Read the passage here.
Today we wrap up that section of 1 Corinthians that began at chapter 8. And as you recall, Paul has been addressing the particular issue of food sacrificed to idols, or the participation by some of the members of the Corinthian community in these cultic (or religious) meals involving other deities. So without further ado, let’s take a look at our passage today.
Now the “Therefore,” with which this passage begins creates a direct connection with last week’s passage. And without getting into detail, the basic thrust of last week’s passage had to do with not taking one’s position or status (spiritually speaking) for granted. Even Israel, who was delivered out of Egypt, fell victim to idolatry (among other things) and saw the consequences of that.
“Therefore,” says Paul, “flee from idolatry.” Don’t mess around. Don’t rely on your so-called knowledge and wisdom. You may think it’s no big deal; you may think you know better, but these things matter.
At this point, in v. 16, Paul argues against the participation in cultic meals on the basis of the Lord’s Supper – that is, communion. And the question is, why does Paul bring up communion? Or how does Paul use communion in his argument against participating in the cultic meals? So we might read the argument in vv. 16-17 in two ways (perhaps more?). Firstly, we might read that Paul is arguing that participating in such meals does indeed have real significance. The Lord’s Supper points to this reality – inasmuch as communion has significance for Christians, how could we (the Corinthians) believe that these cultic meals do not. In other words, Paul could be seen as specifically arguing against the Corinthians so-called ‘knowledge,’ of which they are so proud.
Now by way of quick excursus, I am not saying that Paul is arguing for (or even suggesting) that communion has any real substance. That is, I’m not suggesting that Paul is pointing to or hinting at transubstantiation – the notion that the bread and wine become, in some way, the real body and blood of Jesus. In fact, what Paul says in the immediately upcoming verses may argue against that – in. v. 19, Paul says, “19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No…” Paul isn’t saying that the elements of the meal matter. Rather, he seems to be saying that the participation in the meals matter.
Therefore, the second thing that Paul could be saying in vv. 16-17 is something along the lines of, “how could you?” That is, Paul might be seen as saying something along the lines of, “since you are participating in the body and blood of Christ, since you are participating in this spiritual reality grounded in Christ, how could you participate in some other meal? How could you participate in some other spiritual reality?
Now by way of another quick excursus, this interpretation points to the general significance of sharing a meal together, of breaking bread. As is relatively common in the Christian (and Jewish) spiritual vocabulary, there is something spiritually significant about sitting down for a meal together.
Now, it may be evident that these interpretations of why Paul is bringing up communion are not mutually exclusive. Paul’s point here is roughly that the Corinthian believers should not participate in these meals because they are people of Christ (and not some other people). So that brings us to the next paragraph in our passage. vv. 18-22 read:
18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?1 Corinthians 10: 18-22
Here, Paul picks up the previous example of Israel, this time specifically pointing to the cultic practices (or religious practices if you’re not comfortable with the word, “cultic”) or Israel – that is the Temple practices. And by this, Paul essentially repeats the arguments that he established in the preceding paragraph about communion.
But here, he builds on that by arguing that even though the so-called gods are not really gods, the practice matters. Now in bringing up demons – the sacrifices offered to idols or false gods are actually offered to demons – Paul is not saying (I don’t think) that there is something occult-ish going on (though that seems to be the obvious consequence). Nor does Paul seem to be making a comment on the Corinthians ignorance, per se.
To put it another way, as we know the Corinthians’ basic defense of their participation in these cultic meals – food sacrificed to idols – has been that since the gods are not real (after all, there is no other god except God), their participation in these meals don’t matter. And to this, Paul seems to be saying something like, yes the gods are not real, but the worship is. False gods don’t matter, but how we live does.
Now I want to come back to the implications of this, but for now, let’s carry on in considering our passage. In vv. 23-30, though he’s still writing in the context of food sacrificed to idols, Paul addresses what is essentially a tangent. The passage reads:
23 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. 24 No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?1 Corinthians 10: 23-30
Firstly, what is the situation that Paul is addressing? He’s been talking about participating in cultic meals, but now he’s talking about buying meat in the market? Very simply, meat that was leftover from the cultic meals would be sold in the marketplace. So, the whole process would begin with someone wanting to make a sacrifice to a particular god. They would take the animal to the appropriate temple and the priests there would perform the sacrifice. They would then consume some of that sacrifice – family would obviously be there, and they might invite friends or neighbours to partake in the sacrificial meal. This is the particular issue that Paul is addressing in most of this section. However, oftentimes there would be meat left over. This left over meat would be sold in the marketplace.
And in short, Paul says that buying this meat from the marketplace is not the same thing as participating in the sacrificial meals. For Paul, this is straightforward. However, Paul also says that if you (the Corinthians) are invited to a meal (not a cultic meal) with meat from a temple which is being sold in the marketplace, and for that person the fact that the meat is from a temple, then don’t participate in that meal. And the reason for this is the same principle that Paul has brought up elsewhere – that is, the benefit of others is more important than one’s own rights and freedoms.
Now the final verses of our passage today (vv. 31-1) may be a conclusion to these paragraphs or it may be a conclusion to this entire section (which, as you may recall, began at chapter 8). And that distinction may not be too important as Paul’s point throughout is pretty clear and consistent. And so, regardless of how 31-1 actually fit into the structure, for our purposes, they serve as a good place to review and wrap-up the entire discussion.
Earlier, I said I’d come back to the implications of Paul’s assertion that though the false gods don’t matter, the worship of them does. And I want to try to tie this together with some of what I believe Paul is talking about more broadly in this passage.
If we recall, Paul opens up this entire section in 8:1-3 by saying:
8:1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.1 Corinthians 8: 1-3
That is to say, contrary to what some of the Corinthians believe or prioritize, Paul insists that the important thing is love. Now it’s important to say that Paul is speaking into a specific context here – Paul’s emphasis here says something about what is going on in the church in Corinth. Another way to say this might be that Paul is not saying that Love is more important than anything. However, Paul is at least saying that love is important and the Corinthians have lost sight of that in their fixation on other things (here, knowledge).
Now of course, we can see how this emphasis is repeated in our passage today (especially the 2nd half), and how the closing verses (31—11:1) may be an accompanying bracket to the entire section as a whole (or it may not).
But overall, what I want to suggest is that this tells us something about the nature of the kingdom of which the church is a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste. Whereas the culture at large values one thing (knowledge), Paul is saying that in the kingdom, something else matters (that is, love).
And perhaps this ties pretty directly to the issue of worshipping false gods. That is, some may say participating in the sacrificial meals doesn’t matter because the so-called gods are not real. But what Paul is saying is that, though the gods aren’t real, the worship is. And all of that has to do (I’m suggesting) with the notion of, “what constitutes your reality?” “How do we make sense of our lives? (that is how we are living it out)” To put it another way, how does the way we live – the choices we make, the priorities we create, the values we pursue – how does that demonstrate what is truly important to us? How does any of it and all of it demonstrate in what our life is grounded? To put it yet another way, if someone were to look at and examine how we live, what would they assume matters to us?
And though Paul isn’t solely concerned about “how it looks,” this is at least part of the argument he is making.
Now one (in Corinth) might say that participating in these meals doesn’t matter, perhaps that it demonstrates that the false gods don’t matter. But how does it demonstrate that Jesus does?
One of the things that Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians is asserting the centrality of Jesus Christ. In the first chapter, Paul says, “18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And, “22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
What Paul wants the Corinthians to know, and what he wants them to work into the very fiber of their beings, is that in Christ alone is life found. In Christ alone is redemption found. But what that means is not that Christ is the ultimate benefit – that is, it’s not about what we get out of it. Paul wants to communicate that there is no life outside of Christ. Christ is the only foundation.
And so, maybe participating in the meals isn’t wrong per se. But does it proclaim the hope upon which one claims to build their lives? Does it demonstrate the foundation upon which we claim to stand?
And what Paul is doing is trying to get the Corinthians to ground their lives in Christ alone. And what Paul perhaps reminds us is that we must build our lives on that foundation of Christ alone.
Because the challenge of living in the in-between is that there are so many voices; so many distractions. There are so many things telling us that we can find it somewhere else. That the substance and meaning of life is something else. Therefore, we continue to examine ourselves and be honest with ourselves. We attend to scripture, the word of God so that we might stay on the path. We heed the urging of the Holy Spirit as our guide. We pay attention to Jesus so that we might not settle for that which is not-life and take hold fully of the life for which Christ Jesus died for us.