Balancing Our Freedom with Responsibility: Looking back at 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Food Sacrificed to Idols

We’ve now closed out a section that seeks to talk about Christian freedom in the context of our responsibility to our neighbors. The conversation started with food offered to idols, talked of Paul’s right to be financially supported, and now has circled back to food and idols. Paul at times gives a statement that is clear, along the lines of “you can eat the food.” But that principle then has its exceptions. So as we read it, and this is especially true if we are only reading little bits at a time and not keeping the larger movements in our mind, it can be confusing because Paul will say, “Yes, but no, but yes, but no.”

To lean heavily again on Ken Bailey’s commentary, since he puts its so clearly in review, these last chapters tell us four things, and I’ll paraphrase:

  1. Eating meat offered to idols and eating in these temple-restaurants is OK. But it is only acceptable if you’re mature in your faith so as to understand that these idols are nothing, and as long as no one that doesn’t see things that way sees you. After all, you don’t, by expressing your freedom, want to cause anyone to stumble. (1 Cor 8)
  2. But what about eating and drinking not only at a temple-restaurant, but actually as part of an idol worship service? Well, Paul is clear cut on this one. No. That would be participating with demons. (First half of 1 Cor 10)
  3. Back to the food, if you buy it from the market, then you’re fine eating it at home, for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. (1 Cor 10:25-26)
  4. If you’re at the home of an unbeliever, then eat up and don’t ask questions. But again, like in 1 Corinthians 8, be careful of your witness. If someone tells you that the food is offered to idols, presumably because of their concern about the issue, then don’t eat–not for your conscience but for the other. (1 Cor 10:28)1

The issue is not so much the food itself. Rather it is the witness we are making by eating it. While it may be a fine piece of food and it is the believers right to eat it, as long as the proper understanding is present, the more important element is how we can best love and serve our neighbors. If that means sacrificing a right, then so be it.

  1. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 291-292. ↩

To Eat or Not to Eat? The Question of 1 Corinthians 10

Dinner Plate

In reading 1 Corinthians 10:23-30, I found Ken Bailey’s commentary, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, very helpful. He again brings to focus the cultural writing style of Paul that differs from our own. We often put the point of greatest emphasis at the end, while Paul repeatedly in his letter puts it right in the center of his argument. Because of that, it can be a bit confusing. Here is Bailey on this passage, with the numbers in parentheses corresponding to the points Paul makes in the order they are found in Scripture:

This order confuses the modern reader. We are accustomed to:

On the one hand:

(1) Think of others and try to be helpful. (7) Don’t offend people. (2) Eat (or don’t eat) the meat you buy in the market for it is the Lord’s. (6) Do so to the glory of God. (3) At a meal in a pagan’s home eat whatever they serve you. (5) You are a free person, give thanks and eat.

But on the other hand:

(4) If someone whispers to you “This is idol meat, I am sure you would want to know,” then do not eat (out of respect for his or her conscience, no your conscience).[1]

Knowing the style in which Paul writes helps us to understand this section much better. It is easy to read it as though he is going back and forth, saying two things at once. But much of that is because we assume his argument builds linearly and concludes at the end. But his central emphasis, as it has been in past chapters, is seeking to love others and seek their good, rather than express our own rights or freedoms.

  1. Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 285. ↩

Absurdity of Idolatry

There is a great little section in chapter 44 of Isaiah that in describing the making of an idol in such a mundane way, shows the whole endeavor to be a bit absurd.

Isaiah describes the whole process, start to finish. You plant a tree and let it grow. Then you cut it down for its parts. You use some for a fire. The fire warms you, and then while you’re at it, you throw on some dough and make some bread. You’ve got some wood leftover? Let’s make a god. And then we may as well worship this piece of wood that we just grew, cut down, burnt, and used to carve into some likeness.

How can we think something that we just used for the simple needs of warmth and for cooking can then also give birth to a statue worthy of worship? Verse 17 says, "the rest he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, "Deliver me, for you are my god!""

Sounds crazy, right? Do we condemn such an action, or just pity the person?

It’d be easier to judge if we weren’t susceptible to idolatry in our own ways. But regardless of the idol–a wooden totem or the idol of power of money–not one of them can answer when we cry out "deliver me!" God alone is savior and only he hears our cries.

Golden Calves of Jeroboam, 1 Kings 12

One of the sins that stood out to me among the rest was when Jeroboam made the two idols to replace the worship of God in 1 Kings 12. He cast two golden calves and if that wasn’t enough, the way he introduces them to the people is a great offense to the name of God.

If you’ve noticed through reading the Old Testament there are a couple of ways that God is frequently named. One is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the other is a reference to one of the defining moments in the history of God’s people. God is the one who delivered his people out of Egypt.

Setting up one golden calf worked so well for Aaron that Jeroboam thought he’d double the number of idols for even better results.

Jeroboam is fearful that if the people worship the true God at Jerusalem that they will turn from him and that he will lose his power. He cares more for his own security than the honor of God and he will do anything to keep it that way, even offending God with some divine identity theft.

And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.

1 Kings 12:26-29

Jeroboam makes dead idols to build up his power, to steal Israel’s worship from God, and he then takes the truth of God and projects it onto two calves of gold.* The truth is that their God, Yahweh, is the one who with his mighty hand delivered the people from Egypt. If not for God’s choosing of Israel there would be no land for Jeroboam to rule. God is the one who has won for his people the victory and built them up into a nation to rival any in the land. But in a selfish play for power Jeroboam will turn from truth and instead ascribe God’s work to idols, and seek to bring Israel to worship them.

He is not only sinning against God by turning away from him, he is offending God’s name by saying these idols are the redeemers of Israel, and then he leads his nation into this sin. Those who have such influence are held accountable and this sin does not go unnoticed.

*Taking a page out of Aaron’s playbook in Exodus 32.

A Pharaoh Who Did Not Know Joseph

Exodus changes the tone quickly from the prosperity Joseph and his family enjoyed at the end of Genesis, and it does so in the first chapter with the line in verse eight: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

This leads to the growing oppression of the people of Israel and sets the stage for what we know comes later in Exodus. Because he did not know Joseph, the king (or pharaoh), does not know the debt Joseph is owed for saving the land from famine. He does not know of the commitments made and relationships built. What this pharaoh does know is that the people of Israel are too many and too mighty.

Knowing your history is important as it helps shape our future and inform our decisions. Paul reminds the church of its history in 1 Corinthians 10, urging his readers not to be ignorant of what our ancestors went through and he does so that we may learn from their mistakes. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of others, we are bound to learn from our own. Paul reminds us that our ancestors, after the Exodus, were lead by a cloud, passed through the sea, were fed with bread from heaven, and yet they still turn from God to idols. Paul tells us that ignorance is not bliss, it is folly. 1 Corinthians 10:11-13 says:

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the age has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Learning from these examples is at times the way of escape. So let us choose to learn our history and learn from it, not choosing ignorance that will lead us to repeat the sins of others.