1 Corinthians 9:19-27
19 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. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
24 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. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 
If you have been exposed to church for any length of time, then you are likely familiar with this passage. It is held up as the essential passage concerning Christian witness in the world. If you grew up in the conservative evangelical world, then you were likely taught there is nothing more important than to learn then how to witness to unbelievers. But times have changed, and our cultural context is vastly different than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The facts of the gospel never change, but the circumstances in which we share those facts changes over time. Many of those skeptical of Christianity in our modern culture associate sharing the Christian faith with imperialism. Christianity was born amid opposition from one of the greatest and most powerful imperialistic cultures the world has known – the Roman Empire.
But when Rome adopted Christianity as it’s imperial religion, Christendom was born, and western governments increasingly used it as a political excuse to invade other countries and prey upon their natural resources and their people. We need to acknowledge such abuses of our common faith and that they have absolutely no place in civil discourse. That is not the kind of witness the church is talking about. It is certainly not the kind of witness the Apostle Paul has in mind in this passage. Here, Paul uses two of the foundational building blocks of a pluralistic society when he speaks of sharing the faith: cultural immersion and persuasion. It is simply the way people interact with one another in the world. Paul discuss is his missionary method by considering three aspects of it: agility, discipline, and motivation.
Paul writes, in verses 19-22,
19 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.
With the words “I am free from all,” Paul returns to his question from the previous section: “am I not free.” Because Paul is free, he belongs to no man other than Jesus. That freedom is what he uses to make himself a slave to everyone. As Gordon Fee explains it:
Because he is Christ’s slave, he must work without pay; but working without pay also makes him free from any merely human restraints on his ministry, so that he might freely become other people’s slave as well. In saying that he is “free from all,” therefore, Paul is not referring to inner freedom, nor to freedom from sin or the law. Rather, he primarily means “financially independent of all.” In this context that especially means that he is also “free” of those, such as the Corinthians, who would use such material support as a means of manipulating him and his ministry. Because he is Christ’s slave, he “belongs to no man”; he is owned by no others.”
But freedom is not his goal. His goal is this salvation of the lost. Since he is financially free from others, he can put himself at the disposal of all people for the sake of the gospel. This is why Paul extensively uses the word “servant” (or “slave”) to speak of his own ministry (2 Cor. 4:5), and also why this becomes the basic expression of believers’ relationships to one another (Gal. 5:13). Jesus is the paradigm for servanthood. Free, in order to become slave to all. This is the ultimate expression of truly Christian behavior because it is truly Christlike. Paul had the agility to minister because he is financially free from the Corinthians.
Because this entire section revolves around the question of food sacrificed to idols, Paul describes his freedom in terms of the two groups present in the Corinthian congregation: “those under the law” and “those outside the law.” To put it in more contemporary terms, when he was among Jews, he was kosher. When he was among Gentiles, he was non-kosher. Because, as with circumcision, neither mattered to God (cf. 7:19; 8:8). But such conduct tends to matter a great deal to the religious on either side! Inconsistency in such circles ranks among the greatest of evils. The Carnivores for Christ, in arguing for their right to eat T-bone steaks at the Apollo temple orgies, have accused Paul of being inconsistent in his conduct. So, this is NOT Paul’s definitive statement on missions. It’s his defense of his apostleship in light of his eating habits. Nevertheless, he does write tangentially about mission and witness that and is primarily what we’ll examine.
Because of the cultural differences between the Carnivores for Christ and the Victorious Vegetarians, Paul made it his central priority not only to understand these two respective worlds, but also to enter into their lives and immerse himself deeply within them. He became so entrenched in both Jewish and Greek cultures that they had become a part of him, and he had become a part of them to the point that he could understand things from the inside. To the Jews, he became a Jew and to those outside of the law he became as a Greek. He didn’t simply try to understand them. He became them. He didn’t just learn about their culture, he became a part of it, and it became a part of him. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (v. 22). That is the agility with which Paul approached gospel ministry in his church plants.
Paul’s policy transcended mirror outward, horizontal religious practices. He immersed himself in the lives of his neighbors so he could see their lives from the inside out. He wanted to know their deepest hopes and desires. He wanted to know the questions they were asking and what troubled them about Christianity, and how to speak in ways that enabled the average Jew or Gentile to actually understand the gospel. Unlike most of us most of the time, he did not entrench himself in perfectly manicured Christian enclaves so detached from their city and culture that they have no clue about the hopes and the struggles of others. Paul wanted to articulate truth without the crutch of Christian church speak – like the mottos and slogans of the Corinthian congregation we see quoted in this letter.
We live today in a post-Christian culture and the ground has dramatically shifted. We can no longer assume a public exposed to Christianity. We need a missional contextual approach to our neighbors that neither assimilates to our host culture nor under-adapts from its church culture. Because our culture has shifted so dramatically, there is a good chance that any paradigm with which we are comfortable, one that just feels right to us, is unintelligible to the average pre-believer. We have to learn the hopes, the questions, and the language of our neighbors. We need Paul’s agility to adapt. Paul did not blindly accept the culture of Corinth so that he was unable to critique it. By being on the inside, he was able to evaluate his culture more effectively and precisely. This is what he meant when he said in verses 20 and 21, “To those under the law I became as one under the law…. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law.”
Living like a Jew with the Jews, Paul understood their strong emphasis on the letter of the Mosaic Law, and he saw that they had lost sight of the spirit of God’s law. God’s law was designed to foster love for God and neighbor. But for the Jews of Paul’s day, strict adherence, not love, had become the primary goal. That generated hostility between those who kept the Mosaic Law and those who did not. In other words, the Jews were using the law in the very opposite way in which it was intended. The law of love had been twisted into a law of relative morality and horizontal approval.
On the other hand, Greek culture swung the pendulum almost completely in the other direction. What was central to the Greeks was freedom from the Law and anything else that would restrict their sense of personal exousia (authority). They exhibited self-love and no law. Love without God’s perfect Law it’s really no love at all. The Law creates the necessary social conditions for human flourishing. For there to be justice and equity, apart from which there can be no real love, we must follow God’s Law. Without the Law, what passes for love is mere human sentimentality, that does not have the love Paul will write about shortly.
Paul understood the danger of living on either side of the pendulum. He refused to be slavishly under the Law like the Jews. And he refused to be stubbornly outside of it like the Greeks. Instead, as an insider of both cultures, he argued for a third way: a law of love that gives people every freedom in the world while leading them to use those freedoms for the good of others. “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (v. 19). If we are going to witness to our pre-believing neighbors, we need the agility to enter into their world. We will also need the discipline to stay in once we are there.
In verses 24-27, Paul writes, “24 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. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” These verses are well known and are often used to talk about how we need discipline in order to run the race of the Christian life. While that is true, this is not Paul’s point. Paul is NOT giving general instructions on the Christian life. He is defending his Apostolic mission and method. He is arguing that discipline is essential to our witness in the dying world culture.
The reason it requires discipline is that it’s so much easier for a believer to retreat into our safe enclave of doing church and speaking church-speak instead of staying involved with the world. It takes work and intentional focus upon one’s neighbors and the issues of the broader culture, to discern their hopes and understand their questions. It’s even harder to process those things when we realize we do not have the safety net of our subcultural jargon. It requires athletic-like discipline to reach pre-believers.
Given our particular cultural moment, it will take a certain kind of discipline. Along with our shift in culture has come a growing amount of suspicion. We cannot expect people to take the gospel at face value anymore. We have to learn to make a compelling case for it, to make the gospel not only intelligible but intellectually credible. The gospel is no longer plausible or intellectually credible to the broader culture. So many questions have to be addressed before pre-believers can take Christianity seriously. How do you reconcile Christianity and science? How can a loving God allow pain, hell, and even the terrible track record of the church? How do we present Christianity’s exclusive truth claims in a relativistic world? What impact does the gospel have on politics, economics, peacemaking, neighboring, and the public square? The discipline of studying apologetics is necessary. Without some understanding of the world’s questions, good intentions are simply “aimless running” and “beating the air” (v.26). We must learn to think deeply about such questions and listen and learn to communicate in ways people around us can understand.
It’s true that we really don’t have to do any of this. We are free not to. We are free to keep doing business as usual. An athlete does not have to subject himself or herself to rigorous training. She’s free to reach for that slice of cake instead of a celery stick and to skip the morning training for extra sleep. But she doesn’t do that because there’s something more important, something worth the discipline. The same is true for us. We are free to witness on our own terms. We are free to ignore our neighbors’ deepest questions and to speak in ways that are easier for us. The question for us is: is sharing the gospel something worth curbing our freedom for?
Love, the end goal of God’s Law, requires us to curb our rights, step out of our comfort zones, and seek to build relationships outside of our Christian enclave. Paul had been dragged, blind and helpless, out of his comfortable religious enclave in the Jerusalem temple. He had to learn an entirely new paradigm directly from Jesus. Because he had experienced the deep, deep love of Jesus, Paul wanted everyone he encountered to share in that same love. He writes in verse 27, “but I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” The word “disqualified” literally means “to be shown counterfeit.” Paul is stating the same principle the Apostle John used in his last great sermon to the church at Ephesus, where he wrote, in 1st John 3:18, “18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” 
Paul has written about the agility needed to go into culture and the discipline need to stay in culture. Finally, he writes about the goal to keep us going. Stephen Um writes in his commentary:
Throughout the passage Paul uses some off-putting language. Over and over, he says he’s out to win the Jews, the Greeks, the weak, to save them, to win over more and more of them. This sounds a whole lot like imperialism…. Witness that is intrusive, that tries to box another person into a corner to win the argument, or that treats him as a prize to be won rather than a person to be loved, shouldn’t happen. Any form of witness marked by imperialism like that runs counter to the very nature of the gospel, which tells believers that the God of Christianity wins not by conquering but by dying, not by bringing the sword but by bearing the cross. And any witness that calls itself Christian has to do the same.
Christianity cannot be sold like a multi-level marketing program. This was Paul’s point in verse 23, “23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” Some have taken this statement to mean that Paul what’s in it for the blessings, rewards, converts, and arguments. But, if we look a little more closely, we find that is not the case at all. Verse 23 literally reads, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I might share with them in it.” He is writing that he wants to share the gospel itself. He wants to share the story about a witness who came to us by becoming one of us, an insider who felt our deepest hopes and longings, who learned the questions we were asking and the things that troubled us. It’s about a witness who immersed himself deeply in our fallen world, speaking and giving, living, and loving in ways we could not understand. It’s about a witness who shared everything with us and gave his life away for us and our sin. It’s about a witness who became weak, losing it all because he had a goal that kept him going. That goal was you!
When we truly see that witness selflessly saving sinners like us, it gives us a goal of our own. When we share the gospel with pre-believers, we’re not only sharing a story with others, but we share in the very nature of that story. Why would we labor to learn the hopes and questions of our neighbors enter speak in ways that people can understand? Why do we keep going when the intellectual demands and cultural study and loving our neighbors gets hard? We press on in order to share not only what God has done for us, but how he did it for us. We share our own participation in the nature of the gospel. The goal that keeps us going is not winning souls or arguments. It’s not about collecting converts, or so-called rewards in heaven, or all the knowledge in the world. It is about standing side by side with our neighbors and sharing in the nature of this gospel that has saved us, even as we learn to show it more and more to one another through acts of love. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I might share with them in it.” Christ’s love for us compels us to mission.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 9:19–27.
 Fee, 425–426.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 3:18.
 Um, 176. Kindle Edition.A