Jun 8 - The Greatest Witness

June 8th, 2014
1 Corinthians 9:19-27

We are continuing on in our journey through the first letter of Paul to the believers at Corinth, and we are in the 9th chapter.

Just to refresh your memory, or to bring you up to speed, Paul is writing to believers in Corinth while he, himself, was in Ephesus, responding to a group from the church in Corinth who had come to him with a letter reporting what was going on and to as him for advice.

The first 18 verses of Chapter 9 have to do with the right of those who minister the good news to get paid for doing so, even Paul never took advantage of that right when he was at Corinth. It really was an example of how Paul was willing to give up his right for financial support because of his desire to bring those at Corinth to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. The rest of the chapter also deals with the need to deny oneself and discipline oneself for the sake of others. I’m first reading from vv.19-23

19 Even though I am not beholden to anyone, I have made myself the slave of all, in order to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I become like a Jew in order to win the Jews. To those who are under the Law, I become like someone under the Law (even though I am not under the Law), so that I might win those under the Law. 21 To those who are not under the Law, I become like one who is not under the Law (even thought I am obedient to God’s law as I follow the law of Christ), so that I might win those not under the Law.
22 To the weak I become like someone who is weak, in order to win the weak. I become all things to all people, so that I might save some, whatever the case. 23 I do all things for the sake of the good news in order to share in its blessings.

V.20 – when he is trying to reach Jews he lived as if he was obeying the Mosaic Law even in areas he considered irrelevant, even to Jewish believers like himself.
v.21 – this is what Paul has replaced the Mosaic Law with: The law of Christ, that is the law that Jesus taught, which was to love God above all else and to love others as one would love oneself. Paul felt that if God took on the primary place in his life, and he acted whatever was in the best interest of others, he was keeping God’s will perfectly.
v.22 – the weak are those who are weak in faith, that is, those whose faith could easily be destroyed, who can easily fall away, who could easily be thrown back into a lifestyle of addiction. Paul already spoke in the previous chapter and in the coming chapter about not doing anything that might cause a weaker brother to stumble.

So verses 19-23, like the whole chapter, have as their theme the need for self-denial and self-disciple when it comes to bringing others to a saving knowledge of Jesus and God. Paul was willing to abandon his rights, including the freedom from having to obey the Mosaic Law, if need be.

As you can see from these verses, Paul was a bit of a pragmatist, who was willing to lay aside his own convictions if it meant that living them out would keep someone from coming to God and believing in Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

For example, when Paul went to attend the Jerusalem council, a major victory for him and Barnabas was that male non-Jewish converts to Christianity were not forced to be circumcised.

As proof he writes to the believers in the Roman province of Asia in what is today Turkey (outlined in map):

But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Galatians 2:3

On the other hand, when Paul went on his second missionary journey with Silas, as they came to Lystra in that very same province of Galatia, Paul met up with a young man, very much like Titus.

Despite the fact that he did not feel that circumcision meant anything, we read this as recorded in Acts 16:3.

Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. Acts 16:3

Similarly, Paul realized that the sacrifice of Jesus took away any necessity to be involved in anything that happened in the temple at Jerusalem. Yet, following the exact principle he had laid out in our passage in v. 20, when he visited the church in Jerusalem, he allowed himself to be persuaded by James and the other church leaders to undergo a purity ritual in the temple to convince the Jewish Christians into thinking that Paul himself observed the Mosaic Law, which, by the way, was not the case when he wasn’t around Jews.

Why was this necessary? Because the Jewish believers in Jerusalem were very zealous for the Mosaic Law, in particular when it came to Jewish converts to Christianity. Yet they heard that Paul was telling even the Jewish converts who lived outside of Palestine to abandon the Mosaic Law, including the circumcision of their children and the observance of all Jewish customs (Acts 21:21).

By the way, it was this willingness to accommodate himself in order to make the message of the good news more palatable to his audience, that in the end, got him arrested in the temple, which led to his eventual execution.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about what Paul has written is fear. What do you mean, Paul? What do I have to do without, which of my rights and freedoms should I give up voluntarily? Am I supposed to pretend I’m someone I’m not?

Now to be fair, Paul was in a unique situation where he was caught between Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who were zealous for the Mosaic Law, and his own conviction that the work of Jesus has set aside the Mosaic Law for both Jews and non-Jews. We no longer have to deal with the sensibilities of Jewish Christians, who by and large have gone beyond their counterparts in first century Jerusalem.

As such, the call to us would simply be to act and live in such a way that it would not push people away from God and the reality of the good news of Jesus. And I don’t think that has anything to do with the Jewish dietary laws.

Moving on, there is a second part to Paul’s point about self-denial and self-discipline. If we look at verses 23-27 in our passage, Paul is now talking about the self-denial and self-disciple of an Olympic athlete as the example of the approach to life of a believer.

24 Don’t you know, that all runners race in a stadium, but that only one wins the winner’s wreath? Run in such a way that you will win it. 25 Every athlete lives with complete self-discipline. He does this in order to win a perishable winner’s wreath, but we, in order to win an imperishable one. 26 For that reason I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as if I am hitting the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest, while I preach to others, I am disqualified myself.

V.27 can also be translated, I treat my body harshly and subdue it. In other words, I don’t coddle my body, I don’t just let it determine the choices I make.

In this passage, Paul makes reference to two things. For one, the training. This was true of every athlete who participated in the games in Paul’s day. If they were to have any chance of winning, they have to get enough sleep, eat well, and train like crazy. They had to have coaches, who not only would point out how they can do things better, but who also paid close attention to their diet. One month before the games, they had to live and train on site.

Today, the same is true. Nowadays it’s just that much harder because so many more people compete, many of whom think nothing of taking performance enhancing drugs, making it necessary to train even more intense.

And today’s athletes are way more astute when it comes to their coaches or their diets. Some even have their diets prepared specifically for them.

You get the picture. First is training. And second, Paul refers to actually participating in an event which was known as the Isthmian games, held every two years and rivaling the Olympic games. The main events in the Greek games were foot races (including a 200 and 400 m event), the long jump, the discus throw, boxing, wrestling, pankration, a martial arts free for all, and various horse races.

Out of those, Paul choses the foot race and the boxing events as his examples. If an athlete has any chance of winning he needs to resolutely give 100%, his very, very best effort. He can’t leave anything in the tank. He cannot hold back, be tentative, only give it the good college try, or do things haphazardly.

He runs his hardest.

She swings to connect.

A man went up to a couple of bricklayers. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” The reply was, “Can’t you see that I’m laying bricks?” The man then walked over to another bricklayer and asked, “What are you doing?” And the workman answered with pride, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Both were physically doing the same thing, but the first laborer was occupied with the present task, and the other was concerned with the ultimate goal. And I would bet that the one didn’t like his job while the other one did and was far more productive because of it.

Paul was focused. He wasn’t ambling along in life. He wasn’t shadowboxing. He was going for it with all he had because he was focused on the goal.

Paul’s concluding remark is that he disciplines his body and keeps it under control – that he treats his body harshly and subdues it - so that he won’t be disqualified in the end.

Now Paul was in his late 50’s when he wrote this, so he is not only addressing this at believers who were young and able to treat their bodies harshly.

Those of you above 35 years old, do you remember how much easier it was to lose weight when you were younger? I think part of it is that we are more active, happier to exercise and play sports. But now, our body is telling us to slow down. We are less active … in part because we simply do not have the energy we once had. Or because our knees hurt.

Similarly, do you remember when you just became a Christian, how exciting things were, how your faith impacted every part of your life? Maybe you couldn’t get enough of God. You were like a sponge soaking up everything you could, even though some of what you soaked up wasn’t particularly wise. But over the years we can become spiritually dull and complacent. We can be more prone to compromise what we know to be right. We could be taking on more spiritual weight as we allow certain things into our lives, maybe bad things, but maybe even good things, that make us spiritually immobile.

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Hebrew 12:1

So Paul was convinced that what he was writing about was something that any believer at any age could do.

Further, Paul’s words have nothing to do with self-flagellation, a medieval practice based on this verse and a desire to take on the scourging Christ received in their own bodies, still practiced in some parts of the world.

Perhaps the picture Paul is trying to paint here is subduing the physical desire, which lean toward self-indulgence or gratification, rather than self-discipline and self-denial.

And all of that is to demonstrate how we are to be just as disciplined, just as committed, just as willing to deny ourselves … for a cause greater than winning a wreath or a trophy or a medal. The prize is a soul.

In essence, Paul is telling the believers in Corinth:

(I liked the image because when I think Athlete, I think of the players in the FIFA world cup in Brazil that starts this week)

How does an athlete think and live? For one, they have a clear goal, that single-minded pursuit to achieve the goal even if the price to pay is high, and the pursuit is difficult. Paul is telling his readers that believers are to have that clear of a goal when it comes to getting people into God’s kingdom.

As well, athletes are willing to exercise and to be self-controlled in what they allow into their lives or their bodies because of their determination. They are willing to deny themselves many things, to cut out of their lives whatever would hamper them in reaching their goal.

Paul says that believers are to be just as controlled when it comes to not indulging their physical desires in order to be able to draw others to God’s kingdom.

But right away, I have doubts about how realistic Paul’s words are for the average believer. I mean, Paul didn’t have a life, did he. He had no kids and no wife. He had no money. He had no real hobbies. He obviously didn’t take holidays or cruises, except when he was a prisoner …. and the boat sank. It must have been easy for him to be solely focused on the things of God. But what about me?

And then there is this whole thing about willpower, and the willingness to discipline my body. My body doesn’t like discipline. Whenever I do without or exercise, my body tells my mind: Stop it. Stop it! Or my body says, Get yourself into that recliner. Do not deny me those chips and dip, that ice cream cone, or anything deep fried. My body hates not getting everything it wants.

Do you remember when we did the 5 weeks of beans and rice? My body hated it so much that to this day I have a problem with beans (no, not THAT problem), but something I used to love is now something I can barely tolerate. My body is spoiled.

So, I tell myself, unless God intervenes and miraculously motivates me and gives me the willpower necessary, I’m a helpless, hopeless victim of my desires, my cravings, my love for inertia.

Or am I? Is it actually possible for me to get such a clear direction about my life being of a blessing and pointing others to God, despite my predilection toward self-indulgence and my so-called lack of willpower, I can live a life where I act godly?

Can I actually train myself to be like this? Paul writes to Timothy that physical exercise has value, but that spiritual exercise is even more valuable:

Train yourself to be godly. Physical training may be of some value, but being godly is of value in every way. It is promised both this life as well as the life to come. 1 Timothy 4:7-8

Being godly holds the promise of this life – of finding the joy, peace, purpose and fulfillment that God wishes for us to have. In fact, we can decide to change the way that we perceive and react to life.

And it holds the promise of the life to come – it is the signal marker that we have salvation, that God’s Spirit indwells us, that we are being made into Jesus’ image.

So what does a godly life even look like?

I decide to do something kind, even though I could spend the time on myself?
I decide to smile and say something positive, even though I could find it easier to criticize?
I decide to do without, so someone in need can have something?
I decide to be generous now with what I’ve got, even though I can hoard the money or spend it on myself?
I decide to stop indulging my body and keeping my physical desires in check, even though I claim little control?
I decide to get over myself, my bruised ego, my thin skin, my grump, and decide to be happy for the sake of others?
I decide to overcome my fear of what self-denial and self-control will cost me, given what I will gain?


(The most powerful witness is a godly life)