We’ve been in 1 Corinthians. The past two weeks, we’ve looked at chapters 8-9; this week we’re in chapter 10. It might seem kind of fragmented, but chapters 8-10 make up one long answer to the question concerning food sacrificed to idols.
My job today is to sum up the argument and help bring it all together. So, to do that, I’m going to first tell you the conclusion of Paul’s argument. Then we’ll jump into chapter 10 and see how Paul arrives at that conclusion. You can consider this your spoiler alert. I’m going to tell you the end before we watch the movie. Some of you might be thinking, if you have to do that, the Bible’s just too confusing.
Well, maybe this will encourage you. Even Peter says this about Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:16), “there are some things in them that are hard to understand.” Now, that’s just honest. Some portions of Scripture are hard to understand. But just as we would say we believe in the inerrancy of Scripture- that it is fully true without mixture of error, we would also say we believe in the clarity of Scripture.
The clarity of Scripture doesn’t mean the Bible is easy to understand; nor does it mean Scripture is impossible to understand or that you have to have advanced degrees to understand it. We need to approach God’s Word with the expectation that we can understand it in order to know and obey God.
The Spirit illumines the Word to us and helps us understand it; we can all learn basic principles of interpreting Scripture; and then, my responsibility this morning, and the responsibility of all pastors and elders, is to help you understand it and grow in knowing and loving God.
So, if you’ve felt a little lost in the weeds, be encouraged this morning. I pray God speaks to you through his Word and helps you apply it to your life.
The end of chapter 10 draws Paul’s argument together by talking about Christian liberty and love. Christian freedom looks like truth and love applied, especially in difficult situations.
And the principle that should guide our decision-making process is to do all things for the glory of God and the good of others (10:31-33). “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God … not seeking [your] own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
The question about food sacrificed to idols was a cultural issue that was difficult to navigate. The Corinthians needed wisdom to know how to live as faithful Christians in their pluralistic, sex-obsessed and idol-saturated culture.
In matters of ultimate truth, they are to hold firm in their convictions; but in disputable matters, they are to defer to others for the sake of love. Paul says that they ought to live guided by love not knowledge or pride in “being right.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up, 8:1 says.
When you’re guided by the love principle, you may choose to limit certain freedoms in disputable matters.
This is the key to a Christian understanding of freedom. Limiting freedom is not the loss of freedom but the proper use of freedom. The proper use of freedom will include certain limitations or restrictions because you are concerned about what’s best for the other person. I made a marriage vow to Elizabeth to be faithful to her alone for all my days. That boundary has given us immense freedom. That boundary considers what is best for Elizabeth.
Culture thinks that anything that places limits on freedom or keeps you from being able to express your authentic self is damaging and enslaving.
Percy Bysshe Shelly was an English Poet who lived during the early 1800s. His life is a tale of human misery. He was a radical atheist and believed that the institution of marriage and traditional Christian morality were evil and tyrannical because they are oppressive and repressive. He was a champion of sexual liberation. And he practiced sexual liberation.
He abandoned his pregnant wife and kids for another woman. As a result, tragically, his pregnant wife committed suicide by drowning herself in a river. He married his lover, Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein) but had other close relationships with women during this marriage. His life ended in literal shipwreck. He died at sea after getting caught in a storm.
He was a champion of personal freedom, but his life shows that his will was captive to unrestrained desire. And his selfish actions left behind a story of human misery.
Edmund Burke was a British statesman who lived a generation before Shelley. Burke had a Christian understanding of freedom. Shelley said freedom was unrestrained desire. Here’s what Burke said: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites […] Their passions forge their fetters.”
In other words, freedom requires self-control and moral virtue. Desire enslaves. Look at both of their lives and ask who was really free? It’s obvious. Their lives write the story.
Dallas Willard says desire doesn’t consider what is best, it considers what it wants. To be enslaved to your desire is a miserable state to be in. Freedom considers what is best; and that may include, at times, denying your own rights, or limiting your own freedom.
So, let me briefly review chapters 8-9 so they’re fresh in your mind. Paul is giving guidelines for decision-making operating out of the love principle.
In chapter 8, the issue is, am I allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols?
Paul’s answer is: it depends. Terry discussed this 2 weeks ago and I’ll talk about it more later. But basically, Paul says there are times where you need to forego your right for the sake of loving the other.
In Chapter 9, Paul illustrates by pointing out his decision to forego his right to receive financial support as an apostle. Even though that is within his right, he’s chosen to forego that right for the sake of the gospel and the greater reward—the imperishable wreath.
And now, we come to chapter 10. I’m going to break it into three sections and summarize what Paul is saying.
The first section is Verses 1-13. In this section, Paul gives four OT examples of sin that damaged the community. The purpose is that these OT examples would be applied to the Corinthians’ current context. Vs 11 says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Elsewhere, in Romans 15:4, Paul also says “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
This is a great example of the clarity of Scripture. Paul certainly thought that the Bible was intelligible and could be understood by non-Jewish Gentile believers in Corinth, even though they were separated by huge gaps in time and culture. And even in our context today, as the gap in time and culture expands, the Bible is still relevant. The Word of God is living and active.
What were the sins? Idolatry; Sexual immorality; Testing God; and Grumbling/Quarrelling.
There’s idolatry with the golden calf incident. This idolatry was accompanied by moral laxity. This serves as a warning for Corinth: there is a link between the freedom of visiting idol temples and moral laxity. Be careful how you use your freedom.
There’s a warning against sexual immorality. The connection here no doubt is obvious, considering the sexual controversy covered in chapter 6.
There’s a warning against testing God. The principle for the Corinthians is they are not to test God’s patience in the “strong’s” willful disregard for the “weaker” brother.
And lastly, a warning against quarrels. The parallel to the Corinthians here is that this food controversy has caused quarrels and disunity in the church.
Paul ends this section with the assurance that God has provided a way out of temptation. God is faithful. You do not have to be overcome by these temptations.
Section 2 is Verses 14-22. And here, Paul opens a discussion about the significance of the Lord’s Supper.
When Christians gather to celebrate communion, it is an expression of their sharing in the reality of Jesus’ death and his benefits. It is a memorial meal that signifies union with God and union with other believers. Paul over and over in these few short verses mentions the word “one.” You are one body, one cup, one bread. They are to be a united people.
The language Paul uses to describe the unity that takes place is the language of “participation.” So, it’s more than just social bonding. There is real spiritual unity with God and with each other at the table. This is not just a private individual event.
That’s one of the reasons in ch 11 Paul will stress the importance of examining yourself before you partake. If you are in sin or have wronged someone, it is important to be reconciled before partaking the bread and cup because the very act of partaking the bread and cup is an expression of Christian unity.
In the same way that there is participation in the Lord at the celebration of communion, there is participation with demons at pagan idol worship, which often included a meal. If you participate in idol worship, you are actually participating in the demonic. Paul says you cannot eat both at the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
Here, it might sound like Paul is contradicting himself. In Chapter 8, he said idols are nothing. Vs 4. “We know that an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” Idols are a non-god. Therefore, you are able to freely eat food that has been offered in sacrifice to idols.
Now, he is saying— when you sacrifice food to an idol, you are actually sacrificing to demons. Therefore, you absolutely cannot eat at the table of demons and the table of the Lord. That is clearly prohibited. I will talk more about the difference between these scenarios in a minute, but first I do want to pause to say a word about the demonic.
C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters is a fictional book about spiritual warfare. In the introduction, he says, there are two errors in Christian thinking in regard to demons. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other error is to take an unhealthy interest in them.
The demonic realm is real. Demons are evil spiritual beings. One of the contradictions of our secular culture is that at the same time that it denies the supernatural and transcendent when it comes to belief in God, the afterlife, miracles, it also has a strange obsession with death and the demonic or other forms of spirituality.
For our context, Paul recognizes that an idol is nothing and is not a real god. An idol is just wood; gold; stone, etc. But demons have spiritual and enslaving power. And demons will attach themselves to the human construction of idols and enslave the idols’ worshippers. Hence, Paul’s vehement opposition to Christians participating in pagan sacrificial idol worship.
Now we move to the final Section, vv 23-33. It’s here where Paul draws everything together by talking about freedom and love. Paul’s guiding principle is, limiting your freedom for the sake of love.
Paul asks the rhetorical question in vs 29, “why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” The implicit answer is, because you should want what’s best for that person. Don’t hinder a person’s faith and don’t create a roadblock for someone coming to the faith.
Paul rebuffs some Corinthian bumper stickers. Vs 23 “All things are lawful”… yeah but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” … yeah but not all things build up.
Christian freedom looks like limiting your own rights in order to build others up: Vs 24 “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”
If I’m a Christian living in a Muslim majority country, I might wear conservative clothing and not eat pork, because to eat pork and wear shorts isn’t appropriate for that context. Sure, I am free in Christ, but I need to adjust my behavior so it doesn’t create an unnecessary barrier to the gospel.
Vv 25-30 describe two more scenarios concerning food sacrificed to idols. In one instance, he says you can eat it, and in another he says no, you shouldn’t.
“Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?”
So, what in the world is going on? Chapter 8, Paul’s answer to the question about eating is “it depends. Chapter 10 he absolutely prohibits it. And now, he appears to say “it depends” again. Is eating food sacrificed to idols always sinful? What are we to make of this?
The answer is that there are likely a few different scenarios in mind. This doesn’t mean that truth is relative, but it just means that ethical decisions are always embedded in a context.
Paul wants the Corinthians to act with wisdom in different scenarios. Acting with wisdom looks like limiting personal freedoms when central gospel truths are not at stake.
In chapter 8-10, Paul gives at least five different scenarios on whether or not to eat. He allows it in 2 and prohibits it in 3.
So, let’s look at these scenarios. Can I eat it?
No. Do not eat at a meal that is explicitly a form of idol worship, because that is participation in the demonic. Paul says “absolutely not.” If the nature of the meal is inherently religious.
Yes. You’re free to eat meat sacrificed to idols in a temple if the meal is not part of the idol worship. In other words, if the meal happened to be a social gathering, like a business meeting or wedding reception that took place in a temple. The food is neutral. The location is neutral. It’s the nature of the meal that matters.
The modern-day equivalent of this would be like eating a meal in an Asian restaurant that has a small plate of food set before an idol. Simply eating food at that location is not the issue. To eat there doesn’t mean you’re participating in the idol worship. The issue would be the nature of the meal. Is it a social event or is it worship?
Yes. Paul says you’re also free to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols sold at a discounted rate in the meat market. You can eat this meat in your homes and in your neighbors’ homes. Paul says “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Food is neutral. And if an unbeliever invites you into their home, Paul basically says don’t make a fuss about the food. Don’t even bring it up or ask.
No. You are not free to eat idol meat at a social event in a temple if that would harm another Christian and cause them to stumble. In this scenario, the location creates too much confusion for the “weaker” brother. Paul says, no, don’t go there.
No. Give up your right to eat meat sacrificed to idols if you’re in someone’s home and they inform you that the meat was offered in sacrifice. You shouldn’t eat it for the sake of their conscience. Not yours, but theirs.
This could refer to two different kinds of people. Either, the person is a non-Christian, and they tell you this meat was offered in sacrifice to idols; if you eat it, they are going to think that it’s okay for Christians to participate in idol worship. That creates a barrier to the gospel. So, Paul says you should forgo your right, and say “no thank you.”
Or, it could be that the person who told you this meat was offered in sacrifice is another “weak” Christian who is concerned, and if they see you eat it, you would cause them to stumble. In that situation, Paul would say, don’t eat it.
So, those are the different scenarios, but here is the concluding argument and guiding principle (vv 31-33):
“So, whether you eat or drink, or ‘whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
The glory of God and the good of others should be the guiding motivation behind your decision-making.
I know in chapter 8-10 it feels like you need a flow chart. If only there were flowcharts for life’s difficult decisions. But really, we don’t need flow charts: what we need is wisdom, skilled living.
When the Corinthians are in these tricky situations, what they need is wisdom, so that their beliefs, values, and behaviors are God-honoring and people-blessing.
If you remember, Paul begins 1 Corinthians talking about the wisdom and power of God. The world uses knowledge and wisdom to gain power and status. But God’s wisdom is very different. God’s wisdom is displayed in the cross of Christ. Jesus was the one who completely embodied what it meant to surrender his rights for the good of the other.
Philippians 2 says of Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And it’s through that expression of love that God has exalted him.
This is the kind of wisdom we need. To be wise is to be like Christ. To do all things for the glory of God and the good of others.
Let’s look at Believe, Value, Do.
Believe that to do all things for the glory of God and the good of others is the most fulfilling and satisfying way to live.
To live this way, it will require you to surrender your rights. But that is not a loss of freedom but the entry point into experiencing greater freedom and greater joy. Believe that.
Doing all things for the pleasure of self is a miserable way to live, and it only writes stories of human misery. Selfishness seeks to preserve happiness but only secures misery.
These go hand-in-hand. Learn to love training to become wise. You want to get better at being God-honoring and people-blessing? You do this in community. Paul says in Chapter 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In other words, Paul says “let’s grow in Christlikeness together.” Let’s embody his wisdom through serving others, giving up our rights for the sake of love.
The only way to do this is to practice. And as you practice, you learn to love it, because you experience the joy of it.
Recently, I was watching an interview with Captain Sully – the famous pilot who landed on the Hudson. The interview was about Boeing’s recent engine failures and he was asked how much safe outcomes depend on training. He answered experience matters. You train over many decades, so that when these situations come up, you can remain calm and let the training do the work.
The good news is, we can do this in our spiritual lives. This is character development; growing in Christlikeness.
As you train, and as you practice in community, then being the kind of person who makes God-honoring, people-blessing decisions will become a natural part of who you are. That’s spiritual transformation. That’s what we’re after. Let’s do that together.
Pray with me.