teetotaler unless somebody tells me I must not drink or I cannot be a Christian, then I will gladly have some Beaujolais. You cannot jeopardize the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.
So this passage is not talking about people with a legalistic frame of reference; it’s talking about people with a weak conscience, people whom you could lead astray, people whose sensitive conscience (because it’s still not well-formed, not well-instructed) could in fact be hurt by your example. At that point, what does Paul say? “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” Here is the self-abnegation of a right, out of love and concern for the brother or sister in Christ. That’s what’s going on in chapter 8.
Second, Paul’s approach, then, to his own rights in chapter 9. He generalizes at this point. He starts talking about the rights that are actually his as an apostle in order to show how it has been a pattern of his life not to live on his rights, not to stand on his rights, but cheerfully to give up his rights for the gospel.
“Am I not free?” Well, free to do what? He’s going to tell us. “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?” He asks these rhetorical questions in part because the word apostle in the first century was not a technical term that always had exactly the same significance. In two or three passages, apostle simply means a messenger. That’s all.
In Acts, chapter 1, an apostle has to be one of the Twelve or someone who stands in for the Twelve, like Matthias. One of the conditions there is that person has actually seen Jesus, gone in and out with him, and followed him as a disciple all during the days of Jesus’ ministry. The number 12 is symbol-laden; it must be made up. Judas must be replaced, and he must be replaced by someone who’s gone in and out with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry.
Paul’s not qualified. In that sense, Paul can’t be an apostle. So what does Paul mean by an apostle? First of all, he says, “Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord?” He means after the resurrection. That limits the number already to about 500. In this sense, you can’t have an apostle today. The resurrected Lord has not appeared recently, not in the actual physical presence in which he was displayed in glory on the Damascus road.
He has appeared in visions, no doubt, and so on, but the Damascus road was not just a visionary experience that was private, because others all around did see the light, even if they didn’t catch everything that was going on or hear the words. There was something real that actually happened in space-time history, but Jesus is gone now. He’s not coming back till the end. In this sense, there are only 500 potentials or so.
Then it gets narrower. He got his actual commission from Jesus: “Are you not also the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others …” Some others might write me off. “… surely I am to you!” God-empowered ministry out of Christ-directed mandate from the resurrected King.… That’s what I mean by an apostle,” he says. “For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” “Granted that I am an apostle in that sense, don’t I have some rights?”
“This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink?” That is, to be supported, so that all my expenses are paid? Don’t I have that right? “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us? The rest of them do: the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas.”
Apparently when these apostles traveled, they didn’t go around as lone rangers; they brought their families. It’s wonderful to think about, isn’t it? “Must I be the only celibate one? Barnabas comes along too, and he’s not married. Am I not allowed to be married? “Is it only I and Barnabas who don’t have the right not to work for a living?”
Paul’s relationships with his churches in this regard were actually quite complicated. Not to put it too simplistically.… By and large, he refused to take any money from the church center where he was actually serving. There are one or two exceptions, but that was basically his approach. In any place where he was serving, he was planting a church, he was preaching Jesus, he was calling men and women to him, and he wanted to show them what grace looked like.
He didn’t want to get paid for it, especially in an environment where you tended to pay really gifted teachers a lot of money. He didn’t want to give the impression that he was being paid for services rendered. What he would do, on occasion, would be to accept money from an earlier church, like the church in Philippi. Then he was not being paid for services rendered; he was being supported for the work of the ministry so that he could plunge in more fully into the local ministry without being distracted by his obligations as a leather worker.
Then some examples are thrown in: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard […] Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ ” I have read some scholars on this point who say, “Isn’t Paul distorting the Word of God here? He quotes the text, gets it right, and then he says, ‘Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?’ But in the Old Testament, it is for oxen! So isn’t Paul distorting the Word of God?”
My first response to that is it has to be for us in some sense because oxen can’t read. Of course it was written for us. I’m sure the ancient Israelites had some very bright animals, but not that bright. Moreover, what is presupposed by all of this is that even God’s concern for the animals sets out a pattern, a social structure, a set of relationships. God’s concern for his creatures includes the oxen and includes you and me too. You have to be a really brilliant scholar to be that thick when it comes to reading some Scriptures. I don’t know what else to say.
“Yes, this was written for us …” Because we read, and we need the principle. “… because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. […] But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”
Then he looks to the religious sphere. “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. ‘A worker is worthy of his hire.’ That’s the way it’s supposed to work. That’s the way the Lord has mandated it. But I have not used any of these rights.”
Then Paul says one of the most stunning things about his principle of self-sacrifice I know anywhere in his writing. It shames me every time I read it. Listen to what he says: “I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me.” You know, there are some missionary letters like that once in a while. They describe sacrifice and all that, but you can tell they’re written in the hope that the needs are met. “No, I’m not doing that.”
“I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.” That is, this boast that I voluntarily do not use my rights. Now why is that so important to him? Why is this important to him? “For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” This may be even more than what Jeremiah says about the fire in his bones. Jeremiah wanted to quit, but the fire burned and he couldn’t. This may be even more than that. This may be an allusion to the Damascus road.
In Paul’s mind, his conversion and his call to preach are so much tied up that he can’t separate them. For some of us, we get converted, and then we go for years and years, study nuclear chemistry, run a warehouse, or whatever. Then somewhere along the line, the call of God comes in our lives. So the two are not tied up intimately and integrally in our imagination, but Paul was converted and was called in one shot.
Now he feels the compulsion of preaching the gospel not only in the sense that Jeremiah does but in the sense that it’s bound up with his entire conversion. He cannot possibly abstract one from the other. “Woe is me if I don’t. I’m damned if I don’t! So how do you pat me on the back and say, ‘Well done, Paul. You’re preaching nicely today. I’m glad you’re preaching the gospel. You get some rewards for that’?” He feels utterly constrained. He doesn’t even have a choice.
So how does he demonstrate that, nevertheless, despite this degree of compulsion he’s in it all the way? This is his heart; this is where he really is. How does he demonstrate that? He tells us. Listen. He says, “For 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 …” “If I had said, ‘Here am I, Lord. Send me,’ like Isaiah …” (Although Isaiah was sort of compelled morally by the sheer grandeur of the vision.) But Paul doesn’t let himself an easy out like that.
He says, “In one sense, I didn’t volunteer; I was turfed in. The Lord appeared to me. He captured me. He saved me. He mandated my apostolic ministry. He mandated that I go to the Gentiles, that I would suffer many things, all in one shot. I’m an unprofitable servant, and I’m damned if I don’t do it.”
“If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward?” “Is there at any point in my ministry where I can say, ‘Lord, I’m really offering something to you freely because I want to do this. It’s not just that you’ve compelled me. It’s not just that there’s fire in my bones. It’s not just that I have white-hot flame. I love to do this. I want to do this.’ ” “Just this …” “I’ll show you how I do it,” he says.” “… that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge.”
Isn’t that spectacular? By not using his rights, by giving up his rights (whether in the relatively minor matter of food offered to idols or as a whole principle of life), by not using his rights in anything if only to promote the gospel more effectively, he can show that he’s in it with his whole heart and will, 100 percent. “I’d like a reward for that, Lord.” That’s what he says.
Now we come to our text, 1 Corinthians 9:19–23. Paul tells us now that in preaching the gospel, he has to flex. He has to become a Jew, he has to become like someone who is under the law, even though he’s not under the law, and so on. He has to flex. Why?
1. Paul has to flex because he does not belong to any of these categories anymore.
Listen. There are some contexts in which Paul can still think of himself as a Jew. Thus, for example, in Romans 9 and 10, he could wish himself accursed for his kinsmen according to the flesh (to the Jews). He sometimes makes distinctions in Galatians between Jewish Christians and other Christians, and he uses the first person singular or the first person plural to designate his associations.
In certain contexts, Paul knows full well that, at the end of the day, racially and ethnically he’s a Jew. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 11, he can talk about the fact that he’s not just Jewish ethnically, he’s not just a child of Israel, but he’s a “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” He was linguistically and culturally formed by this heritage as well. So there are many contexts in which Paul is grateful for this heritage and he identifies with it, but here he says, “To Jews I became like a Jew to win the Jews.” He assumes that he isn’t one.
In what sense is he not one? That’s why he gives a further definition in the next line: “To those under the law …” Now that includes Jews but will also include proselytes, but this is the sense in which he is no longer a Jew: “To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law).” What he means is he’s no longer under the law covenant. He’s not introducing complex theories about the exact place of moral law. He is not under the law covenant. He’s a Christian. He’s under the new covenant.
I know that raises all kinds of complex questions about continuity and discontinuity, but he says that about as baldly as you can get. “I am not under the law. In that sense, I am not a Jew. So when I start evangelizing in Jewish circles, then, I have to start acting like a Jew.” So he goes up to Jerusalem, and some of the authorities say, “You know, it’d be a really good thing if you took on a vow connected with the temple.” And he does. He’s prepared to flex.
That’s what he’s prepared to do with Timothy. “I want him to come with me. Everybody knows he’s a half-breed. He was never ‘done.’ It’s sort of common knowledge in the village. I’d better get him done so he can come with me. So he gets done, and I’m prepared to flex like that.” He’s not going to say, “Under no way should any Gentile ever become circumcised.”
For the sake of evangelism, he’s prepared to become like a Jew, but if somebody in Jerusalem says, “Titus has to become circumcised in order to be a Christian,” then Paul will say, “Absolutely no way. That jeopardizes the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus. You don’t do that.” So it’s not the act by itself that is so significant. In that sense, it’s a bit like the meat issue. It’s not the act in itself that is so significant, it’s the connections: the connection with the weak conscience or the connection with whether or not it is jeopardizing the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus.
In this connection, then, Paul does not see himself as a Jew. In fact, he’s going to go on and say he doesn’t quite see himself as a Gentile either. He is in what the theologians have long called the tertium quid (whenever you get stuck, quote Latin), the third position. He’s in a third position. He’s not a Jewish Christian who has to flex when he begins to evangelize in Gentile circles; he’s a Christian person who has to flex when he evangelizes Jews, and he has to flex when he evangelizes those who don’t have the law.
The point is Paul has to flex precisely because he does not belong to any of these categories. The next one is still hard to understand: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” We can understand that. He goes kosher for a while when he’s in the right circles, because he’s trying to show them his freedom in Christ even in that regard.
“To those under the law I became like one under the law …” (Though I keep insisting, I am not under that law covenant.) “… so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law [Gentiles] I became like one not having the law.” I have pondered that statement again and again. I’m not sure I have it right even now, because you see, if he’s not under the law covenant, what precisely does he have to do to flex to those who don’t have any law? What does it mean to flex in that regard? He’s already there, isn’t he?
Well, no. He does have a parenthetical expression that helps us. He says, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law …)” Whoa. Wait a minute. You just said were. He explains: “I am not free from God’s law. In some sweeping sense, I am, rather, under Christ’s law.” That is, he is under this new covenant, this mandate from God that has been mediated through Christ, and that will raise all the questions about how you have continuity and discontinuity between the old covenant and the new.
What does he mean when he says, then, “Though I am not lawless, I am not antinomian. I am not utterly open to anything that comes along. I am, rather, under Christ’s law. I am under his lordship: all that the new covenant of which Jesus Christ is the head, secured by his own blood, everything that he demands in the structure of the new covenant; I am under that. I can’t escape that.”
Then what does it mean to say that he flexes to those who are under the law? After all, he can’t escape what it means to be under Christ’s law. What does it mean to flex? I think what it means is established in the next line. Just as what it means to be a Jew is established more clearly by saying they’re under the law, and Paul himself is not under the law.… So what it means in this context to be free from the law is established by the next line: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”
Now he cannot mean by weak here exactly what he means in chapter 8. He cannot, because those in chapter 8 clearly are Christians. They’re baby Christians. They’re Christians with an ill-informed conscience, but they’re Christians. Here, however, he speaks of weak as whom he wants to win, so they’re non-Christians.
If the context and the flow make any difference, you have to understand that these weak ones are weak in the same sense that they’re weak in chapter 8. They are probably Gentiles who have gotten close enough to Christianity that they have some real problems with idolatry now, like a lot of God-fearers in the synagogues. The synagogues attracted some who became full-orb Jews. The men were circumcised; they became proselytes.
In the ancient world, the synagogues also attracted some pagans who came to the end of paganism. They didn’t like the immorality of the gods. They liked the vision of holiness that seemed to be pushed by Judaism, and they became God-fearers. They had a conscience about some of these things now. They learned their Old Testament. They were Gentiles. They had not become Jews, but they still had a weak conscience. I think those are the people Paul has in mind.
That is, they’re Gentiles, they don’t have the Old Testament law, but they have a weak conscience. Paul says he’ll flex to win them too. He won’t eat this meat. He won’t do things that betray their troubled conscience so long as he can remain within all the mandates of what it means to say, “I am a Christian. I am in the tertium quid. I am in the third position. I am under Christ’s law. There I will not bend, but apart from that, I’ll flex, precisely that I may win Christ.” So Paul has to flex because he does not belong to any of these categories.
2. Paul has to flex because he wants to win people in all of these categories.
That’s what he says in verse 22. “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.” Now get this; this is the important bit. If Paul is in this third position, then as a Christian, he is trying to win these non-Christians on his right and left, if you like, to become Christians like him. If he wants them to become Christians like him, he does not wish to leave them where they are. He’s in a third position himself. He’s a Christian. He’s under the new covenant.
He’s not saying, “I go to the Jews, and I eat kosher so that I can form a nice kosher messianic community where they still believe you have to eat kosher in order to accept Jesus the Messiah. Then I come over here to the weak Gentiles, and I don’t eat kosher over there. I’m very careful not to offend their sensibilities (they’ve got a weak conscience) so I can win them to Jesus. They can remain where they are, and they can form a kind of neo-pagan Christian society, a messianic paganism perhaps,” because he wants to win them.
He wants to win them out of where they are, to where he is, in the third position, the Christian position where you have freedom. That means if they become Christians as Paul is a Christian, then they will have to learn to flex to reach their own people. If they really become Christians, they’re going to have to flex now to reach Muslims, because they’re Christians. In fact, you might begin to test whether or not a Muslim has really learned something of that flexibility if you send them to go after Hindus.
Thus, if you want to flex to make the gospel a little more flexible and accessible, understandable in some strong postmodern context, for example, where there may be a really deep suspicion of the possibility of knowing truth that actually conforms to reality.… There are softer versions of postmodernism than that, but most of the so-called evangelicals who go into postmodernism only seem to me to know the hard versions.
If you want to go after them, fine, but you’ve got to understand that to win them, you’ve got to bring them back to being a Christian, such that you then have to flex to go after one or the other. You have to flex to go after modernists. Modernists are full of themselves. They’re full of their own absolutes. That’s true in some profound sense, but postmoderns are full of themselves too. There are idols everywhere.
That is where the mistake of C5 is so desperately profound. It doesn’t recognize that there are idols in every culture. It’s not just in the Muslim world that there are idols. There are idols in the West. There are idols in India. There are idols in South America. There are idols everywhere. All of us, to become Christians, must leave those idols behind and come under the new covenant.
Then there may be some flexibility in which we engage to go after these people, but the aim is not to leave them as C5. Christ-centered community number 5? How is it a Christ-centered community anymore? It isn’t Christ-centered. It’s basically a Muslim community with a little bit of Christian gloss.
The whole point is to get them into the third position, the Christian position, from which they then may speak intelligently of flexing in order to do whatever things are.… Not escaping the mandate of what it means to be under the law to Christ in order to win their particular communities. That’s what Paul is talking about here. In other words, Paul has to flex because he wants to win people in all of these categories.
3. Paul has to flex because he wants to participate in the gospel category.
Verse 23. Most of our English versions, including the ESV, the TNIV, and the NIV, render it something like this (with a word or two different): “I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.” That’s coherent. It means that Paul is saying he promotes the gospel with intelligence, fervor, and passion, precisely as an apostle of the gospel, for that is part of his calling.
He thus, by God’s grace, enters into all of the eschatological blessings on the last day. He enters in as well, as he brings others with him, since he has been called in his own salvation and in his mandate as an apostle to preach the Word. “I want to share in this gospel blessing.” It’s possible it means that, but the original is a bit more ambiguous. It is literally, “That I may be a participant in it.” That is to say, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may be a participant in it.” That’s what it says.
In other words, the gospel in its core is about the one who identified with others for their salvation. That’s what the gospel is about. He was God’s own agent in creation, one with God from eternity, with the Father loving the Son perfectly, the Son loving the Father perfectly, in spectacular glory before anything was, utterly content, utterly holy.
In this fallen, broken, damned world, he becomes a human being. He identifies with us. Then he stands in the line of sinners to be baptized by John the Baptist. The whole New Testament testifies that he was without sin, but he identifies with sinners. It’s part of the whole pattern of how he’s identifying with sinners.
He identifies with Israel. He repeats some of their experiences: abandonment in the desert, temptation to trust something other than the Word of God. Reread the temptation narratives, picturing again the experience of Israel. He identifies with Israel. He identifies with sinners so utterly that in the extreme, he takes their place. He dies my death. He rises again, and I have his life.
Union with Christ undergirds justification. He comes to me, and he becomes a human being. My sins are reckoned to him. His righteousness is reckoned to me. How could his identification be any more complete? It is not only personal, it is forensic. That is what is meant by some passages we sometimes read only to catch one crucial verse and miss the flow.
In Mark 10, and in Matthew 20, James and John (or James, John, and the mother) come and ask for a special favor when the kingdom dawns. “One on your left, one on your right … secretary of State, secretary of defense.” Jesus says, “You don’t know what you’re asking. Can you drink the cup that I’m going to drink?” by which he means his impending death. With astonishing arrogance and ignorance, they say, “We can.”
You can almost hear Jesus smiling through the pages. He says, “Well, as a matter of fact, you will,” because one of them is going to become the first apostolic martyr, and the other one is going to end his days on the back side of Patmos. So in one sense, they are going to share a little bit in his suffering too. Then the other 10 find out about this, and they’re very indignant. “You shouldn’t be asking things like this. It’s not very godly, you know.” Of course, what they really mean is they wish they’d gotten their dibs in first.
That’s when Jesus says, “The rulers of this world lord it over others. That’s the way big business is. That’s the way political parties are. They all talk of service and so on, but just give them a few years there, and they think the perks are somehow their due. They want the authority, but whoever wants to be first must become servant of all.”
Out of this sort of passage, we have picked up expressions like “servant leadership.” Now in many uses of servant leadership that I hear, it’s all servant and no leadership. It’s almost as if the passage is saying something like, “You’ve heard what it means to be a leader, but I’m telling you, ‘Don’t be a leader; be a servant.’ ” That’s not what the passage is saying, because Jesus gives himself as the supreme example. If there is one thing that Jesus does not abandon, it’s his authority.
How does Matthew’s gospel end? “All authority is given to me in heaven and in earth.” Whatever it means for Jesus to become a servant does not mean the abandonment of his authority. Rather, so much of the leadership that we exercise is bound up with our own egos, with our own desire for self-promotion, for control, for manipulation; whereas, Jesus so desires to serve precisely in his leadership that he dies a ransom for the sins of many.
You’re so close to the gospel in all of these expressions. This is the gospel. Now Paul says, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may be a participant in it. Not just that I might share his blessings but that I might do the same thing: that I might be a participant in the way I go about ministry, in the way I evangelize, in the way I cherish people, the way I identify with people, and that I might be, myself, a participant in the gospel. Doesn’t that principle come through in many, many biblical texts?
What does Paul say in Philippians 3? Yes, he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection …” Amen. Except the text goes on to say, “… and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.” That’s what Paul wants. He wants to be a participant in the gospel. It’s as if he is saying, “I am not only preaching the gospel, I am living it. I not only want the power of Jesus’ resurrection, I want the fellowship of his sufferings. I want to follow Jesus.”
So Paul has to flex not only to win some but to participate in his very existence in the gospel, dying to self, taking up his cross, identifying with others, so that in the very style of his ministry, in his care for others, he is living out the gospel. In other words, the flexibility and accommodation envisaged in this paragraph are the flexibility and accommodation of the messenger, not the message.
Do you hear that? The flexibility and accommodation envisaged in this paragraph are the flexibility and accommodation of the messenger, not the message and not the convert! He does not want the Jews to remain as they are. He does not want those who don’t have the law to remain where they are.
Muslim converts would show they’ve got this not by remaining indistinguishable from other Muslims except that they’ve tacked on a bit of follower-of-Jesus language but now by so identifying with the third position, with the gospel, with Jesus, with the cross (they are Christians) that now they will have to flex to win their own fellow Muslims or to win Hindus or to win Westerners.
Paul has to flex because he longs to participate in the gospel category. There are countless applications. Some of them are funny; some of them are practical. Then there are some things that just should not be taken up. Let me dare to mention a couple of applications.
My first internship as a young would-be pastor was in French Canada with a man called Ernie Keefe. Ernie Keefe had been converted. He was an American originally, moved to Canada, and eventually became a Canadian. He started learning the language in his mid-20s. When I went and served with him, he was already about 50.
In those days it was still dangerous to preach the gospel in certain parts. He had an established church in Asbestos-Danville, a small church. We would go to the surrounding small towns, and we would go door-to-door visiting, trying to distribute literature, and so on. We knew, then, that we couldn’t go back there for about 3 months because by the next day the local curé would have shut the place down. In fact, you’d probably get beaten up. So we’d go to another village. Two or three months later, we’d go back and do what we could do. That’s the way we did it.
One night, we were coming in from one of these villages in the car, and we were chatting along in English. This was an all-French church, but we were talking in English. He said, “Don, I’m just too tired. I’m going to have to revert to French.” Do you see? He had identified with French Canadians. That’s where he lived and moved and had his being. It was now actually easier for him to talk and think in French than in English. It was such a small index, but it was the Savior’s heart.
That’s why J. Hudson Taylor went to China and let his hair grow down in a long braid. It shocked all the Europeans back at home. They’re little things, all the time, besides the big ones. They’re little ones.
Although I was brought up in French Canada, my parents were both Brits; they were both born in the UK. The Brits learn that there are supposed to be 36 inches between people when they’re having a conversation. It’s polite. Then I go to Latin America. In Latin America, they learn it’s all 16 to 18 inches.
So I go down there, and I start talking to somebody. They get a little closer, and I step back a little bit. They get a little closer, and I step back a little bit. They get a little closer.… I think they’re pushy! They think I’m distant. So I stick my foot out and see what they’ll do then. They step on it!
They’re such little things. I’ve got to change my sensibilities. I go to Australia. In Australia, you cut down the tall poppy. Nobody’s supposed to get puffed up. Ten-year olds in Australia call me Don. Then I go to China. Nobody will ever refer to me in China as anything less than the Reverend Professor Doctor or something equivalent.
In Australia the sense of humor.… Well, some of it’s self-deprecating, but some of it is gloriously rude. I love it! I think I’m a secret Australian. They sit around and insult each other and then fall off their chairs laughing. It’s wonderful! It took me a while the first time I went there to figure that out. They were treating me with such respect; I was getting more and more embarrassed because they were busy laughing at each other the whole time. Eventually, once I began to figure it out, I got really rude. Then they accepted me. Then I got all the insults, and I knew I was in!
Then I go to China. They have a different sense of humor. There’s no way I’m going to start insulting some Chinese pastor, and there’s no way he’s going to start insulting me. You’ve got to flex in some of these things, don’t you? They’re just little matters; they’re just cultural matters, but isn’t it part of loving people for Jesus’ sake? So I have to change. I’m the messenger. I’m not even saying one way is better than another. I’m not saying that either. I’m just saying I’ve got to change, but the message doesn’t change.
What you’re trying to do is so promote the gospel that when they’re converted, they enter the third position. They’re Christians. That shapes everything. That is why we come back to the cross again and again, for here alone is the exclusive sufficiency by which we are justified before God for now and for all eternity, but it also shapes how we conceive the ministry ought to be. We are called not only to believe in his name but to suffer for his sake, to be a participant in the gospel. Let it be. Let us pray.
Forbid, Lord, that we should fall into the trap of thinking the proclamation of the gospel is merely verbal. It is never less than verbal, but we want to be gospel-shaped people too. Gospel-shaped pastors, gospel-shaped brothers and sisters in Christ who, far from being afraid of suffering, precisely because we serve a crucified Messiah, want to know not only the power of his resurrection but the fellowship of his sufferings, to participate in this gospel.
Grant that it may be so, so that we join with the apostles when hard times do come and rejoice that we’re counted worthy to suffer for the name. Grant, Lord God, that for all of us the vision of the crucified, risen, vindicated, reigning Master may so consume our entire vision that by the power of this same gospel in our ministry, we will long to be conformed to him. For we ask in his name, amen.