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Food Offered to Idols - Exercising Christian Freedom in Love (1 Cor 8-10)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Through the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to several questions that have been raised by the church. Each of these responses is introduced with the words, “Now concerning ...” (7:1,25, 8:1, 12:1). In this section, Paul is responding to a question, by beginning, “Now concerning food offered to idols” (8:1). In the modern world this seems to be a very strange issue to address, as it appears at first sight to have little or no relevance to today. However, for the Corinthians it was a very important and pressing issue, and there are some significant areas of application to today. In these chapters two different but related issues are addressed. The first is eating meals in the temple of an idol (ch 8). The second is eating meat bought in the marketplace which has previously been offered to an idol as a sacrifice (ch 10:23 - 11:1). In the centre of this section, Paul broadens out the issue to the wider subject of Christian liberty and personal responsibility, as well as defending his position as an apostle against their criticism.

Eating food in the temple of an idol

Eating meals in a temple was a central part of the social life of first century Corinth. The pagan temple was almost like a modern restaurant, where every kind of social occasion was celebrated, such as a wedding or the birth of a child. This was also where business deals were made, and where meals were eaten during special state festivals. The meeting of trade guilds would be over a meal in the temple of the patron god of their particular trade. For a person to trade or run a business it was essential to be a member of the appropriate trade guild, otherwise they would not be able to trade. The meal would be held in the honour of the particular deity in a dining area adjoining the temple. People would consider that the god was spiritually present with them as a guest while they ate the meal. The meat eaten at these meals would come from an animal that had been sacrificed to the idol immediately before the meal. The animal would be killed in the presence of the deity, in front of its statue, then a small portion would be burned as a sacrifice. Some would be given to the priests who worked in the temple, then the rest served as a meal for the guests. Any meat left over would be sold to the public the next day in the marketplace (agora). These are two actual invitations to a meal in a temple: “Chaeremon requests your company at the table of the Lord Serapis at the Serapeum (the temple to Serapis) tomorrow, the 15th at nine o’clock, where the first birthday of his daughter is to be celebrated at a meal in the Serapeum.” And, “Antonius, son of Ptolemaeus, invites you to dine with him at the table of our Lord Serapis.” On other occasions a worshipper may give a sacrifice in the temple, then take his meat away to be consumed at home at a feast with his friends and family, at which the god would also be thought be present as a guest. This is an invitation: “Sarapion, former gymnasiarch, asks you to dine at a table of the lord Serapis in his own house tomorrow, which is the 15th, from the eighth hour”.

The Tyndale Commentary on 1 Corinthians by Leon Morris (page 126 - 127) gives a plan of the temple to Asclepius near the gymnasium in Corinth, which had a dining area adjoining the temple. It would have been in such a temple that these meals would be held, where food was eaten that had been offered to an idol.

The state also offered public sacrifices to various gods. There was also an annual celebration of the emperor’s birthday. Some of the meat from these sacrifices was distributed to the priests, some to public officials, and the remainder was sold to the public in the markets (agora). So for a Christian, there was no guarantee that meat bought in the market would be free from contamination by idols. Sacred meals also were an important part of the Isthmian Games. The emperor himself regularly attended the games, which were celebrated with banquets. The president of the games invited all Roman citizens to dine at the temple of Poseidon as the games were held in his honour. It was considered a ‘right’ for Roman citizens to be invited to these banquets.

We should also be aware that the Corinthians had been brought up in a thoroughly superstitious world- view which was driven by fear of evil spirits. The popular belief was that sickness and disease was caused by evil spirits, and these entered into human beings by sitting on the food they ate. To prevent this, animals were dedicated to a favourite deity before being slaughtered, and the meat was blessed in the name of this god before being eaten. By doing this, the presence of their favourite god in the meat would then act as a barrier to prevent the entry of evil spirits. Because of these practices it was almost impossible to buy meat that had not already had some contact with a pagan god.

So we see that meals in pagan temples were the centre of the social and business life of the city. This issue caused difficulties for the Christians. Should a believer attend a meal in a pagan temple, and eat meat that has just been offered as a sacrifice to an idol? If people refused to attend these meals, they would effectively cut themselves off from Corinthian society. Those in the church who were traders or craftsmen would suffer loss of trade and the opportunity to make business deals. For the poorer people, this would probably be the only time they actually ate meat. Before their conversion to Christ, Gentile Corinthians would have attended such meals and celebrations on a regular basis, as it was such an important part of their social life. Jews would never have attended these meals because of the strict Jewish food laws and their abhorrence of idolatry, so this would particularly be a problem for believers from a Gentile background. At the Jerusalem council, James extended the ban on eating food polluted by idols to Gentile believers (Acts 15:20). Interestingly we should note that at no point in these chapters does Paul refer to this, or use it to re-enforce his prohibition of eating food offered to idols.

In AD 54, about three years after Paul’s original visit to Corinth, the Roman emperor and Senate approved the provincial establishment of the imperial cult, worship of the emperor. This had been initiated by the Roman province of Achaia, which included Corinth. Roman citizens would be expected to support this new form of worship, and there would be political, social and financial benefits of doing so. It would serve as a demonstration of a citizen’s loyalty to the Roman empire. Those who abstained would be disadvantaged. It has been suggested that the recent establishment of emperor worship in Corinth is also part of the setting of the issues discussed in these chapters.

While he was still with them in Corinth, Paul would have forbidden the believers to attend meals in pagan temples, but the issue of emperor worship had arisen since his visit. He may have forbidden participation in this and repeated his ban on eating in idol temples on his second visit, or in his earlier letter to the church. There were some in the church (particularly Gentiles) who are arguing against Paul, saying they were free from the law. They were objecting to his prohibition, and challenging his authority to make such a ban. They had expressed their objections in the letter sent to Paul, who is now responding to them. Once again in several places he quotes their slogans or arguments and then corrects them. These slogans are often placed within quotation marks in modern translations.

They were arguing that "all have knowledge" about idols (8:1). Because they now believe in the One True God, they know that idols do not really exist (8:4), therefore it does not matter if they eat food offered as a sacrifice to a non-existent idol. They also argued that God does not mind what they eat, because "food will not bring them close to God” (8:8). Some apparently had a rather magical view of the Christian sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), claiming that partaking of the sacraments would somehow protect them from falling (10:1-4). They were also challenging Paul’s authority as an apostle to forbid them from eating meals in the temples. Some were claiming that Paul was not a true apostle because he did not accept money from them as a Greek teacher would (ch 9). They also thought Paul was being inconsistent on this issue when he ate meat bought in the market which had previously been sacrificed to an idol when he ate with Gentiles, but abstained when eating with Jews (9:19ff, 10:23ff).

Jews had a traditional abhorrence of idols and would not have touched meat that previously had any contact with pagan religion. They had strict food laws, so that any meat they ate had to kosher, having been killed in the proper way and the blood drained out. Because Judaism was a legal religion under Roman law, market officials were required to have kosher food available for Jews, which had not previously been offered to an idol. Following the decision by Gallio (Acts 18:12-17), Christianity would continue to be seen as a Jewish sect, so the Christians would have been permitted to buy Jewish kosher food. After the Jews were expelled from Rome by Claudius in AD 49, public attitudes towards the Jews gradually deteriorated. In some places the special permission granted to the Jews to buy kosher food in the marketplace was withdrawn. It is likely that this also happened in Corinth. If this was the case, then Jews and Christians would only be able to buy meat at the normal shops which had probably already been offered as a sacrifice to a pagan deity.

The wider issue in chapters 8-10

Throughout the letter of 1 Corinthians, we get the impression that the Corinthian Christians were keen on claiming their 'rights'. This was seen in them taking out lawsuits against each other (6:1-6), claiming that all things were lawful for them (6:12), and their tendency to have an arrogant attitude (4:18, 5:2). Through these three chapters, Paul seeks to correct this attitude by saying that they need to exercise their Christian freedom, not just for their own personal benefit, but to have a concern for how their actions affect other believers. The Corinthians were claiming to have ‘knowledge’, but Paul says that it is more important to show love. He gives himself as an example of one who genuinely knows his freedom in Christ, but who is constantly willing to give up his rights for the benefit of the Gospel, and to prevent the weaker brother stumbling in his faith. The Corinthian Christians should follow his example in being willing to give up their rights out of concern for others. They need to learn to exercise their freedom and rights with responsibility. Fundamentally, Paul is trying to change their attitude from selfishness to love, just as he does with the issue of spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14.

Paul’s response

Paul was in a difficult position. There were different groups within the church, who would have had different opinions over the issue of eating food that had been offered to an idol. Jewish believers would mostly have a strong opinion that they should not eat such meat. It had been contaminated through contact with pagan idolatry, no tithe would have been paid on it, and it would not have been killed the correct way, including draining out the blood. They would tend towards legalism, claiming support from the Jerusalem decree, that believers should abstain from eating food offered to idols (Acts 15:29).

On the other hand, believers converted from a pagan Gentile background would tend to claim that they now have the knowledge that idols do not really exist, so would resist any prohibition of eating idol food. They would claim that they are free in Christ to eat any food, and they should not have scruples about food, perhaps supporting their argument from the time when Jesus declared all foods clean (Mk 7:19). They would claim that accepting what they considered to be fussy rules about food would cut them off from Corinthian society, and would make evangelism impossible. They would be ones contesting Paul’s right to forbid them from eating meals in the idol-temples.

The church in Corinth was already severely divided, so Paul had to take great care not to increase these divisions. In his other letters, particularly Galatians, we see that he favoured Christian freedom from the law. However Paul calls the believers to limit their freedom for the sake of love and unity of the church. Paul addresses similar divisions over rules and scruples when he wrote to the church in Rome, where there were divisions between the stronger and weaker believers (Rom 14:1 - 15:13). The strong (mostly Gentiles), those who considered they were free from the law, were despising the weak. The weak (mostly Jews), those who held on to Jewish food laws, were judging others who did not keep the law. In response, Paul calls them to unity for the sake of the Kingdom of God, instructing them to stop passing judgement and not to put a stumbling block in the way of another (Rom 14:13).

Paul responds to this issue in the following order:
1. Whether or not to eat meals in an idol temple (8:1-13). He challenges their attitude which placed a higher importance on knowledge than on love.
2. In a lengthy digression, he widens the discussion to consider the right use of Christian freedom. Paul strongly defends his rights as an apostle, but shows his willingness to give up those rights for the sake of the unity of the church and of the Gospel (9:1-27).
3. He bring strong warnings from the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness, not to think that the sacraments will magically protect them (10:1-22).
4. He declares that eating food from the marketplace is permitted, unless someone draws attention to its origins (10:23 - 11:1)

Eating meals in an idol temple (8:1-13)

Knowledge or love? (8:1-3)

As he does in several passages in the book, Paul quotes one of the Corinthian’s slogans and then corrects it. They are saying, “all of us possess knowledge”. The believers in Corinth are putting more importance on their knowledge than on their love. Before he specifically addresses the issue under question, he begins with challenging their attitudes or basic motivation. They appear to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the Christian life, which should be motivated more by love, than by knowledge. It is more important for us to be known by God and to love God, than it is to have great knowledge. Christian behaviour should built on the foundation of love, not on knowledge. It is love that builds up the church and builds up people’s faith.

The great danger is that knowledge puffs us up and leads us into an attitude of pride. The natural tendency is that the more we know, the more it separates us from others. This is particularly challenging for those of us who have had the opportunity to study the Bible more than other Christians, and have increased our understanding of God’s word. With our increased knowledge comes greater responsibility to show genuine Christian love. It is a dead work to have much knowledge, but not to grow simultaneously in the fruit of the Spirit, especially love. We need to learn to impart our knowledge to others, without seeking to boast, or show off how clever we are, but to have a motivation for others to enjoy the same blessing as ourselves. This is particularly so when someone displays what we think is ignorance, or what we consider an incorrect interpretation of Scripture. At all costs we need to avoid a condescending, patronising or argumentative attitude. People tend to look up to teachers and preachers, which is right, at least to a certain extent. However we need to reduce the tendency to become separated from others with less education, whether that is in Biblical studies, or another area of study. We are all members of the body of Christ. We are all equal before him, and are all called to show love towards each other.

Their knowledge: idols have no real existence (8:4-6)

Paul actually agrees with their statement. The Corinthians were claiming to have the knowledge that idols do not really exist, especially when compared with the Lord Jesus Christ and the One True God. Again Paul quotes two of their slogans (v4), “no idol in the world really exists”, and “there is no God but one”. The second slogan echoes the statement in the law, which would be familiar to all Jews, “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). Some of the believers were claiming that because idols were nothing, it does not matter if they eat a meal in an idol-temple with their friends. It will not cause them any harm. They were boasting in this knowledge with a rather arrogant attitude.

According to Paul, their statement was completely correct, but not their conclusion. There were certainly many Greek gods. Paul was distressed when he saw Athens full of idols (Acts 17:16). There were also many different lords of the various mystery cults. However, these were not real gods. The heathen world worshipped a multitude of different deities, but all these were nothing when compared with God the Father, the creator of the world and everything in it, and with Jesus Christ, through whom the world was created, and through whom they have received their new life. We should note that Paul adds further understanding to the nature of idols later, when he says that there are demons and evil spirits behind the worship of idols (10:20). These demons can use the worship of idols to draw people away from Jesus.

Liberty not to be a stumbling block (8:7-13)

Paul points out that not all in the church have this knowledge. Some believers, who were used to worshipping idols before they became believers, may still think that an idol is real, with real power. It is important to remember that pagan religion is strongly based on fear of evil spirits, or fear of displeasing the god. Many people converting to Christ from a pagan past may well continue to struggle with fear and superstitions. If such a person went to a meal in a temple of an idol it would be easy for them to fall back into their previous way of life. Those with weaker consciences may be harmed. It is important for them to avoid the temptation, and not to put themselves into a dangerous situation.

He quotes another of their slogans, “food will not bring us close to God”, meaning that what we eat will not change our standing before God. Again Paul would agree with this. But once again he challenges their conclusion. Those contesting Paul’s prohibition were only thinking of themselves, thinking that they have the right or authority to eat in the idol-temple, thinking they will be spiritually secure, and immune from temptation, because they have the knowledge. Their knowledge is leading to them claiming rights or authority. They may even have been attempting to prove their strength as believers by eating in the idol-temple. Paul rebukes their selfish attitudes and challenges them to think of others; to show Christian love and care towards others in the church, particularly those they considered as the weaker brother, those who might be in danger of stumbling if they returned to an idol-temple. He warns them from becoming a stumbling block to others with a weaker conscience.

If someone who previously worshipped an idol saw a stronger believer attending a meal in an idol- temple, they might fall back to their previous ways, and not only eat the meal, but also return to worshipping the idol. So one person’s insensitive actions can actually cause another believer to backslide, and their faith in Christ to be destroyed. This is both a sin against the weaker member of the body of Christ, but also a sin against Christ. Paul would rather abstain from eating meat than be the cause of someone stumbling in their faith.

So Paul is re-enforcing his prohibition of eating meals in the idol-temple, but his reason is not that he thinks the idol has real power, but because it is the more loving thing to do. He is seeking to change their attitude from boasting in their knowledge, to behaving in a loving manner, to change their focus of thinking from themselves to others. They need to be willing to limit or forsake their freedom for the sake of others. We will see that Paul was an excellent example of this, he was free in Christ, but always willing to give up his freedoms and submit to laws when necessary.

There are some important principles to learn from this passage. Within the church today people will have different opinions on various issues to do with practical lifestyle, particularly where people have different standards of behaviour. For example, some will say that there is no problem for a Christian to drink moderate quantities of alcohol, while others will say that they should not touch it. Those who say that they are free to drink alcohol should take great care not to be a stumbling block to others, especially those who may have a history of alcoholism. For such a person to have just one alcoholic drink may cause them to fall back into the habits and addictions of their past, and cause them to stumble in their faith. It can be helpful to think of other practical issues in the church today where the principles taught in this passage may apply. These could include standards of dress, eating particular food, what books or magazines people read, or what films people watch. There is a timeless principle of being willing to forsake our own freedom for the sake of others and for the sake of the Gospel.

Paul defends his authority as an apostle (9:1-27)

Before continuing with the issue of eating food offered to idols, he makes a substantial digression to respond to the questioning of his authority as an apostle by certain members of the church. His response to their criticism continues to make the same point that he had been making when writing about eating in idol-temples. The deeper issue is whether people claim their rights, and act selfishly, or whether they are showing love to other believers, being willing to forgo their rights for the sake of the unity of the church. He does not give his final instructions until chapter ten, where he repeats the ban on eating in idol-temples, and then answers their questions about eating meat bought in the market-place which may have previously been offered as a sacrifice to an idol. His response is strong and quite combative, as he fires repeated rhetorical questions at them and defends his actions and his authority against them. He is using the vigorous debating style called a diatribe, which would be familiar to the Greeks.

As noted before, some in the Corinthian church were challenging Paul’s authority to forbid them from eating in idol-temples. By doing this they were contesting his authority as an apostle. When they compared him with Greek teachers they may even have questioned whether he was a true apostle at all (9:1-2). There were two particular issues at stake. One was the fact that he refused to accept financial support while he was with them in Corinth. Greek teachers always charged large fees for their teaching, the better the teacher, the higher the fees. He answers this question first (9:1-18). The second issue was that Paul appeared to have compromised over the issue of eating meat sold in the market-place, which he answers next (9:19-23). He ate meat that had previously been offered to an idol when eating with Gentiles, but abstained when eating with Jews.

Through much of the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is defending himself and his ministry against the criticisms of some in the church (eg. 4:18-21). In chapter nine, his personal defence becomes far stronger, as he tells them that he gave up his right to receive financial support from them, and defended his freedom to act as he did concerning idol-food. After they received this letter, the criticisms became more intense. By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians there was a strong rejection of his authority by some in the church he sarcastically calls ‘super-apostles’ (2 Cor 11:5).

The wider issue addressed in these chapters is how to exercise Christian liberty in a loving way. He uses himself as an example, while at the same time answering their criticisms. Paul begins by defending his apostleship, and stating the many rights he has as a worker for the Lord. He then surprises them by saying that he has given up those rights for the sake of the Gospel, as a more loving thing to do. In contrast to those claiming their rights, Paul gives himself as an example of giving up those rights.

The proof of his apostleship (9:1-2)

Using a series of questions, he proves his authority as an apostle. For each question the answer is, “Yes, of course”. He is an apostle because he has seen Jesus our Lord. Here he is referring to his experience on the road to Damascus, when he met the risen Jesus and was called by him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, 26:17, Gal 1:16). He reminds them again later that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him personally (15:8). Paul was an apostle because he had seen Jesus raised from the dead and had received a commission from him. This is why the church later included his letters, including 1 Corinthians, in the New Testament. The definition of an apostle in the early church was those who were witnesses of the resurrection (eg. Acts 1:21). Paul’s apostleship was also proved by the actual existence of the church in Corinth. It was Paul who had brought the Gospel to Corinth and established the church (Acts 18). Even if he was not an apostle to other churches, he certainly was to Corinth, as he describes them as “the seal of my apostleship”, a living sign to show that his apostleship was genuine and that they belonged to him. It is apostolic work to bring the Gospel to where it had not been heard before, and establish a church there. If the church in Corinth denied Paul’s apostleship, then they should deny their own existence as well.

This would be an appropriate place to consider the question of what the gifting of apostleship is, and whether it is a calling that continues today, or whether it was special to the early church. Some churches today call their main leader an apostle. Other churches are not happy to do this, having a more limited definition of what an apostle is. What is certain is that there was a special group of apostles who were witnesses of the resurrection, and who became the leaders of the early church. When the church was defining the canon of the NT, the books had to have apostolic authority. This meant that they were written by one of the original twelve (not Judas), or by Paul, or by James the brother of Jesus, or by someone very closely associated with them, Mark was worked closely with Peter, and Luke with Paul. Clearly this designation of apostle was unique to the first century, and is not continued, as the canon is considered to be closed. However, Paul does include the gift of apostle in his list of gifts in the church (Eph 4:11). It would be inconsistent to say that the four other gifts (prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher) continue today, but apostle does not. Paul’s calling was to preach the Gospel in new places and to establish churches, so the functional gift of apostleship would continue today in those who plant churches in un-evangelised areas, or perhaps those lead the church into new forms of ministry. The essence of this definition of apostleship is pioneering new things, or trail-blazing into new areas.

The apostle’s right to food and drink, examples from every-day life (9:3-7)

Paul now begins his legal defence against those who are criticising and sitting in judgement against him, again by using a series of rhetorical questions. Through these he affirms that as an apostle he has the right to the provision of food and drink if he is working for the Gospel. It is also right that he would expect the churches to provide enough money for him to bring a wife on his travels, as the other apostles do, including Peter and James.

It is interesting to note here that both Peter and the Lord’s brothers (including James the apostle) were married and their wives accompanied them as they travelled for their ministry. Jesus did heal Peter’s mother-in-law (Mk 1:30). Even though Paul was single, he claimed he had the right to be married and for his wife to travel with him. There was no requirement in the early church for the apostles or church leaders to be celibate. Given the Jewish background to the early church, the expectation and assumption would be that they would be married. The requirement for celibate clergy was only introduced in later centuries.

He also claims the right not to have to work to provide for himself and his ministry. We noted before that while in Corinth, Paul worked with as a tent-maker during the day to earn money to live on (Acts 18:3). His manual work came under particular disapproval by the Corinthian church. He then uses three examples from everyday life. It would be ridiculous to expect a soldier to pay to do military service. It is perfectly normal for someone who plants a vineyard to eat the fruit and for a shepherd to receive milk from the animals he looks after. The implication is that Christian ministers are right to expect the same.

The apostle’s right to food and drink, confirmed from the law (9:8-12)

He then shows that this same principle is also found in the OT law by quoting Deut 25:4, where they should allow the ox to eat from the grain it is treading. Paul says this law not only applies to animals, but also to himself as a worker for the Gospel. If he sowed spiritual good among them by preaching the Gospel and teaching the church, it is right for him to expect to benefit financially from them. People (and animals) who work hard deserve to be rewarded. Other teachers make this claim, so he should have even more right to, as he was their apostle who first brought the Gospel to them. It is right that after receiving spiritual blessings from Paul they should respond in gratitude, and express that thanksgiving in blessing him in material ways.

Examples of religious workers receiving material benefits (9:13-14)

Paul has not made use of this right to avoid any obstacle to them receiving the Gospel. He did not want to behave in the same way as a travelling Greek teacher. Using a further two examples from pagan religion, or possibly from Judaism, he points out that it is common knowledge that those who work in temples, and those who are priests, to receive food from the sacrifices. This was certainly true for the priests and Levites in the OT, who received a portion of the sacrifices for themselves and their families (Lev 7:6, 34 and elsewhere), as well as a special tithe (Num 18:21-32). Quoting an unspecified command of Jesus, he applies the same principle to Christian workers. He probably had in mind the time when Jesus sent out the seventy, and said that the labourer deserves to be paid (Lk 10:7).

The Gospel free of charge (9:15-18)

In spite of all these principles drawn from everyday life, from the law, and even from a command of the Lord Jesus, that he had the right to receive financial support from them, Paul chose to gave up that right, and argues strongly for his right to give it up. He wanted to make the gospel free of charge, in contrast to the Greek teachers. He has been called by Jesus to preach the gospel and has an obligation to Jesus to preach, and his reward to be obedient to his Master. We see that Paul gave up his right because of his passion for the Gospel. The Gospel is a free gift of grace, and Paul urgently wants to give it to them without expecting any payment.

Paul is a slave to all (9:19-23)

Paul begins to return to the original issue of eating idol-meat. Paul refuses to be a slave to any rule, but he is a slave to all. He is completely free, which means that he is content to submit to rules when it suits the purposes of the Gospel, or the unity of the church. Normally today, if we think we are free from a particular rule, then we never do it, thinking that shows our freedom. However, what has actually happened is that we have now come under a new rule, never to do that particular thing. One time that Paul followed this principle was following the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). He had argued passionately that Gentile converts did not need to become Jews and be circumcised, but soon after when travelling through Galatia, he met Timothy and had him circumcised (Acts 16:3). This appears to contradict what he had just been fighting for, but he did it for the sake of the gospel, because Timothy was half-Jewish. Paul was free from the law so circumcision was not an issue for him. It did not change a person’s standing before God, so if it helped the spread of the gospel, go ahead and be circumcised.

So when sharing fellowship with Jews, Paul became like a Jew, and ate kosher food, so that he could win Jews to Christ. When with Gentiles, he behaved like a Gentile, and was happy to eat food that had been previously offered to an idol. When with new believers who are weak in their faith, Paul will follow their scruples, and abstain from idol-meat to prevent them from stumbling. His basic principle is to become all things to all people, with the aim that he may save some of them through the gospel. He would always adapt his behaviour to that of his hearers, so he can win them to Christ. When seeking to apply this principle to ministry today, a careful balance is needed. Paul never compromised on the heart of the message of the Gospel, but was willing to adapt aspects of his behaviour to fit the lifestyle of those he was seeking to reach with the Gospel, but without any moral compromise. It is important to avoid the possibility of people equating outward behaviour or religious traditions with the Gospel itself.

Paul’s self-discipline to win the prize (9:24-27)

Using illustrations from the Isthmian Games, Paul ends this defence of his apostleship with a call to self-discipline. Only one runner in the games wins first prize, so also believers should give of their best to achieve the goal. The example of athletes, who deny themselves and enter strict training to win a temporary prize, is a call to Christians to deny themselves anything that will hinder their spiritual progress, and their eternal prize. In the present context this would serve as a challenge and rebuke to those insisting on their rights to eat meals in idol-temple. Paul will not allow temporary bodily desires and pleasures disqualify him from service to his Master and the rewards of heaven.

Warnings from the wilderness (10:1-13)

After the digression, Paul returns to the issue of eating meals in idol-temples. It appears that the Corinthian believers had some sort of magical or superstitious trust in the power of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper to protect them from evil, perhaps even thinking that participation in them will guarantee their eternal salvation. They probably argued that if they had been baptised, and had eaten the bread and drunk the wine, then they could not be harmed spiritually by eating in an idol-temple.

Paul reminds them of the Israelites in the wilderness. Even though they had received many blessings from God, all but two of the adults (Joshua and Caleb) who came out of Egypt failed to enter the Promised Land. Instead, they died and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. They had been baptised in to Moses in the cloud and sea, a reference to crossing the Red Sea, and had eaten spiritual food (the manna), and the spiritual drink (the water from the rock). However, this had not prevented them from falling into idolatry and sexual immorality, the same temptations facing the Corinthians. God did not tolerate Israel’s idolatry, and will not tolerate similar idolatry from the Corinthian church. His judgement came upon the Israelites, so the Corinthians must take care the same doesn’t happen to them. Eating a meal in the temple of an idol is idolatry and presumptuousness in the sight of God.

This is the text of 1 Cor 10:1-11 (NRSV), showing the references to the events in Exodus and Numbers that Paul refers to, as warnings against presumption by the believers in Corinth.
'I do not you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud (Num 9:15-23), and all passed through the sea, and were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (Ex 14:19-31, Num 33:8), and all ate the same spiritual food, (Ex 16, Num 11:4) and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (Ex 17:1-7, Num 20:2-13). Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness (Num 14:28-35, 26:63-65). Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play" (Ex 32:4-6). We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day (Num 25). We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents (Num 21:4-9). And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer (Num 11:1, 14:1, 16:42). These things happened to them to serve as an example and they were written down to instruct us ...'

Paul calls them to learn the lesson from history, and not to be presumptuous or overly self-confident. He says that these events of the history of Israel in the wilderness serve as examples and warnings to the Corinthians, and to us. They should not presume that they are immune from falling, but heed the warnings. However, the testing the Corinthians are experiencing is common experience of all people, so they can trust God to lead them out of it, and give them the strength to say ‘no’.

The incompatibility of a believer attending an idol-temple (10:14-22)

He now answers their original question, they should flee the worship of idols, because by eating meals in an idol-temple they are having fellowship with demons and effectively worshipping them. They should not play with temptation and risk being disqualified. Just as they had to flee fornication (6:18), now they should avoid the temptation of returning to their idolatry. The attitude of the Corinthians was, 'What can I get away with?', or 'How far can I go?'. This can be applied today in many ways, including physical relationships. It is easy to presume on God’s grace, and expect him to forgive us. Paul’s answer turns it around, calling on them to flee from temptation, into the arms of Christ, thus challenging them to consider why they are more attracted to sin than they are to Christ.

The first principle is that to eat together is to have fellowship, and his second principle is that idol-worship is an open-door to the demonic. So to eat the Lord’s supper is have fellowship with Christ and to participate in the body and blood of Christ, whatever one’s theological understanding of the Lord’s Supper is. Those in the OT who ate the sacrifices were having fellowship with God. So to eat in an idol-temple is to have fellowship with demons. We should remember the popular pagan understanding that when meat was sacrificed to a god, then the god itself entered into the food, and was taken into the body, protecting the person from evil spirits. So in a sacrificial meal a deep spiritual bond was made between the worshipper and their god. To partake of the table of the Lord as well as the table of demons will provoke the Lord to jealousy, so they will come under his judgement.

Earlier Paul had agreed that idols were nothing (8:4), now he says that to worship idols is actually to allow oneself to be come under the influence of demons. Powerful evil spiritual forces are present, who are working to draw people away from Christ. For the Corinthians to eat in the idol-temple would lead them under demonic influence, and it would be presumptuous for them to do that while expecting God to keep them spiritually secure. This is why he affirms his previous position that it is completely out of the question for a Christian to attend a meal in an idol-temple, effectively to have fellowship with demons.

Eating meat bought in the market-place (10:23 - 11:1)

Paul now turns to the separate but related issue of eating meat bought in the market-place which may have come from an animal that had previously been offered as a sacrifice in a pagan temple. This would probably include the majority of meat for sale in the market, with the exception of Jewish kosher meat. Paul’s instructions are more lenient here, in comparison with the complete ban on attending meals in idol-temples. He begins by quoting the same slogans as before (6:12), when addressing the issue of attending social banquets, which may of course take place in an idol-temple. They are claiming that all things are lawful, but Paul modifies their statement, to say that not all things are beneficial. He calls them not to seek their own advantage, but to think of others. They need to be willing to forsake their rights for the advantage of others in the church. The Corinthians tended to emphasise knowledge and rights, which tend towards pride and selfishness, while for Paul the important things were love and freedom, which lead to the edification of others.

He gives permission for them to eat food bought in the market-place without being anxious about its history. This is because all things, including meat, belong to God as they are part of his creation. In this situation, the believer is not entering an idol-temple, but buying meat to eat in his own private house. Here there would be no connection with the worship of idols, but instead the believer would thank God for the food. From Paul’s point of view, it was irrelevant whether the meat had previously been offered as a sacrifice to an idol. Meat ultimately comes from God, and it doesn’t matter what else happens to it. This more liberal decision would cause difficulties for Jewish believers, who would never have eaten such meat. He quotes from Psalm 24:1, “The earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.”, which was traditionally used by the Jews to bless a meal.

He now addresses the situation when a believer is invited to eat with an unbeliever. They may go the house of an unbeliever and eat anything that is placed before them, without worrying about the origin of the food. However if someone drew their attention to the fact that the meat had been offered to an idol, then they should abstain from eating, for the sake of the person who informed them, so they will not be misled. Paul modifies this concession to those with scruples, when he questions why his liberty in Christ should be limited by the weak consciences of other believers. There is no justification for them to become judgmental or critical. If they have given thanks to God for the food, they should be free to eat it.

Conclusion

Paul concludes the whole issue, saying that what you eat or drink is not as important as seeking to glorify God. All we do and say should be done with the desire to please God and to honour him, so our life is a good testimony to his goodness and holiness. Paul seeks not to give offense either to Greeks or Jews, not wanting to hinder the faith of anyone. He gives himself as a model for them to emulate, as he models his life after Christ. With many issues, there is the same basic issue, the need to turn our attention away from concern for ourselves towards concern for others in the church.

Bibliography

Morris, L. I Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP, Leicester 1985.
Winter, B.W. After Paul Left Corinth. The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids / Cambridge 2001.