We have seen in the last few chapters that there are areas of our conduct that are governed by great clarity on what is right and what is wrong, but there are many more areas in which we need to exercise judgement – God offers no clarity on what we ought to do. We must work it out for ourselves. This is not an easy task and our judgements are influenced by our personal preferences and bias and extrinsic influences on out thinking. Paul offered guidance to the church in Corinth as to what they out to do when groups of people arrived at perfectly legitimate but different judgements. Love was to be the governing principle: don’t let your view cause another person to trip up says Paul (chapter 8). A second principle involved surrender of ’rights’ : don’t insist on your way, do what is best for the sake of the gospel and each other. Paul himself was an example of what it was to surrender his rights as an apostle for the good of the gospel.
The area of judgement that was of concern and was under discussion in these chapters was eating food offered to idols. One group had no problem with this whilst the other group did. Now in this tenth chapter Paul warns that the exercise of judgement in uncertain matters had to be undertaken with great care – getting it wrong could be disastrous.
- Getting it all wrong
The congregation in Corinth was a mix of Jews and Gentiles. The effect of the gospel on the Jews and their new situation (as equal partners with Gentiles) was a huge area of debate and concern. In subsequent chapters we will see some aspects of this as we observe the transfer of the role of God’s-representatives-on-earth from the Jews to the church. Paul now takes an example from the history of Israel to make a point about the potential dangers of getting the food-for-idols question wrong.
In Romans 11, Paul described the emergence of the church as being like a wild olive branch being grafted into a natural olive stump – the stump representing Israel. The stump nourishes the grafted-in branch but the grafted-in branch has its own character distinct from that of the stump. Since the church has roots derived from Israel , it has something to learn from Israel’s history. Paul’s history lesson starts by him stating that the Israelites were baptised into Moses. The definition of baptism is that it is a process that takes the object of baptism from one environment to another bringing about a change in the object being baptised. A piece of cloth placed into a dye changes environment (from outside the dye to inside the dye) and it undergoes a change (in colour). Likewise the Israelites through the agency of Moses, moved from the environment of Egypt to the desert and were changed – from slaves to free people. And incidentally we too when we become Christians are baptised by the Holy Spirit and are placed into a new environment (we are in Christ) and are changed from being slaves to sin and subject to death, to being free and alive to Christ. The Israelites were God’s people in an analogous way to that of the church in Corinth; both being sustained by spiritual food from God. Having established these similarities Paul now drops the bombshell that God was not pleased with many of the Israelites – so much so that the wilderness was scattered with their bodies.
What could this mean for the Corinthians? Israel served as an example and a warning to the Corinthians. What had the Israelites done that was so bad? (and don’t forget Paul’s whole discussion is about the food-for-idols debate): It was all about idolatry. The idolatry involved eating and drinking, revelry and ultimately sexual immorality. The result? God took the lives of 23,000 people in one day. This is serious stuff. Paul is saying, don’t mess about with idolatry – it’s dangerous to your health! One thing leads to another, and Paul indicates that the Israelites tested God – the result, many were killed by snakes. You may well be saying, well at least I don’t indulge in any of these dreadful things – read on…some of the Israelites grumbled against God. The result: death by the destroying angel.
Paul says, be careful Corinthians, idolatry is dangerous – look at the example from history. God will not tolerate it. Paul warns ‘so if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you do not fall!’ This is clearly a message for the knowledge-group, those who knew that the idols were just pieces of wood and stone and who had no scruples about eating food offered to these false gods. It seems that this group had taken a step further: they were attending feasts in the pagan temples as well as eating the food that had been offered to idols. As we will see in the next section attending a pagan temple feast could easily involve more than enjoying a good meal.
There is balance in Paul’s warning, he states the following ‘No temptation (or testing) has overtaken you except what is common to mankind’ – you are not unusual or unique, everyone goes through this sort of thing, but says Paul, ‘God will not let you be tempted (or tested) beyond what you can bear…he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.’ That’s a wonderfully reassuring statement. Be careful that you don’t fall, but don’t for one minute think that you are in an impossible situation – God will always provide a way out, it’s within your capability to do the right thing!
- Run for your life
There are blacks and whites and areas of judgement. Idolatry is without doubt ‘a black’ – Paul says flee from idolatry, no ifs, no buts, no debate, run in the other direction. So is eating with idolaters OK? Work it out for yourselves says Paul.
When we sit down to remember Jesus’ death and resurrection by eating bread and drinking wine, we don’t just eat, we do something more than that. As we drink we give thanks and this is a ‘participation in the blood of Christ.’ Likewise as we eat there is a ‘participation in the body of Christ.’ Since we all eat from the same loaf we do this collectively, all who eat participate in the body of Christ. What Paul is establishing is that the act of eating together as part of a formal ceremony takes us beyond only eating and drinking. It takes us into something spiritual.
Turning back to another example from Israel, Paul asks, ‘do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the alter’. I suspect that he might be thinking of the Passover ceremony in which each family took a lamb, killed it and ate the roasted meat – this was not just eating, this was declaring God’s salvation. It was both a physical activity and a spiritual one too.
So what about the food-for-idols debate? Since the idols were nothing but pieces of wood and stone what was there to worry about? The trouble was that the sacrifices were in fact offered to demons, not God. So how could a believer sit together with idol worshippers and eat what was in fact a sacrifice offered to demons? Attending such a feast was more than just eating, it was participating in the worship of demons. So is it OK? The answer is obvious. You cannot have it both ways, you cannot participate in ‘the Lord’s table and the table of demons.’ This is serious. Are we trying to arouse the anger of God, asks Paul.
Paul is pointing out that eating food offered to idols is definitely an area of judgement, but eating such food at a pagan temple feast crosses the line from an area of judgement to an area of clear black and white. It was not only wrong, but dangerous too – as indicated by the lesson from Israel’s history.
- Getting it right.
So if eating at the ‘table of demons’ is clearly wrong and dangerous, what about eating food purchased in the market place that had previously been offered to idols and what about an invitation to the house of an unbeliever who was offering such food?
It’s almost becoming tedious is it not! Haven’t the Corinthians got it by now! Paul is patiently showing that in these matters of judgement it is not at all about knowledge and rights but rather it is about achieving a balance between love and freedom.
‘I have a right to do anything’ Paul quotes the knowledge group, but Paul is quick to point out that this is not the point, the point is that what is done must be constructive and for the good of others. So here’s his advice:
- If the meat is sold in the market place whether it is offered to idols, just eat it without worrying – after all the Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
- If an unbeliever invites you for a meal, eat what is provided and don’t worry about where it has come from.
- But if someone points out that it has been offered to idols, they clearly have a conscience issue with it, so for their sakes don’t eat it – otherwise it could cause them to fall spiritually.
The advice offered, demonstrates that eating food offered to idols was a matter of judgement, but in practice thinking about the other person’s welfare is of great importance. The question then becomes not should I eat or not, but what action would glorify God! Paul says, ‘So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’ This is a simple and yet profound summary of all that has gone before in this argument. How often do we discuss matters of debate with wrong thinking and wrong motivation – by definition these things are not of final importance – so why do we attach so much importance to them? ‘Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God’ be careful not to fool yourself that you want is always consistent with God’s glory. So how might doing everything for God’s glory look? ‘Seek the good of the many, so that they may be saved.’ How many churches have faced inwards to fight when they ought to be facing outwards to love? I think the song ‘turn your eyes upon Jesus’ had it about right when it says, ‘then go to a world that is dying, his perfect salvation to tell.’