Exercising Our Freedom in Christ (preaching resource for Epiphany 4: January 28, 2024)
This post exegetes 1 Corinthians chapters 8 and 10, to provide context for the RCL Epistle reading on 1/28/2024 (Epiphany 4). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and Bruce Winter ("New Bible Commentary").
|Ruins of the Temple of Apollo in Corinth (pubic domain via Wikimedia Commons)
After answering questions in 1 Corinthians chapter 7 about being a single or married Christ-follower, Paul turns now to another question from the church at Corinth: “Is it permissible for a Christian to eat meat that was sacrificed to an idol?” Though we don’t typically face this issue in our world, we do wonder how we should appropriately exercise the freedom we have in union with Jesus Christ. To help us think about this issue with the mind of Christ, Paul in chapters 8 through 10 gives us four guiding principles:
- Balance knowledge with love (1 Cor. 8)
- Balance authority with discipline (1 Cor. 9)
- Balance experience with caution (1 Cor. 10:1–22)
- Balance freedom with responsibility (1 Cor. 10:23–33)
In this study, we'll address three of these principles in chapters 8 and 10.
Balance knowledge with love
1 Cor. 8:1–13
Now about food sacrificed to idols…
Meat in the city of Corinth typically came from two sources: commercial markets (with high prices) and local temples (where meat sacrificed to idols was offered at a lower price). Spiritually strong Christians knew idols, being nothing, could not contaminate food. So they saved money by purchasing meat at the temples, and if non-Christian friends or family invited them to a meal at a temple, they felt free to attend. But these practices offended Christians who were not as strong in the faith. Many of them had come to Christ out of paganism and could not understand why fellow believers would have anything to do with meat sacrificed to idols. This situation had the potential for division in the church, so the church leaders asked Paul for his advice. In reply, he calls to their attention three important factors: knowledge, love and conscience.
1. Knowledge (vv. 1–2)
In general, the Corinthians knew rightly that an idol is nothing (verse 4)—merely the representation of a non-existent, false god. But according to Paul, knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with. If knowledge “puffs up” it cannot “build up.” In fact, a know-it-all attitude is evidence of underlying ignorance of what makes knowledge useful, namely love, the second factor to which Paul now turns.
2. Love (vv. 3–6)
The greatest knowledge is to know the true God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, “through whom we live.” In Jesus, knowledge and love are inseparable. The strong in the Corinthian church had knowledge, but they were lean on love. Instead of building up the weak, they were puffing up themselves. Paul wants for the strong, in love and according to knowledge, to help the weak to grow. When spiritual knowledge is tempered with love, the strong take the hand of the weak and help them stand and walk so as to enjoy their freedom in Christ. But one cannot force-feed weaker believers, for there is a third factor to consider, namely their conscience.
3. Conscience (vv. 7–13)
Conscience is where our actions are judged and then approved or condemned (Rom. 2:14–15). But one’s conscience is only as reliable as the knowledge that informs it. The more we rightly know and then act upon, the stronger our conscience becomes. Some Christians have weak consciences because they lack knowledge and other elements of maturity. And these weak consciences must be guarded carefully. It might not harm the conscience of a strong Christian to share a meal with non-Christian friends in a pagan temple, but it might harm a weaker one—they might decide to imitate their stronger brother and thus be led into what would be sin for them. But note that the strong defer to the weak not to encourage their immaturity, but to help them grow. So the bottom line is this: we are free in Christ, but we must take care that this knowledge is tempered by love, and that we do not tempt the weak to run ahead of their conscience. Where knowledge is balanced by love, the strong will minister to the weak, and the weak (unless they are obstinate) will grow and become strong.
Balance experience with caution
1 Cor. 10:1–22
Paul reminds the experienced believers who were strong in the faith that they must not grow overconfident in themselves: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!” (1 Cor. 10:12). Paul uses Israel as a negative example in giving the Corinthians three cautions:
1. Privilege does not insure success (vv. 1–4)
Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt through Moses is a type of our redemption from slavery to sin through Christ. Israel was identified with Moses in their Red Sea “baptism,” just as believers are identified with Christ in Christian baptism. Moreover, Israel was nourished in the wilderness with manna from heaven and water from a rock, just as Christians are nourished by the sustenance of Jesus himself (John 6:63, 68; 7:37–39). However, this supernatural provision did not in itself prevent Israel from falling into sin, nor does it prevent Christians from doing likewise. If we think we are invulnerable we set ourselves up for a fall.
The immediate issue Paul has in view here is a strong believer eating in a temple where they may unwittingly encounter a spirit-enemy too strong for them to resist. Sexual immorality was a prevalent component of these temple meals and thus great caution is in order in exercising the freedom we have in Christ .
2. Good beginnings do not guarantee good endings (vv. 5–12)
Israel experienced God’s miracles, and yet they failed the testing in the wilderness. As believers we must balance our experience with caution for we too are journeying in the wilderness and we never come to the place where we are invulnerable to temptation. All of the Israelites 20 years old and upward who were rescued from Egypt, except for Joshua and Caleb, died in the wilderness because of their sinful behavior (Num. 14:26ff). And Paul now notes that some of the Corinthian believers were participating in some of the same sins including immorality (1 Cor. 6), idolatry (1 Cor. 8; 10) and murmuring against God (2 Cor. 12:20–21). Paul’s point is that sin brings consequences. By this Paul is not suggesting that his readers might lose their salvation, but he was afraid that some of them would be “disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27) and thus unable to experience the fullness of their life in Christ. So great caution is in order.
3. Flee to Jesus away from temptation (vv. 13–22)
God is faithful to deliver us from temptation as we eat from the Lord’s table—which is an expression of our participation in Jesus’ life as pictured in the Lord's Super (Eucharist). But if, instead, we are eating from the table of demons—if we are participating in the life (which is really death) which they represent, we risk succumbing to temptation leading to ruin. Thus we must feed on Jesus, and in that way flee temptation. The believer who thinks he can stand anywhere else will fall; but the believer who flees to Jesus will stand.
Paul has already told his readers to “flee fornication” (1 Cor. 6:18); and now warns them to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). He explains why: though an idol itself is nothing, Satan can use it to lead a person into idolatrous behavior. To sit at an idol’s table could mean participation with demons. He makes this point by speaking about the Lord’s table (Communion). When the believer partakes of the cup and loaf at the Lord’s table, he is, in a spiritual way, having fellowship (communion) with the ascended Jesus Christ. In 1 Cor. 10:18, Paul points to the temple altar and sacrifices as another illustration of this truth.
The application is clear: a believer cannot partake of the Lord’s food (the Old Testament sacrifice, the New Testament supper) and the devil’s food (the idol’s table) without exposing himself to danger and provoking the Lord who is “jealous” for the allegiance of his people. “Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10:22) is directed at the strong Christian who was sure he could enjoy his liberty in the pagan temple and not be harmed. “You may be stronger than your weaker brother,” Paul intimated, “but you are not stronger than God!” It is dangerous to play with sin. Great caution is in order.
Balance freedom with responsibility
1 Cor. 10:23–33; 11:1
"Everything is permissible"-- but not everything is beneficial....
“Everything is permissible” is apparently a quote from the Corinthian’s letter to Paul in which they assert their freedom in Christ. Though Paul affirms this freedom, he notes that it must be tempered by responsibility, for indeed some things may be permissible but not beneficial. It is a mark of Christian maturity to temper in three ways the exercise of freedom with the constraint of responsibility.
1. We are responsible for the welfare of others (vv. 24-30)
We are responsible to build others up—particularly fellow believers. While we do have freedom in Christ, we are not free to harm other believers in the exercise of our freedom. This can be seen in the issue at hand, namely the eating of meat offered to idols. Paul has already warned against a believer publicly participating in pagan feasts (1 Cor. 8:9–13), and now he deals with private meals. In 1 Cor. 10:25–26, he instructs believers to ask no questions about the meat purchased at the market for use in their own homes. After all, everything comes from God (and here he quotes Ps. 24:1) and all food is permissible to the believer (Mark 7:14–23; Acts 10:9–16, 28; 1 Tim. 4:3–5).
The mature believer can certainly eat meat sacrificed to idols in the privacy of their own home. But what about times when the believer is the guest in the home of an unbeliever? Paul handles this problem in 1 Cor. 10:27–30. If the Christian feels disposed to go, he should eat whatever is set before him and ask no questions. However, there may be present at the meal one of the weaker brothers or sisters who wants to avoid meat offered to idols, and who has done some investigating. If this weaker Christian informs the stronger Christian that the meat being served has been offered to idols, then the stronger Christian should not eat it. If he did, he would cause the weaker believer to stumble.
2. We are responsible to glorify God in all things (v. 31)
Paul next anticipates the objections: “Why should my liberty be curtailed because of another person’s weak conscience?” His reply introduces the second responsibility we have, namely to glorify God in all things. We do not glorify God when we cause another Christian to stumble. To be sure, our own conscience may be strong enough for us to participate in some lawful activity and not be harmed. But we dare not use our freedom in Christ in any way that will injure a fellow Christian. Better not to eat meat than to hurt another person.
3. We are responsible to help the lost (vv. 32-33)
Paul notes here that we must not make it difficult either for Jews or Gentiles to trust the Lord, or for other members of the church to witness for the Lord. We must not live to seek our own good, rather we must seek after the benefit of others, that they may be encouraged to trust in Christ. In writing, “I try to please everybody in every way” (verse 33), Paul is not suggesting that we should be people-pleasers. Rather he is affirming the fact that his life and ministry were centered on helping others rather than on promoting himself and his own desires. We should follow his example, as he follows Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
The way of Christ in which we are to live is the way of exercising freedom in order to love God and love others. Paul’s own way of doing so no doubt appeared inconsistent to some. At times, he would eat what Gentiles were eating. At others, he would eat only clean (kosher) food with the Jews. But instead of being inconsistent, Paul was living consistently by the principles he lays down here. Rather than selfishly asserting his freedom in Christ, he balanced knowledge with love; he balanced experience with caution; and he balanced freedom with responsibility. May each of us follow Paul as he follows Christ in these ways.