The Gospel of Empathy

The Gospel of Empathy

We live in an unusual time, don’t we? We act as though there are two sides to every position—our way and the wrong way. We hold our views so strongly that we can be closed to hearing any position that might counter our own. We’re suspicious of those who hold opposing views; distrustful of those with whom we disagree—or who disagree with us. We can question others’ motives simply because they define a problem—or its solution—differently than we do. I’m not on Facebook nor will I ever be, but I have friends who are who have found themselves avoiding it because they find things posted so disturbing. At times it seems that a spirit of paranoia has come to characterize our age. Ironically, in these United States of America, we’ve been overtaken by a spirit of suspicion and mistrust of others without necessarily having any evidence or cause for such suspicion.

Our morning’s passage provides an antidote, a refreshing remedy for such paranoia for Paul is commending a gospel of empathy; a gospel that seeks to understand and share the feelings of others for the sake of pointing them to the truth of who God in Christ is. And Paul is empathizing with a church that is, in fact, suspicious of him. If you’ll recall from our study in I Corinthians last year,[1] the church in Corinth was a troubled church. Though its conversion to Christ was genuine, Paul struggled to correct many of its behaviors that were more pagan than Christian. These behaviors ranged from divisiveness; to various kinds of sexual immorality—incest, adultery, homosexual behavior, prostitution; to greed; idolatry; slander; drunkenness; swindling; thievery; to believers taking one another to court over trivial matters. Their behavior paid homage to a pagan temple rather than to the temple of the Holy Spirit that God in Christ called and was creating them to be. But rather than give up on these believers, Paul spoke God’s truth to them, as he exhorted them to live in ways that honored Christ. For despite Paul’s exercising discipline over these believers, his devotion to them is evident. Even in the opening verses of this chapter he reminds them, “Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?… [Y]ou are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” Paul is completely invested in these believers. Yet notwithstanding this close connection, some of these believers were resisting Paul and his teaching.

During these five Sundays of Epiphany when we’ve been calling attention to the disclosure of Jesus as the Christ even to the Gentiles, our passage this morning continues to focus upon first, the importance of sharing the good news of God’s love even with those who may be suspicious of our motives; and second, the importance of persevering with those who come to faith, by teaching them more deeply about how God’s revelation, his communication by his prophets, his Son, his apostles, and his written word, is intended to transform our lives so that we all might become more like Christ Jesus himself by the power of his Holy Spirit at work within us both individually and corporately.

So turning to verse 16, we find Paul defending—and explaining—his his call to preach the gospel, “For when I preach the gospel,” he says, “I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Whether Old Testament prophet or New Testament apostle, it’s clear throughout Scripture that becoming a prophet or an apostle is never an individual’s choice but God’s. In the case of Paul, recall that Jesus Christ, after he was crucified and had risen from death, appeared to Paul—who at the time went by the name Saul—as he was persecuting Jesus’ disciples.[2] And Jesus asked him why he was persecuting him.[3] This encounter between Paul and the risen Jesus led to Paul’s call to become one of Christ’s apostles, one of those sent by him to proclaim the Gospel. As the Lord shortly thereafter disclosed in a vision to his disciple Ananias concerning Paul, “…This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”[4] So clearly Paul’s call to be Christ’s apostle is quite different from how we try to figure out what we’re going to be when we grow up! Whereas we might consider things like our interests, skills, abilities, and opportunities as we seek to discern how best to provide for ourselves and those we love, prophets and apostles in the Old and New Testament, respectively, didn’t choose what they were going to do with their lives, rather God spoke to them clearly and undeniably. So whereas Paul may have chosen to be a tentmaker[5] in much the same way as we choose a vocation, his call to be an apostle came from the risen Christ himself.

About the call to preach that came along with his apostleship Paul goes on to state beginning in verse 17, “17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.” Paul’s point is that though he has been called by God to be an apostle and proclaim Christ’s gospel to others, this call isn’t a burden but a blessing. Though Paul uses the language of being compelled to preach, at the same time it’s evident that preaching is what he desires to do for he sets up two possibilities: either his preaching is done voluntarily and therefore he has a reward or it’s not done voluntarily, in which case he’s “simply discharging the trust committed” to him. But for Paul his proclamation of the gospel clearly isn’t simply carrying out what he’s been told to do for in verse 18 he states what his reward is for preaching voluntarily—namely, to offer the gospel free of charge thereby not making full use of his “rights as a preacher of the gospel.” And as already noted, Paul’s having another skill, that of tentmaking, meant that he didn’t have to make use of his rights as a preacher of the gospel but was able to proclaim the truth about Christ Jesus freely and gladly.[6]

The backdrop to what he is saying is the Scriptural principle that a laborer is worthy of, or deserves, his wages.[7] Earlier in this chapter Paul provided examples of this principle by referencing various vocations that illustrate it: a soldier, the owner of a vineyard, the person who tends a flock (v. 7), whoever plows and threshes (v. 10), and even those who serve in the temple (v. 13). All of these are allowed to reap material benefits from the work they do. It’s no different for those who preach the gospel as he concludes in verses 11–12, “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” And again in verse 14 he reiterates, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” Yet as stated in verse 12 Paul, and Barnabas, his traveling companion[8] “did not use this right. On the contrary, [they] put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” Unlike the reputation too many televangelists have had of proclaiming the gospel in order to make money, Paul bypassed and refused to be paid by the Corinthians for sharing the gospel. He knew the Corinthians were suspicious of his character and therefore he didn’t want to do anything that might cause his teaching to be questioned or impinge upon the integrity of the gospel he was proclaiming.

As he goes on to explain in verse 19, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Paul’s laser-like focus as a preacher of the gospel resulted in doing whatever it took—without compromising the integrity of the gospel—to share the truth of who God in Christ Jesus is and what he has done in order to restore us to our relationship with the God who made us in his image and seeks to redeem and sanctify us by his love. For though Paul had an extraordinary gift of empathy he didn’t merely have an ability to understand and share the feelings of others—the definition of empathy—but he also knew how to meet others where they were that he might take them to where they should be, biblically understood.

So what we see expressed in these verses is first, Paul’s burden for those who shared his Jewish ancestry.[9] Therefore he asserts, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” As one who cut his teeth on Jewish law, Paul knew how to speak to—and reach—his fellow Jews. He understood well both the strengths and the limitations of the law. For as we saw last week, on the one hand, God gave his law because after the Fall we needed it in order to know what love for God and love for each other looks like in practice; on the other hand, though the law was able to act as a guide and tutor, it was never intended to be a means of salvation but rather its high demands are there to show us that we can’t fulfill it. Therefore the law is a means of showing us our need that we might turn to God. Too, whereas at one time Paul had misunderstood the law to mean that those Jews who followed Rabbi Jesus should be persecuted, he came to understand rightly that all of the law and the prophets had in fact been fulfilled in Christ Jesus.[10] There’s nothing quite like experience, like having “been there” to help us understand where others might be coming from; where others might be struggling. And given his experience as a zealous Jew, Paul certainly knew how to reach other devout Jewish believers.

But Paul didn’t only desire for his fellow Jews to embrace Christ but, second, he also desired for the Gentiles to do so as well, even referring to himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles.”[11] Hence, in verse 21 he speaks about how, “To those not having the law”—that is the non-Jews or Gentiles—“I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” Perhaps the most memorable example we have recorded of this in Scripture took place once when Paul was in Athens. As recorded in Acts 17, at that time Paul “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” As a result of this, a “group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him” (v. 18) and eventually “brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus” (v. 19), the judicial court, because they wanted to know what he was teaching since they had never heard “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” that he was preaching (v. 18). That was the only opening needed by Paul who then “stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.’” (vv. 23–23). And so he did. Though the Athenians were bright intellectuals who would become the cradle of our western civilization, they were nonetheless weak when it came to their understanding of the gospel. And the way in which Paul reached out to them is, I believe, an example of what it means when he states in verse 22, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this,” he concludes, “for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”[12]

So Paul is apostle to both Jews and Gentiles. As he states elsewhere, “Surely you have heard about…the mystery made known to me by revelation…which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.[13]” In other words, God in Christ came to share his love with all people—descendants of his chosen people, Israel, and all the peoples who are blessed by those descendants. Sharing the good news of Christ Jesus’ gospel is what drove Paul; and sharing the good news of Christ Jesus’ gospel is what should drive us.

What a glorious lesson—and opportunity—and example we have here in Paul: for by becoming all things to all people, we who know the gospel and have thereby been enabled by God’s Holy Spirit to know the love of our heavenly Father and to love the risen Christ in return can go on to share in the blessings of the gospel. For we, like Paul, are “free and belong to no one” (v. 19) but Christ. And true freedom, biblically defined, is freedom to follow Christ—making his priorities, our priorities; his values, our values; his teaching, our teaching; his demonstration of love in action, our demonstration of love in action.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be like him. And in this age of suspicion and paranoia one of the many things Scripture discloses to us about Christ Jesus is, again, a refreshing remedy to paranoia, namely that he is a God of empathy. We learn of his empathy in pondering the wonder that though he is God whom the universe is unable to contain, he nonetheless chose to take on human form. So on the one hand, “16in [Christ] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[14] Yet, on the other hand, as we read in the second chapter of Philippians, in our relationships with one another, we are called to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (v. 5):

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God

something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is the message of the gospel of empathy we’re called to live out and proclaim. We’re called not to be suspicious of others; not to prove others are wrong; not to assume others have wrong motives. No, we’re called to listen to others; to ask them about themselves; to try and understand why they believe what they believe; to meet them where they’re at; to love them as they are. Only when we’ve done so will we be able to genuinely care for and share the good news with others of God’s love in Christ. Again, Jesus himself is our example here. As the author of Hebrews puts it, “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.[15]” Christ’s taking on human form is a reminder to us of just how deeply and profoundly he loves us. So much so that he literally chose to become one of us ultimately to die in our place but also that we might know he gets us—he understands us—he isn’t surprised by our weakness—he isn’t shocked when we are tempted but rather he has come to help us become the people he made us to be, able to know God and his love for us, and able to love God in return; and able to know and love each other even overcoming our suspicions and fears as we learn to love one another truly.

This is a message we need to hear now more than ever for lack of empathy leads to division—and hurt—and hatred—and misunderstanding; but a gospel of empathy leads to confidence in God’s love for us for he has accepted the sacrifice of his Son on our behalf. Therefore we can have confidence in his grace, his unmerited favor—and confidence in his mercy, to his kindness to us who can be so ungrateful; we can have confidence that he is ever willing and ready to come to those who are in need. Let us now turn to our great and good and powerful and kind God of empathy in prayer.




[1] A sermon series highlighting portions of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians began on January 22, 2017 and ended on Easter morning, April 16, 2017.

[2] Acts 9:1–2: 1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

[3] Acts 9:3–6:As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

[4] Acts 9:15–16.

[5] Acts 18:1–3: 1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.

[6] Though Paul did make an exception of this practice with the church at Philippi. Note Philippians 4:10–20: 10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

[7] Paul wrote of this in his first letter to Timothy as well, quoting both Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, respectively. I Timothy 5:17–18: 17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Deuteronomy 25:4: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.; Luke 10:5–7: “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

[8] 1 Corinthians 9:6: Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

[9] See, for example, Philippians 3:4b–11: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.; Acts 23:6:Then Paul, knowing that some of them [members of the Sanhedrin] were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.”

[10] Matthew 5:17–20: 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.; In his post-resurrection appearance to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, we’re told in Luke 24:25–27: 25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

[11] Paul mentions this in Romans in the context of God’s love for both Jews and Gentiles, Romans 11:11–16: 11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring! 13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.; Ephesians 3:1: For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

[12] Paul’s complete investment in early believers is beautifully evident in the ways he addresses these early followers of Christ. See 2 Corinthians 3:1–3, 5:Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. ; I Thessalonians 2:19–20: 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

[13] Ephesians 3:2–3; 5–6. Emphases added.

[14] Colossians 1:16–17.

[15] Hebrews 4.

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