Updated: Apr 26, 2021
Jesus cared about others before Himself. We should too.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 9:19-10:33
Ultimately, the squabbles happening within the church of Corinth came down to the fact that the Christians there cared more about themselves and their "rights" as a Christian than the good of everyone around them (Christian or non-Christian). Paul tells them that Jesus, our true example, always thought of others first.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Parable of the Farmer and the Geese.
This is one of my favorite stories to illustrate the central truth of our passage. If you don't know it, learn it, embellish it and tell it (even Paul Harvey has a version out there). This is about a farmer who thought it was ridiculous for God to become a man and give His life for worthless sinners.
One night, when a winter storm was approaching, the farmer heard unfamiliar noises and went out to find a flock of geese who had apparently gotten lost and landed on his field. He knew they would die in the storm, but he also knew they would be safe in his barn, so he went out, turned on the lights, and opened the doors. Nothing. He went and set out food. Still nothing. He tried to herd the geese toward the barn, but that just scared them. By now the snow was falling thick, so he was getting frustrated. No matter what he did, the geese simply didn’t understand what he was trying to do. “If only I could speak goose,” he thought, “then I could tell them how to be safe from the storm!” And of course, when a preacher tells the story, that’s the moment he understands who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do, falls to his knees, and gives his heart to Christ.
Great story, right? It even comes with a tagline: Don’t tell God how big your storm is, tell the storm how big your God is (the tagline doesn't actually have anything to do with the story, but whatever).
That story summarizes Paul’s point in this passage: if you want to tell people how to be “safe from the storm”, you have to be able to speak their language, understand their fears and challenges, and have real credibility. If you tell that story, follow it up with this opening exercise:
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes.
Have you heard this phrase? What does it mean? Have you ever had to do something like this? How did it go? What did you learn? What did you feel? (I’m hoping someone will be brave enough to tell a personal story of overcoming a prejudice or connecting with someone who was earlier thought an enemy.) What characteristics does it take on your part to be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? (I’m thinking things like humility, empathy, concern, perseverance, flexibility.) Then get out the playdough! What makes playdough so flexible?
How does it lose its flexibility? (drying out) Then ask this question: Have you ever thought of the Holy Spirit as God’s ingredient to keep us from “drying out” spiritually? The Holy Spirit keeps us humble, flexible, and caring deeply about the needs of others—particularly those who are not Christian. The Holy Spirit gives us the patience and awareness we need to be able to speak hope and truth to those who live without it. How regularly do you look with the eyes of the Spirit?
Famous Sports Truisms
Here’s one last icebreaker idea. A lot of attitudes in our culture come from sports; they’ve been repeated so many times that people just kind of believe them. Here are some examples: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” (Vince Lombardi). “You can’t beat the person who never gives up” (Babe Ruth). “Play until the final buzzer” (Every coach ever). “The difference between impossible and possible is determination” (Tommy Lasorda). “It ain’t over til it’s over” (Yogi Berra). Of course, some of the phrases we hear are just silly, but some of them can be motivating. What phrase keeps you motivated when things get hard? Eventually, we want to get to the place where Bible verses are what come to mind first, but that takes time. How do you keep going when the going gets tough?
This Week's Big Idea: Paul and Races (The Isthmian Games)
In our passage this week, Paul mentions becoming all things to all people. One of the ways he does that is by getting to know the people and their culture. In Philippians, Paul uses a lot of military imagery (Philippi was founded by retired soldiers from a nearby battlefield). In Ephesians, he uses a lot of construction imagery (Ephesus was dominated by the stunning Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). In 1/2 Corinthians, he talks a lot about morality (famously immoral city) and also uses race/competition imagery. . .
Corinth was host to the Isthmian Games—one of four Panhellenic Games (“Entire Greek World”) held in a four-year cycle:
Year 1: The Olympic Games (Olympia, the primary temple to Zeus)
Year 2 & 4: The Isthmian Games (Corinth, Poseidon), and the Nemean Games (Nemea, Zeus) were held every two years
Year 3: The Pythian Games (Delphi, Apollos)
The Isthmian Games (called that because they were held on the isthmus of Corinth, about 8 miles east of Corinth and right on the coast) were arguably the most popular because that was generally the only time people could visit the beautiful and opulent Corinth, and they were easily accessible by land and sea. Furthermore, women and non-Greeks could compete, increasing the appeal. Corinthians were very proud of their games, and they would have been very well aware of everything surrounding the competitions. One scholar believes Paul arranged his itinerary so he could be at the Games in 51 AD; many people there would have needed tents, so this would have been a chance to make money and make contacts. I think that’s possible; I really don’t know.
Preparing for a Games. Every Panhellenic Games had strict rules for how the competitors must prepare (they didn’t want to waste anyone’s time): 10 months of serious diet and exercise and training. Every major city had training facilities (it was a great source of pride to have a champion from your city; many cities gave their champions free housing and theater tickets) and some also hired famous trainers/coaches. At the “opening ceremonies”, every athlete had to swear an oath that they had obeyed the rules. Jews would not participate in the games precisely for this reason—the ceremony was a dedication to a false god (they also didn’t like the fact that the competitors were naked). A herald would announce each athlete, and at the end would announce the victor.
Your Favorite Olympic Event. Today, only the Olympics exist. Another icebreaker idea would be to ask your class about their favorite Olympic event and why. I love track and field events, just about every one of them. I love marveling at the sacrifices they made to be one of the best in the world. And yet, with Paul, I think about how fleeting their victory is and who will even remember them in a year. Let us put our work into a prize that will never perish or fade!
Fun Aside: Olympic Evangelism
Southern Baptists send teams of volunteers and missionaries to every Olympic event. I’ve read that “Olympic pin trading” is a favorite method of starting a conversation. But for most, it's about working for a prize that lasts. Think of your favorite sporting event or competition: how might you start up a gospel conversation using that as the backdrop? (Remember: that’s exactly what Paul is doing in this letter, using the Isthmian Games as a mutual interest to help these church members learn more about Jesus.)
You can transition into the lesson with this summary statement of “Evangelistic Lessons from Paul”: (1) Go where the people are. (2) Communicate using images that are familiar. (3) Work with a team, and have locals on your team.
Part 1: Walking in Their Shoes (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings.
Here’s what we’ve missed in Paul’s letter. Last week, we talked about his rules for sexual purity (it was a question because what he had taught them about sex was so different from what they had grown up believing that they just didn’t understand him). And that led to another question about behavioral freedom: “Paul, I thought we were free in Christ. Why are there still so many rules?” The big issue was “meat sacrificed to idols”. They had a lot of pagan festivals in Corinth, and some church members wanted to participate, but others thought it was wrong. And that’s where Paul defined our freedom in Christ: our freedom is always limited by the good of the people around us. If your “freedom” causes your brother to do something against his conscience, then you don't understand the ministry of Jesus Christ. In chapter 9, Paul used himself as an example of this. Some church members had complained that Paul refused to let them pay him. Though he had the right to be paid, Paul did not want anyone to think that he was doing this for money. He was not going to insist on his rights/freedoms—instead, he was going to think about the needs of others.
Make it clear that Paul is serious about what he says here. His personal rights are nothing compared to the spiritual needs of the lost; getting his own way is meaningless if it means people go to hell. Read Philippians 2:3-5, then ask the question: “How are we told to prioritize our lives?” You’ll probably hear some order of family, friends, faith, fun, self, work, community. Then ask, “Based on these words in 1 Corinthians, how would you say that Paul prioritized his life? What can we take from Paul?”
Now—what do we think Paul means by these examples?
Jew. Even though Paul knew that the works of the law did nothing for his standing before God, Paul continued to participate in Jewish customs so as not to burn bridges with Jews (see Acts 20:16, 21:20-26). He advised Timothy to be circumcised so their evangelistic work in Timothy’s hometown could be unhindered.
Gentile (those outside the law). This is tricky; it seems this means he would talk using Gentile philosophy and culture, participate in Gentile customs (like going to the Isthmian Games), and build close relationships with lost Gentiles. But this does not mean that he ever compromised his values or morals by joining in in something unchristian!
Weak. Does this refer to spiritually immature people (those of weak conscience from his meat sacrificed to idols question) or people of low social status (the weak and lowly that God chose to shame the wise and strong)? The former makes more sense in context—this section is about a Christian setting his privilege aside in order to reach others for Christ.
What is Paul’s point here? He is willing to become all things to all people. Why? To share the gospel. Make this clear: to do this, Paul would never compromise the gospel message or his own conscience before God. Spend some time talking about this. Think of a person or group with a different background or culture than you. What would you be willing to do to build a bridge to them in order to share the gospel? (This isn’t just a black/white issue—think of age, job, music preference, hobby, life situation.) And finally make sure everyone sees that not everybody will respond to their efforts, but only some.
Aside: Roman Slavery
I know I’ve mentioned this many times, but it bears repeating: Roman slavery was nothing like the chattel slavery of American history (not racial and not hereditary). Those sentenced to slavery as punishment or as POWs had brutal terms doing awful kinds of labor, but educated people would have served in households as physicians, teachers, accountants, cooks, etc. They may have gone into slavery to pay a debt or when their homeland was conquered by Rome. They were considered property and had approximately zero rights. Their testimony could not be heard in court. Anything they owned belonged to their masters. Unless they had a very prized skill (which gave them a chance to earn money), their only hope at freedom was via their master’s last will.
We don’t have data, but historians estimate that 25% of a Greek city like Corinth was probably in slavery. The wealthiest 1% of the empire owned 50% of all slaves, but there were many wealthy people in Corinth.
Because most slaves looked and talked like the rest of the population, some slaves were branded on the forehead (or other noticeable spot) to identify them. For obvious reasons, they had the most difficult time being reintegrated into society when/if they were freed.
With all of that said, it was a big deal that Paul would compare himself to a slave. Though slavery was common, most slaves lived hard lives whose futures were tied to the whims of their masters. This was not a trivial illustration. His willingness to voice it meant that he was very serious about how much he cared about the people.
Part 2: Running in the Race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
See below for interesting ways Paul uses language taken from their sporting competitions. I think Paul may have attended the Isthmian Games in precise fulfillment of that previous verse. He wouldn’t have been happy about everything that went on there, but it gave him common ground to start relationships without compromising his conscience. The illustration Paul uses is powerful. If you’ve ever participated in a sport, you know the difference between playing and playing to win. It takes a lot more than basic practice to win a competition. Share stories about your greatest success in sports and what it took to get there. Now ask, what’s more important: success in sports or success in following Jesus? Yes, we want to be successful in sports. I tell my daughter that if she wants to be on a team, she needs to do everything she can to help that team win. But what good is that if we aren’t learning the lessons that apply to what really matters in life? (Plug: that’s what makes Upward Basketball so special—they really try to teach kids life lessons using the sports illustration.) There should be nothing in life that we want to be better at than a follower of Jesus.
Here are two caveats to explain to your class. When Paul says “only one wins the prize”, he’s not talking about competition between Christians or salvation; he’s simply following his illustration to its natural conclusion. It’s not good enough to run—we need to run to win. You all know someone (or are someone) who has run a marathon for the personal achievement. They didn’t care about winning, just finishing. That’s not the attitude Paul wants us to have in Christianity. Jesus is worth the extra sacrifice and discipline it takes to “win”. And that plays into his comment about being “disqualified”. He’s not talking about losing his salvation—he’s talking about losing his purpose and mission through one of those moral failures he has warned the Corinthians about. Satan never stops trying to ruin us through temptation; we cannot “take a day off” from our commitment to Christ. What we “win” from Jesus is the reward of being called a good and faithful servant. Earlier in 1 Cor 3:15, Paul spoke of a Christian who entered heaven as one “escaping through the flames” because their deeds on earth were not made to last. Paul doesn’t want us to be that guy!
Aside: The Athletic Competitions
Every games focused on 6 core events: foot racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, javelin, and discus. The Isthmian Games also included music, dance, drama, debate, chariot racing, horse racing, and regatta (yes, that’s a bit different, but it lines up with Corinth’s reputation for ostentation). The Isthmian Games were the only ones that allowed women to compete, and they also allowed non-Greeks to compete. They were so important to the region that a general truce was always declared to allow the athletes safe passage to Corinth.
Here are some facts that make Paul’s words more tangible.
A false start in a foot race would get a runner disqualified.
Only the winner received a prize; nothing given for second or third place. At the Isthmian Games, they think the awards were a wreath of wild celery. (Celery was highly regarded by people in the Mediterranean; because of its strong smell, it was considered an aphrodisiac, and also used in funeral practices)
The word Paul uses for “compete” is the word for “wrestle”. Wrestlers had no weight classes, and their matches had no round limits.
The phrase “beating the air” literally refers to a boxer who missed with a big roundhouse punch.
And just in case you’re interested, the word for “race” that Paul used here was “stadion”, or a 200-yard sprint.
Part 3: Following Our Leader (1 Corinthians 10:31-33, 11:1)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I also try to please everyone in everything, not seeking my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved. . . Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ.
Paul starts here with eating and drinking because he has just finished answering the question about meat sacrificed to idols (which we skip over), which is really just another way of saying that a committed Christian is always thinking about the needs and situations of others. Why? Because that’s what Jesus did. That’s what brings glory to God. This is the ultimate question we can ask ourselves when we’re not sure what we should do: Will my action bring glory to God? (I think that’s an easier question than Would Jesus do it?) And remember the context. This entire section is about relationships with others. Will my action build up a new Christian? Will my action build a bridge to a non-Christian? Bringing glory to God is not some private thing. God cares very much about how we treat and think of others. And Paul makes it clear that God means everybody. Jews, Greeks, Christians (the church of God)—it doesn’t matter how alike or unalike you are. We have one “race” in life (after we become a Christian), and that is to influence as many people toward Jesus as possible.
And this is hard! How do you know if your behavior gives offense to someone else? Or how do you know if your action hurts someone’s walk with Jesus (becomes a “stumbling block”)? It takes being humbly aware of those around you and always caring about them. Ask questions. Build bridges. Make friends. Does that still sound really hard? Then find a good role model. These new Christians in Corinth were starting from scratch, so Paul offered the best advice he could: I’ve been following Jesus for a long time, so do what I do, and that will put you on the right path. Do you have a good role model who helps you know how Jesus wants you to live? Not someone who says “Do as I say not as I do” but someone who shows you what it looks like to follow Jesus? You need to have that person and to be that person.
So many teaching options! Here are the main points to the lesson—pick those discussion topics and exercises that get your class where you want them to go:
we don’t just want to finish the Christian life, we want to win it;
we win the Christian life by influencing others toward Jesus and not pushing them away from Jesus;
the only way we can influence others is by building relationships with them and knowing how to communicate with them;
when we fail as Christians to do these things, we don’t lose our salvation, but we lose the chance to “win” the job well done.
Closing Thoughts: Outliers / The 10,000 Rule
Run in such a way as to win. I like to read about successful people: what makes them tick? How did they get there? An excellent book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers notes that though some successful people were “lucky” (the “genetic lottery”, being born at an advantageous time, good family), the very highest achievers put an incredible amount of time and effort into developing their skills. He argues that it takes 10,000 hours to become truly excellent at a task, and the very best at anything (Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Lebron James) have met that threshold in many different facets of their profession. What does this have to do with anything? Ask your class this question: think of a person you find incredibly successful (say, Lebron James). Would it be better to be Lebron James, or “the Lebron James of Christianity”? What are you willing to do to be the best follower of Jesus Christ you can be?
Bonus Thought: Billy Graham
I believe this cartoon captures everything Paul was saying in this chapter. Billy Graham worked his whole life for the glory of God, always being disciplined, being careful not to let himself be “disqualified” through a major moral failure. Here’s the thing: Billy Graham is just a man; he’s no more special than any of us. We may not lead evangelistic crusades, but we can run our race well and finish strong. That should be our goal—and it is within our grasp to do!