What do you aim at in life? What do you want to achieve? What are the things that you’d make big sacrifices for?
The Christians in ancient Corinth were aiming at the wrong things. Or, rather, they were missing some very important ambitious.
And as a result, they were growing less keen on the apostle Paul, their founder.
We’re in 1 Corinthians chapter 9. If you were here when we looked at chapter 8, you’ll know that Paul was answering a question they’d asked him: “Can we eat meat that has first been offered as a sacrifice to one of the Greek gods?”
Paul had answered that question. Even if it was OK to eat that meat, in and of itself, some Christians in your church thought it really was offered to another god. So don’t eat it. Their conscience wouldn’t cope.
In chapter 10, he’ll say more on meat offered it idols.
But first he pauses, and he writes chapter 9. He writes to defend his ministry as an apostle. Some of the Corinthians didn’t like the things Paul said. So they were looking for reasons to dismiss him. So Paul stops to make his case that he really is a full-blown apostle. He carries Jesus’ authority. What he says is to be treated as if Jesus himself said it.
Last week, we looked at the first half of this chapter. One of the ruses the Corinthians were trying, in order to ignore Paul, was to point out that Paul was not paid for what he did. Other preachers were paid. If Paul was free, he obviously wasn’t as good.
Now in the second half of the chapter, we discover another ruse they’d come up with. Not only was Paul not paid, he was also not consistent. He’s just told them not to eat meat that’s been offered to an idol. But they know for a fact that sometimes he does exactly that. He obviously doesn’t really believe what he teaches. He’s not to be taken seriously. He’s not consistent.
Except that they’ve got Paul wrong. They don’t understand two of his key priorities. They don’t understand what makes him tick. If they did, they’d see why he sometimes eats this meat. It’s not about inconsistency – it’s about something else.
So as Paul defends himself, he outlines his two priorities in life. The things he’s aiming at. He does this so that the Corinthians might share his priorities. He does this so that we might share his aims in life as well.
Win the Lost
Paul’s first ambition was to win the lost. Win the lost.
Paul talks, yet again, about reining in his freedoms.
Earlier in the chapter, he was free to charge for his work. But he chose not to use that right.
Here, he has a right not to live under the Jewish law. He could eat pork, wear mixed fibres, and so on. And yet, verse 20: “To the Jews, I became like a Jew”. “To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law).”
Equally, he has a right to follow those requirements of the Jewish law. He was a Jew before he became a Christian and he can live like one if he wants to. And yet, verse 21: “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law.”
And then he goes back to chapter 8. Some Christians have weak consciences. They think false gods really exist. So he’d refrain from eating idol meat. Verse 22: “To the weak, I became weak.”
Paul would adopt the culture, the way of life, the diet, the habits, of any group. Jew. Gentile. He’d limit himself to a kosher diet. He’d deliberately eat outside of it.
Imagine a Paul ministering today in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Imagine the fuss in some Christian circles, if he deliberately ate a halal diet. “How can he adopt a Muslim diet?” But imagine the fuss from a different group of Christians if the next day he deliberately went to a barbeque and ate a vast quantity of pork sausages. “How can he be so insensitive in this area?”
To the religious person, things like this are very important. And yet no matter which way you thought things ought to be done, Paul trampled on that at times. Something else was more important to him.
So what was it? Well, he tells us, and we can’t miss it. Let me read again verses 19 to 22, this time not missing bits out:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”
He adopts the culture of any and every group in order to win that type of person.
“Win” in what sense? That’s the second half of verse 22: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Paul wanted to see people won. He wanted to see people saved. This is the Bible’s language for spiritual salvation. Being saved from sin and death. Saved from an eternity in hell. Saved for an eternity in heaven.
Paul wanted to see people won. Saved. He became all things to all people to win the lost.
Let’s just note in passing: He accommodated his behaviour, his culture. Not his beliefs, his teaching. The Christian message has always been offensive to an unbelieving world. Cast your mind back to chapter 1. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” But he still preached Christ crucified. Even though many would dismiss it as foolish. He didn’t water down the message. But he gladly changed his diet, his clothing, his way of life. We could even say he’d change his religion, in the sense we’ve talked about. Anything — to remove every obstacle he could from people hearing about the real Jesus, and being saved, won for Christ.
If the Corinthians had shared Paul’s love for the lost, they’d have seen why he sometimes ate idol meat, and sometimes withdrew. But instead, they prized more highly their chosen way of life. So they dismissed him as inconsistent.
What would it look like if we today were so gripped by a love for the lost? So gripped by a longing to see people saved, that we’d shed any preference to see it happen?
One interesting thing to note is that we’re looking at this on a week when we have a combined service. In 2012, we chose to have 2 morning services in Kemsing, rather than one. Why? Because some people aren’t used to church. They find it hard to relate to a more traditional style of service. So we started a new service with them in mind. Now there’s two, every week. For those who will best hear the good news of Jesus through traditional Anglican forms of worship, we’ll offer that. For those who will best hear the good news of Jesus through something less traditional, we’ll offer that too. All things, for all people. So that, by all possible means, we might save some.
So it might seem that we’ve done exactly what this passage is asking by adding an extra morning service to our mix. In fact, it’s not quite as simple as that. Because Paul is asking for such a love for the lost that we’d give up what we enjoy so that others can hear about Christ. Those who like church traditional allowed an extra service to start. The real way to put this into practice would be for them to plead for their service to change, to become less traditional, so that those who find it hard to relate to a traditional church culture can hear about Jesus with ease.
But that isn’t what happened. So we’ve got two services in place of one each Sunday.
Of course, this doesn’t just adjust those who like church traditionally done. Whether you like church contemporary or traditional, this asks the question: Do you love those who are lost without Christ so much, that you’d forego your chosen style of worship in order to win them.
And of course, it’s even wider than that. This isn’t just about being willing to lose our preferred style of worship. It touches how you spend your Saturdays. What social events you join. Who you choose to spend time with.
I’ve been chewing this over all week, and it’s amazing what a life-changing perspective it is. Small decisions – a favour for a particular person, whether to spend a small amount of money on something, take on a new light when the foremost question is: What will help win people for Christ?
Or I think back to when I helped on a youth camp each summer. One year, there was a boy in my room group who loved golf. He was 13. Every day, when the activity sign-up sheets were gathered in, he’d have signed up for golf. Nobody else wanted to play. I’d never played golf before that week and I never have since. I’m absolutely awful at it. But every day, for a week, he and I did 9 holes. I got him to try and teach me. He had an uphill struggle, I tell you. To the golfer, I became a golfer, so that by all possible means I might save some.
Maybe helping on our summer holiday club isn’t your thing. If so, what an excellent chance to put this into practice. We’re praying children will meet Jesus in the fun they have with us at the end of August. If helping at that isn’t your thing, here’s your chance to say: For the children, I became a holiday-club helper, so that by all possible means I might save some.
It would be worth each of us asking: What is there that I could do without because it would help others to have easier access to the Lord Jesus?
In February 1885, a group of 7 young men set sail from England to China. The most well-known of them was Charles T Studd, who’d become a Christian 7 years earlier. He spent the rest of his life as a missionary in China, then India, and then in Central Africa .He died in 1931, still working hard, at Ibambi in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Many friends sought to dissuade him from going abroad. He replied with these words: “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.”
That’s the attitude the Corinthians lacked. The drive they lacked. The love for the lost. The willingness to give up anything to see people won for Christ. To see people saved for all eternity.
God is asking each of us: How much do you care about whether others are saved? Those dear to you? The wider sense of “neighbour” – those you don’t know personally as yet? Is seeing others saved the driving force in our lives?
Ambition number 1: To win the lost.
Win the Race
Ambition number 2 is to win the race. To win the race.
Paul’s second priority in life is actually for himself. That might surprise us, having heard him renounce his rights. But he does also take care of himself. And he uses the picture of a race, of the athletic games.
The Commonwealth games back in April seem a long time ago now. But the picture Paul gives us works for any professional sport. Tennis. Football. Swimming. If you want to lift that trophy at Wimbledon, you have to train. Raw ability isn’t enough to get you through. You have to train hard. It requires discipline. You do it to get a prize, but it’s a prize that doesn’t last.
Here’s verses 24 and 25: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last.”
He’s using professional sport as a picture of the Christian life.
For the Christian, life is like a race. We want to cross that finish line. We want to get into heaven at the end. We don’t want to find we’ve been disqualified.
We mustn’t push the details too far. When he says that all the runners run, but only one gets the prize, he doesn’t mean that only one Christian gets to heaven. Obviously. He doesn’t mean that we’re competing against each other. Obviously.
He’s saying that we need to have the focus of the athlete who’s in it to win. We’re not running aimlessly. We’re not going through life as though what happens after this life doesn’t matter. We want to get the prize. We want to have the crown.
In fact, living like a Christian is an even more urgent business than competing in sport. The Christian life is not as important as winning at football. It’s far more important than that.
The athletes of the ancient world competed for a prize that didn’t last. The Isthmian Games in Corinth were held every 4 years. The winner was awarded a wreath made out of – wait for it – celery. In this heat, it really didn’t last.
But the destiny we each reap after we die lasts forever. We will spend all eternity in whatever future God gives us. You’ve seen the passion with which professional footballers, tennis players, whatever it is, train because they want to win. You’ve seen the passion of supporters – cheering when the match is going well, in despair when things fall apart. We should care so much more about winning that prize than even the highest profile sports trophy.
Let me deal with the obvious way this could be misunderstood. He’s saying that we need to put in some effort. He’s saying that we need discipline and focus to win the prize. That does not mean that our efforts and hard work are what get us into heaven. Paul’s already said that only Christ crucified gets anyone into heaven. Just last week we saw Paul saying that a place in heaven is a free gift. It cannot be earnt; it has to be received as a gift.
When Paul speaks of effort, he does not mean the effort to make ourselves good enough for God. He means living our lives wholeheartedly for God. He means that what pleases God needs to matter supremely. We said this in chapter 5: We don’t treat sin as a joke. We are grateful that God has saved us, and we work with all our might to become the people that Jesus wants us to be.
In verse 19, Paul said that he is a free man. He is not a slave of anyone. But he makes himself a slave to everyone, so as to win the lost. That was the first verse of our reading. The last verse says something very similar. Verse 27: “No, I strike my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
So let me once again ask each of us about our ambitions: How much do you care whether you are saved? Is “what pleases God” the driving force in your life?
Is your life focussed on ambitions of things you want to achieve within this life? That could be selfish ambitions – places you want to visit, experiences you want to have. That could be serving ambitions – people you want to help, situations you want to transform.
Or is your life focussed on a crown that will last for ever? Do you have the athlete’s focus on the finishing line, running as though the one thing that matter is that you make it across without being disqualified.
Win the race.
Win the lost. Win the race.
Two things mattered to Paul more than anything else. The Corinthians did not see this. They did not share his ambitions.
So they dismissed Paul as a man who was not consistent. And so they found reasons to ignore the apostle Paul. They found reasons to live as they pleased, and not to live as Jesus asked them to.
The two things that mattered most were this:
Winning the lost. Helping others to cross the finishing line.
And winning the race. Making sure he crosses it himself.
Are those your ambitions? Or do you live for something else?