Monday, February 21, 2011

EXPOSITION OF 1 CORINTHIANS : Freedom and Sensitivity to Others

TEXT :  1 Corinthians 8 
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[1] 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 [2] . 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.   

  1. 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 .
  2. 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).
  3.  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? 
  4.  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 !)
  5. 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 !

[1]  “ Now concerning…”  see also  7:1, 25 ; 12:1; 16:1
[2]   David Prior :  The Message of 1 Corinthians;  BST , p.140

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