1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

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.


Paul argues that the goal of sharing the Gospel must take precedence over the goal of exercising one’s Christian liberty. Service must take precedent over freedom. He has used his refusal to take a salary throughout Chapter 9 to illustrate this point, but it is worth keeping in mind that the principle applies to why he objects to eating meat offered to idols at the end of Chapter 8. This section of verses focuses on his conclusion. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(19) For.—The question is here answered. His reward was to gain the greater number of converts—Jews (1 Corinthians 9:20), Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:21), weak ones (1 Corinthians 9:22). The only reward he sought for or looked for in adopting that course of conduct, for pursuing which they taunted him with selfishness, was, after all, their good.

The word “For,” introducing the answer, would seem to imply that the reward must be a greater one. “For” though an Apostle, I became a slave of all that I might gain the greater number. The words “greater number” probably include the two ideas, viz., a greater number than he could have gained had he used his rights as an Apostle, and also a greater number of converts than was gained by any other Apostle.

Here Paul explains the reward he referred to earlier in the Chapter. This is the thing about which he wants to boast. He wants to live his life in a way that helps the “greter number” of people to hear and receive the Gospel. He believes that exercising all of his freedoms, without self-restraint, would be less successful. Continuing on, next with The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 20:

1 Corinthians 9:20

Unto the Jews I became as a Jew. When, for instance, he circumcised Timothy (Acts 12:3) and probably Titus alsoand he was continuing this principle of action when he took the vow of the Nazarite (Acts 21:21-26), and called himself “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). To them that are under the Law. That is, not only to Jews, but even to the most rigorous legalists among the Jews. It should be carefully observed that St. Paul is here describing the innocent concessions and compliances which arise from the harmless and generous condescension of a loving spirit. He never sank into the fear of man, which made Peter at Antioch unfaithful to his real principles. He did not allow men to form from his conduct any mistaken inference as to his essential views. He waived his personal predilections in matters of indifference which only affected “the infinitely little.”

1 Corinthians 9:21

To them that are without law, as without law. In other words, I so far became to the heathen as a heathen (Romans 2:12), that I never wilfully insulted their beliefs (Act 19:1-41 :87) nor shocked their prejudices, but on the contrary, judged them with perfect forbearance (Acts 17:30) and treated them with invariable courtesy. St, Paul tried to look at every subject, so far as he could do so innocently, from ‘their point of view (Acts 17:1-34.). He defended their gospel liberty, and had intercourse with Gentile converts on terms of perfect equality (Galatians 2:12). Not without law to God. Not even “without law” (anomos) Much less “opposed to law” (antiheroes)though free from it as a bondage (Galatians 2:19). The need for this qualification is shown by the fact that in the Clementine writings, in the spurious letter of Peter to James, St. Paul is surreptitiously calumniated as “the lawless one.” Even the Gentiles were “not without law to God” (Romans 2:14Romans 2:15). So that St. Paul is here using language which base opponents might distort, but which the common sense of honest readers would prevent them from misinterpreting.

The two notes here explain Paul’s approach. With the Jews and Jewish converts, he acted primarily as a fellow Jew. Then when he was with the Gentiles, he acted as a Gentile – at least insofar as it related to areas where the law was not at issue. In this sense, his Christian liberty gave him flexibility and he used that to assist his goal of sharing the Gospel.

We should not read into this, though, that Paul violated, or would violate, God’s laws for the sake of his goals. He does not make this case, nor does his writing in other places support that he would make this type of argument. Remember first his admonition in chapter 5 of this book that it is imperative for Christians to purge themselves of the evil among themselves. He viewed open sin as a tremendous hinderance to the Church. He also discusses this in other books.

Romans 6: 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

Paul’s point here is that in matters that are indifferent (not an issue of obedience to a law) he is flexible for the sake of sharing the Gospel more effectively. He wants the Church to prioritize their personal choices, and the exercise of their freedoms, in such a way that reaching new people with the Good News is at the forefront. Continuing in verse 22, back in Ellicott:

(22) To the weak.—We can scarcely take this (as some do) to refer to weak Christians, of whom he has spoken in 1 Corinthians 8:0. The whole passage treats of the attitude which the Apostle assumed towards various classes outside the Christian Church, that he might gain them as converts. The words “I became,” which have introduced the various classes in 1 Corinthians 9:20, are here again repeated, and this passage seems to be an explanation and reiteration of what had gone before. “It was to the weak points (not to the strong points) of Jews, proselytes, and Gentiles that I assimilated myself. To the weak ones among all these classes I became weak, that I might gain those weak ones.”

I am made all things to all. . . .—Better, I am become all things to all men that I should save at least some. Although he had thus accommodated himself, so far as was possible, consistently with Christian duty, to the weaknesses of all, he could only hope to win some of them. The natural climax would have been—“I become all things to all men that I might win all.” But the Apostle’s humility could not let him dare to hope for so great a reward as that. All the self-sacrifice he could make was necessary to gain “at all events some,” and that would be his ample reward. The word “save” means “win over to Christianity,” as in 1 Corinthians 7:16, and is used here instead of the previous word “gain,” being repeated to prevent any possible perversion of the Apostle’s meaning as to “gaining men.” His subject was not, as enemies might suggest, to win them to himself—but to Christ.

This verse summarizes the previous verses. “I am become all things to all men” means that Paul does anything he can, to reach as many as he can. He humbles himself, and does not assert his rights in all situations, so that he can reach the most number of people possible. This goal should be shared by all Believers. Concluding this section with Ellicott in verse 23:

(23) And this I do . . .—Better, And all things I do for the gospel’s sake: such being the reading of the best MSS. Here a new thought is introduced. From them for whom he labours, the Apostle turns for a moment to himself. After all, the highest reward even an Apostle can have is to be a sharer in that common salvation which has been brought to light by the gospel. With argument and illustration, St. Paul had vigorously and unflinchingly maintained the dignity and rights of his office. The pathetic words with which he now concludes show that in defending the dignity of his Apostolate he had not been forgetful of that personal humility which every Christian minister feels more and more deeply in proportion as he realises the greatness of his office.

This verse takes Paul’s discussion of what he wishes to boast over to a further point. the thing he values is that he might share blessings, that come from salvation, with the most possible people. In this regard, his statement is deeply humble. He does not lift himself up, but rather, he hopes to lift up a large group, with himself part of that group.

He concludes the chapter with an admonition toward goal setting for the believers in Corinth. We’ll look at that in the next section.