1 Corinthians 9:16-23
THE BROAD CONTEXT:
Corinth was an important and wealthy Greek city. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to two things: The first was a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). The second was issues raised by the Corinthian Christians in a letter that they wrote to Paul. In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
In chapters 1-6, Paul dealt with problems brought to his attention by people from Corinth. In chapter 7, he began to address “the things about which you wrote to me” (7:1)—issues about which the Corinthian Christians had written Paul.
The question that Paul addresses in 8:1 – 11:1 is whether it is permissible for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. In Corinth, much of the meat available for human consumption had been sacrificed to idols. Typically, part of the meat was burned on the altar, part was reserved for the priests, part was consumed by the people making the sacrifices, and the rest was available for sale. Of the meat available for purchase, some would be served, restaurant-style, in temples. The rest would be sold in meat markets throughout the city. While it was clear that meat served in temples had been sacrificed to idols, it would be more difficult—often impossible—to determine the origin of meat for sale in meat markets.
There were two dimensions to the problem for Christians. One was whether it was permissible to eat meat served within the temple precincts. The other was whether it was permissible to purchase meat that had been sacrificed to idols and to eat it at home. Eating meat within the temple precincts could be a particular problem, because neophyte Christians seeing more sophisticated Christians eating meat at a temple would almost certainly conclude that the sophisticated Christians were engaged in idol-worship (8:10). Eating meat at home, even thought it might have been sacrificed to idols, would be less liable to be interpreted in that way. However, if someone happens to interpret it that way, Paul says that the one eating the meat should cease and desist (8:13; 10:28-31).
Chapter 9 is sufficiently different that some scholars consider it to have been inserted after-the-fact. However, that is not the case. We might think of chapter 9 as a sermon illustration. In chapter 8, Paul states the principle that exercising love for one’s Christian brothers and sisters is more important than exercising the personal freedom that we have in Christ. In chapter 9, he tells how he has done that. He had the right to marry, but chose to forego that right to devote his full time to preaching the Gospel (9:5ff.). He had the right to require his congregation to provide for him financially, but chose to forego that right for their benefit (9:6ff.). So also, they should choose to forego their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols if someone might misunderstand their behavior and thus be injured.
In chapter 10, Paul returns to the subject of idols. In that chapter, he restates his principle of love as follows: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are profitable. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own, but each one his neighbor’s good” (10:23-24. See also 6:12).
Eating meat sacrificed to idols was a problem in Rome as well as in Corinth. Paul deals with this issue in his letter to the Romans (chapters 14-15). The presenting problem there was eating meat sacrificed to idols, and Paul’s response is similar to his response in 1 Corinthians. He emphasized that Christians should welcome each other and abstain from judging one another, even though they might have differing opinions (Romans 14:1-12). He also emphasized that they should “no man put a stumbling block in his brother’s way” (Romans 14:13). He said that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols, but admonished, “Don’t overthrow God’s work for food’s sake” (Romans 14:20)—the work of God being the faith of weaker Christians.
While the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols might seem irrelevant today, what Paul has to say about sensitivity to the feelings of Christian brothers and sisters is highly relevant. He calls those who are strong (in the case of the Corinthian Christians, those who understood that idols did not represent real gods, so meat that has been sacrificed to idols had no religious significance) to defer to those who are weak (in the case of the Corinthian Christians, those whose faith might be weakened by seeing Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols).
What are some real-life situations in which this principle might apply today? The one that seems most obvious has to do with alcohol and alcoholics. A person who is strong (isn’t likely to get drunk) could say, “I am free to drink whenever and wherever I choose, because I can handle it. I won’t get drunk. I won’t lose control. I won’t drive while impaired.”
While that might be true, in the presence of one who is weak (an alcoholic), the stronger person needs to consider the potential consequences of his/her behavior on the weaker person. If he/she insists on drinking alcohol in the presence of an alcoholic, his/her behavior might tempt the alcoholic to “fall off the wagon”—to take one drink, which would lead to many drinks. In such a case, Paul would call the stronger person to consider the vulnerability of the weaker person and to defer to the weaker person’s sensibilities. The principle of love for the other person trumps the principle of the personal freedom that comes with faith in Christ.
There are other situations where the principle would apply. Flirtatious behavior might be innocent, but could lose its innocence in the presence of a weaker Christian who would misunderstand it. Careless attitudes toward money might tempt a weaker Christian to do something dishonest. It is difficult to generalize, because the application of Paul’s principle of love for the weaker person is so dependent on the immediate situation—and who might be watching—and how our behavior might affect that person.
In any event, applying Paul’s principle of love requires that we be alert and sensitive to those who might be led astray by our behavior. I am reminded of the lengths to which my wife and I went to protect our children when they were young. We inserted plugs into electrical outlets to protect them from electrical shocks. We carefully tested the temperature of bath water before placing them into the bathtub. We made sure that they didn’t have access to small objects on which they might choke. We fenced our yard to give them a safe place to play. We kept sharp knives where they couldn’t reach them. Being a good parent meant being always on the alert.
Paul calls us to that same kind of sensitivity to other people, both children and adults—anyone who might misunderstand our actions or our language—anyone who might be tempted to emulate our behavior in ways that might do them harm—anyone whose faith might be damaged by seeing us do things that they might believe to be questionable morally.
1 CORINTHIANS 9:1-15. THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
As noted above, in these verses Paul offers himself and his personal conduct as an illustration of the principle that he established in chapter 8—that the Christian needs to consider the sensibilities of other people. He/she needs to take care that his/her conduct doesn’t transgress those sensibilities unnecessarily, causing the other person to stumble in his/her faith journey.
Paul establishes his credentials as an apostle—and notes his special relationship to the Corinthian church, for which he was the founding pastor (vv. 1-2). He then establishes that he has the same rights as others—the right to food and drink—the right to marry—the right to require payment for his services as a pastor (vv. 3-12a).
But then he goes on to say, “Nevertheless we did not use this right, but we bear all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the Good News of Christ” (v. 12b). That is the point! In chapter 8, Paul called Corinthian Christians to subordinate their personal rights (to eat meat sacrificed to idols) for the sake of the gospel. Now he is saying that he himself has sacrificed certain of his rights to better proclaim the gospel. He is a living illustration of the principle that personal rights are less important than the proclamation of the gospel and the spiritual well-being of people who might hear that proclamation.
He will conclude the next chapter by saying, “Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no occasions for stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the assembly of God; even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ” (10:31 – 11:1).
1 CORINTHIANS 9:16-18. NOTHING TO BOAST ABOUT
16For if I preach the Good News, I have nothing to boast about; for necessity (Greek:ananke—necessity, requirement) is laid on me; but woe is to me, if I don’t preach the Good News. 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward. But if not of my own will, I have a stewardship (oikonomia) entrusted to me. 18What then is my reward? That, when I preach the Good News, I may present the Good News of Christ without charge, so as not to abuse my authority (exousia) in the Good News.
“For if I preach the Good News, I have nothing to boast about; for necessity (ananke—necessity, requirement) is laid on me; but woe is to me, if I don’t preach the Good News“ (v. 16). In verse 15, Paul stated that he has made no use of his rights (to be married or to receive payment for his pastoral services)—and then says, “than that anyone should make my boasting void.” His ground for boasting, then, appears to be his refusal to make use of his rights—and the purpose served thereby, “not we may cause no hindrance to the Good News of Christ” (v. 12b).
But now, in verse 16, Paul says that the fact that he proclaims the gospel is not grounds for boasting, because God has laid on him the ananke (obligation or necessity or requirement) to proclaim the gospel. He goes on to say, “Woe is to me, if I don’t preach the Good News.”
This brings to mind the story of Jonah, whom God called to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. Jonah tried to run away, but God caused a great storm to arise. Jonah, afraid that the ship and crew might be lost due to his own disobedience, confessed his sin to the crew, who cast him overboard. You know the rest of the story.
Paul, like Jonah, is under obligation—an obligation imposed on him by God. He doesn’t deserve praise for doing what he has to do. He would, however, deserve criticism (woe) if he did otherwise.
“For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward. But if not of my own will, I have a stewardship (oikonomia) entrusted to me“ (v. 17). Paul outlines two possibilities:
• If he proclaims the gospel voluntarily, of his own free will, he could expect a reward. In this case, he probably means that he could expect to be paid for his pastoral services—something that he has refused.
• However, if he proclaims the gospel involuntarily, not of his own free will, then he is like a steward (oikonomos)—the manager of a household. In that culture, stewards were often slaves, although slaves entrusted with significant responsibilities.
In this verse, then, Paul is saying that he is like the slave-steward who has been entrusted with significant responsibility, but who is neither free to say no nor to require payment for his services. Paul is just doing what God has required him to do.
“What then is my reward? That, when I preach the Good News, I may present the Good News of Christ without charge, so as not to abuse my authority (exousia) in the Good News“ (v. 18). If Paul is simply doing what he has to do, it would seem to follow that he should expect no reward. He shouldn’t expect a laurel wreath if he is simply doing what he must do. He shouldn’t expect to be labeled a hero if it was God’s action rather than his own that brought him to the firing line.
But, surprisingly, Paul says that he does have a reward for obeying God’s call. His reward is the pleasure of making the gospel free of charge—the joy of making something valuable available to people free of charge—the satisfaction being committed to a high calling rather than to the exercise of his rights. By refusing to exercise his rights, he has avoided putting obstacles in the way of the gospel (v. 12b).
1 CORINTHIANS 9:19-23. ALTHOUGH FREE, I BROUGHT MYSELF UNDER BONDAGE
19For though I was free from all, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain those who are under the law; 21to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law. 22To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. 23Now I do this for the sake of the Good News, that I may be a joint partaker of it.
“For though I was free from all, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more“(v. 19). In verses 19-23, Paul explains his behavior, which could seem inconsistent in that his behavior varies according to the company in which he finds himself.
Paul concluded the last chapter by saying, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat forevermore, that I don’t cause my brother to stumble” (8:13). He began this chapter by asking, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus Christ, our Lord? Aren’t you my work in the Lord?” (9:1)—four questions that expect a “Yes!” answer. As noted above, in verses 3-15, he talked about his willing sacrifice of certain rights, particularly the right to be married (v. 5) and the right to require payment for his services as an apostle (vv. 6ff.).
Now he says that, even though he is free—free to all—he has chosen to make himself a slave—a slave to all. In verses 20-22, he will explain exactly what he means by “slave to all.” He has become a slave to Jews by becoming a Jew—and a slave to those “under the law”—and a slave to those “who are without law”—and a slave to the weak. He has done so to eliminate barriers that might hinder his winning people to Christ.
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain those who are under the law“ (v. 20). In verses 20-22, Paul mentions Jews, those under the law, those outside the law, and the weak.
• Holladay sees these as four distinct groups. He sees “Jews” as non-Christian Jews and “those under the law” as Christian Jews. He sees “those who are without law” as non-Christian Gentiles and “the weak” as Christian Gentiles (Holladay, 96).
• Some scholars see “Jews” as synonymous with “those under the law”—and “those without law” (Gentiles) as synonymous with “the weak.”
• I see “Jews” as synonymous with “those under the law.” I see “those without law” as Gentiles. I see “the weak” as a separate category—fledgling Christians or unsophisticated people who might easily be led astray by the actions of Christians doing something that could be misunderstood, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols (see Acts 20:35; Romans 14:2; 15:1; 1 Corinthians 8:9).
While there is no way to identify these groups with precision, it makes no difference. Paul’s point is that when he interacts with other people, he tries to “fit in”—to identify with them so completely that he becomes one of them rather than an outsider. He does this, not to curry personal favor, but to leave the door open to winning them to Christ.
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews“ (v. 20a). Keep in mind that Paul is a Jew. He was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). However, Christ revealed himself to Saul (as he was then known) on the road to Damascus, and he became a Christian—a Jewish Christian (Acts 9:1-19; see also Galatians 1:15-17).
In the presence of Jews, Paul becomes “as a Jew…that I might gain those who are under the law“(v. 20b). We can be confident that Paul did not become a Jew in the sense that he denied Christ or any Christian tenets. He surely means that he observed Jewish customs in the presence of Jews to avoid offending them and creating barriers that would make it difficult to reach them for Christ. We can be sure that he would refuse non-kosher food in the presence of Jews. He had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews who were in those parts” (Acts 16:3).
As I was reflecting on Paul’s zeal regarding the proclamation of the gospel, I remembered a restaurant in Berchtesgaden, Germany with a fish tank stocked with trout. Patrons would point to the fish they wanted, and a waiter would use a small net to catch that fish, which would be prepared in the kitchen and served at the table.
I ordered trout, which came to the table with head and tail intact—one eye staring lifelessly upwards. Our son, who was four or five years old, was appalled. Having the fish’s eye intact was particularly distasteful to him. When I mentioned this to a German friend, she responded, “Oh! In Germany, we think of the fish’s eye as a delicacy.”
Now ask yourself this question. If you were to visit Germany and your host were to serve you a small bowl of fish eyes, would you eat them? I am confident that Paul would have given it his best. He would do whatever he could, short of compromising his faith, to observe the customs of the group with which he found himself. He would do so to enhance the possibility that he might win some of them to Christ.
Another example. When the U.S. was in Vietnam, American officers and NCOs tried to do whatever they could to enhance U.S-Vietnamese relations. In some cases, that meant eating a meal at a Vietnamese home. It was not unusual for Vietnamese hosts to serve something such as “thousand-year egg”—regarded by the Vietnamese as a delicacy, but decidedly unattractive to Americans. In a thousand-year egg, the yolk has turned dark green and the white has turned brown. It emits an odor of ammonia and sulfur. Vietnamese also served a similar delicacy called balut, a fertilized egg with a nearly-developed embryo that was boiled and eaten in the shell—a real stomach-turner for most Americans.
If your host were to serve balut or a thousand-year egg, would you eat it? Our officers and NCOs did their best. They did so to enhance U.S.-Vietnamese relationships. I am confident that Paul would have done his best too—in the hope that he could win some of them to Christ.
A final example. When I was serving a church, a couple invited us for dinner. At the table, the hostess asked us to pass our plates, which she proceeded to fill. The vegetable turned out to be lima beans—something that my wife thoroughly dislikes because of the mealy texture. If the hostess had passed the bowl of lima beans, my wife would have taken a small portion. The hostess, however, spooned out a generous portion on each plate. During the meal, I saw (with amusement) that my wife was eating her lima beans. In the car, on the way home, I asked how she had done that. She said, “I swallowed them whole.” I suspect that most pastors and pastor’s wives have experienced something of this sort. We do our best to “fit in” so that we “might gain the more” (v. 19b).
“to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law“ (v. 21). As noted above, “those outside the law” are Gentiles. Paul is known as the great missionary to the Gentiles. The risen Christ personally gave Paul this mission, telling Paul, “Depart, for I will send you out far from here to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). Paul observed that he “had been entrusted with the Good News for the uncircumcision, even as Peter with the Good News for the circumcision” (Galatians 2:7).
Being “those who are without law“ surely means that Paul felt free to eat non-kosher food in situations where refusing to eat those foods would create a barrier between him and Gentiles, making it difficult for him to win them to Christ (10:27). He did not require Gentile men to be circumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18; Galatians 2:3; 5:2-6). He conducted himself in these ways among Gentiles “that I might win those who are without law“ (v. 21c)—win them to Christ.
“To the weak I became as weak, that I might gain the weak“ (v. 22a). As noted above, the weak are either Christian Gentiles—or all Gentiles—or fledgling Christians who might easily be led astray by the actions of Christians doing something that could be misunderstood, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. In the presence of such people, Paul accommodates himself to their ways to avoid violating their scruples—so that he “might gain the weak.” Winning people to Christ is his mission and his passion, so he will do whatever possible, within the bounds of his beliefs and integrity, to win them.
There were many weaknesses among the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was riddled with divisions (1:10-17; 3:1-9). Corinthian Christians were tolerating sexual immorality (5:1-13) and bringing lawsuits against one another (6:1-11). There was a good deal of conflict in the church regarding eating food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10). They were guilty of abusing the Lord’s Supper (11:17-22).
So Paul “was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling” (2:3). He became a fool for Christ—weak—disreputable—”hunger, thirst, are naked, are beaten, and have no certain dwelling place”—weary, reviled, persecuted, slander, like rubbish and dregs (4:10-13). He did so to “gain the weak.”
“I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some“ (v. 22b). Paul’s flexibility would not extend to behavior or teachings incompatible with the gospel. However, he would extend himself as far as possible to fit in with people of nearly every stripe “that I may by all means save some.” This is merely the extension of the principle that he has been espousing throughout this section.
“Now I do this for the sake of the Good News, that I may be a joint partaker of it“ (v. 23). It seems remarkable for Paul the Apostle, of all people, to express any question that he might be eligible to share in the blessings of the gospel. If there is anyone whose salvation would seem assured, it would be Paul, who has sacrificed so much to preach the gospel—who has written so much of what we now know as the New Testament—and who has accomplished so much for the cause of Christ.
However, this verse reminds us that the God who has been so faithful to us expects faithfulness in return. God has given Paul a mission to proclaim the gospel, and Paul must do that to share in the blessings of the gospel.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan