10 September 2010

1 Corinthians 9:16-27

"I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them ... To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings." (v.19, 22-23)


"Boasting" is a favourite word of Paul, who is responsible for 55 out of 59 New Testament uses of the idea, 39 of them being in the Corinthian letters.

Usually he boasts of things most people would not think to boast of - his sufferings, his weaknesses, Christ crucified. Here, however, Paul's boast is that he has not expected to be paid for preaching the gospel (the good news of Jesus) even though he believes that preachers have a right to be financially supported (verse 14). At least, they do if they freely choose to preach the gospel, but Paul finds himself under compulsion to do so, which means that doing it carries its own reward for him.

Verses 19-23 then give important insights into how Paul goes about the task. Having argued in the previous chapter that those who are strong in faith must not behave in ways that offend those who are weaker in faith, Paul now claims that his own approach in sharing the gospel is to put himself in the shoes of those he is seeking to reach. In particular, he is reflecting on how when among fellow Jews he follows the kosher food laws, and when among Gentiles (non-Jews) he doesn't, although he makes sure by way of the parenthesis in verse 21 that his indifference to food laws does not make him lawless in any moral sense.

The final paragraph (verses 24-27) concludes the digression that chapter 9 has been within the bigger discussion of sharing in pagan cultic meals (to which chapter 10 returns). The use of athletic metaphors was commonplace in Greek philosophy. Here the athletic and boxing applications are rather clearer than the gospel ones: only one person wins the race, all competitors need focus and intensive self-discipline in training, the prize is the ancient equivalent of a bouquet of flowers. Although he mixes the metaphors somewhat, Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to run the Christian race with the proper self-control of the person determined to win the prize of eternal life itself. In emphasising his own example, Paul mentions potential disqualification at the very end to make clear that self-discipline is not an optional extra in the Christian life. Without it, the disciple faces a real danger.

To Ponder

With reference to verses 16 and 17, do you feel or have you ever felt that there is something you have to do, and really have no choice about it? What did you do, or what are you doing about this? Is this an element in what people may refer to as a vocation, meaning something more than a career choice?

If someone wants to be effective in communicating the gospel today, what might be the contemporary equivalent groups of people to:

1. The Jews
2. Those under the law
3. Those outside the law
4. The weak

that Paul mentions in verses 20 to 22?

When Paul speaks of punishing and enslaving his body he is not talking about self-harm but is applying the self-discipline of an athlete somewhat clumsily to the training regime of a boxer. But in what ways do you think we need to discipline ourselves in order to be effective Christian disciples and witnesses?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.