Try to imagine — if you can — what it must have been like to live in Corinth in the first century AD. This Greek city had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, but had subsequently been rebuilt and colonized by the Romans so that — with around 70 to 80 thousand inhabitants — Corinth had become one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Greece. Though it was a Greek city, it looked very much like a Roman one, with buildings which were patterned on the kind of buildings which you might have found in southern Italian cities like Pompeii. And it was very strongly Roman in other ways: it was ruled by a Roman form of government; all its government officials were Roman; and there’s evidence that large quantities of Italian goods and wares were imported and sold in the markets. So it really was very Roman. It was an important sea port as well and it was at the centre of major trade routes.
And if you were there, in Corinth, in the first century, then you would see that the city was dominated by the Temple of Aphrodite, perched up on a mountain, overlooking the city. Aphrodite, of course, was the goddess of love and beauty. Pilgrims would have come from all over to pay tribute to her. Or they may have come to visit the Temple of Apollos which was also in Corinth. Or perhaps, if you were sick, you’d make a pilgrimage to Corinth in order to visit the Temple of As-clepius, the god of heath. Then there was the Temple of Hera Argaea, the goddess of marriage. The Temple of Tyche, the goddess of luck, was in Corinth. And there was the Temple of Demeter, the goddess of fertility. And not far way, there was the oracle at Delphi which was another important religious shrine. In other words, there were lots of temples in Corinth. And lots of temples meant there were lots of sacrifices. And lots of sacrifices meant there was lots of meat which had been offered to the gods as part of this pagan worship.
Now, when animal sacrifices were offered at one of these temples, part of the meat would have been burnt up; it would have been consumed by the flames as an offering to one of these gods. However, part of it would have been given to the priests who worked in these temples. This was their income. And the priests ate some of the meat themselves, but they sold some of it to those who ran the markets. This was a way for them to raise some money for themselves. Now, imagine you’ve gone down to the market to get the groceries; and you wanted some steak or minced beef for dinner. Chances are much of the meat in the market had come from the pagan temples: it was the meat which had been given to the priests who had now sold it on to the stall-holders in the market. Chances are the meat you saw in the market had come from the temples where it had been offered as a sacrifice to Aphrodite or Apollos or one of the other gods. And so, the question then is: Should a Christian eat such meat? Should Christians eat meat which had been offered to an idol?
Or imagine your neighbour invited you to dinner. You want to be a good neighbour. You want to be friendly and warm and polite and courteous. You want to accept the invitation. However, your neighbour isn’t a Christian; and so, chances are the meat you’ll be offered when you go to their home for dinner was meat that had been used in one of these pagan temples. It had been offered to an idol in worship, and then sold in the market. Should you — as a Christian — eat such meat? Or you want to be a good citizen. You want to play your part in civic affairs and be part of the local community. Well, the local officials are planning to hold a public festival for the people of Corinth. Perhaps it’s a festival to celebrate, and to show support for, the Emperor. Perhaps it’s a festival connected with the Isthmian games. Well, these festivals were often held in one of the temples and as part of the festivities, the organisers would offer up sacrifices to their gods. Can a Christian participate in such events?
Chapters 8 to 10
That’s the background to chapters 8 and 9 and 10 of 1 Corinthians. Paul spends three chapters on this one subject: and that indicates to us what an important issue this was for him and for them. From what we read in chapter 8, it seems that there were some in Corinth — perhaps even the majority of the congregation — who thought that there was no problem eating food which had first been sacrificed to idols. Since we know there’s only one God, and since we know that idols are nothing, then what’s the harm in eating such food. Idols are nothing and food is food; so we can eat this food without worrying about it. And so, in verse 10, Paul refers to how they would eat in an idol’s temple. Perhaps they’d been invited to a festival in one of the temples; so what’s the harm, they thought, since an idol is nothing.
And at first it seems that Paul agrees with them: yes, there’s only one God; yes, idols are nothing; yes, food is food; yes, we can eat food sacrificed to idols. So, he technically agrees with them, but then he wants to warn them that they need to combine what they know with love for one another. He’s saying to them at the end of today’s chapter not to put a stumbling block in any believer’s way which might cause him or her to stumble and to fall away from Christ. So, eating this food is fine, but watch out that you don’t cause your fellow believer to fall away from Christ and from his salvation by what you eat.
Then, in chapter 9, Paul uses himself as an example. He has the right to be paid for his work as an apostle. He has that right; but he’s prepared to forfeit that right for the sake of the gospel. In the same way, you believers in Corinth may have the right to eat food sacrificed to idols, but you should forfeit that right for the sake of your fellow believers. And at the end of chapter 9, he also uses the example of athletes, training for a race, who have to make all kinds of sacrifices in order to win the prize. In the same way, you believers in Corinth may have the right to eat food sacrificed to idols, but you should be willing to sacrifice that right like athletes training for the games.
That’s in chapter 9. Now, up to now, Paul seems to be agreeing with the people in Corinth that there’s nothing technically wrong with eating food sacrificed to idols, but you have to be careful in case you lead a fellow believer astray. In chapter 10, however, Paul warns his readers to flee from idolatry. Do you see that in verse 14? He refers to the Israelites in the wilderness in the days of Moses who became idolaters and who were therefore killed by God before entering the Promised Land. These things were written down as an example for us, says Paul. So, you may think you’re strong and will not be tempted to forsake the Lord, but flee from idolatry so that you’re not tempted by it and stumble and fall away from the Lord and his salvation. You think idols are nothing, but you need to understand that behind the idols are demons; and those who come to the Lord’s table for communion cannot also come to the table of demons in pagan temples. So, while Paul seems to agree with the Corinthians in chapter 8, saying with them that idols are nothing, by the time he gets to chapter 10, he’s warning them very strongly to flee from idolatry and to have nothing to do with it.
That’s where we’re headed in these chapters. And it’s important that we keep this in mind as we go through chapter 8, because while Paul technically agrees with the Corinthians in chapter 8, eventually he’s going to warn all of them to have nothing to do with idols.
Verses 1 to 3
Let’s turn to chapter 8 and look at it in more detail. Paul introduces the topic in verse 1 when he says:
Now about food sacrificed to idols.
He’s been addressing different issues in the church in Corinth. The first few issues — like the problem of divisions among them and the problem of sexual immorality in their midst — were things which were reported to him by others. The issue of marriage — which he wrote about in chapter 7 — was something they raised with him in a letter. And it seems that they have also raised with him the issue of food sacrificed to idols. What’s Paul’s take on this? What’s his advice? Perhaps there were some in Corinth who were more cautious than others about eating such food. So, what does Paul think?
And Paul says:
We know that all possess knowledge.
Now, some of the English translations put those words in quotations marks, because it seems that Paul may once again be quoting something they were saying or something they had written in their letter to him. Some of them were saying:
We all have knowledge.
In other words: We all know this. Everyone knows this. This is obvious. What do they all know? Well, we all know that there’s only one true God and that idols are nothing. Paul is going to say that later on, but he doesn’t say it straightaway, does he? No, he first warns them that as well as knowledge we need love. Believers must always combine knowledge and love and love and knowledge. You can’t have one without the other, but you need both together. Some believers in Corinth were claiming to have knowledge: ‘we all know this!’ But Paul was reminding them that they must also have love for one another, so that they don’t cause their fellow believers to stumble and fall away from Christ. ‘Knowledge puffs up’, he says in verse 1. It puffs us up and makes us proud so that we look down on and disdain those who don’t know what we know. Knowledge puffs up, he says, but love builds up. When we love one another, we’re concerned about building each other up in the faith.
Someone thinks he knows something, says Paul in verse 2. But if his knowledge makes him proud, and if he doesn’t combine his knowledge with love, then the fact is that he doesn’t yet know as he ought to know. Paul then says that love is one of the chief characteristics of a believer. That’s the point of verse 3: the person who is known by God is the believer. God knows that person and has given him salvation. And that person — the person who is known by God — is someone who loves. So, love is one of the chief characteristics of a believer and believers must always be full of love. We must always be growing in our knowledge: our knowledge of the Lord and of his ways which he has revealed to us in his word. But we must also be growing in love for one another. And so, later in chapter 13, Paul will say that if I have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing. And he’s saying something similar here to introduce what he wants to say about eating food sacrificed to idols. And so, verses 1 to 3 contains Paul’s opening statement on this issue. Before I say anything about this topic, he’s saying, I want to say something to you about the importance of love.
Verses 4 to 6
That’s his opening statement. What does he say next? Well, he begins with what we know. We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. Again, some of the other English translations put those words in quotation marks, because Paul may be quoting something they said in their letter to him. Paul is saying to them: You have said that idols are nothing in the world; and I agree with you. They are nothing and they have no real existence in the world, because there aren’t many gods; there’s only one God. The Romans believed in many gods and the many temples in the city of Corinth demonstrated how they believed that there were many different gods. But look how Paul describes the gods of the Romans. He refers to them in verse 5 as ‘so-called gods’. They call them gods, but they’re not really gods, are they? They call them gods, but they’re not gods; they’re not real; they don’t really exist. The pagans may bow down before a statute of Aphrodite and Apollos and worship them, but Aphrodite and Apollos are not real. In Corinth, the people believed in many so-called gods, but for us, Christians, there’s only one God.
And Paul goes on to refer to the first two persons of the Trinity. There’s God the Father and there’s the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son. And look how he describes them: there’s the Father from whom all things came. So, everything that exists has come from God who is the Creator of all things. They aren’t many gods who rule over the world, but there’s only one God who made the world and everything in it and who rules over all things. He made all things and we’re to live for him. We’re to live for him and for his glory. That’s our purpose in life: mans’s chief end is to glorify God. We’re to live for him and for his glory alone, because he’s the only God. So, there’s God the Father. But there’s also the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son. And all things were made through him. The Apostle John says the same thing at the beginning of his gospel: through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. So, all things were made through him and through him we live. The Romans believed in many gods, but we Christians believe on one God. But the one God we believe in and worship is a Trinity of Persons: there’s God the Father and God the Son and there’s also God the Holy Spirit. All things came from them, because they are one God, the only God, the Creator of all things. And the gods the people in Corinth worship are only so-called gods, because they’re not real, they don’t exist.
So, the Christians in Corinthians were saying: We know that. Everyone knows that. Every Christians knows that. We know there’s only one God; and idols are nothing. They’re nothing at all. We all know that, the Christians in Corinthians were saying.
Verses 7 to 13
But, says Paul, in verse 7, not everyone knows that. And he then describes a believer who was once an idolater. So, someone who grew up, worshipping the many gods in the many temples in Corinth, and who used to make sacrifices to this idol and to that idol, believing the idols to be real gods. But then that person was converted to faith in Christ and they began a new life, as a Christian who loves and trusts the God of the Bible. However, because of their former life — when they believed idols were real — they can’t help associating food sacrificed to idols with idol worship.
‘So, think about that person’, Paul is saying to the Christians in Corinth. You’re insisting on your right to eat such food, but remember — and this is Paul’s point in verse 8 — food doesn’t bring us to God; food doesn’t bring us to God; and you’re no better off if you don’t eat such meat; and you’re not better off if you do eat such meat. And if you’re no better off, whether you eat or don’t eat, then why do you insist on eating it? Why insist on your right to eat it when eating it becomes a stumbling block to your fellow believer who is still troubled by such things? So, be careful, Paul says in verse 9. Be careful that you don’t put a stumbling-block in the path of your fellow believer.
And what’s a stumbling-block? Well, it’s something on the road which causes you to trip and to fall. And in this context, it refers to something which causes a believer to trip and to fall away from Christ and his salvation. So, you’re walking in the ways of the Lord, walking along the narrow path that will lead eventually to everlasting life in God’s presence. But here’s something that makes me stumble and fall away from the narrow path.
And so, do you see how serious this is? Sometimes we read these warnings and we think that Paul is only talking about upsetting your fellow believer and offending him. You know, my eating food sacrificed to idols will offend my fellow believer and I shouldn’t offend him. And certainly the old King James Version of the Bible uses the word ‘offend’ in verse 13. But that’s not what Paul is talking about. And sometimes we read these warnings and we think that Paul is only talking about making your fellow believer sin. Now, that’s a serious matter: we shouldn’t do anything to make our fellow believer commit a sin. But that’s still not what Paul is talking about here. So what’s he talking about? Well, he’s talking about doing something which might cause a fellow believer to fall away from Christ.
So, your fellow believer sees you eating food in a pagan temple. And because he sees you in the pagan temple, he starts to think that there’s nothing wrong with worshipping idols. Because he sees you in the pagan temple, he starts to think that it’s okay for Christians to worship idols. But as Paul will make clear later on, it’s not okay for Christians to worship idols, because Christians must flee from idolatry, because lurking behind the idols there are demons. So, Paul is saying to those who insisted on their right to eat food sacrificed to idols that they will destroy their fellow believer by causing him or her to stumble and to fall away from Christ and from salvation.
And so, Paul is very clear in what he says in verse 11: this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. The word translated ‘destroyed’ means ruined or annihilated. And, in fact, in the Greek text, Paul emphasises the word ‘destroyed’ by putting it first in the sentence. He says:
Destroyed, ruined, is the weak brother by your knowledge.
So, here’s a believer who is confident about what he knows: I know there’s only one God; I know idols are nothing; I know food is only food; I know it’s okay to eat this food. I know, I know, I know, he insists. But look what has he done! Look what he has done! He’s destroyed his fellow believer, this person for whom Christ died. According to verse 12, the believer who is confident about what he knows has sinned against his fellow believer. How has he sinned against his fellow believer? By wounding his conscience, which means he’s struck his fellow believer’s conscience so that his conscience is now broken and doesn’t warn him — the way that it should — that idolatry is wrong. And not only had he sinned against his fellow believer, but he’s also sinned against the Saviour. The believer who is confident about what he knows thinks he’s not sinning when he eats food sacrificed to idols. But in fact, if eating food sacrificed to idols destroys the faith of my fellow believer, then I am sinning against the Lord.
And look how Paul concludes this chapter. He says in verse 13:
Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
It’s possible that Paul is using hyperbole in this verse. In other words, he’s exaggerating for effect. He’s saying that the thought of causing my fellow believer to fall away from Christ is so awful to me, that I’m prepared to give up every kind of meat in order to avoid that. That’s what I’d do, says Paul. I’d give up meat for good in order to save my fellow believer. So, surely you can give up meat sacrificed to idols. —
So, there were those in Corinth who said we know there’s only one God; and we know that idols are nothing; and we know that food is food; and we know that there’s no harm in eating food sacrificed to idols, because idols are not real. And while Paul technically agrees with them, he warns that what they were doing was putting a stumbling block in the way of their fellow believers; and by eating in pagan temples, they were destroying the faith of those for whom Christ died. And so, they should give up eating such food.
Well, the believers in Corinth lived in a place where people believed there were many gods and they worshipped in many different ways. And Paul was quite clear: there is only one God. There’s only one God, from whom all things came and for whom all things exist.
Well, we live in a world where there are many different religions and where people believe in many different gods. This was always the case, but in recent years, it’s become more apparent to us and more obvious to us. We now live in a multi-faith society and every day we’re rubbing shoulders with people who follow different religions from us and who believe different things from us. And then there are those who believe that all religions are basically the same. Yes, there are differences between us and we hold to different doctrines and beliefs. But at their core, they’re all basically the same, aren’t they? That’s what many people will say today. And then others will challenge us: You Christians are so arrogant. You Christians are so full of yourself. You think you’re the only true religion and every other religion is false. How can you be so arrogant?
We live in a multi-faith society, just as the believers in Corinth did. And so, we need to be careful that we hold on to the faith and that we continue to confess that there is only one God: the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. Even though every one around us insists that there are many gods, we need to hold on to the faith that there is only one God. Instead of giving in to the pressure to conform to the ways of the world, we need to stand firm in the faith and to proclaim that there’s only one God who made all things and to whom we must give an account of our lives. And though people hate us for it, and though they speak out against us, we need to insist on it and to call all people everywhere to repent and to believe the good news of Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world and who is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
So, we need to hold on to the faith. But we also need to be careful that we treat one another with love so that we will not do anything to destroy the faith of our fellow believer. The believers in Corinth possessed knowledge, but not love. And therefore by their actions they caused one another to stumble and fall. And so, we should treat one another with love, and instead of causing one another to stumble, we should do everything we can to build one another up in the faith. We should love and encourage one another and stir one another to love and good deeds. We should bear one another’s burdens and we should be kind and compassionate to one another. We should be imitators of God and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. And so, instead of insisting on getting our own way and doing whatever we like — as the believers in Corinth were doing — we should be prepared to give up our wants and our desires for the good of others in the church. And the only example we should set one another is an example of wholehearted commitment to God our Father and to Jesus Christ our Saviour.