What would you change about yourself in order to share the gospel with other people?
Paul answers that question for himself in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To 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. To 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. To 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. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul’s answer is both paradigmatic and problematic.
First, paradigmatic: Before Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:16–20). In Greek, the word for nations is ethne, which refers to people groups, not nation-states.
People groups differ from one another. Their languages differ, as do their religious beliefs, social customs, diets, and worldviews. If you want to communicate the gospel effectively to people, you must take these differences into account.
So, for example, Christian missionaries to Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork, which is not kosher to Jews or halal to Muslims. They don’t consider eating pork to be inherently sinful. Rather, they consider eating pork a stumbling block in the path of Jews and Muslims who are on the way to faith in Jesus Christ. Since faith is more important than food, they sacrifice their freedoms for a greater good.
This personal sacrifice for a greater spiritual good is Paul’s paradigm of missionary behavior.
Second, problematic: Unfortunately, this personal sacrifice can look hypocritical. When Paul communicated the gospel to Jews, he didn’t eat pork. When he communicated the gospel to Gentiles, who loved pork, he sometimes ate pork. Depending on the situation, in other words, he acted like either a Jew or a Gentile, depending on whom he was trying to reach.
The Corinthians criticized Paul for this seemingly hypocritical behavior. They knew two things: (1) food was objectively insignificant so that (2) they had a right to eat whatever they wanted. They lived in a state of freedom.
Paul agreed with this theology. But Paul knew two further things: (3) People are ignorant, and (4) love is more important than knowledge. If we take only (1) and (2) into account, but if we factor in (3) and (4), we will act like Paul.
Paul writes, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” I ask again: What would you change about yourself in order to share the gospel with other people?