2020-9-13 For the Sake of the Gospel

For the Sake of the Gospel
1 Corinthians 9:19-27
September 13, 2020

Prayer for Illumination:

I am the chief of sinners. May this humble sinner present your gospel, O Lord, and may you be pleased to use my words to call those whom you have elected to faith and build up those whom you have already called to faith. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sigh, O Lord our God. Amen.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.[1]

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Many of us in this room would consider ourselves evangelical. The word evangelical carries with it certain connotations. For many it simply means conservative theology, morality, and politics. That is how many in our country define evangelical. For others, evangelical means having had a spiritual experience, a “come to Jesus moment”. Evangelical really just means someone who believes the evangel; someone who believes the good news that in Christ Jesus we are redeemed from our sin.

And as people who believe the good news, we want to tell others about this redemption in Christ. One of the passages that guides us in sharing the gospel is Matthew 28. These verses take place 40 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He tells his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus tells us to share the good news of the redemption found in him and make disciples. So we go and share the gospel; we evangelize.

While many of us want to share the good news, we often struggle with how to do that. We don’t know what words we should use or when we should talk about Jesus. We struggle with how we should share the gospel with our friends, our family, and our neighbors.

The Apostle Paul was one of the greatest evangelists the Church had ever known. He ministered for probably about ten years in his native Tarsus after his conversion on the road to Damascus. Then he ministered in Antioch with Barnabas for several years before setting out on his missionary journeys. This passage here in 1 Corinthians 9 gives us Paul’s philosophy of ministry. Here Paul tells us how he evangelizes and how he disciples young and immature Christians. He also tells us of the discipline it takes to do this.

Evangelism and Discipleship

Evangelism

Paul begins this section of the letter by saying, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them”. Paul reminds the Corinthians that he has let love guide how he uses his freedom in Christ. Remember, back in chapter 8 Paul made clear that in Christ there is a freedom that allows us to do anything that is no sin. But he also told us that we can misuse our freedom when we insist that someone violate their conscience. And that the proper way for us to use our freedom is to let Christian love guide how we use our freedom. We said that we should be willing to bend our freedom when with a weaker brother so as not to cause them to stumble in their faith. We bend our freedom while we build them up.

Paul bends his freedom in that he makes himself a servant of all people so that he might win some to the Christ. He is free to eat meat that had been sacrificed at a pagan temple but he was also willing to bend that freedom if it would cause someone to question the gospel that he was proclaiming.

20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.

Paul’s philosophy of ministry was to bend his freedom when ministering. He was willing to fully immerse himself in the culture of those he was evangelizing. Pastor Stephen Um says that Paul “didn’t just understand them; he became one of them. He didn’t just learn about their culture, he became a part of it, and it became a part of him”.[2]

When Paul ministered among the Jews, he kept kosher, he kept the Sabbath; he kept other parts of the Mosaic Law even though he was free from keeping the ceremonial aspects of the Law. He did that so that he would not put a stumbling block before the Jews he was evangelizing.

We often forget that Paul ministered among Jews. We think of him as the Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Eph. 3:1), which he was. God had chosen him to be the instrument through which the gospel would come to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). But he always began his ministry in a new city in the synagogue. He would first begin proclaiming Jesus Christ in the synagogue explaining how the entire Old Testament was preparing believers for the work of Christ in types, shadows, and figures.

While he ministered among the Jews, he kept kosher. He followed the dietary laws to a t while proclaiming Christ to the Jews. He followed the other ceremonial laws such as washing his hands after a going to the market. He kept Sabbath. He did all of these things so as to not put a stumbling block before the Jews so that he might win them to Christ.

When Paul ministered to those outside of the law, Gentiles, he lived like a Gentile; he lived outside of the ceremonial law. He would eat pork and lobster. He wouldn’t worry about whether or not he stringently kept the Sabbath. He didn’t worry if he washed his hands after going to the market. He didn’t worry about the ceremonial law. He did those things to win Gentiles to Christ. He became a part of the culture; he dressed, he spoke, and he ate like a Gentile while he ministered among them.

Now he didn’t abandon the moral law. He says he was not “outside the law of God but subject to the law of Christ”. Charles Hodge writes, “When among the Gentiles he did not conform to the Jewish law; in that sense, he was without law; but he did not act as without law to God, i. e. without regard to the obligation of the moral law; but as under law to Christ, i. e. as recognizing his obligation to obey Christ, whose will is the highest rule of duty. In other words, he was not under the Jewish law; but he was under the moral law. He disregarded the Jewish law that he might gain those without law, i. e. the Gentiles.”[3]

He knew he was free to keep kosher or to not keep kosher. He knew he was free to wear clothes with mixed fibers or to wear clothes made from one type of fiber. But he knew he was not free to sin even if that might help him fit into the gentile culture. He never changed the gospel to fit cultural preferences. He never downplayed sins. He knew if he did that then the gospel he was preaching, may become popular but it wouldn’t be the gospel of Christ Jesus.

When we evangelize, we need to know the culture in which we are ministering in. We need to know the foods, the language, and the customs. We bend our freedom in conforming to cultural views on food, language, and customs when we share the gospel with people.

Ask Bill and Fern. For thirty years they ministered in the western Amazon in Brazil. They learned the language, they ate the food, they engaged in the local culture. They did those things so that they would not put a stumbling block before the Brazilians as they proclaimed Christ. They knew that by making themselves servants, they could minister more effectively. They knew that by bending their freedom in regards to non-essential things, they could share the gospel without offense.

The same is true for us when we evangelize our friends, our family, and our neighbors. We need to know the culture of Murphy, North Carolina. We need to know the local food and what makes it different from Memphis or Boston. Barbecue here in the mountains is different from barbecue along the coast and it’s something entirely foreign to barbecue from Memphis or Dallas. Do we know the local food and eat at the local restaurants? Do we know the local culture? Do we engage in cultural activities that don’t violate Scripture? For us to be effective witnesses in our community we need to know the community and we need to engage in it.

If we want to share the gospel with our friends, family, and neighbors we need to engage with them. We need to know them relationally. We need to eat the food they eat; engage in their cultural activities. As we do that, we’ll build relationships with people. If we enter into relationship with them, we are afforded the opportunity to share the gospel with that person. They will be more willing to hear the gospel from us because they will know that we know them and that we care for them.

If we fail to engage in the culture, then people will just assume we are trying to get people into our tribe. They will reject us out right because it will come across as us not caring for them. Evangelism boils down to two points, relational and redemptive. Before we can share the gospel with someone, before we can see someone be redeemed, we need to start with the relational. We need to know them and their culture. We need to bend our freedom so that we become one of them; we need to bend our freedom so that we become a part of the culture.

As we engage in the culture, we need to be careful not to avoid parts of the gospel that our culture might not like. We cannot change the gospel so that it becomes more palatable to our culture in hopes that more people will come in. If we do that, we preach a different gospel than Christ crucified; we preach something other than the Christian faith.

Discipleship

The Apostle Paul continues saying, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

As we saw a few weeks ago, the weak are Christians who have a weak conscience in regards to certain freedoms in Christ. Paul does the same thing with the weak that he does when he is evangelizing, he bends his freedom to them. He willingly gives up some of his freedom so as to not cause someone to question the gospel. In this case, this is someone who already is a Christian. But they’re young in the faith; they’re immature. What Paul is doing is discipling.

Sometimes we think that discipleship bears very little relationship with evangelism. We think of evangelism as telling people about the redemptive work of Christ and discipleship as something different. The truth is that evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin.

Paul bends his freedom so as to not put a stumbling block before weak Christians in order to win them to Christ. He becomes weak for their sake so that he can continue to build them up in the faith. He bends his freedom so that he can help weak Christians become mature.

Discipleship is evangelism but with someone who professes Christ as lord. Effective discipleship is relational, meaning we know the people we are discipling. It means that we know their likes and dislikes, the areas where God has given them gifts and areas where sin has damaged them. As we know them, we can help them know the gospel more deeply and see them conform to the image and likeness of Christ. Discipleship is the other side of the coin to evangelism.

That is why our discipleship efforts here at Murphy Presbyterian Church are tied to bible studies. We believe that to effectively disciple someone means that we know people and we take them deeper into the bible. We believe that to really build someone up in the faith that we need to help them know the bible, to see how all of it either prepares us for the work of Christ or flows from the work of Christ, and how that changes our lives. Effective discipleship is taking believers deeper into the gospel, which is what we do when we evangelize someone. Discipleship is the other side of the coin to evangelism.

The Discipline Required to Evangelize and Disciple

If you hear this and think that it seems hard, you’re right. Evangelism and discipleship require discipline. That’s what Paul says in verses 24-27. He says:

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Paul uses an illustration that the Corinthians would have immediately understood. The Olympic Games were held every four years just north of Corinth while every other year the Isthmian Games were held in Corinth. Those who competed in either of those sporting events trained for months on end, molding their body to the task. They would live temperately and not engage in certain activities. It took serious discipline to compete in the games.

Some of us here played sports in high school, football, basketball, or track. Think back to those days. Preparing for that game required serious discipline. You discipline your body by lifting weights, running drills, and going over plays. You discipline your mind by studying game film, going over your mistakes, and taking training seriously. It takes discipline to compete even at the high school level.

Paul’s point is that Christians are to go about the business of the kingdom of God with the same deliberation as that of a runner preparing for a race… To be a faithful preacher of the gospel as well as a Christian seeking to persevere to the end in faith, requires the same determined attitude as that of someone preparing for a race.”[4]

As we evangelize our friends, family, and neighbors it will require discipline. It will require discipline to know them, to know their hobbies, their food; it will require discipline to be in relationship with them. It requires discipline to know when we should speak out against someone’s sin to show them their need for a savior before taking them to the good news that Christ died in the place of sinners. Evangelism is hard work. And it requires discipline. The same is true for discipleship. If we want to engage in our community to share the gospel, we need to be as disciplined as an athlete training for the Olympic Games.

It will require discipline in that not everyone we share the gospel with will come to faith. Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” He knew that not every person he evangelized would respond in faith. He knew that not everyone he discipled would persevere in the faith; he knew there would be false professions. And it is not easy evangelizing and seeing no fruit. It is not easy discipling and seeing little growth. That can be heart wrenching and depressing.

We will need discipline to continue to share the gospel and to disciple people when it seems as though we labor in vain. We will need discipline to continue to scatter the seed especially when the ground is hard and few seeds germinate. We will need discipline to continue to prune and pare the crop we see so that the fruit is healthier. And that isn’t always easy. But I can guarantee that if we are disciplined in evangelism and discipleship, we will see fruit and share in the blessings of it.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Co 9:19–27). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] Stephen Um, 1 Corinthians (Illinois, Crossway, 2015), 172.

[3] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York; Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), 1655.

[4] Kim Riddlebarger, First Corinthians (Georgia; Telle Lege, 2013), 223-224.