Charting a Course for the Church
Part V: Treating the Gospel as a Trust

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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The example of the apostle Paul in missions and evangelistic work is not lost on today's missionary strategists, and rightly so. All of the apostles were preachers of the Gospel, but Paul's missionary journeys, if not taking him farthest from Jerusalem, were nevertheless more extensive than any other apostle of Christ. Therefore, he serves as the prime example of a Christian missionary and evangelist.

Paul is clear that, to him, the Gospel is a special trust from God, which he mentions explicitly in I Corinthians 9:17, Galatians 2:7, I Thessalonians 2:4, I Timothy 1:11, and Titus 1:3 - showing that this was uppermost in his mind throughout his ministry. In Romans, Paul points out that the Hebrews ". . . were entrusted with the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2) -- the "oracles of God" being the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament. As someone who thought of himself as "a Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Philippians 3:3:5), Paul certainly felt this responsibility for the Scriptures; and as such he persecuted the early Christians -- those he believed violated that trust. After becoming a Christian, Paul continued to be faithful to this charge. Paul's responsibility as an apostle of Christ included and went beyond this to stewardship of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We see both emphases in Acts 17:2-3, where we read that Paul's custom was to argue from the Old Testament Scriptures to convince his listeners that Jesus was the Christ. In this, Paul was consistent with the ministry of the Twelve.

The word we translate "entrusted" in Paul's New Testament writings is interesting because it is always a passive form of the same word that we translate "faith" in other contexts. In his first letter to the Thessalonians Paul says that he was "approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel." The plan of God to redeem fallen mankind through Jesus Christ had been settled before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). But it was only through Jesus Christ and his apostles that this plan was becoming known to the world. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Colossians 1:24-29, and Romans 16:25-27 Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of the knowledge of which he was a steward - knowledge uniquely held and made known by the apostles of Christ.

However, responsibility for the Gospel of Christ was not just the responsibility of Christ's apostles, such as Paul; it is also a part of the apostolic charge to the church. Paul's careful treatment of the Gospel is to be our example.

In seeking direction from Paul in evangelism and missions, Christians have often looked to I Corinthians 9:22 where Paul, discussing his efforts to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people, writes, ". . . I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some." One of the key words to notice in this passage is the word "all." This one little word can cause so many big problems in the interpretation of Scripture! Whenever we see it, we need to be very careful about the scope of the word "all," asking ourselves the question, "all of what?" In this case, the English "all things" is the correct translation of one Greek word, panta, and Paul repeats it at the beginning of verse 23 where he mentions the Gospel specifically as his motivation for doing "all things."

One important question to ask is how Paul's statement here fits into his understanding of the trust for the Gospel he received from God. We notice that Paul mentions this trust in the 17th verse of this chapter, shortly before the verses we are considering, which emphasizes that the "all things" of verses 22-23 should be seen in this context.

We would surely not expect the "all things" of I Corinthians 9:22,23 to include dishonesty. Not only did Paul clearly deny deceitfulness, he also denied using the Gospel as a means to wealth and power. These are characteristics of false prophets and false apostles, of whom, clearly, Paul was not one. Paul often supported himself by making and repairing tents to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.

Paul also rejected any form of hucksterism, the "merchandising" or "retailing" of God's Word for profit and personal gain. Paul states this explicitly in II Corinthians 2:17 where the word we translate "peddlers" is kapeleuontes, a Greek word used to describe small retailers and merchants, usually with negative connotations. As such the word was often used to describe wine merchants who watered down their wine so that they could make more money; as in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah 1:22. But it came to represent all merchants willing to degrade their product to maximize their benefit from sale, and thus for anyone willing to corrupt something. The first and second centuries were a time when traveling preachers were often the primary means whereby Christians learned about their faith. These preachers brought with them accounts (often called "traditions") of the life and teachings of Jesus. They also instructed in sound doctrine. Guarding against false teachers was an important concern, as we see in letters as diverse as Galatians and I John, and in the writings of the earliest (called "apostolic") church fathers such as The Didache. For early Christians, personal profit was a dead giveaway that a traveling preacher was not representing God.

However, Paul goes beyond this to point out to the Thessalonians that he is not a "pleaser of men" (I Thessalonians 2:1-12). Paul makes this point not only explicitly but emphatically. It was also Paul's instruction to both slaves and masters that they go about their work in a manner that pleases the Lord - not as "men-pleasers" (Ephesians 6:5-9, cf. Matthew 6:1-21). So we have a principle of Christian behavior and spirituality here, applicable to all Christians in all situations, not just to someone in the office of an apostle of Christ. Paul's ministry was given with God in mind first and his listeners second (II Corinthians 2;17, 12:19), as his Lord taught that a righteous man would always do (John 3:20-21). As a result of Paul's direct and honest presentation of the Gospel, Paul could say to the elders at Ephesus, "I solemnly witness to you this day that I am clean of the blood of all I have ministered to while here. For I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26-27, translation by author). In other words, because Paul told his listeners the whole truth, the responsibility for their eternal destiny lay not with Paul but with their acceptance or rejection of his message. And the reach of Paul's ministry had gone far beyond Ephesus. Luke tells us that while Paul ministered there, both Jews and Greeks throughout Asia Minor learned the Word of God (Acts 19:10).

Paul's commitment to tell everything faithfully had a price, however. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness" (I Corinthians 1:22-25). The remarkable thing about this passage is that for both major groups to whom Paul ministered, the Jews and the Gentiles (in verse 23 literally, in Greek, "the nations" as opposed to "the Hebrews"), Paul was offering something they did not seek! The vast majority of the Gentiles who listened to Paul thought his message was foolishness, the vast majority of the Jews who listened to him found his message, and specifically Jesus Christ, to be a stumbling block (on this important point see I Peter 2:6-8, Isaiah 8:14-15, 28:16, Matthew 21:42-44, Acts 4:11, Psalm 118:22-23).

It is not that Paul preached what his listener's did not want to hear and took pleasure when they rejected it. To the contrary, Paul desperately wanted his listeners to become Christians (Acts 26:29). However, Paul did not aim his message to meet the felt needs of his listeners. Instead, he preached Christ crucified. The word "crucified" here is in the perfect tense, meaning that Paul preached the risen Christ who lives and ministers today as the One who had been crucified but conquered the cross and the grave (cf. I Corinthians 15:1-4) and comes again - the Christ who, as a result of His crucifixion, is able to minister to His people today (Romans 5:8-10). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the solution given by the God of the Hebrews to a problem that can only be properly understood within the context of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Paul's famous address to the Greek philosophers on Mars' Hill (the Areopagus or "Hill of Ares" or "Hill of Mars" since "Mars" is the Latin name for the Greek god of war "Ares") is often cited as an example of when Paul radically changed his message because of his audience (Acts 17:19-34). At least three points should be noted, however. First, Paul's message here must be seen in the context of his preaching in the synagogue and marketplace just prior to this (Acts 17:17-18), where he surely gave a fuller treatment of the Gospel, as was Paul's custom. Second, the text seems to suggest that Paul was stopped before he could complete his message. We do not know for sure that Paul would not have gone on to explain more. Finally, Paul started speaking to where the Athenians were in their thinking, but moved quickly to the concepts of God as Creator and to the coming judgment of all mankind by the risen Christ - which placed the matter squarely within the context of the Gospel and the Hebrew Scriptures. Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote,

"Here Paul does not quote Hebrew prophecies quite unknown to his hearers; the direct quotations in this speech are quotations from Greek poets. But he does not descend to the level of his hearers by arguing from "first principles" as one of their own philosophers might. His argument is firmly based upon the Biblical revelation of God, echoing throughout the thought, and at times the very language of the OT scriptures. Like the biblical revelation itself, his argument begins with God the Creator of all and ends with God the Judge of all." i

Paul and other early Christian preachers were careful to be certain that Christianity was seen as entirely unique from paganism. While Paul tailored his approach to his listeners, his message did not change. The paganism of New Testament times was not, for the most part, based upon the acceptance of specific spiritual teachings - everyone believed and did as they thought best - and as long as they respected everyone else's right to do the same, generally obeyed the law and did not endanger others, and honored the Roman emperor, they were accepted. Yet, Paul preached the same doctrinal truth to the pagans that he presented to the Jews.

Pagan worship included drama and competition to favor their gods. At Delphi, for example, the most famous oracle of the ancient world, the temple to Apollo stood just behind and below the stage where drama and music competitions were held; so that for most of the 5,000 people viewing the stage, the temple was in view. Just up the hill was an area dedicated to athletic competition in honor of the gods. In this place one of the four great, pan-Hellenic athletic games, the Pythian games, were held in ancient times - another of which, in Olympia, formed the basis for the modern Olympic games - and still another of which was held on the isthmus near the city of Corinth. Yet, Paul's intention to become "all things to all men that I may by all means save some" did not include Christian composition of drama to be performed at Greek theaters, nor athletes nor musicians to compete in pagan festivals to bring attention to the Jesus Christ. Considering the direct manner in which God often communicated to Paul in his missionary work (Acts 22:17-21), we must see this as the intention of God as well as of Paul.

Paul's ministry was a ministry of faith in the same God whose Gospel he preached. If the preaching of Paul were to be fruitful, Paul told the Corinthians, it would be so only because God Himself made it so, and in that respect, the preacher was as nothing (I Corinthians 3:6-7, cf. John 15:5). The preacher who preaches by faith, then, needs boldness, just as did Paul (Ephesians 6:19), because their reliance is upon God in the face of the strong, visible opposition of a fallen world. This kind of preaching doesn't always win crowds, but it produces lasting fruit. Even with a very skeptical audience, Paul's preaching on Mar's Hill led to conversions.

Greed leads religious charlatans to offer a "watered-down" message to attract a following for their own benefit. The Old Testament indicates that there was seldom a lack of prophets, such as Balaam, who knew that it was in their own interests to say what others wanted to hear.

But there is another reason why some offer a corrupted Gospel - and that is a desire for harvest that is not matched by sufficient faith. Faith, taught Jesus, can move mountains (Matthew 17:20, 21:21, cf. Matthew 13:31-32). But the preacher who will not trust God looks for shortcuts and techniques that become a substitute for lack of faith. If these techniques seem to work, the preacher assumes God is blessing and continues. However, like any lie, the distortion of truth eventually leads to corruption of the church and her testimony.

With all of this in mind we come to see that Paul's commitment to be "all things to all men that I may by all means save some" is subordinate to his commitment to the truth he has been entrusted with. Just as Jesus did in His conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4), Paul is willing to allow his audience to govern the context in which he presents the Gospel, but the truths he presents are no different from those important for all people in all cultures and times.

Therefore, Paul was flexible concerning outward customs and the situation of his listeners (I Corinthians 9:19-22). But he never allowed culture to dictate his message nor to blur the differences between Christianity and non-Christian religion and culture. He was as intolerant of self-serving shortcuts as he was of unnecessary roadblocks in his ministry of the Gospel.


i Bruce, F.F. Commentary on the Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1981, p. 355.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 8, August 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.