Please open up to 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and let’s read it together:
“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.”
The Moral Butterfly Effect
Food is a huge topic today – an obsession even. What to eat, how much, and what it’s made of, are endlessly debated in articles, documentaries, and online. But with the advent of the global economy, the questions go even deeper. Where the seeds came from, how it was planted, cultivated, harvested, distributed and marketed is matter for much contention as well. Consider Bananas. They seems pretty straight forward, right? If I like bananas I should go to the store and buy some and eat them. But it’s not that simple. Bananas are now super-complicated.
For example, we have to consider where they were grown. Banana harvesters from Ecuador are apparently suffering great labour abuses and we don’t want to support that, do we? Then there’s the problem of banana blight. Did you know that every banana consumed in the western world descends from a plant grown by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in England, 180 years ago? And because of that they are all susceptible to being attacked by a certain kind of fungus. This actually happened in the 1950s when a disease wiped out most of the world’s bananas and we had to change to a different type. Your grandpas bananas are not the same as yours So, when we want one, we have to ask if we want to support this kind of farming? I’m not judging, just asking.
But it goes deeper. Because of low carb and Glycemic diets and whatnot, Bananas are getting a bad rap. One article I read called it “one of the worst breakfast items we can have.” (To which I thought, “Wow, this guy would probably die if he saw of the things that we’ve called ‘breakfast’ at my house! He’d be like, “Yeah, man you should probably have a banana instead of that skittle smoothie.”)
There’s no decision we can make that doesn’t have some sort of moral consequence. Where we go, what we say, what we do, and what we don’t’ do, makes a moral ripple effect that not only hits us but spreads far and wide, affecting people we don’t even realize. Think of it as the moralistic butterfly effect. That’s what we’re talking about today.
Meat and Idols
The Christians in the Corinthian church had come across some choices people were making that were causing some moral tornados in their congregation. There were some Christians who, even after conversion, continued to buy meat from and attend parties and feasts held in the pagan temples. And since this was such a regular part of life, they wanted to know if it was ok.
Here’s a little background: In the same way that we enjoy getting together for barbecues, dinner parties, and church potlucks, it was common practice to for someone to buy or bring their meat to a temple to eat. Except these dinner parties had a very religious overtone. The meat would be divided into 3 portions – one to be burned as an offering, one given to the priest, and one given back to the offeror to eat and serve. If the priest didn’t want their portion then it would be sold in the marketplace – which meant that if you went to someone’s house, the meat they served you had likely been dedicated to one of the gods of the temple.
The teaching against participating in pagan rituals and worshipping other God’s is pretty clear in the Bible. All through the Old Testament (which was the Bible the Corinthians were reading), it repeats the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exo 20:3). God’s people are repeatedly told not to serve or worship any other so-called god. When they entered the Promised Land God’s command was to totally remove any remnant of the pagan worship (Exo 34:11-16). And he’s really serious, using words like tear down and break and destroy. It doesn’t matter how cool looking the altars are, or how much they offer you to be their partner, or how attractive their daughters are… don’t get involved with them, get rid of all of it. And this is continuously repeated, and disobeyed, all through the Old Testament.
And this question came up in the New Testament too when the Jerusalem Council, full of Apostles and headed by Peter and James, decided on whether non-Jewish people needed to follow the Law of Moses and Jewish religious rituals. They concluded,
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
But if Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) then why would the Apostles say that the Gentiles were to not eat certain foods? Because there was a split happening in the church between the Jews and Gentiles over this issue and the Apostles decided to tell the Gentiles who were worshipping in the same church with the Jews to be sensitive to their brothers so that they wouldn’t be so shocked, hurt, and offended and therefore stumble into sin and division. Every time a Gentile had a Jewish friend over it could a massive rift in the relationship. The gentile would offer a bloody piece of undercooked meat that had been blessed by a pagan priest and offered in sacrifice to the Goddess Aphrodite, and the Jew would have a full-on conscience meltdown. It went against literally everything that they believed and held dear for their entire lives! And so the Jerusalem counsel basically commanded the Gentiles to give their Jewish neighbours a break for the sake of unity.
But in Corinth, staying clear of any contact with idolatry was nearly impossible. It was literally everywhere, woven into the very fabric of society. The temples, which we’ve talked about before, were the centre of society and also acted kind of like restaurants of our time. Some meals for the trade guilds, clubs, and private dinner parties were held in the temple dining room. But it was bigger than that. Wrapped into this “temple restaurant” were all the community events and various traditional feasts and festivals on the calendar. AND the temple was also a place to do business and get some of your grocery shopping done! So the Corinthians really needed to know what to do. Did the Old Testament and the decision of the Jerusalem Council extend to them as well? Imagine that being a Christian meant you could never eat at a restaurant, have a birthday party, go to a Canada Day party, shop at the mall, visit your non-Christian friends, or conduct most business transactions ever again!
So the questions was, “Are we allowed to go to these events?” Would it be considered participating in the pagan ritual, meaning breaking commandments and offending God, or if it was no big deal because they are Christians and know better?
This may sound like an old problem, but we deal with these kinds of moral dilemmas all the time today. Certainly when we make our food decisions, like our banana illustration, but in lots of other ways also. What if a Christian is invited to participate in a non-Christian wedding? What if a bartender or casino worker gets saved – can they keep their job? Can a Christian go to Las Vegas? If our taxes go to a government that promotes unbiblical practices, should we pay them? Can a Christian go on an offensive attack when at war? How should a Christian deal with panhandlers? Can a Christian be a business partner or employ non-Christians? Or the age old, is it ok for a Christian to lie if it means they are protecting someone’s life?
These are not insignificant questions and do deserve our consideration. We ought not merely roll along in our lives assuming that everything we do, think, and say is ok with God as long as it isn’t a flagrant sin where we break one of the 10 Commandments. We shouldn’t assume that God doesn’t care about the minutia of our lives, or that God hasn’t spoken about the most righteous, wisest way to make these decisions. And, as I’ve already said, we shouldn’t simply assume that our decisions, even the “little ones”, don’t have lasting impacts and far-reaching effects. Immature people coast along assuming everything they think is right, that the most important thing to consider is whether it makes them happy, and assuming that their decisions only affect them or a small circle around them. Mature people spend time considering and studying their decisions and motives, knowing that even their smallest, most private actions can have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences.
Have you ever had that happen? Where you made a seemingly insignificant decision or one that you thought was only significant for you, only to find that when you tugged on that thread it unraveled a lot more than you thought? That happens more than you think it does.
The point is that there is much more going on than merely a singular action or decision. Each has ripple effects that expand into eternity – effects we can’t see, but God can – and so at all times, Christians try to do things God’s way – not only to simply obey him (which is important) but also because we trust that He knows better than do. That’s why it’s so important to prayerfully read the Bible because when we turn our hearts to God and follow Jesus, we can “have the Mind of Christ”.
So, what does God say about these kinds of situations, where we are faced with a moral dilemma that we’re not too sure about, seems to be fine with scripture, but maybe not… seems to be fine with our conscience, or with other people’s consciences, but not with ours… and we’re not sure what to do?
First, I want you to notice that the Corinthians asked. They were a sinful, prideful, messed up group, but there were some in the church that had the humility and wisdom to ask the Apostle what God has to say about the subject.
Most people don’t do this. Many Christians don’t do this. They either lack the humility or the wisdom to simply ask someone else about the situation. They are presented with a question, an option, a decision, or a situation, and instead of pausing for a moment and thinking, “What does God say about this? What would my parents say? What would my spouse think? What would my pastor counsel here?” they just go with their first impulse or whatever their guy says to do. Contrary to every romantic comedy, adventure or fairy-tale movie you’ve ever seen, “Follow your heart” is really terrible advice.
Can I invite you to another level of maturity and ask you to get wise counsel? This is all over the Proverbs.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Prov 12:15),
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Prov 11:14)
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Prov 28:26) or at the very beginning of Proverbs,
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)
The most famous of these is in Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
How do we avoid the crooked paths? Trust God and distrust ourselves. In which ways are you to acknowledge God? Just the big decisions? No. “All your ways”.
Christians Know the Truth
So let’s look at what God says about this and then draw out some application. Read verses 1-3 again. It says, “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.”
What’s being said here? You’ll notice some quotation marks. Greek didn’t have quotation marks, so these are the scholar’s best guess as to what the Corinthians had asked Paul in the letter they sent him. If we put the quotes from verses 1 and 4 together we get something like, “Hey Paul, all us Christians know that an idol isn’t a real god, right? We all know there’s only one God. And we all know the meat is just meat, right? And since we know all that and going to these things and eating the food should be no big deal. It’s not like we are worshipping. It’s not like we believe all this nonsense. We have knowledge that all these lost people don’t have – so it’s no big deal if we go and participate, right?”
The word “knowledge” there is key. And Paul agrees with them, to a point. Verses 4-6 say as much. The altars, pagan statues, idols, and religious stuff all around town does not actually represent any real “gods” or “lords”. The truth is that there is only one God and one way to Him, and all the other gods and ways are either made up, created by demons to deceiving people, or are man-made inventions designed to manipulate and abuse people in the name of religion. But skip to verses 7, “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.”
That’s a very unpopular truth, isn’t it? Some people know the truth and some people don’t. Some people are right and others are wrong. It sounds arrogant to our tolerant, politically correct, culturally sensitive, ears. Now, I’m not going to get into an epistemological debate on the existence or non-existence of absolute truth or whether anyone can really know anything. Instead, I’m simply going to say that believing in truth and the existence of right and wrong reflects the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ and of the God of the Bible. It’s not our idea, it’s His.
It is Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God, the author of scripture, the fulfiller of all its promises, the light of the world, the giver of eternal life, the only one who can forgive sin, the door to salvation, “the way, the truth, and the life”, and that it is only through Him that we can gain access to God (Matthew 26:63, Mk 2:10; John 3:14-16, 4:26, 14:6, 10:28-30). It is we who simply believe Him.
There are no competing gods in heaven, battling one another for dominion over the earth, or splitting the lands among themselves (“You get worshiped by Greece, I’ll take USA, you get Saudi Arabia.”). Nor, as some people believe, does God does not represent Himself in multiple ways – to some He comes as Zeus, others Buddha, others as Shiva, others as Odin, others as Allah, others as YHWH, others as Jesus. That’s what some people believe. They agree that there is only one God, but that there are many paths to Him and that He’s totally fine with whatever path you take, just as long as you are sincere.
Jesus doesn’t leave that option open. Jesus says, “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.” (Matthew 24:5) All through the New Testament the apostles warn against false teachers who come and spread false gospels and false teachings in the name of Jesus. But there is only One Jesus, One God, one Creator, one Lord and Saviour and He has been very clear in how He has revealed Himself. The only question is whether we will believe what He has revealed or if we will choose to disbelieve it.
People love visiting holy sites and it’s easy to get swept up in the beauty of the architecture or culture surrounding them. Throw in a couple of really peaceful looking, or extremely dedicated followers and it’s hard to tell them that their entire belief system is based on a lie. We want to say that a really dedicated Buddhist monk, whose life is dedicated to pursuing peace, understanding, good deeds, hard work, and the enjoyment of the world, is almost completely wrong. We want to be nice and tell them that they are like 75% right and that that’s going to count for something when they stand before God. But that’s not what scripture says, not what Jesus teaches, and not what God commands.
But this doesn’t just happen with other world religions, it happens with groups that claim to be Christian like the Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and other people that have “Christian” on the sign and talk about Jesus, but don’t actually teach what Jesus taught — and there are a lot of them. They talk about Jesus, use Bible verses, sing some of the same songs we do, are very passionate in their beliefs, but they are wrong and deceived and their message does not lead to salvation.
When I was growing up we didn’t use maple syrup. We put Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup on our pancakes. Sometimes we put Aunt Jemima on there, which was good because it was like liquid butter mixed with sugar. But when I moved to Ontario I was introduced to real maple syrup and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love it! Maple season is now a magical time for my family, where we run off to the sugar bush, wander through the forest, and see how many maple treats we can eat until we slip into a sugar coma.
But have you ever had the experience of going to a restaurant, ordering breakfast with pancakes, asking for maple syrup, and then have them bring you a wonderful looking warm, brown goo — that TASTES NOTHING LIKE MAPLE SYRUP! But by the time you figure it out, it’s already been spilled all over your food and you have to eat it. It looked like maple syrup, the server implied that it was maple syrup, it poured like maple syrup, and ¾ of the people at your table are slurping it up like it doesn’t even matter, seemingly totally ignorant of the fact that what they are eating is a lie! There’s not even any Maple in it. It’s High Fructose Corn Syrup, Caramel Colour and Artificial Flavours. Why is no one else bothered by this? It’s fake. It’s not real.
In the same way, there are many religions out there that call themselves Christian or holy and claim to be the truth and the way to God – but are wrong. Christians know this.
The Principle of Brotherly Love
But, God says in verse 7, when it comes to the people around you, in your church, “…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.”
For some people, even though they are Christians, the situation is simply too much for them. Just like the Jerusalem Council said about being sensitive to the Jews, there are some in the church who can’t handle it. For them, the eating of that meat really is a stumbling block. They are so used to believing that idols and gods are real that when they eat the food offered to the idols they really do think of it as worship to real gods and their consciences are violated. They feel guilty, they feel shame, they feel separated from God.
And there are some in the church that have a hard time only trusting in Christ for their salvation. For them, there’s a huge temptation to do what the ancient Israelites would do by hedging their bets – praying to Jesus, but also sacrificing to whatever god they thought might help – and it’s a constant temptation to them.
For others, because of their former way of life, being in that place, eating that food, is too much of a temptation because it could suck them right back into it. They need to avoid it because they are not strong enough yet in the Lord not to fall. There’s an inner struggle within them to obey God and trust Christ – and so they don’t touch any of that stuff with a 10-foot pole.
For others, their family was so bound up in it, so deceived, so destroyed by it that they hate it, because it had so much power over them – and they still feel like it has power over them, so they don’t go anywhere near it. They’d rather give up everything – parties, business partners, meat, friends, family – for the sake of their relationship with Jesus, rather than running the risk of falling back into their former lifestyle.
You see, we’re not really talking about choosing bananas or maple syrup, we’re talking about eternity and the corruption of our conscience.
Paul says in verse 8, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Consuming or abstaining from a certain kind of food or drink doesn’t make us any holier. Jesus was very clear in when He said, “And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him…. from within, out of the heart of man…” (Mark 7:14-15; 21-23)
It’s not whether or not you know that it’s not about the food. For you, it might be fine, but, what about your brother or sister that can’t handle it, that isn’t as mature as you, that isn’t as strong as you? It is the Principal of Brotherly Love and it overrides all that other stuff.
That’s why we are told in verses 9-11, “…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.”
It’s the principle of brotherly love and it must factor into our thinking when we consider all of these moral quandaries. Sometimes things are cut and dry, right and wrong, biblical or unbiblical, and that makes it easy. We aren’t allowed to do it. But what if scripture doesn’t cover that clearly, or it is absolutely allowed, but it is causing troubles for those around us? Then we abstain out of love for our fellow man.
It’s not about the type food we eat, or whether we drink beer, or what movie rating we allow, or what game we play, or what we buy, or where we go. It is that if the decisions we are making are causing our brothers and sisters in the faith to stumble into sin, then we are being Satan to them! We are their tempters! And in this way we are destroying their conscience, harming their relationship with God, and sinning against Christ. It’s a really, really big deal.
There is much more we can say, because chapter 9 continues the thought, but I want to end there today encouraging you to think about some of the decisions that you’ve been making, some of the lifestyle choices you’ve made, and ask yourself if loving others even factored into your thinking. Is it possible that you are doing something with your freedom in Christ that is hurting someone else? And you who are weak in conscience, do you have friends who are putting you in positions where you are tempted, or where you are weak, and you haven’t said anything? Say something.
Let us live in the knowledge of the freedom Christ brings us, but never get so “puffed up” that we use that knowledge to do harm to someone else.