A Pattern of Self-Denial

Last week, I critiqued an evangelist’s misunderstanding of Philippians 1:18 as permission to use rock music, skate boards, and BMX bike tricks to draw a crowd in to hear the gospel. As mentioned in that article, that was not Paul’s intention in writing those words. In this article, I would like us to look at another Scripture passage that has been misunderstood: 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

Paul had been speaking about setting aside his rights for the sake of others. In chapter eight, he addressed the problem of eating meat offered to idols. Although he knew that the meat was no different than any other, he realized that someone with a background in idolatry might be be tempted to sin by seeing him eat the meat. So, with an attitude of love, Paul willingly set aside his freedom for the sake of a weaker brother.

In the ninth chapter, Paul wrote about finances. As a minister, he had the right to be supported by the congregation. He pointed out the fact that he was an apostle who could demand remuneration for his work in the ministry (Deut. 15:4). But he did not demand his rights in this situation because he was more concerned for the gospel than he was for his finances.

“Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.”

So, with food and finances, Paul was unwilling to allow his freedom and rights to interfere with the work of the gospel. Having set the pattern for self-denial, Paul continued the thought by revealing his self-denial in working with people. Paul was more concerned with the needs of others than his own. When he met someone from a different background, he willingly set aside his rights to minister to their spiritual needs. Their needs were more important than the rights he had as a Christian (19) and as a preacher of the gospel (23). To make the idea more clear, he gives several examples of how this plays out in real life.

He was willing to act like a Jew to reach the Jewish people.

In each of these situations, it would require Paul to act differently than Christian freedom would allow him to act. In his desire to reach the Jewish people, he was willing to submit himself to certain Jewish rituals in order to win those people to Christ. Several example are found in the book of Acts. In Acts 16:3, Paul had Timothy circumcised because of the Jews who knew that Timothy’s father was a Greek. Instead of being unnecessarily offensive, he convinced Timothy to go through with this practice. Did it provide any spiritual benefit for Timothy? No, but it took away an unnecessary offense and allowed them to preach the gospel to those people.

In Acts 21:20-26, the leadership of the church at Jerusalem asked Paul to take part in a purification ceremony so as not to offend certain Jewish zealots. Paul agreed to do that for the sake of those people. He wasn’t changing his view about the Law, but was showing his desire to set aside his freedom for the sake of others. He ended up in prison for several years because of it, but was not discouraged by it (Phil. 1:12-14). Some argue whether this was a good decision on the part of Paul because of what happened. But it is clear that he was willing to give up his freedom for the sake of reaching the Jewish people who were still under the law.

He was willing to set aside the ceremonial law to reach the Gentiles.

Paul was willing to set aside ceremonial laws for the sake of reaching the Gentiles. For example, there are certain laws which prohibit the eating of pork. But the Lord had revealed to Peter that things had changed (Acts 10:9-16). Paul came to the conclusion that eating or not eating meat was not the key issue. God did not judge a man on what he chose to eat (Acts 8:8). So, Paul was willing to eat pork when visiting the home of a Gentile.

But Paul is quick to note that he is not promoting lawlessness. He was still under law to Christ. In other words, he would still obey the Ten Commandments. Christ had not abolished the moral law by his death on the cross. Just look at his teachings. When people were speaking about the evils of murder and adultery, he stated that hatred and lust were just as bad. I think this is the way Paul was thinking. He was not throwing out all law. He was just setting aside certain laws that were meant for the Jewish community.

He was willing to submit himself to a weaker brother’s conscience.

Next, Paul spoke about believers with a weak conscience (see Bible Knowledge Commentary 524). Within the Corinthian church, there were people who because of their upbringing or experience in life, had greater difficulty with certain freedoms (i.e. eating meat offered to idols). Because of their weak conscience, they were unable to take part in activities which Paul could. So, when Paul was reaching out to these people, he went out of his way so as not to offend them and limit his opportunity to minister to them. In this case, his goal was not their salvation but their growth in Christ.


Paul summarizes his practice toward all people with the following statement: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you” (9:22a-23). To him, others were more important than his own freedom. He was unwilling to let his “rights” interfere with his ability to minister to others. This is the way all Christians should act. Our love for others should be seen in our practice of self-denial.

Our society is a bit different than that of Paul. But westill need to be careful that our rights don’t get in the way. Would you be willing to grow a beard if being clean shaven was a hindrance to reaching the Amish with the gospel? Would you be willing to eat a Kosher meal in order to reach a Jewish person? Yes, you would be willing to forego your own rights because you love those people. But would you be willing to dress immodestly to reach those at the beach? Or would you be willing to sport a rebellious attitude to reach the rebellious. No, those actions would be contrary to principles laid out in the Scriptures.

So, as we consider the pattern of self-denial set before us in this passage, we are faced with a decision. In our desire to win some to Christ, are we willing to be godly and gracious? While we may have freedom in certain areas, are we willing to set aside our freedom for the sake of others? If we are, our self-denial may open a door for presenting the gospel or to help a brother grow to be more like Christ.

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