If Jesus were here in the flesh, instead of me, he could step down off this platform, and walk among you, and put his hand on your shoulder, and look you in the eye, and say, “You, follow me, and I will make you a missionary. You, follow me, and I will make you a missionary. You, follow me, and I will make you a missionary.” He could be that specific.
This is what he did with the twelve apostles when he was here in the flesh. There were many faithful followers of Jesus in his lifetime who were not apostles. They were devoted lovers of Jesus. They were ready and willing to leave everything if he asked them to. But he didn’t ask everybody. Most of them stayed in their jobs. Like Zacchaeus, or the centurion. Most of the people that Jesus saved went on their way rejoicing, with their sins forgiven, ready to make much of Jesus in every sphere of their lives.
But the Twelve, he looked them in the eye and said, “You, follow me. You will be fishers of men in an unusual, focused, vocational way. You will be my global emissaries. That will be your life. You will be the first shock wave of my ambassadors to all the nations of the world.” If he were here physically, that’s what he could do at this conference.
Miracle of Making a Missionary
But he’s not here — not in the flesh. Oh, he’s here. Just not visibly. So how does he do it? How does he touch individual persons so that from that moment on they are devoted to lifelong missionary service? Because, be assured, he does still do this. He has been doing it for two thousand years. And he has been doing it the last two days. He will do it tonight. And he will do it in the days to come.
He will do it as you sing. He will do it on your way home. He will do it as you lie in the hospital after an accident. He will do it as you come to your senses after a mindless-drunken spree, or an almost lethal overdose. He will do it in the silent hours of the night. He will do it at the end of the R-rated, sex-saturated movie when you feel dirty and empty. He will do it after you speak cruelly to your best friend and then step outside into the warm sunlight and feel the breeze of God’s mercy on your undeserving face.
How does that happen? We do not know. It is a great mystery. A hundred people read the same Bible, love the same Savior with the same passion, have similar gifts, hear the same message, sing the same songs, and 75 are profoundly moved to live their lives more radically for the fame of Jesus where they are. But five people in that hundred will never be the same again. Something takes hold of them — some precious truth about God, some gripping reality about the lostness of people, some heaven-like joy of seeing dead people live forever, some sense of strategic usefulness in a global purpose, some vision of multi-colored, multi-ethnic bands of happy worshipers.
Something takes hold of you. And never lets you go. To the end of your life you say with Paul, “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). The inexplicable miracle happens. A missionary is created. For fifty years I have seen it happen over and over. A shoe salesman, a financial planner, a counselor, a building contractor, a student. And then, inexplicably, a missionary for 40 years.
Jesus is still doing this. And I mention it to heighten your expectancy and to focus and intensify your prayers. Jesus said to us, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). He will not perform this miracle of the missionary calling on most of you. For most of us, there will be engagements of equipping, and supporting, and sending, and rejoicing every time we see this glorious thing happen — an ordinary person becoming a lifelong missionary. Amazing.
My prayer is that God will use this message for such a miracle.
Why and How of Mission
My assignment is 1 Corinthians 9. I’m going to read the entire chapter and then talk about (1) Paul’s motivation in his mission and (2) his method in his mission.
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 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. 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. 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. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
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. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:1–27)
What Motivates Mission?
Let’s start with the puzzling paragraph in verses 15–18. In verses 1–14, the point is this: I have a right to be paid for preaching the gospel. Verse 7: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?” But then in verse 15, he explains why he doesn’t demand his rights, and he reveals part of the motivation of his mission.
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:15–16)
In other words, “On the Damascus road when I was converted, I met the King of the universe. He conscripted me like a soldier into the army. He bought me like a slave in his household. He gave me an assignment and told me how much I would suffer.” And woe to any soldier who goes AWOL with such a commander. And woe to any slave who tries to escape from such a master. Conscripted soldiers and slaves don’t boast about doing what they have to do.
Motivated by Reward
Therefore, Paul says, I will not settle for serving my commander and my owner in that way. I will have a boast. I will have a reward. What is it? Verses 17–18:
For if I do this [ministry] of my own will [willingly, gladly], I have a reward, but if not of my own will [if I act begrudgingly, slavishly], I am still entrusted with a stewardship. [Like it or not, I have to do it.] What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
In other words, I could be motivated by the desire for money — I ought to be paid! Or I could be motivated by the desire to get my rights. And he says “No!” to both of those. I will not be motivated by the desire for money. I will not be motivated by the desire to throw my weight around and demand my rights. I will present the gospel free of charge. This is my boast. This is my reward.
“Paul’s motivation is to do his mission in a way that magnifies the all-satisfying worth of Christ.”
By the grace of God, I will be the kind of person who does not find his reward in the pleasures of money and does not find his reward in the pleasures of rights-demanding power. I will find my reward in presenting the gospel in such a way that it will be plain that the fruit of gospel ministry itself is my satisfaction. I will commend the gospel — I will magnify the worth of the gospel, the worth of Christ — by showing that the satisfaction it gives — that he gives — does not need to be supplemented by the pleasures of money or the pleasures of power.
So, Paul’s motivation is to do his mission in a way that magnifies the all-satisfying worth of Christ and his gospel, apart from the pleasures of money and the pleasures of power.
People Are the Reward
Now, let’s press into this motivation further, because Paul invites us in. What, more specifically, is the gain for Paul of this “reward” of presenting the gospel without charge (1 Corinthians 9:18)? In verses 19–23, he answers over and over, “I gain people. I gain fellow lovers of Christ. I gain my doubled joy, my glory, my crown of boasting” (cf. Philippians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 2:19).
Paul has turned away from serving in order to gain money and from serving in order to gain power. Now, according to verse 19 (in the middle of the verse), he has become the servant of all in order to gain people.
- Verse 19 (at the end): “that I might win more of them.”
- Verse 20 (at the beginning): “in order to win Jews.”
- Verse 20 (at the end): “that I might win those under the law.”
- Verse 21 (at the end): “that I might win those outside the law.”
- Verse 22 (at the beginning): “that I might win the weak.”
That word — “win” — is ambiguous in English. You can win a prize. Or you can win an argument. If you win a prize, you gain it. If you win an argument, you defeat someone. What kind of “win” does Paul have in mind? There is no doubt. He is speaking of gaining people as a prize, not defeating them as an opponent. This is crystal clear in the original language. Because the word translated “win” (kerdainō) means “gain.”
As in Matthew 16:26, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” Or Philippians 3:8, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” That’s the word. His aim is to gain the Jews, and gain the Gentiles, and gain the weak.
He’s not trying to gain the pleasure of money. He’s not trying to gain the power of rights. The gospel has already assured him that he will gain the fullness of the enjoyment of Christ. And now, he wants to gain people.
He Enjoys Their Joy
What does it mean to gain people? Verse 23 gives the answer: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them [all those gained people] in its blessings.” His aim is to gain more and more people so that he can “share with them in blessings of the gospel.” Notice carefully the wording. He does not say, “So that they can share with me in the blessings of the gospel.” I’m sure that’s true. He wants them to share with him in the blessings of the gospel. But that’s not what he says because the note he’s striking here is his reward, his gain, in this mission.
So what he says is (last part of verse 23) “that I may share with them in the blessings of the gospel.” I want to gain people — all kinds of people — so that I can be a sharer with them in the blessings of the gospel — that I might enjoy their enjoyment of Christ.
“Our gospel joy is authentic and satisfying only if we desire to taste this joy in the hearts of other people.”
What does this imply about the nature of joy in gospel blessings — blessings like the forgiveness of sins, the declaration of righteousness in the court of heaven, the removal of all condemnation, reconciliation with God, adoption into his family, fellowship with Christ, the hope of eternal life? What does it imply about the nature of our joy in such blessings?
It implies this: our gospel joy is authentic and satisfying only if we desire to taste this joy in the hearts of other people. I want to gain people. I want to gain people — all kinds of people — in order that I might share in their experience of gospel joy. Do you?
‘That I Might Save Some’
Did you notice where I stopped in my listing of those five kinds of people he wanted to gain — what I left out? I stopped in the middle of verse 22. Pick it up there with me: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” He switches from “win some” (or “gain some”) to “save some.” Paul said in Romans 5:9, “Since we are now justified by Christ’s blood, much more shall we be saved from the wrath of God.” And in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says, “Jesus delivers us [saves us] from the wrath to come.” Being saved, in Paul’s language, is first and foundationally being rescued from the wrath of God. By Christ’s taking our condemnation, God rescued us from God.
Then, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:23, “I want to share with them in gospel blessings” — that gospel blessing. I want to be there when they walk out of the courtroom of condemnation and do handsprings down the sidewalk, and they leap for joy and shout, “I’m not going to be executed. I’m not going to be condemned. I’m not going to be punished.” I want to be there when it lands on them that they are not only saved from hell, but are adopted as God’s very own children and will inherit the world. I want to gain people for this: I want to share in their experience of this joy.
That’s Paul’s motivation for his mission, which is interwoven with his motivation. Not the pleasures of money. Not the power of rights. But the pleasures of blood-bought joy, especially as he tastes it welling up in the hearts of other people gained from every tribe and language and nation.
What Was His Method?
We turn now to Paul’s method in his mission. We could sum it up with that last half of verse 22: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Or, as he says it in verse 19, “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” Then, he begins to flesh it out in verse 20: “To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews.” Verse 21, “To those outside the law [Gentiles] I became as one outside the law.” And so on.
We could talk for hours about how this is worked out in practice — becoming all things to all people that we might save some. But given the constraints on this message, I’m going to cut through to what I think is the single most important reality behind Paul’s missionary method in 1 Corinthians 9.
Radically New Identity
The clue is in verse 20: “To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews.” I think Don Carson is exactly right to point out that Paul was a Jew. He did not have to become a Jew in order to win Jews. Or did he? What does this imply that Paul, who calls himself a Hebrew of Hebrews in Philippians 3:5, says that he becomes a Hebrew, becomes a Jew, to gain Jews?
What it implies is this: when a person becomes a Christian, that person’s deepest and truest identity is no longer the identity of his family, or tribe, or ethnicity, or race, or political party, or nation. Why? Because of what happens by faith when you are united with Christ at conversion.
Listen to what has happened to you if you are a Christian:
- You have been born again (1 Peter 1:3).
- You are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
- You have died and been raised with Christ, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3–4).
- You are seated with him in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).
- God has transferred you to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).
- You are members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19).
- Your citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:21).
In other words, the Jewish man, Paul, was so profoundly and pervasively redefined — given a new identity — by union with Christ Jesus, that Jewishness was not his truest, deepest identity anymore and, therefore, in order to win Jews, he had to become a Jew. When you become a Christian, your family roots, your tribal connections, your ethnicity and race, your nation of origin — all of them become secondary, at most. And the real you is something supernaturally new, different. A new creation. A new family identity in Christ. A new citizenship in his kingdom. Every other identity and allegiance is relativized.
Adapting to a New Culture
The implications of this for method in missions are profound. When you become a missionary, and cross a culture, and learn a language, you do not go as an emissary of your nation of origin, you go as an emissary of the kingdom of Christ. Your aim is not to create cultural enclaves replicating your earthly home. Your aim is to establish outposts of the kingdom of heaven.
Yes, this is complicated by the fact that Paul really was ethnically a Jew. And you — every one of you — is embedded in a cultural and ethnic identity. But as a Christian you are both embedded in human culture and transcending human culture. The gospel came to you in culturally familiar dress and began reidentifying you as an alien and a sojourner in your own culture. Christians are always embedded in human culture and always at odds with human culture — even our own.
“When we cross a culture in missions, we find ourselves adapting to culture and challenging culture.”
So, when we cross a culture in missions, we find ourselves adapting to culture and challenging culture. Always. Everywhere. We are never at home in any fallen human culture, because our citizenship is in heaven. Yet we are always at home, because our Father owns the world. We will inherit all of it. As missionaries we leave as aliens; we arrive as aliens. Yet we leave what belongs to our Father. We go to what belongs to our Father. You found ways to be Christian in your home culture as an alien, and you will find ways to be Christian in your new culture as an alien.
God will guide you by the Spirit of your true heavenly homeland, and by the law of Christ, so that your cultural adaptations do not involve sin and do not distort truth.
Miracle of a Missionary Calling
And so I end: if you find your deepest identity in Christ, and your decisive citizenship in his kingdom, and if you know yourself to be an alien and a sojourner wherever you live, and if you pursue your joy not in the pleasures of money or the power of rights, but in tasting gospel blessings in the joy of others as you gain them as eternal friends in Christ, then you will be useful to your own people and a very likely candidate for the inexplicable miracle of the missionary calling.