I remember many years ago when I was a student – and that is a long time ago! – going to a Christian conference, and meeting a woman who had recently become a Christian. She'd been thoroughly converted. She loved Jesus and was rejoicing in the freedom and forgiveness that she'd found in him. But she was young in the faith, but really only just beginning to get to grips with what a life of discipleship would look like for her.
She was also a brilliant opera singer, with years of training and a beautiful voice. But she was very reluctant to sing. In fact on the one occasion that she did sing a song for us, she deliberately sang badly. Why? She said that for her, music had been her whole life. It was her god. And she'd had to give it up in order to break its power over her. She was afraid – evidently very afraid, you could see it in her eyes when she spoke about it – that if she went back to music, it would draw her in, and away from Jesus.
When I heard her, I wanted to say to her, "But music is God's wonderful creation and God's given you this great gift – use it!" If she'd asked you for advice, what would you have said to her? I was reminded of her as I prepared for this and reflected on our passage for today, although the link may not immediately be obvious.
In our series on Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians we've reached chapter 8. You'll see that it's headed "Food Offered to Idols". But as you'll see on the outline on the back of the service sheet, my title is "Love Builds Up". You'll also see that I have two main headings – The Presenting Issue, and The Principles. So:
1. The Presenting Issue
The reason that this chapter is headed "Food Offered to Idols" is, of course, because that is the presenting issue here. Those of you who've been following this series will know that one of the things the apostle Paul is doing in this letter is addressing issues that have been raised with him by the church in Corinth. So for the last few weeks we've been learning about marriage and singleness from chapter 7, because the Corinthian Christians raised questions about those areas of life with him.
And as he addresses the questions he's asked, he typically does two things. He takes into account what he knows of what's going on in the church of Corinth – and a lot of that is not very pretty. And he also goes behind the particular question to the principles of Christian discipleship that apply to it. That's one reason why, even if a question he's answering isn't directly relevant to us, what he has to say is very relevant – because he goes back to these important first principles. And that's exactly the case with this issue of food sacrificed to idols. On the whole it's not directly relevant to us – though it may be for some from polytheistic cultures. But the principles are important for all of us. So take a look at the first part of verse 1:
"Now concerning food offered to idols …"
So this is the new topic he's moving onto. What, then was the background to this – in the 1st Century Graeco-Roman pagan culture of the metropolis of Corinth, saturated as it was with multiple temples, and statues of pagan gods and goddesses, and pagan priesthoods and sacrifices?
The question was whether it was OK for Christians to eat meat. Why? Because so much of it had been offered first in sacrifices to pagan gods. Generally, when an animal was sacrificed in a pagan temple, some of it was burned up, some of it went to the priests and temple attendants for them to eat, and the rest either went on to the meat market in the city, or it was returned to whoever had offered it, for them to use for themselves and for their own hospitality.
So if you were buying meat from the butcher's stall on the street corner, you couldn't tell whether it had been sacrificed to pagan gods or not. What's more, if you were invited for a meal to someone's house – say a non-Christian friend – you wouldn't know whether the meat that was served up had been offered to idols. And there was another level of difficulty if you were invited by a friend to a dinner party actually held in one of the pagan temples. Then there was yet another level of difficulty if you were invited along directly to one of these pagan meat-sacrificing ceremonies and the feasting that followed.
You wanted to be exchanging hospitality with the pagan world around you. You wanted to be friendly, and also to take these opportunities to tell people about Jesus. But what about the meat? What social events could you go to and what should you stay away from? What could you eat and what should you refuse? That's the issue. How does the apostle answer? Well he does so by digging under the surface to the principles of discipleship that he wants us to learn – not just in the pagan Corinth of the 1st Century, but in the UK in our increasingly secular and at the same multi-faith culture today. So:
2. The Principles
As you can see, I've distilled them into six, and they're there on the outline.
Principle One. Love takes precedence over knowledge.
Take a look at verses 1 to 3. Here they are:
"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."
One of the character issues in the church in Corinth that the apostle Paul was battling was a strong tendency for at least some of them to be arrogant know-it-alls, puffed up with their own self-importance. So he says back in 1 Corinthians 4.6 as he tackles them about the divisive factions in the church that he doesn't want to see them being "puffed up in favour of one against another." And in 1 Corinthians 4.19 he speaks of "these arrogant people".
So what he wants them to understand is, first, that if we have knowledge without love we will build ourselves up at others' expense. Secondly, if we have knowledge with love then we will build others up at our expense. And thirdly, if we have love without knowledge, then God will build us up at his expense. As he is going to say later on in 1 Corinthians 13.2:
"If I have … all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing."
There is at least a faction in Corinth claiming that they've cracked this 'food offered to idols' issue. They know that they can eat anything – and it really isn't a problem, if only people would get their theology right. If we get so pleased with our grasp of the Bible and the depth of our theological reading and our understanding of Reformed doctrine that we look down with some disdain on those who don't know their Genesis from their Revelation, then, as Paul puts it, we don't yet know as we ought to know.
Without love, such knowledge is dust and ashes. Or to put it another way, it puffs us up like a balloon ready to be burst. What we need, hand in hand with sound knowledge, is love that builds up other people and doesn't tear them down. What matters above all is not what we know but that God knows us – and that he has taken hold of our lives and opened our hearts to him and poured in his love by his Spirit. If we are known by God, then in time we will grow in love for him and for others – and we will grow in genuine knowledge of him.
So that's a key first lesson before we get to the next principle – which is something we need to know.
Principle Two, then. There is one true God and idols are not real.
This is verses 4-6. Let me read them:
"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 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."
All these statues of so-called gods on every street corner in Corinth are not gods at all, but for all the sophistication and skill of their carving, in the end they're lumps of wood or stone. A sacrifice made to a lump of stone is a meaningless thing, so what does it matter if meat from such a meaningless ceremony comes our way? All good things come from the one true and living God, through his beloved Son the Lord Jesus Christ. If we're clear about that, then in principle it's OK to eat food offered to non-existant idols on the understanding that it comes to us as a gift from God.
That's not to say that Paul sees no danger in pagan sacrificial ceremonies, because he is certainly aware of Satan and his minions prowling around and he knows that there is demonic activity behind idolatry, drawing people away from Christ. So later in this letter, in 1 Corinthians 10.19-20 he warns:
"What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons."
Idols are nothing. Evil powers are dangerous. But Christ is victorious over it all. So our knowledge that there is one true God and idols are not real needs to be carefully and lovingly applied. Which brings us to –
Principle Three. Take care of other people's consciences.
This is verse 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."
There's nothing wrong with meat, but if you think there is and you eat it – if you think it's tainted by idolatry and your conscience is telling you that you should steer clear of it but you don't – then that does spiritual damage to you. So if you think something's wrong, even if it isn't, and you still do it, then you'll have a guilty conscience. And that damages your relationship with your heavenly Father.
So if we're going to love one another, we have to be very sensitive to one another's consciences. We have different spiritual histories. What's fine for you might not be OK for me, in my current state of understanding. If that woman I met who had made an idol of music went back to it while her conscience was telling her it was wrong for her to do so, she would be defiling her conscience and endangering her discipleship, even though music is a good thing properly used, and a gift of God. We need to be aware of and take care of other people's consciences.
Then the apostle inserts another more general principle on this topic of food. So:
Principle Four. Diet doesn't commend us to God.
Not being on a diet, that is – but what we eat or don't eat in general. 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."
Religion is riddled with rules about food and fasting. What you should eat and what you shouldn't. When you should eat it and when you shouldn't. There were such laws, of course, under the Old Covenant with Israel. No pork, for instance. But Jesus had cleared all that away. We heard earlier from Mark 7, where Jesus says:
"Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? … What comes out of person [out of his heart] is what defiles him"
And Mark makes the weighty comment:
"Thus [Jesus] declared all foods clean."
So, for instance, all the Ramadan fasting going on all around the world does not bring one single person closer to God. It is Jesus who brings us to God, by grace through faith. Not what we eat or what we don't. Diet doesn't commend us to God. There are benefits from having a good diet, of course. But coming closer to God is not one of them. So don't be fooled by anyone who says otherwise.
Now we get to what the apostle has been building towards as he piles up these principles.
Principle Five. Don't stand on your rights if that causes others to stumble.
This is verses 9-12. Let me read those:
"But take care that this right of yours [to eat anything, that is] does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idols' temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge [of the freedom we have in Christ to eat anything] 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."
A lack of sensitivity to others is dangerous for them. A lack of sensitivity to others is dangerous for us. Very dangerous. Surprisingly dangerous, according to Paul. If we, by a reckless use of our freedom in Christ with no thought for others, end up drawing others into something that they do against what their conscience is telling them, then we are causing them to sin in a destructive way. What is more, we are sinning ourselves – against Christ himself, because we are trampling over one for whom Jesus laid down his life.
We don't have stone statues of pagan gods on every street corner and temples in every town. But we have plenty of idols of our own making. For one it might be music. For another it's the idolatry of the obsessive football fan. For another it's alcohol. For another it's fashion. Or gardening. Or money. None of these is wrong or forbidden in themselves. All of them can be snares to some. Our task is to be alert, and sensitive, and build one another up, not flaunt our freedom.
So in the light of that, the apostle is clear about his own attitude, and about the attitude he wants us to adopt.
Principle Six. Do whatever it takes to build others up in the faith.
"Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble."
He can eat meat offered to idols – but while there is the slightest danger that such an example would be a problem for someone else, he'll steer clear of meat, for their sake. That is a measure of his tender care for the souls of others – of his love them in Christ, and of his willingness to build others up in their faith, at his expense. For Paul, no price is too high for him to pay to build up the faith of others – because he loves them with the love of Christ, and knows the price that Jesus paid for him. So then, in the light of all that, what would your advice be to that young woman, brilliant musician that she was, for whom music had been an all-consuming idol?
Heavenly Father, thank you that you know us. Teach us to know and love you. Teach us to love one another. Help us, we pray, to take care of one another; not to stand on our rights; but to be ready to do whatever it takes to build one another up in the faith. And Lord we thank you for Jesus, who did what it took and went to the cross to save us.
In his name we pray. Amen.