How to be all things to all people

I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.  –I Corinthians 9:22

Imagine someone saying, “I’ve decided to become all things to all people.”  You would wonder if they had a) lost their minds or b) chosen a shortcut to losing same.

That’s quite an assignment Paul gave himself.  He would, he informs us, become…

–as a Jew in order to reach the Jews.

–as under the Law in order to reach those living under the Law.

–as without the Law that he might win those who are without the Law

–as weak, that he might win the weak

And finally, as though to throw the net over the entire lost population, he says, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.”

How does he do that, we wonder.  Is the effective Christian worker to be schizophrenic, parceling himself out to this group and that group with the intention of winning them to Jesus?  And how does that work?

Soon, Paul adds this bomb: I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (I Corinthians 10:33).

This is the same Apostle, by the way, who told the Galatians that he would never be a people pleaser! If I were trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

So, what’s going on here?

I think we have found a clue….

This weekend, while reflecting on these scriptures in advance of teaching a class on Sunday, in my down time I was reading a novel about small-town British life in 1940 when the Second World War was heating up.  In The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, author Jennifer Ryan assumes the voice of several citizens to tell the story. She “gets into their skin,” as we might say, in order to give us their view on things.

Chapter one is a segment from the journal of Mrs. Tilling, a mother of a soldier and member of the local church choir.  Chapter two is a letter from the village midwife (and the bad ‘guy’ in this story), Miss Edwina Paltry, to her sister Clara.  In chapter three, we have the diary of Kitty, a precocious 13-year-old girl with dreams of becoming a singing star.  Chapter four is a letter from Venetia, the flirtatious older sister of Kitty and the femme fatale of the story, to a friend who had moved away.  For the most part, these are the voices of the book.

So, mostly, throughout the story, we’re reading either Kitty’s diary, Miss Paltry’s letter to her sister, Venetia’s letter to her friend, or Mrs. Tilling’s journal, as each character gives us her take on what’s happening in the village.

Now, in order to accomplish this–and do it with authenticity–the author has to “get into the skin” of these characters. To become them.  Jennifer Ryan had to know how British villagers in 1940 thought and spoke, and how to differentiate those voices for each character, everything from a young teenage girl to a young lady to two middle-aged women.

Not an easy thing to do.

But, it’s what good writers manage to do.

That–in a sense–is what I believe Paul is talking about in becoming all things to all men.  To reach someone who is far from Christ, we work to learn their point of view, to know what they think and value.  Then, we may present the message of Christ in language and terms they understand.

In a real sense, this is what the Heavenly Father did in sending His Son into this world.  He could have sat on Heaven’s throne for eternity, hurling love-notes our way and sending prophets and angels with messages.  But He came Himself.

Jesus got into our skin.

Of course, Paul could not do what Jesus did.  But, he would do the next best thing: Paul would seek to understand the one he was trying to reach: the Jew, the person living under the Law, those who did not have the Law and thus were not seeking to live under it, the weak, etc., to the point that he knew what made them tick, what they feared and dreaded, what they believed, and so forth.  Only then did he feel he could connect with them to the point that they would hear his message.

“He gets me,” they would say.  “So, let’s hear what he has to say.”

In a pastors conference at Moody Bible Institute, I heard Theologian Dr. Roger Nicole say, “In order to reach a person of another faith for Christ, we have to understand their doctrines and beliefs so well that we can state them better than they can.  Once they see that we understand, they will wonder how we could know these things and yet believe something else.  That’s when they will begin to listen.”

Why God sent Jesus

So, the writer of Hebrews says, “After God spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets and in many other ways, He has in these last days spoken to us in His Son.  This is the Son whom He has appointed as the heir of all things, through whom He made the world!” (Hebrews 1:1-2).  And, the result of it is that we now know a great deal more about the Father in Heaven.  “He is the radiance of His glory, and the exact representation of His nature….”  (1:3)

Continuing in this vein, the writer gives us his take on why the Lord Jesus took on flesh and blood to become one of us: “Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to bondage all their lives” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

And here is how John the Evangelist put it in the opening chapter of his gospel….

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by Him and without Him was not anything made that was made.  In Him was life, and the life was the light of men…..  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:1-4,14)

They said to Jesus, “Show us the Father and that’ll be all we could ask.”  He said, “Have I been so long with you and you still don’t know Who I am?  He who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:8-9, my paraphrase)

So, the writer of Hebrews gives us this: “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things just as we are–yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

We’re not Jesus and cannot do what He did.  But with Him inside us, living in and through us, we can do the next best thing and reach out with His love and understanding to those about us.





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