The theme this week is the service of God. The selected passages that support that theme are Psalm 147:1-11, 20c • Isaiah 40:21-31 • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 • Mark 1:29-39
- In our call to worship Psalm, God is praised as creator and for his care of those who are nameless and forgotten.
- Isaiah 40 speaks of God empowering the powerless.
- In 1 Corinthians, we see Paul elaborate on the paradoxical nature of service and freedom required in preaching the gospel.
- The gospel reading in Mark recounts Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law who then got up to serve.
Loving Us Without Walking Away
1 Corinthians 9:16-18,19-23
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
Today’s text may seem to be an odd one for the Epiphany season. At first glance this text seems to give us more insight into the person of Paul than that of Christ. However, throughout this section Paul has made use of himself as an example to follow on the basis that he is following Christ. He will soon tell his readers to, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). From that perspective, we will look at this passage to give us some insight into the person of Christ, who is the gospel given to us. Paul is carrying out his calling to preach the gospel, which was given to him directly from Jesus himself.
Preaching was Paul’s calling. He makes it clear in the opening verses of our section that preaching is something he must do, not some optional career among other equal opportunities. Hear how Paul speaks of his calling to preach:
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16-18 ESV)
Paul wants the Corinthian church to understand that he is not preaching the gospel to get something for himself. He sees himself as compelled to preach and doomed if he doesn’t. As he puts it, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” He doesn’t see his preaching as a choice, but as a calling. For Paul, it is “preach the gospel or bust.” And the gospel he is preaching is the proclamation of the one who has called him — the Lord Jesus. Paul wants to be very clear that what he is doing cannot be controlled by others.
And that is a fitting point for him to be making to the Corinthian church. Paul had to write this letter to answer a whole series of arguments this church had challenged him with. Paul had previously answered the question concerning eating meats offered to idols, which the Corinthians had justified by their logical reasoning. Paul had to reorient their love of knowledge to take into account their love for other believers in their community. It seems that Paul’s challengers held themselves in high esteem and wanted to be in control of what they could and could not do. Why should they listen to Paul, or anyone else for that matter?
In that regard, Paul alludes to another issue these Corinthians had with him – his pay. Oddly enough, they were not arguing that they should not pay Paul for his services. On the contrary, they were frustrated that Paul would not take money from them like the other preachers normally did. What runs under this contention is the common etiquette in that society of patronage. It was an unspoken rule that those of high social standing would give money to those in need and by doing so the recipients would be obligated to give their donors honor. It appears the Corinthians wanted Paul to adhere to this social standard. By doing so they would think they would have some leverage over Paul. Paul does not want to be classified with others as a “philosopher for profit.” He really messed up their game plan of control by not accepting financial support from them. He knows that doing so would compromise his preaching to them. Paul is not in it for the money or anything else. He is carrying out his calling to preach the gospel.
What Paul seems to be painfully aware of is the fact that the gospel being preached is that Jesus is Lord, and these particular Corinthians were conducting themselves as if they were the only lord worth following. Not only was Paul preaching that Jesus was Lord, but he was conducting himself among them in such a way as to prevent them from lording it over Paul. And his challengers did not like it.
We may not have the patronage system in play in our society today, however, we too may see our societal systems and structures as taking precedent over God’s calling and word to us. How seriously do we grasp the gospel as Jesus being Lord? This means we are not. This means our society and culture is not. Perhaps we too want to control the message from the pulpit on account that we financially support it.
Have you ever been tempted to withhold financial, or other support, when the message of the preacher strikes a little too close to home?
- We may not like to admit it, but we too like to be in control.
- But the message of the gospel is that we are not.
- The Lord is.
The message is good news because of who the Lord is. He is trustworthy and it is a very good thing that he is in control and reigning as Lord. The more we can come to see the Lord’s goodness, his faithfulness to us and his love for us, the easier it will be to lay down all our lording-over ways.
We can easily become masters of manipulation to get what we want. Paul is aware of what is going on and more importantly, he is aware of what is at stake. This controlling attempt being expressed in the Corinthian church will be a hindrance for them to receive from the Lord. They are not living out of trust in him, but rather are trying to call the shots for themselves. Paul’s response? He is going to preach with no strings attached. He knows he cannot become indebted to them as he owes his life and existence to the one who has called him to preach. Let’s take note of how Paul’s allegiance to Christ alone frees him to fulfill his calling:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 ESV)
This sense of being compelled and indebted to the Lord leads him to unreservedly serve, not just his own people, but all people. He sees himself as free from the demands and expectations of everyone. And that makes him a bold preacher. He has nothing to lose, and the Corinthians have nothing to hold over him. In this way Paul knows he is free. So free that he can carry out his calling to anyone in earshot. He is not constrained by any particular people group or societal status. He can come alongside anyone and preach the gospel. He’s not threatened by someone who is different from him or goes by a different set of rules. This doesn’t mean that Paul is being duplicitous or inauthentic; he does not compromise on who he is in Christ or Jesus’ word to us.
- We are not to take Paul as an example of sinning with sinners in order to win them over any more than we would equate Jesus hanging out with sinners to mean he was sinning or condoning their sins.
- Paul does not take on their way of life, but he enters into their lives, where they are, in order to share with them who Jesus is and to share the blessings he has for them.
Running through Paul’s writing is the thought of servanthood. Paul has been freed by the gospel to be a servant to all. Even his resistance to the Corinthians’ attempts to control him is an act of service to them. True service is that which serves the gospel in the lives of others, even when it doesn’t lead to personal popularity. Paul is not trying to make friends; he is trying to share Christ. It’s not about him. In Greco-Roman society associating with the weak and being a servant would be counter-cultural and laughable. No one in their right mind would applaud the claim of becoming weak or a servant.
Is our culture really any different today? Do we truly see service as an act of true freedom, or do we, like the Corinthian church, want to be in control, call the shots, and have the final say?
- Being weak in Paul’s era, as in ours, is not considered a virtue.
- We seek power and status, and rather disassociate with any who are considered “weak.”
Paul is imitating Christ. The gospel he preaches is the proclamation of the one who lowered himself to save us. Jesus did not come for his own advantage or to be popular and well-liked. He came to do for us what we could not do on account of our weakness. He came to save us, and for that he got crucified.
The epiphany we can see in Paul’s message to the Corinthian church is that Jesus is compelled to be the Gospel for us, no matter the cost to himself. Jesus is Lord and he has no strings attached where we can control or manipulate him. And, when we come to see the goodness of God in Jesus Christ,
- we will not want to control him.
- We will be free to follow his call wherever he leads because he has proven to be trustworthy.
- We will be free to be for others even when they are not for themselves and fight against our efforts every step of the way.
The freedom and devotion we see in Paul’s calling to preach the gospel comes from the one who is the Gospel, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Today’s text may be a poke in the eye for those of us who want our own control and say. It is a hard thing to die, too, but we must if we are to be free. The strings we try to tie to others are the same strings that are pulling on us. But Jesus sets us free. Here are some questions to consider.
- How might we enter that freedom today in service to others in the gospel?
- Who in your life needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, even as they fight against it?
- Am I able to lose status for the sake of Christ?
- Can I lay down my rights in order to gain a hearing from those who need some good news?
- In short, are we free to preach the gospel?
Paul’s calling is our calling as well. We may not preach like Paul or even stand behind a pulpit. But each of us preaches the gospel in word and deed by living a life devoted to Christ. That message often will not lead to being elevated on the cultural ladder of success. But, like Paul, we have been set free from such expectations. We have been lifted to the right hand of the Father. There are no strings attached. Live free. Serve all. Preach the gospel.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- How did Paul view his calling to preach?
- as compulsory
- What stood out to you about how he talked about his calling to preach?
- The “woe” that would be on him if he did not preach the Gospel
- It seems that the Corinthian church wanted Paul to accept their financial support so they could have some leverage over him. In what ways can you see that dynamic being played out today?
- How would you describe true service?
- Love in action
- How does knowing the Lord set us free from all other expectations that are set upon us?
- In what ways can we preach the gospel even if we are not called to vocational preaching?
- by living it …
- Discuss the temptation to gain status in our cultural surroundings that prevents us from boldly proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (NKJV)
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (ESV)
19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more;
20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews;
to those who are under the law, as under the [b]law, that I might win those who are under the law;
22 to the weak I became [e] as weak, that I might win the weak.
I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
23 Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.
23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.