Summary: Make sure whatever you do leads to either you or others being built up because knowledge puffs up but love builds up.
I’d like you all to come to a Barbecue. You won’t all fit at our place, so I’ve booked the Apollonia Temple Plaza. The evening will begin with the usual festivities. First there’ll be the slaughtering of the bull as an offering to the gods. If you’d like, you can join the procession beneath the slaughtering platform to allow the bull’s blood to drip on you, so the strength of the bull, and of course the god he represents, will pass into you. There’s no need to do that of course, because the strength of the bull will be there when you eat anyway. It’ll be a great evening of fellowship and sharing our lives together. So if you’d like to join me, it’ll be next Friday at 6pm.
Well, can you see how such an invitation would leave you with a dilemma if you were a Christian in first century Corinth? A 2-fold dilemma in fact. First was the fact that the steak being served up would first have been offered to a pagan god. In fact that was a problem whenever you wanted to eat meat. The practice of public sacrifices required that the animal being sacrificed was divided up. Part was burnt as an offering to the god. Part was taken by the priests for their meals. The rest was given to the magistrates and other public officials as part of their livelihood. What they didn’t need they sold to the shops and markets for general sale.
So for the Christian there was this dilemma that in order to eat meat they’d be taking into their bodies something that had been made unclean by this act of pagan worship.
But the other side of the dilemma was that if you refused to eat meat then you cut yourself off from the majority of social occasions you might otherwise be part of. That’s not good from a personal point of view of course but more importantly it would mean that you cut yourself off from any opportunity to make connections where the gospel can be shared with those who need to hear it.
This has been a problem for countless Christians since the days of the Puritans and the Methodists, who shunned pubs because of the evils of drunkenness associated with them. As a result the people who congregated in the pubs were cut off from the opportunity of meeting Christians who might tell them about Jesus. They lost the opportunity of seeing that Christians were just ordinary people like them, people who could enjoy life without the excesses associated so often with alcohol. In fact just the opposite impression was given. Christians were seen as strange people who never went near the pub; wowsers who didn’t know how to have a good time; judgmental people who looked down on ordinary people as though they were sinners for enjoying themselves.
The Corinthians have asked "Is it OK to eat food that’s been sacrificed to idols, or should we avoid it? Should we become vegetarians perhaps? Should we remove ourselves from the social contexts of the city?"
So as is his usual practice, Paul begins with a theological answer. The question hangs on food that’s been offered to idols. So the first issue is the idols. Have they made the food unclean? Let’s think about it.
First of all, idols have no real existence, v4. There is only one true God. So idols can’t really affect the food we eat.
But even before that, we need to remember that we’re known by God. God has taken up residence within us. Some people thought that there were evil spirits that attached themselves to food, and entered your body when you ate the food they were connected to. But we know that God has already entered our bodies and is present within us. So we have nothing to fear from evil spirits, even if we eat food that’s been offered to one of them. God is greater than any evil spirit.
So the conclusion is that since there’s only one God, and idols have no real existence, offering food to idols won’t change the food. So we’re free to eat it. The Corinthians motto was right: "Our knowledge has set us free". We can eat what we like.
But then we come to the "But." He says: "It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge." It’s all very well for the strong believers to be happy to eat anything but what about those whose consciences are weak? What about those who have come out of a strongly pagan world where they were steeped in the whole culture of idol worship; who can’t easily remove the connections they have in their minds between the evil of their pagan past and the food associated with it. These people still think of this food as being tainted, so their consciences are defiled by eating it.