1. Corinthians 8-11:1 - Love makes us Sacrifice

Erkki Koskenniemi

In the eighth chapter, and all the way until the eleventh chapter, Paul highlights an issue that he had been dealing with for a long time, namely the eating of meat which had been sacrificed to idols, an issue which divided the Church in Paul’s time. Paul didn’t need to explain the Corinthians what this dispute was about. We, however, do need an explanation: What is this meat sacrificed to idols and why did it cause such a huge rift?

In olden times, unlike today, meat was a rare delicacy. Poorer people lived, in general, on vegetables and cereals. Meat was, however, often for sale. The problem was that this meat was associated in some way or other to the worship of idols.

To an observant Jew it was in fact an abomination if the meat slaughtered by the butcher was not done in accordance with the regulations specified in Law of Moses. Even worse was if, at the time of slaughter, a small part of the animal, possibly only a few tufts of hair, was sacrificed to idols. A large number of animals were actually sacrificed in the temples for the idols and a small part of the flesh was sacrificed on the altar but the rest was sold off in the meat markets. Of course, the law was perfectly clear for the Jews: no one could eat such kind of meat - it was prohibited to do so. The chosen people under the Old Covenant formed their own closed communities with their own butchers, who followed the Mosaic regulations, and this meat was consumed only by them, their families and tribesmen.

The situation for the Pagan converts was, however, completely different. These Christians did not live in a closed community, but in the open. If eating the meat was to be prohibited, then any celebrations with family and friends would also be banned. This issue was urgent whenever they celebrated the great religious festivals. During these festivities, officers trying to seek popularity amongst the people would share food with partygoers, and in many instances this included meat. For many poor people in the Corinthian Church the temptation was too much. As a result, they were divided: some ate the meat and others did not. Those who declined the meat accused the others of idolatry. We can therefore understand very well that this was a very divisive issue in the early Church.

Knowledge or Love? 8:1-13

Some of the Corinthians had inflamed the whole issue still further by wrapping their suspicious practice into a theological package. Their argument went along these lines: “There is no such thing as idols. Because the idols do not exist, the sacrifice is pointless, and since the sacrifice to idols means nothing, good meat is not contaminated in the sacrificial process. That is why everyone can eat the meat, whether it has been sacrificed to any kind of devil or not, because we know that those idols do not exist.” Paul sees a lot of good things in this analysis, but also finds things to criticize.

According to Paul, it is true that the idols do not exist. There is only one God, and it is he who is the living Lord and Creator of the whole world. The others are all “so-called gods”. In the same way as money is worthless without human beings who appreciate it the position of the idols is based on human adoration. In this respect there are plenty of idols. There is, however, only one God, who is the Lord, regardless of what people say. In this sense, some of the Corinthians were quite right: the idols were non-existent and therefore sacrifices made to them meant nothing. This, however, was not the whole truth, because the Christian faith is not simply a matter of head-knowledge. Every Christian must also take other people into account, and Paul saw that the Corinthians had forgotten this. They had the correct information, but this knowledge had swollen their pride. That is why Paul warns them:

"If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know." (ESV)

The Corinthians had thoroughly neglected to take Christians from other backgrounds into consideration. What would one Christian think when another willingly took part in an act of idolatry? That person wouldn’t be able to follow the other person’s line of reasoning, and so, on encountering this kind of sacrilege, they would get angry and start a dispute, or even worse, because of their failure to understand the reasoning legitimizing the eating of sacrificed meat, they could take it as license for them to participate in the worship of idols.

Paul is well-aware that food neither takes us closer to God nor moves us away from him. The behaviour of another Christian, however, has the potential to lead someone astray; and in this instance, because the reasoning behind the act is not understood, the behaviour could be mistaken for condoning idol worship. It was not the intention of those who understood that the sacrificed meat did not affect one’s relationship with God to lead another person astray and indeed into idolatry. Paul rather gives up his right (to eat the meat) and the knowledge (of why theologically it would be possible to do so), and thus states he chooses not to eat the meat in order to avoid the risk of causing someone to fall out of Christ.

We have a lot to learn from Paul’s words. We are used to thinking of our faith as our own personal matter. What we do or don’t do is no one else’s business. This is, to a certain extent, right: we are each responsible for our lives directly to God. Nonetheless, Christian love requires taking other people into account. The applications for this teaching are many, and they may get us into trouble. What does compiling with this teaching look like? And moreover, is there a point at which behaving differently among different people starts to be hypocritical or manipulative?

Not even Paul would have used his freedom 9:1-27

In the ninth chapter, Paul seems to sidestep the question of the meat sacrificed to the idols. However, because he does return to it in the following chapter, the ninth chapter must be understood in this context. Paul uses himself as an example as to why a Christian person chooses to give away their own rights and liberty.

Paul would most certainly have had the right to make a living from the Corinthian Church. No one starts a war at their own expense and no one plants a vineyard and refuses a share of its output. Even God’s law says that servants of the Word must get their living from the Church - and Paul, as an Apostle of the Lord, had an undeniable right to seek a living from the Corinthian Church, but he chooses not to use this right under any circumstances. He is unwilling to let the Corinthians take this source of pride away from him. He did not wish to put obstacles in the way of the spreading of the Gospel, and that is why the Apostle prefers to work with his own hands.

This is how Paul, independent of all, voluntarily observes his fellow Christians. Although as a Christian he no longer considers himself to be under the Law of Moses, he submits himself under the Law of Moses when meeting Jewish people. When he lives with the Gentiles, he chooses to disregard these same laws. Overall, his aim is that nothing would stand in the way of the Gospel.

Behind Paul’s actions is a huge concern that all people would be saved. That’s why he is willing to sacrifice himself and his freedom. He tells the Corinthians to follow his example, and start practicing, just like an athlete would do. No matter how free a Christian is, he must voluntarily tie himself as a servant for the sake of the others.

This requires the same discipline as a top-athlete trying to win the race. The athlete’s goal is to win the laurel wreath, but this prize will eventually fade. Christ, however, gives his people a never fading wreath, when they cross the winning line to him at the end of their life. The Christians living in this world have, however, not yet won this price. Paul, therefore, urges the Corinthians to give up their freedom and put their faith to the test.

Martin Luther addresses this same topic in his book about the freedom of the Christian:

“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”

We need to put these two contradictory statements into practice our own lives. On the one hand, a Christian belongs to God; and moreover is responsible for everything in front of Him. He doesn’t need to care about other people. On the other hand, however, the same Christian voluntarily makes himself the servant of everyone. In the very same way as Christ lowered himself and took the form of a slave, the Christian lowers himself and serves others. This is what Christ’s own are supposed to do. But I wonder if we do?

Beware of idolatry!

In the tenth chapter Paul returns to the issue of the meat devoted to idols. Some Corinthians had explained the issue away quite cleverly: Because the idols do not exist, the sacrifice is pointless. Some were even prepared to follow this line of reasoning even further, and join the feasting in the idols’ temple. Previously Paul had pointed out that the requirement of Christian love is to take fellow Christians into account. He continues to expand on this, warning of the risk of being in the right, when in fact you are wrong.

Israel is a warning example 10:1-13

The people of the New Covenant ought to know of the ways of the people of the Old Covenant and learn from their errors. Paul reminds the Corinthians of how God freed the people from slavery in Egypt. Paul highlights the fact that everyone was under the same cloud, passed through the same sea and all were baptized to follow Moses. All ate manna and everyone got their water from the rock. In spite of this, only a few were able to reach the Promised Land. All the others were lost on the journey. The same thing is stated in Hebrews 3-4. Apparently, it had been a common sermon topic in the early Church and in early Judaism.

According to Paul, the entire story is a warning to “us” or the Church of Christ. He compares the Holy Spirit to a cloud (it is easy to understand it this way), baptism to the crossing of the Red Sea, and Holy Communion to manna. The important thing is to see that the Church is still on the road to glory but it is not promised that everyone of us will get there. It might end up that only a few from the Church will reach that place.

In passing, it is good to see how Paul equates the sacraments of the Church to God’s wandering nation and the miracles that happened in the wilderness. We can see from this how a person’s faith does not create the sacrament, but the other way around. Our Church believes, teaches and confesses that the sacraments are always effective. They transmit the grace of God, or, when a person has utterly rejected God’s mercy, his judgment.

We in Northern Europe need to read this chapter very carefully indeed. Times have changed significantly since the days of Paul. At that time, the churches were able to take care of every member of the congregation. Today, there is now even talk of a “core group” of the Church, and this refers to those who merely choose to go regularly to worship services. Reaching out to others is an overwhelming task. The Church still gets to participate in people’s rites of passage: baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals; but in other areas of life, contact is minimal. It seems that almost no one feels they need to hear about the Church. This chapter in 1 Corinthians is a warning that we should listen to carefully. Although the times and ways have changed, the truth of God has not changed. It is still life-threatening to give up God, to engage in sexual immorality and to rebel against the Lord.

Paul did not write this chapter for an established church situation, where many are Christians only nominally. The division Paul fears is not so simple i.e. that all the people from the Church are saved and all others go to hell. Paul warns the Church of Corinth that the line will be drawn inside the Church.

The Lord’s Supper and idolatry 10:14-22

In this section, Paul sets out to answer the questions regarding meat sacrificed to the idols and the eating at the Pagan temples. The Apostle’s emphasis here is on the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion. He talks about this sacrament only in this particular letter, but in such a way that the tremendous importance of the Communion is clear to everyone. Verse 16 contains an old and likely archaic Aramaic confession. The exact wording might be unclear, but the content is not. The meal, which we partake in, and for which we thank God, is Christ’s body and blood. It links us to the body of Christ; by eating the one bread we become as one in Christ’s body. This makes idolatry impossible.

The Corinthians were right in saying that the idols are nothing and any sacrifice to them therefore was meaningless. Nonetheless, the Gentiles sacrificed to demons, and in this way became connected with them. Paul warns that Christians would do well to stay well away from then. It is impossible, he says, to come to the Lord’s Table and then sometimes sup at the Devil’s table. Therefore, Paul teaches that whoever worships idols is to be banned from coming to the Lord’s Supper. Moreover, participants at the Lord’s Supper are not to go to the temples of the idols and eat sacrificial meals there.

Some Corinthians, using their razor-sharp wit, had tried to bypass this issue. There is, however, no outwitting God, and that is why Paul forbids them to go to the meals prepared for idols. God is a “impetuous” God. This impetuousness is an intense and jealous love that does not tolerate rivals. That is why each of the Lord’s own must stay clear of idolatry.

What about the meat sold at the market? 10:23-11:1

The phrase, “all things are lawful,” was apparently favored by some Corinthians (see 6:12). Paul taught the Christian freedom in much greater depth and more authentic manner. Even if everything is allowed, not everything is useful. We also have to think of other Christians.

Still one question remained. If eating a sacrificed meat was such a dangerous thing, what should one do at the meat market? As previously mentioned, only meat sacrificed to idols was for sale ... Should the Christian, therefore, forgo eating meat - at all times and in all places? This is not what Paul was saying. God is the creator of the world and nothing changes the properties of matter, even if it has been offered to idols. As long as the believers refrained from participating in the sacrifice itself, everything sold at the butcher’s could be eaten with a clear conscience. He admonishes them, however, to be careful to follow the lead of others. If a Christian is offered meat at a meal, he or she can eat it in good conscience. If, however, it comes to light that the meat had been sacrificed to idols, the meat should not be consumed for the sake of the person who revealed the information, and her / his conscience. Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christian love requires giving up one’s own rights and freedoms, and states that by behaving in this way the Christian will offend neither the Jews nor the Gentiles. Paul, again, dares to set himself up as a role model for the Corinthians, and thus, as in the previous (ninth) chapter, closes on how he chose to forgo his own rights.

This chapter gives us a lesson to be learned. Time and time again it has been shown how a Christian should take care of the lives of others. The Christian is free and no one is able to force him as a slave. Nevertheless, he makes the choice to become the servant of everyone. This message is not intended to be something to brag about, nor is it simply offered for theoretical pondering, rather Paul’s own example demonstrates this way of life, and offers us the challenge of applying the lessons learned to our own life in practice.