A few years ago, my parents spent a year in Taiwan, where my dad taught in an American school, and my mother assisted. They came to know a young Chinese man whose name was Johnny. He did not know English very well, and my dad agreed to teach him—from the Gospel of Matthew. Johnny was saved at chapter 16. Over time, they got to know Johnny quite well. He began to speak of having them over for dinner, and that he had something very special to serve.
One evening, my dad and Johnny were walking home and were passing through an alley when a dog began to bark incessantly. Johnny finally yelled something at the dog in Chinese, and suddenly it was quiet. As they continued on, my dad pressed Johnny to tell him just what he had yelled at the dog. Johnny told him that he told the dog to shut up or he would eat him. Johnny was serious. As Johnny began to speak more often about the meal he planned to serve my folks, it came out that the special dish was a dog. As politely as they could, my folks explained that in America we looked at dogs as our friends, and so we would not think of eating one. That seemed to put the matter to rest.
What we eat really does matter a lot to us, doesn’t it? When one of our children was asked to spend the night at the home of a friend, our daughter had one important question to ask: “What are we having for dinner?” The answer to this question was usually the determining factor in her decision. The Corinthians seemed to have divided over what certain people ate for dinner. Some Corinthians felt they were free to eat any meat whatsoever, even meats offered to idols. They were so liberated in their thinking and behavior that they had no scruples about eating idol-meats at a meal that was part of a pagan religious idol worship ritual. Other Corinthians were much more particular. In fact, some were so sensitive on this matter that they would not eat anything without first knowing its origin. Every meal must have been like an inquisition, with the host being grilled (pardon the pun) concerning the origin of the meat being served.
The issue of meats offered to idols was first introduced in chapter 8. There, Paul did not debate the question of whether or not a Christian was at liberty to eat idol-meats, but allowed the assumption of some to stand that idol-meats were a matter of Christian liberty. Some seemed to be eating this meat and making a point of it, even though it caused some to stumble and follow their example, but still with pangs of conscience. In chapter 8, Paul sought to establish the principle that while one’s knowledge may cause him to conclude that he is free to eat idol-meats, love for the weaker brother should prompt him to forego his rights in deference to the one who may be caused to stumble.
In chapter 9, Paul uses himself as an example of this kind of love. Instead of referring to the dubious liberty of eating idol-meats, Paul cites a much clearer liberty, one universally agreed upon without dispute—the right of an apostle to be financially supported in ministry. In spite of a host of authenticating proofs of this liberty, Paul reminded the Corinthians that he refused to exercise it, knowing that this would not only enhance his eternal reward, but that it would also promote the proclamation of the gospel. Out of love for God and men, Paul refused to exercise a liberty which would be detrimental to his calling as an apostle. And so the principle laid down in chapter 8 is now illustrated in particular in 9:1-23.
In 9:24–10:19, Paul sought to expose the root problem behind some of the Corinthians’ insistence of eating idol-meats and to propose a better way. The underlying problem behind the eating of idol-meats was a lack of self-control. Many of those who refused to forego their right to eat idol-meats and insisted on eating these meats regardless of the negative impact on others, were those who simply lacked the self-discipline and self-control to deny themselves any sensual pleasure, including that of eating a certain piece of meat.
Paul first illustrated the need for self-discipline by likening the Christian life to the running of a race in the Isthmian games. While many contestants run in such a marathon, only one person will win the race. The one who wins the race is the person who has purposed to do so and who is prepared to pay the price for victory. The price of victory is self-control in every area of one’s life. Self-indulgence is not the way to win races; self-control is.
Turning from the athletic events of his own day, Paul moves on to the history of the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, and the lessons which can be learned from their failures in the wilderness (10:1-13). They partook of divine provisions, similar to our own. They experienced divine deliverance (salvation) from their bondage in Egypt, as we have been saved from our bondage to sin. They had their own baptism, which identified them with Moses, as we have a baptism which identifies us with Christ. They ate and drank of the “spiritual food and drink” which God provided in the wilderness, just as we eat and drink of the bread and the cup in communion. Christ was present in their midst, as He is present in ours. Yet in spite of all these divine provisions, the Israelites failed to “finish the race,” let alone win it. They all perished in the wilderness because they succumbed to the temptations of the flesh. They failed in exactly the same ways that the Corinthians did and that we continue to do today. They gave in to their craving for evil things, they acted immorally, they worshipped idols, they put the Lord to the test, and they grumbled; for each of these, a number of the Israelites perished as a result of an outbreak of divine wrath. The remainder of that generation died in the wilderness without entering into the land of Canaan.
We are to learn several important lessons from our “fathers,” the Israelites of old. We can learn from them when we realize that they, and we, are all a part of one eternal plan for mankind. They lived their lives as the first chapter, and we find ourselves living out the final chapter. We share our humanity with them, and thus not only their failures, but their victories are directly applicable to us. We should be warned about being over confident in our own strength, realizing that an entire nation failed to reach their appointed goal, with the exception of two men. We should be edified by seeing that their areas of failure are the same pitfalls we face today. But even though we are admonished by Israel’s failures, we should also be encouraged by the faithfulness of God, which is evident in Israel’s history. While the Israelites failed, God was faithful, and He saw to it that His purposes and promises were fulfilled, in spite of Israel’s failures. We need not fail. We need only to embrace the “way of escape” which God, in His faithfulness, brings with every trial and temptation.
Verses 14-33 spell out Paul’s bottom line in the matter of idol-meats. In these closing words of instruction and counsel, Paul practically applies what he has been teaching in principle by addressing three situations which the Corinthians would face: (1) The question of whether a Corinthian Christian should eat idol-meat at a meal that is a part of a heathen worship ritual (verses 14-22). (2) The question of whether a Corinthian should eat meat purchased at the meat market, the origins of which are not known (verses 25-26). (3) The question of whether a Corinthian Christian should accept a dinner invitation from an unbeliever (verses 27-28).
Interspersed in these verses are the general guiding principles which should govern every decision pertaining to idol-meats, and any other question regarding our conduct in a pagan world. Let us listen and learn from our “fathers,” as we are instructed from the inspired Word of God.
14 Therefore, my beloved,118 flee119 from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. 16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? 17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?120 19 What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons,121 and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?
For some, the logic of 1 Corinthians 8:4-5 gave them license to eat idol-meats, and under virtually any set of circumstances. Paul takes a very different approach to this matter in the verses above. Paul first sets the scene in verse 14. The “therefore” of verse 14 connects what he is about to say with what has just been said. The ancient Israelites engaged in idolatry, for which they were severely disciplined. If the Corinthians should learn anything from their ancient “fathers,” it was that idolatry was not only wrong, it was deadly. The Corinthians should do what their fathers failed to do—flee from idolatry. Now just exactly what does this mean, to “flee from idolatry”? Paul will explain what he means in the following verses.
But before we get to these verses and their instruction to us, let us pause for a moment to savor the word “beloved” in verse 14. Here is a group of Christians who are far from what they should be. They not only look down upon Paul and the other (true) apostles, they are beginning to look down on the gospel. I can think of a lot of names by which the Corinthians could be identified or described, but “beloved” is not one of them. What we see here is that while many of the Corinthians had little regard for Paul, he still loved these saints. What he is about to say to them is written with the kindest of intentions, the deepest of affections. He is speaking to those whom he loves.
Paul does not patronize his readers either. They thought themselves to be wise and strong. They thought less of Paul. But in spite of this, Paul speaks to them as though they were wise. He informs them that they will have to reach for what he is about to say, and he encourages them to critically consider what he is about to say to them. What he will say can bear scrutiny and reflection. What others may be saying won’t.
In verses 16-22, Paul sets the table, or rather two tables, side-by-side. The Lord’s table is the table around which the Corinthians gather every week to commemorate the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord by partaking of the symbols of the bread and the wine. Some of the Corinthians have felt at liberty to sit at another “table,” the table which is served as a part of a heathen ritual, at which idols are worshipped, and to which sacrifices are made. The things which are eaten at this table have been sacrificed to the idol, or they are at least a part of the heathen ritual. In dealing with this matter, Paul establishes several principles upon which he bases his conclusion.
(1) To partake of the cup at the Lord’s table is to symbolically partake of what the cup represents. To partake of the cup is to symbolically commemorate the fact that we have become partakers in the shed blood of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins which it accomplished, through faith in His atoning death on the cross of Calvary. This is what Jesus taught before His death.
47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.” 52 The Jews therefore began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 “For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever” (John 6:47-58).
The drinking of the cup symbolizes the believer’s participation in the work of Jesus Christ by faith in His shed blood for the forgiveness of sins. The cup symbolizes the New Covenant, which was inaugurated by His death, burial, and resurrection.
(2) To partake of the bread at communion is to symbolically proclaim that we have identified with our Lord’s body. We have identified with Christ, not only in His incarnation, and in His bodily death, burial, and resurrection, but we have identified ourselves with His “body,” the church. The one loaf symbolizes one body, of which all Christians have partaken and are thus a part. When we partake of the bread, we remind ourselves of our union with His body, but also in His incarnation, and in His spiritual presence now, through the church.
(3) Communion commemorates our union with the person and work of Jesus Christ. It commemorates our union with Christ by faith at the time of our salvation and for all eternity. It commemorates our union with Him in His bodily death, burial, and resurrection. It signifies our union with the church, His body. Communion symbolizes our union with Christ, then (at the cross of Calvary) and now (in His body, the church).
(4) There is more than one “communion.” The Old Testament saints had communion, too. Eating of what has been sacrificed on the altar not only unites the one eating with the sacrifice, it unites him with those who share in the meal with him. The Old Testament saints had their own form of communion at which they ate a portion of what had been sacrificed. The sacrificial meal joined the participant to the sacrifice and to those who shared with him in eating of it.
(5) The pagan ritual of eating a meal, of which a portion is that which was sacrificed in heathen worship, was a “communion service” as well. The heathen worshipper is celebrating a communion service when he eats of what was sacrificed to an idol. In eating the things sacrificed to the idol, he is identifying himself with the pagan sacrifice and all that it means. Those who eat the meal together identify not only with the pagan sacrifice, but also identify themselves with all those sitting at the table with them.
(6) When the pagans worship idols by sacrificing to them, they are worshipping demons. Here is an amazing fact, which the Corinthians had overlooked. There are no other gods. Idols are nothing, because they represent gods which don’t exist. But false worship is not thereby rendered harmless and insignificant. This is where the Corinthians went wrong. Paul says that the worship of idols is the worship of demons. Is this some new truth, a mystery not revealed until Paul’s writing? Far from it!
7 “And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations” (Leviticus 17:7).
17 “They sacrificed to demons who were not God, To gods whom they have not known, New gods who came lately, Whom your fathers did not dread” (Deuteronomy 32:17).
37 They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (Psalm 106:37).
The Corinthians who reasoned that they were at liberty to eat idol-meats did so based upon principles they derived from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy (see 1 Corinthians 8:4-5). What they failed to take into account was the rest of the book, where it is clear that idol worship is not trivial, but the worship of demons.
(7) When Christians participate in the pagan sacrificial meal by eating the idol-meats, they unite themselves with the pagan sacrifice and with the heathen with whom they are eating. Just as biblical communion unites the meal-sharer with the sacrifice, and with those sharing in the meal, so the one who participates in a pagan festive meal becomes a sharer in the heathen sacrificial altar, and a co-participant with those eating the meal. One does far more than have dinner when one attends a pagan sacrificial meal.
(8) Christians cannot become partakers of two tables, for one is the table of the Lord and the other is the table of demons. Just as no man can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24), neither can a Christian participate at two religious tables or partake of two sacrificial meals. The Lord’s Supper, and all that it symbolizes, is diametrically opposed to the “table of demons.” It is amazing that some Corinthians could so casually explain away their presence at the table of demons, while at the same time regularly observing the Lord’s table. The inconsistency is intolerable.
(9) When the Corinthians eat idol-meats while participating in pagan idol worship, they provoke the Lord to jealousy. Paul has instructed the Corinthians to “flee idolatry” in verse 14. Now we know exactly what he means. To sit at the table of demons and to participate in this pagan worship by eating idol-meats is to practice idolatry. This is exactly the way the ancient Israelites fell into idolatry, by joining themselves with the pagans at their “table.” No wonder God gave the Israelites such strict food laws; this kept the Jews from eating with the Gentiles, and thus from participating in their idolatry.
Idolatry is a most serious offense to God, even if it was not a serious transgression to the Israelites or to the Corinthians. The Israelites were “laid low in the wilderness” (10:5) because God poured out His wrath by various plagues. The Israelites were to have learned from the example of those who died. The Corinthians (and us) were to be warned by the outpouring of God’s wrath on idolaters. To practice idolatry is to provoke the Lord to jealousy, and this is a most serious situation. Those who were so cavalier in eating idol-meats at pagan celebrations should certainly be shaken by Paul’s words.
23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor. 25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.122
There are two major divisions in verses 14-33, verses 14-22 and verses 23-33. Verses 14-22 address the subject of meats offered to idols in the context of one’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ and symbolized by one’s partaking in communion. Verses 23-33 address the subject of idol-meats in the context of one’s relationship to his own conscience and to others. The two questions of (1) eating meats purchased in the market place, and (2) of accepting a dinner invitation from an unsaved acquaintance, are both addressed in this second section. But both at the beginning (verses 23-24) and at the end (verses 31-33) of this section, Paul underscores the guiding principles which should govern our actions with regard to these questions.
Paul’s words in verses 23 and 24 should sound familiar to us because they are not new:
12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body (1 Corinthians 6:12-13).
The context in which verses 12 and 13 (above) are found is that of lawsuits between Corinthian believers. It seems to me that in this context, Paul may be using the term “lawful” in relation to secular laws, not divine law. On this lowest level of morality (there are many sins which are not crimes), one still must ask whether an action which is legal is one which edifies. But immediately following verse 12, Paul begins to speak about matters of biblical morality, and not just of legality. He speaks first of foods and then of sexual immorality, the same subjects which are again picked up by Paul in chapter 10. When Paul repeats the words of chapter 6 in chapter 10, we should not be surprised. The principle of profitability (or edification) underlies the teaching of the entire book. We find it in chapter 6, again in chapter 8, now in chapter 10, and again in chapters 12-14. The law of love obliges us to act in a way that benefits or edifies our brother, and, if possible, the lost (by leading to their salvation).
The man or woman who does not purpose to “win the race” (9:24-27), who does not purpose to deny fleshly lusts and to overcome trials and temptations, is the one who is intent upon indulging the lusts of the flesh. The one who lives their life to indulge themselves is the person who is willing to sacrifice the well-being of their neighbor for their own self-satisfaction. The Christian is to be the person who is willing to sacrifice his or her own self-satisfaction in order to become a blessing to others. Before Paul gives specific instruction on the two questions before him in verses 23-33, he first sets down the guiding principles, principles he will repeat again at the end of this text. Having reiterated the guiding principles, Paul now sets out to answer the two questions, explaining how the command, “flee from idolatry,” applies to market meats and invitations to dinner from unbelieving acquaintances.
Can the Christian eat meat purchased in the market place, knowing that it could possibly have been sacrificed to an idol? The issue at hand seems to be as follows. The Christians purchased their food supplies at the market place. In addition to fruits and vegetables, this included meat. It was possible that some of the meat sold in the market place had been offered to an idol. It appears that the question pertains to meats whose origins are not known and are not immediately apparent. Should the Christian buy no market meats because of the possibility of obtaining idol-meats? Or, should the Christian seek to satisfy his sensitive conscience by inquiring about the origin of the meat? In this case and the next, Paul seems to change his focus. In verses 14-22, Paul was addressing those “liberated” saints who had no qualms at all about idol-meats and felt free even to participate in the pagan ritual meals where the sacrifices were made. Paul’s purpose in these earlier verses was to quicken the consciences of those who were far too casual about idolatry. But now in verses 23-33, he seems to be speaking to the other extreme, to those who were overly sensitive about eating any meats with “a bad or dubious background.”
I have been in some of the market places of the eastern world, especially in some of the remote villages of India. I have to confess that I had great interest in what was being purchased there. (I was not buying the food, but I often accompanied the person who was doing the shopping.) My questions were not those which some of the Corinthians asked. I wanted to know just what kind of meat it was. I also was interested to know how long it had been dead. The flies which swarmed over the dead carcasses were not doing much for my appetite. I was most concerned about whether I would live after eating these meats, and how they would taste on the way down. At least some of the Corinthians were interested in where these meats had been before they reached the market. Were these meats in any way involved in heathen worship? If so, should they be eaten? How hard should one try to find out about the origin of these meats?
Paul’s answer is really quite simple. In today’s jargon, Paul would have said, “Chill out; relax!” The fact is, it didn’t really matter. Biblical separation required that the Corinthian Christians have no part in the idol worship of their pagan peers. It was not necessary that the meat they ate have no such association. Whether or not a Christian should knowingly purchase idol-meats is not asked or answered. But when the origin of the meat is not known, the Christian is not to make an issue of it. They are not to “ask questions.” Such questions, I believe, would only be distractions, and Paul’s desire was to “secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.” Some Christians are so meticulously “straining at gnats” that they are “swallowing camels” pertaining to holiness.
Are the Corinthians concerned about the immediate origins and associations of the meat they purchase? They need not be. And the reason is to be found in the ultimate origin of such food: God created it. If God created it, we know it is good. And if we partake of it gratefully and with prayerful thanksgiving, we can be sure that it is sanctified:
1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods, which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; 5 for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
27 If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone should say to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake;
Now, Paul provides us with another specific application to his instruction to “flee from idolatry.” Does “fleeing from idolatry” mean that I should never go to dinner with an unsaved neighbor, for fear that I might be served idol-meats? The assumption here seems to be that the invitation is to the home of an unbeliever and not to a heathen temple, where the meal would be a part of a heathen religious ritual involving idols. This case seems quite similar to the one preceding it in that the apprehension of the Corinthian Christian is the possibility of eating meat which could have been offered to an idol.
As we read Paul’s words here about eating a meal at the table of an unbeliever, we are reminded of what Paul has already said on this point, as recorded in 1 Corinthians 5:
9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler— not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
Biblical separation does not require the Christian to avoid all contact with unbelievers. It does not even prohibit the Christian from enjoying the hospitality of an unbeliever by accepting a dinner invitation. Biblical separation is not meant to keep the Christian isolated from the world (which we are to evangelize), but to keep us separate from those who profess to know Christ and who live like pagans.
Paul’s answer is similar to his response to the previous question: “Don’t ask!” The Corinthians should not make an issue of the origin of the meat or food they are eating. They should eat all of it.123 Eating a piece of meat that was offered to an idol will not defile the Christian. What defiles the Christian is participating in heathen worship. If eating a piece of idol-meat does not defile the Christian, there is no need to make an issue of it. This simply exercises an overly-sensitive conscience and introduces an unnecessary affront to the hospitality of the host.
The law of love does require an exception to this instruction, however. If one’s host volunteers that the meat has been offered to an idol, then the Christian should refrain from eating it. When the host makes an issue of the origin, it is because it is important to him, or because he thinks it may be important to his guest. If the host informs you that the meat is idol-meat, he thereby indicates that this is important to him and to you. For his sake, do not eat of the meat. And if there happens to be another Christian present whose conscience is weak in this regard, the Christian should refrain from eating the meat for his benefit.
It is not all that clear just who might inform us that the main dish is idol-meat, but whether it be an unbeliever or a weaker brother, we should refrain from eating the meat for their sake. If they did not consider eating the meat a problem, they would not have brought the matter up. If no one makes a point of the origin of the meat, then the question should not be raised by us. The origin of the meat, once again, does not really matter.
28 But if anyone should say to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?
The general sense of what Paul is saying is clear, but the specifics are a matter of some speculation. It seems as though we must distinguish between the one who informs the believer about the idol-meat and the “other man” whose conscience is affected. The first seems not to have any personal hesitation about eating the meat, but assumes that the Christian would or should. The second seems to have personal qualms of conscience, and for his sake the Christian should refrain from eating the idol-meat.
Paul now asks two questions in the second half of verse 29 and in verse 30. First, Paul asks why his freedom should be scrutinized and restricted by the conscience of another. Second, he seems to asks why, even though he can partake of the meal with thankfulness, he should be spoken against as though he were doing wrong. I am inclined to understand these as the questions which prompt Paul not to partake of idol-meats, after their presence at the table has been pointed out. He does not wish to offend the conscience of another, and so any indication that another guest would have his conscience wounded by his eating is sufficient reason not to eat the idol-meat. Even though he could eat that meat with thanksgiving, he will not do so because he would be evil spoken of for having done so by another. In either case, Paul stands to lose much more by eating than he could possibly gain by eating.
31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved.
Having expressed his commitment not to eat idol-meats at the table of an unbeliever under certain circumstances, Paul now concludes by explaining his response in terms of two guiding principles, principles which should guide every Christian concerning the exercise of their Christian liberties. The first principle governs our actions in terms of our relationship to God. The next governs our actions in terms of our relationship to men.
The goal of history, and of God’s eternal plan, is to bring glory to Himself. The guiding principle by which the exercise of every liberty must be determined is that whatever we do, it must bring glory to God. Eating everything set before us at the home of a heathen can bring glory to God because our presence is to be a manifestation of His excellencies to lost men:
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a HOLY NATION, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).
It may be by our witness at the dinner table that we are able to share our faith and be instrumental in leading lost souls to faith in Christ.124
The second guiding principle is that our every action should be done for the edification and upbuilding of others. For the lost, we should act in a way that most facilitates the gospel and the salvation of the lost. For those who are saved, our actions should be those which build up our brothers and sisters in their faith, and which enhance their daily walk with Him.
We have come full circle, as it were, in Paul’s dealing with the subject of meats offered to idols. Some of the Corinthians thought they had this matter well in hand. Based on the truth that there is but one God, the God whom we worship and serve, they concluded that idols were nothing at all. They were so confident about this that based on their superior knowledge, they “dined at an idol’s temple” (8:10), even though this had a detrimental impact on other brethren. To begin with, Paul instructed these saints that even if they did have the right to eat meat offered to idols, their love for their brethren should compel them not to exercise it. He then illustrated this by pointing out how he set aside his right to be supported, so that his proclamation of the gospel might be enhanced (9:1-23). Then, from 9:24–10:13, Paul exposes self-indulgence as the real reason the Corinthians refused to forego the dining pleasure of eating of idol-meats. The Corinthians didn’t set aside the eating of idol-meats because they were not in the habit of denying their fleshly appetites.
The grand finale comes next. Paul had allowed the assumption to stand unchallenged that the Corinthians could eat idol-meats, even by dining in an idol’s temple (8:10). Now, that assumption must fall, and fall it does. Paul shows the inconsistency of sitting at the Lord’s table in their Christian worship, and then sitting at the table of demons in their fellowship with unbelievers at an idol’s temple. One cannot symbolically commemorate partaking of the work of Christ on Calvary and also participate in the worship of demons. Dining at an idol’s temple was not a liberty at all, but a sin of the most serious order. These meat-eaters who ate dinner at an idol’s temple were wrong across the board.
In our text we find, once again, the summation of the Old Testament Law and of our guiding principles as New Testament Christians boiled down to two basic commands: Love God and love our fellow man.
35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).
8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
In verses 14-22, Paul addressed the subject of idol-meats from the perspective of our love for God. If we love God, we will not engage in idolatry, which provokes Him to jealousy. Instead, we will refrain entirely from eating meats in the context of heathen idol worship. Our union with Christ, commemorated by our communion at the Lord’s table, prohibits us from entering into an illicit communion at the table of demons. In verses 23-33, Paul wishes us not to be distracted from our devotion to Christ by an obsession with the origin of every piece of meat we may eat. But when others point out that the meat set before us is idol-meat and we know that they would be hindered by our partaking of it, we forego that liberty for their benefit.
If those who ate idol-meats at the idol’s temple were wrong in what they were doing, those who were overly sensitive about idol-meats were also in need of correction. They were to “lighten up,” and quit making the purchase of meat or the acceptance of a dinner invitation an occasion for an inquisition. It was not the meat itself which was the source of defilement, but the environment in which the meat was eaten. It was wrong to eat that meat as a participant in the heathen ritual, but it was not wrong to eat the meat as the guest of an unsaved neighbor. The only time to abstain from eating the meat outside of the idol’s temple was when someone made a point of informing you that this meat was offered to idols.
We live in a culture characterized by self-indulgence. The advertising industry is constantly urging us to buy what we do not need, but what they say we should want. Merely wanting something is all the reason we need for justifying getting it. Credit cards enable us to buy what we don’t need with money we don’t have. We have all too few examples of denying ourselves for the moment in order to have real pleasure in the future. This is what the Christian life is all about. It is about our identification with Christ, who denied Himself and suffered in our place so that we might be forgiven, and that we might live eternally in fellowship with Him. His death on the cross of Calvary not only procured our salvation, it provided us with a pattern for this life. Let us walk in His steps, taking up our cross, for the joy that is set before us.
In the specific context of our text, let us be very certain that those things we consider Christian liberties are really matters of liberty. And if indeed we do have the liberty to enjoy certain things, let us be willing to set aside the momentary pleasure we might gain from the exercise of our liberty for the good of our brother, the sake of the gospel, and the glory of our Lord.
118 A term of endearment, employed six times by Paul in his Corinthian Epistles. See 1 Corinthians 4:14.
122 See Psalm 24:1; 50:12.
123 Mothers may delight to find this verse and use it, and perhaps they should. Why does Paul tell his readers to eat everything placed before them? I think it is simple. To do otherwise is to needlessly offend your unsaved neighbor. To fail to eat what is served is an offense to your host, and thus an unnecessary hindrance to your witness. Do you not like what is served (I say this with fear and trembling)? Be master of your body and sacrifice your own selfish interests and eat it, all of it! I do not think I am going too far with Paul’s words.
124 Someone might ask why this opportunity to be a witness to the lost might also justify sitting at the table with the lost, while they participate in a heathen sacrificial ritual. The answer is quite simple. In so doing, we would deny the gospel and our union with Christ by sharing in the table of demons. But when the dinner table is in the home of the unsaved, and when we are not denying the gospel, then we can be a witness. We can surely witness to harlots, drug dealers, and thieves as we encounter them in the course of our lives, but we can hardly be a Christian witness by becoming one of them.