The 1st century controversy over meat offered to idols provides us all with helpful instruction on how we can better exemplify the mind of Christ and bear with one another in love. Today we are going to review the context and application of this instruction.
Around the late 40s and into the 50’s and perhaps 60’s AD. there was a controversy within the Church of God which cause a lot of upset. That controversy revolves around the question… how should church members deal with meat offered to idols.
The issue first comes up at the first Church council recorded in Acts 15. I delivered a sermon on what was decided at this first council of the Church of God [ April 2020]. If you have questions about the issues and decisions made by the council you might find that message helpful. In a nutshell: it addressed whether gentiles needed to adopt Jewish cultural traditions. For our purpose today I only want to look at what is decided about meat offered to idols Acts 15:28-29 Acts 15:28-29  For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things;
 That you abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if you keep yourselves, you shall do well. Fare you well.
American King James Version×.
Why would this be a controversy? The bible gives a very clear message about avoiding participation in all forms of idolatry. Isn’t that sufficient instruction on the matter!
Today we are going to review the context and application of this instruction.
Application in Context
The instructions found in the OT are addressed to God’s holy nation Israel. Within that nation idolatry was not to be tolerated, people who participated in it were to be punished, everything to do with idolatry was to be destroyed and burned. Israel had its own king, its own police force, judges and courts to enforce these laws. God gave authority and power to the men of Israel to administer His laws statues and judgments within the land… and He expected it to be done! When they failed to follow up on this God was very displeased.
The Church of God found itself in a very different position during the 40’s 50’s and 60’s in the years after Jesus death. The church was only a tiny, tiny fraction of people within a large society. The Church had no power or authority to establish [or even influence] the norms of Greco-Roman society. As such, the laws, judgments and statutes of God had to be administered in a very different way. The Church does not do away with God’s laws but we must apply them differently. Mostly, the church looked at how the laws, statutes and judgments affected the lives of the individual rather than society at large.
The Church found itself in the midst of a society where there were idols everywhere. It was not an option for zealous church members to pick up a sword and dispense God’s justice on idolaters. They could not rampage around the city burning down pagan temples. Some might argue they could if only they had enough faith… but I question whether they would truly be doing the will of God. [Since the demise of Israel as a nation… God has given over the world to the gentiles…. He has not given temporal authority to the people of Israel or the Church of God… we are still in the midst of the time of the gentiles].
The first century church was in the midst of a system where pagan religion was an integral part of EVERYTHING. Even something as seemingly simple as a butcher shop involved pagan ritual, veneration of idols, the notion of killing animals as sacrifice etc. The Greco-Roman world was not a “secular society”. Even if the average person didn’t put much stock in the rituals and idols they still did it… as a matter of culture, national/racial identity and so forth.
In cities like Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, church members would be hard pressed to find meat [and possibly other kinds of foods] that had not in some way been tainted by some passing association with idols and pagan ritual. … pagan practices would affect business, employment, legal status, property management, the coins and money used to pay you for work [or that you would use to purchase goods] would be stamped with idolatrous images … EVERYTHING was stained with idolatry.
With regard to food, some members chose to practise radical purity… “if I can’t know that the meat has not been slaughtered in a manner that pays homage to some pagan God… I’ll be a vegetarian”. While other members took the approach of “if I am not personally/actively engaging in the idolatry all around me I have distanced myself from it sufficiently”. This had tremendous potential to create division, disputation, finger pointing, and condemnation among the members of God’s Church… which it did!
l You’re not doing enough to avoid contamination by idols… you’re a spiritual slacker
l You’re picking and choosing what you decide to be firm about… you won’t eat meat but you have a purse full of coins stamped with idol images
1 Corinthians 8:1 1 Corinthians 8:1Now as touching things offered to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but charity edifies.
American King James Version× Both sides on the issue had a rational logical position. But having a rational reason for following your own personal course of action is good but its no substitute for Godly love [agape=I choose to love even though I may not feel like it].
1 Corinthians 8:2-8 1 Corinthians 8:2-8  And if any man think that he knows any thing, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.
 But if any man love God, the same is known of him.
 As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
 For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)
 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.
 However, there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol to this hour eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.
 But meat commends us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.
American King James Version× scripture is very clear that idols are lifeless stone or wood. The idols used by pagan meat vendors had no power to consecrate or defile the meat [example of Indian restaurant].
However, some people have grown up all their lives thinking of idols as having some real power and when they eat food they think may have been offered to an idol they feel like they are dishonoring the true God. But the meat is the same molecules and atoms regardless of whatever wood or stone idols were present when it was slaughtered. People with a well informed conscience can eat it without guilt.
Note: ancient temples were also banquet halls. So, a person might be invited to a meal hosted by the local blacksmiths guild… hosted in the temple of Vulcan.
1 Corinthians 8:9-11 1 Corinthians 8:9-11  But take heed lest by any means this liberty of your's become a stumbling block to them that are weak.
 For if any man see you which have knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;
 And through your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
American King James Version× your freedom to eat or not eat is not the issue… what is important is the effect it has on your brothers and sisters in Christ.
From their point of view the people who would not eat meat for fear of contamination by demons were taking the issue very seriously… and they had a workable solution… [it was strict, riddled with inconsistencies, but workable]. But how are church members who feel guilty about eating this meat and other members who’s conscience is clear on the matter going to get along?
Let’s say the Corinthian church decides to have a potluck. The members with a clear conscience about eating this meat bring it to the meal. The members with a guilty conscience bring only vegetables. The presence of the vegetables don’t bother the people with a clear conscience, but the presence of this meat does bother the members who feel the meat is tainted by association… and the fact that other members would even think to bring it at all probably bothers them as well.
To this Paul says… better that I never eat meat than to cause other believers to stumble or fall away. Paul’s answer is not to prioritize his freedom of conscience over the feelings and concerns of others 1 Corinthians 8:12-13 1 Corinthians 8:12-13  But when you sin so against the brothers, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
 Why, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I make my brother to offend.
American King James Version×.
Paul does not want anyone to think that he considers these idols in the meat markets to be anything other than lifeless wood or stone. He makes that quite clear and puts it in writing [as we have just read]. But as far as how he interacts with people he says… better that I never exercise my freedom to eat this meat [or bring it to a potluck] than to cause problems for people who do not see it the same way.
Be Careful Where Your Knowledge and Freedom Lead You
Paul also wants people with a clear conscience about eating this type of meat to take their avoidance of idolatry and pagan practice very seriously. After citing the failings of ancient Israel in these matters he says this.
1 Corinthians 10:14-16 1 Corinthians 10:14-16  Why, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.
 I speak as to wise men; judge you what I say.
 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?
American King James Version× participation in a meal before an altar has spiritual implications
1 Corinthians 10:17-21 1 Corinthians 10:17-21  For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
 Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?
 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that you should have fellowship with devils.
 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: you cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils.
American King James Version× Paul clearly believed there was a real presence of demons at idol feasts and therefore spiritual communion with them. He was not concerned about the effect demons might have on the meat he ate… and did not want anyone to think he did… but didn’t want anyone to believe he didn’t take demons very seriously. Nor did he want those people who had a clear conscience about the meat they ate to fall into the trap of sloppiness, compromise, or indifference.
Are we stronger than God? … do you think you are better at determining what is permissible and what should be avoided than God… so be careful.
To their credit the people who decided to eat only vegetables were taking the very real issue of demonic influences very seriously. I do not think God would find fault with them for that.
1 Corinthians 10:23-24 1 Corinthians 10:23-24  All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.
 Let no man seek his own, but every man another's wealth.
American King James Version× once again… knowledge and understanding [the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not] … are good but are not more important than the practice of Godly love.
1 Corinthians 10:25-33 1 Corinthians 10:25-33  Whatever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:
 For the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.
 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and you be disposed to go; whatever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
 But if any man say to you, This is offered in sacrifice to idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof:
 Conscience, I say, not your own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience?
 For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?
 Whether therefore you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
 Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:
 Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.
American King James Version× Paul advocates different responses based on the context:
Scenario 1 - there is no mention of idolatrous associations. Paul advises don’t ask… because as soon as you do you’re going to have to walk away.
Scenario 2 - a person is pointing out the idolatrous association the meat has. This could be: 1) a person who is testing you 3) a person who is pleased about the idolatry and wants you to share in their enjoyment.
In all such scenarios Paul wants you to demonstrate that you take these matters seriously!
Romans 14:1-4 Romans 14:1-4  Him that is weak in the faith receive you, but not to doubtful disputations.
 For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs.
 Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him which eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.
 Who are you that judge another man's servant? to his own master he stands or falls. Yes, he shall be held up: for God is able to make him stand.
American King James Version× Paul considers the questions about eating meat potentially offered to idols versus a radical avoidance and vegetable only diet to be disputable. Many of the issues I have brought before me are what I would call “disputable”… that’s why they end up at my doorstep. Members know very well how to judge indisputable situations. They don’t need me for that.
But, I also find that people very often work over a matter in their own mind such that to them it becomes indisputable. They often then feel a need to convince others to see the matter their way… and to condemn others who do not “get it” [krinos].
Since he is on the subject of how food and drink affect how people treat one another Paul throws in the question of special days of fasting Romans 14:5-9 Romans 14:5-9  One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
 He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
 For none of us lives to himself, and no man dies to himself.
 For whether we live, we live to the Lord; and whether we die, we die to the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's.
 For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
American King James Version×. Note: It was common for Jewish people to set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays as days of fasting. This practice carried over into the Church of God because there were some many converted Jews at that time… even in a city like Rome. Paul did not consider it a requirement, or something which people should be condemned for not doing.
Putting on the Mind of Christ
Paul could have said: “you vegetable people do your thing and the rest of us meat eaters will do our thing”. But that isn’t what he said.
Romans 14:10-20 Romans 14:10-20  But why do you judge your brother? or why do you set at nothing your brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
 For it is written, As I live, said the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
 Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.
 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteems any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
 But if your brother be grieved with your meat, now walk you not charitably. Destroy not him with your meat, for whom Christ died.
 Let not then your good be evil spoken of:
 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
 For he that in these things serves Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.
 Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things with which one may edify another.
 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eats with offense.
American King James Version× Paul did not advocate a free-for-all where everyone did their own thing and stayed out of other people’s business. What he advocated was a willing surrender of your own personal rights, freedoms, physical comforts and satisfactions, for the sake of others.
A congregational free-for-all might seem like a workable solution… but it isn’t. The people who were not concerned about tainted meat would win. At our imaginary potluck they would be perfectly content, whereas the vegetable only crowd would feel compromised by the presence of this dubious meat… tainted and unclean through its association with idols.
Some might start wondering if they would be better off somewhere else… or maybe they would condemn the freewheeling approach of the meat-eaters. And maybe the meat-eaters would retaliate by questioning the weak faith of the vegetable people.
Paul addressed this potential problem Romans 14:21-23 Romans 14:21-23  It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.
 Have you faith? have it to yourself before God. Happy is he that comdemns not himself in that thing which he allows.
 And he that doubts is damned if he eat, because he eats not of faith: for whatever is not of faith is sin.
American King James Version×
In disputable matters the Church of God does not want anyone to violate or over-ride their conscience. However, notice that Paul is not shy about saying where He stands.
Paul presents this approach as thinking, and acting, like Christ Romans 15:1-13 Romans 15:1-13  We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
 Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification.
 For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached you fell on me.
 For whatever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
 Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus:
 That you may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 Why receive you one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.
 Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers:
 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.
 And again he said, Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.
 And again, Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; and laud him, all you people.
 And again, Esaias said, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.
 Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.
American King James Version×
There is no greater love than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.