What does Paul mean that he became ‘as a Jew to the Jews and to the Gentiles, a Gentile’

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Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9 19-23 “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews” and “to those who are outside that law, like one outside the law“. Some say that he was setting a new precedent in terms of what foods he would eat so that he could be reach Gentiles. Is there another way that this passage can be understood?

[This article is based on exegesis of this passage by Dr. Mark Kinzer, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.]

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul writes;

Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are outside that law, like one outside the law—not being outside God’s law but within the law of Messiah—to win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.”

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

This passage has traditionally been understood to be Paul’s missionary principle of accommodation that would justify him living as a practicing Jew amongst Jews and as a non-practicing Jew amongst Gentiles.

What naturally follows from this understanding would be that Paul would have viewed himself as sometimes exempt from observance to the Law of Moses.  Is that actually what the passage is saying, or is there another way to view it?

Under, Outside, or Within the Law

This passage describes three groups of people; those “under the Law”, those “outside the Law” (sometimes translated “without” the Law) and those “within the Law of Messiah” (or “within the Law of Christ” in some translations).

Much hinges on the understanding of the expression “under the Law” and refers to the relationship a Jew would have legitimately before the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is compared elsewhere to a child who has not yet reached the age of maturity (Gal. 4:1-2) as contrasted with full adult “sonship”. From verse 21 in Galatians 4, it seems Paul is addressing Gentile believers in Galatia who wanted to be “under the law” because they falsely thought it provided something that they lacked though faith alone in Jesus.

In the passage in 1 Corinthians 9, the contrast is made between being “under the Law” with being “outside the Law”.  The first refers to the status of Jews apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus and the second refers to Gentiles who apart from faith in Jesus and His death and resurrection are entirely outside the framework of any divine covenant.

Under the Law” is negative only in relations to the far greater status offered through Messiah’s death and resurrection, being “outside the Law” is entirely negative.  Both of these terms are contrast with a third term “within the Law of Messiah” which refers to the new relationship to the Law established for both Jews and Gentiles through faith in Jesus.

Unbelieving Jews “under the Law” might be seen to have enjoyed a relatively positive status compared to those “outside the Law” (unsaved Gentiles) however once both Jew and Gentile receive Jesus as Messiah and the fullness His death and resurrection afford us,  we are brought together “within the Law of Messiah” and called to a life of partnership.  This partnership does not eliminate all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles; the two are fully equal yet distinct.  It is both Jew and Gentile being “within the Law of Messiah” that entirely changes the previous relationship that existed between Jews (who were “under the Law”) and unsaved Gentiles (who were “without the Law”).

So in the passage above, Paul is saying that when relating to non-believing Jews he lives as though he were “under the Law” – though he is in fact not “under the Law” but “within the Law”.  He treats these ‘brethren according to the flesh’ as his genuine covenant family rather than relating to them from a position of superiority and separation. In seeking to win them to faith and the life “within the Torah of Messiah” he was willing to adopt a level of halakhic observance that would be expected within a strictly Jewish environment that would be inappropriate in the Jewish-Gentile setting “within the Law of Messiah”.  So for example, Paul might participate in hand-washing in accordance with Pharisaical understanding of how it should be done; becoming as a Jew “under the Law” to those “under the Law” but not to act in such a way with the Jews “under the Law” so as to cause them to view Gentile Christians “within the Law of Messiah” as being in anyway inferior.

Likewise, Paul says that to those “outside the Law” [Gentiles that had not yet come to faith in Jesus] that he identifies with them even though his is not “outside the Law” but “within the Law of Messiah”.

Paul, who now eats and travels and works with Gentile Christians (those “within the Law of Messiah”) in the task of reaching those “outside the Law” [unbelieving Gentiles] and Paul demonstrates that he has the capacity to understand and empathize with them where they are at.