So, in the verses this evening Paul is wrapping up what he wants to say about eating food sacrificed to idols. He’s been dealing with this subject since the beginning of chapter 8. That’s three whole chapters on this one topic. Eating food sacrificed to idols may not be an issue which we need to deal with here in Belfast, but it was a big issue for the believers in Corinth, because Corinth was a city which was full of pagan temples and where most of the meat sold in the market place had once been offered to an idol. So, this was a big issue for them.
And we’ve seen how Paul agreed with those who said that there’s only one God; and that an idol is nothing; and that food is only food. There’s only one God: the Triune God of the Bible who made all things in the beginning. And idols are nothing: they’re only images made of stone and wood and metal. And food is only food and it never becomes anything else. Paul agreed with them about those things. However, he warned his readers not to do anything which might cause one of their fellow believers to stumble away from Christ the Saviour. If eating such food will cause one of your fellow believers to fall away from Christ and into idolatry, then you must not eat that food.
And then Paul said: Watch out! Watch out lest you believers — who think you’re strong and secure in your faith — watch out lest you stumble and fall away from Christ. Watch out lest you end up like the Israelites in the days of Moses who turned from the Lord and who began to bow down to an idol and who committed so many others sins; and in the end, they died in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land of Canaan. So, watch out lest you stumble and fall away from Christ as they did. Watch out and make sure you persevere in the faith until the end, when you’ll receive the crown of life which Christ the Saviour has prepared for his people. Watch out, because though idols are nothing, lurking behind the idols are demons who want to draw us away from Christ; and the Lord’s people should have nothing, nothing, to do with demons. So, you should never, ever take part in the worship of idols in the pagan temples.
So, while Paul agreed with them that there’s only one God and idols are nothing and food is only food, he warned them about these two things: don’t do anything to cause your fellow believer to stumble; and watch out lest you yourself stumble and fall.
And so, we come to today’s passage where Paul wraps things up. And really, what he’s doing in today’s passage is he’s explaining under what circumstances it was lawful for them to eat food sacrificed to idols. You see, if you were to ask Paul whether it was right for believers to eat food sacrificed to idols, he’d say in reply: It depends. It depends. It depends on the circumstances. From the previous passage, he made clear that believers should not eat food sacrificed to idols in the pagan temples, because the food which is offered in the pagan temples was really being offered to demons; and believers should have nothing to do with demons. However, from today’s passage, he makes clear that believers may eat food sacrificed to idols in their own homes. When they’re eating food in their homes, it’s only food and there is no religious association or connotation attached to it. Furthermore — with one exception — it’s lawful to eat such food when they’re eating food in their neighbour’s home.
And so, if you were to ask Paul for guidance on whether it was right for believers to eat food which had been offered to idols, he would say: It depends. It depends on the circumstances and where you’re eating the food. If it’s in a pagan temple; then the answer is no. But if it’s in a private home, then — with one exception — go ahead and eat it. Above all, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, our behaviour should be governed by one over-arching and all-embracing principle: in whatever we do, we should always, always, always seek the glory of God. And that’s a principle for us to follow as well. We may not have to deal today with food sacrificed to idols. That’s not a big issue for us. Nevertheless, whatever we do, and whatever moral questions we face, we should always, always, always seek the glory of God. Our chief end — as our Shorter Catechism teaches us — is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. That’s what we’re for; that’s the purpose of our life; that’s what we were created to do: our purpose in life is to glorify God.
Verses 23 and 24
So, let’s turn to this passage to see what the Holy Spirit wants to teach us through the Apostle Paul. And it begins in verse 23 where Paul seems to be quoting a slogan or catchphrase which some of the believers in Corinth were using to justify some of the things they did. They were saying:
Everything is permissible.
Now, if that slogan seems familiar to you, it’s because Paul quoted it back in verse 12 of chapter 6 where he was addressing the topic of sexual immorality. And when we studied that passage, I suggested that they might have got the idea that everything is permissible from the gospel. You see, the gospel sets us free in many ways; and I listed some of the ways when we studied that passage from chapter 6 which I won’t go into now. However, at that time, I also explained that though the gospel sets us free in many ways, it doesn’t set us free to do whatever we like. The believers in Corinth thought they were free to do whatever they liked; they were even free to sin. And back in chapter 6 Paul had to explain that they weren’t free to sin.
And here, in chapter 10, Paul explains to them that though the gospel sets us free in many ways, we need to remember that not everything — even something lawful thing — is beneficial or constructive. Not everything which we’re permitted to do is helpful or beneficial to others or to ourselves; and not everything which we’re permitted to do will build up our own faith or the faith of our fellow believers.
‘I can do whatever I like’, people say. We hear that all the time in the world: You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me. I can do whatever I like and you can’t stop me. We hear people saying things like that all the time; even believers will say it from time to time; Christian young people may be tempted to say it to their parents. In fact, ever since Adam and Eve were in the Garden, we’ve been saying it, because when Adam and Eve took the forbidden fruit, they were saying to God: You can’t tell us what to do. We’ll do whatever we want.
We say it all the time; and we say it about things which are sinful. Well, the Lord’s people must never sin; but we also say it about things which are lawful in themselves; we say it about things which are not sinful. But we need to remember, that not everything we’re allowed to do is helpful for us or others; and not everything we’re allowed to do is edifying for us or for others. And the believer — according to Paul in verse 24 — shouldn’t seek his own good, or her own good; but the good of others. So, instead of thinking about what I want and what I like and what’s best for me, we’re to think about what’s best for others. How can I love and serve the people around me? How can I help them? What can I do to build them up in their faith? That’s what the believers in Corinth needed to think about, especially those ones who were demanding that they could do what they wanted and eat whatever they pleased. They needed to remember that what they did had an impact on the lives of others; and by eating food offered to idols, they may tempt a fellow believer to stumble and fall away from Christ.
So, before we go any further, bear that in mind, Paul is saying. Yes, the gospel sets us free in many ways; and yes, we’re free to do whatever is lawful. But still, we must always aim to do whatever will help others to grow in their faith.
Verse 25 and 26
So, bearing that in mind, under what circumstances can believers eat food offered to idols. Well, they can’t take part in the worship of idols in the pagan temples. That’s been ruled out by what Paul said in the first half of chapter 10. But under what circumstances can believers eat food sacrificed to idols, bearing in mind that we must seek not our own good, but the good of our fellow believers?
Well, according to verses 25 and 26, believers are free to eat food offered to idols in their own homes. So, Paul says to his readers that they may eat anything sold in the market without raising questions of conscience. The Jews, when they went to the market, had to ask questions about where the meat came from. However, believers don’t need to do that. They don’t need to ask questions about the origin of the meat or where it came from or whether it had ever been dedicated to an idol. There’s no need to ask any questions. Feel free to buy the food and eat it and to enjoy it. After all, says Paul, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. Paul is quoting from Psalm 24 to make the point that the earth belongs to the Lord; and everything in the world belongs to God. Everything belongs to God, because he’s the one who made and who sustains all things. And he has given the world and everything in it to us to enjoy. When he placed Adam in the Garden, it was full of plants which were good for food and pleasing to the eye. So, they looked good; and they tasted good. And God made them that way, so that we could enjoy them. So, here’s a sirloin steak for sale. Here’s a lamb chop for sale. Here’s some bacon for sale. Buy whatever you like and enjoy it, without asking any questions about whether it was every offered to an idol.
Verses 27 to 30
So, under those circumstances — when you’re buying some meat to eat at home — you’re free to eat food offered to idols. Next, in verse 27, Paul tells his readers that if an unbeliever invites you to a meal in their home, and if you want to go, then go and eat whatever is placed in front of you. Once again, there’s no need to ask any questions about the meat and whether it was once offered to an idol. Don’t interrogate your host; don’t quiz him about the origin of the meat; eat what’s put in front of you and enjoy it.
Incidentally — and this is really only an aside — notice that the Bible permits believers to socialise with unbelievers. Some believers think they should not mix socially with unbelievers; and it’s the believers’ duty to remain separate from them as far as is possible. But here’s Paul describing a situation where an unbeliever invites a believer into their home. And Paul says to the believers: if you want to go, go. So, make friends with your unbelieving neighbours. Make friends with your unbelieving colleagues at work. Make friends with your unbelieving classmates in school and college. And if they invite you to their home, and you want to go, go.
And — says Paul to the Corinthians — if they set meat in front of you to eat, don’t ask questions about where it came from; you’re free to eat it. However — and this is in verse 28 — if anyone says to you that the meat has been offered in sacrifice to an idol, then do not eat it. Under those circumstances, you must not eat it. Why not? Well, Paul explains: don’t eat it for the sake of the man who told you and for the sake of that man’s conscience. So, for his sake, don’t eat it, because remember: we’re not to seek your own good, but the good of others; and while eating the meat is permissible for you, and while eating the meat is lawful for you, not everything that is lawful or permissible for you is helpful for building others up in their faith. You might not have a problem with the meat, but clearly this other person does have a problem with that kind of meat; why else would he bring it up to you if he didn’t have a problem with it? He clearly has a problem with it; and you don’t want to do anything which might damage his conscience or destroy his faith. The conscience — when it’s working correctly — will warn us that idolatry is sinful. But by eating food offered to idols, we might damage this man’s conscience so that he starts to think there’s nothing wrong with idolatry. That was Paul’s argument in chapter 8. And so, he might be tempted to worship idols and fall away from the Saviour. So, for his sake, don’t eat it.
And then Paul adds in verses 29 and 30:
why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
Paul’s words here are hard to interpret, because it’s not clear if what he says here is connected to what he has just said about not eating the food for the sake of this other person’s conscience; or if it’s connected to what he said earlier about eating whatever is placed in front of him without asking questions about it. If it’s connected to what he has just said, then he seems to be giving another reason for not eating the food. He shouldn’t eat it, because other person will only condemn him for doing so. This other person will think: Paul, by eating this food, you’re doing wrong. However — and I think this is the more likely interpretation — if it’s connected to what he said earlier about eating food without asking questions, then he seems to be justifying his reason for not asking questions before eating. You see, if he eats the food after asking about the meat’s origin, someone might blame him for eating food which he now knows was once offered to idols. So, it’s best not to ask any questions about the origin of the food, but to give thanks to God for the food which he has provided. Forget about the idols, because they are are nothing; and give thanks to your heavenly Father for his good gifts.
So, should a believer eat food offered to idols? Well, it depends. It depends. If you’re in your own home, then go ahead and eat it. If you’re in a neighbour’s home, then go ahead and eat it. If, however, someone mentions to you where the meat came from, then don’t eat it so that you won’t damage that person’s conscience in any way. If someone raises the origin of the meat you’re about to eat, then you need to remember that we’re not to seek our own good, but the good of others; and while I know that God permits me to eat such food, I must only do what will be helpful in building others up in their faith. But if no one raises an issue about it, then feel free to eat the food which your host has set before you and give thanks to God for it. And then, under no circumstances should a Christian take part in the worship of idols in a pagan temple, because sacrifices offered to idols are really offered to demons; and believers should have nothing to do with demons.
Verses 31 to 33
And so we come to verse 31 which is a wonderful verse which many of us will have learned off by heart:
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
As I said at the beginning, our church’s Shorter Catechism teaches us that our chief end in life, our purpose in life, is to glorify God and to enjoy him again. And, of course, one of the proof texts to demonstrate the truthfulness of that answer in the Catechism is this verse in 1 Corinthians chapter 10: we’re to do all things for God’s glory. So, instead of demanding that I always get my own way, and instead of demanding that I always get what I want, I’m to think about what will bring glory and honour to the Lord.
And how do we know how to glorify God? Where should we go to in order to learn how to glorify him? Well, this is not something we know intuitively. This is not something that we can work out on our own. This is not something any of us can figure out by ourselves, because how can we, sinful human beings whose whole nature — including the way we think about the world and the way we think about ourselves and the way we think about the Lord — whose whole nature has been corrupted and spoiled by sin — how can we possibly know by our own intuition what will please the Lord? We can’t. And so, in order to know how to glorify God, we must turn to the Scriptures — God’s word — which is the only rule to direct us how to glorify and enjoy him. And in his word, he reveals his will for us and what pleases him and what we’re to believe and do in order to honour him. And so, in whatever we do, we’re to be guided by the Scriptures, because the Scriptures teach us how we’re to glorify God, which is our chief end and purpose in life.
Far too often, when Christians make decisions about things they’re going to do, they don’t think about searching the Scriptures for guidance; they don’t think about turning to God’s word to learn from him what they’re to do. They think they can work it out on their own. But they can’t.
And very often the reason why many Christians make decisions without first searching the Scriptures, is because they’re not thinking about how to glorify the Lord; all they’re thinking about is what I want and what will suit me the most and what I prefer. We all have this tendency, this inbuilt tendency, to put ‘me’ first, because all of us are sinners.
And that’s what was happening in Corinth. In the church in Corinth, there were those who demanded that everything is permissible for me and I can do whatever I like. Everything is permissible for me and I will eat whatever I like. But the Holy Spirit, speaking through the Apostle Paul, said to them: No, instead of seeking your own good, you should seek the good of others.
And you see, according to God’s word, that’s one of the ways we glorify God. One of the ways we glorify God — according to the Scriptures — is by seeking the good of others, instead of seeking our own good. For the Corinthians it meant giving up their right to eat food sacrificed to idols to prevent a fellow believer from stumbling into sin. That’s why Paul refers to stumbling in verse 32. In other English translations, it says ‘give no offence’ to anyone. But Paul isn’t talking about giving offence; he’s not talking about what might offend someone. No, he means don’t do anything which would cause someone to commit an offence against God’s law. So, for the sake of your fellow believer — who might be tempted to worship idols because he sees you eating that food — give up your right to eat that food. That’s how you glorify God.
And for Paul glorifying God by seeking the good of others meant trying to please everyone he met in his missionary journeys. That’s what he’s referring to in verse 33. So, when he was with the Jews, he tried to please them by fitting in with their customs. And when he was the Gentiles, he tried to please them by fitting in with their customs. Instead of insisting on getting his own way, or instead of insisting that everything was just the way he liked it, Paul did everything he could to please the people he was with so that he would have an opportunity to testify to them about the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s one of the ways Paul glorified the Lord; and he says that we should follow his example. So, instead of insisting on my own way; instead of insisting that I get what I want; instead of insisting that everyone fits in with me, we’re to think about what’s best for the people around us.
And so, once again we learn that the Christian life is not about me and my rights and what I want. The Christian life is about loving and serving one another, putting others first and self last of all. The Christian life is not about getting what I want or what I’m entitled to; but it’s about denying self so that we might serve others. And by living our lives like that, we will glorify the Lord our God.
The Lord Jesus
And isn’t that what the Lord Jesus did? Paul refers to the example of the Lord Jesus Christ in verse 1 of chapter 11. ‘Follow my example of putting others first’, he said, ‘because I’m following the example of Christ.’ And the Lord Jesus did not ever seek his own interests or what was best for him. Instead, for our sake, he was prepared to leave the glory of heaven; and come down to earth as a man; and to suffer the wrath of God in our place; and to suffer for our sake the curse of death on the cross. And for our sake, he was prepared to be buried in the ground and to remain under the power of death for a time. He did not seek his own interests and he did not seek his own good whenever he suffered these things. But for us and for our salvation, he endured all of these things so that through faith in him we might receive the forgiveness of sins and peace with God and the hope of everlasting life with God. He did not think of his own interests and his own safety and his own comfort. He was thinking about us and what was best for us. And he was thinking about his Father’s will.
And because the Lord Jesus Christ suffered in this way for us, all those who trust in him are pardoned by God for all that we have done wrong; and we’re given the hope of everlasting life in the world to come. And while we wait for Christ our Saviour to come again, he gives us his Spirit to enable us to follow his example. And so, every day we can look to the Lord Jesus and we can rely on his Spirit living in us to enable us to live like this. We can rely on his Spirit to help us to say ‘no’ to self and to love and serve our neighbour. And we can rely on his Spirit — the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ — to live a life which will bring glory and honour to our God. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. Follow my example, says Paul, as I follow the example of Christ.