One of the most precious blessings connected with living in this nation is the personal freedom we enjoy. We pride ourselves on this aspect of our lives, and measure our success and worth by the degree of freedom we have. The desire for greater personal freedom (to do what we want to do) drives the engine of our careers, and is the life long objective of many.
It is interesting to compare this approach and view of freedom with what Paul says about freedom in I Corinthians 9-10. Paul pursued freedom, but his approach was freedom through slavery. It seems odd that one could achieve freedom through such a thing as slavery, but that is exactly what Paul proposes to the Corinthians in this letter.
Of course, you have to understand that in first century Greece it was quite an advantage to be a "free" person in a society largely inhabited by slaves. Many of the Corinthian Christians were exactly in that situation; they were legally free men and women living in a city where slavery was common. This condition, it seems, had led them to feel proud and forget that freedom brought with it certain responsibilities.
In his letter, Paul reminds them of four areas where he has given up his freedom in order to guarantee the salvation of others, an example that he hopes will temper their pride.
1. Freedom to be compensated for his preaching
9:1-13 – Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink? Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?
I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, "you shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing." God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the alter have their share from the alter?
Paul claims that he is a legitimate Apostle because he has seen the Lord and established them in Christ through his preaching. He points to the other Apostles and reminds them that they travel with their wives. It seems that he also includes the earthly brothers of the Lord in this group. He also refers to the scriptures that teach that the one who works at something deserves to profit or be paid by that enterprise.
After establishing his right to receive payment for his work according to the example of the other Apostles, according to the teaching of scripture and according to the history of the Jewish priesthood, he declares that he has given up that right in order to maintain a higher principle.
Vs. 14 – So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.
He summarizes the freedom and right he has been given by the Lord Himself to be paid for preaching.
Vs. 15 – But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.
He says this not to get them to pay him what he has a right to; he'd rather die than have someone accuse him of preaching for money.
Vs. 16-18 – For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
He preaches for free in order to do two things:
- To demonstrate that his preaching is a responsibility given to him by God. A thing he does whether he gets money or not because God has directed him to do it.
- By giving up his right to be paid he can freely offer the gospel to everyone, not just those who can afford it.
Paul is free to receive payment but he gives up this freedom in order to gain the freedom to preach to everyone who will listen, without reference to money.
2. Freedom from tradition and opinion
Vs. 19-23 – For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
As a Christian, Paul had only one Lord. He was free from religion, culture, tradition and other people's opinions. As a Christian his only Lord was Jesus, His only Law, the word of Christ. As he travelled and preached to various groups, however, he gave up this freedom and subjected himself to:
- Religion – he preached in synagogues (Acts 13), he preached in Greek schools (Acts 17).
- Tradition – he took vows to placate the Jews and went to the temple (Acts 21).
- Culture – he took Timothy along, a Greek, and circumcised him to avoid controversy (Acts 16).
He didn't have to do these things, they were all concessions to other peoples' beliefs, traditions, particular weaknesses – not his own. He did these things so that he might have access to different groups, and preach the gospel to those, who because of cultural, religious or personal barriers, would not hear the message of Jesus otherwise.
We don't always feel comfortable with other people's views or religious traditions but, like Paul, it is sometimes necessary to set aside our discomfort and judgment in order to have an opportunity to share our faith with them.
3. Freedom from the demands of the law
In this long passage from chapter 9:24-10:22, Paul explains that he is free from the demands of the Law and is now under grace.
- This means that he is now saved by a system of grace rather than by a system of Law.
- A person can be saved by the Law if that person obeys the Law perfectly: perfect obedience = salvation and eternal life.
Jesus was raised from the dead because He managed to be righteous according to the Law. He accomplished perfect obedience.
Who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth.
- I Peter 2:22
Our problem is that we are not able to obtain salvation in this way, even if we understand the principle, we are not able to accomplish it. We always sin (Romans 3:23).
God devised a plan to save us despite our weakness. He sent Jesus to obtain salvation according to Law on our behalf by living a perfect life, offering that perfect life on the cross and then resurrecting to prove that God had accepted His life in exchange for ours. God then offered us salvation based on faith in Jesus rather than salvation based on perfect obedience; this is the system of grace or favor that the Bible talks about…this is the "good news."
So Paul says that he is saved by this system of grace. He doesn't have to be perfect in order to be saved anymore. In other words, he is free from the Law.
Now, you might think that a person who didn't have to be perfect would let things slide, but Paul says quite the opposite.
9:27 – But I discipline my body and make it my salve, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
What he has been given for free is so precious that he is diligent in preserving it less he would, through carelessness, lose it.
In chapter 10 he uses the Israelites as an example of those who received great blessings and opportunities, but grew careless and consequently lost their way. In the case of the Corinthians he warns them to be careful that their freedom not lull them into complacency with the world.
Paul is free from the perfect demands of the Law because of grace, but he becomes a slave to personal holiness, self-control and purity so that sin will not take root in his life again and spoil his salvation or the salvation of others.
4. Freedom to do what his conscience permits
This idea is summarized in verses 23-24; 32-33.
Vs. 23-24 – All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.
Vs. 32-33 – Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.
Paul was intelligent, well travelled, well educated and mature in the faith. He knew right from wrong and could discern the "grey areas." If he permitted himself something, he did it with a clear conscience. But in this passage he says that he is free to do what his conscience permits, but not at the expense of someone else's conscience.
And so, the boundary that Paul sets for his conduct had four sides:
- That it did not offend or go against God and His word.
- That it did not go against his own conscience.
- That it did not go against the conscience of unbelievers.
- That it did not offend the church.
He was free to say and do many things because of his superior knowledge and experience, but he restricted himself according to the knowledge and experience of others. Their conscience and limit became his limit. This was not fair, this was not easy, but this was definitely Christlike.
Who although He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant.
- Philippians 2:6
Paul was free to say and do as he pleased but he gave up that freedom so he could say and do as God pleased for the sake of others.
Paul says that he has basically given up four freedoms:
- Freedom to be paid for his work.
- Freedom from tradition and opinions.
- Freedom from the demands of the Law.
- Freedom to follow his conscience.
Each of these are precious personal freedoms that he has willingly given up, but he has done so for two reasons:
- So he can have the opportunity to preach the gospel to as many people as possible.
- So that nothing he says or does becomes the reason why someone else loses their soul.
Paul became a slave of other peoples' customs, weaknesses and cultures so that he could freely offer the gospel to all and be free from any blame for someone losing their salvation.
This material gives us insight into Paul's motives and methods of working with people, but what are the lessons for us today?
1. Everybody's soul is important, not just our own.
We tend to circle the wagons when we are safe, but this is not God's way. God wants every soul to hear the gospel, and the thing most important next to our own soul's salvation should be the salvation of other souls. Remember that when you have a chance to confess Christ, when asked to invite people to church, when a special collection for mission work is taken souls are #1 in importance with God.
2. The boundary of our freedom is love.
We need to remember that the guiding principle in our dealings with other people, whether they are Christians or not, is love, not freedom. It is not about what I am free to do or not do, it is about what love would do in this situation. In Christ we are always free to love, and many times the greater the restriction placed upon us, the greater the love required from us.