at the fellowship i lead, we are in the midst of an expository study of 1 corinthians and this past week we examined this challenging passage:
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. (1 corinthians 9:19-20a)
like you, i’ve read that passage a million times (alright…990,000 times) and i’ve never really stopped to consider what he was saying. with my people, i recounted the story in acts 21 where paul returned to jerusalem on the heels of his third missionary journey. paul met with james and the other elders and reported the amazing revival among the gentiles. the bible says when the elders heard this “they praised god.”
then the plot thickens…
They had a story to tell, too: “And just look at what’s been happening here—thousands upon thousands of God-fearing Jews have become believers in Jesus! But there’s also a problem because they are more zealous than ever in observing the laws of Moses. They’ve been told that you advise believing Jews who live surrounded by unbelieving outsiders to go light on Moses, telling them that they don’t need to circumcise their children or keep up the old traditions. This isn’t sitting at all well with them.” (acts 21:20-21)
paul obviously had no desire to make trouble for the church leaders in jerusalem. so the elders suggested paul undergo ritual purification so that everyone would see that he would never “go light on Moses.” and he did.
here’s where the story becomes difficult for me.
paul said that he “became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” but weren’t these Jews already believers? paul had a deep understanding of grace; why didn’t he explain the futility of “observing the laws of Moses“? why didn’t he confront the elders about their duplicity? why would paul squander this spectacular opportunity to be so utterly and publicly right?
because winning is not about being right.
paul clearly defines the basis of his ministry in verse 19 above: “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” when i try to get my mind around paul’s motivation, i realize that his first impulse is to serve while servanthood is usually my last impulse. paul looks for opportunities to lay his life down while i look for opportunities to forward my agenda–especially when i think i’m right. paul is eager to hear from others while i am eager to be heard. paul had learned to trust jesus. paul knew jesus so well that he needed nothing else: not adulation, not affirmation, not consensus. he wanted only what jesus wanted.
why am i so dogmatic? why am i so quick to defend my position? why must i always be right? it’s obvious, isn’t it? my relationship with jesus is incomplete. i’d rather win an argument than a soul.
god forgive me.