I have two memories from my early days at university. The first one was being dropped off by my Dad. We found my room in halls. We carried my stuff into the room. We said goodbye. And I remember sitting on my bed and feeling that one of life's great transitions had just taken place. 'Gulp! I'm at university now.'
The second memory was of quickly being thrust into a whirlwind of social activity and meeting all kinds of different people: rugby players who went to lectures in flipflops, girls who went to breakfast in their pyjamas, lots of international students (coming from the Devonshire countryside, that was a big surprise for me!), different Southern accents, different Northern accents. I thought: 'Wow! This is really diverse!'
If you've just arrived at university, you may well be feeling those two things. And the question that follows all the nervous excitement of being in a new place with lots of different people is this:
Will I fit in? Will I fit in? Will I fit in – in this city? Will I fit in – on my course? Will I fit in – in my sports team? Will I – or won't I?
Today we'll meet someone who was an expert at fitting in with different groups of people, but he didn't do it as part of settling in to a new phase of life. He fitted in with different people as a costly lifestyle choice because he wanted more people to know Jesus. The man is the Apostle Paul, an early church leader!
1. Paul's Ambition: He Wants to Bring as Many People as Possible to Know Jesus
A quick word on the background to the passage before we launch in.
Paul is writing the letter of 1 Corinthians to a group of comfortable, proud, self-satisfied Christians. And in chapter 9, he's trying to shake them out of their complacency. He wants to get them to follow his example in making sacrifices to lead others to Jesus. But what right does Paul have to tell these Corinthian Christians to follow his example? At the end of this section of the letter, in 1 Corinthians 11.1, Paul writes, "be imitators of me, as I am of Christ".
He wants the Corinthians to be 'copycats' – to copy him as he copies Christ. Think about it a moment.
Jesus is God. But he didn't hold on to his privileges – he stepped down to come to earth as a man – and down again to die on the Cross to bring us back to God. Jesus is the model of self-sacrifice for the spiritual good of others. And as Paul is copying the example of Jesus, so the Corinthians – and us today – should copy Paul.
I have two simple points this evening.
Firstly, Paul's Ambition: He Wants to Bring as Many People as Possible to Know Jesus.
Just look at how committed he is to this task! 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
"For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings."
Paul wanted to win people over to trust in Jesus Christ. His deepest longing in life was for people to be saved. He couldn't save people himself – he was not the Saviour – but he could tell people about Jesus the Saviour who could save people – and that's what Paul gave his life for.
If you're not yet a Christian this evening, you might be wondering why Christians are always talking about being saved or salvation. What is it? Do I need it?
The thrust the Bible is that God created everything. And he made us humans to live in harmony with him. But all of us have turned our backs on him because we want to live life our way, not his way. So we ignore him or tell him to 'get lost' or pretend to honour him. And because of this bad attitude, we're in double trouble. Part of the issue is that we're stuck in this mindset of rebellion against God.
But the biggest issue is that God himself is rightly angry with our sin and we're on the broad road to hell. But the good news of the Bible is that we don't have to go to hell, because Jesus came to save us. He did that by dying on the cross to take his Father's anger in our place. And he rose again to open the doors of a new perfect world for all who believe in him.
Everything hinges on how we respond to Jesus. Will we pretend we're not in spiritual danger? Will we try in vain to work our own way back into God's good books? Or will we turn to Jesus and accept his rescue?
I'm sure you've all heard about the amazing Thai Cave Rescue this summer. 12 boys and their football coach became trapped in an underground labyrinth of narrow, pitch-black, flooded cave passages. They spent nine days in the cave system until they were discovered on 2nd July 2018.
Imagine their situation in those first nine days. They were in desperate danger from the floodwaters, but had no escape. They were totally lost and they could not find a way out. They were in the dark and had no light. They were hungry and had no food. Their situation was totally hopeless. Death was days away.
But then the offer of rescue came from the outside. The question was a simple one: were they willing to be rescued? Would they accept the help they needed to get out of the cave?
It's the same with us spiritually. We're in desperate danger of facing God's judgement. We can't get ourselves out of our mess. We're lost. And time is ticking. But help is at hand! Jesus can save us!
If you're not yet trusting in Jesus this evening, do you realise that you're in real spiritual danger? Will let Jesus rescue you? He died for you – will you let him save you?
If you're already Christian here today, will you copy Paul's example in pro-actively trying to tell people about Jesus the Rescuer at university? One pastor of a church in Oxford wrote about his attempts to be pro-active in telling his friends about Jesus at universities. He wrote this:
"My greatest longing was to see my friends come to know Christ and I was always trying to invite them to talks, especially the missions in the Lent term. I was told at the time that student days usually afford the best opportunity for evangelism in a person's life, and I now know that to be true."
Friends, follow his example, as he follows Paul's example! There are so many opportunities this term to tell people about Jesus! In early October there's our church's Real Lives, Real Hope mission week. Who could you bring along? If your friends turn down invites to church, there are CU events, or you could share Clayton TV links with them on social media, or give them a short Christian book as a birthday present, or read a gospel with them after lectures, share the gospel informally, or invite them to carol services! Make it your ambition to bring as many people as possible to know Jesus while you're at university.
2. Paul's Approach: He Steps Out of His Comfort Zone to Fit in with Different People
That's my first point. Paul's Ambition: He Wants to Bring as Many People as Possible to Know Jesus. But how does he go about making this happen? My second point is this. Paul's Approach: He Steps Out of His Comfort Zone to Fit in with Different People.
His motto is there in verse 22:
"I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."
Now let's not misunderstand what Paul means by 'fitting in' with different groups of people.
Firstly, fitting in doesn't mean selling out. Don't go and get drunk with your non-Christian friends and then say: 'I was just fitting in as a Christian!' No! Fitting in doesn't mean selling out morally. Nor does it mean selling out theologically: 'Oh! You follow a different religion. Well, I guess we're all just worshipping the same God in different ways.'
Secondly, fitting in is for speaking up! Fitting in is not the ultimate goal. Paul wanted to fit in with others, not so he could reach the giddy milestone of 1000 Facebook friends, but to bring people to believe in Jesus. The purpose of fitting in is to speak up about Jesus.
With those two points in mind, let's see Paul in action.
The first case study is how Paul related to the Jews.
"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law."
"The Jews" and "those under the law" are one category – Paul wants to fit in with Jewish people who follow the Law of Moses – because he wants as many of them as possible to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
Imagine for a moment how costly it was for Paul. Paul grew up following Jewish ceremonial laws, obeying Jewish food laws, observing Jewish festivals. But now as a Christian, he was free! Free as a bird! He knew that all he needed to do to be right with God was to believe in Jesus Christ! Oh! The weight – not just of his sin – but also of all these Jewish regulations – was off his shoulders! He could now enjoy bacon butties for brunch!
But there was just one issue. If Paul lived out his new-found freedom, then Jews would not be willing to listen to him talking about Jesus.
So, to win Jewish people for Christ, he fitted in with the Jews again. And in the book of Acts we see him preaching in synagogues, in Acts 16.3 he had his half-Gentile co-worker Timothy circumcised and in Acts 21.17-24 he went through a Jewish purification ritual. Paul fitted in with the Jews so that they would listen to him speaking about Jesus. So, that's Paul with the Jews.
What about us? Here's the question: How can we reach religious people around us with the gospel?
Think about your coursemate who's in the Islamic society. Your Buddhist neighbours from Thailand and Sri Lanka. Your UK friends with a churchy background. How can you fit in with them? Well, start with prayer. If you don't know any Muslim people, for example, pray for a Muslim friend. That's what I did five years ago – and since then I have had several Muslim friends – and good opportunities to share Christ with them.
If you have religious friends already, take a genuine interest in them. Ask them about their faith – what it means to them day by day. And be ready for them to ask you about your faith in Jesus Christ. Fit in with them to bring them to Jesus.
That's Paul fitting in with the Jews. Let's now think about him fitting in with Gentiles (non-Jewish people):
"To those outside the (Jewish) law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law."
This would have been costly for Paul – he was brought up to despise Gentiles, he was proud of his Jewish heritage – but if he was to reach Gentiles with the gospel, he would have to leave all this behind.
So he did! To bring Gentiles to Christ, he fitted in with them. In the book of Acts, we see him stepping out of the familiarity of the Jewish synagogue into a lecture theatre, into a debating chamber; preaching to peasants in Lystra, preaching to philosophers in Athens. He read their poetry. He learned about their customs.
Why did he do all this? Because he wanted to win them for Jesus.
Again, the spotlight moves from Paul to each one of us. How can we copy Paul here? How can we fit in with non-religious people to win them over to Jesus? Well, it often takes time to earn a hearing.
I think of my atheist French friend at university in my final year. Out of curiosity, he came with me once to church early on, but after that, I had no real opportunities to share my faith in Jesus with him for six months – even though I met him every Thursday for lunch and on other evenings in the week and I prayed for him almost every day. I was on the verge of giving up all hope of ever having an opportunity to speak to him about Jesus, when out of the blue, God answered my prayers. One Thursday lunchtime slot, I invited him to a CU Mission Event – he came – and also came to one on Friday lunchtime – and then he and his girlfriend did Christianity Explored (in French!). Praise God!
The point is that there's no way he would have come to hear about Jesus if I hadn't shared my life with him for six months. Some non-religious people will be open to hearing about Jesus straight away, but very often we need to wait for openings, as I did with my French friend.
Let me say two final things to encourage you as you go about sharing your faith in Jesus with other people at the university and beyond.
Firstly, don't give up!
Sharing the good news about Jesus is exciting, but it's also hard work and often discouraging. I referred earlier to the Oxford pastor looking back on his evangelistic efforts at universities. Perhaps you think he led 10 to 15 people to Christ? He also wrote this:
"I did see a couple of friends turn to Christ, neither of whom was continuing in the faith by the end of their time at Cambridge. That discouraged me at the time, but I have since discovered that evangelism is a long game. One of the two came back to the Lord 20 years later and I know of two others to whom I witnessed who later came to the Lord."
So don't give up! You will face opposition. You will feel the cost in terms of time and energy, but don't give up!
Secondly, don't go alone!
As we've been looking at the individual example of Paul and I've been challenging each of you individually to follow the example of Paul, there's the danger that we can think of evangelism as an individual pursuit.
But wonderfully, that's not the case! Brothers and sisters, we are on a team! We can help each other in this work of sharing Jesus with others! We can pray for each other, we can remind each other of the gospel we're sharing, we can offer advice and encouragement in sharing it. It's a team effort, but we can only do that if we know each other. That's why joining small groups in the church like Focus, JPC Internationals or Home Groups is so important. Together with other Christians, you can work as a team to bring other students – and locals – in Newcastle – and beyond – to know Jesus Christ.