“For I am not seeking my own good but the good of the many…” 1 Corinthians 10:33

Taken out of context, this important statement by the Apostle Paul is hard to understand for it raises a number of questions that cannot be answered on the basis of the statement taken by itself. For example, is this statement simply a description of Paul’s own pattern of life or is it a prescription that every believer in Jesus must follow? What precisely does Paul mean by ‘the good’? Why should ‘the good of the many’ outweigh the good of the individual? Does such a statement not fly in the face of individual rights? And if so, should such a point of view be supported? Where does God fit into the equation since it is surely impossible to talk about ‘the good’ in terms which do not refer to what God calls ‘good’? Placed in their context in 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 however, Paul’s words are quite simple to understand and are of the utmost importance for each believer and for every local church.

First, we note that Paul qualifies the ‘good of the many’ with the words ‘that they may be saved’. The ‘good of the many’ for which Paul is working hard is the salvation of the many through faith in Jesus Christ. Since Paul himself is however already a saved person, his own ‘good’ cannot refer to his own salvation, but must refer to something else. This potential confusion surrounding different uses of the word ‘good’ in the English translation is resolved by noting that the word that Paul uses here literally means ‘benefit’ or ‘advantage’. Paul is thus saying that in all things he does not act for his own benefit or advantage but for the advantage of the many, namely their salvation through Christ.

Second, we note that the ‘many’ in this paragraph refers to a wide variety of people whom Paul identifies as “Jews, Greeks, and the church of God” (vs 32). Thus in all his actions, Paul is thinking hard about the salvation of very different people groups and more particularly about what it would take for these various groups to hear and accept the gospel message. Paul’s primary concern as he tells us in verse 32 is that he does not want to cause anyone to stumble because of his conduct. The word ‘stumble’ that Paul uses here refers to someone being caused to turn away from the gospel or to not believe the gospel because a deadly obstacle has been put in their path. For those opposed to the truth, the truth itself can be an obstacle, but Paul is not talking about that here. He is referring to behaviour with regard to disputable matters such as food and drink which, while not a matter of right or wrong in themselves, could for a variety of reasons cause people either to reject the gospel or to turn back from following Jesus. In such matters Paul was always quick to give up his freedom and his rights for the gospel good of others. Notice that Paul includes the ‘church of God’ in the list. He does this because he is concerned not just that people begin as Christians but that they finish well.

Third, we note Paul’s overarching concern for the ‘glory of God’. The paragraph begins with Paul reminding the Corinthians (and us) that all things, even the so-called ordinary things of life, can and should be done for God’s glory. This is a wonderful truth, one that reminds us that all of life is worship to God. This was one of the great truths rediscovered at the time of the Protestant Reformation and is one of the reasons why we can describe ‘ordinary work’ as a calling. But this reference to the glory of God is very important in the context of Paul’s statement that he wants to ‘please everybody in every way’ (vs 33). It limits what we understand by the verb ‘please’ and tells us that Paul was not a person pleaser in the wrong sense of those words – simply saying or doing what made people happy in an attempt to be liked by them or to have an influence on them. And it reminds us that though Paul was keen to compromise on non-essentials, he would never do or say anything that was contrary to what the Lord had said or that would bring dishonour to the Lord’s name. Paul’s pleasing of people had to do with his willingness to compromise on his own personal freedoms for the sake of the gospel, not on the gospel itself.

In conclusion then, we should note four key lessons from this brief but important paragraph of 1 Corinthians: First we learn that the Glory of God is paramount and that we are to live for God’s glory in everything we do. Second we learn that the salvation of people is of great importance to God and that we are to do everything in our power to act for the ‘good of the many’. Third we learn that our personal freedoms and rights are not nearly as important as we think they are. Indeed on a scale of importance the salvation of others is far more important than us having things our own way in life or at church. Like Paul we should be eager to give up our rights and preferences for others. Fourth, we learn that this gospel way of life is not an optional extra but a fundamental calling. Like Paul we are to live for ‘the good of others’ because this is precisely what the Lord Jesus Himself did, setting us an example to follow for the glory of God and the salvation of the world.

Written by Mervyn Eloff. Originally posted here.