Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Freedom and God's Wisdom

1 Corinthians 9:1-23

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Introduction

Repeat biblical change model and WOW/WOG. In chapters 8 and 9, Paul applies God’s wisdom to how we use our freedoms, how we relate to our rights.

When Paul had been in Corinth, he evidently taught them a maxim: “Everything is permissable.” He meant by this that within the boundaries of God’s moral absolutes, Christians have moral freedom (1st CHART: “Don’t get drunk”). We can call this “the law of liberty.” Legalism wrongly adds moral absolutes beyond what God has given us (2nd CHART: “Don’t drink”).

The Corinthians were perverting this maxim with the WOW: “As long as I don’t violate God’s moral absolutes, I have the right to do whatever I want” (3rd CIRCLE: “As long as I don’t get drunk, I can drink whenever & with whomever I please”). This perverts moral freedom into a justification of a self-serving lifestyle.

Paul reaffirms this maxim, but shows them how to apply it according to WOG—read 10:23,24. Christianity asks not merely: “Do I have the moral freedom to do this?”—but: “Will this be beneficial and constructive for others?” Within God’s moral absolutes, Christians should voluntarily limit their freedom for the good of our neighbors (4th CIRCLE: “I have the right to drink, but I will give up that right when I’m with my friend who has a drinking problem”). In other words, in the WOG, “the law of liberty” is superseded by “the law of love.”

LAST WEEK, we saw Paul in chapter 8 applying this to how we relate to fellow-Christians. THIS WEEK, we see him in chapter 9 applying this to how we relate to non-Christians.

Financial rights

Paul applies this first to his financial rights.

Read 9:1,3-6. As a church-planter, Paul had a God-given right to be financially supported by the churches he planted—including the Corinthian church.

Read 9:7-11,14. He defends this right from common sense (soldiering & farm work) and from scripture (Old Testament threshing ox law & Jesus in Matt.10:10).

Read 9:12,18. But Paul has voluntarily waived this right in their case (he allowed other churches to financially support him). Why? “So that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel.” For some reason, non-Christians in Corinth viewed this with suspicion. Probably, they had seen so many orators who were just in it for the money—and they would view Paul in the same way if they heard he received support from his converts. Worse yet, they would view the gospel as saying that salvation is not free. That was enough for him to refuse to take money from the Corinthian Christians, even though this created hardship for him.

How does this apply to us? Most of us are not church-planters, so we don’t have the right to be financially supported by our fellow-Christians. Well, here is one application. For a variety of reasons, many of us have income that is greater than our financial obligations. Consequently, we have the legitimate right to have more material things than we need (1Tim.6:17; MY WINE RACK).

The WOW tells us: “I have the right to spend most of my excess income on myself and my family.” This is the virtually unquestioned assumption of our culture. It drives our economy, creates massive consumer debt, etc. It has shaped you.

But WOG challenges us: “I will voluntarily choose to live more simply so that others may learn about Jesus?” We sacrifice luxuries to love others for Christ sake—we give to support our missionaries, to fund the HADF, and to financially support other Christian ministries that communicate the gospel to people in other parts of the city and world.

This is why John Wesley taught his working-class converts: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Industry and frugality—for the sake of generosity (vs. SIMPLE LIVING MERELY FOR SELF).

This is why Ron Siders advocates the “graduated tithe”—as your income increases, give a greater and greater percentage of it away. How sad that in America, the wealthier Christians are, the smaller percentage they give away!

You might be thinking: “Where’s the line?” I don’t know—that is between you and the Lord. But are you going to the Lord, telling Him you are willing to waive this right so that others can see and hear Christ’s love? Have you made a start down this path? Are you asking Him if/how He wants you to go further? Or are you still letting the WOW dictate how you use your excess: “I made it, so I have the right to use it to enjoy myself.”

Social & cultural freedoms

In 9:19-22, Paul describes another way that he applies “the law of love” to the way he relates to non-Christians.

Read 9:19. By coming to Christ, Paul had become “free from all men.” He didn’t have to follow any arbitrary social or cultural rules because he was free from all this in Christ. He didn’t need any person’s or society’s acceptance because he had God’s acceptance. But he says he chose “make myself a slave to all, that I might win more.” In other words, he chose to give up his freedom to be involved only with people he wanted to be with, and he chose instead to initiate relationships with people very different from him culturally and morally. Why did he do this? Because this act of love might help them come to Christ.

So he initiated toward religious people (9:20), even though he had been saved from this religious life of uptight rules and self-righteousness. And if he had breakfast with a rabbi at the local deli, he didn’t order bacon with his eggs—even though he had the freedom to do this. Why let his freedom to eat bacon make it more difficult for the rabbi to hear the message that Jesus is the promised Messiah? He viewed this as a small sacrifice that might help the rabbi receive eternal life.

And he initiated toward blatantly sinful people (9:21), even though a lot of what they did must have really grieved his soul. He met them on their turf in every way possible short of moral compromise. He would eat lunch with a pimp in a gangster bar, with people making drug deals in the next booth. It grieved his soul to see and feel the wreckage that sin had made of their lives, but he got right up next to them. Why? Because being personally involved with them in this way would make it easier for them to believe in this Jesus who claimed to be the friend of sinners.

This is a classic text for cross-cultural missions—but we aren’t missionaries. Yet there’s plenty of application for us.

WOW says: “I have the freedom to relate only to those who agree with me, are like me culturally, etc.”

But WOG says: “I will voluntarily initiate with people who are different from and uncomfortable for me – to make it easier for them to come to Christ.”

When you first come to Christ, it’s easy to reach out to friends with whom you already have affinity. But when you grow in Christ, and get deeply involved in Christian community (as we should), it takes a conscious choice to move toward people who are far from God and far from you socially, culturally, and morally. Here are three questions I ask myself pertaining to this:

“Am I pursuing friendships with non-Christians, and joining them in their social settings?” Or are you mainly just involved in your “holy huddle” and vaguely hoping they will find their way to you?

“Am I deliberately initiating with non-Christians who are very different from me?” This is the opposite of “affinity-based relationships.” How much affinity did Jesus have with you? You liked sin, and He didn’t! Christians realize we have plenty of affinity with everyone—we’re all made in God’s image, we’re all sinful, and we all need the love of Christ.

You have a great opportunity to do this by volunteering in a different part of this city, or by befriending an international student or immigrant, or by reaching out through a ministry like Renegade. Or are you relating only to people who are comfortable for you?

“How often do I experience social and cultural discomfort in order to initiate with non-Christians?” That’s a convicting question for me, and preparing for this teaching has convinced me that I need to do better here. How about you?

Motivation for living out the “law of love”

“The law of love” calls us to this kind of life. We deliberately and voluntarily lay down rights and freedoms that are legitimately ours. We choose to live with less monetarily and to initiate social and cultural discomfort so that people far from Christ might have better opportunity to know Him. To embrace this way of life, we need motivation that will sustain us. Paul tells us two things that motivated him.

At the end of this section (11:1), Paul says: “Follow my example just as I follow the example of Christ.” Paul does not mean merely that Jesus is a good moral example. He is this, but He is far more. He means: “Jesus gave up His rights for me.”

He owned the whole universe and had the right to enjoy it. But He laid down His infinite wealth to be born in a stable, to be raised in relative poverty, and to die naked—so that I could be spiritually rich (2Cor.8:9).

He laid down His right to a perfect cultural environment (the Trinity and unfallen angels) to come all the way down into this hell-hole, and to experience hell for me, so that I could be saved from it.

He was within His rights to stay there and let me be condemned—yet the law of love superseded the law of liberty. How can I receive this incredible sacrifice without letting it change the way I relate to those who are still far from God? Maybe you need to let Jesus’ example pierce your heart. Maybe you need to receive Christ.

In 9:23, Paul tells us about something else that motivates him to live this way (read). He doesn’t mean that he will lose his salvation unless he lives this way. He means: “The benefits far outweigh my sacrifices.”

The love that Jesus gives to you He wants to give through you to others who need Him as much as you did. When you refuse to let His love reach its goal, His love for you does not diminish, but your ability to experience and enjoy His love does diminish. But when you follow Him out to the lost people He loves, and when you sacrificially give His love to them, His Spirit fills your soul with His presence and power and joy!

Listen to David Livingstone, a 19th century missionary in Africa, not long before he died of malaria and dysentery: “For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this be only for a moment. All these are nothing when compared to the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”

David Livingstone, quoted in Winter & Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1982), p.259.