All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient, 1 Corinthians 10:23 NASB
Are lawful – The Greek word (sumphero) is a combination word. It comes from sum (which means “together”) and phero (which means “to bring”). We get the English word “sum” – adding up things – from this Greek prefix. The idea is bringing things together in one place. The objective is to profit by adding something. Paul is saying that some things just don’t add up. Some things aren’t profitable when they are added to our lives.
Few people have any problem with this idea. We all know that some things just aren’t good additions to life. Paul’s statement seems to be ordinary common sense. But it isn’t! The problem is the opening of the verse. Paul starts this verse with “all things are lawful,” but obviously all things are not lawful. The Torah gives us clear instructions about those things that are not lawful. Our governments and society put restrictions on behavior. Even conscience tells us that some things are harmful. Paul’s opening claim seem to be patently absurd. How can Paul be so deluded?
The problem is our English translation and cultural understanding of the Greek panta exestin. The verb has three related meanings in New Testament Greek. The first is the power that decides. In opposition to an intrinsic ability (like the power to decide), exousia describes choice that causes change. Thus the word is used to describe the invisible power of God’s word, a declaration that makes things happen. Secondly, the word implies that “this power of decision is active in a legally-ordered whole, especially in the state and in all the authoritarian relationships supported by it.” Finally, the word describes freedom allowed within a community. These last two definitions are crucial. Think about it. Paul chooses a word that has the idea of an ordered structure built into it. exestin is not freedom to do whatever I want to do. That would be license, not freedom. Paul’s idea of freedom is the power to choose whatever is permitted within the structure of the community or granted under community authority. In his choice of this Greek term, Paul is saying that he has the power that brings about whatever falls within the category of permitted actions. There are no inhibitions preventing Paul from acting in any way that his recognized authority allows. For Paul, this means that anything permitted under Torah is permissible for him.
We read this verse and think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we wish. In our culture, freedom does not imply a structured, pre-existing order that provides authority over the community. But in Paul’s world, that’s exactly what freedom means. Freedom is the opportunity to do what is expected based on accepted authority. For Paul and all of the observant Jews of the first century, this idea of freedom means being able to do what Torah allows and requires without hindrance.
But . . . even if it is permissible under the authority of Torah, Paul says he will still choose not to exercise this power that decides because of other constraints, namely, the constraints placed upon him by his love for his brothers in the Messiah. From the perspective of Torah, Paul is “free” to do whatever a Torah-observant life allows. But Paul recognizes that some of those actions are not profitable for his greater purpose – the proclamation of Yeshua HaMashiach. Paul will not do anything that would jeopardize his assignment even though there are no prohibitions against what he might do.
An example helps us see Paul’s argument. Suppose Paul wanted to observe the Sabbath but he was in a city that prohibited meetings on Friday. Paul would not be “free” to observe what Torah requires. But where there is no such prohibition, Paul is free. He is not free to do whatever he feels like on Friday evening. He is “free” to celebrate the Sabbath without restrictions.
When Paul says that all things are lawful, he means that in the ordered community of Torah, there are no obstacles which would keep him from observing all that is expected of him. He is free to obey. But there is an even greater obligation on his life, the obligation of faithfulness to his calling. Therefore, even though he has no obstacles before him that prevent his observance of Torah, he will still hold himself to a higher standard and he will not do anything that diminishes his mission.
We can see the application of this principle in the life of Yeshua. In the passage in John 8, Yeshua confronts a woman caught in adultery. Under Torah, He is permitted to sentence her (in fact, He is probably the only one who has this permission given the circumstances). So He is free to act according to Torah. But He doesn’t do so. Why not? Because there is a higher principle at work here, the principle of forgiveness and restoration. The Torah is not set aside. But grace overrides Torah permission. If Paul were in that audience, he would say, “All these things are lawful, but they do not all add up to the greater purpose.”
Topical Index: lawful, exestin, free, 1 Corinthians 10:23
 Foerster, “exestin, exousia, exousiazo, katexouisiazo” in TDNT, p. 566.