So far we have discussed the message. What about the messenger? We have also spent a lot of time during this convention speaking about unity. What does that mean for the mission of the Church? The last passage to consider is 1 Corinthians 9:15-23. Talking about being “all things to all men” might seem counter intuitive with regard to unity, but consider the context of this passage. Corinth in general was deeply divided, and one of the points of division in the congregation was over the question of meat sacrificed to idols. Some, knowing that an idol is nothing at all, believed that they could partake of that meat without any issues. Others, weaker in conscience, believed it to be a sin, for they knew the Commandment: You shall have no other gods. However, the stronger despised the weak for that reason and went ahead anyway, destroying the work of God in the process. Paul calls for all Christians to bear with one another in love, abstaining even from that which was lawful in order to build up rather than tear down.
Therefore, Paul defends his office of apostle against those who spoke against him. Paul had every right to eat and drink, to take a wife, and to make his living by the Gospel. None of these things were forbidden to him. Yet he denies himself those rights for the sake of the Gospel. This is what he means in our passage for consideration. “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. 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!” Paul denies himself what he could have so that there would be nothing in the way of doing what God sent him to do. His language of “necessity” drives this point home. Just like the warning to the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3, the watchman who does not warn the sinner will bear that sinner’s guilt upon his own head, but the watchman who speaks will deliver his own soul. Paul says, “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.” If done willingly, there is a reward. If not, there is still the matter of duty. Yet Paul undertakes it willingly so that nothing would stand in the way of the Gospel. He forsakes even what he could do for the sake of the proclamation.
His point, then, about being “all things to all men” is not about being pragmatic, as if he just tinkered with his message to make it more palatable to certain groups of people. Paul, though strong, gave up his strength to be like the weak so that the work of Christ would not be torn down. The stronger Christian is not called to lord it over the weaker. That is the way of disunity, the very problem at Corinth. The way of the Spirit is the unity of peace, bearing with one another and caring for one another just as Christ did not make use of His rights when He came down among us. Christ calls us to be self-denying and selfless in His service. Note that Paul did not pretend as if he was not married to certain groups of people, nor did he pretend that he made his living by tent-making to others. Paul gave them up entirely so that nothing would hinder the Gospel of Christ. It must be noted, of course, that Paul does not mean that the weaker brother should be left in his weakness. He must be built up in Christ so that he would be strong according to the grace of the Lord. Yet we must be so willing to follow after Jesus that we would give up even what is ours by right or by desire to be fishers of men. Jesus says in Luke 18:29-30: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Christians, the Lord has called us into the world to proclaim His Word. You are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them. Let us be faithful to that calling, being willing to forsake everything for His sake. Let us be united in that calling, proclaiming the Law and the Gospel to all. As Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”