Friday, February 26, 2010


This is sermon #25 from my First Corinthians series, originally written in 1990.

1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1


You will notice that I have put the first verse of chapter eleven with the final verses of chapter ten. Chapter and verse divisions in the Bible are something which was added over the years so people could more easily identify the location of a particular text. (Imagine me asking you to turn to a certain passage if we did not have these divisions.) One disadvantage, though, is that the divisions were not always put at the best places. This is one of those places.

The context is still that of idolatry and temple food, although this is bigger than that. Here we are dealing with an issue that we all face almost every day, even if we do not always recognize it: the difference between behaviors that touch absolute and eternal things and those that don't.

It matters what Christians do. My actions and your behavior have consequences that go beyond the immediate situation. Some are more important than others. How do we know the difference? What is our guide when the issue is not totally right or wrong?

I grew up with an understanding that if a thing was questionable at all, that was enough to make it absolutely forbidden. Such verses as avoid the very appearance of evil and whatever is not of faith is sin was the only perspective that mattered. That meant there were a lot of things one did not do in any context. A good Christian would not swim in public places (the principle of modesty might be compromised). Good Christians did not play any card games since cards were used for gambling. Good Christians did not dance or go to movies (that was what sinners did to keep their baser desires entertained). Christians did not drink alcohol, even moderately.

Those were some of the things I had to work through as I learned what it meant to follow Jesus. Some of you have had the same things; others of you will find what I just said to be rather strange. Do not let that get in your way. Instead, make note of my point that our behavior matters. There will always be decisions we must make on certain actions. The bottom line is that we need to know that, and know how to assess the behavior we choose to do.

The issue for the Corinthians was where and what to eat. Meat usually came from a temple where an animal had been sacrificed in worship. In pagan temples, such meat was available on a restaurant-like basis; a person would go to the temple at mealtime and eat, plus enjoy some of the accompanying festivities. Meat that was left over (and there was always plenty) was sold in a market setting.

The word about the former was plain: A Christian should not go to the temple to eat, since it was a direct connection with idolatry. The latter situation –– buying and eating temple meat from the market –– was not the same thing. There were implications, but it was not an absolute right/wrong behavior.

Now, go back with me to my foundational thought: Everything we as Christians do has significance, but not everything has the same level of significance. Do you live with that awareness? If you do not, then you have some basic things to learn about what it means to belong to Christ. If you do live with that awareness, then either you have matured to the place where you have learned how to judge a matter, or you live with either a lot of rules or a lot of guilt (or both).

The Corinthians as a whole had not yet learned the importance of what they did. They gravitated toward the spiritual benefits of grace –– they were perfect in Christ, which is certainly one side of the truth, but they did not do so well with practically living up to their spiritual heritage.

As I said earlier, I was nurtured with the kind of advice that said avoid the very appearance of evil and whatever is not of faith is sin. The Corinthians had a guiding phrase that was totally opposite: everything is permissible (v23). It's the blind assumption that it doesn't matter what a Christian does. It's the one-sided view that because Christ has died for us and our sins are forgiven and his righteousness has been given to us and his Spirit has been given in pledge of our full redemption, that it does not matter what we do. That is a great presumption based on a partial truth.

What is the full truth? Notice the last verse of the text: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (11:1). Jesus is not only the one in whom we have forgiveness of sins; he is our example of how to live as God created us. Being a Christian is more than trusting in Christ's death; it is also following Jesus.

How do we follow Jesus? One way is to follow others who have learned a lot about what it means to follow Jesus. Paul was that kind of person. He could say to those Corinthian Christians, follow me as I follow Christ. We need to look more closely at Paul here, but first let me encourage you to have the kind of commitment that would allow you to say to someone else, "Follow me...."

What kind of person was Paul that he could invite others to copy him? Some might say he was impulsive and inconsistent. The Corinthians were baffled. Here was a man who said in no uncertain terms that Christians could not eat at the temples, and yet he is also saying that meat is meat and they can eat anything in their homes or as guests (which is close to what the Corinthians themselves were saying about eating at the temple feasts).

If you look at Paul's whole record you find a man who stormed against circumcision, and yet he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16: 3). He taught that special days and ceremonies were spiritually worthless, and yet he himself joined other Jewish men in Jerusalem in a purification rite to identify with the Jewish law (Acts 21:20ff). The casual onlooker would think Paul was doing everything he could to confuse and anger people.

If you think about it, though, wasn't Jesus crucified because people did not understand him and he made them angry? Now do not misunderstand, for I am not saying that was what Jesus (or Paul) tried to do. His goal in life was not to confuse and alienate people. It's just that as Jesus gave himself to God's truth and kingdom the result was misunderstanding and hostility.

So perhaps it is not surprising that as Paul followed Christ it resulted in the Corinthians' disgust. That was why Paul's apostleship (leadership) was questioned (ch 4). The more pertinent question for us is why Paul seemed to be so inconsistent, and what that means for us as we follow Jesus.

At the heart of that answer is another question: When are we free to decide for ourselves how to act and when to come under a Christian authority? And on top of that, what are the levels of Christian authority?

Notice that Paul does not negate the Corinthians' assertion "everything is permissible." That is because Christians do not operate under a set of rules. On the other hand, there are boundaries to our behavior, and they are defined by Jesus' character.

What are some of those boundaries? Look at v23,24. Following Jesus means choosing what is beneficial and constructive. And not just for ourselves.... following Jesus means seeking the good of others instead of one's self.

How does that work out practically? In things that are not absolutely right or wrong (and please remember that as Christians we believe there are such things, whether our culture will admit it or not), there is a tension between freedom and conscience. In things that are neither right or wrong, we are free to do what is best.

But.... how do we determine what is best? One thing to consider is conscience. I hope you already know to obey your conscience in vague situations, but that is not what this is talking about. In some situations, you need to consider not your own conscience, but the consciences of those around you.

Does this mean mature Christians are condemned to bow to the scruples of other weaker Christians in everything? The answer to that is "maybe sometimes." What is important here is the principle of another's good.

The principle of another's good is one way to look at Jesus. That is how the Scripture describes him over and over. He was the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep (Jn. 10:11). He died for us when we were God's enemies (Rom. 5:7ff). He did not hang onto his equality with God, but humbled himself (Phil. 2:6ff). In the words of our v24, Jesus did not seek his own good, but the good of others.

Let's look again at Paul, this man who said follow me as I follow Christ, to see how he did that. Some might think giving in to another's conscience would be the most extreme type of people pleasing. It is suggested in v33. You have probably known someone like that –– a person who, to be accepted, always chooses or says what pleases other people. Is that what it meant for Paul to follow Jesus in seeking another's good?

The answer is emphatically NO. Paul did not care a lot about what people thought of him. Do you remember these words from the first part of this letter?

I did not come to you with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (2:1–5).

Or again, I care very little if I am judged by you.... (4:2).

Paul’s concern was for people to understand and desire the gospel. In chapter nine he said he was all things for all people. Why? So they would like him? No. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (9:22). That is what he is saying again here: I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved (v33).

Sometimes Paul would curb his freedom so people would not misunderstand and thus reject the gospel. That is his point here with the meat bought in the market. To him it was just meat. But if he was invited to an unbeliever's home and the the unbeliever made it a point to say the meat was temple meat dedicated to an idol, then Paul would not eat it because he would know the unbeliever expected him not to because Paul was a Christian.

Sometimes you or I might be in a place where we would personally feel free to participate in something, but there are people there who would misunderstand Christian commitment if they saw us exercise our freedom. It might keep them from Christ or help them justify their own sin. Following Jesus in that situation means we are free, yes.... “free” to curb our own prerogatives for the sake of another's conscience.

Having said that, I need to give another picture from Paul for the sake of balance. Sometimes Paul most specifically did not respect others' consciences. Usually it was when the others were Christians, and were trying to hang a bunch of rules on yet other Christians. The prime illustration for this is the book of Galatians. There we find some

Christians who said all Christians should be circumcised. Paul saw this as an attempt to make one's standing with God dependent on keeping certain Old Testament rules. That is contrary to the gospel and Paul had no respect for people who would distort the gospel.

In situations where Christians have hardened opinions of nonessential things being absolutely right or wrong, other Christians who understand freedom in Christ are not loving or serving such judgmental Christians by giving in to their narrow views. Legalistic Christians aren't going to have their understanding of the gospel hurt by another Christian's freedom. The legalists may, in fact, have their categories shaken enough to grow up a little bit.

That last dimension isn't an explicit part of this passage, but I include it because it is a necessary balance to what Paul does say here. Besides, it implicitly belongs because it is part of looking at the man who said, Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

The bottom line here is an attitude of love, like Jesus had, that wants everyone to find the forgiving love of God. It is a love that chooses not to do anything that would cause anyone to misunderstand the gospel. And how can we do that?

It all comes down to what we find in v31: So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. The balance between freedom and conscience is found in that simple, yet extremely difficult exhortation. Do you live each day with an awareness that your actions help others understand or misunderstand what it means to follow Jesus? And if you do, how do you decide how to act?

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