1 Corinthians 9:16–27
ESV 1 Corinthians 9:16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For anecessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 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 aa stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching aI may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19 For athough I am free from all, bI have made myself a servant to all, that I might cwin more of them. 20 aTo 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 athose outside the law I became bas one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but cunder the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 aTo the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. bI have become all things to all people, that cby all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, athat I may share with them in its blessings. 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives athe prize? So brun that you may obtain it. 25 Every aathlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we ban imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I ado not box as one bbeating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and akeep it under control,1 lest after preaching to others bI myself should be cdisqualified. (1Co 9:16 ESV)
Ever dream of being a great missionary like St. Paul? What a story he had to tell about Christ appearing to him on the road to Damascus and about his conversion. Only to later become the greatest missionary the church has known. How great it would be to win souls for Jesus as St. Paul did.
Most of us were baptized at just a few days of age, and at the time didn’t really understand what it was all about. It appeared to be just three handfuls of water applied to your forehead as the pastor invoked the name of the Triune God. Not much of a credential to become a great missionary for Christ, certainly not like St. Paul.
Epiphany is about the manifestation, or showing forth, of Jesus as the Savior of the world. This is why Lutheran congregations often invite missionaries to guest preach this time of year—that we might rejoice in the continuing epiphany of Jesus to the world. Some of these guests have great stories—they’ve traveled the world, gone to great lengths to win people for Jesus.
Today, we see the lengths St. Paul was willing to go to see that others might know the grace of God. And we see that he was certainly someone God used to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). That’s what missionaries are like.
Surely It’s Those Who Go to Such Great Lengths—
as St. Paul Would Be All Things to All Men
to Save Some—
Who Are Christ’s Missionaries, Right?
As a child, perhaps you grew up thinking God’s mission was all about what you could or must do for him. St. Paul went to such great lengths to save some—being all things to all men—that surely he was a missionary for Christ. After all, Paul was chosen in eternity and then called on the Damascus road.
St. Paul’s story really began in eternity, when God chose him for salvation and determined he would play a major role as an apostle and missionary in the Early Church (Gal 1:15–16). And what a story! God allowed Paul to become “chief of sinners” so that he might show him mercy. What a blessed picture of mercy Paul is! To Timothy, he wrote: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim 1:16). Paul could point to his former life as a lesson to others: in the mercy of God, in the patience of God, there is hope for the worst of sinners. (Nobody is beyond hope as long as one is breathing and has a beating heart!) Even in an age when persecution was prevalent, the Word was all-sufficient! Such lengths of sin to which Paul had gone! Such lengths of mercy God had shown to win him! There’s a missionary recruit for you!
And now Paul was freed to serve. He had no earthly master, but he did have a heavenly one! Paul had been entrusted with the Gospel, or as he puts it, “entrusted with a stewardship” (v 17). In freedom, Paul desires to be the instrument through whom many will be saved.
Paul knows it isn’t about Paul, but rather that God brings the elect he’s chosen in eternity to faith through Word and Sacrament in time. This is not something for Paul to boast about (vv 16–17). He is simply discharging a trust, or as he said earlier in 4:1, he is merely a steward “of the mysteries of God.” See the lengths Paul was willing to go as a missionary for Christ!
Paul is “free” to present the gospel free of charge. He is free so as not to make full use of his right in the gospel. Paul would even become a servant (slave) to all! After the example of his Master who came not to be served but to serve, Paul makes himself a slave, being all things to all men (v 22b). He is willing to go whenever God sends and to whom God sends. Following Jesus’ practice of eating with tax collectors and “sinners,” Paul seeks the God-given opportunities to connect people to Christ.
As long as the Gospel isn’t compromised, Paul conforms to others’ customs: “To the Jews I became as a Jew. . . . To those under the law I became as one under the law. . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law. . . . To the weak I became weak” (vv 20, 21, 22). He does this for no other “reward” than the joy of preaching the Good News (vv 18, 23). Paul goes to such lengths to be Christ’s missionary!
Finally, Paul disciplines himself that he, too, might receive the prize (vv 24–27). Make no mistake, the prize is a gift, and Paul knows it. Christ won it for us by his blood shed on the cross. But Paul concerns himself with avoiding sin, avoiding complacency, avoiding anything that could hinder the life of faith God has given. There’s no length to which Paul won’t go for the sake of the Gospel! Your missionary!
Some years ago, the Barna Organization published a study of what those outside think about the church. The study revealed that many see the church as hypocritical and unconcerned about them, concerned only with filling their pews. Many described the church as judgmental. Others said the church today is too politically focused and essentially out of touch with reality.
So how is the church doing when it comes to being all things to all men? If this study is any indication, not very well! Comparing that perception (and hopefully a misperception) with St. Paul’s concern for the unbeliever, you see a radical disconnect. Not many of us, I’ll bet, will be so committed to reach out with Christ.
Most of us in the church, probably haven’t gone to such great lengths, so surely we’re not missionaries for Christ, right? A pastor friend of mine remembers years after his Baptism, in his teen years, being terrified by a particularly Law-oriented sermon. He was still thinking everything depended on him, still didn’t fully understand the grace of God. He began thinking about the pastoral ministry. It seemed the best way to avoid this “fire and brimstone” was to be as obedient a Christian (or is that Pharisee?) as he could be. If Paul was zealous in his early life in Judaism, then, as a part of God’s new creation, “I could do that too,” he resolved.
Ah, but not only did he not understand the grace of God, he also did not understand the depth of his own sinful condition! What a blessed revelation when the Holy Spirit, through the Word, enabled him to see who he truly was! Chief of sinners, and helpless to do anything about it!
It turned out the miracle our triune God performed by the hand of a pastor in your baptism was every bit as miraculous as what he accomplished in St. Paul! You were chief of sinners, but chief in whom God had shown unbelievable mercy! On that day of your Baptism, God forgave more sins than you could ever enumerate, made you his child by adoption and grace, and brought you into the family, just as he did for St. Paul! You are now joint heirs with Christ!
Now the welcome in the baptismal rite has great meaning for you: “In Holy Baptism God the Father has made you a member of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and an heir with us of all the treasures of heaven in the one holy Christian and apostolic Church. We receive you in Jesus’ name . . . that together we might hear His Word, receive His gifts, and proclaim the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light” (LSB, p 271). Wait a minute! Those are the words by which St. Peter calls people like Paul missionaries.
Well, God has gone to the same lengths with me, with you, that he did with St. Paul: chosen in eternity, called in Holy Baptism. We are members of the elect from eternity. Christ died for us as surely as he did for Paul! He went every last step to the cross for us! In Baptism, God added us to his holy people, that we also might proclaim his excellencies.
Therefore we, too, are freed to serve. It’s not about us any more than it was about Paul. It’s about the lengths God has gone! God would have us, in freedom, serve others. He desires us to be the instruments through whom many will hear and be saved. God has bound himself to his Word, so as we speak the Word, the Holy Spirit will change hearts!
God goes to great lengths—spares no energy—to complete his mission of saving souls! Since we are Christ’s holy people and have eternity with him, we can be servants to all for now. God calls us to be all things to all men, boldly confessing Christ and going to great lengths—like next door, down the street, to the office, to school—to speak Christ in our little worlds.
That means relishing every opportunity to connect people to Christ and learning how we can reach them where they are, not expect them to conform to us. We can go to those lengths.
And we will go to these lengths too: disciplining ourselves—that we might, as Christ’s missionaries, receive the prize, won for us by the blood of Christ, by avoiding sin, complacency, anything that could hinder the life of faith God has given; and by daily remembering our Baptism, being in the Word, and frequently at the Lord’s Supper. Then, what a day that will be when the multitude come from east and west to dine at the banquet feast:
A multitude comes from the east and the west
To sit at the feast of salvation
With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the blest,
Obeying the Lord’s invitation.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
O God, let us hear when our Shepherd shall call
In accents persuasive and tender,
That while there is time we make haste, one and all,
And find Him, our mighty defender.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
All trials shall be like a dream that is past,
Forgotten all trouble and mourning.
All questions and doubts have been answered at last,
When rises the light of that morning.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!
The heavens shall ring with an anthem more grand
Than ever on earth was recorded.
The blest of the Lord shall receive at His hand
The crown to the victors awarded.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus! (LSB 510)
Amen. May the peace that passes all understanding…