Paul founded the church in Corinth in around the year AD 50. He lived there working and preaching for a year and a half. As was Paul’s custom, he would travel to a city, preach in the synagogue first, and then preach to the Gentiles. Once he moved on from the city, he would typically write letters back to that congregation instructing them, admonishing them, and exhorting them to continue in their faith. And so it was with the letters Paul wrote back to the church at Corinth. Paul had spent a year and half building a church in the middle of the sin city of Corinth. Idolatry and sexual immorality was rampant, to the point that being known as a “Corinthian girl” was akin to saying a “woman of the evening.” Corinth was a coastal, commercial city with a constant flow of sailors, traders, and merchants. It was the main center for worshiping the goddess Aphrodite and her shrine was just outside the city at the highest point, and the city square was filled with statues to many other Greek gods. At the time of these letters to Corinth, Paul was in Ephesus. People from Corinth had brought him disheartening news about some serious division within the church he had planted in Corinth. They were arguing over who had been baptized by whom, who had the better preaching, and who had the better spiritual gifts. They were even suing each other in court over petty disputes. Even worse, they were tolerating some pretty abhorrent sin, sin that Paul said even the heathens wouldn’t tolerate. Not a good way to show the world what Christian brotherhood was all about.
So in his letter of 1 Corinthians, Paul spent the first few chapters encouraging them in their faith and answering some questions the congregation had for him. In chapter 9, Paul begins discussing his rights as an apostle. As an apostle to them, Paul said he had every right to accept donations, food, and shelter from the people while he was there in Corinth. Yet he chose not to. He said he was joyous to do that work without getting paid for it. It enabled him to freely present the gospel without money being a hindrance or a reason for others to question his authority or his motives. He had the right to receive money, but he set aside his right to be supported by the church congregation so he could be a servant to the Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says that he had become like all types of people to spread the word of God. What did he mean by that? Does that mean he did EVERYTHING everyone else did? No, it meant that within the limits of God’s Word and without grieving the Holy Spirit, Paul would be culturally and socially Jewish among Jews and likewise among Gentiles. He wasn’t bound by Jewish legalism but identified with the Jewish customs in a respectful manner. He says to win the “weak” he became as the weak. He made the Gospel clear at the lower level of comprehension when necessary for those people. But then to reach the “enlightened” intellectuals, he spoke to them in that manner (such as at the Areopagus in Athens). So within the bounds of God’s word he would not offend the Jew or the Gentile, the weak or the strong. He wouldn’t change or compromise the Scripture or truth, but he would bend on the unimportant matters to help others find salvation.
Was that a weakness or a strength of character? He was uncompromising in truth but showed that the Gospel message is for all. Paul showed truth in love – a truthful, loving presentation of the Gospel so people would be open to hear and not immediately be defensive. This wasn’t about Paul just doing a bunch of stuff the world does. It was also about refraining from things too. Paul had just spoken on the rights he forfeited for the sakes of others – for not taking pay that he rightfully could have claimed. He had just addressed the issue of refraining from eating certain meat if it was offensive to a weaker brother in Christ. And it takes more strength to resist things you feel you have a right to than to indulge. And Paul did this all for the sake of leading others to salvation.
Christ set the example of this.
Philippians 2:5-7 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Jesus gave up His right as being God to come down as a man so that we could have salvation. What rights are you willing to forfeit so another can gain salvation?
Paul continues this point in verses 24-27 and makes the analogy of running a race. Paul runs this race not with uncertainty for he KNOWS the goal he is after – salvation for others. He’s not just running without knowing where he’s headed. He understands the ultimate point of the race. And we should too. We shouldn’t be content to just run the race of life but do so with the goal to win others to Christ.
To run any race, it requires discipline. Everyone who competes for the prize is “temperate” in all things. It means having self-control. So we must discipline ourselves to be able to achieve the goal. Paul says he “disciplines his body” and brings it “into submission.” Why? So he won’t be disqualified.
In the race analogy, being disqualified would mean you have not met the minimum requirements and you can no longer compete. Therefore, you no longer have the chance to win. What are we in this analogy trying to win though? Salvation for others. While Paul was becoming all things to all people for the end goal of salvation for others, he also disciplined his own body. Discipline here comes from a term that literally means to hit under the eye. He knocked out the bodily impulses to keep them from disqualifying him on his mission of winning souls to Christ.
Think about how a lack of personal discipline would have affected his ministry there in Corinth among their sinful lifestyle. What is Paul, in trying to “be like the Gentiles,” had himself a Corinthian woman? He would not have been in self-control and his message about sexual purity would have been disqualified. His message about not being unequally yoked would have been discounted. If he had been criticizing the other apostles or gossiping about those with less teaching ability, he would have disqualified his message about unity in Christ.
If that were true for Paul’s preaching the message of Christ, then it is true for our lives as well. What things do we do that may disqualify our message? How would discipline enhance your effectiveness for God? What kind of discipline or training is needed anyway?
1 Timothy 4:7-8 But reject profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.
Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
We must daily train. Stay focused. Be intentional with what we do or say. Guard what you “feed” yourself, your minds and your hearts. If athletes can train 7 to 10 hours a day for a fleeting, perishable wreath crown, how much more should we train for that imperishable crown and God’s kingdom work?
Our pastor gave a very thought provoking sermon this week from Philippians that got me thinking (you can listen to the sermon here). In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul is essentially posing the question: where do we place our confidence? He starts this passage with some pretty harsh words – “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!” That’s a pretty abrupt way to begin discussing something. But that is how serious and how detrimental Paul considers those that preach false doctrine to be. So what false doctrine were they preaching? They were boasting in the flesh. They were placing their confidence in what they could do themselves, how well they could follow the rules and obey the law. Paul takes all the words that the Judaizers (those still wanting to rely on following the Jewish laws for salvation) would hold dear when describing themselves and turns it on its head. He calls them “dogs,” where they considered themselves above the “dogs,” a term they reserved for Gentiles. He called them evil workers, where they thought their deeds made them so righteous. And he referred to their mutilation, where their circumcision was in the flesh only and not of their heart in the spiritual sense. The Judaizers were placing their confidence in their fleshly works as Jews, obeying the law, under circumcision.
But Paul says that’s not what it’s about. And he would know. In the flesh, Paul could have outdone all of these men. And he lists all the ways that he does. He says that he was of the finest stock of the nation of Israel, born into the tribe of Benjamin, one of the elite tribes from the second beloved son of Rachel. He was training to be a Pharisee under the most respected and elite Pharisees. His works showed his zealous fervor for promoting Judaism as he was persecuting those following Christ. And he was blameless according to the law. So Paul had three main places from where he could boast in the flesh:
Of course we understand all that when we read it in the Scripture’s context. The battle he was fighting was against the idea of Judaism and works-based salvation being a false doctrine infiltrating the churches. He was pointing out things like tribes of Israel and circumcision and Levitical law. But what if we put this in a modern day context? What are we placing our confidence in? Is it in the flesh or in the power of Christ? Are you bragging in the flesh on:
But just like Paul said, those things don’t save us. Though some of those things may seem good and harmless, they are rubbish when compared to Christ’s work on the cross. Having a good and steady job doesn’t save you. Having a nice and lovely family doesn’t save you. Being a law abiding citizen doesn’t save you. Settling down in a good neighborhood doesn’t save you. Abstaining from the worldly activities doesn't save you. Hanging out at church doesn’t save you. Being baptized doesn’t save you. Having only morally upright friends doesn’t save you. Those are all like rubbish. Those do not make us righteous – those do not make us have a right standing before God.
Besides, what happens when those things are gone? What happens when you lose your job, your family falls apart, and your nice house is in disarray? What happens when those morally upright friends betray you? Because that’s what happens with fleshly things. They change; they fall apart; they decay. Paul said he lost all those fleshly things to gain Christ and indeed he did. He abandoned his profession as a Pharisee. He turned away from the family name. He embraced the Gentiles. But he did it all for the knowledge of Christ. He knew those fleshly things weren’t worth anything anyway, and for that reason he was willing to part with them to gain the knowledge and righteousness from Christ. We cannot achieve righteousness on our own. Nothing in this world can amount to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
So where is your confidence? Is it in the things of the flesh or the righteousness of Christ?