For the Love of God, Volume 2/February 22

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Exodus 5; Luke 8; Job 22; 1 Corinthians 9

1 CORINTHIANS 9:19-23 IS ONE OF THE most revealing passages in the New Testament regarding Paul’s view of the Law.

On the one hand, Paul states that to evangelize Jews he has to become like a Jew; more precisely, to “those under the law” he has to become like one under the Law, even though “I myself am not under the law” (9:20). Thus although Paul certainly recognizes himself as a Jew as far as race is concerned (see, for instance, Rom. 9:3), at this point in his life he does not see himself as being under the lawcovenant. When he sets himself the task of winning his fellow Jews, however, he wants to remove any unnecessary offense, so he adopts the disciplines of kosher Jews; in this sense he becomes like a Jew, like one under the Law. On the other hand, when he sets himself the task of evangelizing Gentiles, he becomes like “those not having the law.” Recognizing that this stance could be understood as simple lawlessness, Paul adds, in a parenthetical aside, that this does not mean he is utterly lawless. Far from it; he writes, “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law” (9:21).

So on the one hand, Paul is not himself under law; on the other, he is not free from God’s law, but is under Christ’s law. What does this mean?

(a) The “law” under which Paul sees himself cannot be exactly the same as Torah (the Pentateuch), or more generally the demands of God from the Old Testament Scriptures. True, Paul elsewhere says, “Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Cor. 7:19). But these are not simply the commands found in the Old Testament. After all, the previous line reads: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” The thoughtful Jew would reply, “But circumcision is one of God’s commands.” Not, however, for Paul: keeping God’s commands or obeying God’s law is not, for him, the same thing as adhering to the Mosaic Law.

(b) What binds Paul and establishes the limits of his flexibility as he strives to evangelize Jews and Greeks alike is “Christ’s law” (9:21). His statements make no sense if “Christ’s law” is exactly identical to God’s law as found in Torah. He must flex from his “third position” (the position of the Christian) to become like a Jew or like a Gentile.

(c) What the relationship is between the Mosaic “Law of God” and “Christ’s law” is complex and glimpsed, in Paul, in Romans 3:21-26 (see meditation for January 31). Here it is enough to observe that the motive for all of Paul’s magnificent cultural flexibility is that he may “win as many as possible,” “so that by all possible means I may save some” (9:22).

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