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.
– 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
This seems like such a contradictory passage. Why would Paul, who was saved from legalism, murder, and sin, say that he would be as someone under the law, apart from the law, or weak? What does it mean to “…become all things to all people…”? We normally read this passage and try and understand exactly what Paul did to become all of these things. How does He manage to be so brilliant and reach so many people from completely different worlds? We spend time trying to be “better teachers” and find new ways to communicate because that is what we believe that Paul did. The problem is that we focus on the wrong object within this passage. Paul could spend time with Jews and live within their system because he knew that his identity did not lie within that system. He could reach those who lived out from under the Jewish law, because simply stated, neither was he. Paul could become as those who were weak because he knew that no one is strong by themselves. The truth is that Paul was who he was because the Gospel is what it is. Instead of focusing on what Paul was, it is a better idea to focus on the fact that the Gospel made him who he was. The beautiful thing about the Gospel is that it can work and function inside of any system. Paul could live like a Jew because Christ had fulfilled the need to keep the law so Paul was not bound by it. He lived within the law for the opportunity to show them how it had been fulfilled. Paul could live with and minster to gentiles because Jesus had provided a way for all the nations to be blessed by grace and salvation. Provision was now given to all men and was not contingent on works. Paul made himself weak because the Gospel is the great leveler of all men, and reminds us that no man is strong except for the one who paid the price owed by humanity. Though Paul’s theological and educational credentials put him at the top of the list, they could not complete the list that he just gave to the Corinthians. Paul lived among and reached these people because the Gospel was given to reach ALL men and empowered him to do so. The Gospel reaches those under the law by crying that it has been fulfilled; it reaches those out from under the law by showing the new covenant of grace; and it reaches the weak by meeting them with Christ’s strength. The Gospel will reach all people, because it applies to all people.
All of this began to filter into my mind after a small group leader asked me a question. He asked about the possibility of teaching a group of people who were unchurched or had been away for a long time. He expressed concern at the possibility of people like this feeling uncomfortable in a group of “church people.” As I thought about his question, my mind recalled another comment that I had heard just a couple of weeks prior, from a girl who attended a single’s group. She made it abundantly clear that she did not want to attend a group for a few weeks because the topic centered around relationships. She wanted a “Gospel centered” study and not one that focused on issues like relationships. My first response was simply say that, “If the Bible’s open you will always learn something.” And though I agree with that statement, scripture deepens it this statement. How can someone say that a relationships study isn’t a “Gospel centered” study? Why would a group of “Church” people make those where unchurched or de-churched uncomfortable? The answer is simple. Just like we focus on Paul and put the Gospel in the background, we often focus on the lesson we teach and not the Gospel we have been saved by. The safest place for those far from God should be in a group of people who know and love Him, and a study on relationships should be nothing more than study on how the Gospel changes and prepares us to be in them. This principle applies to every facet of our teaching. Why do we assume that a lesson on marriage cannot be taught to singles? Are they not husbands and wives who are just waiting to meet their spouse? They should benefit and listen to the beautiful picture God has painted into marriage to reflect His Son and the deep love He has for His children. Why should the unchurched feel uncomfortable in a group of seasoned Christians? Aren’t they in the perfect place to be brand new partakers of the grace that others in the group are seasoned partakers of? Somewhere along the way we must begin to realize that every lesson from God’s Word applies to anyone who is listening. This is where the teacher is empowered by God’s Word, and this empowerment is due to our focus. We have to ask ourselves these questions: What does this passage say about God and His character, and how does that change those within my group? Relationships are pictures of Christ restoring our relationship with Him and new believers are refreshing pictures and opportunities to walk in God’s continual grace. What season is your group in and how does the Gospel apply to it?