I don’t know about you, but I’m a little weary of living in a world where it’s a scramble to the top. Where everyone stands on their rights, claiming everything they think they’re entitled to. Where other people are frequently nothing more than an inconvenience for everyone’s personal ambition.
God intends the Christian church to be radically different from that. To be a refreshing picture of how humanity is meant to function. To be a foretaste of how things will be when Jesus returns.
The church in ancient Corinth gives us an opportunity to see this, because it’s one more thing they’d lost sight of.
Introduction to 1 Corinthians 8 and Idol-Food
Let me remind us where we are in this letter of 1 Corinthians.
We’re in the second half of the letter. Chapter 7 begins: “Now for the matters you wrote about”. They had written a letter to Paul, and Paul is now responding to the matters they wrote about.
First up was marriage, which Paul tackled in chapter 7.
Now we hit chapter 8, and Paul tackles their second topic. Verse 1 of our reading: “Now about food sacrificed to idols.”
They’re asking Paul whether it’s OK for Christians to eat food that has previously been sacrificed to an idol.
For most of us, this is far removed from our experience. There were temples everywhere in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Animals would be sacrificed to these various gods. Some of the meat would be burnt as a portion for the god, but the rest would be eaten. Eaten in one of two ways.
Some would be eaten in the temple precincts. Excavations from Corinth have uncovered a temple with 40 dining rooms, each seating about 10 people. There would probably have been a statue of the god concerned, and maybe some other symbols or artwork. There, the worshippers could eat the meat that had just been offered.
The culture of doing this was everywhere. It was almost as if these were the restaurants of the ancient world – you’d go for a night out with your friends.
But the sacrificial system of this huge number of gods produced far more meat than the worshippers could ever eat. So the rest found its way to market. Most of the meat you’d buy started its life as a sacrifice in a temple somewhere.
I’ve not been able to check this next fact. I’m told that you could buy meat that hadn’t come from a temple. But it was much more expensive. Meat was a luxury for most people. And the only way to have affordable meat was to buy it second hand.
So the Corinthians ask Paul: Is it OK for us Christians to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to an idol?
Are they asking him about eating meat in the temple, or at home having bought it in the market? Well, the only example he gives in chapter 8 comes in verse 10, and he’s specific that the meat is eaten at the temple. He seems to be still on that theme in chapter 10 as well. So they were asking him whether they could go to the temple dining rooms, with their friends, and eat the meat that had been offered.
Paul will touch briefly on meat bought at the market. He goes there right at the end of chapter 10, to complete his discussion of this question.
Idol meat. OK? Or not OK? That is the question.
Idols Don’t Exist
Paul and the Corinthians agreed on the two key principles involved. But the Corinthians came up with the wrong answer, because they’d forgotten the most important thing of all.
Principle number 1: Idols don’t exist.
Verse 4, Paul quotes the Corinthians, and he agrees: “We know that ‘an idol is nothing at all in all the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’”
There are what he calls in verse 5 “so-called gods”, things that some people treat as gods. But they are so-called gods. They don’t actually exist.
That’s because there is only one God. Verse 6. He’s the one that Jesus taught us to call Father. We meet that one God also in the person of his Son, the one Lord, Jesus Christ. There’s only one God. He made everything. Everything exists for his benefit. Our lives revolve around living for him. God the Father, and Jesus his Son, is the only God there is. There is no other.
Which means that the gods worshipped in ancient Greece did not exist. There is no such thing as Apollo, no such thing as Aphrodite, no such thing as Hermes, Zeus or Poseidon. The statues in their temples were just that: lifeless statues. Paul stands on the shoulders of the Old Testament prophets in making this point. The statues have noses, but they can’t smell. They have eyes, but they can’t see. They have ears, but they can’t hear. They are just a decorated piece of wood, nothing more.
In the same way today, Mohammed does not exist, neither does Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva.
Food Doesn’t Affect Us
There’s a second principle that Paul and the Corinthians agreed on.
Principle number 2: Food doesn’t affect us.
Verse 8: “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do eat, and no better if we do.”
Paul is quoting Jesus, indirectly. God used food to teach the Old Testament Israelites some vital lessons about his holiness. But Jesus could not have made clearer that all foods are clean for us to eat. If we’re unclean before God, it’s because of the sin in our hearts not the food in our stomachs.
So food does not affect our relationship with God.
Put all this together, and the conclusion is obvious. Surely, there’s no harm in a good night out at the temple. That’s what the Corinthians put to Paul, and their logic is hard to fault.
Importance of Love
But the Corinthians have forgotten one vital thing.
Let me read verses 1 to 3: “Now about food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.”
They’d forgotten the importance of love. They thought that knowledge is everything.
Paul explains something that we easily forget in our own day: Knowing about God is not the same as actually knowing him.
We get the distinction, don’t we? Let me tell you a few facts about Andy Murray. He’s Scottish. He’s 31 years old. He won the men’s singles in 2013. He had hip surgery earlier this year, hoped to play at Wimbledon, but decided it was too soon and withdrew.
We could go on, and some of you know him much better than I do. Sorry, know about him. Because that’s my point. For all I know about Andy Murray, we don’t actually know each other.
The same is possible with God. A great many scholars have high flying degrees in theology. They know all kinds of things about God. But they’re not personally acquainted.
A great many ordinary men and women look at the beauty of the world around us. They learn that God is powerful and has a sense of both order and beauty. But they’ve never actually got to know this God.
And it’s quite possible to go to church all your life, to learn a lot about God along the way, but never to actually get to know him personally.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing things about God is a good thing. God is not silent. God has made himself known. He wants us to know him, and when you know someone it’s good to learn more and more about them.
But knowing about him isn’t enough in and of itself. A Christian is someone who actually knows God through the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re in a relationship with him. Christianity is first and foremost a relationship with the God who made us.
I’ll pause to ask in passing: Do you actually know God? Not just know about him, but know him? If you don’t, would you like to? If so, it’s very easy, because God’s already done all the hard work to make that possible. Speak to me later.
And Paul’s point is that if you do actually know God, then it’s marked by love. Love for God. And love for God’s people.
Love trumps knowledge. Knowledge without love is destructive. You use what you know as a stick to beat others. Whereas love works for the good of others.
And that was what the Corinthians had forgotten. They knew there’s only one God, so idols don’t exist. They knew that food doesn’t affect us. But they weren’t applying what they knew in a loving way.
The Need for Love
The problem is, not everyone knows those things. Some people in Corinth were recent Christians. They’d been brought up all their lives going to meals at the temples, and for them it was an act of worship. They’ve got it now. Jesus Christ is Lord. Their heads are clear – there’s only one God, and those other so-called gods didn’t really exist. But their hearts have not yet caught up.
So, verse 7: “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god.”
It’s still real for them. In their hearts.
The problem comes when one of these new Christians sees a fellow Christian in the temple eating the idol food. Now, to see them there, they’d have to be there too. So it could be that the Christians who have got this are encouraging the new Christians in the church to join them at the temple for dinner. “Come and join us Now you’re a Christian, you know that none of this is real – the gods, the food. You can enjoy it now.”
And along they come, and it’s a disaster. They join back in, but for them it isn’t nothing. For them it’s turning away from Jesus, and back to worshipping these other gods. Paul says that this destroys their Christian brother or sister. That’s the word he usually uses for eternal destruction.
The Christians in the know have just led the new Christian to give up their faith. The baby Christian’s salvation now hangs in the balance. They’d turned from these false gods to follow the Lord Jesus, but now they’ve turned back to their false gods again.
It’s a complete disaster.
The Corinthians knew all the right things. But the way they applied it was not loving. They were living out what they knew they were entitled to. What they should have done was asked what was most loving for their fellow Christians. Instead the only asked what they know they can do.
We need to watch for the equivalent things we might do today.
This isn’t easy, because what was happening at Corinth was very specific.
These Christians weren’t just doing something that offended other Christians in the church. They were doing something that those Christians were then going to copy.
And what they were copying was not just some small thing that they had reservations about. They were copying something that stood for abandoning their whole Christian faith.
Paul called them not to do these things. To rein in the things they thought they were free to do, out of love for their Christian brothers and sisters.
This call to love is not sentimental. He’s not calling on the Christians to pamper one another. Sometimes people have misunderstood Paul here. I’ve heard it said that Christians should never criticise one another’s behaviour. The argument goes that criticising someone’s behaviour is using your knowledge of right and wrong in a way that doesn’t love the other person.
But we have to remember that this love is the love that wants to see our brothers and sisters saved. Not destroyed. Remember that just 3 chapters earlier, Paul asked them to expel from the church the member who was sleeping with his step-mother. Why? Because it’s the loving thing to do. It’s to win him back, so that he might be saved. Not destroyed. The motivation is the same.
We are called to act out of love. Tough love if needs be. Because the well-being of our fellow Christians matters more to us than our own well-being. Because the well-being of our fellow Christians matters more to us than exercising the rights we know we have. Because seeing others saved matters more to us than exercising our rights.
Let me offer a couple of tentative illustrations.
Alcohol. Some people today come to faith in Christ having previously drunk very heavily and very regularly. Alcohol is addictive, and they’ve realised that it would not honour the Lord Jesus for them to continue to get drunk in that way. It’s not the best use of their money. And self-control is a virtue that the Lord Jesus wishes to develop in his people.
So with much prayer, and much support, they give up. Some cut back. Some Christians decide that they need to give up entirely.
Until along comes another Christian who knows that alcohol is not wrong, in and of itself. They enjoy a few drinks. But they do so quite publicly, and then they start to encourage the new Christian to join them. “Alcohol itself is not wrong,” they explain. “Just the misuse of it”.
And before you know it, the new Christian is back down the pub every evening, staggering home at the end of the night. “So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.”
Or if it’s not alcohol, perhaps it’s gambling.
Exactly the same dynamic is at work. A young man comes to faith, having previously been addicted to gambling. They kick the habit, until another, more maturity Christian, decides to educate this young Christian into their new-found freedom, and helps them to take up gambling again.
Those are interesting examples, because they’re not exactly the same. Some Christians may disagree with me on this one, but my own view is that drinking alcohol is not wrong, in and of itself, whereas gambling is.
Both would be wrong in this case, because it would encourage a young Christian to do something that is wrong in their heart and mind. It would lead them back from their new status as a Christian, back into old habits. But only the gambling would still be wrong if that easily led younger Christian wasn’t in the picture.
It begs the question as to which type of issue the idol food is.
Is it like drinking alcohol? Fine, in and of itself, but not fine if you’d be destroying a younger Christian by doing it? Or it is like gambling? Not OK, in and of itself, and doubly not OK if you’d be destroying a younger Christian by doing it?
We’ll come back to that question in chapter 10.
But for today, we leave aside the question of whether this idol meat was wrong in and of itself. Regardless of that, if the Christians of Corinth went to the temple to tuck in, they were destroying their Christian brothers and sisters.
That is emphatically not OK. That is to allow knowledge to displace love. That is for my rights to lead me not to care about what’s good for my fellow Christians.
We won’t face exactly the same issue today. We don’t have idolatrous temples everywhere.
But we will all have many opportunities to put into practice the principles of this chapter.
We need to cultivate the right attitude.
Do I care more about my Christian brothers and sisters than for myself?
Do I care more about whether other people are saved, as opposed to lost, than I care about the things to which I’m entitled?
Does what I know and understand about God lead me to a selfish sense of my own importance, or does it help me to love other Christians better?
Let’s ask God to help us get those attitudes in place, and then he’ll build us into the loving people he wants us to be.
Let me end by pointing out Paul’s motivation for living in this way.
In verse 11, Paul calls our fellow Christians our “brother or sister, for whom Christ died”.
They’re family. But crucially, they’re people for whom Jesus died.
Jesus gave up his very life for them. That’s how much he loved them. If that’s how he loved them, and if that’s how he loved them, surely the least we can do is to give up some meat, some drink, or whatever rights it is we think we have, for their sake.