In out last essay we studied 1 Cor. 9:1-15a. In this essay we are studying 1 Cor. 9:15b-27, in which Paul continues his apostolic example and defense. Having argued passionately in the first half of the chapter that he had a right to material support from the Corinthians, in the second half, Paul argues just as passionately that he has a right not to accept that support. He already had made that point in 12b, but it is so important to him, Paul returns to it here in verse 15. He begins in 15b by saying that he “would rather die than.” But then he breaks off his thought in mid-sentence without saying what he would rather die than. Instead he shifts to the thought that he will allow no one to empty him of the right to boast. Interestingly, the NIV combines the two thoughts by translating, “I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.”
Whatever Paul had in mind, with the verb “die.” He once again makes it clear that he will not accept financial support. And in verses 16-18 he gives the Corinthians (and us) additional insight into his thinking. He begins by telling them what his boast does not consist of. It is not his gospel preaching. That gives him no grounds for boasting whatsoever, because he is under “obligation” to preach the gospel (NIV, “compelled to preach”). In other words, Paul’s preaching is an obligation, a stewardship. entrusted to him by Christ. It is not voluntary. He is a slave of Christ’s, and he must do his duty. A slave does not receive a reward (that is pay) for doing his duty. If he were preaching by his own choice, he could receive pay, but he has not made that choice. Christ made it for him. At the beginning of verse 18, Paul asks, “What then is my reward?” And the answer is that preaching the gospel is itself his reward.
Up to this point in the chapter, Paul has completed an extended defense of his apostolic rights (vv. 3-15a) and his authority or right to lay them aside (vv. 15b-18). Now then in verses 19-23 Paul explains that his freedom from all men, meaning the lack of obligation for material support, sets him free to be the slave of all men. And he gives his reason: “so that I might win more of them.” In other words, his objective is evangelistic. He wants to save as many as he can as rapidly as he can.
Paul continues in verses 20-22 by giving three examples that illustrate how he had become all things to all people. First, he says that he became “as a Jew” in order to win Jews. Of course Paul racially was a Jew. So he is not saying that he was a Gentile who became a Jew. Rather he is saying that while in the fellowship of Jews, he lived out the religious aspects of Judaism. He gives an explanation in the next sentence. To those under the law (that would be Jews) he became as one under the law, even though he personally was not under the law. Christ had set Paul free from the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law (that is, the laws regarding the nation and the sacrificial system) and the Pharisaic interpretations of the law. But he was willing to practice such things for evangelistic purposes. You can see a specific example in Acts 21:23-26, where Paul agreed to undergo a Jewish rite of purification with four men who had made a vow. The rite included an animal sacrifice. Paul did that to demonstrate that contrary to certain reports about him, he upheld the law.
Some Christians have difficulty with Paul at this point, because it gives the impression that he was dishonest, that he was willing to deceive people in order to fulfill his mission. One has to admit that on the surface Paul seems to have been deceptive. But we have to try to get into his mind. He never wavered in his commitment to the moral aspects of the law. For example in Rom. 7:12, Paul declares, “the law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good.” So he could rightly say that he upheld the law. And as we have seen, he even could participate in Jewish ceremonies if it advanced the gospel. On the other hand, he was now under the law of Christ rather than the law of Moses. Thus he was free from the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law. So he rightly could claim that he was free from the law.
Paul’s second illustration, seen in verses 21, is the Gentiles, whom Paul describes as “those outside the law.” He became as one outside the law in order to win those outside the law. As Barrett puts it, “Just as, in the preceding verse, Paul says that in certain circumstances he behaves as if he were under the law, so here he says that in certain circumstances he behaves as if he were outside the law.” If we are going to understand Paul’s mindset in this regard, I believe the key is to realize that he related to God by grace, not law. He is a slave of Christ, not of the law. Although he gave full respect to the law, hr obeyed it in a context of obedience to the Lord Jesus.
In verse 22 we see Paul’s third illustration, namely, the weak. Paul became weak in order to save the weak. There are two problems with this illustration. One is that we do not know whom he meant by “the weak.” Barrett and Fee favor the view that they were weak Christians “who were not yet fully emancipated from legalism” (Barrett). But their attempts to explain why Paul would be trying to “win” them are not adequate for me. I believe C.H. Dodd is closer to the truth when he identifies them as “non-Christians, presumably of Jewish origin,” who are “morbidly scrupulous” (Fee, note 49). The other problem with this illustration is to understand what Paul meant by becoming weak to win the weak. He doesn’t explain what he meant by that statement. Therefore I have no explanation. In verses 22b-23 Paul summarizes this segment by saying, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” And he has done it “for the sake of the gospel.”
To conclude the section Paul exhorts the Corinthians, in 924-27, using an athletic metaphor. Athletic metaphors had a long history in the Greek philosophical tradition. And Paul, with his excellent education, would have been familiar with that tradition. He begins this final paragraph by making a general observation about the games, namely, that runners all compete, but only one “receives the prize.” That is, only one wins. And then he exhorts the Corinthians to run the race of life as a Christian with the goal of winning the race.
The analogy Paul is drawing is important. Paul’s point is not that only one person would be saved. Rather he was reminding the Corinthians that the race of Christianity could be lost. Christians must discipline themselves in every way as athletes do. That is to say, self-control is a key to maintaining one’s salvation. Of course those who hold to “once saved, always saved” cannot accept this interpretation.
Paul also reminds the Corinthians that the athletes do all that they do in order to win a perishable wreath, whereas they should do it in order to win an imperishable prize. Then in the last two verses he turns the metaphors towards himself. He does not run aimlessly, and he does not box “as though beating the air.” When I was a child, we called that shadow boxing. Paul simply was saying that in his Christian life he did what he was exhorting them to do.