When the Israelites were exiled from their homeland, finding themselves in captivity in Babylon, they sought to preserve their identity by any means. Popular leaders told them, “Don’t get too comfortable here in Babylon, because you’ll be heading home soon.” So the kept their distance from the culture, the people, and anything that looked different to their way of life.
Except that wasn’t God’s plan for them. Jeremiah writes to those exiled, saying to them that, instead of seeking to keep completely distant from the people and culture of Babylon, they are to “Build houses and settle down, plant gardens Andean what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek out the prosperity of the city which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:5-7).
So often when engaging a culture that is different to our own we make one of two mistakes. Either we completely disengage ourselves, keeping the culture at arms length; or we become part of the new culture, losing who we might have been previously. But that is neither what Jeremiah or Paul encourages.
Just as Jeremiah encourages the Israelites, Paul models to the Corinthians what it means to “become all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22). For Paul again, this is what it means to live in freedom, giving up oneself for the sake of another. Or in other words, becoming what is necessary for another to really see, hear, and taste the good news of Jesus.
If we forget the underlying context of ‘freedom’, this passage can be a little confusing, and we can easily assume that Paul’s simply calling for everyone to assimilate into another culture (whatever it takes). But when we remember that Paul is speaking about what he has chosen to give up for the sake of the kingdom, then we can see that Paul is simply desiring to follow the model laid down to him by Jesus “who made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).
So for us as we consider this passage, what does it mean as we seek to follow Paul’s example of being like Jesus himself? What does it mean to relinquish control, and choose to give up our own freedom, so that others might know freedom found only in Christ Jesus?