Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
I have usually taken this passage as Paul’s instruction on missional living. Taken this way, he’s encouraging us to identify closely with those to whom we minister. Certainly Paul lets us see his own willingness to identify with others, empathizing with them, seeing their worldview, engaging in their perspective, and so ministering Christ. He was intent “to win as many as possible” (verse 19) and so immersed himself in the circumstance of his hearers so that he could express the truth of the Gospel plainly.
It’s clear that Paul’s example gives us a strong lesson in living missionally. But I think the reason he chooses to speak of it right here is so that we might appreciate the nature of sacrifice. He wants us to see the cost. In order to enter into the circumstance of others, he had put aside some of his own rights and privileges. This is the very thing he had been urging the Corinthians to do with each other back in chapter 8: “if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall” (8:13).
So here, in chapter 9, he gives us the example from his own life on mission. He constrained himself, as though living under the law, when he was in fact free. He lived in the unfamiliar culture of the pagan world (those without the law), enduring their barbarities, even though this was perhaps less than comfortable. To those who were weak, he became weak – he’s speaking of those “weak in conscience,” telling us he accommodated his own eating and drinking, limiting his choices for their sakes.
Live in community like this, Paul is saying. Be willing to forgo some of your own rights for the benefit of others. Limit your own freedom when expressing it might cause another to stumble. Sacrifice for the good of a sister or brother.
It all reminds me of something. Further back. On that night just before the cross.
Remember? Jesus stripped off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt down at each of the disciples’ feet, washing them clean. He laid aside his rights for the benefit of his brothers. He, the Lord and Master, did it for their good.
And then, he did it again at the cross.
Paul urges us to sacrifice. There is good precedent. Paul himself laid aside rights to enter into the experience of those he wished to see saved – “to win as many as possible.” Jesus laid aside rights for our eternal salvation.
Will we bend for the good of a weaker brother? Will we yield for the benefit of a weaker sister?
Dear Jesus, you call me to sacrifice, just like you. I look for the heroic moments, but sometimes the sacrifice is more costly in the little things, laying aside the right to food or drink or comfort or preferences. Help me to bear with those for whom you have died. Give me your compassion, that I might do it with grace.
Reflect: What is one act of sacrifice you could engage in today for the sake of a sister or brother?