19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To 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. 21To 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. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
I love all kinds of meat and cheese. I enjoy the ability to go to the grocery store and pick from a variety of meats and cheeses, prepare them in many different ways, and to enjoy eating them. Even though I have every right to eat meat and cheese we recently had a family over to our house that was vegan. That means that they eat no animal meat or by-products. Not wanting to unnecessarily offend this family and desiring to keep their minds open to the message of the gospel, we chose to serve an entirely vegan meal, complete with a meat-free main dish and soy cheese. We didn’t do this in order to manipulate them or because we were bound to do it. In fact, we surrendered our freedom to eat what we want in order to remove any obstacles to the spread of the gospel. We sacrificed a much-enjoyed freedom in order to love and serve other human beings.
The Corinthian teachers prized their freedom. They believed and taught that they were free because they were Roman citizens, they were free because they had true knowledge and wisdom which opened them up to true human freedom, and now they were free because, as Christians, they were free from the corruption and enslavement of the world. The problem was that they were viewing their freedom as the be-all-end-all of Christian existence. Paul continues to teach them that this is not true. There are, in fact, things that are far more important than any perceived freedoms. As Paul continues in this section, we should note, that this passage is really an argument within an argument. He is continuing to teach them about the importance of valuing their brothers and sisters in Christ over their own freedoms by making the case that he has done just that with them all along. Throughout all of chapter 9, he is showing the Corinthians that he has chosen to not take monetary support from them for their own benefit, not his. This passage fits right into that argument as Paul demonstrates how his whole ministry of spreading the Gospel involves putting the interests of others ahead of his own freedoms.
Paul began this chapter pointing out that he was free, and he now returns to this point. He is free in all of the important senses of the word, but he chooses to make himself a slave for the sake of the gospel. Freedom is one thing. Understanding that you have freedom to the point that you are willing to sacrifice it at times for a greater goal is the ultimate freedom. Paul is still making his point that just because one has a freedom, does not mean it is always the best choice to exercise said freedom. It is possible to become so enamored with freedom that one actually becomes enslaved to it. Paul, conversely, is enslaved to Christ. His commitment to the gospel will always trump any freedoms that he has.
As a result of his commitment to his life in Christ (because this behavior seems crazy unless you realize that you have given up your own life to enter into Christ’s), Paul will become like the Jews when he is around them. By this he means that he has continued to go to the synagogues and take part in their official liturgy. In doing so, he subjected himself to many beatings for the sake of the opportunities presented by going (2 Corinthians 11:24). If he didn’t go, there would be no beatings because they had no authority outside of the synagogue. He did not have to go, because Paul no longer considers himself bound to his Judaism, yet he chose to go for the sake of the gospel. In a similar manner, if Paul was around those to whom law observances such as the Sabbath and food laws were important, then he would observe those same laws. He is quick to point out that his actions in no way imply that this law observance is not a proof or a path to salvation or spiritual maturity. When around Gentiles, Paul did not hold to the law because it would have been no advantage. Even when not observing the law, however, Paul is quick to point out that he is not lawless because he is under Christ’s law. He does not state explicitly what he feels this law to be, but it is safe to assume from his discussion in chapter 13 that he is talking about the love of Christ and being in Christ.
In verse 22, we can assume that Paul gets more directly to his point as he brings his conversation back around to the ‘weak’. He has stressed that he has all the freedoms that anyone else does, but he gladly forfeits those freedoms for those who are struck by a more legalistic conscience than he. If people had weak consciences of the sort discussed in 8:7-13, then he will gladly forgo his rights for the sake of the Gospel. This is no problem for Paul because of his understanding of being in Christ. Paul knows that, at his baptism, he died to himself and willingly took up the life of Christ (Romans 6:3-4). Thus, although he technically has freedoms and rights, he feels no compulsion to claim them because his life is now the life of Christ. He realizes that in Christ, freedom is not a freedom from, rather it is a freedom for: for Christ; for the Kingdom of God; for the lost around the world who desperately need the message of the gospel.
Paul’s message here has often been misunderstood and perverted, particularly in our post-modern times. Paul is not being a hypocrite. He is not saying that the message of the Gospel needs to be tailored or repackaged in order to appeal to people. Quite the contrary; the Gospel message will always remain the same. It is the messenger that needs to swallow his pride, put himself on the back shelf, give up his rights, and willingly exchange his freedom for slavery for the sake of the Gospel and the life of Christ. That is true freedom. Paul, no doubt, would offer a harsh rebuke for those who would transform and soften the Gospel so that they did not have to undergo the more painful and sacrificial process of transforming themselves.
Have you been willing to sacrifice your freedoms and rights for the sake of the gospel? As Americans we feel that we have many rights such as the right to a certain amount of rest, the right to privacy, the rights of comfort and leisure. How differently would your life look if you were to embrace the sort of attitude that Paul espouses here? By what justification would you not embrace that sort of life?