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Commentary: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Part 1

In 1 Corinthians 810 Paul deals with an issue that troubled some Christians in Corinth: whether followers of Jesus ought to eat meat that their pagan neighbors had sacrificed to idols. The issue bothered believers not only in Corinth but also in Rome (Rom 14:2), Pergamurn (Rev 2:1415), and Thyatira (Rev 2:20) at least.
Does eating dedicated meat bring spiritual harm to a follower of Jesus? Does eating in an idol temple imply belief in the idol? Paul answers these two questions no and yes, respectively. In chapter 8 he deals with the second question, concluding that "strong" Christians—those who realize an idol has no power to harm—ought to stay out of the temples in deference to their weaker brothers' and sisters' conscience.
In chapter 9 Paul seems to digress into a discussion of his rights and duties as an apostle, but the apparent digression serves a purpose in his argument. As Paul himself gives up certain rights and considers himself duty bound to deal gently with over-scrupulous believers, so the strong believers in Corinth should give up a piece of their freedom—the right to take part in temple feasts—to keep from harming their weaker fellow Christians
In chapter 10 Paul continues with the question of participation in idolatrous meals. Only in the latter part of the chapter does he return to the affirmation that idols have no objective power over Christians (10:2330, cf. 8:46) and finally admit that idol meat itself poses no problem, as long as the believer eats it discreetly and does not display any behavior that might set a bad example.
In these three chapters Paul lays down two important principles: (1) Philosophically, idol meat raises no problems for Christians, because an idol represents no power that compares with the power of God, but (2) practically, strong believers must treat the situation carefully, even giving up some of their rights in the presence of their fellow Christians who do not yet understand this.
The "strong" at Corinth appear to affirm the first principle and ignore the second, while Paul insists that believers stay out of the temples and allows the eating of market meat only as an afterthought.
In chapter 8 the NRSV helpfully marks several clauses as quotations that represent the beliefs of the "strong" at Corinth: "All of us possess knowledge" (v. 1), "No idol in the world really exists" (v. 4), "There is no God but one" (v. 4), and "Food will not bring us close to God" (v. 8). (The RSV marks the first three as quotations but takes the statement in v. 8 as Paul's.)
Paul disagrees with none of this in principle. His argument embodies a series of "yes, buts." Yes, all believers have knowledge (gnosis), but knowledge can do harm if wrongly used. Yes, the gods represented by idols do not really exist, but not all believers can operate at this lofty plane of understanding. Yes, food will not help or hurt us spiritually, but it can do harm indirectly by damaging the conscience.
As strict monotheists, western Christians in our time tend to believe that only the supernatural beings mentioned in the Bible really exist, while other people's gods and devils arise from their imaginations. Many nonwestern Christians, however, admit the existence and power of other deities but deny them worship out of loyalty to the greater and righteous power of God.
Paul splits the difference between these two views while leaning toward the nonwestern view. When he says, "There may be socalled gods in heaven or on earth" (v. 5), he seems to allow for the possible objective existence of other gods. By saying, "in fact there are many gods and many lords" (v. 5), he admits that subjectively speaking, i.e. in the minds and hearts of their worshipers, many gods do exist "Yet," he insists, "for us2 there is one God" (v. 6). Later Paul fits the pagan gods into a Christian cosmology by identifying them with demons (10:20).
Paul's concern for the "weaker" believer's conscience seems to arise from a scenario like this: The "strong" believer, knowing that an idol and the meat offered to it hold no power over a Christian, joins some pagan neighbors in a temple meal. The strong person takes no spiritual harm, but the "weak" believer uses that behavior as an example. Eating in an idol temple while believing in the existence and power of the god, the weak believer experiences a "defiled" and "wounded" conscience (vv. 7, 12), "falls" (v. 13), and becomes "destroyed" (v. 11).
In such a situation, Paul insists, the strong believer must give up some rights, otherwise the knowledge that gives the strong believer such pride might actually become the ruin of the weaker believer.
The idol meat question may seem dead today in the west, but it still lives among some African Christians, and perhaps in other parts of the world where some still practice blood sacrifice. Moreover, the principle of accommodating the weak has broad application any time and anywhere, as Paul hints elsewhere (Rom 14:56, 2 1).
This lesson connects with the gospel passage in that both affirm the power of God over demons. Whether the demons appear as pagan gods or as troublers of a human mind like that of the "man with an unclean spirit" (Mark 1.23), they cannot stand before God's power demonstrated in God's son.
Carl B. Bridges
NOTES
1.Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp., 357-363, distinguishes the issues clearly. 2. Italics added.