As we turn now to the exposition of God’s Word, let me ask you please to take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and open them to 1 Corinthians chapter 10; 1 Corinthians chapter 10. If you’re using a church Bible, you’re going to find it on page 958, as we continue our studies in this great letter of the apostle Paul. We will be thinking about chapter 10 verse 23 through chapter 11 verse 1; 10:23-11:1. Paul has been talking about the nature and the boundary, the limits, of Christian freedom. The Corinthians had written to him asking for advice about a particular problem that was especially pressing in the culture in which they lived. Food, meat was often sold in the market as surplus to requirements after having first been used in the sacrifices of the pagan temples in the city of Corinth. And so the great question of conscience began to arise – “Are we free, as Christians, to eat the meat or not?”
And that’s not a question with which most of us have to wrestle today. We don’t go to Kroger wondering if the steaks we’re buying for our cookout that night had first been offered in sacrifice to Apollo. At least I hope not! But the question behind the question is still really relevant today. Isn’t it? The question behind the question is, “What is Christian freedom and what are its limits? What are we free to do and what are we not free to do? And how do we make those decisions? How do we make those judgments?” That has been the theme of Paul’s writing, really since chapter 8, and he is bringing it to its conclusion with a sort of a summary argument where he encapsulates most of what he has been saying thus far here at the end of chapter 10. And so he comes almost full circle right back to the issue of food offered to idols and the limits of Christian liberty.
Now before we dive into the passage and begin to wrestle with its message, it might be of some help to you if we can get a sense of the flow of Paul’s argument and some of the big issues for which I think it will be helpful for us to look out as we read it together. So if you cast your eye over the passage, chapter 10:23 through 11:1, I want you to notice in particular the repeated references here to the conscience. Do you see them in the text? The references to the conscience? Verse 25, “Eat whatever is sold without raising any question of conscience.” Verse 27, “Eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” Again in verse 28, “For the sake of conscience.” And twice more in chapter 29, “I do not mean your conscience but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” So what is the issue with which Paul is wrestling? What is it that he is teaching us about? He’s teaching us about liberty of conscience, it’s nature and it’s limits; a vital issue for us to wrestle with and to understand today as the ethical challenges are as profound and complex now as ever they were, and we need Christian minds and informed consciences to enable us to navigate the maze of moral challenges before us in a way that is faithful and honoring to God.
There were, you may know, there were essentially two groups in the Corinthian church. These two groups have reappeared in every church and in every age. They’re here in Jackson, Mississippi in 2017 as well. Two groups with which the apostle is primarily concerned. On the one hand, there was a group we will characterize as those having an underactive conscience. An underactive conscience. They were thrilled, do you see, with their liberty in Christ. They’d heard the apostle Paul speak about the freedom from the law that is ours in Jesus now that His tomb is empty and He has risen in victory over the grave. And that message of freedom has resonated deeply with them to the point where they could hear almost nothing else. And now they were in danger of stretching that legitimate Gospel liberty in spiritually hazardous directions. They began to buck and kick back against any and all constraints on their moral behavior. They were becoming moral libertines. Libertinism, licentiousness had begun to find a home among them. And so Paul is writing here to inform their consciences and to teach them on what basis their freedoms might legitimately be restricted.
And then there was the other group, really at the opposite extreme of the spectrum. We’ll call these guys those with an overactive conscience. These believers were very concerned indeed about upright living, so much so they’d actually begun to impose additional, unnecessary, extrabiblical restrictions on Christian liberty and then they’d begun to judge those within the Corinthians congregations who did not meet their exacting standards. So in contrast to the libertines over here, these guys are the legalists. And if you’ll look at verse 32, there is the suggestion at least that these two groups may have divided generally over ethnic lines. Jewish people, believers from a Jewish background, were particularly concerned about behavior and conformity to the law. While those of a Gentile background found restriction on their freedom particularly challenging. And if you remember the early chapters of the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul has had to deal quite strongly with them because of their immorality and so on.
And as we work through the passage, we’re going to see the apostle Paul alternating back and forth as he deals with both groups – legalists and libertines; libertines and legalists – back and forth, alternating between them in verses 23 all the way through verse 30. And then at the end, after having given us really what our very short little case studies on how to reason morally in response to the particular issues at Corinth in 23 to 30, at the end, just in case that’s not enough for you to really understand how to do this, he spells it all out for us. So he starts off with case studies and then at the end, in verse 31 through verse 1 of chapter 11, he gives us some core principles. Case studies, then core principles. These core principles have been operative in the way that Paul has been arguing since chapter 8. If we had an extra twenty minutes or so and you weren’t so concerned to beat the Baptists to the buffet, we could camp out and I could walk with you all the way through chapter 8 through to chapter 10 and show you how Paul himself embodies these core principles in his own argument and teaching. Alright? So that’s our outline – case studies and core principles.
Before we read the passage together, let me, first of all, ask you to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let's pray together.
Our Father, before us now is Your holy Word. Our hearts sometimes are like locked boxes. Thank You that the Holy Spirit can open them easily. And we pray that He would come and turn the key and open our hearts to receive the truth of Your Word, and by it, to be changed that we might serve and honor Jesus as we seek to live for His glory in these difficult days. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 10 at the twenty-third verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else's conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy Word.
The story of the prodigal son, probably Jesus' most famous parable, familiar I suspect to most if not all of us, you remember how the story goes. There are two brothers. The younger brother takes his inheritance prematurely, breaks his father's heart, and flees with it to a far country where he blows through it all spending it on wild living. Until eventually he hits rock bottom. You remember? He finds himself bankrupt, destitute, threadbare, in a pigsty longing, Luke tells us, longing to eat the scraps with which the pigs were fed. And then Luke uses this great phrase, "He came to himself." He sort of woke up and realized that even in the hired hands working on his father’s farm are better off than he, and so he resolves to return home never daring to be welcomed back as a son. Perhaps, perhaps my father will see fit to allow me back just to work as a servant.” And so he makes his way home. You remember what happens of course. While he’s still afar off, the father sees him, runs to him in great joy – how undignified. You know, in those days, men did not run. But here he is, he hitches up his skirts and he runs! Exuberant joy at the sight of his son coming home and he falls on him and kisses him and they have a great celebration.
It’s a beautiful moment and we love the story for that reason, partly because many of us have had prodigal son experiences of our own. Haven’t we? We’ve wandered off, and then as we’ve begun to become convicted of our sin. We’ve long to return, but we’ve wondered if perhaps God would ever welcome one such as we. And then we’ve discovered, to our joy, that He rejoices in us when we repent and come back to Him. We love the parable of the prodigal son because it reminds us that even when we fall, there is yet hope in the Gospel. But isn’t it also true that we regularly forget the elder brother in the story? You remember him. He’s outraged at his father’s behavior and he says, “You know, this son of yours,” he says, “when he came home you threw a party for him. You never threw a party for me and I’ve been here working for you, slaving for you all these years.” He feels entitled, doesn’t he? He feels as though he’s owed something because of his performance.
Now, here’s the challenge. At least here’s how this challenges me. We get that these two individuals represent two extremes. You’ve got the legalist elder brother who thinks that on the basis of his performance of ritual and regulation he’s owed some blessing. And then you’ve got the libertine younger brother who runs off and falls into terrible patterns of sin. And we get these two extremes but here’s where it really challenges me as I begin to realize that both brothers are lurking in my heart at the same time. Haven’t you found them in your heart too? Both brothers. The legalist and the libertine. Here’s how this often plays for me; it may be this way for you too. We feel, when we think of ourselves, our desperate need of grace. “What a wretched sinner I am. If only the Father would have mercy on me! But man, can you believe what that other guy was doing a moment ago? How unworthy! How ridiculous! How offensive! I’m a legalist with regards to him and a libertine with regard to myself. I excuse and indulge my own disobedience and rebellion, but I’m quick to judge you for yours.” Legalists with regard to others and libertines with regard to ourselves.
Now it is true that there are particular factions in the church at Corinth, there can be in our own churches too, where there are particular groups of legalists and libertines and they can tear a church apart. And Paul is going to address these groups in our passage very directly this morning as we will see. But before we look at them together, I wanted to issue something of a warning. Not to think that because in this portion or that Paul is addressing either the legalists or the libertines that he’s not talking to you or to me because that isn’t particularly your struggle. The truth is, we have both tendencies, albeit in different measures at different times, vying for the loyalty of our hearts. And so as we turn our attention in the first place to verses 23 to 30 in this series of four little case studies that Paul gives us about libertines and legalists, I want us to be careful to take all the medicine that Paul has for us. We need to take both pills, don’t we? If you’re like me, you will need the libertine and the legalist in you to be treated by the strong medicine of the Word of God.
Not Everything is Edifying
And so let’s turn our attention then to verses 23 to 30 and the first of these little case studies. You’ll see it in verses 23 and 24. Paul starts by speaking first of all to the libertines at Corinth. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor.” Paul is quoting a slogan that was in use in the Corinthian churches. “All things are lawful.” That’s what they were saying. “We’re free in Christ. We are not under law; we’re under grace. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more!” they were saying. And those are true and Biblical statements. But if you take them in isolation, they can lead to a life unconstrained by any kind of moral boundaries. So, “Okay,” Paul is saying, “there is a sense in which you are perfectly correct. All things are lawful but you must understand not everything is helpful. Not everything is edifying. They don’t all build up. There are limits to your liberty.”
Now Paul is a master a pastoral theology. He’s a master pastor and he immediately exposes the flaw in their libertinism. Look at verse 24 again. “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” You see what he’s essentially saying to them. He really sees right through them, doesn’t he? He’s saying, “Now look here. When you’re boasting in your liberties like this, you see, don’t you, that you’re really only thinking about yourselves.” That’s always the problem with the “How far can I go? How much can I get away with?” approach to Christian ethics. It centers on self. “How far can I go? How much can I get away with?” It centers on self. We are the center of our considerations. We’re really not thinking about anyone else at all. But Paul says, “Let no one seek his own good but the good of his neighbor.” He wants us to be thinking not first about ourselves but about the welfare of our neighbors. You see, love – you will remember this refrain from previous treatments in chapters 8 through 10 – love constrains liberty. Love for one another imposes limitations on our freedom for your sake and for mine.
Idols are Nothing
Now you can imagine when this letter was first read that Sunday morning in Corinth, the legalists in the church are loving verses 23 and 24. They’re all flashing each other knowing smiles. “At last, those libertines are really being put in their place by the apostle Paul!” There’s little knowing grins until, that is, the apostle Paul wipes the smiles from their faces in verses 25 through 27. Now the legalists are in his sights. Look at verses 25 through 27. “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” These are the guys who are worrying about dietary regulations. They were the weaker brothers in the church who argue that no Christian can eat meat offered to an idol or suspected of having been offered to an idol under any circumstances. “That’s compromise with the world! Don’t eat! Don’t touch! Don’t dance! Don’t drink! Don’t play cards! Don’t listen to contemporary music! Do not! Don’t! Stop it!” That was their mindset.
And now Paul is saying very directly to them, “When you get to the market, or when a pagan friend invites you over for dinner, don’t ask any questions about where the meat came from. Don’t worry about the possibility of it having originated first in the precincts of one of the pagan temples. Idols, remember, are nothing. Eat the meat with a clear conscience.” Now they’re really shocked! But Paul is insisting on Gospel liberty and he wants to shatter manmade, extrabiblical regulation.
Think of Consciences of Others
And then while they’re still reeling from the challenge of the apostle Paul, he turns back to address, in the third place, the libertines once again in verses 28 and the first half of verse 29. Look at verses 28 and 29. “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I do not mean your conscience, but his.” See, at the other end of the spectrum the libertines were indulging themselves in light of their clear conviction that idols are empty lumps of wood or stone and they never once thought about the implications of their eating for someone else who happened to be in attendance at the meal that day, looking on, watching out they were behaving.
And so Paul invents this scenario. You see it in the text? Someone at the dinner that night lets you know the food has in fact been consecrated to a pagan deity. So now what? He says, “Don’t eat. Do not eat, for the sake of the one who informed you and for the sake of conscience – I do not mean your conscience, but his.” In the centuries prior to the birth of Christ, there was a wave of persecution under the Roman emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes. And one of the ways they persecuted the Jews was to require them to eat food they knew had been offered to an idol. It was a certain test of faith. And something like that, I think, is what Paul has in mind here. He’s tightening the screws. This guest, this pagan guest at the meal knows that you’re a Christian, you’re a follower of Jesus, and he really wants to put you in a tight spot. He thinks that if you eat meat knowing it had been offered to an idol, that must mean you’re being disloyal to Jesus. Now Paul has already told us that whether it’s been offered to an idol or not really doesn’t matter from a Christian point of view. But the non-Christian thinks it does and is horrified at how lightly you seem to take your allegiance to King Jesus if you so happily indulge yourself in eating a meal you know has been offered to an idol.
You see the situation? You see what has happened? If you stand on your liberty and your freedom, you’ve shattered your witness. This man thinks you’re ready to trample Christ underfoot just for a chance to fill your belly. No, he says, “For his sake, for the sake of his conscience, think through your behavior so that you might not bring the name of Jesus into disrepute. His thinking may be all wrong, but if you’re going to lead him down the wrong direction and cause general misunderstanding about what it means to follow Jesus, then you need to pack off and refrain and think very, very carefully about your next move.” We need to think about the consciences of others, Paul is urging us; be concerned about the way our behavior affects other people. Are we causing them to stumble? So love constrains liberty.
And then in the second half of verses 29 through verse 30, he turns back one more time to the legalists. You see how he’s alternating back and forth? Libertine and legalists; libertine and legalist? Now this time, the legalists again, verses 29 and 30, with these two questions; these two questions. “Why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” Yes, there are limits on our freedom. In particular, concern for others ought to override all desire to serve ourselves. “But,” he says, “here’s a qualification to that principle.” He asks us to beware the tyranny of the weaker brother. Beware the tyranny of the weaker brother. Beware those who will claim that because they take offense at some conviction or practice of yours, you must, therefore, immediately surrender your freedom to believe or do as your conscience allows and the Scriptures dictate.
There’s a secular version of that, that is running rampant in our culture right now. Isn’t there? I wonder if you can recognize it. “If you love me,” it says, “If you love me, then you will embrace whatever lifestyle choices I make without qualification or restriction, even if embracing those choices, affirming my liberty to do so, means you must surrender your liberties along the way. Your convictions, your lifestyle offends me. And so you must be made to comply with my enlightened position. Your compliance with the dictates of my conscience is the only way that I can know you really belong in an inclusive and accepting society.” That’s not liberty, Paul is teaching us here; that is tyranny. That is tyranny. Why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
The Core Principles
And so you see, just in that quick overview, how Paul balances really very wisely both extremes – the needs and concerns of both extremes in the church. No one gets off the hook; do they? Libertines have Gospel limits pressed upon them. Legalists are urged to embrace the true freedom that is theirs in Christ. And just in case we’re still confused about how to apply that for ourselves, “When should I stand on my rights and liberties as a Christian and when should I restrict my freedom? When is it wise to hold back and alter my behavior?” in case that’s still confusing to us, Paul gets very practical in verse 31 through verse 1 of chapter 11 and gives us the core principles that have been informing his whole discussion since chapter 8. He just spells them out for us. So let’s look at these four and then we’re done.
First of all, there is the doxological principle. Look at verse 31. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all” – with what end in view? “To the glory of God.” Doxology is about the glory of God. Do everything for the glory of God. Eating and drinking – it should be about God’s glory. How you live is about God’s glory. You exist for God’s glory. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be the glory forever.” So Paul wants us to ask ourselves as we weigh a particular decision, “Is God glorified? Will He be honored? Before the eyes of the watching world, will God be glorified by this choice, by this decision?” The glory of God is not simply our concern on a Sunday when we sing His praise. I think sometimes we almost treat Sunday like a tax on our time. You know, “If I pay God my tax, the tax on my time, and show up at church on Sunday, well then the government is off my back. Right? The rest of my time is mine. God has to leave me alone.” No, no, Paul says. Here’s a fundamental principle to guide you in all your deliberations and all your decision-making Monday through Sunday. “Will this decision, will this action, will this behavior, will this way of speaking and acting bring God glory?” The doxological principle.
Secondly, there’s the edification principle. Verses 32 and 33, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many.” So first we are to ask, “Will this glorify God?” Then secondly we need to ask ourselves, “Will I give offense to Jew or Greek or to the church?” Paul himself tries to please everyone and everything. His own advantage of his equation but the advantage of others. “Will this action edify? Will it be good for others? Will it build up? Will it help heavenward the people of God or will it cause my brothers to stumble? Will I be a blessing in this or a burden?” So we need to be asking ourselves, “If I’m gone so often from church on the Lord’s Day, not only will I undermine my own spiritual growth” – and you will – “Might I also be causing my brother to stumble?” “If I sign that document at work tomorrow and my administrator knows its implications, will I be causing them to stumble?” We must not think first or simply about ourselves and the consequences of our behavior or choices or words or actions for ourselves alone. We must ask, “Will this edify? Will it build up? Will it be a blessing or a burden or am I causing others to stumble?”
The doxological principle. The edification principle. Incidentally, do you remember the first and second, the great commandment and the second which is like it that summarizes God’s whole moral law? The glory of God. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s precisely what Paul is encouraging us to do here. Think first of the glory of God and then the good of your neighbor.
Then thirdly, there’s the evangelistic principle. You see it in verse 33 one more time. “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” What is it that Paul wants as the final objective in the lives of those among whom he ministers in the Corinthian church? What is it that he wants among pagan Greeks or legalistic Jewish people? He wants everything that he does and everything that he refrains from doing to promote a Gospel end. He wants people to be saved! And so here’s his question. “Is my behavior consistent with the Gospel? If I were to share the good news about Jesus in this company, would the way I have just spoken and the things they’ve just watched me do, make the Gospel look plausible or laughable? Would they laugh at you or would they listen to you when you open your mouth to speak for Christ? I want them to be saved, and so I want my life to reflect and to mirror what the transforming power of the Gospel does in a human being who bends the knee to the Lordship of Christ.”
The doxological principle. The edification principle. The evangelistic principle. Then finally, there’s the imitation principle. Look at chapter 11 verse 1. “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” Paul’s ambition is to be like Christ in his moral choices, in his public life, in his private life. You remember how Jesus said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That’s actually the language Paul himself uses in verse 33; isn’t it? He “seeks not his own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved.” Paul, here, even consciously right here, is imitating and mirroring the pattern and the mission of Jesus Christ. He wants to be like Christ and so he relinquishes his own privileges. That’s what chapter 9 was largely about – him giving up his privileges and his rights for the good of the Corinthians. He refuses to demand his rights. He is pursuing Christlikeness. He wants to be like the one who gave Himself up with nothing held in reserve for us and for our salvation. And he says, “Now that’s what I want for you too, Corinthians, Jacksonians, Glaswegians.” That’s really what you call someone from Glasgow, by the way; a Glaswegian! Paul wants us to be like Christ. “I want you to look where I’m looking. I want you to rest on the one upon whom I am resting. I want you to imitate the selfless, self-sacrifice of the one I also am seeking to imitate. I want you to be like Jesus!”
WWJD is a really bad question to ask. “What would Jesus do?” You remember that craze for the WWJD bracelets? Because it calls us to speculate, “What would He do were He in our circumstances?” The right question to ask is the one Paul is asking. “What did Jesus do?” WD – whatever! “What did Jesus do?” WDJD – doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in the same way! What did He do? That pushes us not into speculation but back into the Scriptures. And when we ask, “What did He do?” the answer of the Bible is unequivocal. He loved me and gave Himself for me. When He was reviled, He reviled not in return. When I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. And if I am called to the imitation of Christ, in this circumstance I must ask myself, in every circumstance, as I weigh moral choices, not “What would Jesus do?” – “What did He do?” How did He relinquish His rights for the good of others that they might be saved, that God might be glorified? That’s the path I must take. That is the path to which we have all been called. To give up your liberty, to give up your very self for the glory of God, for the edification of your neighbor, and for the salvation of the world because that is precisely what your Savior did for you. Isn’t it? Precisely. And so it is to this that we are all called as we seek to serve Him.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, would You teach us to look to Christ; not the Christ of our own imagining, but the Christ of Holy Scripture. And as we look there, would You remind us how He loved us and gave Himself for us, how selfless in all His pursuit of us He was. And then would You begin to remake and remold our hearts and lives that we might begin to display a similar selflessness as we seek to bring You glory, as we seek to edify, build up, not cause to stumble, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and friends. And as we seek so to adorn the doctrine of the Gospel by the way that we live that others, by looking at our lives, might understand how plausible and powerful the Gospel we proclaim really is because they can see in us its transforming effects. Please, will You forgive us when we have made ourselves the center of our own moral reasoning, our own pleasure, our own agendas, our own ends. Help us to love our neighbor, to love Your glory, and to love the salvation of sinners as we imitate our Savior. In Jesus’ name, amen.
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