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1 Corinthians 9:19–21

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (v. 19).

We are now about halfway through an extensive section in 1 Corinthians wherein Paul addresses questions about eating food offered to idols (8:1–11:1). Paul deals with two specific matters related to this question: the eating of sacrificed food during meals at pagan temples (ch. 8; 10:1–22) and the eating of meat left over from pagan sacrifices that was sold at the local market (10:23–33). In both cases, the “stronger” Corinthians’ willingness to eat meat had much to do with their misuse of Christian freedom and caused other “weaker” believers to sin. So, Paul emphasizes the proper use of Christian freedom in service to others, applying it particularly to his freedom not to get paid for preaching the gospel in order to remove obstacles to the gospel (9:1–18).

Paul expands on this freedom for the sake of advancing the gospel in today’s passage. He notes that he is free from any external constraints that others would place on him (v. 19). In light of the broader discussion about meat offered to idols, Paul likely has in mind, at least in part, the Jewish tradition that such meat was unclean and forbidden even if not consumed as a part of pagan worship. He was free from such a regulation and from other extrabiblical traditions followed by Jew or gentile and thus did not have to obey them. Nevertheless, he did not always take advantage of this freedom but chose to make himself a “servant to all” in order to win more people to the gospel. He states that to those under the law of Moses (Jews) he became as one under the law of Moses, and to those outside the law (gentiles) he became as one outside the law in order to save some people from each category (vv. 20–21). Paul refers here to his practice of adopting the customs of his audience provided that those customs were not made conditions of salvation. For example, although Jewish circumcision is ultimately a matter of indifference, he had his Jewish assistant Timothy circumcised so as not to unnecessarily offend the Jews he was trying to reach (7:19; see Acts 16:1–5). When ministering among gentiles, Paul did not have his gentile assistant Titus adopt the Jewish custom of circumcision so as not to add circumcision as a requirement for gentile salvation and thus create an unnecessary stumbling block to the gospel among the gentiles (Gal. 2:1–10). As long as doing so did not violate God’s moral law, Paul was willing to surrender his freedom in Christ for the sake of gospel witness.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

It can be easy to identify our own cultural preferences as gospel essentials. Yet, if we make our cultural preferences gospel essentials, we can prevent people from hearing the truth of the gospel, which transcends all cultures. Some cultural traditions are indeed sinful, and these cannot be accepted. But we must be careful not to reject as sinful what is merely indifferent. Otherwise, we make it more difficult for other cultures to hear the gospel.

For Further Study
  • Isaiah 19:16–25; 42:1–4
  • Acts 21:17–26
  • Galatians 5:6; 6:15

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From the April 2021 Issue
Apr 2021 Issue