RPM, Volume 13, Number 49, December 4 to December 10, 2011

1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

If you have a Bible with you this morning, please turn with me to Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. We will be picking up our study there at verse 23 and working through to the end of that section, which concludes with verse 1 of chapter 11. Now, if you have been with us in the past two months or so then you will know that we have been steadily working our way through this letter and, most recently, have been focusing on a particular sub-section of the letter which began with chapter 8 and which finishes with the passage before us this morning.

In this section, Paul has been responding to some questions the Corinthians have asked him about some pretty specific and even unique issues. They have apparently asked Paul, by means of a letter sent to him, about a number of issues related to idols and temples and the food that was sacrificed in those temples. And Paul has very systematically addressed these things and, in the process of doing so, has given them (and us) a living illustration of how they ought to think and how they can apply biblical truth to particular life situations.

In 8:1-13, Paul talked to them about the matter of going into idol temples and eating the meat that had been offered there as part of a sacrificial ceremony. In that section Paul showed them that - apart from every other consideration - the way that many of them were approaching this matter was sinful and unloving as it was encouraging young believers to engage in behaviors against their conscience. Paul urged them, in the light of that, to not be so concerned with claiming their "rights" but, instead, to be more willing and ready to relinquish their rights, showing how truly free they were, and by that means, not causing a brother or sister to stumble.

Then, in chapter 9, Paul supported his teaching in this regard by offering himself as an example of one who was practicing the very thing he was preaching. He finished that chapter by calling the Corinthians to imitate him in this same sort of other-centered, self-sacrificing perspective.

Following that, Paul took up another aspect of this issue - and apparently one which had also been communicated to him by means of their letter - namely, that many of the Corinthians were counting on the fact that because they had been baptized and so set apart, and because they were partakers of the Lord's Supper, they were somehow protected or immune from any possible dangers associated with participating in the feasts and meals on offer within the many pagan temples in Corinth.

Over against their false sense of security in this, and over against their wrong understanding of the sacraments' role in "protecting" them - Paul offers the example of Israel to them in chapter 10 - a nation that was just as chosen and set apart and beloved by God - and yet they became caught up in idolatry and were judged accordingly. Paul relates all of this to the Corinthians situation, pointing out to them that the pagan temples were, in fact, places where demonic influence was present - even though the idols themselves were not real. This, then, was an additional, and equally serious, problem associated with their temple attendance. Not only was it causing problems for some of their brothers and sisters, it was bringing them into contact with, and the worship of, that which was demonic.

Which brings us, finally, to the verses in front of us now, starting at verse 23 of chapter 10. In these closing verses, Paul ties up some of the loose ends related to the previous discussions, he addresses two further questions, and then finishes by offering some summarizing sorts of statements. And, while Paul's closing comments relate specifically to the matter that he has been discussing since chapter 8, they also relate generally to any number of other circumstances in which the Corinthians might find themselves in the future. That's what we'll be looking at this morning. Before we go any further, let's pray together.

Father in Heaven, please guide us now as we focus our attention on this Word which you have spoken to us through your Apostle, and through the historical circumstances pertaining to the Corinthian congregation which first received this word. Give us the ability by your Spirit to discern your intentions for us. Help us to receive and believe the truth to be found here. Help us to see you better and know you better because of these things. Rebuke us where we should be rebuked; encourage us where we should be encouraged. Thank you for this time, and this further evidence of your great love for us. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

(Read 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1)

Paul begins his final remarks on the topic at hand by tying up some loose ends related to the discussion thus far. These loose ends come in the form of some viewpoints or positions that the Corinthians have held and which they were apparently using to support their decision to resist Paul's instructions regarding their temple attendance, and related matters. These are the words found in quotation marks in verses 23 and 24 - "everything is permissible" or "all things are lawful", in the ESV.

Now, if you were with us for an earlier series on 1st Corinthians and/or, if you are familiar with this letter, then you may hear those words and find them slightly familiar. And the reason for that is because this is not the first time that Paul has responded to this sort of thing in this letter. Earlier on, in chapter 6, verses 12-20, Paul wrote to them about matters related to sexual immorality and there he quotes the Corinthians in practically the same fashion as he does here - taking the phrase "all things are lawful" - which they were using in their comments to him - and then showing them the inadequacy of that as a sufficient ethic to guide their actions and decisions.

To be sure, with regard to food, there was an element of truth to the statement that "all things were lawful". With the coming of Christ, the Jewish food regulations were done away with and so there were no more foods that were "off the list". All foods were permissible. But, as Paul points out, that alone is not enough to form one's thinking on these matters. There is more to be considered than simply what you, personally, would like to do or what you, personally, would prefer to do, or what would benefit you, or what are your "rights" in any given situation.

Yes, "all things are lawful" - in terms of food at least - but not everything is beneficial - meaning, not every eating of food is beneficial. "All things are lawful" - but not every lawful thing - if engaged in - will have a constructive effect or result in the lives of others.

In saying these things, Paul is trying - once again - to move the Corinthians away from a self-centered perspective, to an other-centered perspective. He is trying to get them to think communally, not merely individualistically. And so he highlights again what evidently was a key phrase in their thinking and discussions and shows how it is not enough on its own.

Well, immediately following this - after raising and responding once again to the Corinthian "all things are lawful" ethic, Paul moves on to quickly address two other questions related to the matter of eating idol meat. In the process of doing this, he further demonstrates why it is not enough to simply ask what is permissible for you to do in any given situation.

Now, as we have already seen, Paul has previously talked to them about eating meat sacrificed to idols in a pagan temple. He now addresses a different situation and a different question. Clearly the temple thing is out of bounds. But what about simply buying food in the local marketplace which, very likely would mean buying meat that had been sacrificed to an idol? What about that situation? Was that an appropriate thing for a Christian to do?

In response to this, Paul simply says - eat whatever you find there. You do not need to conduct an investigation as to the source of the food you are purchasing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the food - even if it has been used in sacrifice to pagan gods. Why? Because, as Paul reminds them in verses 26, "...the earth is the Lord's, and everything in it...." Everything in the earth is, ultimately, the possession of God, and is to be received as such. Therefore, no food or drink is evil or tainted.

Paul then moves from there to the second and final question he will answer on this subject - the question of what to do about dinner invitations to the homes of non-believers. At the heart of this question is the same core issue - the reality that more than likely the meat that is consumed will be that which was at one point offered to a pagan idol in sacrifice. In light of that fact, should Christians accept invitations to eat in the homes of unbelievers?

Once again, Paul goes straight to the point here, telling them that they should feel free to participate and not trouble themselves about the possible source of the meat they will be eating in these situations. It is not an issue for them because of the principle he has just affirmed - all food and drink are theirs to freely enjoy and are not, themselves, an issue of conscience anymore. To be sure, there may from time to time be issues of conscience associated with these things - as we'll see in a moment, but there is no issue with the foods themselves. So they are free to go and eat and to not even bother to ask where the food came from.

There is, however, a catch - a caveat - an exception to Paul's instructions here. Paul hypothesizes a situation where one goes to a meal in an unbeliever's home - and another believer is also in attendance. This other believer, in Paul's hypothetical situation, is one who, like the believers described in chapter 8:1-13, is perhaps a young or new Christian and whose conscience is un-formed and troubled about many things - including things like meat offered to idols. The believer in view here is one who has not yet gotten to the place where he/she fully accepts that there is nothing wrong with eating idol meat. His/her conscience is - in the language of Paul - "weak" on this issue.

So, Paul describes this hypothetical situation where, while you are at a meal in someone's home, a believer with a "weak" conscience points out to you that the meat on offer is meat used in a pagan sacrificial ceremony. Now, how they have come to know this is anybody's guess. The fact is, they DO know it, and are now pointing it out to you.

Now, interestingly, as commentators have pointed out, the Greek word that Paul uses to describe the meat offered in sacrifice here is, in fact, a word that is different from the word he has used to describe this idol meat on every other occasion. Indeed, it is the only time in the entire Bible that this word is used. The significance of that is this: the word that has been used up to this point is a word that Christians would use to describe the sacrificed meat - and it is one that has a slightly negative connotation to it.

But that word is not used here. The word that is used here is the one that unbelievers would have used to describe the same sacrificed meat - a word that has no negative connotation to it at all and, in fact, would be a term of approval. It's sort of like a person coming up to you and asking about the quality of food in a certain restaurant and you say to them, "It's very ordinary, really. Very ordinary." as opposed to person coming up to you, asking the same question about the same restaurant and this time, instead of saying "it's very ordinary" you choose to say "It's good basic food." - the first answer has a basically negative connotation, the second has a basically positive one.

That's what's going on here. A word with a basically positive connotation is being used to describe the idol meat - and it's the only time it happens in the entire New Testament. And so, with that in mind, it is very likely that what Paul has in view here is a very public situation where one Christian with a "weak" conscience points out to another Christian - in front of everyone else - that the meat they are eating that night is idol meat. Because this Christian is making this comment in the presence of unbelievers, he/she is at least tactful enough to use a word that has no negative connotation to describe the meat - the word that unbelievers themselves usually used. By using that word, the Christian with a "weak" conscience avoids offending his non- Christian friends, but sends a clear signal to his Christian friend that he is troubled by this revelation - otherwise, why bring it up?

It seems likely that this is the situation being described here, but whatever the precise details are, what you have, again, is one believer who has no problem with eating idol meat being informed by another believer who apparently does have a troubled conscience - rightly or wrongly - on this issue. What is the believer to do in that circumstance? Paul provides the same counsel which he provided in 8:1-13, and which he has already alluded to in verse 23. He tells them that in that particular situation, they should not eat the idol meat in the unbeliever's home. The issue is not what they have a right to do, the issue is, what will be most helpful and encouraging for their brother or sister who has pointed this out to them. The issue is not a matter of their own conscience - it is simply a matter of possibly encouraging the other believer, by your own behavior, to do something that their conscience is not clear on. Because the stronger Christian is truly free, then he/she is as free to NOT partake of idol meat as much as he/she is free TO PARTAKE. Such a person is not in bondage to either choice, and so can take it or leave it.

Now in making these statements, Paul is aware that people might over-interpret what he is saying and come to conclusions that he is, in fact, not intending. And so he adds some other comments that qualify what he has said somewhat. On the one hand, if a situation like what he has just described should occur, he does want them to act in the way he has described. At the same time, however, he wants them to do these things for the right reason, and with a right understanding and perspective. And so he writes...

"...But if someone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
By these words, Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that if and when they are in this situation, and if they defer to their brother or sister in this way, they are NOT doing it because it is an issue for their conscience. It clearly isn't and cannot be, because food is no longer a conscience issue for the Christian. That's not why they defer.

Neither do they defer because they are allowing their freedom to be defined or determined by another person's conscience or preference. As Paul says, "Why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience?" And the unspoken answer to this rhetorical question is - "You shouldn't". Only God, speaking in and through his Word, has the right to bind and shape another person's conscience and freedom. So that is also not the reason why you would choose to defer in the situation described.

No, the reason you refrain has already been given. It is simply because another believer has brought this matter to your attention and that this is then a likely indicator of the state of that person's conscience. And so - for the glory of God and for the building up of the church - you are to exercise your freedom to NOT claim your rights - freely relinquishing them for the sake of a brother or sister. That is what verses 29-30 are all about: Paul wanting to make it clear why he is and is NOT saying what he is saying.

Well, finally, Paul closes out this section that began way back in chapter 8, verse 1, with some summarizing remarks beginning in vs31. And, while the principles established here are immediately applicable to the situation at hand, their application is not limited to that but can be extended more broadly and, as such, should serve as a guide for the Corinthians in all sorts of circumstances beyond those immediately in view. And so, I would like to conclude our time this morning by looking at Paul's closing remarks and pointing out three things that are as significant for us, as they were for the original hearers.

Firstly, Paul writes in summary, "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God". The driving, over-arching principle for the Corinthians in these and other matters of day-to-day life is: the glory of God. Now, being a Presbyterian church, we're all over this one - in theory at least. The answer to our first catechism question is a paraphrase of this verse - and a few others

Q: What is the chief end or goal of man? A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Which, of course, is great. But living that truth is another story. The objective of honoring God and making Him and his Name glorious is one that Paul offered to the Corinthians - and through them - offers to us, as a guiding principle for day to day life. It was to be the core of who they were as people - and it is to be the same for us: a defining, recognizable pattern and practice. It is a principle that is completely portable and transferable. It was, and is, infinitely flexible and applicable in all sorts of situations. There is nothing that cannot - if it is legitimate - be brought into the service of this goal.

We're rapidly getting to the end of the year here, which means we are at that point in the year where, after all the fuss is over, you may have time for a reflective moment or two. This would be a great place to go when that time comes. Think about your life this past year - with reference to verse 31. Was this a formative reality for you this year? Has the honor and glory of God been a concern - and not merely a hypothetical one - but one which made its way into your schedule, your relationships, your work, your checkbook?

And what about the year ahead? As you think about the new year that is almost upon us, how will this guiding principle make its way, practically and concretely, into your life this year? What will make next year different than this past one in that regard?

Let me urge you, in the midst of the madness of this season, to get a cup of coffee, or hot chocolate, or tea, or whatever it is you drink and find a quiet corner, and a window or a porch, and prop your feet up - or perhaps go for a walk - WHATEVER WORKS FOR YOU - but take some time to reflect and pray and prepare and plan. Don't just lurch, breathlessly, into the new year. Don't just make next year a continuation of this one. Embrace the opportunity that the new year offers to make 1 Corinthians 10:31 a lived reality.

The second summarizing sort of statement I want you to see is found in verses 32 and 33 - "Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved..."

Now, in thinking about Paul's words here, it is important to think about what he does and does NOT mean by this. And the context makes that a lot easier to do. If you have been paying any attention at all in this letter, then you will know that in instructing the Corinthians to "give no offense" and to try and "please everyone" he is not intending that they do this un-critically but, instead, within certain parameters.

Indeed, the main parameters can be found within the verses themselves. He points out that the goal of his "pleasing everyone" is not for his own advantage, but so that they may be saved. In other words, it is not approval seeking that Paul is talking about, or doing things to make people like him or stroke his ego. It is doing things intentionally - or avoiding things intentionally - that will make it easier and not harder for people to hear and embrace the Gospel. This is what Paul means. This is the sort of "people pleasing" that Paul is talking about.

Paul desperately wants the Corinthians - and us with them - to understand that we live in community, that we have a responsibility TO the community - the Christian community - in which we live, and even beyond that to the world community in which we live. And so that means that we must think about how our actions and non-actions influence and affect others, and about what signals they send to the world.

Again, we must do this, not because we get our marching orders from the world - we don't. And not because we get our values and understanding of truth from the world - we don't. You must remember that the Paul who wrote these words also wrote - in this same letter - "we preach Christ - a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks". And so what Paul is saying is not that we don't cause people to stumble at all - because in fact we are going to do this every time we present Christ to them. That is not Paul's point. What Paul is saying is that our goal should be to not personally cause people to stumble because of US, because of something we say or do that un-necessarily makes it more difficult for a person to hear and embrace the gospel. As Barrett says,

Christians should offend for the right and not for the wrong reason...because it is a placarding of Christ crucified, and not because Christians are inconsiderate of the scruples and convictions of their fellows....
So, Paul is not suggesting that we become servile sycophants who simply mold ourselves to the whims and desires of those around us. He is simply saying that, as much as is possible, we are to do everything that we can morally and conscionably do to avoid un-necessarily provoking and displeasing people, or placing un-needed obstacles in the path of their coming to faith in Christ. Christ must be the offense, yes, but that doesn't mean that we personally must be offensive.

And notice that Paul includes in his comments here not only Jews and Gentiles, but also the church of God. In other words, the concern and care that we would take to not cause un-necessary offense to a non-believing friend or family member as regards the Gospel is the SAME care and concern that we should be willing to show to a brother or sister in the Lord. We ought to be just as concerned that our life and words do not hinder the ongoing work of the Gospel within them.

Lastly, look at Paul's final words, the opening verse of the poorly placed chapter 11 marker. "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ". In short, what Paul is saying to them is "be the sermon that you are preaching. Live the Gospel that you are promoting." Now, Paul's words may strike you as odd here - as being somewhat vain, but they aren't vain at all. They are, in fact, very pastoral. Paul knows that people need a nearby example of what this whole Gospel thing looks like. They need to see how it actually works and if it actually works - in the life of another person. As you've heard me say before, if a picture is worth a thousand words, an example is worth a thousand pictures.

So, Paul offers his own life - for better or worse - as exhibit A of what he is talking about. And what is Paul's example? Notice what he says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.." In other words, part of Paul's example is that he is always pointing beyond himself to Christ. To be sure, he does want them to take note of his example, but he never lets their gaze rest on him, or linger on him. He never allows them to elevate him or idolize him. The example that is set does START with him, but then moves beyond him to Christ, the ultimate example.

That is part of Paul's example that he offers for imitation. But Paul is an example for imitation in other ways, mainly two - which we see in this letter, but which we also see if we take into account the sum of his other letters in the New Testament. In short, then, as we imitate Paul, who was imitating Christ, we can see this imitation working out in two directions at once.

Firstly, we imitate Paul in his pursuit of and obedience to Christ. With regard to this passage, it means that we take heed of Christ's apostle - Paul - and seek to understand and apply these principles of honoring God and showing love for the brethren and relinquishing freedoms and avoiding idolatry. It means that we exert real moral effort in this process. There is a holiness of life that we are meant to seek, and without which we will not see the Lord. That is a real part of what it means to imitate Paul.

At the same time, it is as we acknowledge and pursue these things that we are confronted again and again with our sin and failure. And here we are to imitate Paul as well. Paul was one who, when he looked at his own heart he could sincerely describe himself as the worst of sinners and would cry out, in anguish: "who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7).

That too is part of the example that Paul offers up for us to imitate. In Paul we see one who even as he pursued Christ was aware of how lackluster his pursuit was, and yet how loved and forgiven he was in spite of himself. And all of this served, in the end, to make him run all the harder toward the prize - to embrace this one whose love he has not, and cannot earn - this one who inexplicably loves him so.

And both of these things - these twin poles of 1) ongoing repentance and 2) love- inspired faithful pursuit are part of what it means to imitate Paul and, as such, are part of the pattern that Paul is urging us to present - both before the church and before a watching world. And it is important that both aspects are present. Because if all that people see is the pursuit, but not the broken-ness, then they will get a wrong picture of what the heart of Christianity is all about. If all they see is the sin and broken-ness, but not the passionate pursuit that it inspires, then they will also get the wrong picture of what Christianity is all about.

And in both of these things - we - like Paul - are always pointing beyond ourselves to Christ himself, never allowing the gaze to remain for very long upon us. In our faithfulness and obedience, we point people to Christ - whose obedience accomplished our salvation and inspires our imitation. The purpose of our imitation, then, is not to achieve what he has already achieved, but to demonstrate the fact that what he has achieved has had a practical, real out- working in our own life, by his Spirit's power and working within us.

And then, in our sin and brokenness- we also point beyond ourselves to Christ whose brokenness for sin accomplished the forgiveness and restoration that our brokenness could never accomplish. And, just as before, our own brokenness is not a determinant of our forgiveness but is, in fact, an indicator of it - proof positive that the Holy One of Israel has taken up residence within us. ......

Oh that we may come to embrace these realities in our own life, and so also be used of God, as Paul was, to be the real, tangible, living illustrations of the Gospel - to encourage others in their pursuit of Christ!

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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