Jim had a passion for God, a love for people, and a burden to communicate the gospel. But he wrestled with the question of how to bring the message of Christ into a setting that seemed so far from him. How could he help people see and embrace the truth when they had so little biblical understanding? The barriers seemed insurmountable. The task appeared virtually impossible.
Even with all the obstacles in front of him, Jim knew he had to try. God had given him a vision to make a difference in the lives of these men and women. So try he did! In fact, he went to great lengths to relate to their culture—lengths that would probably make you or me feel very uncomfortable. Following the example of the apostle Paul, he took bold risks to “become all things to all men….for the sake of the gospel.”
What kind of risks? For starters, he shaved his head right down to the skin—that is, except for the patch of hair he grew long. Not only that, he began wearing it in a pigtail and even dyed it a different color, all in an effort to fit in with the fashions of the people he wanted to reach! He also gave up his familiar business attire and began to dress like them. He even changed his eating patterns and started to dine in the style of the ones he cared so much about. Further, he worked hard to learn their vocabulary, in the hopes that he would be able to effectively convey biblical teachings in their everyday street language. He read their papers, studied their ideas, and went out of his way to discover and build on whatever areas of common ground he had with them.
Jim didn’t do this all from a distance. No, he actually moved into the neighborhood with these people. He lived close to them, became their friend, and spent extended periods of time talking with them, getting to know them, playing with their children—all of this in spite of their non-Christian lifestyles and, in almost every case, their outright rejection of his message.
What did other church leaders think of all of this? Did they celebrate Jim’s tenacious commitment to reaching these unsaved people? Did they rally around him and support his courageous efforts? Did they uphold him in prayer and find ways to encourage him and spur him on in his bold evangelistic pursuits?
Not even close!
On the contrary, they mostly misunderstood, misrepresented, and even openly maligned him. The very people who should have supported and helped him turned their backs on him and his ministry. In many ways he had to continue his efforts by himself, with the backing of just a few close friends who shared his vision.
Jim—or as he’s more widely known, James Hudson Taylor—is the man who more than a century ago gave up everything to build a ministry called China Inland Mission. More than anyone else, he is credited with turning so many in that nation to faith in Christ. And today he is regarded widely as one of the greatest pioneers of the modern missions movement (adapted from (Mark Mittelberg, Building a Contagious Church, pp. 32-33)
Today’s message is about evangelism and how we need to be flexible when we evangelize, like the apostle Paul and J. Hudson Taylor. First, let’s take a closer look at the word “evangelism.” The prefix “ev” means “good,” and the word “angel” means “messenger.” So the word literally means “good-message-izing.” In other words, “evangelism” is sharing good news. What is the good news (or the “gospel,” as we often call it) we have to share? In this passage Paul says that the message he wants people to hear is that they can be saved. He states, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (v. 22b). We often talk about “being saved” and wanting others to “be saved.” But what does salvation mean? Biblical salvation involves being saved from something and being saved for something.
First, what does God save us from? First Thessalonians 1:10 says that Jesus “rescues (or “saves”) us from the coming wrath.”
Second, what does God save us for? John 3:36 states, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
Like Paul, our goal should be to save as many people as possible from the wrath of God and win them for eternal life.
In this passage Paul shares his method of evangelism. He example gives us THREE GUIDELINES FOR EFFECTIVE EVANGELISM.
I. WE MUST VALUE WINNING OTHERS FOR CHRIST MORE THAN PLEASING OURSELVES (v. 19).
Paul writes in verse 19, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Here Paul gets back to the question he raised in verse 1: “Am I not free?” In the previous verse (8:13) Paul said, “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” The issue in chapter 8 was whether or not the Corinthians should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. In chapter 10 Paul will say that they should not eat in the temples, but they are free to eat this meat in their homes. However, as Paul makes clear throughout chapters 8-10, the most important thing is not our freedom or rights, but the wellbeing of our fellow believers. Paul knew he was free to eat meat, but he would refrain if it might cause another Christian to stumble. Though Paul was “free,” he chose to make himself a “slave to everyone.” Why? Paul’s life’s goal is not to be free (not to insist on his rights; not to do what pleases him), but “to win as many as possible.” What is your life’s goal?
Here we have another example of Paul imitating Christ. As Jesus and the disciples were eating the last supper, the disciples were arguing about “which of them was considered to be greatest.” Here is what Jesus said: “The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:26b-27).
When we observe the Lord’s Supper later this morning, we will remember how Christ gave up His “rights” (He didn’t deserve to be crucified). But He chose to die so that we could be saved. And Paul says here that he is willing to give up his “rights” (like eating meat or accepting financial support). He will give up those rights if they interfere with people hearing about what Christ has done for them.
II. WE MUST BE WILLING TO BE FLEXIBLE IF WE WANT PEOPLE TO BE SAVED (vv. 20-22).
In verse 20 Paul writes, “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.” I believe that “the Jews” and “those under the law” refer to the same people. Paul is a Jew. How can a Jew determine to “become like a Jew? Isn’t he already a Jew? There were certain Jewish religious practices (such as food laws and special observances) that Paul as a Christian had long ago given up. He no longer sees these things as essential to a right relationship with God.
Let’s say Paul invited some of his Jewish friends over to his place for dinner. He wouldn’t serve them roast pork. If Paul offended them by serving them something they felt was wrong to eat, they probably would not listen to him when he got around to sharing the gospel. Paul realizes that there is nothing wrong with following the law as long as one’s confidence is not in the law as a way of salvation.
Next, Paul says in verse 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.” When Paul spends time with Gentiles, his behavior is much different. But he doesn’t want the Corinthians to think that he lives a lawless lifestyle. Paul would never have said “to the thief I became like a thief,” or “to the adulterer I became an adulterer.” And he would never have stopped practicing those virtues that are always right. So one thing is clear: we cannot apply Paul’s strategy of “all things to all people” to issues of fundamental morality or immorality. Paul is not infinitely flexible; there are some areas in which we must be as rigid as steel. There must be a balance between legalism and lawlessness.
For Paul there is a difference between being “under the law” and being “under Christ’s law.” Paul, “under Christ’s law,” obeys God’s commands because he loves God; the Jews, “under the law,” obey God’s commands because they are trying to gain righteousness (a right standing before God). Christ’s law is the law of love. God promised in the days of the old covenant, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
In verse 22 Paul writes, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.” Earlier in this letter Paul said that he had come to Corinth “in weakness and fear” (2:3). He also stated that he works hard with his own hands (4:12) and doesn’t accept financial support from the Corinthians or other churches. It seems that the majority of the Corinthians were weak (or, in other words, poor). Paul wrote in 1:26, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Since Paul was “weak,” he was able to connect with many of the “weak” Corinthians.
Finally, Paul sums up his approach to evangelism by saying, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (v. 22b). He is willing to adapt his lifestyle in order to increase the likelihood that people become saved, whether they are Jews, Gentiles, the weak, or some other group of people.
One word of caution: nowhere does Paul say that he changes his message (which is offensive to many) to avoid offending anyone. Our main concern should not be whether or not we offend people; our main concern should be that the gospel is heard. The gospel cannot be heard if it is changed.
III. WE MUST NOT SEE EVANGELISM AS AN OPTIONAL DUTY OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE (v. 23).
Paul certainly doesn’t see evangelism as an option. He sees it as something he must do. He says in verse 23, “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul is saying, “If I don’t have a genuine concern for the unsaved, my faith is false.” Our purpose statement says that our “mission in the world” is evangelism.
Three Guidelines for Effective Evangelism:
1. We must be value winning others more than pleasing ourselves.
2. We must be willing to be flexible if we want people to be saved.
3. We must not see evangelism as an optional duty of the Christian life.
It seems that Paul spent a lot of time with the unsaved. Maybe you need to spend more time with non-Christians? Many Christians barely know any non-Christians. We can’t effectively share our faith with non-Christians if we don’t know any. (This is one reason why I have tried to limit the amount of weekly church meetings and events.)
In light of this passage, it is hard to justify the common patterns of evangelism by formula: using identical tracts, sets of questions, or prepackaged approaches on everyone with whom we want to share Christ. Paul’s model is far more closer to what is often called “friendship evangelism”—coming along side and getting to know unbelievers (without seeing them only as potential objects of conversion).
Obviously Paul was extremely concerned about the destiny of those without Christ (as every Christian should be). Maybe you have not received the salvation that God offers. We all know about the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast states. The day before the storm hit land, people in that region were told to evacuate. But many chose to ignore the warnings (though we can’t blame those who didn’t have the means to get out). Sadly, some of those people died. The Bible warns us that the wrath of God is coming and urges us to receive salvation from Christ. Don’t ignore the warnings.
Some have found Paul’s approach to Peter at Antioch hopelessly at odds with 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. How can he rebuke Peter so harshly for shrinking back from table fellowship with Gentiles in the presence of Judaizers [legalistic Jews], when here he himself admits that to the Jews he became like a Jew? A little probing, however, discloses the answer fairly quickly. At Antioch, the Judaizers were insisting that the ritual law was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1). Giving in to the scruples at this point would have jeopardized the very foundation of the gospel—salvation by grace rather than works. But in Corinth the people to whom Paul is accommodating himself are neither believers nor individuals promoting works-righteousness. In fact, Paul’s “evangelistic principles”—his desire that as many people be saved as possible—is the unifying motive that accounts for his diametrically opposite behavior in Antioch and Corinth. Here he accommodates himself to Corinthian pagans on morally neutral matters precisely in the hopes that more of them will come to faith in Christ that way (Blomberg, pp. 186-187).
GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT’S DUE
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version.
Blomberg, Craig. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Carson, D. A. The Cross and Christian Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993.
Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Piper, John. “Becoming All Things to All People that We Might Save Some.” A sermon posted on desiringgod.org, 1996.
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