Eat This, Don’t Eat That: Liberty and Love For Neighbor
Text: 1 Cor. 10:23-11:1
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being 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?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of food they eat. What’s that old saying, “you are what you eat”? In our day, that line has taken on a whole new meaning. It isn’t just about health or nutrition. No, today food is a statement. It tells everyone what kind of person you are. Food is art. Food is culture. Food is justice.
This can be good and it can be bad, of course. Don’t misunderstand me. I really like Farmer’s Markets and pick-your-own strawberries. I love my wife’s artisanal cooking. And yes, I take pictures of it and put it on facebook. But foodie culture has its dangers as well. It costs a lot. It can lead to snobbyness. It can cause us to look down on those simple non-foodies, you know, the kind of folks who still eat at McDonalds.
Food was a big deal in the first century as well. But it had a different association then. It wasn’t about a culture or a lifestyle choice but about religion. In Corinth, especially, food was about the gods. This posed a big challenge to the new Christian church because they only believed in one God, the true God, and so they often rejected all meat on the suspicion that it had been sacrificed to an idol. They didn’t want to be associated with that false god, and so they made that known, by not eating. This is the situation we see in our text this morning.
What’s really interesting here is that Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to live under any kind of “food law.” The food is fine. It’s no big deal. Who cares what you eat? But at the same time, Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to let certain food bring them or anyone else into idolatry, and so he prohibits the eating of idol-food, at least insofar as it is knowingly associated with idolatry. Then, after establishing that point, which we have preached on for several weeks now, Paul circles back around to make sure we know that the food, considered as food, is not unclean. It’s not the problem, and Christians can eat that food if it is removed from the public association with idolatry.
This is a bit of a complicated pastoral judgment, but it’s important. We see how Paul is doing a sort of “both/and” argument, saying that we can and should be free to eat whatever food we wish, because it is clean to us, while at the same time we should value and defend the religious conscience of our neighbors, protecting them from the dangers of idolatry. Therefore, you can and cannot eat the meat in Corinth. You should and should not abstain from it. It all depends.
This morning we are going to look at the reasoning behind Paul’s prescriptions. Why is it ok to eat the very same kind of meat in one location but not in another? What we will see is that the food is not the issue. Instead what matters is your neighbor’s spiritual health. And at the end of it all, Paul is going to leave us with two basic principles which should answer any question. These are gratitude and imitation. Anything that can be done in true gratitude to the true God is pure and acceptable. But we must live out this gratitude by imitation. We must imitate Christ and His example of humility and sacrifice. If we can bring these two concepts together, then we will have the answer we need to any challenge. We must live lives of gratitude to God by imitating Jesus Christ to His glory.
Eat What You Want
We’ve spent some amount of time looking into the fact that Paul prohibited the Corinthians from eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. He said that they could not reasonably eat such food without participating in the worship of the idol. But now he makes a pretty big distinction, and it is essential to understanding the bigger picture. The food isn’t really the problem. You are free to eat whatever you want, so long as it isn’t in the context of a religious service. Outside of that service, the food is not contaminated, and you do not have to carry the burden of finding out where any particular food came from or what might have been done to it in the past.
Paul applies this message, writing:
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. (1 Cor. 10:25-27)
To fully appreciate this, you should know that most of the meat in Corinth had been used in connection with idolatrous worship at some time. There were so many sacrifices, and meat was so expensive, that the odds were that any given meat had been sacrificed. Because of this, the stricter and more scrupulous Jews had chosen to forgo all meat all the time. They were not confident that they would be able to tell the difference, and did not want to give the wrong appearance. So they decided to eat a vegetarian diet. Better safe than sorry, they thought.
Paul is clearly taking a different approach. As we said in previous weeks, Paul does not want the Corinthian Christians eating idol-meat in the context of idol-worship, but he doesn’t actually care about the meat as such. If the meat is outside of the context of worship, then it’s mostly fair game. Why is this the case? For a few reasons. First, the idols don’t really exist. “We know that an idol is nothing,” Paul says in 1 Cor. 8:4. And the meat really belongs to the true God, since the true God made it in the first place. Paul affirms this with a quote from Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness.”
This means that Christians do not need to be afraid of getting contaminated by the idol-food. The only contamination is spiritual, and the demons do not actually get to claim ownership over creation. In the limited context of idolatrous worship, the demons have an opportunity to influence people. But the demons do not actually enjoy lordship over the world, and so the food, even if it has been previously sacrificed to them, does not continue to be unclean once it is put to a different use. This means that you will not be made unclean simply by proximity to anything. You are allowed to live “in” the world, and you are even allowed to interact with non-Christians on a friendly and close basis.
Another interesting thing to note is that the line from Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness,” was the traditional blessing that the Jews prayed over their food. What Paul says is that the “blessing” of food is really all about gratitude, about giving thanks. You aren’t asking God to do something to the food. You aren’t asking Him to transform it. Instead, you are noting that the food came from Him, you are giving thanks to Him from it, and you are asking Him to bless you as you eat it. This is all a Christian needs to do in regards to food. As Paul says a few verses later, “If I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks” (1 Cor. 10:30).
Since God made everything, and since Christ made everything clean through His sacrifice, then Christians can eat everything. They need only acknowledge this and give thanks. This is profoundly liberating. Christianity is not a legalistic religion, but instead a religion based on gratitude. There may be many factors that you take into account when deciding what to eat personally—Is it nutritious? Does it agree with my stomach? Do I enjoy it?— but on the religious level, the only thing you need to do is give thanks for what you have. That alone makes the food acceptable, and it makes all food acceptable.
Not a Weaker-Brother Situation
Now, having established the basic rule, Paul adds an important qualification, this freedom must be used for good. After all, the eating of the food is not required. It does not make you more acceptable to God. It is a good gift given to you, but it is something under your control and to be used in the right way. That’s why Paul says, “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Cor. 10:24). This allows the Christian the freedom to do or not do, to eat or not eat.
You’ve most-likely hear this applied to the so-called weaker brother. If you are around a weaker brother, then you should respect his scruples, even if you don’t share them. This is taught in Romans 14, and it also shows up briefly in 1 Cor. 8. But I want you to see that in our section today, Paul is not talking about how to deal with weaker brothers. He is talking about how to deal with non-believers. And since that is the case, the advice is a little different.
If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” (1 Cor. 10:27-28)
Do see what he’s doing there? If the issue has not been raised, then it doesn’t have to be raised. This is because you, the Christian, are in no danger of contamination if you eat the wrong thing. You don’t have to worry about it. And the non-Christian may not even know that there is any issue to be worried about. You don’t have to tell them that there is.
But if the other person raises the issue, then that changes things. Now it’s not just about the food anymore but about the idol. In that case, Paul says that you should abstain.
And don’t miss the reason why: “for the sake of the one who told you.” Paul says that you should be concerned about their conscience. This isn’t about hurting their feelings. It is about the state of religious belief in the room. If they believe in the idol, and if they believe the food has a relationship to that idol, then you should protect their conscience by not appearing to join yourself to that idol. You should disassociate. You should separate. And you can do this—you are free to do this—because “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.”
That quote should ring a bell. It’s the same quote that Paul used a little earlier when he was defending the right to eat meat. There’s something pretty clever about that. The same food can be either allowed or prohibited, and the same verse can be used to promote participation or separation. The reason why is because it’s not the food that’s the issue. It’s the relationship of the food and the people to the true and living God. If they believe that it all belongs to the Lord, then all is good. If they believe that something belongs to an idol, then they need to be challenged.
This isn’t a “weaker brother” situation at all. The weaker-brother is a believer who is still struggling with certain issues. In those cases, your rule is to respect their choice so as not to injure their weak conscience. In this context, however, Paul is talking about how to deal with unbelievers. You should try to avoid the dispute, if possible, but if a dispute comes, then you should make a clear difference between your belief and theirs. In both situations, however, you are putting their good ahead of your own. You are trying to do what is best for their soul.
All of this comes together in Paul’s command to imitate Christ and to seek the other’s well being. “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Cor. 10:24). Then a few verses late, Paul says:
Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (vs. 10:31-11:1)
This takes us back to the foundation for Paul’s reasoning. You shouldn’t be looking for a law. You don’t need to be hung up on the thing itself. You need to see the basic principle at stake and how it affects your neighbor. Your goal should be to glorify God, by worshipping Him and telling the truth about Him, and to bring all men to salvation. Your method should be by imitating Christ. You should be willing to submit yourself for the sake of others, to give up rights which you could otherwise claim, to voluntarily go without, in order to help others come to know God in Christ for their salvation.
This should remind you of Philippians 2, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phi. 2:3). And then what does Philippians 2 go on to say? It says that we should have the “mind of Christ” and then points us to His great example:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phi. 2:5-11)
This is the real “rule” which helps you know who to use your freedom. Be like Christ.
On the one hand, Paul might say that there are no rules. You are free. But on the other hand, there is one rule which serves as the rule of all rules, “Seek the other’s well-being.” And the way that you do this is by imitating Christ in submitting yourself and your own desires for the sake of God’s glory.
For the Christian, the ultimate mark of maturity is wanting to do this. You don’t have to have anyone make you. You don’t even need to consult a rule-book for each case. You desire to be like Jesus and so you imitate Him. This is our goal. This should be our target. Seek the good of others by imitating Christ.
So, after we work our way through the complicated landscape of the 1st century, we see a few basic principles. The Christian should be both inside the world and separate from idolatrous worship. The distinctives that the Christian community need to guard are the distinctives of who they worship and who they believe the world belongs to. They need to guard that message. They should water it down or compromise on it.
But Christians do not have to be physically separate from the world. They can shop in the world’s markets and eat in the world’s restaurants. They can even go to nonbelievers homes and eat with them. They should view all of this as evidence of God’s good gifts and opportunities to do good for others.
The rules which guide us through all of this are basically two: gratitude to God and the imitation of Christ. If we follow those two rules, all of the other tricky applications will come into focus and we will be able to make the right choices. So whether we eat or we drink or whatever we do, we can do it all to the glory of God.
Let us pray.