Does 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 mean Paul did not keep God's Law?
by Peter Salemi
"For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.
"And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;
"To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.
"To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
"And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you." This means "God's law is done away" say the no law preachers. Many believe this was the only reason why Paul went into the synagogues on the Sabbath day, not because he kept it, but because, "unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews." The apostle Paul just adopted to the culture to win converts to the Christian faith. People's New Testament says, "With Jews he lived as a Jew in order to reach them. He observed their distinctions of meats, kept feasts, and circumcised Timothy. He observed the law to reach those who kept law."
"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."
Are these "explanations" 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?
Did Paul act 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?
How can Paul become a "Jew."? Paul was a Jew! Racially, and religiously! "But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people" (Acts 21:39; 22:3). As for his religion he said, "But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question." (Acts 23:6). Paul wasn't in a new religion. In fact the Christians were looked upon as another sect of Judaism. There was the "sect of the Sadducees" (Acts 5:17). The "sect of the Pharisees" (Acts 15:5). The Christians were called the "sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5). Whom Paul was the "ringleader." The Christians did not think they were in a new religion, but the same religion, with Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and not the blood of bulls and goats. The Book of Hebrews expounds and explains this in detail. It was the "time of reformation" (Hebrews 9:10). The same religion but reformed when it came to the sacrifices. The Christians still went to synagogues and the temple services (Acts 3:1; 9:2). So Paul was a Jew! So what does he mean when he said he became a Jew?
The Context of the Passages
Many have missed the context of what Paul is saying. The context is given in verse 19, "For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more." He was putting into practice what Jesus told his church to do. As Paul had "power in the Gospel" (v.18), he was a leader in the church, but became a "servant to all," as Jesus said, "...Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
"But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
"And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
"Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28; 23:10-11). Paul being a leader in the church became a "servant to all men," that he might "gain" them to Christ. This word gain is "kerdaino" meaning, "gain, win" (Strong's #2770). Since Paul was using the analogy of a "race" (v.24), winning would be a more appropriate word than gain. In 1 Peter 3:1 Peter speaks of the same thing about conversion and subjection, "Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation [Gk. anastrophe "behavior" (Strong's #391)] of the wives;" The word "won" is the same word Paul used in 1 Corinthians 9. It is by their actions that they win converts to Christ! Paul was expressing the same thing. It is by their conduct, their subjection, to be a servant to all men that they win people to Christ! With this understanding, the rest of the passages can be understood.
Verse 20 says, "And [Gk. "kai" "Therefore"] unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews;" Barnes notes writes, "In this verse, and the two following, Paul states more at length the conduct which he had exhibited, and to which he refers in 1Co 9:19. He had shown this conduct to all classes of people..." (emphasis added). So verses 20-22 is an explanation as to who Paul was subjecting himself to.
So what does he mean to the "Jews I became as a Jew." Many translations have "like a Jew" trying to interpret the text instead just translating the words. Out of all the translations I have, and on the internet, there was only one that kind of got the gist of what Paul was trying to say. The Jewish New Testament Translation says, "That is, with the Jews, what I did was put myself in the position of a Jew." This one almost had what Paul was getting at, but of course not understanding the context. The context is "a servant." Paul was putting himself not in the "position of" a Jew, BUT A SERVANT! To the Jews he "became as a Jew['s]" servant!
Many Jews had Jewish servants in the time of Jesus and Paul, "A male or female servant belonging to a Jewish family...were personal servants for the man or woman of the house (c.f. "M. Sukkah 2:9; M. Baba Bathra 10:7; T.B. Ketuboth 96a; Luke 17:7-10)" (p.751, The Jewish People in the First Century, Volume Two: Historical Geography By Shmuel Safra). Paul subjected himself to the Jewish authorities, or become a servant to them, seeing this conduct, a great man, a man with power becoming a servant, this would astonish anyone! As Peter said, by their actions they would win people to Christ. Jesus taught and practiced this, so did Peter, and Paul practiced it. The very conduct of Jesus becoming a servant, the King himself, the very idea of the King of all the universe becoming a servant and dying for his subjects is amazing in itself, that alone wins converts. So Paul is saying, though he was a leader in the church of God, became a servant to everyone, to the Jews he became as a Jew's servant.
"to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;" Now Paul preached that the Christian is not "under the law" but "under Grace" (Romans 6:14). So if the traditional interpretation was meant, would this make sense? Would Paul go back to being under the law? Of course Not! Paul, later in this chapter said, "But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." (v.27). Paul was not going to risk his salvation. Failing shamefully of the prize, after he called others to run the same race. Rejected by God, the Judge of the Christian race. So who are these that are under the law? People "under the law" are people who have "sin" as "dominion over" them, as the scripture says, "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom 6:14). What law? The "law of Sin" (Rom 7:23). These could be Jews or Gentiles who are not converts to the faith but resist the faith. Know about God and the Bible, and the plan of God and have rejected it, or are resisting it, as James wrote, "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. " (4:17). So people who resist the law of God, Paul became a servant to them so he could win them as well.
"To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under [Gk.ennomos "within"] the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law." (v.21). Who are these "without the Law." These are the Gentiles totally ignorant of God and the law, see Romans 2:12-14. He served them so they too can be won for Christ. These would be curious of his conduct and ask why he lives the way he does so he can preach Christ to them. Now according to the accepted interpretation, would Paul subject himself to idol worship to gain people to Christ? Of course not, he said, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?...God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" (Rom 6:1-2). Paul said "we" he included himself.
"To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (v.22). These are the "weak in Faith" (Romans 14:1). These are church members who struggle and are new to the faith, and have not built up a strong faith yet due to their inexperience and lack of study, still "without strength" (Rom 5:6). When “weak” Christians are by the condescending love of stronger brethren are kept from falling from faith, they are well said to be “gained” or won. (Heb 6:5-6).
"And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you" (v.23). Paul's motive is to be a servant to all, set an example to further the gospel and partake in the joy of the Salvation of the Lord Jesus with them. It has nothing to do with God's law, or Paul going into the synagogues on the Sabbath not to keep the Sabbath but to win over the Jews for Christ. No Paul went to synagogue because he kept the seventh-day Sabbath because he believed and kept the Law and the Prophets, "But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:" (Acts 24:14).