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What does it mean that Paul made himself a servant to all (1 Corinthians 9:19)?

servant to all

The apostle Paul yearned to see the Jews—his own people—saved and in God’s kingdom (Romans 9:1–3; 10:1). Even greater was his desire to fulfill God’s unique call on his life to minister to the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:8). Paul desired for God to use him as an instrument to preach the gospel and lead those who hear the message to saving faith in Jesus Christ. He wrote, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (1 Corinthians 9:19, ESV).

To become an effective conduit of the gospel, Paul renounced his freedom and essentially enslaved himself to Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1; 6:22; 1 Corinthians 7:22; Galatians 1:10). This idea of making himself into a servant or slave is conceptualized by the Greek term doulos, which refers to a person legally owned by someone else and whose entire livelihood and purpose is determined by their master.

As a free Roman citizen, Paul belonged to no one. He had extensive rights within the laws of his society. He also had spiritual freedoms as a Christian. On the other hand, in the ancient Mediterranean world, enslaved people had almost no rights or freedoms. A slave had to obey his master’s orders. Paul asserted that he was free to do whatever he pleased, but instead, he willingly lowered himself to the status of a slave to all people. He willingly became a servant of all to win as many converts as possible.

In saying, “I have made myself a servant to all,” Paul had adopted the mindset of Jesus Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:5–8). Jesus possessed the nature of God, with all the freedoms and advantages that nature affords, yet He lowered Himself, made Himself a servant to all, and died on the cross to become the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14).

Following the Lord’s example, Paul yielded his rights, privileges, affiliations, and preferences to serve others and further the cause of the cause of Christ: “When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:20–23, NLT).

Some who misinterpret this passage accuse Paul of being a chameleon who changed his message and standards to fit his audience. But Paul never compromised truth. Instead, he adapted his approach to avoid offending his audience. He would not flaunt his freedom in front of the Jews or inflict the law on the Gentiles. His goal was to remove obstacles and stumbling blocks to their acceptance of the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 6:3; Romans 14:20). Warren Wiersbe writes, “A good witness tries to build bridges, not walls” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1, Victor Books, 1996, p. 601).

In Acts 16:1–5, Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him on one of his missionary journeys. In deference to the Jews they would minister to, Paul arranged for Timothy (whose father was a Greek) to be circumcised. The missionaries wanted nothing to hinder the Good News from spreading and being received throughout the area. To achieve this aim, Paul and Timothy made themselves servants to all.

Paul’s motivation for preaching was not selfish ambition: “You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5, NLT). A good servant of Jesus models himself after his Master, who made Himself a servant to all.

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Questions about 1 Corinthians

What does it mean that Paul made himself a servant to all (1 Corinthians 9:19)?
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This page last updated: May 1, 2024