Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8-11


  • Note from Jon: I was asked to present some thoughts on 1 Corinthians chapter 8, verse 1 to chapter 11, verse 1 at a midweek Bible Study group. The result was something like a commentary, which I’ve decided to post here. You may find it helpful to read this with a Bible open – or click this link – and quotations are from the New International Version.

    Corinth has been described as ‘the Las Vegas of ancient Greece’. It was a thoroughly Greek, pagan city of much idolatry. Aphrodite — the goddess of love and fertility — was the most popular deity worshipped there. Her image appeared on Corinthian coins and at least three temples were built in the city dedicated to her.

    In these temples, ‘priestesses’ would have sex with the male worshippers as part of the worship of Aphrodite, once the worshippers had given a gift to the temple. This was effectively prostitution and was one of the ways the temples made money. Approximately one thousand prostitutes ‘worked’ at the temples of Aphrodite.

    Corinth was renowned for the sex trade. It was a hub of commerce and had a reputaiton for hedonistic pleasure, lavish parties and drinking.
    Paul lived in Corinth for about 18 months. Acts chapter 18 tells us he lived with Aquilla and Priscilla, two fellow believers, and worked with them making tents. Every Sabbath, Paul would visit the synagogues sharing the Gospel.

    So, when he wrote to the Corinthians, he knew the kind of place they were living in and the struggles they were facing. And particularly he knew the Corinthian church was facing a challenge of how to live as Christians in a non-Christian culture, where worship of other gods was a fact of life.

    1 Corinthians chapter 8, verses 1- 3 are about food sacrificed to idols, but the first three verses are a preamble in which Paul makes a very significant statement: “But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (verse 1).

    The important thing in this whole passage is that there are two ways to live – the way of the world and the way of God. I think this verse is key – we can sometimes think that we know all the answers and that we are smart enough to live in a halfway position in the world. Paul wants to make a distinction between clever arguments and genuine love for God. Loving God will help you grow strong. That’s a warning to those of us who love arguments and debates and, dare I say it, Bible studies. Knowledge is a good and wonderful thing, but it has to be allied with love.

    Verses 4-13 go on to talk about eating food sacrificed to idols. This isn’t a problem many of us face on a day-to-day basis, but on a ‘macro’ level, Paul is saying that we are responsible for one another’s faith. “Be careful, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block” (verse 9) – just because something does not affect you doesn’t mean that you should just go out and do what you like.

    Again ‘love builds up’ – and that is true for how we are towards our fellow Christians. To wound them is to “sin against Christ” (verse 12).

    Taking a wider view on this – how we relate to one another is very important. How do we disagree? How do we challenge another person’s theology or behaviour? There are many stories of people whose faith has been crushed because of the way they have been treated by Christians.

    Chapter 9 talks about the need for self-discipline. Verses 24-27 exhort the believers to “Run in such a way as to get the prize” (verse 24)

    This is an opportunity for us to be introspective – are we disciplined? If our faith was actually a race, how many of us would still be running?

    It’s challenging to think in those terms because Christianity is a faith that emphasises grace and we want that to be genuine. It’s not a bait and switch – we lure you in with grace and then dump a load of rules on you.

    But at the same time, it’s easy for us to sometimes over-emphasise grace and make it seem like its okay to not try and be a better person. Training for a marathon is incremental – you don’t just go out and try to run the full distance. You build up. And so it is with the things of faith.

    I lost some weight last year. I lost weight when I was going on Wii Fit for about 30 minutes every day. Not because Wii Fit is especially good for losing weight, although it probably helps, but because I got into an exercise frame of mind. I also wrote down everything I ate – counting calories. When you do that, and you’re disciplined, you’ll lose weight. When you let go and ease up it comes back.

    Chapter 10 contains warnings from Israel’s history. Paul is quite clear here – “Do not be idolaters” (verse 7); “We should not commit sexual immorality” (verse 8); “We should not test Christ” (verse 9); “do not grumble” (verse 10).

    So, although it is about grace, it is also about wanting to be a bit better today than we were yesterday. We need to stop doing this kind of stuff, even when we are tempted to, as Paul goes on to say in verses 11-13.

    This section contains probably the most overly quoted verse to people who are feeling like they have failed as Christians. “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (verse 13)  – I’m not even sure how to begin to unpack that. First of all, what can you bear? Usually you only find out what your limit is when you exceed it.

    The key is in the passage – “he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (verse 13). The point about a way out is that you have to make the choice to take it. If a building is on fire you take the fire exit. If you don’t, you’ll burn to death. Simple as that – so when it comes to temptation, where is your exit? There usually is one if you’re willing to look.

    Then Paul returns to his over-arching theme and addresses eating food sacrificed to idols in verses 14-24.

    So, basically Paul said earlier that you can eat, but be aware of what might cause a fellow believer to ‘stumble’, but now he says ‘look, you’re supposed to be separating yourself from an impure world’.

    On a macro level he is using food sacrificed to idols, and idol worship as an example – but he’s pulling this a lot wider here. He says “I do not want you to be participants with demons” (verse 20). Well, that’s anything isn’t it, that’s not of God. And he reminds them that “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (verse 24).

    In verses 25-26 he tells the believers to “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience” (verse 25). Often the meat from animals sacrificed in the temples would be sold in the markets for people to eat – this was another way the temples made money. You bought an animal from them, paid them to sacrifice it, and then they took the carcass and sold it to the butchers in the meat market.

    But Paul is making a distinction here between that meat and actually going and eating in the temples. He says “If someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols?” (chapter 8, verse 10). So where the link isn’t clear, it doesn’t matter so much. There’s no actual power in the food that’s been sacrificed to idols – “food does not bring us near to God” (chapter 8, verse 8).

    In chapter 10, verse 27-32, Paul addresses what happens if an unbeliever invites you to a meal – do you eat the meat that was sacrificed to idols. Paul says ‘yes’ if they don’t mention it, and ‘no’ if they make a point that the food has been sacrificed to an idol.

    This is because eating the meat could be a test. Are you, as a Christian, going to join in with whatever else is going on? Again, let’s take a wider picture – there are some things you know isn’t particularly good to do, but you’re encouraged by people to do it. Peer pressure never really goes away. It can be something as simple as someone trying to engage you in gossip in the office.

    So whatever we do and wherever we are doing it, we are representing God. We are a witness. We should be mindful of the people around us. If we ‘wound their faith’ then we wound Christ.

    “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up” – if we love other people, then we will want what is best for them. When we are proud, ‘puffed up’, we don’t consider other people as important as us. We don’t put their feelings first. We judge people when they fall – perhaps not recognising the part that we have played in them falling.

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