Q: Would you please explain 1 Corinthians 9:20-21?
A: 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 is one of those Scriptures that has been used by some for the support of their false claim that Paul no longer taught obedience to God’s law. This is, however, not at all what Paul was saying here.
Let us read, in context, the entire passage of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
“(Verse 19) For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; (verse 20) 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; (verse 21) 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; (verse 22) 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. (verse 23) Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”
In a recent “theological” article, the following “explanation” of this passage was conveyed to the readership:
“Paul acted like something he was not. Some people might call that hypocritical or deceptive; Paul calls it part of his evangelistic strategy… For someone to act like a Gentile, they would eat foods that Jews could not, and they would not observe the Sabbath… When Paul was with Jews, he kept the old covenant food laws and weekly and annual Sabbaths. When he was with the Gentiles, he did not. He sometimes acted differently from what he believed.”
Is this “explanation” correct? Was Paul a hypocrite? Did he fail to keep the Sabbath or the Holy Days, when in the presence of Gentiles, so as not to offend them? Did he teach the Gentiles that they did not have to keep the Sabbath, the annual Holy Days, and the dietary laws?
Of course not. The idea that Paul acted as a hypocrite — that he lied and deceived — that he had double standards, and that he refused to keep God’s law and taught others they did not have to keep it, is highly offensive and unscriptural.
Paul recognized the ongoing validity of God’s Law (especially the Ten Commandments, which includes the command to keep the Sabbath holy). Our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound…”, explains in detail that the Sabbath, the Annual Holy Days, and God’s dietary laws are still binding. They are not “old covenant laws,” — in fact, to call them such reveals total ignorance as to what a covenant is. A covenant is a contract, which is based on law — it does not bring law into existence. When a covenant becomes obsolete, this does not affect the laws on which the covenant is based. To term certain laws “old covenant laws” is just an idle and futile attempt to somehow make those laws obsolete.
We should note that Paul kept the Sabbath and the Holy Days, when in the presence of Gentiles. In fact, as our booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound…” points out, Paul even COMMANDED the Gentiles to keep the Sabbath, the Holy Days, and the dietary laws.
What, then, did Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21?
The New Testament makes clear that certain SACRIFICIAL laws are no longer binding today. Paul calls them “a tutor” in Galatians 3:24. This ritual law, which is referred to as a “LAW,” “was added because of transgression” (Galatians 3:19). Sin is the transgression of the Law (1 John 3:4), the Ten Commandments (James 2:8-12). We see, then, that the Ten Commandments — the “LAW” — had to be in effect BEFORE the sacrificial law system was added — as it was added BECAUSE OF transgression. The sacrificial system with its ritualistic rules is no longer necessary to be kept — at the same time, it would NOT be SINFUL to keep it, while in the presence of Jews. Therefore, when Paul was with Jews, he would not offend them by refusing to keep their customs. He would not keep those customs, of course, when he was with Gentiles, as these customs or ritualistic laws are no longer binding. Paul DID make clear, however, that he DID teach and keep the spiritual LAW of God (Romans 7:14) that IS still binding, including ALL of the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:17-19).
Notice how the “Nelson Study Bible” explains 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
“Paul put his ministry of the gospel above his personal desires. He was willing to conform to the customs of other people, whether Jew or Gentile, in order to bring them to Christ. For example, in order to relate to the Jews in Jerusalem he made a Nazarite vow in the temple (Acts 21:23, 24). Around those who were under the Law — the Jews — Paul obeyed the Law. Around those who were outside the Law — the Gentiles — Paul did not observe JEWISH CUSTOM. Paul clarified this, however, lest anyone misunderstand his actions. He obeyed GOD’S LAW through obedience toward Christ.”
The New Bible Commentary concurs, referring to the ritualistic sacrificial law as the “Mosaic” law:
“Paul has surrendered more than his right to personal subsistence. Though he is free from all men, i.e. in no sense bound by the standards or fashions of others, he is prepared to make himself a slave to all, and conform to their standards or fashions, providing no real principle is at stake, in order to win as many as possible… So when among Jews he acts as a Jew, conforming to their customs under the Mosaic law (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:26), though as a Christian he himself is no longer obliged to keep that law (cf. Gal. 2:11-21). Similarly he is ready to identify himself with those who are not bound by the Jewish law, i.e. Gentiles; though he adds an important proviso. Gentiles not only disregard the Mosaic law [our comment: that part of the law of Moses that is ritual and no longer binding], but may also refuse to recognize any divine commandments [our comment: the Ten Commandments with its statutes and judgments — including the Sabbath, the annual Holy Days, and the dietary and tithing laws].”
Paul never taught others to sin, and he was careful that he did not sin, either. He would have never disobeyed God by breaking His law, only to “win” the Gentiles. He was NOT without God’s law, although he did no longer preach as binding and mandatory physical circumcision or other sacrificial rituals, as those — temporary — laws had been abolished by God in the New Testament. At the same time, he did not offend his Jewish audience by violating their customs and traditions, as long as he could keep them without sinning against God.
Finally, although he was not “under the law,” he became as one “under the law,” so that he might win those under the law. As we explain in our booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound…” the term “under the law” refers to its penalty. When we sin, the penalty of sin — death — is hanging over us like the sword of Damocles. Through the sacrifice of Christ, our repentance and our belief in and acceptance of His sacrifice, we can have forgiveness of our sins, that is, we won’t have to die anymore. The death penalty is no longer hanging over our heads. In order to win those who had not yet accepted Christ’s sacrifice, Paul became as one of them. He showed them compassion and sympathy, rather than condemning and offending them. He became as one under the penalty of the law, as he understood what it was like to live in sin, being cut off and separated from God.
Paul never taught that any of God’s abiding laws could be broken. He taught, “It is the duty of the people of God to keep the Sabbath” (Hebrews 4:9; Lamsa translation). Those who want to REFUSE to keep God’s spiritual law, including the weekly and annual Sabbaths, twist certain Scriptures and invent arguments to justify their sinful conduct. They do this, however, “to their own destruction” (compare 2 Peter 3:14-16).
For more information about the ongoing duty of a true Christian to keep God’s weekly and annual Sabbaths, please read our free booklet, “God’s Commanded Holy Days.”