8. The Case for Spiritual Purity (1 Corinthians 8 and 10)

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The head of Dionysos, detail from a beautifully preserved mosaic floor from a Roman villa (2nd century A.D). Dionysos is  the Greek god of wine and madness, vegetation, and the theatre, and was the focus of various mystery cults.  Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth.
The head of Dionysos, detail from a beautifully preserved mosaic floor from a Roman villa (2nd century A.D). Dionysos is the Greek god of wine and madness, vegetation, and the theatre, and was the focus of various mystery cults. Archaeological Museum of Ancient Corinth.

"Now about food sacrificed to idols264.... " (8:1a)

The Corinthians have inquired by letter about the topic of eating food offered to idols, so Paul discusses the matter throughout chapter 8, then digresses to discuss his apostolic authority in chapter 9, and picks the topic up again in chapter 10. For convenience, we'll look at chapter 9 in a separate lesson, but we'll study both chapters 8 and 10 in this lesson, since they both relate to idolatry. Though we don't have very much idol worship in the West these days, you'll find that many of the principles Paul introduces in these chapters have lots of application in the twenty-first century.

The Corinthians had a serious problem with temptations related to idol worship -- even after conversion to faith in Christ. The Greek culture in Corinth was infused with invoking various gods. The Corinthian believers had grown up going to family parties, state feasts, and community celebrations that were held in the precincts of one of the various pagan temples in the city. There were no restaurants, so larger celebrations were held in the temple.

One of the believers was likely to receive a message such as the following actual invitation written on papyrus:

"Chaeremon requests your company at the table of the lord Sarapis at the Sarapeum [temple of Sarapis] tomorrow, the 15th at 9 o'clock."265

Another extant papyrus document invites a friend to a meal at the temple of Sarapis to celebrate the first birthday of a daughter.266

At one of these celebrations, meat would be sacrificed: some burned before the god, some apportioned to those at the celebration, and some placed on the "table of the god," which was tended by the priests but also eaten by those at the feast.267 There was a religious element, to be sure, but these were intensely social situations.

Not to respond positively to such an invitation, put Christians at a social disadvantage, so apparently some believers resisted what Paul had taught them and attended these feasts in the temples anyway, "eating in an idol's temple" (8:10). But this was causing big problems for the church, and hurting the tender faith of some of the new converts from paganism.

Some of Corinthians were justifying their actions by spouting liberal-minded knowledge about the nature of idols and the indifference of food to one's salvation. They also questioned Paul's authority as an apostle to correct them in this matter in chapters 8 and 10.

PART A (chapter 8)

Since this is a long lesson, if you're studying this in a class or group, you might want to split your study into two parts, Part A (chapter 8) and Part B (chapter 10).

Pride in Knowledge (8:1a)

Paul begins by addressing the Corinthians' pride and sense of superiority regarding their "knowledge" (gnosis) of these matters of eating food in pagan temples.

"1b We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 The man who thinks268 he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But the man who loves God is known by God." (8:1-3)

Knowledge is good, Paul is saying, but love is better. Knowledge "puffs up," causes an exaggerated idea of one's own status.269 Love, on the other hand, builds up or strengthens a person.270 These believers claimed to know something, but were missing out on the basics -- loving God and loving their fellow believers, especially those who had scruples about eating food in pagan temples, and who were struggling because these older Christians were participating in the things the new believers had been converted from!

An Idol Is No Kind of God (8:4-6)

"4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live." (8:4-6)

Paul agrees with these so-called "knowledgeable" believers that an idol has no real existence as a being. They are nothing.271 They are called gods by pagans,272 but are not, in fact, gods at all. Rather, he says, we have one God, our heavenly Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. Notice the functions ascribed to the Father and the Son according to the prepositions in verse 6:

God the Father

  • "from (ek273) whom all things came."
  • "for (eis274) whom we live."

Lord Jesus Christ

  • "through (dia275) whom all things came."
  • "through (dia) whom we live."

The Father is the origin and purpose, while the Son is the agent through whom we were created and experience God's life.

Confusion and a Weak Conscience (8:7-8)

"But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to276 idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. (8:7)

You know these things, says Paul, but brand new believers who grew up in idol worship don't understand how you can eat in pagan temples the food that has just been dedicated to pagan gods.

 Here Paul introduces the conscience, Greek syneidēsis, "the inward faculty of distinguishing right and wrong, moral consciousness, conscience."277 Some people see the conscience as "God's voice in the soul." But that's too simplistic. The conscience can be educated to include what we believe is right and wrong -- taught from an early age by our parents and society. A conscience can be taught untruths. A person with a "weak278" conscience is someone who believes something is "wrong" to do, even if is not, in fact, wrong or unrighteous.

But to force or shame someone into acting against his or her conscience is extremely harmful. Paul says that such a conscience is "defiled."279 The person now feels morally compromised, and may just give up trying to live righteously and return to their former pagan way.

Paul acknowledges that what we eat is, in itself, neutral. It doesn't defile us, nor does it make us spiritual.

"Food does not bring us near280 to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do." (7:8)

Elsewhere, to people who were hung up on Jewish dietary laws, Paul said something similar:

"For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." (Romans 14:17)

Nevertheless, in spite of their "superior knowledge" that idols have no real existence and that what you eat is irrelevant, Paul insists that participating in a feast in a pagan temple is wrong!

Don't Let Your Knowledge Cause a Weak Brother to Stumble (8:9-13)

Paul is reasoning with them. Here he argues that their eating in pagan temples will hurt their weaker brothers.

"9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block281 to the weak. 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall." (8:9-13)

So picture these "liberal" Corinthians who believe (correctly) that idols are not real beings and that what we eat is immaterial to our faith. They are feasting with their friends in pagan temples and flaunting their freedom to do so before some new converts to the Christian faith who have turned their back on pagan worship. By their actions and superior attitude, these "liberal" Christians are encouraging282 the new believers to go back to the temples and take up what they had renounced.

The new Christians are confused, so they follow the example of the "liberal" Christians. But when they actually do go to the temple and eat the meat that had just been offered to the pagan gods, their consciences rebel. Paul describes three results:

  1. Faith is shattered. The Greek word translated "destroyed" (NIV, NRSV), "perish" (KJV) is apollymi, "perish, be ruined."283
  2. Consciences are wounded. Their consciences suffer a beating. "Wound" is typtō, literally, "to inflict a blow, strike, beat, wound," here figuratively, "strike, assault" someone's conscience.284 When you go against what you believe is right, you feel terribly guilty.
  3. Fall back into paganism. Some of these new believers are giving up and falling back into their old pagan ways.285

Paul tells the "liberal" Christians in no uncertain terms that they are responsible for the destruction of these new believers' faith that they have caused. He says,

"When you sin against your brothers in this way ... you sin against Christ." (9:12)

What is the root of their sin? Pride and self-centeredness. They flaunt their superior "knowledge" and refuse to consider how this will affect others. Dear friend, have you ever considered how your pride and your self-centeredness affects your spouse, your children, and those who know you? Pride and self-centeredness are not just immaturity. They are sin. Destructive sin!

Q1. (1 Corinthians 8:1-8) The "liberal" Corinthians had ready excuses for why it was okay to eat with their friends in feasts held in pagan temples. What were their excuses that Paul combats in verse 1-6? Sometimes we excuse our own questionable behaviors. How can we assess the validity of our excuses? What effect would observing your behavior have on new Christians?

Paul concludes,

"Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never286 eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall." (8:13)

Does this mean that he will never be a carnivore again? No, since he qualifies this later in 10:24-30. But what he does mean is that he will restrict his own freedom, if his freedom will harm others. That's what it means in the next chapter when he says:

"To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (9:22)

PART B (1 Corinthians 10)

For the moment we're going to skip 1 Corinthians 9 and pick it up in the next lesson, because in chapter 10, Paul continues his discussion of feasting in pagan temples. In 10:7-22 he adds that eating in pagan temples will contaminate the believers spiritually, due to the demonic nature of pagan worship, and then gives some practical instructions about living in a pagan society (10:23-33).

God's Wasn't Pleased with the Israelites (10:1-5)

Paul begins chapter 10 by instructing the Corinthians from the experience of the Israelites in the desert -- who were also hurt by idolatry.

First, he establishes for the purposes of the illustration that the Israelites were believers. He is saying that, in a sense, they were baptized, that they were spiritual people. Paul is trying to help the Corinthians see that the Israelites can be a helpful example to them.

"1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 287 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert." (10:1-5)

Paul, alluding to baptism and the Lord's Supper, is using a form of rabbinical argument here, but it's important not to push Paul's analogy too far. His point, according to F.F. Bruce is:

"... to show that their 'baptism' did not preserve them ex opere operato288 from premature death when they later rebelled against God, nor guaranteed their entrance into the promised land."289

We could spend time exploring all the Old Testament references to Paul's analogy (which you can find in most commentaries), but rather we'll stay on track with Paul's main point to the Corinthians about the danger of idolatry.

Learn from the Israelites' Punishment for their Sins (10:6-11)

Now Paul recalls how the Israelites displeased God.

"6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: 'The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.'290 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did -- and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did -- and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did -- and were killed by the destroying angel." (10:6-10)

Paul refers to worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32), fornicating with the Moabite women who sought to win them over to their false gods (Numbers 25:1-9), rebelling against the Lord and being bitten by snakes (Numbers 21:4-7), and spreading unbelief and perpetual grumbling about food and being struck down by plague, attributed here to a "destroying angel" (Numbers 14:37; 16:46-49).

Paul warns the Corinthians:

"These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come." (10:11)

God hasn't changed. When you sin and rebel against God, you subject yourself to his discipline and punishment. Hey, you "liberal" Corinthians, don't toy with sin or you'll suffer the consequences.

Standing in Temptation (10:12-13)

The Corinthians prided themselves on their "knowledge" and "spirituality." Don't kid yourselves, says Paul.

"So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (10:12)

If we think we're invulnerable to sin -- or have "fire insurance" and can therefore sin with impunity, we are stupid. The Israelites couldn't. Neither can we.

Now Paul gives us a wonderful insight into God's power to help us resist temptation. Many have memorized this verse and found it to be a tremendous help in the struggles of the Christian life.

"No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." (10:13)

The word for "temptation" (NIV, KJV), "testing" (NRSV) is peirasmos, "test, trial," here, "an attempt to make one do something wrong, temptation, enticement to sin."291 God tests us by various trials in order to help us to see ourselves clearly, to learn to rely on him, and to toughen us. Trials are part of our spiritual boot camp.

But in our passage, Paul doesn't seem to be discussing trials that God allows, but temptations to sin, since the context is flirting with idolatry. God tests us, but he never tempts us to do wrong. James writes:

"When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." (James 1:13-14)

Rather, Satan is called the tempter (Matthew 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 3:5; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11-13; Revelation 12:9). As God's enemy, he seeks to entice us to turn away from God as he tried to do with Job (Job 1:9-12; 2:4-7). God allows us to be tempted -- as he allowed Jesus to be tempted -- but he does not tempt us with evil, or desire that we fall to temptation.

The real problem with temptation, James says, is our "own evil desire." To resist sin, we must desire to resist sin, not secretly desire to give in. As long as we nurture our pet sins and make excuses for ourselves, they will control us. But when we learn to "crucify" these evil desires and deny them, they lose their power over us. Paul wrote to the Galatian church:

"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)

"Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:24)

"May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Galatians 6:14)

1 Corinthians 10:12-13 teaches us several things:

1. Everyone is tempted, even spiritual people. Even those who seem to be "standing firm"292 must be watchful293, lest they fall294 to temptation. Jesus was tempted. It is not a sin to be tempted. Martin Luther once said: "You can't stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair."

2. Temptation can seem overwhelming. Paul uses an interesting expression, "No temptation has seized you...." The verb295 translated "seized" (NIV), "overtaken" (NRSV), "taken" (KJV) is in the perfect tense, the continuation and present state of a completed past action, meaning that the temptation (desire to sin) has seized someone and still holds them. This overwhelming desire to sin can seem very powerful.

3. Your temptations are not unique to you.296 Temptation is part of the human condition. Not everyone struggles with your particular temptations -- each of us has his or her own particular weaknesses. But many share your particular struggle. You are not alone. Others have learned to overcome your temptation. The excuse, "No one could understand my temptation," is bogus.

3. God is with you in your temptations. God doesn't desert you when you are tempted. He is right there. He can be trusted to help you -- he is faithful.297 That you are tempted -- and sometimes succumb -- is no surprise to God. He knows you intimately -- and loves you intensely. So you can confide in him about your struggles and he'll help you.

4. God won't let you be tempted beyond your ability to resist. Sometimes the temptation seems too strong for us. We "have to" give in, we think. But God provides the power of his Holy Spirit to us. As we learn to rely on his power, we can stand. You have the ability to resist temptation, but not in yourself or your own strength. The only way you'll be able to resist temptation is to rely on God's strength. God won't allow298 a temptation stronger299 than he gives you strength300 to bear. We don't know our strength when it is in the Lord. That's one reason he allows temptation -- so we can learn his strength.

5. God will provide a way out so you can endure the temptation without falling. Here's a powerful promise. "With301" the temptation also comes a way out of it. "Way out" (NIV, NRSV), "way to escape" (KJV) is the noun ekbasis, "way out of some difficulty, a way out, end."302 Vincent says, "The word means 'an egress, a way out.' In classical Greek, especially, it refers to of a way out of the sea. Hence, in later Greek it is used of 'a landing-place.'"303

We may despair. We may be faced with the classic "lesser of two evils." But God can help us know what to do. He can guide us. Sometimes we think we are powerless to avoid sin because we are not willing to do something radical enough to get out of the situation. As the writer of Hebrews says,

 "In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood." (Hebrews 12:4)

God will help us find that "way out" if we seek him. He will give us the ability304 to endure305 the temptation.

Q2. (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) What about our human make-up causes us to face temptation? What does this passage teach about our temptations? What does it teach us about God's help in temptation?

Flee from Idolatry (10:14)

This very helpful verse on resisting temptation was given in the context of the temptation to eat food sacrificed to idols in the pagan temples the Corinthians grew up in. Now he calls on them to do something radical.

"Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry." (10:14)

"Flee" (NIV) is pheugō, "to seek safety in flight, flee," figuratively, "to keep from doing something by avoiding it because of its potential damage, flee from, avoid, shun."306 Earlier, Paul had exhorted the Corinthians to "flee fornication" (6:18). So long as we try to remain "sophisticated" and "knowing" in order to impress others, we open ourselves to temptation. But sometimes, the best -- the only -- thing to do is to flee, run, escape, leave the site of the temptation. That may sound radical to you, but you'll never find victory over temptation when you court it with mild tolerance. Flee!

Eating the Lord's Supper Is Participating in Christ's Death (10:15)

"I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say." (10:15)

Paul has been trying to convince them of the danger of participating in feasts in pagan temples. Now he seeks to reason with them, by referring to them as "sensible people."307 His argument draws on two elements -- the Lord's Supper and the temple priests in the Old Testament partaking of a portion of the sacrifices offered by people.

 "16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. 18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?" (10:15-18)

As we study Paul's argument carefully, some startling truths about the Lord's Supper begin to emerge.

The Cup of Blessing (10:15a)

This phrase is translated two ways in modern translations:

"The cup of blessing which we bless...." (KJV, NASB, NRSV)
"The cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks...." (NIV)

I go into greater detail in my book, entitled The Lord's Supper: Meditations for Disciples on the Eucharist or Communion (JesusWalk, 2006, 2011). However, in brief, the blessing is not in the cup itself, but in God to whom blessing was offered over the wine during the Passover Seder.308

"Blessed are You, O Lord our God,
who have created the fruit of the vine."309

We Partake of the One Loaf (1 Corinthians 10:17)

Before we get into the meaning of "participation" or "communion," let's consider the description of the bread in verse 17.

"Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." (10:17)

The word "bread" (KJV, NRSV, NASB) or "loaf" (NIV) is the common word artos, "a baked product produced from a cereal grain, bread," also, "loaf of bread."310 The bread Jesus used at the Last Supper was unleavened, but we have no record that the early church made an effort to make special unleavened bread for the Lord's Supper. Their normal leavened bread was no doubt used for the occasion.

It was the custom in Israel for the head of the house to begin each meal by taking the loaf of bread, giving thanks, and then breaking or tearing it and giving some to each one at the table. Among the disciples, Jesus was the one who broke the bread and began the meals this way. Paul uses this custom as a symbol of unity:

"Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." (10:17)

The verse seems almost parenthetical to the main thrust of the passage. But Paul can't leave this mention of the bread without making a special point about unity. Why?

As we have seen, the church at Corinth had serious problems with unity. So here, Paul uses the symbol of the one loaf of bread to remind the believers of this metaphor of unity -- Christian believers as a body with Christ as the head.

Instead of dozens of tiny plastic cups that are sometimes used for communion, the early church usually passed a single cup to each member, and the bread was broken from a single loaf, with some distributed to each. We are one in Christ!

Participation, Communion, Koinōnia (1 Corinthians 10:16)

Now we step back to verse 16 to examine the idea of koinōnia that Paul is teaching.

"Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" (10:16)

One word stands out because it is repeated again and again -- the Greek word koinōnia, "participation" (NIV), also translated as "communion" (KJV) or "sharing" (NRSV). It means sharing something in common with others. The root koinē means common in contrast to private -- common ground, common pastureland, communal property, a couple's community property. When it refers to people, it means "participants, fellows." The idea is that which is shared in common with others.311

Paul uses this word koinōnia to describe the believer's relationship to the blood of Christ and to the body of Christ -- that is, the sacrifice of Christ for us. Since we are sharers in the sacrifice of Christ for us, how can we also share in pagan sacrifices? That is Paul's argument here.

But it is worthy of meditation to consider yourself as having a share in, or perhaps a claim upon, the blood of Christ shed for you and for all your Christian brothers and sisters. You are a shareholder in the cross. In a sense, you are a participant and sharer in this sacrifice made for you. Dwell on that and it will touch you to the center of your soul.

Q3. (1 Corinthians 10:16-18) What does koinōnia mean? What does it mean to "participate" or "share" in the blood of Christ? Or in the body of Christ?

Eating a Portion of the Sacrifice for Sin

Now Paul gives an illustration of his point from the sacrificial practice of the Old Testament priesthood.

"Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate (koinōnos) in the altar312?" (10:18)

The noun koinōnos is used in verse 18 to mean, "one who takes part in something with someone, companion, partner, sharer."313 Paul is referring here to the practice of the priesthood to eat a portion of the sacrifices brought to the tabernacle or temple. A portion was eaten by the priests and a portion was burned on the altar.314 In the case of a fellowship offering, a portion was also eaten by the offerer and his family.

The meat from sacrifices, along with the tithe, provided food for the priests and their families (Leviticus 10:12-15). But the priests' eating of the sacrifice was more than for food, as we see from the incident when Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu were slain by God for making unrighteous offerings. Aaron and his remaining sons Eleazar and Ithamar were in deep mourning and neglected to eat the sin offering, as was required by the Law (Leviticus 6:26). When Moses found out, he was angry:

"Why didn't you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the LORD." (Leviticus 10:17)

In other words, not only the offering of the goat by fire, but also the eating of a portion by the priests, was part of the atonement process.

Sharers in the Altar (10:18)

Now that we've studied the role of the priests in the sacrifice, we can see the point Paul is making. Look again at Paul's statement:

"Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate (koinōnos) in the altar?" (10:18)

Just as the priests were sharers in the sacrifice made on the altar of burnt offering,3 Paul is saying that you and I, as we eat of the Lord's Supper, become sharers in the offering of Christ on the cross for our sins.

This is a very profound thought indeed! If this is too mystical for your logical, rational brain, give it time. Meditate upon this passage and its reference to Old Testament sacrifice.

Q4. (1 Corinthians 10:18) In what way did the priests participate in the altar by eating of the Old Testament sacrifices? How does Paul connect this observation with our participation with Christ's sacrifice?

Sharers in the Cross

There is a sense that as we partake of the Lord's Supper we become participants in the Christian altar of sacrifice -- the cross. When we partake, we connect with the sacrifice and become sharers in it -- in Him -- in Christ's sacrifice for us.

During the Reformation, people argued about whether or not the Real Presence was in the sacrament. Whether or not that is the case, there is a Real Connection to Christ and his sacrifice in the Lord's Supper.

Yes, the Lord's Table is a memorial meal that looks back to Christ's sacrifice. But it is more. It is a meal that connects us now to Christ's sacrifice. We become participants, sharers, in a real sense.

This is one reason that the Lord's Supper is called "communion" in the KJV. This word describes the real but mystical connection that the Lord's Supper provides between us and Christ. In eating and drinking we can "commune" with him and he with us.

When I partake I become afresh a sharer in Christ's sacrifice. I indicate my stake, my share, in the sacrifice by eating of the symbolic portion in the Lord's Supper.

This is not just an outward form, but a symbol with great power in it connecting you and me directly to Christ's sacrifice for our sins.

Eating Food Sacrificed to Idols Is Participating with Demons (10:19-21)

If eating the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper connects us intimately to the sacrifice on the cross, Paul argues, then sitting in a pagan temple eating meat that has just been offered to pagan gods is not inconsequential.

"19 Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered 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." (10:19-21)

Paul agrees with the Corinthian "liberals" that an idol has no real existence as a god (8:4-6). They are no competition with the One God. But the act of eating food offered to idols is not spiritually neutral. Behind idol worship, Paul is telling us, is a demonically-inspired conspiracy to lead people away from the true God. To participate in pagan rituals is to participate with the unholy demonic forces that underlie them. The result is spiritual contamination. You can't at the same time have koinōnia with unholy demonic spirits and the Holy God!

Let's pause here a moment and talk about demonic contamination. Though I don't believe true Christians can be demon-possessed, I do believe that Christians who open themselves to demonic activity can become spiritually contaminated, spiritually compromised. I have a friend who participates in Wiccan rituals, celebrating the ancient so-called gods and goddesses of the British Isles. This isn't spiritually neutral. It is hard for me to believe that a person can open this kind of door to demonic spirits and remain free from demonic contamination.

If you've been involved in occult or pagan rituals, if you've used Ouija boards to communicate with spirits -- even "innocently" -- I encourage you to renounce all such activity in the name of Jesus! If you're still having trouble, you might want to seek out a person with a gift of discernment of spirits and a ministry of deliverance to help you.315

Q5. (1 Corinthians 10:19-21) The beings behind idols are not real gods, according to 1 Corinthians 8:4. What kind of beings does this passage say they are? What then is the spiritual danger to us of participating in idol worship (or the occult, for that matter)?

Beware of Offending the Lord (10:22-23)

Not only is eating food offered to idols -- and participating in pagan rituals -- spiritually contaminating, it is also deeply offensive to the Lord. It is spiritual adultery. It grieves the Holy Spirit within us (Ephesians 4:30).

"22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
23 'Everything is permissible' -- but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible' -- but not everything is constructive." (10:22-23)

We can't afford to get God angry with us! Paul concludes this argument by quoting to the Corinthians one of their guiding proverbs, "Everything is permissible," that he had commented on earlier in the context of having sex with prostitutes:

"'Everything is permissible for me' -- but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible for me' -- but I will not be mastered316 by anything." (6:12)

Yes, we have tremendous Christian freedom, Paul is saying, but that doesn't mean everything we want to do is helpful to our spiritual lives. When we sin flagrantly -- whether in sexual sins or participation in pagan rituals -- we open ourselves to spiritual bondage that can "master" us, and will take some effort to free ourselves from.

Practical Counsel about Eating Meat (10:24-27)

Paul has considered the various arguments against feasting in pagan temples on food offered to idols. Now he returns to the argument of love -- seeking the good of those believers who have a weak conscience and might fall into sin over this matter.

"24 Nobody should seek his 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 some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience." (10:24-27)

It was true that most of the meat available in the meat markets had been offered to idols, perhaps meat left over from a temple feast and then sold in the local markets.

Paul isn't trying to be legalistic, but practical. Don't raise "questions of conscience," he says. It is participation in idol worship and pagan rituals that is spiritually dangerous, not eating some cut of meat purchased in a street-shop or eating in someone's home. To support this Paul quotes Psalm 24:1 to the effect the everything -- all food and drink -- belongs the Lord, not to demons.

Abstain to Keep from Hurting the Weaker Brother (10:28-30)

But if you're challenged by someone concerning the history of the meat you're eating, Paul says, don't eat it.

"28 But if anyone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice,' then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake -- 29 the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours." (10:28-29)

If there's a young believer present who begins to inquire about the history of this particular meat and learns that it has been offered in sacrifice, don't eat it then, because you'll offend his tender conscience, a matter Paul discussed above at 8:7-13.

But be clear, says Paul, that this is a temporary concession to the weaker brother -- not a change in your own principles. Paul qualifies his statement:

"29 ... the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? (10:29-30)

We are to be concerned about causing others to sin, not limiting our own freedom in Christ when that person isn't present.

Seeking the Good of Others in Our Actions (10:31-11:2)

Paul continues to summarize:

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (10:31)

Living for the glory of God is a wonderful guideline for our lives. We see parallels elsewhere.

"In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:6)

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men." (Colossians 3:23)

"If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 4:11)

"And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:17)

Paul continues his summary:

32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God -- 33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (10:31-11:1)

Instead of doing what we please, we're to do our best not to hurt anyone's spiritual life, or "cause them to stumble." Why? Self-giving rather than selfish love.

"For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (10:33b-11:1)

This is similar to something he had said earlier:

"Therefore I urge you to imitate me." (4:16)

"Join with others in following my example317, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern318 we gave you." (Philippians 3:17)

The noun in each of these verses comes from the same word group -- mimētēs, "imitator."319 The verb means "to imitate, mimic."

1 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

Paul had lived before them as an example -- an example of self-giving love, an example of seeking the good of all, an example of being willing to do anything to win people to Christ. In a very real sense, what we leave the people closest to us as well as our friends is our example. Let it be an example of a life well-lived, centered on Jesus, lived to the full for the glory of God.


Father, work in my heart so that I am satisfied in living my life for you. Living selflessly doesn't come naturally. Forgive my selfishness. Forgive my sometimes lazy Christianity. Let me be an example that will lead others in your path. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one." (8:4b)

"Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak." (8:9)

"No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." (10:13)

"Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" (10:16)

"Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." (10:17)

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (10:31)


264. "Food sacrificed to idols" (NIV, NRSV), "things offered unto idols" (KJV) is eidōlothytos, "something offered to a cultic image/idol," here, "food sacrificed to idols" (BDAG 280), from eidōlon, "image, likeness, idol" + thuō, "to sacrifice."

265. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1.110, cited in Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 361, fn. 14.

266. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2791.

267. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 361.

268. "Thinks" (NIV, KJV), "claims" (NRSV) is dokeō, "to consider as probable, think, believe, suppose, consider," of subjective opinion (BDAG 254, 1b).

269. "Puffs up" is physioō, figuratively, "to cause to have an exaggerated self-conception, puff up, make proud," basically, "blow up, inflate' from, physa, "pair of bellows" (BDAG 1069).

270. "Builds up" (NIV, NRSV), "edifieth" (KJV) is oikodomeō, "build, construct a building," figuratively, "to help improve ability to function in living responsibly and effectively, strengthen, build up, make more able" (BDAG 696, 3).

271. "Nothing at all" (NIV), "no idol in the world really exists" (NRSV), "nothing" (KJV) is oudeis, as a substantive, "no one, nobody" (BDAG 735, 2a).

272. "So-called" (NIV, NRSV), "called" (KJV) is legō, "utter in words, say, tell, give expression to." Here, "to identify in a specific manner, call, name" (BDAG 590, 4).

273. Ek, "from," here is a "marker denoting origin, cause, motive, reason, from, of," derivation (BDAG 298, 3c).

274. Eis, "into," denotes a "marker of goals involving affective/abstract/suitability aspects, into, to," here, with the vocation, use, or end indicated "for, as" (BDAG 290, 4d).

275. Dia, "through," here, a "marker of personal agency, through, by" (BDAG 225, 4a).

276. "Accustomed to" (NIV, NRSV), "through former association with" (ESV), "with conscience of" (KJV) is synētheia, "a usage or practice that has become established or standard, custom," here, subjectively, "being or becoming accustomed" (BDAG 972, 2a). The NIV and NRSV reading is based on earlier manuscripts (Aleph* A B P Ψ etc.)The KJV uses the Textus Receptus (Alephc D G Byz) which reads instead syneidēsis, in the sense of "awareness of information about something, consciousness" (BDAG 967, 1), "through assimilation to the following suneidēsis" (Metzger, p. 557).

277. Syneidēsis, BDAG 968, 2.

278. "Weak" is asthenēs, "pertaining to experiencing some incapacity or limitation, weak." Here, of a weakness in faith, which, through lack of advanced knowledge, considers externals of the greatest importance (BDAG 143, 2c).

279. "Defiled" is molynō, "stain, soil," here, "to cause something to be ritually impure, defile" (BDAG 657, 2).

280. "Bring near/close" (NIV, NRSV), "commendeth" (KJV) is paristēmi, "cause to be present" could be understood as a legal technical term, "bring before (a judge)," as in "food will not bring us before (the judgment seat of) God," but since there isn't a forensic context, the sense is probably "bring before God = bring close to God" (BDAG 778, 1e).

281. "Stumbling block" is proskomma, literal act of stumbling, then figuratively, "opportunity to experience inward pain (take offense) or make a misstep, cause for offense, cause for making a misstep" (BDAG 882, 2b).

282. "Emboldened" (NIV, KJV), "encouraged" (NRSV) is oikodomeō, "to build," here, by extension, in an ironic sense, "to help improve ability to function in living responsibly and effectively, strengthen, build up, make more able" (BDAG 696, 3).

283. Apollymi, BDAG 116, 1bα, here in the middle voice.

284. Typtō, BDAG 1018, 2bβ.

285. "Cause to fall into sin" (NIV), "is a cause of their falling" (NRSV), "make to offend" (KJV) is skandalizō, "to cause to be brought to a downfall, cause to sin" (BDAG 926, 1a).

286. "Never again" (NIV), "never" (NRSV), "while the world standeth" (KJV) is literally, "unto the age," aiōn, "eternity," that is "to eternity," "never, not at all, never again" (also Mt 21:19; Mk 3:29; 11:14) (BDAG 32, 1b).

287. The reference to "the spiritual rock that accompanied them" (10:4) alludes to a Jewish legend (cf. Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities, 10.7; Tosefta Sukkāh 3:11-12) that conceived the idea of a rock which travelled alongside the people during their 40 year journey and supplied them with water as they required it. Paul doesn't endorse this legend, but affirms that Christ travelled with the Israelites to meet their needs (Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 91).

288. Latin, ex opere operato, means "from the work done." It is a technical phrase used by theologians since the 13th century to signify that the sacraments produce grace of themselves.

289. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 90.

290. Exodus 32:6b.

291. Peirasmos, BDAG 793, 2b. A related verb occurs later in the verse, "be tempted" (NIV, KJV), "be tested" (NRSV), the passive of peirazō. It could mean either "to endeavor to discover the nature or character of something by testing, try, make trial of, put to the test," referring to God's testing, or "to entice to improper behavior, tempt," referring to Satan's tempting (BDAG 793, 2b or 4).

292. "Standing firm" (NIV), "standing/standeth" (NRSV, KJV) is the common verb histēmi, "put, place, set," here, "stand firm in belief, stand firm" of personal commitment in general (BDAG 483, 4).

293. "Be careful" (NIV) is blepō, "to see," here, "be ready to learn about something that is needed or is hazardous, watch, look to, beware of" (BDAG 179, 5).

294. "Fall" is piptō, "fall," here, "to experience loss of status or condition, fall, be destroyed," in our verse, "fall in a transcendent or moral sense, be completely ruined" (BDAG 815, 2b).

295. Lambanō, "take, grasp," here figuratively, "to take into one's possession, take, acquire something," here, especially of feelings and emotions, "seize, come upon someone" (BDAG 583, 3).

296. "Common to man/everyone" is the adjective anthrōpinos (from the root for our English word "anthropology"). It means, "pertaining to being a person, human." (BDAG 80, 1a). It does not refer to males only, but to all humans.

297. "Faithful" is pistos, "pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust, trustworthy, faithful, dependable, inspiring trust/faith" (BDAG 820, 1aβ).

298. "Let" (NIV, NRSV), "suffer" (KJV) is eaō, "to allow someone to do something, let, permit." Used with a negative, as here, it means, "not permit, prevent" (BDAG 269, 1).

299. "Beyond" (NIV, NRSV), "above" (KJV) is hyper, a marker of a degree beyond that of a compared scale of extent, in the sense of excelling, surpassing, "over and above, beyond, more than" (BDAG 1031, B).

300. "Can bear" (NIV), "strength" (NRSV), "able" (KJV) is the verb dynamai, "to possess capability (whether because of personal or external factors) for experiencing or doing something, can, am able, be capable" (BDAG 262, b).

301. God's provision is provided alongside the temptation, using the preposition syn, "with," here as a marker of linkage, with a focus on addition of a person or thing, "with, at the same time as" (BDAG 962, 3a).

302. Ekbasis, BDAG 299, 3.

303. Vincent, Word Studies, in loc. The ancient Greek historian and philosopher Xenophon uses the term in the phrase, "The ford that was over against the outlet leading to the mountains" (Anabasis, iv. 3, 20).

304. "Can" (NIV), "be able" (NRSV, KJV) is dynamai, that occurred earlier in this verse.

305. "Stand up under it" (NIV), "endure it" (NRSV), "bear it" (KJV) is a single verb, hypopherō, literally, "'bear or carry by being under." Here it is used figuratively, "to bear up under trouble or difficulty, submit to, endure something" (BDAG 1042, 1).

306. Pheugō, BDAG 1052, 3.

307. "Sensible people" (NIV, NRSV), "wise men" (KJV) is the adjective phronimos, which Paul used with irony in 4:10: "Pertaining to understanding associated with insight and wisdom, sensible, thoughtful, prudent, wise" (BDAG 1066).

308. As Marshall puts it: "The cup of blessing was a Jewish technical term for the cup of wine, for which a blessing, that is, thanksgiving, was given to God" (I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord's Supper [Eerdmans, 1980], p. 119-120). So also Joachim Jeremias (A. Ehrhardt, tr.), The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Oxford:Basil Blackwell, 1955), p. 109, fn. 3; Robertson's Word Pictures, in loc., Vincent's Word Studies, in loc.; C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Harper's New Testament Commentaries; Harper & Row, 1968).

309. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (2 volume edition; Eerdmans, 1969, reprinted from the third edition, 1886), 2:496, with my editing to update the language from the "thee's and thou's." See also Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Christ (Eerdmans, 1958, reprinted from 1874 edition), pp. 238-244.

310. Artos, BDAG 136.

311. Friedrich Hauck, "koinonos, ktl.," TDNT 3:789-809. BDAG 553 sees verse 16 as meaning: "Do not the cup and the bread mean the common partaking of the body and blood of Christ? After all, we partake of one and the same bread."

312. Thusiastērion, "altar" is "a structure on which observances are carried out, including especially sacrifices, altar," specifically here the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard of the temple or tabernacle (BDAG 463).

313. Koinōnos, BDAG 553-554.

314. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 470, disagrees. He sees the reference to people sharing in the sacrificial meal in Deuteronomy 14:22-27, not the priest's share. I see the emphasis on the altar requiring this to be the priests' meal. Fee says, "Paul can only mean by 'sharers in the altar' that the participants shared together in the food on the altar."

315. There are lots of books in this field -- of widely varying quality. You might find some help by reading one of two books on this subject by Doris M. Wagner.

316. The verb is the passive of exousiazō, "to have the right of control, have the right/power" (BDAG 353).

317. Symmimētēs, "one who joins others as an imitator, fellow-imitator" (BDAG 958).

318. Typos, "an archetype serving as a model, type, pattern, model" (BDAG 1020, 6b).

319. Mimētēs, BDAG 652, a.

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