In order to better understand 1 Corinthians 12 we should learn a little about the historical context. You may remember from the introduction to 1 Corinthians, that Paul wrote this letter in response to a letter that the Corinthians sent him, and also in response to the report some visitors from Corinth gave him about the church.
In 1 Corinthians 7:1 Paul says, “now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” Apparently chapter 8 is continuing to address some things that the Corinthians wrote about in their letter to Paul. The topic for this chapter is food (almost certainly meat) that had been sacrificed to idols.
In those days, meat was a relatively rare commodity. There was no refrigeration of course, so all meat had to be eaten within a day or two of the slaughter. Even as recently as the 19th century, one of the great attractions for joining the British army was that all soldiers were given a ration of meat every day. Daily meat was rare enough to make this a big selling point for recruiters. In the 1st century (when Paul wrote this) meat was at least that scarce, if not more so.
When I was a child, my family sometimes went to live in small villages in Papua New Guinea for weeks at a time. The situation there was similar, as regards meat. We ate vegetables and rice. Meat was only for special occasions of celebration and feasting. Once an animal was slaughtered, it had to be eaten with a day or two.
In 1st Century Corinth, the main occasions for eating meat would be connected one way or another with the worship of idols and false gods. If it was a feast day or some other special day of worship in the pagan religion, people would go the temple and slaughter an animal. Part of the animal might be burned on an altar, or left in front of the idol. Another portion would be given to the priests. A third portion would be given back to the worshipers to feast with. Sometimes families would make a sacrifice or have an idol feast for some personal reason, and the meat was divided the same way. On feast days especially, the priests and temple workers would often end up with more meat than they could eat before it spoiled. So they would sell the rest in the city meat market. If the animal was large, the family celebrating might also have too much meat, and likewise, sell the extra. Alternatively, the family would sometimes invite friends and relatives over for more feasting after the pagan worship, in order to use up the rest of meat.
So during or immediately after pagan worship celebrations, meat would be more available, and less expensive than at other times. But a lot of that meat would have been originally part of pagan worship ceremonies to idols and false gods.
Not only that, but for a poor family, they might have a chance to eat free meat by going with friends to a pagan temple, or by eating at the houses of friends who had just sacrificed at the temple.
Apparently the Christians at Corinth were divided over whether it was OK to eat meat that had been involved in pagan worship, or whether it was wrong. We don’t know know for sure, but is possible that when Paul says “we know that all of us possess knowledge” he is quoting their letter to him. From this, and from the tone of his response, it sounds like at least some of the believers at Corinth were saying, “Look, we know that there is only God, and idols are nothing. So we are free to eat whatever we want, whenever and wherever we want to.”
Paul responds in two parts. The first part of his answer is here in chapter eight. He gets into a very involved discussion and then concludes his answer in chapter 10. But there appears to be two distinct issues here. The first is, “is it OK, in general to eat meat that might have been sacrificed to an idol?” The second question is, “is it OK to attend the idol feasts themselves and eat there?”
Paul’s answer in chapter eight is to change the subject.
It isn’t that he doesn’t have an answer – he gives the answers fairly definitely in chapter 10. But his point in chapter eight is that the issue is not really about eating meat, but rather about looking out for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is set up like this. In Paul’s opinion, nothing is unclean.
6 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism…(Colossians 2:16-18)
There are some things in the bible that are neither commanded nor forbidden. We should not accept someone judging us regarding something like that. When it is not commanded or forbidden, we can keep a clear conscience about our own behavior, whatever we choose.
At the same time, Paul recognizes that not everyone is in the same place with regard to conscience. Some of the Corinthians had previously been Jews; they had never in their lives worshiped idols, nor believed that there was anything to an idol. Therefore eating meat used in sacrifice, or even eating at the temple, presented no problem to them.
On the other hand, many of the Christians in Corinth used to worship those very same idols. Going to the temple might suck them back into that lifestyle and belief system. In some cases, they felt that even eating something offered at the pagan temple would be sinful. Paul says, even though they are technically free from all that, if they believe it is wrong and then do it, they have succumbed to sin in terms of their intentions. They have violated their own conscience.
Once when they were younger, one of my children took a swing at one of her siblings. She wasn’t terribly coordinated, and the punch did not connect at all – she punched air. So technically, she did nothing wrong. But obviously, it was her intention to punch her sibling in the face. I disciplined her just as if the punch had connected. I did this because obviously something in her heart needed to be corrected, even if she failed to carry out the deed. It is the same here.
Suppose I point a gun at someone, believing it is loaded, and pull the trigger. If the gun is not loaded, I will not actually harm the person. Even so, I could be arrested and convicted for attempted murder. The fact that I did not actually do wrong does not change the fact that I intended to.
Paul, writing about basically the same subject as 1 Corinthians 8 in Romans 14, puts it this way:
But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
So a person who eats idol-meat, believing it is wrong, has deliberately done something they think is wrong. In that person’s heart, he made a choice to do wrong, even though the action itself is morally neutral. Paul’s conclusion about all of it is this:
20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.21It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Romans 14:20-21)
The point is not what you are free to do, but rather, how your actions affect your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
Now, I haven’t been invited to any idol-feasts lately. I couldn’t tell you if I have ever eaten meat sacrificed to an idol (though considering how I grew up, my chances are better than yours). So what does this mean for us today? Is it just a historical curiosity, or is there a principle here that helps us even now?
I think the principle is clear: when something is neither commanded nor forbidden by the bible, we should internally hold on to our freedom, while externally behaving in such a way so as to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ.
These days, many Christians aren’t sure about alcohol. Some drink to excess and never worry about it. Others feel that even a sip would be sinful. It is clear to me that Jesus and his disciples drank alcohol in the form of wine. Paul wrote to Timothy to drink a little wine for his health. But the New Testament also clearly says that drunkenness is a sin. It is listed alongside adultery and homosexual behavior in 1 Corinthians 6, which we studied a few weeks ago.
So for myself personally, I have a clear conscience drinking a glass of wine with dinner, or having one alcoholic beverage over the course of an evening. I have never been drunk. Praise the Lord, I’ve never even been tempted to drink too much.
But I know some people who think it is categorically wrong. If I am around someone who feels that way, I won’t drink anything at all, so that I don’t throw them into confusion, or cause them to violate their own conscience.
Likewise, I know some people who can’t stop with just one drink. If they have one drink, they are going to have at least three or four (or maybe a lot more), and they won’t stop until the alcohol affects them. They can’t drink without at least getting “buzzed.” Unfortunately, that usually means they would be legally considered drunk if they were driving. Those people may or may not feel alcohol is wrong. But I won’t drink when I’m around them either, for fear of encouraging them to drink too much.
I am settled in my own mind that I’m free to drink alcohol without abusing it. I have a clear conscience about my occasional use of it. But in terms of where and when I have some, my concern is not about my own freedom, but about the spiritual welfare of the people I am with.
There are other things like this. Some Christians feel that dancing is wrong. Others have issues with certain foods. Some believers feel that you have to observe certain Christian festivals or ceremonies. Some people feel it is wrong to shop on Sunday. I am convinced in my own mind about my freedom in Jesus Christ. Even so, I am willing to alter my behavior so as not to cause harm to another believer in Jesus. Paul puts it this in Romans 14:13. [When he says “brother” he means “person who believes in Jesus Christ, whether male or female.”]
13Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
Far from being some ancient and irrelevant problem of the Corinthians, the whole concept of food sacrificed to idols is very relevant today. Ask the Lord to speak to you about this right now.