What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4–8?

Some people in the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). This is the specific topic of chapter 8 and Paul will mention it again in 10:19. This word appears in Acts 15:29 in the list of things the Jewish Christians ask the Gentiles to avoid, and again in Rev 2:14, 20 as a description of behavior unacceptable for Christians. In all three cases, eating meat sacrificed to idols is mentioned along with sexual immorality

Image result for meat sacrificed to idolsThe church is not asking Paul a question about the food, but they are making a statement about the food-it is permissible to eat for sacrificed to idols since there are no other gods but God. They seem to think that any limit on their food (either what they eat or where they eat it) is foolish and a restriction of their rights (with as citizens of Corinth or as Christians). Perhaps Paul himself caused the problem with food based on his command not to associate with the immoral person. Like the misunderstanding over marriage (divorce the pagan spouse), Paul’s command may have been misunderstood to mean “do not eat with sinners.”

The word refers to meat sacrificed to a god. The leftover portion could be used in a shared meal in the god’s temple, or sold in the market. In the Jewish Temple, some meat from sacrifices was used as part of a family meal (the Passover Lamb, most significantly). There are three places where the Corinthians might have encountered meat sacrificed to idols (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 368-8).

  • The believers may be eating this food in a temple during some kind of celebration. Most temples had banquet rooms used for religious and civic celebrations, but also for privately hosted meals. These meals would have naturally included meat from sacrifices.
  • The believers may have been offered meat sacrificed to idols if they were invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal. In this case, there is no idolatry implied in the meal, but they would be offered the food since it was widely available in the markets every day.
  • The believers may have purchased the food for themselves in the market and served it in their own homes.

There were a variety of reasons someone might be invited to a meal that are not particularly sinful. For example, what should happen if a member of the congregation were invited to a wedding celebration for a family member who was not saved? It is quite likely someone would be invited to a funeral meal for a parent held at a temple. Imagine a person who was now a Christian who is invited to attend a funeral meal for a parent at the temple of some god. Socially it would be very difficult not to attend this kind of celebration, not simply awkward, but rude and shameful.

But most likely, people would be invited to these meals because they were socially significant events in the politics of the city of Corinth. By passing on an invitation from some well-place member of Roman society, a Christian was risking shame and perhaps a loss of status in the politics of Corinth. It may be the case someone would have to attend or lose their position in the government. It is likely participation in sacrifices and sacred meal was required to hold public office.  This is far more than a chance at a decent meal!

If this is the case, there was a social distinction between those in Corinth who ate the food and those who did not. People in higher social circles would be invited to a civic banquet at a Temple, only a person with some wealth would be purchase meat in the market to serve in their homes. The material in Gooch indicates some people may have gone to several cultic sites for food and entertainment, although the food itself may not be sacrificed.

As with the divisions in the church and some of the problems with immorality, the church at Corinth was divided along social lines, mirroring pagan Corinth.

This is one of those issues which seems obscure in a contemporary context. However, outside of Western Christianity, this eating food associated with idols may be a very serious issue. I would love to see a few comments from majority world Christians who have experienced this issue first hand. If there is a kind of “guilt by association” here, what principles can be drawn from this issue in 1 Corinthians which do have some resonance with modern Western Christianity? How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America

The Gospel is “God’s Foolishness” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

By using the death of Jesus on the Cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (v. 20). Where is the wise, scribe, the debater of this age? These three questions call on the highest educated (and potentially most arrogant) people in the Greek or Jewish world. There is a tone of derision: God has made your most educated look foolish when he saved people through the folly of the Cross.

God did not choose to save those who are perishing in a way that might be expected, by using a method the intelligent of the world would have given their approval. Rather, he chose to use the foolishness of the Cross. In other words, “God’s actions make the worldly-wise look like blundering fools” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 63).

Execution by crucifixion was the most shameful death possible. If the Romans executed someone by crucifixion, they were guilty of the very worst of crimes and suffered such dishonor that it might even be shameful to admit you knew the person, let alone think they were your savior.

Paul begins this paragraph with the observation “Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jewish “demand for a sign” refers to some sign from heaven which confirms a person is approved by God. If someone claimed to be the messiah, then Pharisees might demand they do some sort of sign, as they did Jesus. If Jesus could give them a sign to convince them he was the messiah, then perhaps they would believe. The point of the apostolic signs such as Peter healing a lame man in Acts 3 was to show the messianic age has begun.

A Greek would be far more likely to believe a well-constructed, logic argument in favor of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul teaches in Ephesus, for example, he argues persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah; Apollos also persuades people from the Scripture through logical arguments (Acts 18).

The Messiah crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and a god who is executed as a criminal is foolishness to the Greek. Many Jews expected some sort of Messiah, but no one really expected a Messiah who would be executed by the Romans. The Gentiles were to fall under the judgment of the Messiah! He was to rule over a reunited Israel like an idealized David, no one expected him to die in the most shameful way possible. Peter response to Peter in Mark 8 is an indication that even Jesus’ followers misunderstood what the messiah would do in Jerusalem.

A “stumbling-block” is something that causes you to stumble (obviously), but Paul is using it as a metaphor. The cross is the thing that causes the Jewish person to not accept Jesus as the messiah and savior. They might like Jesus’ teaching, his way of handling the Law, his views about the kingdom of God, his rejection of oral tradition, etc. But most Jews would have a hard time accepting a messiah who was unjustly executed by the High Priest!

To the Greek or Roman thinker, it is not impossible for a god to appear to be flesh and live among humans for a time. Perhaps the more intellectual Greeks disbelieved the stories of Zeus or Hermes appearing as men, but it was at least possible. But it was impossible for a god to be harmed by humans, let alone be executed as the worst of criminals!

God chose to use the most foolish thing imaginable in the first century, the Cross, to save those who are perishing. God has always used the unexpected person to achieve his goals so that it is clear he has done it not human wisdom or skills (David as the youngest son, defeats Goliath, etc.)  What God did through Jesus is to turn the world “upside down,” an idea Paul will return to throughout this letter.

The world sees the world one way, the Christian sees it much differently.

The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul shows the heart of his message was that God sent his son into the word to die on the Cross in order to provide atonement for sin. To a Jew, Greek or Roman living in the first century, almost every word of this familiar summary of the Gospel would be radical, strange, or even foolish. A god cannot die, and he certainly would not die by crucifixion. What God did through Jesus runs counter to both Jewish and Gentile expectations about how gods are supposed to behave, or what the God of the Hebrew Bible does. The Gospel has some awkward facts, the object of our worship was executed as a criminal of the worst kind! In fact, he intentionally allowed himself to be destroyed in the most shameful way possible.

Paul does not shy away from these inconvenient facts of the Gospel in order to gain more converts because God has chosen foolish things in order to make foolish the wisdom of this world. The Gospel is not the sort of thing a religious person would have invented in the first century.

The Cross divides all of humanity into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who “are being saved.” Perishing (ἀπόλλυμι) is a strong word chosen to highlight the present judgment of those who have rejected the Cross.  The word used in the Septuagint for a sacrifice that is completely consumed in fire (Lev 7:10, for example). It is used for God’s judgment of the unrighteous (Sodom, Gen 18:24, several times). Psalm 2:12 used the verb for God’s destruction of the nations that have challenged the Lord’s anointed. The verb is in the present tense, indicating these people are under God’s judgment now because of their rejection of the cross.

Paul describes himself and his readers as “those who are being saved,” emphasizing the presentness of salvation. The verb is again in the present tense, all people are either (at this moment) either in need of salvation because they reject the Cross or being saved by the power of the Cross.

This division in humanity is based on the reaction to the Cross. The Cross is foolish to the ones who are perishing. Two related nouns (μωρία, 1:18 and μωρός, 1:27) refer to some idea that is senseless to believe, perhaps with the sense of ridiculous (the earth is hollow and lizard people are controlling our thoughts; a child telling a story about fairy tale creatures to a genius scientist, etc.) To believe in something foolish is a waste of time, since it cannot possibly be true.

Why is the Cross foolishness? In the Greco-Roman world, self-sacrifice was not considered a virtue. The idea a person might willingly shame themselves by voluntarily sacrificing themselves on a Cross is unthinkable and so radically offensive no rational person could believe it.

To those who are being saved, the Cross is the power of God. A death on the Cross was such an offensive and shameful death that it would have been shocking for Paul call it the “power of God for salvation.”  D. A. Carson suggested the analogy of someone today claiming the Holocaust was “the power of God” (The Cross and the Christian Message, 12). No one in the world today would say the Holocaust is “the power of God.” Such a statement would be a jarring and offensive statement. Anyone making that sort of claim would not just be laughed at, but vilified and persecuted for such a claim.

Yet this is what Paul claims, because God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise. He quotes Isaiah 29:14, a saying embedded in a context of the judgment on Judah for worship with their lips but not their heart (29:13); since their hearts are not right they are about to face God’s judgment. The Corinthians may have heard this as a pronouncement on the wise of this age (which is true), but since the object of God’s wrath in Isaiah Judah, it is possible Paul’s point here is that the church is also going to be silence because of their foolishness!

How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? Some American evangelical Christians like to use apologetics to present faith in Jesus as rational and reasonable to a rational mind. Others try to use secular culture to present the Gospel in a way which appeals to the modern, or post-modern mind (those “Mars Hill” ministries, for example). Would Paul have created a rational argument for the prove the need of the violent death of Jesus on the Cross? Would he have hosted a poetry slam in one of his churches for people to express their repressed feelings about religion? How can we “embrace the foolishness” and still reach our culture?

Main Themes of 1 Corinthians

Paul established the church at Corinth in Acts 18. When Paul arrives in Corinth he meets Aquilla and Priscilla, Jews who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. Paul’s initial ministry is in the agora, working at a tentmaker.  Paul describes his initial efforts in the city as “in weakness and great fear” (1 Cor 2:3), since he was persecuted in Philippi, Thessalonica and nearly so in Berea. As usual, Paul attends synagogue meetings in the city and argues Jesus is the Messiah.  This ministry is more successful when Silas and Timothy finally arrive, allowing him to devote himself to preaching. Although he faced some opposition from the synagogue, the Lord comforted Paul in a dream, telling him there were many in the city who will respond to the Gospel (Acts 18:9-11). After Paul spends 18 months in the city, he visits Ephesus before returning to Jerusalem for a short time. When he returned to Ephesus he heard of the problems in the church at Corinth and wrote a series of letters to the church.

First Corinthians is made up of a series of issues arising from a report delivered to Paul from the household of Chloe as well as responses to a letter from the church asking about several questions about faith and practice. The report seems to have been confirmed by others since Paul takes the problems seriously, dealing with them in chapters 1-6.  Paul’s responses to the questions are covered in chapters 7-16 (“now about the matters you wrote about,” 7:1).

In chapters 1-6 Paul deals with the reported problems in the church. He deals with division over leadership (ch. 1-4), boasting over a sexually immoral man in the church (5:1-12), lawsuits among believers (6:1-11), and sexual immorality (6:12-20).  These difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices. In 1 Corinthians 3:3 Paul says the church is “still worldly,” essentially they are still thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God.

In chapters 7-16 Paul deals with questions from the church on marriage (ch. 7), food sacrificed to idols and Christian freedom (8:1-11:16), the Lord’s Supper 11:17-34), spiritual gifts (ch. 12-14), the resurrection (ch. 15) and the collection (16:1-4). Like the troubles reported to Paul, many of these issue are related to living out their new Christian faith in a Roman world. Although the matter of food sacrificed to idols seems obscure to the modern reader, Paul devotes as much as three chapters to the issue because participation in banquets at temples was such a common practice in Roman Corinth. Potentially the church is turning the Lord’s Supper into a Roman-style banquet, something which extremely dangerous from Paul’s perspective (11:17, 27-32).

Bruce Winter suggested that after Paul left Corinth the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their culture and social relationships (After Paul Left Corinth, Eerdmans, 2001). Corinthian culture was a thoroughly Roman worldview and there was enormous pressure to conform to the cultural expectations of a first century Roman city.

For example, the city hosted yearly festivals in honor of the imperial cult. Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously. Even if one was not a Roman citizen, loyalty to the Empire was important

In addition, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth. There is evidence when the games were celebrated the president of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens. In 1 Corinthians 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat. Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right or freedom to attend.  Can a Christian really participate in a meal dedicated to a god and the Empire as a follower of Christ?

First Corinthians is therefore about how to live as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit in a world which is overwhelming non-Christian. It is not the case the Corinthian church is facing persecution, but they do struggle to let Christ transform the way they think about their culture. For this reason, the letter of 1 Corinthians is one of the most applicable letters in the New Testament.

Doing Good to All – Galatians 6:9-10

If the one who is walking in the Spirit is supporting the local Christian community, how was that community supposed to use the support?

“Doing good” might refer to doing things that were considered a civic virtue in the community.  In a Jewish context “doing good” might refer to giving to the poor, protecting the widow and orphan, even burying the dead. Since the theme of giving money is prominent in this chapter, it is possible Paul’s command here was applied to a community fund which was collected and distributed to those in need.  How did the early church distribute funds?

Paul warns his readers not to become weary in doing these acts of goodness. The phrase appears in 2 Thessalonians 3:13.  The word Paul uses here (ἐγκακέω) sometimes refers to discouragement, or losing heart, perhaps even afraid.  The final phrase uses another verb (ἐκλύω) which refers to being exhausted or worn out. It appears in several military contexts to indicate losing one’s nerve. Why would someone become discouraged or afraid of doing good deeds?Image result for rich ignoring poor

One option is that there is no response from those that are helped.  To extend the sowing and reaping metaphor, if a farmer sowed seed in a field and nothing ever grew, he might give up sowing that particular field. If you volunteer at a homeless shelter, you can do many good things for people. But there might be little or no response from the people you are trying to help. That can be very discouraging!

A second option is that someone in Paul’s churches was afraid to do good works such as helping the poor in a community where helping the poor was not considered a virtue.  Early Christians often helped people who were very sick, even when their lives were a risk.  It is possible that this is a real fear people felt when doing acts of mercy.

A third option is that people who are busy doing good do in fact get tired of the work. Paul may very well have in mind physical exhaustion from serving people in the community! This is a danger in any kind of service, but it if someone is serving in a ministry where they are working hard and never see any results, they naturally become discouraged.

The fact that Paul includes a condition in verse 9 (if we do not give up) is an indication that the harvest or reward does not happen automatically (Witherington, Galatians, 433). It is hard work to be a member of God’s family, but it is ultimately rewarding.

Doing good begins with the “household of faith” and moves outward to everyone else.  This may be people in need within the household of God because they have a burden they cannot bear.  It also includes those who have been called by God to teach the Scripture in the local church.

Bearing One Another’s Burdens – Galatians 6:2-5

In the context of verse 1, this “bearing a burden” may refer to a burden carried by the brother caught in sin. But the language could also refer to financial burdens. This is possible since the next paragraph deals with helping others financially. There is a great deal in this paragraph that indicates Paul has money in mind here, although it is not good to limit the “burdens” to only financial distress.

Image result for bear another's burdenThe warning in verse 3 is significant since it implies that the person who is not willing to help other believers carry their burden deceive themselves by thinking that they are “something.” Perhaps someone might think that they are too important to help the poorer members of the congregation. They may think that they are “above” that sort of thing. Paul’s preference in v. 5 is that everyone takes care of their own “load” (φορτίον, a word that can refer to cargo, Acts 27:10). This is similar to Paul’s teaching that people ought to work hard to provide for their needs (1 Thess 4:11-12, 2 Thess 3:12; Eph 4:28)

By bearing one another’s burdens, the believer “fulfills the Law of Christ” (v. 4). What is the Law of Christ?

One possibility is that the “Law of Christ” is at least a portion of the Mosaic Law, perhaps the moral aspects of the Law. It is hard to believe, however, that Paul would say that the Gentile believers in Galatia could do part of the Law by helping those who struggle with sin.

A second possibility is that this refers to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. This is attractive since Paul taught the churches in Galatia about the Life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is hard to point to a verse in the Gospels (which were written after Galatians), such as the greatest commandment (Matt 22:34-40) as “the Law of Christ.”

A third way to read this verse is that the “Law of Christ” stands in contrast to the Law of Moses. Romans 3:21-26 makes this point by contrasting the law of works (the Mosaic Law) with the righteousness obtained through the death of Jesus. In this view, the Law of Christ is equivalent to the New Covenant (1 Cor 11:23-26), the law of the Spirit (Rom 8:2), and walking by the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).

Yet another way to look at the Law of Christ is to read it in the light of “bearing burdens.” Christ bore our since in his body, if we are to be like Christ then we should be ready to bear the burdens of others who are in Christ.

To “fulfill” (ἀναπληρόω) this Law is to carry out a responsibility or obligation. The word occasionally means “to complete a work” (Josephus, Ant. 8.58; TDNT 6:305). Members of the Galatian churches wanted to fulfill the Law of Moses, yet they could never actually keep the whole law, let alone “complete it.” Paul now tells them that they can fully complete the Law of Christ by bearing the burdens of their brothers and sisters.

As a general rule, Paul thinks that people ought to support themselves, but he also knows that there will always be people who cannot do so. Circumstances are such that they are unable to meet their obligations. In those cases a “mature spiritual community” will be “able to distinguish those loads which individuals must bear for themselves and those burdens where help is needed” (Dunn, Galatians, 326).

Restoring Others Gently – Galatians 6:1

Paul described what those who “walk by the Spirit” look like in Gal 5:22-26. In the first part of chapter 6 Paul gives another example of walking in the Spirit from Galatians 5. There is a contrast between bearing the burden of the Law (Acts 15:10, 28) and bearing one another’s burdens. These burdens may be spiritual, but there are real physical burdens in mind here as well. The household of God is called to do good to all people, beginning with those in the household who cannot carry their own burdens.

Those who live by the Spirit will restore one another when they are “caught in sin.” What does this mean? To be “caught in sin” sounds like the person is caught red-handed, in the act of a sin. Sometimes people think that if they are not caught, it does not count against them (like speed limits, for example).  But the word Paul uses (προλαμβάνω) translated “overtake” in the aorist passive, as in hunting down an animal (T.Judah 2:5, for example).

Image result for hester prynneIf a person is caught, they are to be restored (καταρτίζω), returned to their former condition. The verb is used for folding and mending nets in Matt 4:21, or to complete what is lacking in 1 Thessalonians 3:10. The restoration is to be done gently (πραΰτης), the same word Paul used as part of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:23. This means that the church is not arrogant or inconsiderate when dealing with a public sin, they seek to restore the person to fellowship without humiliating the person who was caught by a sin. The goal of any correction in this verse is a restoration of the brother who has sinned. Paul is not creating some sort of inquisition here.

But Paul also warns the reader not to think too much of themselves. His main concern is conceit and self-deception. Like Gal 5:26, Paul is concerned that the one who “walks by the Spirit” will be tempted, thinking that they are spiritual when they are not. By helping another believer deal with their own burden of sin, someone might become conceited, thinking that they are better than the one caught in sin. There is a balance between confronting a brother or sister in Christ who has a problem and meddling in things that are not your business.

Self-examination is therefore critical for a community of believers. While Paul has encouraged restoring a brother caught in sin, he is not inviting the congregation to investigate the private lives of members of the church looking for potential sins. This verse does not call for an inquisition which investigates church members looking for potential sins.

On the contrary, the first (and only) person that a believer ought to investigate is himself! In verse 1 he says that the spiritual ones who are trying to restore a person caught in sin ought to examine themselves first (σκοπέω). In verse 4 he says that each believer ought to test (δοκιμάζω) their own work. Both words have the sense of critical examination.

Contrary to popular belief (and practice), Christians are not called to a life of critical examination of the lives of other people. After carefully examining their own loves they may be able to restore a brother or a sister in Christ who struggles with sin, but there is no warrant in the New Testament for the sort of judgmental attitude associated with Christianity. If this balance between self-examination and gentle restoration were practiced regularly, how would it transform the church?