Study Notes for I Corinthians 9:19-27
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Paul has been writing about his rights as an apostle. He has reminded the Corinthians that he had the God-given right to expect them to support him while he ministered to them, but he has also pointed out that he has chosen not to take financial support from them. His reward for preaching the gospel, he says, is that he offers it free of charge.
Now Paul continues in a slightly different train of thought. He tells the Corinthians that although he is free, he makes himself "a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." He states that when he is with Jews, he becomes "like a Jew." In other words, he honors Jewish law when he's associating with Jews in order to win their trust so they will listen to him preach the gospel.
Paul, of course, was a Jew. Before his birth in Christ he had been a rigidly observant Jew. Now, he says, he is not under the law, but when he's with Jews, he observes the law.
There were limits, though, to Paul's becoming like a Jew. In Galatians 2:11-16, Paul publicly opposed Peter when Peter refused to eat with the Gentiles in the presence of the Judaizing Christians from Jerusalem. Jewish law forbade Jews to eat with Gentiles because the association would make them ritually unclean.
This Jewish law, however, Paul could not support. Honoring Jewish customs in the presence of Jews was helpful only as long as the customs did not hurt other people.
In Galatians 5:13 Paul said, "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love."
When Peter refused to eat with the Gentile believers in the presence of Judaizers, he was not serving either the Gentiles or the Jews in love. He was, rather, operating from "the sinful nature." He was operating from fear instead of from freedom. He was sending the Gentile believers a false message that they were not as fully acceptable in Christ as were the Jews. At the same time, he was giving power to the Judaizers' false teaching that Gentiles had to conform to Jewish customs in order to qualify for inclusion with God's people.
Paul chastised Peter for misrepresenting the gospel to both Gentiles and Jews. When Paul says he becomes all things to all people, he does not imply that he will pretend to honor false doctrines and harmful practices. He honors the customs of the people he's with only insofar as he does not hurt people or misrepresent Christ or the truth of the gospel.
Who are the weak?
Similarly, Paul honored the Gentiles' spiritual immaturity. The Gentiles came to Christ with absolutely no understanding of God at all. While the Jews had a rich, God-centered tradition that found wonderful fulfillment in the Messiah, the Gentiles had worshiped pagan gods and demons. They came out of a culture that had no understanding of morality such as the Jews had.
While the Jews found freedom from law and failed promises when they became spiritually alive, the Gentiles literally found God. The Jewish Christians woke up to the reality of Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the ages. The Gentiles woke up to the existence of love and goodness.
Jewish rituals had absolutely no meaning to the Gentiles. If they tried to adopt them, as they did in Galatia, those rituals drove them back toward their old pagan rituals. If God was no longer in the Jewish rituals, they were simply empty practices reminiscent of the Galatians' pagan rituals. They would drive them back into bondage "to those who by nature are not gods." (Gal. 4:8)
The Gentiles' spiritual struggles often were related to keeping a clear distinction between God and the gods. To keep this distinction clear in their hearts and minds, the early church recommended that the Gentiles' avoid sexual immorality, eating meat offered to idols, or eating/drinking blood. (Acts 15:19-20)
Consequently, when Paul mingled with the Gentiles, he, too, refused to eat meat offered to idols. Even though he said an idol is "nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one," (I Cor. 8:4), he honored the Gentiles' "weak consciences" by not exercising his freedom to eat anything placed before him. If Paul had eaten sacrificial meat in front of the new Gentile converts, his own freedom might have made them feel they could ignore the danger of indulging in rituals they had recently observed as part of the worship of demons.
Paul had no habits associated with pagan rituals; eating meat offered to an idol did not release a cascade of memories and habitual responses in Paul's mind and heart. The Gentiles, on the other hand, had a different story. For them to eat the same meat would trigger a whole set of automatic responses, fears, and feelings of loyalty and obligation. They had to build new habits as they built a relationship with Jesus before they would be mature and strong enough for their old pagan symbols not to affect them.
Race for the prize
Paul compares the Christian life to a foot race. This metaphor was excellent for the Corinthians because every other year Corinth hosted the Isthmian games, second only to the Olympic games in importance. The Isthmian games included foot races as did the Olympics.
The Corinthians knew what it meant to train for a race, and they knew what it meant to compete for the prize, a victor's crown of laurel leaves. Paul urges the Corinthians to "run in such a way as to get the prize."
The prize Paul urges them to win is many-faceted. Unlike the crown the winner of a foot race won, the crown Paul urges them to win is eternal. Ultimately, the prize a Christian wins at the end of his race is the glory of living forever with Jesus. The godliness which the Holy Spirit has developed in him is also part of his crown of glory. (I Tim. 4:7)
In addition, the good works of a Christ-follower (I Cor. 3:10-17) are also part of his crown of glory. In 2 Thessalonians 2:19, 20 Paul says, "For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy."
Training for the prize
Winning the prize, the crown of glory, requires "strict training". God is the Christ-follower's trainer. Many of us grew up believing that we had to discipline ourselves and our "appetites" in order to become godly. The strict training to which Paul refers, though, is different from the works we grew up understanding.
The strict training we must do is within a context of victory. We are "coming from victory" instead of "going toward victory", to borrow a phrase from Clay Peck, pastor of Colorado's Grace Place.
Just as the crown of glory is multi-faceted, so is our strict training. Paul admonished Timothy in I Tim. 4:7, 16, "Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourselves to be godly.Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Part of our training is to actively pursue the Word of God and to ignore myths and teachings of people. We are to let God teach us through the Holy Spirit. He will reveal truth to us, and we must apply it to our lives.
Hebrews 12:7 says, "Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?"
God teaches us through hardship. A person training for an athletic event endures severe physical stress and pain. God, our spiritual trainer, also leads us through pain and hardships as part of our spiritual growth. Our understanding of truth and of God's love and sovereignty can grow only when we are stretched beyond our narrow zones of comfort and understanding.
Another part of our strict training is allowing God to give us His work to do. By his grace we can lay firm gospel foundations in people's lives. By his grace we can nurture others into growth and maturity. But it is only when we work in and through God's grace that we can teach truth and do God's work, not our work. (I Cor. 3:10-15)
"Beating the air"
If we see our "strict training" as harsh discipline we must impose on our natural desires, we will fail. We may feed ourselves strict, healthy diets; we may exercise religiously and always get eight hours of sleep. We may discipline our reading habits, our T.V. and movie diets, and we might saturate ourselves with classical music. We might have 30 minutes of private devotions each morning at the same time and never miss church. All of these things are good. But none of these provides the strict training we need in order to win the prize.
Paul says he does not fight "like a man beating the air." If we exact requirements of ourselves, we will never reach that place of freedom and joy that is part of the prize. We waste our time if we are "working toward victory". We are in effect "beating the air."
The strict training we need is administered by God in ways and at times when he sees it's needed. Our job is to love him. Our job is to believe in him. Our job is to joyfully receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Once we have accepted Jesus and the power of his indwelling Spirit, our discipline is out of our hands. We are now "coming from victory."
God molds and shapes us. We are to be obedient to the truth and the promptings of his Spirit in us. We are to pursue a relationship of love with our Savior, the Lord Jesus. We spend time with him, immersing ourselves in his Word and letting his Spirit illuminate our understanding.
When we love Jesus and live with his Spirit, he shows us what needs to be cleaned up in our lives. He reveals our self-destruction and our pride.
When God shows us what needs fixing in us, our responsibility is to be willing to admit the faults he's shown us. We have to accept them as ours and give up rationalizing them. Once we acknowledge the truth God has revealed about ourselves, then God can heal those broken spots in us with the transforming love that conquered the power of sin.
Commit to Eternity
God is training us for eternity. He is also revealing himself to the world through us. He calls us to identify with him. He asks us to lay everything by which we define ourselves at his feet and accept the identity that he gives us.
God calls us to be ministers of freedom. Because we are free in him, he asks us to become as others are so we can release them into freedom, too. But he asks us not to become as others are in destructive ways. God calls us to love and dignify the people he brings into our lives with the power of his salvation.
God asks us not crumble in fear or self-pity when our training becomes rough or burdensome. He asks us to rely on him and let him be our peace, our strength, our vision, and our wisdom. He wants us to let him orchestrate our time and our activities. He wants to be our rest.
When we let God give us our work, he also gives us the energy and the time to accomplish it. Even if we spend ourselves on the people he brings to us, he will give us rest that we can't explain in terms of sleep or time. If we invest in spending time with God, he provides time for the work he gives us in ways that defy the mere hours in a day.
God calls us to respect the people to whom we minister. He calls us to be dedicated to the gospel. He calls us to run a good race and to embrace the strict training he will administer to us.
And God calls us to win the prize. He is asking us to embrace life and
to commit to spending eternity with him!
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised June 15, 2000.