Exposition of 1 Corinthians 9:21-23, The best retirement plan of all

1 Corinthians 9:21-23

21 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. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

In verses 21-23, Paul continues to explain his statement I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). The phrase those not having the law (1 Cor. 9:21) is clearly a reference to the Gentiles, who do not live by the Law of Moses or the interpretation of those laws by Judaism.

Even though Paul is a Jew by birth, he has already said, I myself am not under the law (1 Cor. 9:20). While discussing his approach to the Gentiles, Paul adds to his previous statement by saying, I am not free from Gods law but am under Christs law (1 Cor. 9:21). David Garland helps us see this change in Paul as a matter of identity when he says: [Paul] is speaking theologically about living under grace. Previously, his self-understanding as a Jew was bound up with his obedience to the law (cf. Phil. 3:6); now it is bound up with his relationship to Christ (Phil. 3:7-11).[1]

Gordon Fee adds some new elements when he says, For Paul the language being under (or keeping) the law has to do with being Jewish in a national-cultural-religious sense; but as a new man in Christ he also expects the Spirit to empower him (as well as all of Gods new people) to live out the ethics of the new age.[2] For another glimpse of the phrase the law of Christ, Paul says in Galatians, Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). We who follow Jesus are to obey the law of Christ. As to what that means, we can look at what the apostles understood Jesus to mean as recorded in the New Testament.

In regard to the identity of the weak, we must exercise due diligence. In 1 Cor. 8:7-10, the phrase the weak refers to believers who are overly conscientious or believers who feel insecure about the exercise of their freedom in Christ. In the context of chapter 8, Paul identifies the weak as believers in 1 Cor. 8:12. However, in chapter 9, Paul seeks to save those he describes as the weak, and that means they are unbelievers. Anthony Thiselton describes the weak in chapter 9 by saying, In this context the weak may mean those whose options for life and conduct were severely restricted because of their dependence on the wishes of patrons, employers, or slave owners (emphasis his).[3] Garland agrees by saying, The weak in this verse represent non-Christians whom he seeks to win for the Lord.[4]

The second half of verse 22 is famous and widely quoted. What did Paul originally mean by it? Garland says that he is explaining how in his apostleship the principle of [self-denial] — in short, the principle of the cross — operates in his own experience.[5] Paul could have lived in one of the finest houses in Corinth, could have been revered as one its greatest orators, and could have enjoyed its finest banquets — although held in idol temples — every night of the week. All this he could have done while being financially supported by the Corinthian believers. But, for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23), he made sure that even the weak were not left out by working among them as a man of the cross.

Given the choice between pleasure and profit now in the ranks of the upwardly mobile Corinthians or honor and glory later with Christ in the age to come, Paul chose to share in the blessings of the gospel. He shows us the path we must choose to take.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 431.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 430.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 705.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 434.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 435, quoting D.A. Carson.

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