Remember now, we are still in the middle of a section dealing with the controversy that erupted in the church in Corinth because some Christians felt free not only to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols but to eat that meat at banquets held in pagan temples, while other Christians felt that such behavior was improper for a Christian. Paul began, in chapter 8, to respond to their inquiries about these matters. First, he said, more important than the specific ethical question that has been raised, is the love that Christians owe their brothers and sisters. Love builds up, it does not tear down, and, Paul said, all the arguing and bitterness generated in the Corinthian church over these questions had exposed a serious shortage of that true love for one another that is the special calling of Christians. Any Christian should be willing to give up his rights to this practice or that, if it would help another Christian. In chapter 9, Paul has been recollecting his own behavior in Corinth as an example of that spirit of self-sacrifice on behalf of others that is so much needed in the Corinthian congregation. If they would stop paying so much attention to their rights and pay more to building up their brethren, these differences of opinion would either disappear or be made inconsequential.
Now, it appears that some had criticized Paul in regard to this very matter of eating meat that had been offered to idols because his practice was inconsistent. He ate that meat with Gentiles but did not with Jews. Paul now explains the reason for that.
v.19 Paul is Christ’s slave, of course; he has already said that. But it is precisely because he belongs to Christ that he is free of the limitations of being anyone else’s slave. But, being free in that way, makes it possible for him to act the slave of anyone and everyone for the gospel’s sake. That is, he wants to win people to Christ and he does not want, by his behavior – as he said earlier in v. 12 – to put any unnecessary hindrance in the way of people’s believing the gospel and being saved. And he will give now three examples of how he does this.
v.20 We might think, well of course he became a Jew, he was a Jew after all. What he means simply is that when among Jews he observes their ritual life which, as a Christian after Pentecost and as an apostle to the Gentiles, he is not under obligation always to observe. This would, in Paul’s case, have especially meant his observing Jewish food laws and their religious calendar. No doubt it was for this reason that he did not eat any food that had been offered to idols when he was eating with Jews.
v.21 Now he deals with the Gentiles. When among them he does not play the Jew and require them to observe his Jewish scruples. He behaves as one among them. As he will say in 10:27, when he was having a meal in an unbelieving Gentile’s home, he ate whatever was put before him, including that food that would have scandalized a Jew.
By saying that he lives under “the law of Christ” Paul is reminding them that he is very definitely not saying that Christians are free to live as the Gentiles do, in disobedience to God. He doesn’t mean that Christians are “lawless.” They must keep God’s law, of course, but not those regulations that belong merely to the expectations of one culture or another. Those they are free to observe or not in keeping with the particular occasion.
v.22 He has already mentioned “weak” Christians in 8:7-13, by which he means people with an overscrupulous conscience. He’s probably here bringing the argument back to the present and to the church itself. Now “winning” people refers not simply to seeing them become Christians, but to building up Christians.
I have mentioned to you many times the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian OT professor, John Duncan, affectionately known in his day and later as Rabbi Duncan. Rabbi, because he had first been a missionary to the Jews in Hungary and because he was so thoroughly acquainted with Jewish literature and lore. Jews in Hungary said of him that no Gentile had ever entered into their thoughts and feelings as he had done. But he was that way with everyone. To the Roman Catholic he was an ancient churchman. To the Orthodox Armenian he would use only the words of the Bible. “…to the Hungarian he was in heart a Magyar; to the Bohemian a Czech; to the Highlander a Gael.” [Moody Stuart, The Life of John Duncan, 111] But he was the same with children. Once, having visited a home with a six-year-old daughter who was an only child, he had spoken with the little girl but, as he left, feared that his words might not have their proper effect because he hadn’t, he felt, entered into the little girl’s heart and interests. So he went back to the house and asked her if he could kiss her doll before he left. 
That is the spirit Paul is talking about. The willingness, the desire to enter into another person’s world, to respect that person’s culture and custom and age and life situation so as to be able to be an effective minister of Christ to him or to her.
v.23 We don’t expect Paul to say this, but, though a great apostle, he is also a Christian, and he too wants to live so as to participate in the blessings and the eternal life that is offered in the gospel of Christ. He will elaborate that thought in the final paragraph of the chapter. The paragraph that follows is a conclusion to chapter 9 and an introduction to the warnings of chapter 10. He is urging these Christians to take seriously the necessity of following Christ in obedience, an obedience that involves self-denial and self-control and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. The lack of that may well indicate that a person is fooling himself about being a Christian. As he will say in 10:12: “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.” Once again, Paul describes his own behavior as a way of encouraging his readers to do the same.
v.26 “beating the air” refers not to a boxer in training, but to one who in the midst of a bout does not land his punches, does not box to win in other words.
v.27 “beating my body” refers then to every hardship that Paul undergoes, including self-imposed hardships, in pursuing the purposes of his life: viz. his own salvation and the salvation of others.
In John Bunyan’s masterpiece of allegory, The Holy War, of which Lord Macaulay said, had Pilgrim’s Progress not been written, it would be the greatest allegory in the English language, there is an account given of a particular soldier in Emmanuel’s army. His name was Captain Self-Denial. You know that The Holy War is an account of salvation under the figure of the taking of a city, the city of Mansoul, by the forces of Prince Emmanuel. The city was taken and then was laid siege to by its former king who wanted it back. That king was Diabolus.
We first encounter Captain Self-Denial as the forces of Diabolus are arraying themselves outside the town of Mansoul, preparing their attack. Emmanuel sends his captains to the walls of the town to survey its defenses and to plan their resistance. Captain Self-Denial was put in charge of the defense of two of the fives gates of the town: the Eargate and the Eyegate. Bunyan tells us something about this valiant soldier.
“This Captain Self-Denial was a young man, but stout, and a townsman of Mansoul…. being a hardy man and a man of great courage, and willing to venture himself for the good of the town, [he] would now and then sally out upon the [enemy] and give them many notable alarms, and entered several brisk skirmishes with them, and also did some execution upon them, but you must think that this could not easily be done, but he must meet with brushes himself, for he carried several of their marks in his face; yea, and some in other parts of his body.” [Works, iii, 363]
That is how John Bunyan, in his genius, thought to introduce the matter of self-denial into his picture of the Christian life and the spiritual warfare and how he thought to emphasize self-denial as absolutely necessary for the man or woman who would be saved and would be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. John Calvin goes even further. In his immortal Institutes of the Christian Religion, the greatest theological and literary achievement of the Reformation, when he reaches the discussion of the Christian life, he argues that self-denial is its fundamental principle, that self-denial is the sum of the Christian life.
And that is what Paul is talking about here. He has already urged upon his readers the denial of themselves and their rights and some of their preferred practices for the sake of the spiritual welfare of their fellow Christians. If participating in a banquet at a heathen temple, wounds and weakens the conscience of a Christian brother or sister, then, says Paul, by all means don’t do it. Give it up. Your brothers and sisters in Christ, their welfare, are far more important than your pleasures, your rights, or any advantage you think you might gain from taking up an invitation from a wealthy friend to attend his banquet at the local temple.
But now he generalizes. He makes self-denial of all kinds, a principle of daily living for every Christian. It is the surrender of one’s own self to Christ – one’s own appetites, one’s own freedoms and rights, one’s own pleasure, one’s own time and energy, one’s own interests – in order to follow and to serve Jesus Christ.
You know how often our Savior taught that self-denial must be the way of true faith in him. “If anyone comes after me,” he said, “and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” And he used such jarring language precisely to force us to face the nature of the demand he was making. And, like Paul here, he did not hesitate to relate the necessity of self-denial to our entrance into eternal life. Remember how we were first rocked back on our heels to read him say in his Sermon on the Mount that “if our right hand causes us to sin we should cut it off and throw it from us; and if our right eye causes us to sin we should gouge it out; for it is better to go into heaven maimed than to be cast whole into hell.”
And, then the Bible is chock full of examples of those who have followed the Lord in just that way, the way of painful and costly self-denial for God’s sake and for the sake of the salvation of others. What of Moses and Elijah and Jeremiah? What loss of ease, and worldly happiness, and reputation, and personal peace they suffered in following Christ and serving the salvation of the world. We cannot help but admire the great sacrifices they made for God and for others, but, in all honesty, we do not wish those sacrifices on ourselves. And we have not seen even the half of their self-denial, of theirs or of Paul’s, for the hardest part and the greatest part of it surely was not what they suffered in and from the world, but what they suffered in their own hearts as they refused to surrender to lust, pride, selfishness, unbelief, the love of ease and of pleasure.
But, says Paul, this distinctively Christian self-denial – self-denial for Christ’s sake and for the gospel’s sake and for the sake of others – is not something merely to admire in others. It is required of everyone who would follow Christ. Alexander Whyte gives a summary of Paul’s thought in these words:
“Lay this down for a law, all my brethren – a New Testament and a never-to-be-abrogated law, — that the best and the safest religion for you is that way of religion which is hardest on your pride, on your self-importance, on your self-esteem, as well as on your purse and on your belly. You are not likely to err by practising too much of the cross.” [Bunyan Characters, iii, 186]
Too often we miss the point of this summons to self-denial because we define self-denial too narrowly and associate it almost exclusively with the suppression of the appetite. In the same way that “immorality” in the Christian world suggests to most minds sins of the flesh, self-denial suggests the curbing of bodily appetites. The heroes of self-denial, in the collective memory of the church, are primarily the ascetics. We think of St. Francis, who when he was in good health, almost never allowed himself cooked food, and, on the rare occasions when he did, he either mixed it with ashes or made its flavor tasteless. Bonaventure, in his celebrated biography of Francis, says that, although he had already attained the height of perfection, he used to try new ways of punishing his sensual desires by afflicting his body…  He wore thin clothing in the cold, rough and uncomfortable cloth next to his body, he used the bare ground as a bed, a piece of wood or a stone for a pillow, when he begged, he begged for the worst kind of food. Now, we have cause to admire the heroism of Christian devotion that we find in such a man as Francis of Assisi. And we can fairly admire him for many things. But we should not mistake his form of asceticism for what Paul is describing here in 1 Corinthians 9.
Paul was not an ascetic himself. He ate fine meals with both Jews and Gentiles. He fasted from time to time, but not as a way of life. Nor did Jesus himself. Our Savior practiced self-denial to a degree that no has before or since, but in the matter of food and drink, he enjoyed these things to the extent that he opened himself up to the charge that he was a drunk and a glutton. No one ever accused Francis of being a drunk and a glutton! The Lord was not, either of those things of course, but the strict ascetics among the Jews resented his not following their way of life.
In any case, that sort of self-denial is not Paul’s point here. He is talking first and foremost about the suppression of one’s own rights and wishes for the sake of the spiritual welfare of others. No doubt, his general point is applicable to fasting as well, but it is not his main interest or the main interest of the Bible as a whole when it teaches that self-denial is a fundamental principle of the Christian life.
I think of the prayer that Martin Luther prayed on his deathbed:
“O Lord, God, I thank you because you willed that I should be poor and a better on the earth. I do not have a home, fields, possessions, or money which I will bequeath. You have given to me a wife and children. I return them to you. Nourish, teach, and save them – as you have me – O father of children and protector of widows.”
Or think of Calvin whose self-denial for the sake of Christ and others became a byword, so impressively a part of his life’s witness that even his enemies had to acknowledge it. Pierre Bayle, the 17th century French skeptic wrote of him,
“That a man who had acquired so great a reputation and so great an authority should have had only a hundred crowns of salary, and have desired no more, and that after having lived fifty-five years with every sort of frugality, he left to his heirs only the value of three hundred crowns, including his library, is a circumstance so heroic[al], that one must be devoid of feeling not to admire it, and one of the most singular victories which virtue and greatness of soul have been able to achieve over nature, even among ministers of the gospel.” [In Schaff, Church History, viii, 276.]
Even Voltaire, who had nothing but contempt for Calvin’s Christianity, had to admit that what he saw as Calvin’s “severity” “was united with the greatest disinterestedness.”  And I have reminded you a number of times of the great William Burns, first the greatest preacher in Scotland during the days of revival in the 1820s and then, forsaking the great pulpits that might have been his, becoming the missionary to China who, after years of little fruit, would reap a great harvest there too. When he died in China, a comparatively young man, spent from his labors, his worldly possessions were sent home in a single box. When opened it was found to contain: his Bible, another book, two shirts, a pair of trousers, and a Chinese flag. Not much to show for a lifetime of labor in this world. But, when the things of this world are gone forever, how many souls will be his recommendation when the books are opened on the great day.
What is this but Paul all over again, giving up his right to a salary from the church, working for a living in a leather shop, so as to put no hindrance in the way of the gospel. If we aspire to have success, to have holy influence, like these great men, we have to become, as they were, detached far beyond the custom of men and women from the interests of this world. Caring about money and pleasure and the satisfaction of ourselves has never been the spirit in which great things have been accomplished in the Church of God. [Cf. Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, 1443-144n.]
Brothers and sisters, Paul is writing this for our benefit, for our encouragement, and for our warning. Have we, have you taken up your cross, have you denied yourself recently for the sake of another soul’s salvation or sanctification? What have you given up for others in Christ’s name? How have you surrendered your freedom and made yourself a slave to someone else, permitting his needs, her welfare to become your tyrant, willing to be at another’s beck and call that you might win them to Christ or help them to Christ or build them up in Christ? Name that person in your mind now. Name that loss, that act of self-denial now. Is it not so, my brethren, that you and I have scarcely begun to live the Christian life, that we have barely scratched the surface of what it means to love Christ and our neighbor as ourselves. I do not say this to discourage you or browbeat you, but only to point you to the majesty of the Christian life, the nobility of it as taught by our Lord and Savior and his apostles. I do not mean to discourage you but to ensure that we do not rest content with what we have so far become, but go on in the practice of tangible, identifiable self-denial for the sake of Christ and his glorious gospel.
And we do not need to cross an ocean to do that. We do not need to make ourselves strange and other-worldly sorts of people. In John Keble’s beautiful lines,
We need not bid, for cloistered cell,
Our neighbour and our work farewell.
Nor strive to wind ourselves too high
For sinful man beneath the sky;
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we need to ask –
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
The world doesn’t see enough of the difficulty, of the grandeur, of the nobility of the Christian life. It would be more impressed with the gospel if it saw more often what people who believe it are willing to give up on its behalf.
And, for ourselves, this life of self-denial is an essential demonstration of true salvation and the presence of Christ in our lives. Is there a more surprising sentence in the entire New Testament than that last sentence in chapter 9. Paul, of all people, the great apostle, the great champion of Christ and his gospel in the world, who suffered so much and did so much for the progress of salvation in the world, now speaking as if there was some real possibility that he would not be saved at the end. He denied himself not only for the sake of others in Christ’s name, but because that is what real Christians do and he wanted there to be no doubt whatsoever that he was a real Christian. We must all hear this carefully and consider whether we are running aimlessly, if we are in the contest at all! Real Christians are not unwilling to be challenged by such bracing truth. They want to be and want to know they are what a Christian must and ought to be.
During the battle for Mansoul, some of the enemy soldiers were captured, including a soldier by the name of Self-Love. Now, says Bunyan, there were many in the city of Mansoul who were friends of Self-Love and so he was not judged or executed as he should have been. This so incensed Captain Self-Denial that he stood up among the citizens and said for all to hear: ‘if such villains as these may be winked at in Mansoul, I will lay down my commission.” Then he and his soldiers seized Self-Love and put him to death. Some of the people muttered against this but Prince Emmanuel, when news of what Captain Self-Denial had done reached him, was so pleased that he made Captain Self-Denial a Lord of the town.
That is what Paul is promising too: a great prize for all who deny themselves for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s sake.
As Christina Rossetti put it,
“All our lives long we shall be bound to refrain our soul, and to keep it low; but what then? For the books we now forbear to read, we shall one day be endued with wisdom and knowledge. For the music we will not listen to, we shall join in the song of the redeemed. For the pictures from which we turn away, we shall gaze unabashed on the beatific vision. For the companionships we shun, we shall be welcomed into angelic society, and into the communion of the triumphant saints. For all the amusements we avoid, we shall keep the supreme jubilee. And for all the pleasures we miss, we shall abide, and shall evermore abide, in the rapture of heaven.” [In Bunyan Characters, vi, 51-52]