Those of you who have attended a game night with Sueanne and me know that I am a rather competitive person. In fact, I’ve been pretty competitive all my life. I’m sure my mother could share some stories of ways I annoyed my parents and my sisters with my need to win. And the way I worded that tells you what the problem is. People that are highly competitive like me, it’s not just that we like to win; it’s that we need to win.
Winning becomes the basis of our self-esteem, the basis of our sense of significance. It becomes how we define ourselves. So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a game of Monopoly or an athletic event or running a business. A lot of what this world would define as “success” is actually driven by a very unhealthy motivation, the need to win.
Now it’s not necessarily bad to be competitive. It’s what we choose to do with that competitive nature that’s the issue. And I think in our text this morning, Paul is going to have something to say that will help us to process and understand and manage this part of our personality.
We continue this morning in our study of I Corinthians. Last week, we jumped ahead to chapter 15, but this morning, we want to go back and pick up where we left off. By way of reminder, in chapter 8, Paul gives instruction about eating meat which had been offered to idols. And basically, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with it, but if it causes your brother to stumble, then you shouldn’t do it.” As Christians, we have the liberty to do many things, we have freedom in Christ. But that liberty is always subject to love. Love always takes priority over liberty.
And then, anticipating some who might say, “Well, that’s easy for you to say, Paul, you don’t have to give up anything,” Paul goes on in chapter 9 to say, “I’m willing to give up any of my rights for the sake of the gospel. In fact, I’ve even given up my right to get paid for preaching, because I don’t want to do anything that would hinder the gospel.” As Christians, we’re free; but more than anything else, we’re free to make sacrifices. We’re free to leave it all out there, to give up whatever we need to give up in order to accomplish our mission.
Which leads us now to verse 19: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all…” (I Corinthians 9:19)
When Paul says here that he was “free from all”, he’s simply saying that he was nobody’s slave. Nobody could tell him what to do. But I think he’s saying more than that. The International Standard Version translates this phrase, “I am free from everyone’s expectations.” And I like that thought because it says something about the performance-based value system that we live in.
What I mean by that is that, in our society, a person’s value is determined by how well they perform. If they make a lot of money, they’re valuable. If they’re really good in sports, they’re valuable. If they have a job with a lot of prestige, they’re valuable. But, if you don’t have any of those things, then you’re not that valuable. It is a performance-based value system.
And the truth is, without the concept of grace, there really isn’t any alternative to that. Grace gives you value based not on what you can do to deserve it, but simply on the basis of the person who is showing you grace. But without grace, my value, my significance, my self-esteem is all based on my ability to perform. The better I perform, the higher my sense of significance or self-worth.
And the very heart and soul of a performance-based value system is competition and comparison. Because whenever we talk about performance, we have to ask, “Who am I going to compare myself with to determine how well I’m doing?” It’s got to be a comparison. It’s not just how I perform; it’s how I perform compared to you.
So, as a result, life becomes a competition, and it can show up in hundreds of different ways. It can be how I look or how athletic I am It can be in my grades. It can be in my musical ability. It can be how much money I make, what kind of a car I drive, what kind of a house I live in. There are hundreds of different ways that we compare ourselves with others around us in order to determine whether or not we have value, whether or not we have significance, whether or not we really matter in this world.
But the Bible lets us know that a value system like that will ultimately cause us to crash and burn. There’s just no way to win with that value system. If I have a high sense of self-esteem, it’s because I have compared myself with you and I think I’m better than you, and that can only lead to arrogance; and arrogance will ultimately destroy us. Or if I compare myself with you and I don’t think I compare so well, then it just destroys my self-esteem; and that never leads to anything good.
But either way, it’s a value system that ultimately can’t work. And the people who buy into this performance-based value system are constantly on a roller-coaster because it goes up and down and up and down, depending on what it is we’re comparing and who we’re comparing ourselves with.
If I’m using income as a basis of performance, then I feel really good as long I’m around people who don’t make as much as I do. But, as soon as Bill Gates and Elon Musk enter the room, I feel like a nobody. If I’m using weight loss for my sense of value, then I feel pretty good about myself as long as I’m around people who are heavier than I am, but as soon as someone young, fit and thin enters the room, my self-esteem drops a few notches. But it’s always up or down, depending on what it is we’re comparing and who we’re comparing ourselves with.
And when you choose to buy into that value system, you have made yourself a slave to everyone. You live your life in bondage. You live your life as a slave to the opinion of every single person, and you’re constantly wondering how you compare with “so-and-so”, and you’re enslaved by that. It’s a miserable way to live.
The only alternative is to live in God’s grace. Accepting God’s grace is recognizing that I can’t perform well enough. Religion can be a performance-based system. We may think, if I do this…if I don’t do that…if I somehow perform well…then God will be happy with me. God will be pleased with me, and maybe I’ll be one of the few that make it into heaven. But grace is the acknowledgment that I can’t perform well enough for God, so Jesus did for me what I couldn’t do for myself, and he offers that to me as a gift.
And grace sets me free because now my sense of value, my sense of significance, my sense of worth comes from being accepted by God. I didn’t perform for it; I didn’t do anything to deserve it. But God has given it to me as a gift out of his love for me. And so, now, every single day, regardless of my performance, regardless of how I compare with anyone else, my sense of value, my sense of worth remains the same because it’s rooted in grace, rooted in the love of God.
And what that does is it sets me free. Because now, I no longer have to compete with you; I no longer have to compare myself with you. How well you perform is irrelevant as it relates to my value. That’s no longer my sense of worth. So, it actually sets me free to be able to serve you and to lift you up.
You see, until you understand grace, you can’t really love someone because that person will always be seen as the competition. I can’t love you and serve you if you’re my competitor. Because the better you do, the lower my self-esteem gets. But once I understand grace, then I find my sense of value rooted in God, so I’m free to love you and serve you.
I think that’s part of what Paul is talking about here. It’s only the basis of grace that I am free from all men. I’m no longer locked into the bondage of a performance-based system. And that sets me free to become a servant to all men. Because Christ has set me free, now I can use that freedom to serve the people around me.
So, why would we want to do that? Paul says, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I may win more of them. (I Corinthians 9:19b)
The word “win” here isn’t like winning a game or winning a prize. The word is actually a financial term. It carries the idea of getting a return on your investment. If you’ve got your money in one bank and another bank has a better interest rate, you might transfer that money over so that you will win more, so that you will gain more.
Paul says, the reason I’m willing to make myself a servant to all men is because I want to get a better return. If I live this way, I might be able to bring some people to Christ, but if I serve other people, then I’ll be able to win more of them. I’ll be able to get a better return on my investment.
There are several things to think about related to that statement. One has to do with defining the purpose of the Christian life. What would you say your purpose is as a Christian? Because if you think your purpose is primarily about you and your happiness, and that God is just there to continually bless you and do you favors and try to make things easy for you, you’re going to be sadly disappointed.
Furthermore, everything that Paul talks about here makes no sense. Why would I sacrifice my freedoms and my rights if my Christian life is all about me? But once we understand that our calling as Christians is to bring other people to Christ, it’s about proclaiming the message of the gospel, we realize that there are times when that may require sacrifice on my part, it may require giving up my rights; it requires becoming a servant to others.
Another thing I think is interesting in this verse, is that it helps us to define what evangelism is, what outreach is. It is not primarily a memorized presentation that we deliver to somebody in three minutes and then move. Paul’s point is that we have to roll up our sleeves, we’ve got to get involved in other people’s lives. Which is exactly what Jesus did when he walked here on this earth.
Paul explains more of what he means by that beginning in verse 20:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law [he’s talking here about the law of Moses] I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.
“To those outside the law [again talking about the law of Moses] 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.
“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.” (I Corinthians 9:20-22)
“I have become all things to all people.” What did Paul mean by that? Does Paul mean that we’re supposed to be like a chameleon, and we change the way we behave, depending on who we’re around? Sort of, but not in an immoral way.
It’s not like, “Yeah, I go to the bars, and I get drunk with everybody else and curse and swear so that unbelievers will think I’m just as cool as they are, and now they’ll listen to me.” No, they won’t, because they’ll think you’re just like them. Why should they change to be like you, since you’re already just like them? Unbelievers need to see something different, something that stands out.
No, Paul is talking here about how he relates to different groups of people, especially Jews and Gentiles. Paul says, “To the Jews, I became as a Jew, so that I might win the Jews.” Of course, Paul was already a Jew, but he’s talking here about reaching the Jewish crowd — those who were practicing Judaism. Paul says, “I was careful not to do anything that would offend them unnecessarily.”
And so, he may have kept the Sabbath and worshiped in the synagogue with them. He may have gone to the temple and kept the Jewish feasts with them. When Paul was with the Jews, he did everything possible not to offend them so that he wouldn’t create additional barriers to the gospel, instead of flaunting his freedom and saying, “Hey, I don’t have to do that stuff anymore. You guys are all wrong about that.”
And many times, we see Paul, for the sake of the gospel, do some Jewish things. For example, in Acts 16, young Timothy who had a Gentile father and a Jewish mother — Timothy had never been circumcised. So, Paul took Timothy and had him circumcised, not because it had anything to do with his salvation, but because Paul knew it would result in the Jews in Lystra and Derbe being more receptive to the message of the gospel
In Acts 18, Paul takes a Nazarite vow. He shaves his hair off, takes a vow, so that he can once again share the gospel. So, there were occasions when Paul acted like a Jew, so that he might share the gospel, the message of Jesus and win some of those Jews over to Christ.
But when Paul was with Gentiles, he didn’t feel it was important to keep all those Jewish customs. As the New Living Translation puts it, “When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ.” (I Corinthians 9:21, NLT).
In Acts 20, when Paul went to Athens, it says he went into the synagogue first, and then after that he went to the Areopagus, Mars Hill. While he was in the synagogue, Paul was speaking to Jewish people. He used the law of Moses and the Old Testament prophets to prove to the Jews who Jesus was.
But when Paul went to the Areopagus, he was speaking to Greek philosophers, and so he didn’t quote scripture. Instead, he quoted two pagan philosophers. Why did he use a different approach? Because he’s talking to two very different groups of people.
Now Paul is very careful to tell us that doesn’t mean he compromised who he was as a Christian. He was still under the law of Christ. He didn’t compromise his Christian principles. But he was always mindful and respectful of who he was talking to about Christ, even those who had no religious background.
And that describes a lot of the people that we come in contact with. There are people that you work with, people you go to school with, people that live next door to you that are not religious people. If fact, many of them have had it up to here with religion. Some of them have been deeply wounded by something in their past and they want nothing to do with religion. When we talk with them, we need to understand that; we need to be sensitive to that.
And we need to understand we don’t need to correct every political opinion that doesn’t agree with ours. We don’t need to constantly tell people all the areas of their life where they’re sinning, and all the things that they’re doing wrong. We need to be careful that we aren’t putting up barriers that prevent us from being able to cultivate a relationship and have the opportunity to share the Good News about Jesus.
Paul is simply saying that whether you’re with a religious crowd, or a bunch of heathens, our strategy is to not create issues where there’s no need for issues, not to create obstacles where there’s no need for obstacles. Regardless of what you see on Facebook, everything doesn’t have to be a fight; everything doesn’t have to be an issue. But, sadly, over the years, we have sometimes been better at winning arguments than we have at winning people to Christ.
But, for Paul, it’s all about winning souls to Christ. And so, he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (I Corinthians 9:22-23)
Paul says we should be willing to give up our rights if it will help us to reach the sinful world. If you go to reach the Amish, give up your right to wear colorful clothes. If you go to reach people in California, give up your right to wear a Yankees cap. If you go to reach the Jews, give up your right to eat bacon. And if you really want me to step on some toes this morning, when you go to reach the Democrats, don’t wear your “I support Trump” T-shirt. Be willing to sacrifice any and every right you have so that you can have the opportunity to bring more people to Christ.
Now we can already imagine what the objection to Paul’s strategy might have been. Can you imagine people watching the way Paul behaved when he was with the Jews, and with the Greeks. And they might have said, “You know that Paul, he’s just wishy-washy; he doesn’t have any convictions at all. He just gives in to peer pressure. When he’s with the Jews, he acts like the Jews. When he’s with the Greeks, he acts like the Greeks. Paul doesn’t seem to have any convictions at all. He’s just wishy-washy.”
Paul wants us to know it’s just the opposite. To do what Paul is telling us to do requires a great deal of discipline and commitment.
Verse 24, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (I Corinthians 9:24-27)
Every other year in Corinth they had what was called the Isthmian Games. They were similar to the Olympics. People came from all over. It was a big deal, and the best of the best athletes in the Roman Empire competed. So, these athletic images would have been very familiar to the Corinthians — the boxers, the runners. They understood that that these athletes were highly disciplined. These were people who sacrificed a great deal in their lives in order to be the very best they could be in order to win.
Again, in verse 24, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” Because I’m competitive, I get what Paul is saying. What’s the use of playing a game if your goal isn’t to win? What’s the use of running a race if your goal isn’t to win? When you run, you run to win.
And that tells me it’s okay to be competitive. But we need to channel our competitive energies into the things that ultimately matter. If you’re going to run the Christian life as a race, then you need to run to win. You need to take your Christianity seriously. You need to give everything you’ve got in order to succeed. You need to lay it all down for the sake of the gospel.
Verse 25, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath.” When you won first place in the Isthmian Games, or the Olympics, for that matter, the first-place prize wasn’t $100,000 or even a gold medal. It was a little wreath of leaves they’d put on your head. That’s it, first place. You do all of that work to win a wreath, a crown, that’s going to wither away in less than a week.
I mean, you did all that work for that? That’s Paul’s point. An athlete makes sacrifices. An athlete says, I get up earlier. I work harder. I train longer. I don’t have ice cream after dinner. I go to bed early and get a good night’s sleep, so that I can train tomorrow and the next day. They’re very, very focused. They learn to say yes to certain things and no to certain things.
Paul said, “That’s how I live my Christian life. I make decisions based on my calling as a Christian, and I do it to win.” What do you suppose would happen if we as Christians had the same level of self-sacrifice, the same level of focus, the same level of discipline that Olympic athletes put forth to get a temporary reward? If we as Christians had that same level of commitment for a reward that’s eternal? We would change the world!
And that’s Paul’s point. If these people are willing to go through so much for something that’s temporary, why would we not be willing to do that for something that lasts forever?
What Paul is saying here is that we are here for a purpose. We have been called by God to accomplish a mission. So, we use our freedom in order to make ourselves servants in order to accomplish that mission. Whether people are highly religious, completely irreligious or anything in-between, it’s thinking strategically about not creating unnecessary offenses, not making issues out of things that don’t need to be issues, to roll up our sleeves and get involved in the messes and the difficulties of people’s lives, in order to earn the right to share the Good News about Jesus, to bring about the very best return that we can.
There may be some of you here this morning who haven’t shared the gospel with anybody in the past year… in five years…ten years…twenty years. It’s time to ask ourselves the question, “What is up with that?” How can we know what we know and believe what we believe and not share it with someone? It’s a good time for all of us to rethink our strategy. Think about the people you work with. Think about the people you go to school with. Think about the people who live in your neighborhood. What would be the most strategic way to build a relationship and ask God to give you opportunity to share the good news, the life-changing message of Jesus with them? Because, folks, that’s what God has called us to do.