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1 Corinthians 10: Idolatry, Freedom, and the Glory of God Print E-mail
1 Corinthians
Sunday, 08 November 2015

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I love to sit down to a good meal. In a few weeks, many of us will be gathering around the table with our families to enjoy some Thanksgiving turkey and dressing (or whatever else we eat on Thanksgiving). My family will be doing that at Glennaís grandmotherís house in Tennessee. We will literally go over the river and through the woods to sit and feast with her family. We will lay out all the food (too much food) on her big table, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and enjoy a great meal. Of course, there are some rules for such gatherings around the table. Growing up, my mother did her best to teach me table manners. They included things like not wearing a hat, but wearing a shirt, not leaning back in my chair, but sitting through the whole meal, and of course, never, ever talking with your mouth full. Iím sure there were more, something about elbows and not reaching over people, but you get the idea: table manners were important.

In one sense, you could say that 1 Corinthians 8-10 is all about table manners. As we have seen, Paul is addressing the issue of meat sacrificed to idols that the Corinthians had brought up in their letter to him. Paul has encouraged them to focus on love instead of knowledge (ch. 8) and to lay down their rights for the sake of the gospel (ch. 9). After laying this important foundation, Paul will now give them clear instructions concerning meat sacrificed to idols. Again, there were two circumstances involved: should they eat meat at pagan temples and should they buy meat in the market that had been sacrificed to an idol? Paul will address both of these in our passage. So what are Paulís table regulations?

Do not participate in evil (ch. 1-22)

Paul first addresses the issue of eating at a temple. Building upon his call for them to run the race well (9:24-27), Paul uses an example of not running the race well from Israelís history. Look at verses 1-4. Paul is of course talking about the Exodus, when God saved the people of Israel from the Egyptians by letting them pass through the Red Sea. They were Ďbaptizedí into Moses and shared Ďcommunioní with Christ through their drinking water from the Rock. Paul uses this language to show the parallels between Israelís experiences and those of the Corinthians, who had been baptized into Christ and was now enjoying communion with Him. Yet, even for all these blessings, the Lord was not pleased with Israel. Look at verse 5. They were baptized at the Red Sea and they enjoyed the spiritual food and drink provided by God, but they lacked faith and obedience. Thus, only Joshua and Caleb made it to the Promised Land, while the rest perished in the wilderness.

What happened to them are examples for us, which Paul points out to the Corinthians. Look at verse 6. Paul does not want the Corinthians to take the same path as disobedient Israel. Using stories from the book of Exodus and Numbers, Paul points out four parallels between Israel and Corinth. Look at verses 7-10. Some in Israel gave themselves to idolatry and some in Corinth were being tempted to do the same. Some gave themselves to sexual immorality as some were doing in Corinth. Some put God to the test and grumbled against the leader (Moses) that he provided. As we have seen, some in Corinth were grumbling against Paul.

So Paul is warning them with these examples that just because they have been baptized or sat at the table of Christ does not mean that they can continue in these behaviors. Rather, they should repent and look to God who is faithful. Look at verses 11-13. Israelís dark history does not mean that the situation in Corinth is hopeless. Why? Because the Lord is faithful to provide for us even when we are tempted. Imagine being caught in a small valley with rocky slopes all around you. You begin to hear the low growls of animals and become aware of them closing in to trap you. But just then, you notice a hidden path that leads out of the valley and into safety. This is the idea behind Paulís language when he tells us that God will provide the way of escape. The Corinthians should look to Him and turn away from their sin. And so should we.

Paul applies this lesson to eating meals at the pagan temples in verses 14-22. He does this by identifying two tables. The first is the table of the Lord, which Christians enjoy through Communion. Look at verses 14-18. Paul describes the Lordís Supper as a participation in the blood and body of Christ. Much has been written over this description and various traditions have developed out of these writings (transubstantiation, consubstantiation). But the point that Paul is making is that when we partake of the Lordís Supper we are fellowshipping with Christ, just as the people of Israel fellowshipped with Yahweh through their sacrifices. Jesus is present with us and with His Bride in the act of Communion. The issue is not the physical elements (bread and wine) but the spiritual realities, namely fellowship with Christ and the church. We are participating in Him when we come to His table.

But what about when the Corinthians were going and eating in the pagan temples? Paul says that they were then sitting at a second table, the table of demons. Look at verses 19-22. Although Paul again agrees with their knowledge that idols are nothing (see ch. 8), that does not mean that what was happening at the pagan temples was innocent or neutral. No, for behind those idols and their rejection of the One, True God was the work of demons. So then, to sit at the table and eat meat in the pagan temples was to fellowship with demons.

Of course, Paul concludes that Christians should have nothing to do with that. How could the Corinthians fellowship with Christ at His table and with demons at theirs? They should not participate in such evil acts. The Christian has no place at the table for demons. To ignore such teaching would provoke the Lord to jealousy, a path similar to disobedient Israel. These warnings are serious and they are part of the reason why I offer such cautions each week before we come to the table. People who have not truly repented of their sin and followed after Christ should not come to His table, for they are still eating at the tables of this world. When we come to Christ through repentance and faith, we leave all other tables to feast only at His. In this way, Paul is exhorting the Corinthians and us to not participate in evil and to only eat at the table of Christ.

Enjoy your freedoms without offending (v. 23-30)

After addressing the issue of whether or not they eat at a pagan temple, Paul now turns his focus to the question of whether or not they should buy meat that has been sacrificed to an idol. He once again quotes from their letter and encourages them to focus on building one another up. Look at verses 23-24. Going back to what he argued in chapter 8, Paul reminds the Corinthians that their focus should be love for neighbor. Certain actions or behaviors may be lawful, but that does not mean that we should ever lose sight of love for others.

So then, what about buying meat that has been sacrificed to idols? Paul addresses this in verses 25-30. First, he tells them that they can eat whatever is sold. Look at verses 25-26. Quoting from Psalm 24, Paul points out that the meat is from the Lord and therefore they can eat it without even asking if it has been sacrificed in the temple. He goes on to say that they can eat whatever meat an unbeliever puts before them. Look at verse 27. When eating with an unbeliever, they do not have to ask if the meat has been sacrificed to an idol. Of course, there are limitations to how this would apply. We would not eat or partake of something illegal just because an unbeliever set it before us. But Paul is specifically talking about meat and what would be enjoyed at the table, and the Christian can eat whatever is served.

Yet, there is a caveat. Again, Paul is always looking out for others and teaching us to do the same. Look at verses 28-30. If someone else brings up the fact that meat has been sacrificed to an idol, then Paul cautions against eating that meat for the sake of their conscience. It is hard to know exactly who this person would be, perhaps either the host or another unbeliever present or even a believer who is at the meal. It seems that he would not be talking about another believer in light of what he says in verses 29-30. Rather, he is talking about an unbeliever who might view their eating as being alright with idol worship. Thus, for the sake of their conscience and to keep them from perhaps misunderstanding the gospel, you would forsake your freedom.

These verses have been applied in various ways. The strong uses them as a defense for their use of Christian liberty and the weak using them as a way to forbid the strong from offending them. Yet, if that is the debate, then perhaps we have missed the text altogether. We can at least say that we have once again forgotten the charge to love one another and build one another up. The Christian does have liberty because of Christ and should enjoy those freedoms without being unnecessarily condemned by other Christians. At the same time, we should never use our freedoms in a way that would hurt a brother in Christ or hinder our witness to the world. These are not always easy to discern, but sacrificing for the sake of others is always a good and biblical place to start the discussion. Paul says we should enjoy our freedoms without offending others.

Paul has been addressing the issue of meat sacrificed to idols for three chapters now. He has encouraged the Corinthians to focus on love, to avoid evil, and to enjoy freedoms without offending. He brings the whole argument to a conclusion in verses 31-33 (and 11:1). Look at those verses with me. There is a very unfortunate chapter break after verse 33, which most English translations attempt to correct. The end of it all is that the Corinthians should imitate Paul as he is imitating Christ. What does such imitation look like?

First, it means doing all for the glory of God. Every decision we make as Christians should involve this question: how can I best glorify God? Christ came to bring glory to the Father and we should live for that end as well. And how did Christ do it? By second, fighting for the good of others. We do not needlessly offend others. We do not seek our own advantages. No, we lay down our rights and our freedoms when necessary, so that others might hear the good news. Why do we do that? Because such actions are an imitation of what Jesus did for us. He left glory for a feeding trough. He became a man so that He could be the man of sorrows, our Suffering Servant. He bled and died on Calvary to save a wretch like me. He drank down the cup of Godís wrath so that I could sit at His table both now and forevermore. In light of such good news, may we live for the glory of God by laying down our rights for the good of others. Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 17 November 2015 )

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