1 Corinthians 8–10 discusses the controversial practice about what to do when food is being offered to idols. May the church eat it? If so, does it matter where we eat it? In this message on 1 Corinthians 8–10, Pastor Matt Mason reminds us that we are known by God and knowledge without love kills. He reminds us that while idols may be nothing, idolatry is demonic.
- Let’s prayerfully, wisely, and humbly shepherd those who have converted to Christianity from formal pagan backgrounds to break with the idolatrous practices they previously engaged in.
- Let’s take heed lest we ourselves fall into informal idolatry, which can take a hundred
forms in our lives.
- Let’s walk in love with fellow believers, seeking to serve, encourage, and strengthen
- Let’s actively look to Christ and trust in His finished work on our behalf.
- Let’s break the ties that can form between our hearts and false gods/saviors.
- Let’s daily depend on the Holy Spirit’s power to sanctify us.
Good morning, church. If you would turn in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 8, we’re going to begin reading there in just a moment. And then later on in our study, we’re going to skip over 1 Corinthians 9 and dip into some things in 1 Corinthians 10 as they relate to 1 Corinthians 8, as well. But as you’ll see, there’s still a lot left to 1 Corinthians 10 that we’ll be coming back and covering some of that ground later. But for now, if you would just turn to 1 Corinthians 8, we’re going to read that from God’s Word together.
First Corinthians 8:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” 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.
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.
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. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 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. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:1–13)
Let’s ask for God’s help. Lord, we need you as we look into the pages of your Word. We pray that you would come near to us, your people, through your Word. We entrust this time to you and ask for you to speak to us through your sufficient, authoritative, infallible, inerrant, trustworthy Word. In Jesus’ name. Amen
Conviction Friction, Then and Now
It’s always difficult, when we open up God’s Word, to read a passage and not impose on that passage our own agenda that we brought with us when we come to the passage. So we don’t want to bring our own bias, and that’s always a challenge, but particularly so when we’re reading things like what we just read in 1 Corinthians 8 or in 1 Corinthians 9, if we had time to read that, and 1 Corinthians 10, as well. Because there are verses in these passages that imply that there are restrictions on our personal freedom—on our ability to do what we want, when we want to do it. And our culture is not okay with this. We inhale the second-hand smoke of our culture, and so we are not okay with this. There are limitations put on my choices outside of myself: The opinions of others, the convictions and consciences of others. If that’s what this text is implying, we have an agenda, and we have a problem here.
1 Corinthians 8 separates believers into two groups…
The second reason it’s hard to keep our bias at bay is this passage separates believers into two groups, which means we instinctively start to think of which group we might be in. So Paul, for example, in 8:9, identifies one group as “the weak.” He doesn’t call the other group “strong,” though that’s probably what they’d call themselves. And Paul identifies this sensitive conscience, this person called “the weak.” And if we identify with the weak in this passage, then we would tend to gravitate toward verses like in 1 Corinthians 10:24. That might be our main takeaway passage. It says, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”
And then, we can turn around to everybody else in the body of Christ and say, “Look, I have a verse in this passage that says that the way that you all live and make your decisions needs to have a positive impact on my pursuit of holiness. And I just feel like I need to let you know it’s not having a positive impact on my holiness, because I saw you reading this. And I saw you drinking this. And I heard that you attended that. We don’t have to stop all this right now; you’ve got a week or so. Maybe we can talk about two or three things. Meanwhile, I’ll check your Facebook account and make sure there’s nothing else we need to talk about.” So that’s how we can tend to come to this text.
And then the strong can say, on the other hand, “I’m glad you guys read verse 24. It would be nice if you could just go ahead and read on. Verse 25 says, ‘Eat the meat.’ ‘Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”’”
And then the strong can turn around and say, “Told you! Food is food. Cultural activities might have some controversial elements to it. Yeah, I understand all of that, but there are not these spiritual overtones in all these cultural activities. Stop reading all of that into this passage. Just eat the food! It’s God’s food. The earth is the Lord’s. And, technically, yes, we could give this up for your sake, but wouldn’t it be better if you wouldn’t add a rule to my life that doesn’t exist in God’s Word? Because if this is prohibited by God’s Word in this text, it’s only prohibited because there are people around me who are bound up in rules. So, best case scenario: Loosen up.”
God’s intention in 1 Corinthians 8…
So, we have our agendas. Hence, conviction friction goes on in 1 Corinthians 8—both in the first century, as well as right here in our own fair city. It’s going on; conviction friction: Agendas that we’re bringing to the text. But there’s some truth in both of those. But Paul’s intent—and, more importantly, God’s intention in this passage—isn’t to weaponize either of these groups against the other; it’s not to weaponize either of these groups against the other. Remember back at the beginning of this letter? Corinth is plenty divided on its own; it doesn’t need apostolic assistance. This is a divided church, and Paul hasn’t come to pour more fuel on the fires of division. That’s not what this text is all about.
The controversial practice in 1 Corinthians 8 …
Well, what’s going on here? There is a controversial practice, obviously. The controversial practice that’s being discussed in 1 Corinthians 8 and in 1 Corinthians 10 is what to do about food offered to idols. “May we eat it? If so, does it matter where we eat it?”
Now, having said that, it’s probably good to get some background, since eating food sacrificed to idols isn’t necessarily culturally familiar to us. You’re not going to leave here and go to Jim & Nick’s and wonder what they might be doing back there in the kitchen before they serve up those mysteriously awesome cheese biscuits. It’s not like, “Are they back there? Is there like a wooden carved image of Bear Bryant, and they’re putting the cheese biscuits by it?” This is actually not out of the realm of possibility right here in Birmingham. “Is that what’s going on back there? And then they’re bringing this out. Should we be concerned about where these biscuits have been?”
That’s not really the world that we’re accustomed to; it’s not the world that we live in. But it was in Corinth. You could not grow up as a Gentile in Corinth and not go to the temple. It was the ancient equivalent of the modern-day restaurant. The people in the first century would have often been there—as often as you are at a modern-day restaurant. Pagan temples hosted state festivals, community social events of all kinds were hosted there; private celebrations of every kind.
Archaeologists discovered not too long ago an actual piece of an invitation that someone had sent out to the idol temple for a private celebration. It’s not a temple that was in Corinth but it was in a different location. But it’s a similar idea—inviting people to a celebration at the temple of an idol. And it reads as follows; it’s translated in this way: “Keramon (that’s the family member or friend who’s inviting you to the temple) requests your company at the table of the Lord Serapus at the Serapium tomorrow, the 15th, at 9 o’clock, where the first birthday of a daughter is to be celebrated at a meal in the Serapium.”
Now, let’s say you’re Keramon’s sister. You grew up at the Serapium. You ate there all your life. You worshiped Serapus, but then you heard the gospel and turned from idols to serve the living and true God. But it’s your niece’s first birthday! What are you going to do? Are you going to go? If you do go, are you going to eat the meat that was placed before a false god to give him thanks for providing this for all of us guests?
Now you can feel something of the tension that goes on when you’re converted from a Gentile, pagan past, and you’re coming into Corinth, among the believers. What should we do? Well, say you do go, what happens there? Well, the meat of the sacrifices would have been set in three different portions. One portion of it is set before the god—before the Lord Serapus. And it’s burned. So it’s a burnt offering basically. Then another portion would have been passed among the people who were wearing the party hats, right? Everybody gets to eat this food that was sacrificed to the idols. A third portion was placed on what they called “the table of the gods.” It would have been attended to by temple employees, and then eventually a lot of that would have been passed out to those who were at the celebration. Meat that wasn’t either burned before Serapus or consumed by those who were there to eat and to celebrate would have been sent out, and it would have been sold out to the local meat markets. So essentially, if you will, there was a truck driving from Winn Dixie to the temple of Serapus—from Wal-Mart, from Frank’s Deli—and they were all driving and picking up food—meat that had been sacrificed to idols. And it’s just being put in the truck from the back of the temple of an idol.
So that’s why Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, has to talk about “What do you do with food that’s sold at the meat market? Do you buy it? Do you eat it?” That’s important because without that distinction, there are two different contexts in view here. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is talking about, not just idol food in general, but idol food and eating it in the temple. Look at 8:10: “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in [a certain location] an idol’s temple…” And then, when he goes over to 1 Corinthians 10, he’s talking about food sacrificed to idols that is sold at Frank’s Deli—that is sold at the local meat market—and then eaten in your own home or a private setting.
Those two contexts are important because otherwise, frankly, it sounds like Paul’s contradicting himself. It sounds like Paul is saying, “I’ll give you two reasons to not eat it. One, don’t eat it (1 Corinthians 8) because it’s going to cause your brothers to stumble, and you should actually be concerned about them. And then I have a second reason (over in the middle of 1 Corinthians 10), and that’s because it’s demon food.” Paul says that. And then it sounds like Paul, in 10:23 and following, is saying, “You know, never mind. Eat it. All the food is the Lord’s. The earth is the Lord’s.” It can sound like he’s contradicting himself if we don’t make any distinction between two contexts in which this food was being eaten.
So here’s the million dollar question: What’s that got to do with us? How does God address this issue in Corinth and what implications does that have for us? Well, let’s jump in.
In verse 1, Paul immediately begins by quoting one of the mantras of the elite in the Corinthian church. You can see it’s in quotes there: “…all of us possess knowledge.” This is one of their mantras. And by the way, these are in quotation marks because Paul was corresponding by way of letters. And he would have received the letter that apparently had these quotes (and quotes from 1 Corinthians 6 and 7; we’ve seen this before). He’s corresponding with them and, to some degree, he’s allowing some of their ideas. He’s saying, “You know, on that point, I’ve got no objection to that.”
So what is it that they’re arguing for? Well, Paul is going to agree on some issues and he’s going to correct them on some issues. So, first, let’s talk about what Corinth got right. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to take very long.
What Corinth Knew
What did Corinth know? Well, one, food is food. Rock is rock. God is one. Food is food. Rock is rock. God is one. They had this two-pronged theological argument with this logical conclusion that comes from it. Here are the two theological statements that they made. Number one, you can see it in verse 4: “…we know that ‘an idol has no real existence…’” They are asking, “Paul, you okay with that?” He says, “Yeah.” Number two: There is no God but one. Now, where did Corinth take that? They said that if you grant those two assumptions, then there is no problem in eating food that was sacrificed to idols. Why? Because idols are not gods. There is no living deity inside the statue of Serapus or Demeter or Diana or Apollo. There is no deity; that’s just rock. It’s a big rock, and it’s carved up to look fancy. But it’s a rock. So food that sits in front of the rock continues to be what it was before it sat in front of the rock, namely, meat. And it’s mostly tasty meat, so let’s eat it.
So there was this understanding that Corinth had. On a surface level, Paul seems to agree so far. Food is food; rock is rock; God is one. What did they miss?
What Corinth Missed
You are known by God.
Let’s talk about that—what Corinth missed. Number one: You are known by God. See where he says that in verse 2? “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Verse 3, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” What is Paul doing here? Right out of the gate, he’s beginning to reorient the way they look at things—their priorities. The first problem Paul sees is that they’ve displaced the central message of Christianity.
So, Paul says, “Knowledge isn’t the goal of Christian faith. Love is.” And you can see right there in verse 2, he’s kind of pointing out this irony that, “For all you know, Corinth—and you all possess knowledge—for all that you know, you don’t know that knowledge isn’t the main thing. You don’t know the nature of knowledge in a Christian priority system. You don’t understand; knowledge isn’t the ‘be all, end all.’ Love is.” And he said this in other places so that we can’t miss it.
First Timothy 1:5 says, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and good conscience and a sincere faith.” In 2 Peter 1:5–7, Peter says at the end of his life to the church, in the very last letter that he writes: “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.” Or some translations might say, to “add to your faith virtue.” Now he’s just going to give this list of things to keep adding. “…supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge…” And he keeps going.
And this is where Corinthians would say, “What are you talking about? There is no supplementing knowledge. Once you get to knowledge, you’ve arrived.” Peter says, “I’m not finished yet. You’ll see where I put the period. I’m not putting the period yet.” “…supplement knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” Period. Now you’ve arrived. This is the idea. This is the priority.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:2, says, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Then, 1 Corinthians 8:2, right here in our text: “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.” Now, this is huge. What is Paul saying to Corinth? What is this text saying to us? It’s saying, “You want to fixate on knowledge? Don’t fixate on the knowledge that you have that other believers don’t yet possess because they’re not as mature as you are. Don’t fixate on that knowledge.” Do you know what it does? He says, “That puffs you up. Here’s a knowledge you can fixate on: Not what you know, but who you are known by. Corinth, you are known by God.”
In one sense, that statement sounds completely unsurprising. I mean, everyone is known by God, right? That’s what it means to be all-knowing. It’s what it means to be omniscient. But Paul is not talking about general omniscience; he’s not talking about God’s cognizance of reality in the world. And how do we know that? Because of the relationship between these phrases. “But if anyone loves God…” If you find yourself loving God this morning, something led to that. That’s the way Paul leverages this point in verse 3: “But if anyone loves God, he is…” And that verb is perfect: It’s already been done. It’s also passive; it’s been done to you, not by you. It is a perfect passive indicative. “…known by God.” If anyone loves God, that person has already been (prior) known by God. If you love God, believer, it’s because, before you loved God, you were known by God.
You know, in the Old Testament, this language of knowing and loving is used almost interchangeably. For example, when God is speaking to His people, Israel, through the prophet Amos, and He says, “You only have I known among all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2), the natural interpretation of that isn’t to say that God was going, “Where did all these other people come from? I only know you guys in this family. What happened?” It’s not talking about God’s cognitive awareness of everything in the universe; it’s talking about special intention. “You only have I loved. I rescued you from Egypt. The waters stood up and got out of the way for you. And then, once you got through, they closed in on the Egyptians. I have shown you special love; I’ve taken you into my knowledge.” This is shorthand for the gospel.
Paul brought the same emphasis to the Galatians, which was the church that forgot about God’s grace. So the same medicine was needed. Paul said in Galatians 4:9, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” Paul was saying, “Galatia, you need to hear the more excellent thing is not what you know about God or that you know God at all; it is that God knows you. And that led to everything else.” This is shorthand for the gospel.
One of the great effects of daily reflection on the gospel is that it blows up our spiritual superiority complexes. The gospel, when we reflect on it, blows up our spiritual superiority complexes. “What do you have that you did not receive?” Remember, Paul said that to the same group earlier in 4:7. “Corinth, what do you have?” Brook Hills, what do you have that you didn’t receive? And if you received it by God’s grace, why do you boast as if you went out and grabbed it or as if it was given to you because God just couldn’t resist giving it to you because of some moral quality or some spiritual, gnostic intellectual quality about you? He just had to give it to you. He says, “No, you’ve received it all by grace! Fixate on that, Corinth.”
Church, if we hold gospel truths in a haughty way, in a “why can’t the rest of you figure this out” kind of way, we are not internalizing the gospel. What are we doing? We are transferring concepts, data download, copying texts of Scripture, gospel truths and pasting them over into conversations that we’re having. But there’s no incarnational moment between the text and what we’re sharing and showing and teaching and serving. It’s not getting into our bloodstream and affecting the way that we look at life and look at God and humbly worship and love one another.
Paul is calling for this here. I need gospel medicine every day because I’m proud. And pride, by definition, when it stops to focus on others, it focuses on others in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. Isn’t that true? So we need this truth and this is probably why Paul begins this letter to these superior-minded Corinthian people by saying, “Corinth, look around. Where’s the wise among you? Do you see any of those guys from the Areopagus of the debate centers? Do you see any of them in here? The guys that you worship? The blogs that you read? They’re not in here. Corinth, as much as you hate to hear this, God saves unimpressive people. He saves fools and sinners. He saves fools and sinners by providing a Savior, who alone is our wisdom and our righteousness. He is our wisdom because we would be, apart from the grace of God, fools who say in our hearts, ‘There is no God,’ until our dying day. And He is our righteousness because, were it not for the grace of God, we would cling to sin until it killed us. So we have a Savior; we have a gospel.”
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, so that no human being might say, “All of us possess knowledge.” Paul’s confronting them so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. We have a gospel.
Non-Christian friend who’s here this morning, turn to this Christ. There is no salvation in anyone else. There’s only one religious faith in which the second person of the Trinity, God Himself, comes and takes up human form and dies on our behalf so that He might bring us to God, reconcile us to the God who made us, the God against whom we have rebelled. He rescues sinners who run to Him. Run to Him this morning!
Knowledge without love kills.
This leads us to the next thing that Corinth missed. First of all, they weren’t thinking about the fact that they were known by God. They were thinking about how much they knew and others didn’t. Second, knowledge without love kills. You know, the Corinthians had one agenda for the so-called weaker brothers and that was teach them the way of knowledge; teach them the way of knowledge. They had a hands-on method of discipleship at this point. “There’s no better way,” they reasoned. “There’s no better way for us to teach these legalistic, overly conscientious people that food is food, and that it’s okay to eat in an idol’s temple than by holding small group at the temple of Serapus. So this Saturday night, let’s all meet at the Serapium and let’s do a meal. You guys are going to learn how free we really are.” That was their approach to discipling.
Paul hears that, and he does not mince words. He says, “Corinth, your so-called knowledge is killing the church. It’s not doing what you think it’s doing. It’s not making weak believers strong. It’s not making them more knowledgeable and more spiritual. It’s destroying your brothers.” And he adds gravity by saying, “Hold on. It destroys your brothers for whom Christ died.”
We have rule-conscious believers all throughout this room—overly conscious of things that God commands us to do in His Word. But we throw the term “legalist” around so freely, so loosely. Oftentimes, when we use the term “legalism,” we’re tucking it into a grenade and throwing it at someone. We must not confuse legalism with a conscientious desire to obey God, to walk in holiness before Him, to guard our hearts from the lusts of the world. The bottom line is Paul was saying to Corinth—and in a room this size God is saying to some who are here—he’s saying, “The exercise of your so-called rights is going in the exact opposite direction of my agenda for my people. I sent my Son to rescue them from idolatry and your example is leading them right back into it. You’re killing the church. You’re
destroying your brothers.”
Contemporary illustrations often don’t serve as perfect parallels for reasons we’ll talk about when we get to 1 Corinthians 10 in a moment. But the principle of love and concern for others, combined with things that we would learn from Romans 14–15, if we had time to read that text–you can read that and study that later–urge us toward a lifestyle of self
sacrifice, a willingness to part with things that we find morally neutral and that we may enjoy. We are parting with those for the sake of others who are close to us.
Let me just ask you a question. Have you ever known somebody who deeply struggled with something that you don’t find tempting? Let’s say that you have a friend, and he’s been playing cards with a group of guys. They just go on Friday night; they’re all just playing cards. They start to play cards, and they’re betting a hamburger that they’ll win. And everybody else just keeps betting hamburgers. This guy goes headlong into a full-blown addiction to gambling, and some months later, he has to put himself on a list in the state so that it is impossible for him to gamble anywhere in that state. And he goes home.
And on his way home, he feels good about that because he’s taking a precaution in an area that’s been owning him. He turns on the TV and is flipping through the channels, and he simply sees people sitting at a table playing cards. He turns it off and gets in his car to drive four hours to the next state, and he gambles himself further into debt.
What’s that supposed to create in the hearts of genuine believers in this room? Love. Concern. Burden. What are you going to do? That guy comes over to your house; he’s a close friend of yours. He comes over to the house, and are you going to say, “Hey, kids, go get the cards. We’re going to teach this guy a lesson on the moral neutrality of a deck of cards.” No, you’re not going to do that—not if you love him. You’re not going to flaunt your liberty to his destruction. And if he gets evicted from his apartment because he’s so deep in debt and has to come live in your house, maybe you’ll even throw the deck away, and you’ll probably do it with a smile on your face. Why? Because you hate cards? Because you find them inherently evil? No! Because you struggle with it? No. Because you have a friend who does, and you love him more than blackjack. You love this man; you want to serve this man; you want to help him pursue godliness and get free in an area that has bound him.
That’s what self-sacrificing love does; it’s a love thing. Christian friend, if this is a foreign concept, there is a freedom that you have yet to taste. It’s the freedom of self-sacrificing love for others. This is not begrudging self-sacrifice, not self-sacrifice that’s constantly reminding that person of how many things I continue to give up for your sake. No! This is happy freedom. “Not even bringing this up. It’s a joy to have you here. God is at work in your life.” We are strengthening one another, and we taste this joy. Make yourself a slave of the law of love and know true freedom.
And this makes sense of 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul goes at the end of 1 Corinthians 8, and he’s transitioning into 1 Corinthians 9. Paul shows this isn’t just an abstract concept. “I showed this to you. I showed you what it’s like to give up rights in order to serve.” That’s what happens in 1 Corinthians 9. Now, having said all of that, Paul isn’t finished addressing the issue of eating idol food. He’s not finished giving the divinely inspired verdict on the matter of idol food. Step one was to speak to the puffed-up attitude of people in Corinth. “You’re prioritizing knowledge over love and it’s killing the church.” But now Paul wants to say, “Actually, there’s more to say about this situation. It’s not just that it’s causing your brother to stumble. We need to talk about your theology of idolatry, because you don’t fully grasp the nature of idolatry.
Idols may be nothing, but idolatry is demonic.
Number three: Idols may be nothing but idolatry is demonic. You know, one of the reasons I can’t watch hockey is because I can’t follow the puck for the life of me. I don’t know if it has to do with just being growing up in New Orleans climate. Maybe there are biological adaptations that didn’t happen in my eyes that my Canadian friends have the ability just to say, “Oh yeah, there’s the puck. It’s just right there.” I have no idea where the puck is. It’s gone. So I never watch hockey highlights hardly ever.
The only reason, if I ever don’t turn the channel, is because what they do sometimes is they literally highlight the puck. Sometimes, they’ll highlight it and do this expanding/contracting thing on the puck. So it’s a highlighted puck, and then, even better, they’ll put the highlighted, expanding and contracting puck in slow motion. So it’s a way of serving the weaker brothers among us. I can’t see the puck but now, “Oh, there it is! Oh, go into the net. Oh, that’s awesome.” So I can follow this now.
Reading 1 Corinthians 8, 9 and 10 can kind of be like watching hockey. You go from 1 Corinthians 8, and Paul says, “I’ll give it all up if it’s going to make my brother stumble.” And then he says, “And I have given it up so that you wouldn’t stumble, Corinth.” Okay, I can follow that.
But then you transition from 1 Corinthians 9 to 1 Corinthians 10:1, and it says, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea…” I just want to say, “What in the world are you talking about? And when did Moses get here? Where are we? Don’t lose the puck.”
Paul stopped in 1 Corinthians 9 to illustrate the end of 1 Corinthians 8, but now he’s coming right back to idol food in the idol temple. That’s what’s going on. How do you know? Well, a couple of clues: Verse 7, right after he tells this story (whatever that means) about Israel and the exodus, he says, “Do not be idolaters as some of them were.” And then, verse 14: “Therefore my beloved, flee from idolatry.” And then, verse 19: “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
So at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul takes you all the way back, thousands of years, to the exodus. God rescues His people through Moses. He brings them through the Red Sea, and then He feeds them spiritual food and spiritual drink. And Paul is drawing a connection between outward signs of God’s saving power in the Old Testament—namely the Red Sea and manna and water from a rock—and corresponding outward signs of God’s saving power in the New Testament, namely baptism and the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper. In other words, the exodus generation experienced a dramatic baptism. They went underneath the threatening waters, and they came out on the other side with a new life and a new identity as God’s nation. That’s what happened. And then they partook of spiritual food and spiritual drink that God provided. But Paul is saying here in 1 Corinthians 10, if we took the time to read all this, that those outward acts didn’t keep them from idolatry.
To correspond to that now, now Paul comes to Corinth, and God comes to us here this morning through Christ. Christ-followers have experienced a more ultimate exodus. We’ve been rescued from sin. We’ve been set free by the power of Christ and what He has accomplished on the cross and through His resurrection. And we’ve experienced a spiritual baptism, which is symbolized by water baptism. And then, we eat spiritual food and spiritual drink; and we do that Sunday after Sunday. Paul is saying, “But just like Old Testament Israel, the trappings, the outward signs of God’s saving grace among you, don’t inoculate you to temptation. They don’t inoculate you to idolatry. It’s still possible. Let he who stands take heed, lest he fall.”
What does this have to do with 1 Corinthians 8’s eating of idol food in the idol temples?
What does this have to do with 1 Corinthians 8’s eating idol food in the idol temples? Paul says it right there in verse 14 and following:
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel [so now he’s back in the exodus again]: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans
sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord [it’s an absolute prohibition] and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons [Serapus].” (1 Corinthians 10:14–21)
“Get out of the idol temple!” Paul is saying this clearly. “Shall we provoke…” He asks this question in verse 22: “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” That is not a good day. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” For all of the things that Corinth knew, this idolatry slipped in under the radar. They knew that an idol was nothing. True enough, they were right at that point. Serapus did not get any pleasure out of the food that sat before this god. Why? Because Serapus doesn’t exist. Serapus was an invention, a false god.
But Paul says, “There is a deeper story, Corinth. There’s a deeper story. Demons get pleasure from the worship that takes place in pagan temples; demons get pleasure from the worship that takes place in pagan temples. An irony of ironies, Corinth, in the name of spiritual knowledge, in the name of theological knowledge, there you are, eating the bread and drinking the cup of demons. And not only that, you’re urging brand new Gentile converts who have (and I’ll borrow a phraseology from 1 Thessalonians 1) turned from idols to serve the living and true God, and you’re saying, ‘Join me at the temple of Serapus, and I’ll teach you. I’ll disciple you on Christian liberty.’” And Paul says, “Teach Christian liberty? At the table of the demons? That’s not going to happen. Get out of the temple of the demons, where idols are praised and honored!” Idolatry, friends, is more subtle than we think it is. What does this text reveal about our own hearts? I think God is essentially saying, “Let me bust a myth for you, Corinth. Let me bust a myth for you, Brook Hills in so far as this myth has life: There is no strong and weak party among you. You’re all weak. Let he who stands take heed, because you could fall like that. You’re all weak.” He says in 10:13 (it’s a memory verse), “But I’m faithful. And with the temptation that you face, I will make a way of escape every time so that you might be able to endure.” And the very next verse, he says, “Run away from idols. Flee idolatry!” C.S. Lewis says, “There’s no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” History’s a battlefield for worship. And it’s bloody with apostasy.
Case in point: Check out Israel. They passed through the Red Sea, and the waters stood up and got out of the way. They walked into the most awesome and terrifying aquarium exhibit in human history. They came out on the other side. They were served food that rained from the sky; they drank water that came pouring out of rocks. But at the end of the day, it didn’t keep them from singing, “I exalt thee,” to Baal, to the Ashtoreth, to the gods of the Canaanites. These things, Paul says, are written for our example right here in Birmingham, lest we, too, would give leash to the growth of worldly lusts in our own hearts. Be careful, Brook Hills.
Now, you could hear Corinth almost immediately responding, saying, “Okay, Paul, you’ve given us a world we can’t live in. We both know, Paul, you’ve been here in Corinth for 18 months; you’ve done this before. We both know that almost all the meat sold in the local Walmart and Winn Dixie and Frank’s Deli came from Demeter’s temple. Ninety-five percent of it, Paul! So is this the theology of vegetarianism? Is that what you’re doing right here? Is that what we’re hearing? No more meat for the Corinthians because it’s all been defiled by demons.”
Well, Paul answers that question in 10:23 and following, where he closes out his teaching on Christian liberty as it relates to idol food. Basically, it goes like this: Once all is said and done, he says, “Stay out of the temple where the idol food is eaten.” And then he says, “Buy the meat at the market and don’t ask any questions about where it came from. It doesn’t have a stamp with a picture of Serapus or Demeter or Apollo on it, so just don’t ask; it’s meat. Why? Because outside of its idolatrous context in the temple, idol food simply becomes food that belongs to the one God, from whom [as he said earlier] are all things, including this food.”
So, in other words, when that meat leaves the temple precinct where it brought pleasure to demons, it returns to God’s domain—to God’s world—which is why in verse 26 right after, he says, “Go ahead. Buy the meat at the market. Eat the meat at the market and raise no questions for conscience’s sake.” And then, in the very next verse, he quotes the verse that would have been quoted by rabbis right before they ate every meal. The rabbis would quote from Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” This meat is the Lord’s; this drink is the Lord’s. Let’s enjoy it, since it comes from the hand of our God. Paul says, “When it leaves that idol temple context, it’s God’s food. So you can engage in that. You can eat that.”
So How Do We Apply This?
Six things—I’ll just lead you through them. Let’s prayerfully, wisely, and humbly shepherd those who have converted to Christianity from formal pagan backgrounds. Let’s shepherd them to break with the idolatrous practices they previously engaged in. The most direct parallel of eating idol food in an idol temple is not tattoos or a six pack of Coors in the fridge; it’s a much bigger issue than that.
At the end of this day, once Paul is done arguing in this way, it’s an absolute prohibition to not eat idol food in the idol temple. So it doesn’t carry over, necessarily, into each one of those other controversial contexts. The most direct application forces us here to think globally, which we’re happy to do. If we want to make disciples among all nations, those nations are here in Birmingham, and they’re in other places as well. So we want to think about that.
By the way, this prohibition doesn’t just exist—the prohibition of eating food sacrificed to idols—in 1 Corinthians 8 or 10. It’s not just a matter of saying, “Okay, that’s your interpretation.” Acts 15:29 is extremely clear—you can look that up later. Revelation 2:14 and 20, where it says, “But I have this against you, that you eat food sacrificed to idols.” So on both sides of 1 Corinthians, this is a problem, and it’s prohibited by God’s Word.
Syncretism—this is what we’re talking about here. Syncretism is the blending of Christian faith with elements of false worship, with the worship of false gods, and it’s deadly. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Corinthians 10:22)
You know, I love the personal story that Pastor David shares in Follow Me. If you haven’t read that, he tells the story about when he’s in a foreign context sharing the gospel with a woman who was an idol worshiper. And he could see the lights go on in her face. She was going to come to Jesus. She was going to respond to the gospel and she did. And she said, “You’ve got to see my house. My house is full of idols. I’ve got images; I’ve got posters; it’s everywhere.” And they went to her house, and she started carrying all of these gods into her backyard. And she set them on fire. And David writes: “That day, we began our time in the Word amid the smell of smoldering gods.” Will this further isolate the believers that you lead to Christ from formal pagan backgrounds? Yes, but Christ is worthy of singular devotion.
Number two: Let’s take heed, lest we ourselves fall into informal idolatry, which can take a hundred forms in our own lives. The believer who thinks that he’s above the danger of idolatry is already worshiping an idol; it just happens to be the idol of his own self sufficiency. Let’s take heed, lest we fall. Number three: This one we’ve already unpacked a little bit, so I’ll just mention it here. Let’s walk in love with fellow believers, seeking to serve, encourage and strengthen them.
Number four: Let’s actively look to Christ and trust in His finished work on our behalf. Let’s fixate where Corinth didn’t fixate; let’s fixate on the fact that we are the people for whom Christ died—that God has taken special, loving knowledge of us, leading us to love Him. Nothing, friends, nothing fuels love to God, love to other believers, and love to the world more than the gospel. Drink deeply from the gospel. Internalize this message. Let it change everything about us.
Number five: Let’s break the ties that can form between our hearts and false gods, or false saviors. We live and move around in a world awash in idol worship. Yes, some of it is worship to Serapus and Demeter and other false gods in formal pagan settings. And then, there are cultures like ours, where we drop names to impress others. We broadcast our virtues and our accomplishments. We worship before the golden corporate ladder. Or how subtle can this be: We daydream about being persecuted or imprisoned and all the great things the biographer will say about how we didn’t waste our lives. It’s subtle. We must contend against every trace of worship that rises from our hearts to any god but the one, true God.
Finally: Let’s daily depend on the Holy Spirit’s power to sanctify us. We’ve been saved by the Triune God. The Father sent His Son; the Son finished the work and accomplished it, dying in our place and rescuing us from God’s wrath; and then we’ve received the Holy Spirit! Oh, don’t miss this part! The Holy Spirit who enables us to run from idolatry, who enables us to walk in love together, who enables us to be salt and light in a world brimming with idols. See if you can finish this verse with me: “…for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4b). That’s the truth.
Conviction Friction, Then and Now
This passage separates believers into two groups, which means we instinctively start to think of which group we might be in. (1 Corinthians 8:7, 9–13; 10:24, 25)
Paul’s intent—more importantly, God’s intention in this passage—isn’t to weaponize either of these groups against the other.
The controversial practice that’s being discussed in Chapters 8 and 10 is what to do about food offered to idols. May they eat it? If so, does it matter where they eat it?
What Corinth Knew
Food is food. Rock is rock. God is one. (8:1, 4–6)
What Corinth Missed
You are known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3)
Knowledge isn’t the goal of Christian faith.
Love is. (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:2, 13:2; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Peter 1:5–7)
If you love God, it’s because, before you loved God, you were known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:3; cf. Galatians 4:9)
One of the great effects of daily reflection on the gospel is that it blows up our spiritual superiority complexes. (1 Corinthians 4:7; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:27, 29)
Knowledge without love kills. (1 Corinthians 8:1, 7–13)
The Corinthians had one agenda for the “weak” brothers: teach them the way of knowledge. (1 Corinthians 8:1, 4–6)
Make yourself a slave of the law of love and know true freedom. (1 Corinthians 8:13, 9; 10:23–24, 32–33)
Idols may be nothing. But idolatry is demonic. (1 Corinthians 10:1–22)
Paul draws a connection between outward signs of God’s saving power in the Old Testament (Red Sea, manna, water from a rock) and outward signs of His saving power in the New Testament (baptism, Lord’s Supper).
What does this have to do with Chapter 8’s eating of idol food in the idol temples? (1 Corinthians 10:14–22)
Demons get pleasure from the worship that takes place in pagan temples. (1 Corinthians 10:20)
Outside of its idolatrous context, idol food becomes simply food and belongs to the one God. (1 Corinthians 10:25; Romans 14:14)
So, How Do We Apply This?
Let’s prayerfully, wisely, and humbly shepherd those who have converted to Christian ity from formal pagan backgrounds to break with the idolatrous practices they previously engaged in.
Let’s take heed lest we ourselves fall into informal idolatry, which can take a hundred forms in our lives.
Let’s walk in love with fellow believers, seeking to serve, encourage, and strengthen them.
Let’s actively look to Christ and trust in His finished work on our behalf.
Let’s break the ties that can form between our hearts and false gods/saviors.
Let’s daily depend on the Holy Spirit’s power to sanctify us.