DATE PREACHED : 20/ 02/2011
There are so many different topics addressed in this first letter to the Corinthians! Most of them are related to particular cultural circumstances. While that is true , it is very helpful to see how the unchanging gospel in the context of the first century was first applied to these particular circumstances.
The situation described here … ‘now concerning food offered to idols …‘ may be , at face value of no relevance to us. However , in the light of the fact that “…all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching …” , we must ask ourselves this question : What important principle is the Holy Spirit seeking to communicate to us through His sacred Word ?
The matter to which the Holy Spirit is drawing our attention is the issue of using our freedom in Christ responsibly in relationship to others.
We start at the beginning and work our way through the text and then come to application and conclusion .
Understanding the cultural situation :
(i) Sacrifices to the gods was an integral part of ancient life . It might be of two kinds , private or public  . In making a private sacrifice an animal was divided into three parts. One part was burned upon the altar as a sacrifice to the gods; another portion was given to the priests, and the worshipper himself received the rest of the meat on which occasion he gave a banquet to which his friends were invited . The problem that confronted the Christian was this: ‘ May I participate with a good conscience in such a banquet in which an animal has been sacrifice to pagan gods?’
In public sacrifice, a part was burned upon the altar , the priests received their share and the rest went to the market place to be sold , and so Christians buying meat at the market might well buy such meat as had been offered to idols . In this case a Christian might ask : “Can I eat meat offered as a sacrifice to pagan gods?”
I suppose that the matter does become somewhat relevant to us when we read on the meat wrappings in the local store, ‘kosher’ or ‘halaal’ - meaning that the meat has been consecrated in Jewish or Muslim fashion . Should we eat such meat? We are going to see that the answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ , depending upon the situation in which we may find ourselves.
(ii) The second matter for consideration is the matter of knowledge : The word ‘knowledge’ (Gr. gnosis) appears at least 8 times in this passage . A group of enlightened Christians in Corinth boasted that they had the knowledge on how to handle such controversies , and they were getting a bit impatient with the lack of knowledge in some other (perhaps younger , recently converted) Christians concerning this food sacrificed to idols . The “more knowledgeable” Christians were saying that the eating of food offered to idols did not matter, since an idol was nothing ; it does not even have a real existence (8:4). The younger , “less knowledgeable” Christians seem to have been offended by such a thought , and so we discover a phenomenon that erupts so very often in our churches : people become intolerant and impatient with one another because some claim to have knowledge , accusing others of lack of knowledge ! Instead of being patient and loving they get irritated with one another .This introduces a tense, divisive attitude in the church .
Notice then how the apostle Paul reacts to all this in vv 1-3 :
“We know that all of us possess knowledge”, and he quickly adds that “ this knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”
Paul is introducing a major theme here – one that he will fully address in the 13th Chapter , the apex of his letter to the Corinthians , but right now he is busy preparing the ground for that .
His point is very simple : He is telling them bluntly that knowledge (though it is very important) is not the first principle in biblical thinking . Knowledge in itself can puff us up . It can make us arrogant . Knowledge needs to be tempered by ‘love’ ( Gr. agape) . Love is the primary mark of the Christian . We shall see this in 1 Cor. 13:2 where Paul makes the point so very clearly : “ if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains , but have not love , I am nothing !
Note that Paul agrees with “the knowledgeable” Christians in vv 4 -6 : “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. They are perfectly right in their knowledge . There is indeed only one God and Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ from whom all things originate and for whom we exist. Paul thoroughly agrees with them . Their theology is spot on !
But what is “not spot on” is the fact that though they are right in their theology they are deficient in their love towards their ‘weaker’ brothers in Christ.
Listen to what Paul says in v.7 : “ However , not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol , and their conscience , being weak , is defiled. “
The so called ‘stronger’ forget that some of these ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters have come out of pagan religions where they really believed in those gods which they once worshipped . They were held powerfully captive by these ‘ demon-gods’, and they just cannot find it in their hearts to eat meat that they know has been sacrificed to these pagan gods . They have not yet made this connection that these gods are nothing . Therefore, when they see their more ‘ knowledgeable’ brothers and sisters eating this meat their consciences are triggered and they are reminded of the times when they sat down to a meal at their temples in worship of their former gods.
In v. 8 Paul is making the point once again : “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Once again he agrees with the knowledge of those that have knowledge of these things , and YET take note of the warning that he presents to them :
Vv 9-12 : But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
Notice Paul’s argument :
Here’s a man who has understood that food and drink is nothing . Eating and drinking does not bring us closer to or further from God . He has freedom concerning whatever he eats . He is not enslaved by any thoughts . So when he is invited by a pagan neighbour to come and eat food sacrificed to the idols of his neighbour , he thinks nothing of it . He eats , because food is after all only food .
There is however a person in his congregation who has just been converted out of a pagan religion, and he has been involved in all the rituals described here. He hears about his brother’s freedom , and becomes confused . He says , “well if he can , so can I , and all of a sudden he finds himself pulled back into his former idol worship” . His conscience is too weak to prevent him from giving in to temptation.
Now notice how strongly Paul responds to this ( vv 11 &12 ) : “ And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. “
Here is the irony : your spiritual knowledge in which you take so much pride is destroying the faith of a brother for whom Christ died. Now you must really ask yourself at least two fundamental questions:
- Is this food worth such a price? Is exercising your “liberty” in eating or drinking worth the downfall of your brother or sister?
- Is it worth sinning against Christ ?
So , it is with that thought in mind that Paul concludes: v. 13 “ Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
Conclusion : It just isn’t worth it !
Paul’s primary goal has always been to lead people to Christ . He has laboured like a mother giving birth to see Christ formed in his converts ( Gal 4:19). He has strenuously avoided to be a stumbling block. His own testimony to the Corinthians confirms that ( see Chapter 9:12 !!!) .
While this concludes Chapter 8 , please note that we haven’t yet finished with this topic . Let me give you a quick preview of what is to come :
(i) In Ch 9 Paul will present his philosophy of ministry which is based on the principle of verse 13. Here we will learn from his own life that he lived what he preached .
(ii) In Ch 10 he will address this matter of eating food sacrificed to idols from another perspective . He will show us that it is not right to do that . He will also speak about the related matter of eating sacrificed meat that has been sold in the marketplace and how we should respond to that.
- Keep biblical principles always in proportion ! Seek as much knowledge as you can . Love the truth , but make sure that you speak the truth in love . John Stott reminds us that, (i) Love without truth is hypocrisy ; (ii) Truth without love is brutality . (iii) The Christian way of handling the truth is always in love and subject to the superior principle of love .
- What helps us to speak the truth in love ? It is always remembering the second greatest commandment : “love your neighbor as yourself.” ( see Mark 12 :28-34) Jesus also said : “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
- This means that we will always work out our theology and knowledge of God in the context of the people amongst which we live . You may for instance have liberty in drinking alcohol . God has set you free . You drink responsibly . But there is a person in your congregation who has had terrible experiences with an alcoholic father ; there is another person who is just in recovery from alcoholism . I beg you with Paul to be very careful with your freedom , for the very reasons that Paul gives . Do you want to destroy a “weak person” by your knowledge and freedom ? Will you be committed to build up the faith of others, or will you harm their faith?
- For the weak in faith : Grow in the knowledge of God and His word . Take note of 2 Peter 1:3-8 . Learn not to be enslaved by anything - neither by your sinful past nor by your uncertain future . Learn to remain with God , and remember that the kingdom of heaven is not about food or drink , and it does not bring your nearer or drive you further away from God ( except for gluttony and drunkenness which are sins !)
- For the strong in faith : those of us who have grown to maturity in these matters , let us learn to love the weak brother more than our appetites . That is the consistent testimony of Christ and His Word . He, being strong laid His life down for us , the weak. Do you want to exercise your freedom in Christ to the fullest degree? Then practice love , and remember these closing words of the apostle Paul to the Romans : “ We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak , and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good , to build him up . For Christ did not please Himself…” ( Rom 15:1-3) Amen !