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Idol Food

1 Corinthians: The Gospel for the Church  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  48:22
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Let’s talk about food sacrificed to idols, shall we? This doesn’t seem to be anything we really need to talk about does it? No one woke up this morning hoping to hear a really good sermon on food sacrificed to idols. This is not immediately relevant today. This isn’t even a little relevant, is it?
Tell me, when’s the last time you wondered if the burger you were eating came from a cow that had been sacrificed to idols in a pagan temple?
I pray your answer is never; though if this was a situation we faced today, the application would be much easier to reach.
In Paul’s day, sacrifice to the gods was an essential part of life. Each town or city had plenty of shrines to local gods and goddesses, to Apollo or Venus, and, in Paul’s day, more and more to the Roman emperor and members of his family.
What people did there at those shrines was come with animals for sacrifice. When the animal was killed, it would be cooked, and the family (depending on what sort of ritual it was) might have a meal with the sacrificial meat as the centerpiece.
However, there was usually more meat than the worshippers could eat, and so other people would come to the temple and share in the food which had been offered to whichever god it was offered to.
But, even that would fail to use up all the sacrificed meat. So the temple officials would take what was left to the market where it would be sold in the normal way. In fact, most of the meat available for sale in a city like Corinth would have been offered in sacrifice.
For that reason, some Jews in the ancient world, in places where they couldn’t or didn’t have a butcher of their own, refused to eat meat at all. They didn’t want to be involved, even one step removed, in the worship of idols, of man-made gods and goddesses. They knew, after all, that there was one and only one God—Yahweh, the Lord, the Creator of the world.
When I came to this text, I was, believe it or not, really excited because, at first blush, this text seems to be about idols. Boy, howdy, now...I could preach a real barn-burner of a sermon on idolatry to all you idolaters out there and this idolater standing before you.
But 1 Corinthians 8 isn’t about idols, not really. Idolatry is the background, but not the substance; it’s the context, but not the main point.
If we come to a text, a passage of scripture in the Bible and don’t work hard to get to the author’s intended meaning (the A.I.M. of the passage), then we can easily read our thoughts into the passage rather than letting the passage speak for itself. And that does no one any good; you don’t want my thoughts and opinions any more that I do. You want God’s Word to speak through me or whomever’s preaching.
What’s important then, what’s imperative is that we work hard, that we dig down deep to see what God’s Word means and to find what it has to say to us today.
That barn-burner of a sermon on idolatry will have to wait until we hit 1 Corinthians 10.
This text, this chapter is not about idols and idolatry as such. It’s about knowledge and love; about deference shown to one another; about love for God and about honor given to Christ Jesus—far better topics than idols.
>If you have your Bible (and I hope you do) please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 8. And if you’re able and willing, please stand with me for the reading of God’s Holy Word, out of reverence for Him:
1 Corinthians 8 NIV
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God. 4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. 7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
May the Lord add His blessing to the reading of His Word!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Here again we find yet another division among the believers in Corinth.
Remember, this city is very large and very diverse. When Paul came preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News about the One who came to die for the sins of His people, Paul was preaching to a mixed-bag of people: some Jews, some Gentiles; some Jewish in their religious affiliation, and many, many pagans who worshipped false gods and worthless idols.
So this topic, like so many other topics in this letter, is divisive.
There would be those among the Corinthian church who believed that it was their right to eat whatever they wanted, especially when they considered cutting themselves off from everyone else in Corinth.
“There’s nothing wrong with that meat; it’s just meat. And if we don’t eat that meat, we will have virtually no contact with anyone, and no opportunity to witness to them.”
And then there were those who would have several fundamental objections in eating food that had been offered to idols: a). it was tainted with idolatry, b). the pagans wouldn’t have paid a tithe on it, and c). it probably wasn’t killed in the right way.
“No way we can eat that meat; it is not just meat. If we eat that meat, we will number ourselves among the pagans; we’ll be just like the idol worshippers; God is not pleased or honored by such offering, and if we eat their idol food, we will blend right in with them, giving us no opportunity to witness to them.”
I would imagine, like me, you can see both sides. Both sides have valid arguments. Both sides are concerned with issues apart from the food itself. Neither side is wrong. It’s a tricky topic. It’s as tricky as it is divisive.
So Paul gives the Church (then and now) a principle, a truth, and a consideration.

Overriding Principle: Love Builds Up

To this divisive and tricky issue, Paul teaches what matters most—contrary to what many thought (and think)—what matters most is love, not knowledge.
1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.
“We all possess knowledge” is apparently a catch-phrase of some of the Corinthians (that’s why it’s placed in quotations).
To this Paul says, “I’m afraid you don’t know that knowledge puffs up.”
Knowledge on its own only puffs up, leaving one like an inflated balloon. A Christian needs to be filled with love, because love builds up. “Prick a balloon and it bursts; lean on a wall and it holds your weight.”
Paul’s not condemning knowledge, but he is saying that true agape-love should control and characterize knowledge. Love must accompany knowledge.
The spirit in which we say what is right (or what is wrong) is just as important as the knowledge we possess.
Godet: “Knowledge devoid of love and of power to build up, when we look at it [closely], is not even true knowledge.”
When a Christian’s character is controlled by love and is growing in true knowledge, he is no longer concerned so much with how well he knows God, as we being known by God.
True knowledge doesn’t lead to pride in what we know, but to humility about what we don’t know.
One approach to religion among the Corinthians was almost entirely self-centered (look to most world religions and large swaths of Christianity today). People would essentially ask questions like, “How far can I go?” and “What’s in it for me?”
There’s no love in a self-centered and selfish form of religious knowledge.
Knowledge about the ritual and religious origins of a chunk of meat, either in the market or at the dinner table, will achieve nothing to build up the faith of fellow Christians.
The important matter is the impact on my brother or sister because of what I might do in this situation.
If, on the other hand, I carefully work out how my fellow Christians will react to my behavior and decide accordingly how I will behave, I will build up the body of Christ.
We should strive to check our behavior by asking, “Is anyone brought closer to God by this? Are Christians strengthened in their faith by this?
When a Christian is compelled, not by knowledge, but by love; when a Christian’s knowledge radiates and is released by love, he is clearly demonstrating that he knows God and that God knows him.
1 Corinthians 8:3 NIV
3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
As N.T. Wright says, “What matters is not your knowledge about this or that, or even about God and the gods; what matters is God’s knowledge of you, and the way you will be aware of that is by the love you find for God deep in your own heart and mind.”
We cannot be most concerned with what we know and with what our knowledge affords us. We have to be most concerned that our knowledge comes from love and is covered by love from top to bottom.
Love is going to feature prominently throughout this chapter and, really, throughout the rest of the book.
So when faced with tricky issues, divisive issues, the overriding principle for us to live out is love—love for God and love for others. The overriding principle is love.
>The fundamental truth is that there is One True God.

Fundamental Truth: There is One True God

It was obvious to some in Corinth that all that funny business about other gods was just a farse. It was all ridiculous.
1 Corinthians 8:4 NIV
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.”
An idol is nothing at all...
Paul agrees, certainly. He also endorses their other statement, wholeheartedly: there is no God but one.
However, it’s also perfectly true that there are many “gods” and many “lords”—
1 Corinthians 8:5 NIV
5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),
If we take the phrase—there is no God but one—some could argue that everyone is just worshipping the same God, but by different names and in different ways.
Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, if there is no God but one, are then worshipping the same God that we worship. And that’s not the case. There is one true God, and a number of false gods.
It’s true that an idol is nothing at all in the world—just a hunk of wood or stone or metal that people choose to worship, but make no mistake: there are many, many different false “gods” that people worship; many, many idols that people today (religious people and religious leaders) worship.
This is why verse 6 is as crucial as it is beautiful:
1 Corinthians 8:6 NIV
6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
There may be many so-called gods in heaven or on earth, but notice that Paul talks about God the Father and Jesus Christ as equal in status and authority.
They have differing functions:
The Father is the one from whom all things come. He is the source and origin and purpose of our existence.
Jesus Christ is the agent and mediator, the one through whom everything and everyone comes into existence.
The “we” in this passage refers to Christians only—Jesus is the bridge to God, the go-between, the mediator, the way to God.
Paul will not be shifted from this fundamental truth, and neither will we.
There are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the God who is Father of Lord Jesus Christ and all the false, silly, ineffectual “gods” worshipped in all other religions.
Paul is not content with offering simple rules, a set of dos and don’ts to guide the Corinthians Christians through the difficulties of living as people of the true God in a world full of other gods. He wants them to be able to think through the issues for themselves, and that means thinking hard about just who the true God is, and what it means to love and serve Him.
This is the Corinthians task and it remains our urgent task today.
There is One True God.
This has a bearing on what the Corinthians do with this idol food. This has a bearing on how we live in this world and how we relate to those around us.
What we do, we must do in love and with the rock solid conviction that there is One True God. And it must be done with consideration.

Supreme Consideration: Those for Whom Christ Died

The pagans in 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 satisfy the gods they used to worship.
The difficulty facing the Corinthians and Paul is that there were Christians in Corinth who had not really grasped the truth just explained: that there was only One True God and that idols are nothing.
Some, Paul agreed, had this knowledge, but not everyone:
1 Corinthians 8:7 NIV
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.
Paul says, “We know this is true, but not everyone does.”
So Paul argues very strongly the need for the strong, knowledgeable person, not to please himself, but to consider the weaker brother and sister.
The weak person in these verses is the one who is hypersensitive on such matters, the one who cuts out anything and everything doubtful, just in case it might harm their relationship with God.
The person who is strong in their faith must consider the one who is weak in their faith.
Some people in the Corinthian church gathering are still so accustomed to idols that they can’t get past the visual, the ritual; they’ve seen too much and they can’t separate the meat from the religious aspects.
So he tells the Corinthians to be careful—
1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
A strong/mature Christian’s freedom can actually become a stumbling block to the weak Christian, doing harm to their faith, moving them to act against his or her conscience.
We must always pause to see our fellow Christian as the brother or sister for whom Christ died, not just as a good friend or even a committed member of our gathering.
If you discipline yourself to this degree, reminding yourself that that person is one for whom Christ died, you will do everything we can do avoid hurting or, as Paul puts it, destroying that person.
The next time you’re tempted to think the worst about a fellow Christian or to disregard the thoughts or feelings or conscience of a brother or sister in Christ, just go ahead and say to yourself, “Christ died for them. Christ died for them. And if Christ died for them, if they are of that much value to Christ, I need to treat them with respect and deference.”
As Paul writes one letter over:
Romans 12:10 NIV
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
What if we did this? What if we honored one another above ourselves? What if what I wanted mattered less to me than what you wanted?
When we fail to protect the weaker brother or sister, we sin against them and wound their conscience.
Paul poses a hypothetical, but very real scenario:
1 Corinthians 8:10 NIV
10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?
Of course the weaker believer is looking to the stronger believer for cues on Christian living. And if you, in all your knowledge (“Woohoo, hoo! Aren’t you so smart?!?!”) go about doing what you are free to do with no regard for anyone else, you sin against your brother or sister.
Paul says, in so doing, we sin against Christ Himself—
1 Corinthians 8:12 NIV
12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
Our ultimate consideration has to be on the other person, our brother and sister, the one for whom Christ died.
The conclusion of Paul’s thoughts here in this section perfectly summarizes the thrust of the chapter:
1 Corinthians 8:13 NIV
13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
What a loving, God-honoring, considerate statement.
I’ve been part of many a church where that kind of deference to the other is entirely absent. I’ve known too many Christians who could care less about the effects of their behavior on anyone else. I, myself, have been completely calloused to the impact I might have on my brother or sister in Christ.
Paul’s willing to become a vegetarian for life if it means not causing his brother or sister in Christ to stumble, to fall.
And Paul would have his Corinthian brothers and sisters think likewise.
>This chapter is about food offered to idols. This chapter’s focus is idol food. But it’s importance for today cannot be overstated.
So much of life together, so much of church life is learning how the Lord would have us treat one another; 1 Corinthians 8 is an incredible tutor on just that.
As we start a new year as a church family, let this chapter teach us:
Love is greater than knowledge. It’s not a matter of what we know; it’s about matter of how well we love—God and neighbor, God and fellow Christian.
We must do all things in love, while holding forth the truth and holding onto the truth that there is One True God; it’s by Him that we live and move and have our being and it’s Him to Whom we will give account.
So we live in such a way that reflects our love and our belief, while giving deference to the weaker brother or sister. Whatever we do, however we act toward another, we must remember Christ died for each and every one of our brothers and sisters.
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