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
Paul became the great missionary to the Gentile world. He joyfully expresses his freedom in the Lord. “I am free from all men…” He did not mean that he was free from the moral law of God, but he was free from all human decrees and rules in regard to righteousness and salvation. Nor did he consider himself free from the civil law. Paul remained always a law-abiding Roman citizen. The law he rejoiced to be free from was the ceremonial law of the Jews, together with all the human interpretations and additional rules that surrounded that law.
Though Paul possessed that freedom, he immediately adds that in that freedom he “made myself a servant to all.” In freedom a man might become self-serving, but Paul used his freedom to serve other people. The purpose of his service is stated also, “that I might win more of them.” That is, to win them, not as loyal followers of Paul, but to win them as disciples of Christ.
The next verses are often misunderstood and misapplied. There is a doctrine referred to as “accommodation” in evangelism, that is, of adapting the message to the language and perspective of the recipients. But this passage does not speak to that idea. This passage has to do with how one lives or behaves among those whom he wishes to evangelize. Paul did not change or tweak his message to make it more palatable to unbelievers. He did not change or leave out certain “hard passages” that might offend listeners. He did not reform the church service or church practices to attract unbelievers. He only talked about how he adapted his personal behavior (and that of his companions) in order to work more efficiently with a given population.
“To the Jews, I became a Jew, that I might win the Jews.” What exactly did Paul do? We have a few examples in Scripture. In Acts 21:23-26 Paul participated in Jewish purification ceremonies. He knew they were not necessary to his own life and salvation, but he hoped to build a bridge of ministry among the Jews. In Acts 16:3 Paul had Timothy circumcised- not that it was necessary, but it might ease the relationship with a circumcised Jewish audience.
To the Gentiles he behaved himself as if he himself had been a Gentile, that is, he put aside observing the Levitical ceremonial laws, to which the Gentiles were under no obligation.
Paul sought to win people to Jesus Christ by being sensitive to their needs and identifying with them. We should try to reach people where they are today.
“I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Again, we should not imagine that Paul changed his doctrine message or its presentation to appeal to different groups. He denies that very idea in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23. He would change his own behavior and manner of approach only.
“Now this I do for the Gospel’s sake.” Paul was willing to offend people over the gospel, but he wanted to offend them only over the Gospel. He did not want his personal freedom to do as he pleased to become a stumbling block or to interfere with an opportunity to share the Gospel.
This is our attitude too. We are free. Set free by Christ from all men, from all religious law – except God’s law! Perhaps sometimes we forget that we can use our freedom to become servants to others. We are free not just to revel in our freedom, but like Paul, free to become servants to win others to Christ.