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.
Handout / Small Group Questions:
Sin Ruins Everything
Culture presents to us a whole lot of options for things to do, but as Christians who want to do all things to the glory of God we often struggle to know what to do or not do, join or not join, buy or not buy, go or not go, befriend or avoid. In fact, it can become an all-encompassing problem for some believers as they try to enjoy the world that God has given them while avoiding the parts that are corrupted with sin.
And that’s the problem, right? This world is full of all sorts of awesome things, but it has also been corrupted by sin.
- God gave us healthy foods full of fat, sugar, and salt, and we stripped it of anything healthy and invented high fructose corn syrup, big macs, and potato chips.
- God gave us the gift of marriage and sexual intimacy, and we created rape culture, Tinder hook ups, divorce, high definition pornography and human trafficking.
- God gave us meaningful work and we invented slavery, workaholics, and corporate greed. God gave us a beautiful world to enjoy, and we invented industrial pollution, deforestation, fracking, landfills – and we’ve even sent so much stuff to space that space that it’s actually becoming a problem now.
Sin ruins everything.
- We want our kids to join a sports team, but then there’s price gouging, corruption, insanely competitive parents, and a life encompassing schedule.
- We want our kids to be educated, but public school boards have lost their minds, private schools are insanely expensive, and homeschooling is under attack.
- We want to get the internet for connecting with family, research, cat videos, and sports scores, but it’s an insane mess of gossip, misinformation, targeted advertising, and sexual sin.
And that’s not even addressing our inward struggle with sin and the demonic temptation that seems to be with us everywhere we go. Even if we were to sit by ourselves in a dark, empty room, we are capable of adulterous lust, unrighteous anger, pride, laziness, and more.
So, in this world full of sin, with flesh that wants to go wrong, how can we decide what a follower of Christ is supposed to do and not do?
A Million Options
This question is something we are presented with all the time.
- Do we celebrate birthdays or not?
- Do we have Santa Clause or not?
- Do we participate in Remembrance Day, or Earth Day, or Halloween?
- What school should I send my children to?
- Are there certain jobs that Christians can do, and others they shouldn’t?
- Can a Christian be a bartender, stock market broker, Hollywood actor or swimsuit model?
- What movies can we watch?
- Should we own a TV?
… it goes on, and on and on into every area of your life.
These questions can take over our lives and push us to despair. If we decide to err on the side of caution, we risk turning a passionate, growing, dynamic relationship with Jesus that flows into loving relationships with others, into a religious list of dos and don’ts.
You’ve probably met those Christians, right? They talk more about what they are against than about Jesus. Instead of focusing our lives on the wonderful gifts of worship, fellowship, discipleship and sharing the gospel with others, they end up paranoid that they are somehow messing up their lives, their faith, and everyone else’s lives every moment of every day. Or, if they think they’re doing a great job, they become prideful, self-righteous, religious Pharisees who think we are better than others.
“I don’t have a TV and I only listen to the Christian radio station, so that makes me a better Christian than you.”
“I’ve never had a beer, and I don’t go out dancing, so that makes me a better Christian than you.”
But there’s also the Christians who say, “I watch TV, drink beer, listen to rock music and still love Jesus, so that makes me better than you.”
It’s a big problem in the church because with all this mess the gospel of Jesus Christ rescuing poor souls from sin and hell by His amazing grace is almost totally lost.
And because of that, there are some who want to throw out the conversation altogether. You live how you want to live, I’ll live my own way, and we’ll just never speak to each other, ok? Let’s just split the church into people who do stuff and don’t do stuff, and then we can get on with the work of the church. After all, if having being saved by Jesus is really as simple as admitting we are sinners and believing Jesus died for our sins, then do we really need to worry so much about all of these other things? Actually, the answer is “yes, yes we do”. A lot of scripture is dedicated to teaching us to examine our lives, attitudes, and actions.
For example, Ephesians 5:15-17 says,
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
So how do we do that?
Problem, Illustration & Principle
As with most important questions, this one is addressed in scripture in a bunch of places. The most comprehensive places that I know of is in our book of 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. Let’s fast forward there and read how it shows the problem, gives an illustration, and then wraps it up with a general principle. This example is going to be about food, but don’t get hung up on that because the principle applies to all kinds of things we are faced with.
“’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 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.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 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? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 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.”
Let’s look at the first part together, and we’ll use the food example because it’s the one that scripture uses. This whole section here is talking about the problem that the early church faced with eating meat that was part of a pagan, religious service before it was sold. Was it ok to eat? And with who can we eat it? If a Christian is invited to community supper at a pagan temple, can they go? What if you go to a Christian’s house and they serve meat bought at a market where it was sacrificed to idols?
But this isn’t just about eating, the principle found within can be used for a lot of decisions. For the past couple chapters, Paul has been talking about how important it is that Christians live differently from the world and how we shouldn’t be putting ourselves into places where we can be tempted or fall into old habits. Right before the passage we’ve just read, he says in verse 21,
“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
In other words, you can’t play both sides. You can’t call yourself a Christian but live as though you don’t know Him. You can’t worship Him on one day and then worship something else the next. You can’t drink the communion that represents your acceptance of Jesus death for your sins and then go out and get drunk and stupid with non-believers.
God is absolutely clear that the issue isn’t just about the wine or food –but the intentions of the heart of the one sitting at the table. He says, eat whatever you want because it’s not about the food, it’s about what’s going on in your heart and in the hearts of those around you.
What Are My Intentions?
Therein lies the first question we must ask ourselves when deciding whether to do something or not: What is the intention of my heart? Our motives and intentions are incredibly important to God, whether we’re doing something good or bad.
- Proverbs 21:2 says, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.”
- Jesus says this in Matthew 6:1 about people who do good things just so they can be seen by others: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
- When Paul’s motives are questioned by the Galatians he says, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
- To those who do things out of spite Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit…”
- “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:1-4)
You see, the issue isn’t really the food or drink, or holiday, or school, or sport, or TV… The whole issue is intentions and motives: why we do what we do, say what we say, go where we go…
I like to use a phrase I came up with a few years ago here: “Own your why’”. I came up to remind myself to make sure my motives are pure. What I mean is that when I do something I need to make sure that I own up to my reasons for doing it. Eventually, I will have to answer to God for why I did it, so I had better have a good reason now. I need to be able to defend for why it was ok with God. I need to think through the consequences. I need to “own” why I did what I did, because it’s mine forever.
So, let’s use the example of Halloween, which is the most current example of a decision we all had to make. How do you answer this first question? What was the “Why?” behind what you did or didn’t do? Did you do it as an act of worship towards another god? Perhaps the god of your stomach who desires the sacrifice of candy? Maybe it is the god of personal attention, which is why you put so much emphasis on being seen that day? Perhaps you struggle with sexual sin and the reason you went out was to see the indecent costumes.
Or, if you stayed home, why did you do it? Did you avoid everyone simply so that you could get a rush of pride and self-glorification when you looked down on others and said, “We don’t do anything for Halloween because we don’t believe in that sort of thing!” Did you know you can be more sinful sitting at home as a religious Pharisee than as one who goes out?
Or, maybe you don’t have a problem either way. For you it’s no big deal. It doesn’t strike your conscience one-way or the other. In fact, for you, going out is a good way to get to know and have fun with your neighbors and friends, and perhaps even build new relationships. Paul says, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” and that includes candy and fun costumes, so there’s no big deal!
The real, big deal is to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing.
How Does it Affect the Conscience?
Turning back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, we next see Paul painting a picture of a common situation that would happen which has some parallels for us today. “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” (vs 27) Lots of “ifs” there. If someone invites you, and if you decide to go, and if they serve you food that might have been sacrificed to idols… then just keep your mouth shut, eat it and enjoy it. This is what we like to call Christian Liberty. We are not like the Jews who were bound to hundreds of laws about what to eat, how to wash, when to pray, what to say, how far to walk, etc, etc. We are Christians, saved by grace, living in a world that is a gift from God and is full of wonderful things. The person who you are with is far more important than what is served. Knowing that says that there are lots of things we can do with no problem at all.
If someone invites you to a party, you don’t have to go, but you are certainly allowed. If you’ve checked your intentions and know you’re plan isn’t to go sin while you’re there, then go and enjoy your time. Now, if you know the whole focus of the party is to sin, then you likely shouldn’t be there because nothing good can happen. You can’t be a good witness to people there, and you’ll spend the whole time being tempted and frustrated. Can a Christian party? Sure! Jesus was widely known for going to parties with all kinds of people, and yet never sinned, so go ahead.
Now some of you older believers might think, “But what if someone sees me there! Won’t I be ruining my witness?! Won’t people think I’m a bad Christian if I’m at a party?” To that I remind you of what Jesus said in Luke 7:33-35,
“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
In other words, with some people you can’t win. If you abstain people will think you’re nuts, and if you go, others will think you’re a sinner. Jesus says, “wisdom is justified by all her children.” In other words, wise actions are only really seen after the results.
So, if someone invites you, and if you want to go (you don’t have to), and your intentions are clean, then go ahead and thank God for the time. But… let’s read verse 28.
For the Sake of Another
“But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it…” Ok, what’s going on here? Three things could be occurring:
- An unbeliever thinks that the Christian isn’t allowed to do something, and has put it in front of the Christian as a test of their faith to see if they will fall for it and sin along with them. This is the non-believer trying to publically embarrass or even corrupt the Christian by getting them to try something that could hurt their conscience.
- An unbeliever isn’t being devious, but their conscience is telling them that whatever it is might be morally questionable, but they’re not sure what your rules are. You go over there and they say, “I’m not sure if you’re allowed or not, but would you like… to play this game, watch this movie, drink this thing, go to this place, check out this website…” They are giving you a content warning, and it’s best avoid it rather than risk sinning or being a bad example.
- The person speaking is another Christian who isn’t as mature in the faith as you are, and still has a problem with such things. You know that it’s fine for you to do it, but your fellow Christian is freaking out a bit about it and doesn’t want to do it. Out of love for them, you need to back off and avoid it.
Paul qualifies why: “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—” In other words, as Christians, we try not to go against someone else’s conscience. Conscience is a gift from God that gives us an internal gauge for what’s right and wrong. If someone’s conscience is twitching because of something, then don’t do it. We need to be careful to listen to our consciences, and we don’t want to teach anyone to stop listening to theirs.
If the unbeliever is feeling a conviction from God that whatever they are doing is a sin, then why on earth would we reinforce that it’s ok for them to do it? And if an immature brother or sister is just learning how to listen to God, then why would we ever teach them to ignore what their conscience is telling them?
Last week was the 499th anniversary of the kickoff of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther posting his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door. He caused so much trouble that in 1521 he was brought before the Emperor and the Roman Catholic Church to recant his beliefs. He said this: “…my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
So there is our second question: How does it affect the consciences of those around me? As Christians we are allowed to do a lot of things because we are not bound by a bunch of religious rules and regulations. We don’t have to impress God by showing him how pious we are. But we must ask ourselves how our actions are affecting the spiritual journeys of those around us.
But… let me give you a word of encouragement. I know there are some believers who live a life of paranoia because of this question. They are always worried about everything they do – even when they’re not doing anything wrong. They invent all kinds of crazy scenarios about imaginary people they are harming.
- They can’t go bowling at 3pm on a Thursday when they have the day off because they’re worried that if someone sees them they’ll think they have skipped work… and then that person will think it’s ok to skip work… so they better stay home.
- They go out and have dinner and think about ordering wine or a dessert… but somewhere in the room there might someone who struggles with alcohol or overeating and their glass of wine or cheesecake might push them over the edge… so they only have a salad and drink water.
- An invitation comes to go somewhere, but they feel a burden for some person they’ve never even met who might possibly stumble if they go. They don’t actually know… but they always wonder if someone is watching them.
That, by definition, is paranoia.
Where does this come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the Bible. To get clarity, let’s read Romans 14:14-17,
“…decide never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat [or drink, or watch, or buy, or drive, or own, or attend…], do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”. *[Added by me]
This isn’t telling you not to do anything, it’s saying that there’s nothing wrong with a whole lot of things. There are a lot of options in this world that are neither sinful nor wrong in and of themselves. But we need to know that some people do have a problem with some things. Therefore, because we consider the person more important than the thing we want to do, we love them by abstaining while around them. The key word in this passage is the word “put”.
We should never do something knowing it will cause another Christian to stumble. It is sin for us to flaunt our Christian liberties before those who are struggling. In doing so we become a tempter, like Satan. So out of love, we don’t do it because we know that someone’s walk with Jesus will be harmed.
But we shouldn’t invent imaginary people who might have a problem. We shouldn’t be bound by guilt, shame, and fear, right? And by the way — don’t let gossips and religious nit-picks ruin your Christian Liberty either. Just because brother or sister so-in-so is going to tattle on you, or is going to have a fit… that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Chances are that they aren’t going to cause you grief because you are causing them to stumble, but because they are petty people who want to hurt you, embarrass you, control you, and make you as miserable as they are by using a bunch of unnecessary guilt.
We can use the examples of Halloween, drinking a beer, taking a vacation, going to a movie, or posting on the internet. We must ask ourselves, “How does the way I’m going to do this affect the consciences of others? What do I know will happen — because I’ve already talked to them and have a relationship with them — not inventing a bunch of scenarios in my head involving people that may or may not exist – with the more spiritually immature brothers and sisters and unbelievers who are around me when I do this? Do I know if any of them will stumble in their walk with Jesus because of how I’m conducting myself? Remember, that could mean participating, or not participating. Maybe the issue is that you’re not going and it will cause people around you to stumble.
This is why we need to get to know people and do a lot of praying for wisdom about these kinds of things. We will be held accountable.
Is What I’m Doing Showing People Jesus and Giving Glory to God?
And our final question comes from the last part of our passage in 1 Corinthians 10,
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 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.”
There’s the bottom line.
Jesus said it like this in Matthew 5:13-16,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Last question: Is what I’m doing showing people Jesus and giving glory to God? Can you say that of your action or inaction? I can’t answer that for you. What makes you as salty and as bright as possible?
God doesn’t want you to lose your saltiness because of a bunch of ungodly religious rules. And he also don’t want your lamp to be hidden under a basket of sin. Your faith should add flavour to the places you work, live, worship and play. People who see you should see the light of Jesus reflecting through you, wherever you are. Your decisions should be not be based on your own preferences, not what brings you the most pleasure, but what brings God glory.
God has given us this world and allows us to do many wonderful things. It and the people in it are a gift. We need to treat them that way while at the same time recognizing that there will be temptations. We must be sensitive and wise in our actions because that pleases God.
So, when you are faced with your next decision? What will you do? What does God desire of you in your context, at this time, among the people that you are with? Seek God, ask Him, listen to Him, and have peace in the knowledge that if you believe in Jesus today, then you are loved as a son or daughter, forgiven by the blood of our Saviour, and blessed to be a blessing to others.