Monday, October 22, 2007

My Take on 1 Corinthians 8-10

Often times I've hear preachers say, "We need to be a New Testament church." It sure sounds good. But I doubt these ministers are thinking of a New Testament church like Corinth, who had lots of problems--open divisions, immorality, disregard for authority, doubts about the resurrection, and more.

Chapters 8-10 in 1 Corinthians deals with the question of whether it's proper or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. While this is a relevant question in some countries today, it certainly is not in our American society. Partly for that reason, these three chapters have baffled me over the years-- what the heck is Paul saying and why? I basically ignored it. But when you have to stand up before people and preach the text, let's just say that the fear of looking like a fool drives you to study the text a little bit closer.

So here's my brief summary of 1 Corinthians 8-10.

When the Jerusalem Council figured out how Gentiles can participate in the Jewish-Christian faith, it was decided that believers should not eat meat sacrificed to idols. When Paul established the Corinthian church, it's likely that he taught that point.

But now the Corinthians-- who took pride in their knowledge-- have written Paul and in essence said, "Hey, you've overlooked an important fact. Idols are actually nothing. Sure, the statue represents a god, but we know it doesn't actually exist. Idols then are like counterfeit money-- there's nothing to back it up. So why get uptight about eating idol meat?"

Back in the 1st century, eating meat was a tasty luxury. Common folks could rarely afford it. In addition, Corinth didn't have fast food restaurants. The only place to "eat out" was at local the pagan temple and its large dining halls. Consequently, this was the social gathering place for much of the city.

Paul's response begins in chapter 8 with this: Even if the idols are nothing, you shouldn't eat idol meat out of consideration for your fellow believer, who may get tripped up by your behavior. Love limits liberty.

Chapter 9 seems to have no connection with what precedes or follows. But Paul is providing a personal example of someone who limits his liberty for the sake of others. So that the Good News of Jesus may be heard without hindrance, Paul says he chose not to collect money from his listeners. Usually this was the case with philosophy speakers in the Roman-Greco world. "Follow my example of limiting liberty" is Paul's message to the Corinthians. He does this because he's focused on being faithful to God and running a race to win.

Then in chapter 10, Paul forcefully makes his point about avoiding idol meat. First, he appeals to Old Testament history. God blessed the Israelites by leading them out of the promised land, but they disobeyed God and ended up dying in the wilderness. Like them, you Corinthians enjoy the blessing of God. But if you continue to disregard the Lord, you will pay a severe price. Ironically, the Israelites in the wilderness and the Corinthians were complaining about the same thing-- meat. Second, Paul says that just as the Lord's Supper has a real spiritual significance behind it-- namely Jesus, so does the meals in honor of idols. While it's true the idols themselves are nothing, the Corinthians failed to consider the reality of demons at work in the idols. However, Paul does go on to say that in cases where there's no explicit connection made between meat and idols, you are free to buy in the marketplace or in someone's home.

In summary, Paul exhorts the Corinthians: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (10:31). He says follow my personal example and follow also the example of Christ-- who willing ate with sinners, declared food clean, and personally limited his liberty to such an extent he died on a cross.

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