The Urgent Messenger (notes)

Reading: 1 Corinthians 9.16-23
Paul has been responding to the situation in the Corinthian church where "strong" Christians have insisted on their freedom and rights in a way that has hurt other Christians and fractured the fellowship. The specific issue has been meat sacrifices to idols (1 Cor. 8).

Some have assumed that the present chapter introduces new subject matter and must therefore be taken as an insertion from some other letter - perhaps part of the "sorrowful letter" (2 Cor. 2.4) - or at least is a digression. Leon Morris comments that "there is no need for such hypotheses. Paul has been dealing with people who asserted their rights to the detriment of others. He has told them that this is wrong. He now proceeds to show that he himself has consistently applied this principle. He practises what he preaches" (The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Tyndale, 131).

In fact Paul sees that his freedoms and rights are to be subservient to his calling as a Christian and an apostle.

Notes on the text

v. 15 "But I have not used any of these rights." Paul has the freedom not to exercise his rights. Compare our assumption that it is imperative we exercise whatever we perceive to be our right.

v. 16 "Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" More literally, "necessity presses on me". Paul has an obligation to preach the gospel which over-rides his freedoms and rights.

v. 17 "...the trust committed to me" - "I am entrusted with a stewardship or commission." He is not living to fulfil himself, to please himself. He is not acting on his own behalf. The "steward" was responsible to carry out the master's instructions.

So, v. 19, "though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible." Though an oikonomos responsible to the Lord, he becomes a doulos to everyone, though not in the sense of relinquishing his primary responsibility to the Lord.

Vv. 20-22 expand what Paul means here. "Those not having the law" are not the "lawless" - the term is equivalent here to "Gentiles". Paul is "not free from God's law but... under Christ's law" - more literally, "not outside the God's Law but subject to Christ's law." Consistent with this principle, Paul can circumcise Timothy so that he can work among the Jews (Acts 16.3). Yet, as a servant of Christ, he will live according to the Gentile ethos where this isn't inconsistent with Christ's law.

This does not mean that Paul has been chameleon-like - simply adapting himself to his current cultural environment. He has spoken and lived his message with clarity. The historical and theological truth of the gospel has nowhere been compromised. Society and the individuals within it have everywhere been challenged to the change and transformation made possible by divine grace.

But Paul is under no illusions. Not all will respond positively to the gospel's call to repentance. Not all will receive the offered salvation. Nevertheless, his commission is to take the message to all by all possible means for the sake of the "some" who will thereby be saved.

Focal Points

There seem to be two focal points in this passage - the urgency of Paul's stewardship/commission (v. 16), leading to his willingness to "become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (v. 22b).

We need to ask ourselves whether we live under that same stewardship/commission - and that same consequent urgency - and whether we are constantly seeking out appropriate and effective ways of reaching all people so that they will have the opportunity to respond to the gospel.

In the church today there has been an obsession with freedom (turning to licence), a minimisation of the seriousness of human sin, a failure to declare the forgiving and transforming grace of God and an affirmation of where people are (rather than a call to repentance and faith leading to salvation).

If we are truly servants of Christ, we have no option. A stewardship has been entrusted to us. Woe to us if we don't fulfil it!

© Peter J. Blackburn, 6 February 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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