All to the Glory of God
Preached Sunday morning, October 22, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley
In our study of 1 Corinthians we’ve now come to the conclusion of a long section on liberty and love. The Apostle Paul began this section in chapt. 8 with a discussion about meat sacrificed to idols. Sure, Paul says, idols are nothing, and it really means nothing if someone has sacrificed meat to one of these non-existent gods. But at the same time it would be better not to eat meat at all rather than to cause a less-informed Christian to think communing with idols is acceptable. In chapt. 9 Paul used himself as an example of denying one’s self for the sake of the gospel. At the beginning of chapt. 10 Paul warned the Corintinthians to beware lest they fall.
The section we’ll be looking at today has two main parts. In 10:14-22 the Apostle addresses the group we might call the liberated Christians, those who have thought the matter over logically and know that there is nothing really wrong with meat simply because it’s been sacrificed to an idol. To this group Paul talks about idol meats in the context of relationship to God and warns the group to flee from idolatry. In 10:33-11:1, Paul speaks primarily to the weaker brethren who think the meat itself is somehow contaminated. Here the argument is framed in terms of the consciences of the meat eaters and their fellow Christians. As the Word of God often does, Paul's words probably offended those on both sides of the argument. But Paul’s teaching offered a way through a controversy that was harming the church. The church today would do well to pay attention both to Paul’s method of handling the controversy and the underlying principles it reveals.
Notice how this part begins? “Therefore, my beloved, free from idolatry.” Let’s look at one point right off the bat: the surprising way Paul addresses the Corinthian Christians. Consider the way these Christians have treated Paul. They’ve questioned his apostolic authority and broken into factions (chapts. 1-4), they’ve arrogantly asserted their so-called wisdom (chapts. 1 &2), they’ve approved of sexual immorality (chapts. 5-7), and they’ve joined in feasts dedicated to false gods (chapts. 8-10). Yet the Apostle calls them “my beloved.” Let’s think about that for a minute. Even as he corrects them for their wrong attitudes, Paul is beginning to show them something about love that he will teach them more fully in chapt. 13. So as we look over this section, let’s remember Paul’s basic attitude toward his erring brethren.
Paul’s words here clearly tie back to chapt. 8. After going far afield, with discussions of the Exodus, sports, and Paul’s own apostleship, he comes back now with a simple warning: flee from idolatry. There’s irony in Paul’s words in v. 15: “I speak as to wise [or sensible] men.” As we saw earlier in the letter, many of the Corinthians thought they were wise when in fact they had a lot to learn. Well, if they think they’re wise, let’s see if they can understand this teaching. Paul is speaking primarily to the intellectually strong group here, the ones who understand the emptiness of idolatry. The problem is that they may know doctrine, but they’ve missed the heart of the matter when it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols.
And what is the heart of the matter? Communion. Communion is a term we avoid in Churches of Christ, but it's the word Paul uses in verses 16 to talk of the body and blood of the Lord's Supper. Communion is at the heart of table fellowship in the name of a god. The question is, With whom will he have fellowship, Christ or demons? In the Old Testament the Israelites learned that meals were a special way to commune either with false gods or the one true God (i.e. Dt. 32:21; Is. 65:11). As Jesus himself remind us, you can't serve two masters (Mt. 6:24). The problem with eating at feasts dedicated to idols was not the meat itself but the implied fellowship with false gods. Christians have a table of divine fellowship, and it has nothing to do with the pagan gods worshipped in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians appear to have known better than to keep idols of stone, wood, or metal in their homes, but some were nevertheless at risk of practicing idolatry in their hearts and actions.
Just as we've been studying on Wednesday evening that true obedience begins in the heart, so on the other hand idolatry also begins there. The prophet Samuel revealed that truth a thousand years before Christ when he told King Saul, "For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness as idolatry" (1 Sam. 15:23). The Apostle Paul also equated idolatry with the heart when he wrote to the Colossian Christians about "sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Col. 3:5) .
Are you confident that this congregation would never commit idolatry? Well, before becoming too smug, bear in mind that following the Exodus, the whole nation of Israel fell into idolatry. They had God himself visibly in their presence day and night, and only two men out of hundreds of thousands resisted the allure of disobedience and idolatry. Before we begin patting ourselves on the back for not having physical idols in our lives, consider the temptations to set up idols in our hearts.
False gods have not gone away; they only go by different names. None of us bow down to statues of Aphrodite, but are you guilty of logging onto a computer and looking at pornography on the Internet? Do you allow yourself to be titillated by images on movies and television? We no longer worship the Olympian gods, but how many of us have made idols of our favorite entertainers or sports stars? We don't offer burnt offerings to Mammon, but has our infatuation with earning, spending, and hoarding money become idols in our hearts? Do we place love for our biological families before love for God and his church? If we have, that is idolatry.
Do we think of ourselves more as Americans than as Christians? That too is idolatry. Down the street from this congregation a church has placed a flag pole in front of their building. Two flags fly on the pole: the Christian flag (whatever that's supposed to be) and the American flag. Which one holds the place of honor on top of the pole? The American flag. What does that say about a church's priorities? And don't think idolatry of the nation is a denominational problem. In a congregation where my family used to worship, Independence Day fell one year on a Sunday. One of the songs that day was "America," and as we began to sing, one of the older sisters, an elder's wife, jumped to her feet. Most of the congregation followed. How strange that our congregation had no trouble sitting on our backsides for "Stand Up for Jesus," "Holy, Holy, Holy," or other songs of praise to Jehovah, but we felt the need to stand at attention for a patriotic hymn.
We can even commit idolatry in the name of the church. Human beings, every one of us, have been created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-28). Yet we are always tempted get the image backward: to view God as no more than a super-human, someone created in our image. As someone has said, "Satan is the master counterfeiter" with the ability to make evil look good to eyes untrained in spiritual discernment . Trying to reshape God in our own image is idolatry of a very serious nature, especially as we can fall into it without even knowing we're doing so. That's all the more reason to know who God really is as revealed in Scripture.
Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, Christians choose every day between the tables of demons and the table of the Lord. It's very sobering to read about the Corinthians, because the so-called stronger brothers don't seem to have been aware the danger they faced from communing with demons. They didn't realize the choice before them, but they were choosing nevertheless. So are we.
In the next section of today's passage (10:23-30), Paul reminds the Corinthians that "all things are lawful." Here Paul repeats what he told them in 6:12-13. In the earlier case Paul used the example of food in making his case against sexual morality. Here he refers to food in making a case against idolatry. In both cases he urges Christians to flee temptation. In this section Paul specifically addresses the weaker brethren who believe there's a problem with eating the meat itself. Paul tells them the problem is not with the food but with the effect. The food itself is fine, as Paul reminded Timothy: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). The problem with these idol feasts is not the food but the danger of making a weak brother stumble back into idolatry.
Christians are not to avoid going out and associating with non-Christians (1 Cor. 5:10). And when we do, Paul tells those of weaker consciences, simply don't ask if the meat you're eating has been sacrificed to an idol. It won't hurt you even if it has been. However, if someone brings up the fact that it has, then he or she probably has a problem or wouldn't have mentioned it . In that case, it's better to do without so that no one could reasonably think that a Christian supports the worship of pagan gods. Although Christians were entitled to eat the meat, it was better not to eat it than to cause others to think that a Christian supported the worship of false gods.
What about today? The particulars are different, but what kinds of privileges should Christians renounce today in order to glorify God and distance ourselves from idolatry? Perhaps our use of alcohol or tobacco cast a poor light on our commitment to Christ. Perhaps it's R-rated movies and other dirty entertainment. Perhaps we are showing off our money in conspicuous ways---jewelry, fancy cars, expensive watches---while allowing our brothers and sisters in Christ to suffer. Yes, some of these things are not bad in and of themselves, and if everyone had a fully understanding mind we wouldn't have to give some of them up. But what privileges and pleasures are you willing to give up for the sake of someone else's soul?
The irony in the case of the Corinthians is that the stronger brothers are right; there's nothing really wrong with meat sacrificed to idols. But in this case, being right is not as important as being loving . What good is it for one set of Christians to be right in their privileges while another group falls into hell? The brothers with superior knowledge need to add superior sacrifice to their lives for the sake of their brethren. How can we have communion with our brothers and sisters if our lives drive them away from Jesus Christ? Right relationships---with God and one another---are as important as right doctrine. And both are the gospel . That's not to say truth is not important; we must never compromise the truth simply to get along. But if we say we have the truth and don't have communion with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we've missed something of first importance.
But if we are willing to sacrifice our privilege and pleasures for the sake of the Kingdom, then we bring glory to God. Somehow Christians in our culture have come to view discipleship as self-fulfillment. Preachers are sometimes guilty of presenting the gospel in those terms: "become a Christian and your life will be full of fun, happiness, and prosperity!" Wrong. Christian discipleship is not about self-fulfillment; it's about self-sacrifice (Lk. 9:23; Rom. 12:1). We may have entered the Kingdom looking for self-fulfillment, but there comes a time for Christians to grow up and begin honoring God not by what we take but by what we give up.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that activities as ordinary as eating and drinking have the potential to bring glory to God. If Christians eat and drink in ways that not only fill their bellies, but take into account the souls of others, then they bring glory go God in the simple act of taking part in a meal. What about today? If eating glorifies God, what else can? How about loving our families and spending time with them? How about working our jobs honorably without whining or complaining. How about doing the everyday work of the Kingdom: visiting the sick, calling the hurting, sending cards and notes of fellowship. Those last activities are especially important, and it's good to see the congregation making and organized effort to visit and call other members. In taking part in that kind of service, you have a credibility that I cannot. It's easy to say the preacher is just visiting and calling because it's his job, but when we help one another beyond what is expected of us, we give glory to God.
Christians glorify God in large and small ways when we give up some part of our money, our time, and our pleasure to help those who cannot repay us. It's one thing to do good when we expect to be patted on the back. It's another when we serve those who cannot repay us, any more than we can repay Jesus Christ for buying our salvation on the cross.
What have you done today to glorify God? What have we as a congregation done? Have we worshiped God not only in five acts of worship, but in spirit and in truth? Have we glorified God by proclaiming the truth in love? Have we done the work of the Kingdom without falling prey to the idols of arrogance and self-importance? If so, then we have forsaken the idols that threaten to rule our hearts, and we have glorified God.
We in twenty-first century North America live in a culture of self-indulgence. We have a level of prosperity unequaled in any other place or time on earth. We have more things and more privilege than any other culture I've ever heard of. Yet all around us, hundreds of times a day, we are bombarded with advertising persuading us to covet more, to buy more, and to indulge our every whim. The Devil is such a proficient sneak that most Christians today seem to be as unaware of the dangers of idolatry as the first-century Corinthians were. Can we learn from their mistakes before it's too late?
Flee from idolatry. That means we worship the only true God. It means we don't seek our own advantage but rather pursue advantage for our brothers and sisters in Christ for the glory of God. It means denying our own benefits and privileges, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus Christ.
1. Bob Deffinbaugh. “Table Talk (1 Cor. 10:14-33). Online study at www.bible.org.
3. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
4. Tucker, Dannette. “Idols and Idolatry Today.” Online article at http://www.titus2menandwomen.org/Articles/DanetteTucker/Idols/PrinterFriendly.shtml
6. Lawrence Richards. The Teacher’s Commentary. Victor Books, 1987. P. 851.
(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley