Food Sacrificed to Idols and the Issue of Christian Liberty
Today we start a new section that goes from 8:1 to 11:1; it pertains to food sacrificed to idols, but it also pertains to the issue of Christian liberty.
The basic situation Paul addresses in 8:1-11:1 has been a matter of debate in recent years. Does it refer to the appropriateness of Christians’ purchasing and eating meat sold in the marketplace that had first been offered in sacrifice to pagan idols? Or does it refer to the participation of Christians in social interactions, including meals that had pagan religious overtones, some of which most likely took place in banquet halls attached to idol temples? In either case, this section reflects a problem often faced by first-generation Christians, namely, how and to what extent they must separate themselves from the religious culture around them—a culture in which they may have fully participated only a short time earlier.
Because pagan temples offered parts of animals in sacrifice to the gods, they also often functioned as butcher shops and banqueting halls. Sometimes meals for trade guilds, clubs, and private dinner parties were held in a temple dining room. Often meat from a temple was sold to the public in the marketplace. This section of 1 Corinthians offers guidance about the use of such food. Perhaps this section can be broken down like this:
- Paul first urges the Corinthians not to eat in pagan temples because it might lead to the destruction of a weaker brother or sister (chapter 8).
- He then offers himself as an example of giving up something one is convinced is a right for the spiritual edification of others (chapter 9).
- He urges the Corinthians not to eat in pagan temples because doing so is idolatry (10:1–22).
- Finally, he says that eating meat purchased in the marketplace (which may have come from a pagan temple) is not wrong unless it hinders the advancement of the gospel (10:23–11:1).
1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.
- Now concerning. This expression introduces a reply to a question in the Corinthians’ letter.
- Cf 7:1. Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. (See notes.)
- Food offered to idols. In Greek, this phrase is one word (eidōlothytos, lit., “something offered to an idol”). Paul is talking about food, however, because he uses the word for “food” (Gk. brōsis) in v4.
- Since only part of an animal was used in sacrifices to pagan gods, much of the animal could still be eaten. Paul speaks later in this chapter of eating such food in a banqueting hall attached to a temple and therefore in an explicitly religious setting (v10).
- Pre-Pauline evidence of such temple banquets at Corinth is found at the Sanctuary of Asklepios and at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore, and such feasting likely continued during Paul’s day.
- The Greeks and Romans were polytheistic (worshiping many gods) and polydemonistic (believing in many evil spirits). They believed that evil spirits would try to invade human beings by attaching themselves to food before it was eaten, and that the spirits could be removed only by the food’s being sacrificed to a god.
- The sacrifice was meant not only to gain favor with the god, but also to cleanse the meat from demonic contamination. Such decontaminated meat was offered to the gods as a sacrifice. That which was not burned on the altar was served at pagan feasts. What was left was sold in the market.
- After conversion, believers resented eating such food bought out of idol markets, because it reminded sensitive Gentile believers of their previous pagan lives and the demonic worship.
- “All of us possess knowledge”. Here and in v4 Paul cites certain slogans or sayings that were known and used by the Corinthians. Paul agrees with the slogans in part, but corrects them to show how the Corinthians have misused these ideas. There are several such slogans that Paul uses in this letter.
- Cf 6:12-13. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food—and God will destroy both one and the other.” The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (v13 quote expanded by me; see notes)
- Cf 7:1. Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
- Cf 10:23. “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
- Paul and mature believers knew better than to be bothered by such food offered once to idols and then sold in the marketplace. They knew the deities did not exist and that evil spirits did not contaminate the food.
- Puffs up. Once again, Corinthian arrogance is seen as a problem.
- 4:6. I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.
- 4:8. Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!
- 4:18-19. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power.
- Love builds up. Knowledge mingled with love prevents a believer from exercising freedoms that offend weaker believers and, rather, builds the others up in truth and wisdom.
- Cf 13:4-7. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant [puffed up] or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
- What is far more important than having knowledge is love, especially the issue of whether this love is being exercised in building up one another as believers.
- The verb to build up is repeated as Paul begins to summarize this entire section in 10:23, and it is an important principle to follow in the exercise of spiritual gifts, especially prophesy, which God has given to edify and build up the church.
- 10:23. “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
2-3 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.
- Imagines. The verb used here generally has a negative flavor in Paul’s writings.
- Cf 3:18. Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
- Cf 10:12. Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
- Gal 6:3. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
- Php 3:4. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.
- Because certain Christians in Corinth are using their knowledge to vaunt themselves up rather than to build up others in love, they really do not have the knowledge they ought to have.
- True knowledge involves not merely knowing certain bits of data but living in a way that pleases God. If our knowledge does not affect the way we live in a positive manner, it is useless.
- Known by God. God knows those who belong to him, and there is a close bond between belonging to God and sharing love for God and neighbor.
- 1Co 13:12. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
- Jn 10:14-15. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
- Gal 4:8-9. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
- 2Ti 2:19. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
- 1Jn 3:16. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
- 1Jn 4:20-21. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
- If anyone truly loves God, which inevitably also involves loving one’s fellow human beings, that person is known by God. What an incredible privilege to be known and loved by God!
- Love is the proof of knowing God.
- Cf 1Jn 4:19–5:1. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.
4 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 these quotes, see note on v1.
- These sayings were perhaps picked up from Paul’s own preaching, for he would certainly have talked about the Shema and insisted that idols are only man-made objects.
- Dt 6:4-5. Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
- Read also Isa 44:9-20 which talks about the folly of idolatry.
5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—
- So-called gods. Some were outright fakes and some were manifestations of demons, but none were truly gods.
- Cf Ps 115:4-7. The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.
- See also Ac 19:23-34 regarding Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, was complaining that Paul was persuading “a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods.”
- Paul uses an if…then construction here, though he never gives the concluding then But he does seem to backtrack from the statement that an idol has no real existence (v4). Why?
- If we jump ahead to 10:19-20, we get some glimpse of how Paul may have completed the then clause, for there Paul does say that while an idol itself is a man-made object, behind it lies a spiritual being who rivals God, a demon. If the belief is that an idol has no real existence (v4) leads someone to a nonchalant attitude toward attending events in a pagan temple and perhaps giving honor to the idol in that temple (even if only in lip service), then Paul would say we have a problem.
- His then might read, …then we had better expect they will try to exert power over us; yet for us… (v6).
- Paul had very little tolerance for idols. This attitude came from his Jewish background.
- During his travels, Paul was deeply disturbed by the idols in Athens. He praised the Thessalonian believers for turning away from idols to serve the living and true God.
- Ac 17:16. Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.
- 1Th 1:8-9. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.
- Note also how often Paul includes idolatry in a list of serious sins.
- 1Co 5:11. I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
- 1Co 6:9-10. Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
- Gal 5:19-21. The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
- Col 3:5-6. Put to death what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
- And Paul instructs the Corinthians to “flee from idolatry” (1Co 10:7,14).
- During his travels, Paul was deeply disturbed by the idols in Athens. He praised the Thessalonian believers for turning away from idols to serve the living and true God.
6 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.
- Cf text formatting in the HCSB. Was this a sort of early Christian creed or what we might call a Christian Shema?
Yet for us there is one God, the Father.
All things are from Him,
and we exist for Him.
And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ.
All things are through Him,
and we exist through Him.
- Through whom are all things and through whom we exist. Grk “through whom all things and we through him.”
- There is indeed only one God, who is the Father, and there is only one Lord, who is Jesus Christ. This God is the One who has created all things, and it is for him that we must live our lives. And this Lord is the One through whom all things came into existence and whose death on the cross has brought us life.
- This verse is a powerful and clear affirmation of the essential equality of God the Father and God the Son.
- Cf Eph 4:4–6. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Summary of v4-6 (primarily from ESV Study Bible).
- Paul agrees with what the Corinthians know, that idols do not represent real “gods” and “lords.” There is only one God, and since he is the creator of the animals that pagan priests offer to nonexistent gods, no problem should be attached to the consumption of the meat itself.
- Also 10:19-20. 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.
- Also 10:25-26. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
- Paul will later distinguish between eating at a temple dinner (which, as a religious event, is idolatry) and eating meat bought in the marketplace.
- So far in this passage he is concerned only with the food itself, not the setting in which it is eaten.
Notes on v7-13
- From the general principles in v1-6 regarding God and idols, Paul moves to the specific issue at hand, namely, whether it is permissible for a Christian to sit in an idol temple and eat meat sacrificed to idols, especially in the context of belonging to the Christian community. His goal at this stage is to illustrate how love rather than knowledge builds up this community (v1).
- We must keep in mind that by the time Paul reaches the end of this three-chapter section, he plainly says that it is wrong for any Christian to participate in eating in an idol temple.
- 1Co 10:19-21. 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. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
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.
- Not all possess this knowledge. What knowledge?
- Paul is talking about the knowledge that there are no gods and lords that need to be pleased.
- This isn’t just head knowledge that Paul is talking about, but the overcoming of the life-long indoctrination of that which is false. We all deal with this on some level, especially those who were saved as adults. Old habits and beliefs are sometimes very difficult to overcome.
- The pagans of Paul’s day feared what the gods might do to those who neglected to worship them. Some of the Christians in Corinth probably found it a constant struggle to place their trust solely in Christ instead of trying to placate the gods they used to worship.
- The consciences of some newer converts were still accusing them strongly with regard to allowing them to eat idol food without feeling spiritually corrupted and guilty.
- A defiled conscience is one that has been violated, bringing fear, shame, and guilt.
- Cf Ro 14:20-23. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
- The strongest Christian can bring harm to himself in the area of Christian liberty by carelessly flaunting his liberty without regard for how that might affect others.
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.
- Commend us to God. The idea is of bringing us nearer to God or making us approved by him. Food is spiritually neutral.
- It’s possible that this is a theoretical rejoinder by the “knowledgeable” believers in Corinth.
- “Oh, come on, Paul. Food is morally and spiritually neutral. Foods don’t draw us away from God or closer to God.”
- Paul would certainly agree with this rejoinder. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Ro 14:17).
9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
- This right of yours. Paul is speaking from the Corinthians’ perspective. He will later deny that anyone in the Corinthian church has the right to eat meals in pagan temples. To do this is to practice idolatry and so to open oneself to the influence of demons.
- 10:7. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
- 10:14. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
- 10:19-22. 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. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
- Even if they had the right to eat in temples they should refrain from using this right out of concern for the spiritual well-being of the person whose conscience is weak (v7).
- Stumbling block. Some believers would be caused to fall back into old sins by getting involved with foods offered to idols.
- Cf Ro 14:13. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
- Cf Ro 14:20. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.
- If the believer with the weak conscience eats some of the food in an idol temple, in his heart he will be expressing devotion to that idol god. Thus, the “knowledge-driven” believer practicing his right will actually serve as a stumbling block to the spiritual development of the believer with the weak conscience. That is a huge problem.
- If we really want to live by the principle of love, we will never let our superior knowledge put a stumbling block in the path of the spiritual growth of a developing Christian.
10-11 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.
- Eating. Grk. reclining at table.
- Will he not be encouraged. Or Will he not be fortified; Grk built up. This is the same word used in v1, “love builds up.” It is used ironically here: The weak person is “built up” to commit what he regards as sin.
- Paul says that if a fellow believer with a weak conscience should even see the “knowledge-driven” believer eating in an idol temple and presumably partaking of a meal of food sacrificed to the idol, his conscience might be encouraged enough to do so himself. As a result the weak person is destroyed by that “knowledge.”
- This weak person is destroyed.
- Paul elsewhere uses destroyed (Gk apollymi) to mean eternal destruction.
- Ro 2:12. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law.
- 1Co 1:18. The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.
- 1Co 15:17-18. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
- 2Co 2:15. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.
- 2Co 4:3. Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.
- 2Th 2:9-10. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
- Some interpreters take Paul’s use of the term here in the same sense, i.e. eternal destruction. Others see this as a reference to the moral harm done to the weaker brother (his conscience “is defiled,” v7).
- Grammatically, this may be an indirect middle, “This weak person destroys himself.”
- Paul elsewhere uses destroyed (Gk apollymi) to mean eternal destruction.
- For whom Christ died. Christ died for all who believe, actually bearing the penalty for their sin and fully satisfying the wrath of God. Paul is not talking about eternal destruction here.
12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
- You sin against Christ. A strong warning that causing a brother or sister in Christ to stumble is more than simply an offense against that person; it is a sin against the Lord himself.
- Cf Mt 18:6-7, 10-14. Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! … See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
- Paul concludes this section with his own personal assessment and testimony.
- By inserting himself in the discussion at this point, Paul leads directly into the next chapter, which is filled with personal situations and testimony.
There is no such thing as a god apart from the one true God. There is no such thing as a true idol. So, meat sacrificed to such a god is basically just food. Eating it is not a problem in itself.
The issue is with the heart. Some believers who had a past of service to this or that god or temple made a huge lifestyle change when they dedicated themselves to Christ. As with all of us, it was difficult for these new believers to separate themselves from their past lives and habits. So when they witness other believers eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, or when they are even invited to join with these believers who are either stronger (by God’s grace) or who don’t have the same past, they are being encouraged to enter back into the idol service they had previously escaped.
Before you think that this is simply an abstraction to us today, that has no real application to the 21st century church, I beg of you to consider modern-day examples of this very scenario.
It’s not a sin to drink alcohol. But for a new believer who has escaped a life of alcoholism to see a fellow believer drinking, it might encourage him to take a drink himself. For the one who has escaped the sin of drunkenness, that one drink—a drink that is no problem at all for the older believer—could end up being a drunken stupor.
It’s not a sin to walk into a movie rental store to rent a movie. But for a believer who has been rescued from a lifestyle of renting pornographic movies, or who used to make it a habit to visit movie rental stores with pornography viewing rooms, entering into such stores can be a real problem. If he sees his brother—his brother that doesn’t have the same struggles—entering a movie rental store, or even inviting him into the store, he may be encouraged to start the habitual visits he had once escaped.
You can probably think of other such examples. Regardless of where you are in your walk with Christ, there are brothers and sisters who are “weaker” than you are in some area. We need to be sure we are acting in love toward our fellow Christ-followers.
Here are a couple of additional passages that relate to this topic.
Ro 14:13-23. Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Take some time to read all of Romans 14.
Mk 7:14-23. Jesus called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? 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?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”