The previous articles provided an outline of 1 Corinthians 10 and expository comments on verses 1 to 22. This article offers comments on the section which stretches from chapter 10 verse 23 to chapter 11 verse 1.
In the earlier section Paul has taught that, because all forms of idolatry are both dangerous and irreconcilable with Christianity, they must be given a very wide berth. Fine so far, but there were two questions on the subject of idol meats which still awaited answers – and which the Corinthians had probably posed in their letter to Paul. The first was whether it was right to purchase and eat idol meat which was offered for sale indiscriminately with other meat in the marketplace.1 And the second was whether it was right for the Christian to accept an invitation to a meal from an unbeliever, knowing that it was at least possible that they would be tucking into idol meat together.
And so, in his final comments on the subject of idol meat, Paul addresses these two issues, encouraging the saints to eat meat freely without concern for its religious history. The Christian should abstain only if a fellow guest publicizes that history, and should do so simply to avoid causing his fellow guest to stumble.2
Both at the beginning (verses 23-24) and at the end (verses 31-33) of this section, Paul underlines the guiding principles which should govern the Christian’s attitude to all such questions.
For ease of reference, the outline of this section is reproduced below.
Christian liberty, 10. 23-11. 1.
(i) General guiding principles – seeking the profit of others, vv. 23-24
(ii) The Christian’s freedom to buy meat in the market, vv. 25-26
(iii) The Christian’s freedom to attend a meal with an unbeliever and to eat anything put before him, v. 27
(iv) ‘But what if … ?’, vv. 28-30
(v) General guiding principles – seeking the profit of others, 10. 31–11.1
(i) General guiding principles – seeking the profit of others, vv. 23-24
As already noted, this section, 10. 23-11. 1, starts and closes on much the same note – that of seeking the benefit of others. Both at the beginning and the end, Paul highlights the importance of ‘seeking’ (the word of both verse 24 and verse 33) the salvation and advantage of others (the word ‘helpful’ – expedient, profitable, beneficial – of verse 23 being more or less the same as the word ‘profit’ in verse 33). Clearly, the apostle attached enormous importance to the spiritual good of others.
Verse 23. ‘All things are lawful’. This expression appears four times in Paul’s letter: twice in 1 Cor. 6. 12 and twice here. It is likely that it was a popular Corinthian slogan, expressing their false understanding of Christian liberty. In chapter 6, the slogan was used in order to justify immorality, whereas here, in chapter 10, it was used to justify idolatry.
‘But not all things are helpful’ – not all things are expedient or worthwhile.
‘All things do not edify’ – all things do not build up. We must always consider others when deciding on our actions; ‘Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up’, Rom. 15. 2 ESV. This ‘principle of edification’ underlies much of the teaching of Paul’s letter; we meet it in chapters 6, 8, 10, and throughout chapters 12-14.
The proper question we need to ask is not whether any given action is ‘lawful’ or ‘permissible’, but whether it is helpful – whether it benefits those around me.
Verse 24. ‘Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being’. This makes explicit what Paul had implied in his previous statement, ‘all things do not edify’. There will undoubtedly be times when we need to restrict our freedom to ensure that others are built up in their faith.
In the context of this chapter, Paul clearly meant that the saints at Corinth should not eat meat associated with idols if their eating would damage the faith of other believers. We too need to balance our Christian freedom with our Christian responsibility. We are not at liberty to do harm to another believer by gratifying ourselves.
(ii) The Christian’s freedom to buy meat in the market, vv. 25-26
Paul distinguishes very plainly between (a) meat which was eaten in situations which were patently idolatrous, and (b) meat which may have been offered to an idol, but which wasn’t known to be such for sure – whether purchased in the meat-market,3>vv. 25-26, or served up as part of a meal provided by a neighbour, v. 27. Paul makes it clear that the Christian need not worry himself about either of these last two situations. No evil would come of eating such meat. Even if the meat had once come from an animal offered in sacrifice, it wasn’t being eaten at an idol feast and it wasn’t being eaten in recognition of an idol. There was, therefore, no danger of fellowship with demons, v. 20.
Verse 25. Even daily shopping in the market would present a problem to the thinking Corinthian Christian. Because much of the meat on sale would have been passed on from the temple-officials to the meat-dealers and offered by them for sale, the obvious question arose: ‘Is the Christian at liberty to purchase meat there?’ Indeed, given that meat offered to an idol came from sacrificial animals which were required to be free from blemish, in all likelihood such meat would have been the best meat in the market.
The Rabbis permitted Jews of the Dispersion to buy meat in the market, but stipulated that they could not purchase meat which had been offered to an idol. Jews were also to avoid buying meat from any shopkeeper who failed to give an assurance that he kept and sold only kõsher meat – kõsher meat being Levitically ‘clean’ animals slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law.
The over-scrupulous among the Corinthians wanted to know where the meat had been before it reached the market. Paul says, in effect, that its hoof-marks didn’t matter in the slightest! ‘If it doesn’t bother your conscience then go ahead and buy it and eat it’. For, in the final analysis, the food came from God who owns and provides all, v. 26.
Verse 26. The over-scrupulous were deeply exercised about the immediate origins and associations of the joint of meat, which, given its ultimate origin, was unnecessary. Although such meat may have been ritually slaughtered and offered – yes, even offered to demons, v. 20 – the meat could still be eaten. For God was its maker and no amount of offering it to idols would, or could, contaminate or infect it.
At this point, the apostle appealed to scripture to establish his teaching. He quoted Psalm 24 verse 1; ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness’, which words were used as a Jewish blessing at mealtimes.4 That Paul had mealtime prayers in mind is confirmed by his later words in verse 30, ‘if I partake with thanks … the food over which I give thanks’.
If then God was the Creator of the animal from which the meat came, then in itself the meat was good and could be eaten without any qualms. Ultimately, the meat belonged to God. It wasn’t tainted and would do the believer no harm. As the apostle later assured Timothy, ‘Every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God (in that the Lord pronounced all foods ‘clean’5) and prayer’, 1 Tim. 4. 4-5.
(iii) The Christian’s freedom to attend a meal with an unbeliever and to eat anything put before him, v. 27
As we have noted in earlier articles, some Corinthians were so liberated in their thinking that they felt free to eat idolmeat in any setting and situation – including that of a pagan religious ceremony. But others went to the opposite extreme and were so sensitive on the matter that, as we have just seen, they would eat nothing without first knowing its entire history. Every meal must have been an inquisition – with the host being grilled (ahem!) about the precise origins of the meat being served.
But, as far as a dinner invitation from a non-Christian was concerned, Paul’s answer in effect was, ‘By all means go if you wish, and, as far as what is set before you is concerned, you do not need to ask! You don’t need to raise any question on the ground of your conscience. Whatever the meat’s previous history, it hasn’t been polluted – by idols, gods or demons!’
‘If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go’. It is important to note that Paul does not forbid the believer from accepting the invitation. This is wholly consistent with what he said back in verses 9-11 of chapter 5; namely, that he regarded the believer as having perfect liberty to eat with a non-Christian idolater – ‘I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people.6 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner––not even to eat with such a person’. Clearly, Paul’s intention there was not to isolate the believer from the pagans around but to separate him from those who professed to be Christians but who lived like pagans.
I note that verse 27 doesn’t actually say that the meal was to held in the unbeliever’s own home. I assume therefore that, in theory at least, it could equally well have taken place in one of many eating places. But we can take it for granted that it was not held in a club-room or restaurant annexed to the heathen temple. For in that case it would have been obvious to all that the meal would necessarily include idol food, and would make absolute nonsense of Paul telling the believer to ask ‘no questions for conscience sake’ and of Paul imagining somebody pointing out, ‘This was offered to idols’, v. 28!
I suspect that this is the principle by which Paul lived. It strikes me as unlikely in the extreme that ‘the apostle to the Gentiles’ would have refused to accept invitations to meals from the very people he was sent to reach – although, before his conversion to Christ, the Jewish food laws would certainly have required him (‘a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee’ of all people, Acts 23. 6!) to avoid such meals. Nor, of course, are we meant to isolate ourselves from unbelievers socially, any more than our Lord did. Scriptural ‘separation’ certainly does not mean that the Christian must avoid all contact with unbelievers, nor does it prohibit him from enjoying the hospitality of unbelievers.
(iv) ‘But what if …?’, vv. 28-30
I regard verses 28-30 as covering both of the situations described in verses 25-27. In other words, I take verses 28- 30 to refer to both (a) meat which was purchased in the butchers, and (b) meat which formed part of a meal provided by a non-Christian.
Verse 28. ‘But if anyone says to you This was offered to idols’. As a generalisation, the believer is free to eat whatever meat is available without asking questions for the sake of his conscience. But there is, Paul adds, one notable exception. The spiritual well-being of others must also be considered.
On a technical point, ‘this was offered to idols’ is not an accurate translation. (Nor is that of the King James Version, ‘This is offered in sacrifice unto idols'). The word which Paul uses here, hierothutos, differs from eidolothutos which is (correctly) rendered ‘offered to idols’ in chapter 8 (verses 1, 4 and 10) and in verse 19 of our chapter. The word in each of those places was a deliberately derogatory and insulting term employed by both Jews and Christians to describe idol-food.
But the word which Paul uses here should be rendered ‘offered in sacrifice’ and refers simply to meat which had been consecrated and sacrificed to some deity in a pagan temple. This was the term which would have been used by a Gentile to describe such food, and would therefore have been a far more appropriate – and polite – word for somebody to use in the presence of a Gentile butcher (as in verse 25) or a Gentile host (as in verse 27).
If somebody present volunteers the information that either (i) the joint of meat the Christian has bought (or is about to buy) in the market, or (ii) the main dish on the unbeliever’s table, has previously been offered to an idol, then, Paul says, the Christian must refrain from eating it. It is not altogether clear whether the informant in view is an over-scrupulous (i.e., a ‘weak’) Christian or is an unbeliever. Undoubtedly the man who has spoken up is making an issue about the meat’s previous history because it is important to him – and probably because he thinks it should be important to the Christian who will otherwise eat it. In my view, the fact that it affects his 'conscience’, v. 29a, points to the man being a fellow-Christian – someone who is most scrupulous about idol food himself, and, who somehow knowing the circumstances in regard to this particular meat, feels it necessary to warn his brother.7 To this man, the origin of the meat removes the eating of the meat from the context of an innocent private meal around a dining table and puts it into the context of eating idolmeat that had earlier been consecrated in a pagan temple.
Verse 29a. Given the weak brother’s perception, the believer is forbidden to eat the meat for the sake of that brother’s conscience.
The principle underlying verses 27-29a is extremely important. The individual believer is free to decide whether or not he accepts an invitation to eat with a non-Christian. But, if he goes, he is not free to lower his Christian principles or standard of behaviour. And, if we accept an invitation to a meal with non-Christians, our primary concern should be the spiritual well-being of others – whether that of our host or that of any other guests. How true the words, ‘You are on the King’s business, and He grants no vacations’!8
Verses 29b-30. I do not pretend that these verses are altogether easy to understand in their context. At first reading, the questions posed by Paul could be read as contradicting everything he has been saying since the beginning of chapter 8! That is, they could be taken as suggesting that a Christian’s ‘liberty’ (his freedom) to eat idol food should not be criticised by somebody else’s oversensitive conscience – and that nobody should speak evil of the man who eats something for which he has given God thanks – even if this something had once been offered to an idol. But, given everything which Paul has been saying up to this point, this cannot be right!
For my part, I read Paul’s words as providing an additional reason why a Christian should abstain from eating if a weak brother present points out that the meat in question is idol meat. That is, I understand Paul’s two questions as further explaining why it is wrong for the believer to eat meat sacrificed to idols in such a circumstance.9
The believer who would otherwise have felt at liberty to eat should abstain, Paul says, not only because he might become a cause of stumbling to his brother, but because of the aggravation and provocation he is going to cause, that is, by bringing upon himself the condemnation of his brother – who, on account of his sensitive conscience, genuinely looks on the man about to eat as doing something seriously wrong.
What possible good can come, Paul wants to know, from the stronger brother deliberately doing something which he doesn’t need to do, but which he knows will lead his brother to censure him? It is absurd that a man should deliberately rouse his brother to speak evil of him (’to revile’, ‘to blaspheme’ him, literally) on account of the very thing for which he himself expresses thanks to God! Why, the apostle asks, should someone insist on exercising his freedom in such a way as to give unnecessary offence?
It seems to me that this similar expression used by the apostle in Romans 14 supports this interpretation. In verse 16 of that chapter, Paul writes, ‘Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil ('be blasphemed’, literally – the same word as here in 1 Cor. 10. 30)’. In the context of Romans 14, this ‘good’ is the liberty of the strong, which Paul insists they must not exercise because it would needlessly provoke the disapproving judgement of the weak.
And here too, as I understand it, Paul challenges the ‘strong’ Christian to explain what possible gain there could be from the ‘strong’ drawing upon himself the condemnation of the weak brother’s conscience? (And I note that in verses 29b-30
Paul has graciously switched from the second person (‘you/yours’) to the first person (‘I/my’), thereby making a direct and personal application of the lesson to himself.)10
‘Why should I selfishly exhibit my liberty to eat meat’, Paul wants to know, ‘if I know that this will lead my brother to misunderstand entirely what I am doing and therefore to condemn me for condoning idolatry. Frankly, it would be outrageous for me to needlessly upset and provoke my brother in this way’.
(v) General guiding principles – seeking the profit of others, 10. 31–11. 1
And so to Paul’s bottom line. Paul makes it clear that his main concern lies, not with a man’s external behaviour but with the underlying attitude of his heart – and states in two short verses the basic principles which should guide every Christian in every situation.
The first principle, stated in verse 31, governs our actions in terms of our relationship to God. The second principle, stated in verse 32, governs our actions in terms of our relationship to men. In one sense, therefore, Paul encompasses the two great commandments – to love God and to love one’s neighbour, Matt. 22. 35-39.
The one principle looks on the positive side and requires that glory should be brought to God in all things. The other looks on the negative side and requires that offence should be caused to no one in anything.
Verse 31. ‘Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’. It is not, Paul insists, only the other man who must be kept in view, but God as the Creator and Giver of all things. The first guiding principle is therefore, ‘Can I do this for the glory of God?’ For, if not, then I cannot do it!
The goal of all history is to bring glory to God; ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and … every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’, Phil. 2. 10-11. But so also should be the goal of our lives; ‘approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God’, Phil. 1. 10-11. When faced with a decision as to whether a certain course of action would be right or wrong for us, this is a good yardstick to apply, ‘Is there any glory for God in it?’
‘Whatever you do’. This is one of four occasions in the letters of the New Testament where these words are found. Two other instances are in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. First, ‘whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him’, Col. 3. 17; that is, ‘Can I do this as a follower of the Lord Jesus, recognizing His authority over me? Is this conduct appropriate for one who is identified with Christ?’ Second, ‘whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men’, Col. 3. 23. The final occurrence is in John’s letter to Gaius, ‘Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers’, 3 John 5.
May the Lord help us that, ‘whatever’ we do, we do it faithfully, 3 John 5, heartily, Col. 3. 23, consistent with the known character of our Lord Jesus, Col. 3. 17, and for the glory of God, 1 Cor. 10. 31.
It has been well said that ‘the New Testament does not contain a detailed code of rules for the Christian, like those which were elaborated with ever-increasing particularity’ by the Rabbis. ‘What the New Testament does provide are those basic principles of Christian living which may be applied to all the situations of life as they arise’.11
Verse 32. If in verse 31 all is to be done for the glory of God, here in verse 32 all is to be done for the good of men.
‘Giving no offence’. The single Greek word translated this way differs from that in 1 Cor. 8. 13. There the word originally referred to a trap or snare. The word Paul uses here signifies an obstacle against which someone strikes his foot and stumbles. The apostle is concerned about actions which can unsettle the faith of a believer and/or keep back an unbeliever from becoming a Christian.
‘Christ crucified’ inevitably proved an offence both to Jews and to Greeks (representative of all unbelieving mankind) – although certainly not to ‘those who are called’ (i.e., to ‘the church of God’), 1 Cor. 1. 23-24. We cannot (and should not try to) avoid the offence of the cross and its proclamation. But we should do everything we can to avoid giving needless offence to anyone by our unfeeling attitudes and unwise actions. ‘The three distinct classes of people mentioned include all those with whom any believer would be brought into contact in Corinth in daily life. The Jews and the Greeks were two classes of people of the world. From these “the church of God” is distinguished. It consisted of those who had been saved through the gospel, and formed the local assembly. There was no such person as an unattached believer, walking as a separate individual, nor should this ever be the case’, W. E. VINE.12
Verse 33. ‘Just as I also please all men in all things’. Depending on its context, the phrase ‘please all men’ can denote either a virtue (as here) or a vice. Everything depends on our objective, whether this is (a) to win the approval of others for our own advantage and selfish gain, or (b) to win them, for their own good, over to Christ and to God.
Paul made it clear to the Galatians that he most certainly did not fall into the first category. Paul was no men-pleaser who compromised the truth of the gospel; ‘do I seek to please men? … if I still pleased men’, he protested, ‘I would not be a bondservant of Christ’, Gal. 1. 10. Here, at the end of 1 Corinthians 10, he makes it equally clear that he did come in the second category (not ‘seeking’ his own profit), and, as such, can hold up his own practice as an example for the Corinthians to follow.
Chapter 11 verse 1. And so, because the apostle is able to point to both his own principle and practice, 10. 33, he can conclude the section by instructing them, ‘Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ’, literally.
Back in chapter 4, Paul had written, ‘though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. I beseech you therefore, be imitators of me’, vv. 15- 16 literally. That is, as a spiritual father he was most careful to set an example for his spiritual children.
Here again, with no bragging or self-advertisement, Paul can exhort the saints, not only to do what he said (see 14. 37) but what he did. They were to ‘mimic’ (a transliteration of the actual word Paul used) Paul insofar, and only insofar, as he behaved in a Christ-like way.13 For the Lord Jesus alone is the perfect pattern and model.
What a wonderful note on which to end the section – by turning the Corinthians’ minds (and ours) to the One (a) who supremely did all for the glory of God, John 17. 4; compare 1 Cor. 10. 31, (b) who caused no needless ‘offence’, Matt. 17. 27; compare 1 Cor. 10. 32, and (c) who ‘pleased not Himself’, Rom. 15. 3; compare 1 Cor. 10. 33 – at every point looking not on His own things but on the things of others, Phil. 2. 4. KJV
We learn that at Pompeii, for example, not all meat sold in the ‘Macellum’ (the meat-market) was sacrificial meat.
Bruce Fisk points out several points of contact between Paul’s teaching in this section and that which the apostle gave in chapter 8: ‘Significantly, neither passage suggests that something offered to idols, per se, is harmful (8. 8; 10. 25, 27), and, in both, the basis for treating something offered to idols like any other food is God’s sovereign dominion over all creation (8. 4–6; 10. 26). Furthermore, both passages call for loving restriction of one’s freedom to eat when the spiritual welfare of others is at stake (8. 9–13; 10. 24, 28, 32–33) and both are concerned that harm may befall those whose sensitivities regarding something offered to idols are trampled on (8. 7, 9–13; 10. 23, 28, 32–33)’, Bruce N. Fisk, Trinity Journal 10:1 (Spring 1989), pages 49-70. Although the basic message is the same, the emphases differ slightly. This can be expressed: ‘You can eat idol meat unless someone will be stumbled’, 8. 1-13; ‘You can eat idol meat unless someone will be stumbled’, 10. 23–11. 1.
‘In the agora [at Corinth] … shops lined the sides. In one of these shops a stone block was found which originally was a doorstep; it bears an inscription reading “Lucius, the butcher”. This may indicate the section of shops which was the Corinthian meat market mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10. 25’, G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archeology, Duckworth, page 264.
W. H. MARE, Expositor’s Bible Commentary.
See Mark 7. 19; Acts 10. 15; 11. 9.
I cannot help smiling at the New English Bible’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 5. 9, ‘you must have nothing to do with loose livers’. The mind boggles!
It is possible ‘to regard this speaker as “one of them that believe not” in verse 27; and then the apostle’s word links up with the altruism of the rabbis, who taught that a devout Jew will not countenance idolatry lest he should encourage his Gentile neighbour in error, for which he would then be responsible (Aboth 5. 18; Sanhedrin 7. 4, 10)’, R. P Martin, The New Bible Dictionary, IVP. But, for reasons given in my main comments, I regard this as unlikely.
The main alternative interpretations seem to be: (i) Paul presents a counter-balance to what he has said earlier and here contends for the principle of liberty. That is, he would be saying something along the lines, ‘Although (out of love and consideration for my brother) I may chose to let his conscience affect my action, this does not mean that his conscience can govern and control my actions. For the sake of others I may refuse to avail myself of my liberty to eat – but this does not mean that it ceases to be my liberty’. (ii) Paul voices an objection which could be lodged by those whose consciences permitted them to eat idol meats: ‘But why should my liberty be curtailed on account of someone else’s scruples?’ (iii) Paul concludes his study of the subject by quoting back at the Corinthians two of the ‘loaded’ questions which had formed part of their letter to him – ‘You asked why your liberty should be judged by the conscience of another brother. Well, now you know why’. In my view, each of these interpretations utterly fails to account for the conjunction ‘For’ which comes at the beginning of verse 29b. With alternative (i), the questions would need to be introduced by some such expression as ‘But on the other hand … ‘. With alternative (ii), the questions would need to be introduced by a ‘But … ’. And we would be left with no answer to the questions – verses 31-32 certainly don’t attempt the answer them, commencing as these verses do with a ‘Therefore’. With alternative (iii), the questions would need to be introduced by some such expression as, ‘So now you see why … ‘. As far as I can see, the only interpretation which does proper justice to the conjunction ‘For’ which opens verse 29b is that set out in the main text – in that it understands the apostle to be backing up what he has just said (about not eating for the sake of the other man’s conscience). Hence the opening ‘For’. ‘Because otherwise’, I understand him to be arguing, ’I only cause unnecessary offence by insisting on my highly prized liberty to eat’.
Compare my comments on 1 Corinthians 8. 13; Precious Seed, Volume 61, Number 1, February 2006.
F. F. BRUCE, Commentary on Colossians, page 285.
‘1 Corinthians’, note on 1 Cor. 10. 32.
The present imperative gives the command a continuous relevance; ‘Ever be imitators of me’ is the force of the literal translation.