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Who are those who are “under the law” in 1 Corinthians 9:20?

under the law

In 1 Corinthians 9:20, Paul writes, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” We must treat every passage of Scripture like a lake in the mountains. Every collected water source has something flowing into and out of it, which helps us understand why and how the water is there. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 9:20 has a stream of thought flowing in and out of it that helps us understand Paul’s discussion of being “under the law.”

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 9 by defending his rights and qualifications as an apostle. He’s compelled to defend himself because he was taking financial support from Corinth and others. Expectations and money are powerful forces. They can bring with them the tangible allusion of being “under a law.”

In 1 Corinthians 9:3–12, Paul clarifies that money and expectations would not make him anyone’s employee, and they his employer. After all, we humans naturally work for the expectation of our employer and use what we earn predominantly on fleshly comforts like eating and drinking, romance, owning property, etc. We call it “rights.” Paul understands these “rights” as the “law” of the world, but he has something better in mind when he talks about “being under” or not “being under the law.”

He says he’s not using his rights. He’s under a higher “law” than simply chasing the typical comforts and supply that work and life afford (1 Corinthians 9:12b). His tangible reward comes from sharing the gospel. He reinvests any resources back into that work (1 Corinthians 9:15–18). When we get to 1 Corinthians 9:19, Paul asserts that he’s not working like an employee of the Corinthian church—under their law, so to speak. Rather, their generosity allows him to serve the Lord’s law of the gospel without hindrance.

When we arrive at verse 20, Paul talks about Jewish tradition in a similar form. The Jews, under the Law of Moses, had customs, rites, and traditions, and they also added to God's law their own rules that put them “under their own law,” similar to how an employer expects perfection from a worker. They had to perform to meet a standard that wasn't helpful. Paul merely states that he has the ability in Christ to enter spaces of Mosaic tradition, along with man-made regulation, and even play along, but he is ultimately free from the mandate of what is enforced because he’s not an employee of the Law of Moses any longer, nor of man's invention. He works for God. Paul can therefore dance in and alongside legalism, man-made expectations, and money, and interact and reason with all of it, but with greater freedom. He owes no one anything. He owes only Christ for fulfilling the law and offering salvation and freedom from the law’s requirements.

In Paul’s letter to Galatia, Paul deepens our understanding of this concept by using the image of a prison and a prison warden to clarify our relationship to any law (specifically, here Paul references the Law of Moses):

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” (Galatians 3:23–25)

Being under the law is like being a prisoner locked in prison. We have no freedom to come and go as we please, but are obligated. A prison guard, on the other hand, can come in and out on his own volition. He wears the uniform and subjects himself to the locked environment to work with and for the inmates, but he can leave at the end of the day. The only way prisoners can experience likewise is for someone to come in and pay their bail and free them. This is what the law of the gospel does.

Paul’s message about Jesus is the only way out of our prison cell “under the law.” It gives us the ability to live for something better. Living for the gospel transcends money, tradition, or anything that might be expected of us. It allows us to serve others in whatever way possible to see them enjoy similar freedom.

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Who are those who are “under the law” in 1 Corinthians 9:20?
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This page last updated: March 28, 2024