The Pursuit of God

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Applying 1 Corinthians 8: Idol Meats

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This is a continuation of Applying 1 Corinthians 7.

In this chapter, Paul will address the famous “idol meats” issue.  Idol meats were leftovers of animal carcasses which had been offered to idol gods.  Now before we get into Paul’s discussion, let’s take a moment to understand cultural context.

Yahweh was not unique in demanding that His followers sacrifice animals to Him. Many religions required this, and in New Testament times, animals were being constantly slaughtered, dissected, and having certain “sacred” portions of their bodies offered to pagan gods. Just as Yahweh was very specific about which portions of an animal’s anatomy He would accept, other gods were believed to have their rules as well. Just as Yahweh allowed His priests and commoners to eat certain portions of meat that was sacrificed to Him, other religions practiced similar rituals.

It’s important to note that Yahweh’s sacrificial system wasn’t at all the unique and shocking thing many Christians view it as today. In Bible times, everyone sacrificed animals to their gods. It would have been far more shocking and disturbing if Yahweh hadn’t required sacrifices. That would have been far too much of a change for the Jews to accept because everyone did sacrifices. Knowing how fickle His followers were, Yahweh limited how differently He required them to behave. Instead of throwing out sacrifices altogether, He made Himself stand out from other religions by tweaking the rules a bit. As gruesome as His system sounds to many of us today, His system was actually a lot nicer. The fact that Yahweh adamantly refused to except child sacrifices made Him stand out as shockingly different than other gods. Also, the fact that Yahweh outlawed self-mutilation and “sacred” prostitution made Him very unique.

Yahweh’s system was shockingly gracious, kind, and reasonable right from the start. Do you want a God who says you can’t eat fat or one who demands that you slaughter your firstborn boy? Child sacrifice was extremely common in Bible times—so common that Yahweh worked a version of it into His sacrificial system which creatively protected children’s lives. He said that all firstborn sons were His property. Yet instead of demanding their lives, He said that parents had to buy their child’s life back from Him. Then He fixed it so the price was something anyone could afford and at the same time He outlawed child sacrifice. In other words, He demanded that parents buy back their kids—He didn’t give them the option of killing instead.

Yahweh stood out as an amazingly kind God in Bible times. Today we don’t give Him anywhere near the credit He deserves because we don’t understand the cultural context He was working in. Christian women today often complain that Yahweh was anti-female. No, He wasn’t. Temple prostitution was all the rage in Bible times. Yahweh could have easily condoned this behavior, thus forcing scores of women to be degraded in the name of “worship”. But instead He condemned prostitution as a sin that was deserving of death. Then in the midst of a world where men dominated, Yahweh invited both men and women to come into the court of His sacred Tabernacle to offer their sacrifices to Him. Yahweh also showed great compassion for the poor by allowing a ride range of options for how one could atone for one’s sin. From the rich ruler, Yahweh demanded an expensive animal because He knew the ruler could afford it. But for those who couldn’t, Yahweh offered several cheaper options, such as a single bird or a sack of flour. The more we understand about the cultural context, the more we understand how right it was when Yahweh described Himself to Moses this way:

“Yahweh—Yahweh is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth…” (Ex. 34:6)

So then, back to Corinth. In His shocking New Covenant, Yahweh has declared that He is done with the whole sacrificial system. There are no more priests, no more sacrifices, and no more unclean foods. Well, this is too much for the Jews to take in all at once. They’ve spent their lives being nitpicky about what meats they eat and how they are prepared. The Jews in Corinth had their own butchers who were specially trained in kosher preparations. They refused to purchase meat from the pagan markets where the leftovers from temple sacrifices were sold.

Like Yahweh, other “gods” required only portions of animals to be sacrificed to them. This made for a ton of leftovers. Temples had dining halls where some of these leftovers were served. If you ate in a temple, you knew you were eating leftovers from an animal who had been ceremonially offered to some idol god. Then there were the general markets, where the vast majority of the meat was from sacrificed animals. Technically there would have been a few steaks in the mix which weren’t involved in demonic worship practices, but who could tell which ones they were? With so much butchering going on, your chances of finding a carcass that hadn’t made a trip through some god’s temple were low.

Now people didn’t just go to temples to worship idols. They also went to celebrate important life events. If your friend’s daughter was having her wedding at the temple, was it morally wrong for you to go and participate in the religious festivities?  The Roman Empire was a melting pot of different religions and every aspect of life was associated with some kind of god. If being around idol meats was going to become a hill to die on, then Christians who converted from pagan religions would suddenly not be able to eat with all of their pagan friends. It was easier for the Jews in Corinth because they had each other to hang out with and they were already equipped to avoid mainstream meats with their special butchers. But for non-Jewish Christians, the issue of idol meats had enormous ramifications.

So what exactly is the issue with idol meats?  Well, if we really believe in the concepts of holy water and sacred Bibles, then it’s quite logical to assume there can be evil meats. We’re talking about magic here—supernatural auras that earthly things acquire by being associated with religious rituals. Is it true that by simply praying over a pot of boiling water you can infuse the liquid with some kind of supernatural power? Many morons in the Church today will tell you this is true. Today Christian exorcists go onto the “battlefield” waving crosses, holding up their Bibles, and flinging the holy water around. Swap out these religious toys for a sorcerer’s wand, and you’ll get a more accurate picture of what they’re trying to do. It’s nothing more than spell casting. It’s Christians trying to act like sorcerers. What does God think about this? He hates it.

God makes His feelings about magic very clear in the Bible, but today we feel free to blow Him off and continue on in our ridiculous imitations of the occult. It isn’t sorcery, it’s “intercession”. We like to pretend there’s an enormous difference between some demon crazed psycho reading from his book of spells and us chanting our magic Bible verses over and over again in our 24 hour prayer vigils. When the Satan worshipers cast spells, we say “that’s demonic” but when we try to erect “prayer walls” and “bring down strongholds”, well, that’s righteous. Who are we kidding? We’re pathetic wannabes who are so jealous of the power we think the demon lovers have that we’re trying to get a piece of the action.

So then, do the things of earth have supernatural auras? No, they don’t. Your Bible isn’t holy. A demon can throw a knife at your head, but that doesn’t make your knife “cursed” from then on. Praying to Satan over a deer carcass doesn’t infuse the meat with some evil power which will then get into you if you eat some of it. The whole notion of animal meat being magically infected is utterly absurd, but this is what some of the Christians in Corinth were concerned about.  Others feared that simply the act of eating idol meats would be interpreted by Yahweh as an act of worship.

Superstitions are very powerful things. What you believe affects the way you interpret reality. If a doctor who you trust tells you that you have some inoperable tumor devouring your organs and that you only have months to live, what is going to happen to your joy in life? The man is lying to you, but because you believe him, you become immobilized with despair. Beliefs are very powerful. If you think the essence of Satan is somehow residing in your hamburger, your stomach is going to twist up into nervous knots. Those knots are going to make it hard to digest, and you’ll interpret your bad digestion as evidence that your fears are real. See how it works? Beliefs are powerful and many Christians in Corinth were extremely concerned about eating idol meats. So is there spiritual danger in eating idol meats?  Does God consider eating these meats to be an act of idol worship?  Some of the Christians in Corinth are scoffing at the whole idol meats issue, and these scoffers are who Paul is mainly addressing in this chapter.

Now regarding your question about food that has been offered to idols. Yes, we know that “we all have knowledge” about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves Yahweh is the one whom Yahweh recognizes.

So, what about eating meat that has been offered to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God. There may be so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, and some people actually worship many gods and many lords. But for us, there is one God, the Father, by whom all things were created, and for whom we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, and through whom we live. (1 Cor. 8:1-6)

Notice how Paul says there is only one God, yet he lists two: Yahweh and Jesus. Paul is not saying Yahweh and Jesus are multiple personalities of the same Being. Instead, he’s demonstrating his Old Covenant bias. When you’ve believed in one all-powerful God your whole life, it’s very hard to view Jesus as a total equal to that God. Even though Jesus claimed equality with Yahweh over and over, the Jews really struggle to grasp this. Sometimes Paul will really emphasize the Divinity of Christ, other times he’ll slip and play title games like he’s doing here. “We have one God and one Lord”—what on earth does this mean? God and Lord were common Jewish titles for Yahweh, yet here Paul implies they are two different categories of Being. Is your father different than your dad? Is your brother not also your sibling? Why do the Jews hedge about calling Jesus God? Why are they always calling Him Lord instead? Because they are still trying to get their minds around Jesus being Yahweh’s equal. They’ll teach that Jesus isn’t a created being. They’ll teach that He’s holding everything together and that He’s ruling right alongside Yahweh in Heaven. But then they say Yahweh is our only God while Jesus is our only Lord. This is foolish doubletalk. Yahweh Himself called Jesus God way back in Isaiah’s time.

“He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6)

Jesus is our God as well as our Lord. There is no such thing as a Lord who isn’t a God. We only worship uncreated Beings. Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all our Gods and our Lords. So don’t let Paul’s hedging on this issue confuse you. Remember that he is changing Covenants, but you’re not, so you don’t have to let his issues be yours.

However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated. It’s true that we can’t win Yahweh’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do. (1 Cor. 8:7-8)

Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the only real Gods. But Paul points out that many Christians still view other gods as real deities. In the minds of these believers, Yahweh and Jesus are greater Gods, but They’re not the only Gods.

To understand this struggle we have to appreciate the fact that many Christians in Corinth have converted from other religions that they totally believed in. In the city of Corinth, there were many different cults who worshiped the gods of Egypt, Rome and Greece. There were several very significant temples in Corinth. Take the temple to the god Poseidon. Old Poseidon was supposed to be the god of the sea and the guy who made frequent earthquakes happen. Corinth was a port city—the sea was a huge part of her existence. If you grow up attributing every storm at sea to an act of Poseidon, Poseidon seems very real in your mind. Every time the ground shakes, that’s your hardcore “evidence” that Poseidon is not just some fairytale. You worship him, you pray to him, you sacrifice to him. Then you get introduced to the Gods of Christianity. You can accept that Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the ultimate Gods, but going so far as to say Poseidon isn’t real—well, that’s a hard leap to make. When the ground shakes, you know Poseidon is real, so you figure he must just be a lot wimpier than you thought.

Now Paul is basically saying it’s alright to keep on believing in other gods once you convert to Christianity.   But is it? If Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit claim to be the only Gods in existence—which They do—but you keep on saying there are many other gods besides Them, aren’t you rejecting who They say They are? We need to be careful about blurring the lines on this issue. Jesus is not just another god who you can add to the shelf of the gods you worship. The Christian Gods demand that you worship Them exclusively. If you’re trying to cover all your bases by praying to Jesus and then sneaking down to Poseidon’s temple on the weekends to let him know you haven’t forgotten about him, are you going to be accepted by Jesus? No, you’re not. Paul is being too casual with his advice here. Some believers understand that the Christian Gods are the only real Gods, so they don’t care what meat they eat. But Paul is going to say these Christians need to be careful, because if they’re seen eating idol meats, it might be interpreted as an act of worship to other gods. But there are no other gods—and that is the truth that needs to be emphasized to those who are unclear on this point. Yet instead of emphasizing it, Paul is going to suggest that those who do know this avoid eating idol meats in front of those who are uncertain. In other words, we all ought to act like it’s possible that idol gods are real gods after all by avoiding activities that could be construed as worshiping them.

But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. For if others see you—with your “superior knowledge”—eating in the temple of an idol, won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been offered to an idol? So because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed. And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble. (1 Cor. 8:9-13)

Paul’s advice sounds noble at first, but it has some serious flaws. Do we want to be led by the spiritually mature or the spiritually young in the Church? If we follow Paul’s advice, we’ll be letting the spiritually young lead by making everyone conform to their flawed beliefs. So if a young believer is upset by seeing a snake symbol on your truck because they think all snakes are satanic, Paul would have you rush to take the snake off so that the young believer won’t feel uncomfortable. How is this helping the young believer grow past his delusions? It would be far better for you to gently explain to him that snakes are creatures of earth which God made and which God likes. Satan is not a snake, he is a demon. Snakes and demons have nothing to do with each other, and by the way, Yahweh used a snake as a symbol of healing in the Old Testament (see The Fate of the Bronze Snake). It’s education that the young need, because that is how they grow past their fears. If your kid thinks there is a monster in her closet, should you pretend to have a conversation with the monster and thus confirm her beliefs or should you open the closet and show her that no monster exists? Which course of action is going to help her grow past her fears? Clearly you should teach her the truth. At first she’s going to struggle to believe it, but she’ll grow past that. The point is that you’re encouraging her to go down the right road.

Paul is too much of a pansy when it comes to accommodating the superstitions of others. Like many evangelists today, he falls into the trap of not wanting new converts to be offended so he tells everyone else to accommodate foolishness. Such advice is like throwing sand into the gears of the Church, causing it to come to a grinding halt in the area of maturity. We’re still doing this today. Unchurched Harry and Mary might be offended if we talk about the “Blood of Christ” because that sounds so graphic, so let’s avoid that language when we preach. Oh look, someone put a complaint card in the offering plate that says they felt unloved by God after the sermon on His wrath. Let’s accommodate their infancy by making the subject of God’s wrath taboo. By the time we’re done tiptoeing around everyone’s infantile insecurities, are we teaching truth? No, we’re teaching some watered down corruption of truth. Instead of putting out meat, we’re putting out babyfood. No one’s growing. Everyone’s stagnating. But look—the people who hate God keep coming back on Sunday morning because nothing we do here offends their rebellious little souls. We’re growing numerically, so that must mean we’re doing something right. This is how idiotic the Church thinks today.

Okay, so you’re a Christian in Corinth and you know that Poseidon is nothing more than a fishtailed delusion. When the son of your really good unsaved friend has a wedding at Poseidon’s temple, you attend the celebration to share your friend’s joy with him. You watch everyone go through their idiotic Poseidon worshiping rituals but in your heart you’re praising Jesus. Then out come the steaks that were cooked from the leftovers of some animal that Poseidon got a piece of. Another Christian turns to you with a troubled look and says, “You’re not going to eat that, are you? It was offered to Poseidon.” Now you can either push the plate away and say, “You’re right, we mustn’t commit idolatry.” Or you can say, “There is no Poseidon. Our Gods are the only Gods in existence. These people are delusional in their beliefs. Worship is something you do with your soul, not your teeth. In my heart, I only worship Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I consider this meal to be from Them, and I am going to enjoy it with thanksgiving and not let other people’s foolishness control me in life.” Which is the better example? Paul says that if you take the second option you’ll be “destroying” a believer in Christ. What an obnoxious accusation.

You should not be bound by another believer’s conscience. If you can see that your behavior is causing someone distress, you should graciously explain why what you’re doing is acceptable to God. You should educate them, not accommodate them. Education moves us forward. Accommodation holds us back. If Paul wants to live his life bound by the superstitions of other people, Paul is a fool. You aren’t going to answer to other Christians in eternity, you’re going to answer to God. When you see some other Christian looking at you in distress, you should invite them to voice their concern and then be gracious in your answer. We certainly shouldn’t be mocking the young for not understanding certain things yet. We need to respect the fact that their concerns are very real to them. The father who makes fun of his daughter for believing there’s a monster in her closet is being a jerk. The father who is doing right by God will help his daughter grow past her fear by teaching her truth. If the girl takes a while to grasp the truth, the father shouldn’t give up and act like truth is no longer truth. In the same way, we shouldn’t start acting like false gods are real just to accommodate the spiritually young.

So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble. (1 Cor. 8:13)

Paul is being ridiculous here. Your eating a Poseidon burger isn’t going to force another believer to sin. That other believer will sin when he eats a Poseidon burger while he interprets his own behavior as an act of idolatry. Watching someone else worship Allah doesn’t force you to worship Allah as well. No one can force someone else to commit idolatry because idolatry is a soul activity and we all have control over our souls. Paul is taking on way too much responsibility for other people by saying he can cause others to sin. Now certainly we can set out to intentionally entice others to sin. If you’re waving your Poseidon meat in front of another believer just to upset him, then obviously God is going to be ticked at you. But if you’re just doing your own life and someone else starts reading a bunch of immorality into what you’re doing, you shouldn’t immediately change course as if you view them as a higher authority than the Holy Spirit.

The prophet Isaiah walked around butt naked for three years because Yahweh told him to (see Prophets in Action: Isaiah Walks Around Naked). Yahweh also said that walking around naked is a sin. How do you think other Jews felt about Isaiah’s immoral behavior? If some guy started stripping in the middle of a church service and claimed he was following God’s orders, how would you react? Your first instinct would be to assume the man was some lying pervert, but what if he wasn’t? What if God really was telling him to take it all off just like He told Isaiah to? Should the man disobey God in order to accommodate your closed mind? Certainly not.

God comes first, and God is the One we each need to be looking to for guidance in life. When another Christian or an unbeliever accuses you of having sinful motivations which you know you don’t have, pray about it. Then follow the Holy Spirit’s leading. Sometimes He’ll tell you to ignore them, other times He might tell you to talk to them or He might tell you to adjust your behavior. What matters is that we’re listening to God. The problem with Paul’s advice is that he’s not telling us to listen to God. Instead he’s saying we should let baby Christians override the Holy Spirit in our lives by making their comfort our top priority. Well no, this is garbage teaching. Anytime someone has you focusing on other people as your moral compass instead of on God Himself, you know you’re being led astray.

UP NEXT: Applying 1 Corinthians 9: Roasting Paul

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