What Can I Do?
Explore the Bible Series
July 4, 2010
Background Passage: I Corinthians 8:1-11:34
Lesson Passage: I Corinthians 8:1-3, 9-13; 9:19-23; 10:23-24, 31-11:1
Corinth had a well-earned reputation as a center of pagan worship. Prior to Roman domination, the city built a large temple for the worship of Apollo, and, though the edifice was destroyed by Roman General Mummius (146 B.C.), some columns still stand today. Also, archeologists have discovered shrines to Poseidon, Hercules, Hermes, and Athena. Corinth was renowned as a healing center, and a temple to Asclepius and Hygeia underscored this reputation.
Above all, Corinth served as an ancient center of the worship of Athena, and this practice survived the Roman destruction of the city. Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom and beauty, and a temple devoted to her adorned the Acropolis. Athena worship, like the veneration of the other gods, included elaborate festivals, celebrations that included animal sacrifices. These festivals and their attendant sacrifices were woven into the very fabric of Corinthian social life.
Paul’s friends in Greece struggled with their relationship to the festivals that punctuated the cultural life of the city. Did their devotion to Christ segregate them from the social life to which they had grown accustomed? The pagan priests made a handsome profit by selling meat from animals sacrificed to the gods, and these new believers wondered if they should purchase and consume the meat. They, no doubt, were torn. On the one hand, they could no longer participate in the worship of false gods; however, they knew that these sacrifices were empty rituals, and the meat was just meat. As Jesus taught, food does not defile a believer. What to do?
The Apostle Paul used this circumstance to teach the Corinthians about Christian liberty. These pagan gods did not really exist, and the meat purchased from the temple markets was, in the final analysis, just food. Christians enjoyed a freedom to eat this meat without pang of conscience. However, eating this food might have caused some believers to stumble, and Paul enjoined the principle of love when dealing with tender consciences. The Corinthians were free to eat the meat, but they were not at liberty to violate the principle of love. Christians enjoy great liberty, but this freedom has boundaries, boundaries established by love for the unity of the church. If eating meat caused someone to stumble, then a loving believer might choose to restrain some of his liberties to help a brother.
Please permit a contemporary example of this principle. I was raised in a fundamentalist social environment that forbade the consumption of alcohol, under any circumstances. Even modest drinkers were chided for “social drinking.” As an adult, I concluded, from my study of the Bible, that the Scriptures prohibit drunkenness, but do not preclude any and all consumption of alcohol. Kathy and I do not drink, in part, because alcohol just doesn’t taste good to us. But, we also believe that drinking may cause some people to stumble; therefore, we just don’t do it. This practice doesn’t make us particularly holy, but our consciences demand that we refrain.
Friends, this issue of Christian liberty is very important. At times, believers should restrain their liberties in the interests of love. Other times, Christians should refuse to bow to any constraints of liberty and insist on the exercise of freedom. The principles are easy to understand, but they demand great love and wisdom in application. Paul’s observations should prove very helpful in determining how to apply the principle of Christian liberty.
I. Liberty and its Boundaries (8:1-13)
A. The problem stated (vv. 1-3): Paul detected a deeper problem in Corinth. Some claimed superior knowledge to other believers, and their pride intensified the conflict. Few attitudes more denigrate the heart than a sense of superiority of knowledge. Humility rests on the foundation of love.
B. “Knowledge” explained (vv. 4-6): In part, Paul agreed with the “knowledge” group. They rightly understood their freedom to eat the meat from pagan temples, and Paul commended them for their insight.
C. Responsibility to those of tender conscience (vv. 7-13): Some Christians, having a more tender conscience, could not bring themselves to eat the sacrificial meat. It caused them to stumble, and their consciences became defiled and wounded. Note the strident language employed by Paul: “defiled”, “become a stumbling block”, “wounding their conscience.” Believers, while enjoying great freedom in Christ, do not have liberty to wound their brothers. What’s more important, meat or men?
II. Paul’s Example to the Corinthians (9:1-27): Some scholars see Chapter Nine as a parenthesis in Paul’s thought or a later insertion into the epistle; however, the continuity with Chapter Eight seems self-evident to me. In this chapter Paul demonstrated that he practiced what he preached in regard to the appropriate use of Christian liberty.
A. Paul’s liberty as a Christian and an apostle (vv. 1-11): The apostle asserted his Christian, apostolic rights to do many things: eat and drink (v. 4), marry a believing wife (v. 5), working for a living (v. 6), earning a living of the gospel (vv. 7-11). Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas laid aside these rights in order to advance the Kingdom of God. They were free to constrain their freedom!
B. Paul’s concessions for the sake of the gospel (vv. 12-23): Paul made these concessions in order that he might win some to Christ. Perhaps, if Paul took money for his preaching, some people might see him as a mercenary, peddling the gospel for gain. So, in the interest of unquestionable integrity, Paul worked with his hands to earn a living. Furthermore, he adapted himself to various cultural trappings in order to open a door for the gospel. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” By implication, Paul called on the Corinthians to lay aside some of their liberty for the sake of Christ.
C. The disciplines of discipleship (vv. 24-27): Athletes, like anyone else, have the right to eat and relax as they choose, but, if they want to compete, they must exercise great bodily discipline to win the prize. Paul, in this passage, does not imply that he feared losing his salvation; rather, he “ran” that he might win a reward for his disciplined exertion.
III. The Dangers of Idolatry (10:1-33): While the Corinthians could, as a result of their liberty, eat the meats offered to idols, they also ran risks when associating too closely with idol worship. Eating this temple food might have caused some of the Corinthians to let down their guard against the dangers of idol worship, and Paul did not want, in the name of Christian freedom, to lead these friends into a dangerous trap.
A. The Tragic Example of Israel (vv. 1-13): In the aftermath of the Exodus, Israel enjoyed great spiritual blessings: divine leadership by means of the cloudy pillar, miraculous deliverance from Egypt’s military forces, extraordinary provision for physical needs like food and water, and remarkable foreshadowings of the coming of the Messiah. Nevertheless, temptations to idolatry and complaining caused many to fall among the Exodus Hebrews, and their moral failures served as an example to Paul’s readers. Like ancient Israel, the Corinthians enjoyed great spiritual and physical blessings, but they also ran the risk of falling into desperate sin if they did not watch for their souls. Paul knew the power of temptation,, and he outlined at least three points of encouragement for those who were tempted.
1. Their temptations were common to all men; that is, the Corinthians had not encountered some extraordinary enticement that others had not successfully overcome (13a).
2. God would not allow temptations beyond the ability to resist (v. 13b).
3. God will provide a way of escape from temptation (v. 13c).
B. The Plea to Flee from Idolatry (vv. 14-22): Eating temple meat was one thing, but involvement with pagan worship was consistent with the Corinthian union with Christ, a union symbolized by Christian communion. Eating bread and drinking wine commemorated the believer’s oneness with the Lord, and they could, therefore, no longer join themselves with the worship of demons (Paul’s assessment of idol worship).
C. Concluding Remarks Concerning Religious Liberty (10:23-11:1): Paul Ended this section with a single guiding principle, do all to the glory of God.
IV. Two Problems Regarding Public Worship (11:1-34): This chapter introduces a new set of questions for Paul’s consideration, no doubt raised by the letter from his friends in Corinth. This new section, however, has some relation to the material on Christian freedom. Women in the ancient Mediterranean world commonly wore head coverings, perhaps some of the woman in the church, exercising their liberties, dispensed of the coverings. Also, some church members had apparently abused the Lord’s Supper, and Paul turned his attention to correcting some of these difficulties.
A. Women’s Head Coverings (vv. 1-16): This, for me, proves a very difficult paragraph to interpret, especially in its modern application. On the one hand, the apostle asserts the full equality of men and women (See vv. 11-13), but he also emphasizes the submission of wives to their husbands, an emphasis grounded in the creation narrative of Genesis. These points seem clear from the text.
1. Paul was sensitive to the cultural norms in which he ministered the gospel. Women who went bareheaded, in the ancient world, were regarded as immoral, much as we might see in the modern Middle East. He did not commend the unnecessary flaunting of cultural norms in the name of liberty.
2. Paul believed in the historicity of the creation account in Genesis. It seems utterly clear that the apostle saw Adam and Eve as literal historical figures, and he believed that a certain social order was implied by creation.
3. The apostle affirmed the equality of men and women while acknowledging a social hierarchy that governed home life for Christians.
4. Women, in Paul’s mind, played important roles in public worship, including corporate prayer and prophesying (See v. 5).
5. Paul believed that angels attended the worship of God’s people (See v. 10).
B. The Lord’s Supper (vv. 17-34): The observance of communion constituted an essential part of early worship of Jesus, but, even in this, the Corinthians corrupted the practice. It seems that the early believers regularly ate together with a meal called the Love Feast (See Jude 12). The people would gather, each bringing a contribution for the meal. Of course, some could contribute more to the repast than others. In Corinth, wealthier members excluded poor brothers who could bring little to the table. This exclusion fuelled the divisions that troubled the congregation, Paul was outraged that some were ostracized while others indulged their gluttony and even became drunk. They had forgotten one of the principle truths of Christianity—the unity of the Body of Christ. If these people wanted to eat their fill, then let them eat and drink at home. If, however, they wanted to honor Christ, they must share the provisions as one body. The exclusion of some defiled communion, and, for this reason, Paul believed some had grown sick and died, as a result of divine displeasure!