Freedom from Stumbling

Freedom from Stumbling

This morning we continue to see matters that the Corinthians church has raised with Paul. And because I have planned these sermons with the goal of preaching on I Corinthians 15 on Easter morning, I have chosen representative passages from the three chapters we’ll be looking at in chapters 8–10 of Paul’s letter. Paul’s instruction in these chapters primarily circles around the question of food offered to idols and what the believer’s responsibility is when presented with such situations. And though you and I are less likely to come across someone in Ipswich or a neighboring town who worships idols, the principles Paul presents here are important for us to hear. We all need to figure out how to balance the freedom we have in Christ with serving and bearing witness to those whom God has placed in our lives, both believers and those who don’t yet know Jesus as the Christ, who don’t yet know Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So beginning in chapter 8, Paul affirms two things the Corinthians apparently wrote to ask him about and both can be found in verse 4. Within the context of whether believers are allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols, they note first of all that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and second that “There is no God but one.” Now it may be that the Corinthians mentioned these two points as a means of justifying their eating food offered to idols.[1] In other words, since they know that idols are nothing and they themselves worship the one true God, what harm could there be in eating food offered to non-existent entities? And yet the fact that they’re even asking indicates some level of awareness on their part that there may be a problem or issue with their partaking of such food.

By way of answer Paul begins with the positive. He acknowledges that the Corinthians are correct on both points and he even goes on to elaborate in verse 6 that “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.” So, on the one hand, Paul strongly and clearly confirms the truth of what the Corinthians have noted about God the Father and his oneness with Jesus Christ. This one God not only made everything that exists but is also the one for whom we live and through whom we live—he sustains everything that exists. Therefore because he is the only true God, anything else that claims to be God or vies for our loyalty is but an idol, a false god.

However, on the other hand and more negatively, in the passage I read for the Scripture reading Paul provides an important qualifier to this truth in verse 7, “But not everyone possesses this knowledge.” Again we need to keep reminding ourselves that though this church is comprised of believers in Christ, they have converted to Christ out of a very pagan culture and consequently they’re now struggling with what it means to maintain a Christian identity—a holy identity—in the midst of a society whose beliefs could be vastly at odds with the Christian teaching they’ve received. So although they’ve rightly learned that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one” (4), not everyone has learned this. Paul goes on to note, “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” Breaking associations can be very difficult for us to do. My father at one time had been a three-packs-of-cigarettes-a-day smoker. Like many smokers he tried to stop smoking numerous times. But what finally helped him break this habit was to give up drinking coffee as well. The association between drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette had been so powerful for him that he had to let both go in order to stop smoking once and for all. I think a similar dynamic was taking place here with immature Christian believers who weren’t able to separate the eating of food offered to idols from the worship of the idol that food was intended to placate. The problem here is that though our consciences have been given us as a means of helping us know and do what is right,[2] what are we to do when we are dealing with a misinformed conscience? Again, it hadn’t been all that long ago that these believers venerated the idols to whom this food was sacrificed so the association between the food and the idol they had once believed in and worshipped was still strong. Their conscience was weak; it was misinformed so that when they now ate such food, even though they had acknowledged Jesus Christ as their one and only Savior and Lord, they were nonetheless reminded of the god to whom they had once offered it and this created confusion in them as to who was the true God.

Paul goes on to note that a mature believer in Christ, verse 8, knows that “food does not bring us near to God” and that “we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do”—just as a mature believer knows that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one” (4). And because a mature believer knows these things, they are free to partake of any food. And yet…part of what it means to be a follower of Christ is to be his follower not in isolation, but in the context of the oneness we share in communion and community with other believers. So those who follow Christ must ever be thinking about how their actions may affect a brother or sister—especially one who is weaker or less mature in the faith. This is why in verses 9–11 Paul states, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” We take his point. Though you may know that all foods are allowable, someone who has associated a particular food with a particular idol may not. So though you may have the right and freedom to partake of any food, for the sake of helping a younger or weaker believer, it would be better for you to abstain from partaking of food that otherwise is perfectly good and acceptable. Better for us to abstain than to cause shipwreck of a younger believer’s faith.

Paul goes on to elaborate as to why such abstention is the better course in verse 12: “12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” To cause someone whose faith is weak to become weaker still so that they possibly lose the little faith they had in the first place is the equivalent of sinning against them for by our actions we are contributing to having them fall away from Christ. And, what is more, in sinning against a weaker brother or sister and wounding their weak conscience, we also sin against Christ. This is how closely God in Christ identifies with those who are his. I love a line from the musical version of Les Miserables that states “to love another person is to see the face of God.” In what Paul is stating here we have the other side of this coin: to sin against a weaker believer is to sin against Christ. God in Christ identifies this closely with us because he has given us his Holy Spirit to seal and indwell us. Therefore Christ’s very oneness with us—by virtue of his Spirit given and sent to us—means that to sin against a believer is the same as sinning against Christ Jesus himself.

Dear Paul knew this better than most for, as we’ve noted before, when he was persecuting Christians while he was yet Saul, the risen Christ appeared to him and asked not why he was persecuting believers, but what Christ said to Paul was “Why do you persecute me?”[3] Clearly Paul never forgot that encounter—how could he?!—and he’s now applying that very truth here. This is why he concludes in verse 13, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” Paul not only doesn’t want to sin against another believer but also he doesn’t want to sin against Christ. So he desires to do all in his power to keep another believer from falling into sin. Never eating meat again is but a small sacrifice when compared with helping a brother or sister remain strong in their relationship with Christ. The freedom of a Christian is the freedom to love others as Christ loves them.

In chapter 9 of I Corinthians, Paul builds upon the teaching he’s provided on what it means to be free in Christ by providing himself as “exhibit A.” After defending his authority as an apostle, and the corresponding rights he is thereby entitled to (but doesn’t make use of), beginning in verse 19 he explains why he doesn’t take advantage of his rights as an apostle: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Again, Paul understands “freedom” not as we often do as “the power or right to act, speak, or think” as we want. No, Paul’s understanding of freedom has a distinctly Christian ring to it, that of being free to serve God, of being free to live our lives as Christ did. In fact, one of Paul’s favorite ways of referring to himself is as a slave of Jesus Christ.[4] This isn’t slave in the sense of being domineered and abused as in our horrific history with treating Africans as less than human. But Paul refers to himself as a slave in the sense of wanting to please God and do his Master’s bidding for God is a merciful and loving and compassionate Lord who seeks what is best for those who are his. Again, Christ turned Paul’s life around when he was killing and putting Christians into jail. And because of Christ’s kindness and mercy towards him, Paul now wants to do all he can to lead others to such a wonderful God. So Paul is combining his understanding of Christ’s oneness with us with his call to be not only Christ’s slave, and therefore slave of all who know and belong to Christ, but Paul even desires to be a slave of those who don’t yet know Christ so that he may “win as many as possible” to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Therefore he states in verses 20–21, “20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” Whether someone was a Jew who hadn’t acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, as God’s promised Messiah and Son, or a Gentile, a non-Jew, who might never have heard of Christ, Paul sought to do everything in his power that all might come to him. Further, he says in verse 22, “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” In the end, what matters most in life is knowing Jesus Christ. And Paul will do anything and everything in his power, that “by all possible means” he “might save some.” He does all of this, he says in verse 23, “for the sake of the gospel” that he might “share in its blessings.” For what greater blessing can there be than to see someone go from darkness to light, from damnation to salvation, from blindness to sight of the One who made them in his image and desires to redeem them by his love?

In chapter 11 Paul again returns to the dangers of idolatry—and sexual immorality—and grumbling before God, highlighting what happened to God’s people, Israel, when they disobeyed. And he uses these events as negative examples to encourage the Corinthians to learn from their poor example and so remain obedient to God in Christ. Therefore Paul calls them to flee from idolatry and from pagan sacrifices made to demons because, in the end, it’s impossible to serve Christ and also serve false gods and if we attempt to do so, we’ll end up arousing the Lord’s jealousy for he desires and demands our undivided loyalty, our undivided love and service.

So beginning in verse 23, Paul reiterates—and again corrects—the Corinthians’ claim that we first came across in chapter 6: “I have the right to do anything” and he again notes, “but not everything is beneficial.” And as he did in chapter 6, he again states their claim, “I have the right to do anything” and again insists, “but not everything is constructive” as he reminds them in verse 24, “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” Paul is pointing out a conflict or tension we experience as believers between two fundamentally different ways of orienting our lives:

Do I focus on my right or on what is beneficial to others?

Do I focus on my right or on what is constructive to others?

Do I focus on my good or the good of others?

For to be a follow of Jesus Christ is to seek to live the better way, the more beneficial way, the more constructive way in putting the good of others over and above my own personal rights.

In verse 25, returning to the question of food offered to idols, Paul again confirms that all food is allowable to a follower of Christ. And he supports this view by quoting a verse from Psalm 24[5] which was used as a blessing during Jewish meals[6]: “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, [and this is the verse from the psalm] ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’” So having already confirmed in chapter 8 that any food may be eaten by believers but that we should abstain from a particular food if a weaker brother or sister—in other words a believer—still connects that food with a former lifestyle of worshipping false gods, beginning with verse 27 in this chapter, Paul applies this same logic to an unbeliever, to someone who doesn’t yet know Christ: “27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience.” In effect, Christians are called to be slaves not only to Christ—and therefore to other believers to whom we are thereby united, with whom we are one—but Christians are called to be slaves to all people. Christians are called to point to God in Christ not only in word but also in deed. So if something we have a right to do might cause someone to draw away from God in Christ, for their sake, we shouldn’t do it.

I began by noting how unlikely it is that you or I will find ourselves confronted with someone who associates the eating of a particular food with the worship of an idol or false god. Yet this doesn’t mean that this passage is irrelevant to us. If the overriding principle is that we should live in such a way that helps keep others from falling into sinful and destructive behaviors—even if the catalysts to such behavior aren’t a problem for us—then for the sake of those for whom it is a problem, we should ourselves abstain. And a relevant example in applying the weaker brother/sister principle is that of drinking alcohol. So, for instance, one of the reasons we use grape juice rather than alcohol during our communion services is out of a concern for someone who may struggle with alcoholism. So better for us partake of juice rather than wine in celebrating Christ’s sacrifice for us than to possibly cause a weaker brother or sister to struggle with or return to their addiction. But, still remaining with alcohol, there are Christians who apply this more broadly and refuse ever to partake of alcohol. And their reasoning is that given that alcoholism is such a problem in our society, isn’t it better never to drink it so as to bear witness to the world that it’s possible to enjoy and even celebrate life without turning to alcoholic drink?

But in the spirit of Paul’s becoming a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles, I have a personal example of how not taking a glass of wine offered became a negative testimony. When I was first teaching at Wheaton College, they required that faculty sign a document indicating they would never drink alcohol. And once while visiting an aunt in Florida, she offered me a glass and I politely said no, explaining that the institution where I was employed wouldn’t allow me to do so. She was perplexed and responded, but please have a glass of wine. And I again declined. So she again offered. In my aunt’s mind, to share a glass of wine was to share an intimate moment so she couldn’t for the life of her understand why I kept turning down her gracious hospitality. In hindsight, I wish that I had accepted her kind offer and then confessed to the powers that be at Wheaton College why I had broken my promise—namely for the sake of not hurting someone I loved.

Another example I often think about is that of gambling. My parents once invited me to join them on a trip to at Atlantic City casinos and though we had no problem spending our ten dollars in chips in an hour and spending the rest of the day leaving the casinos, walking around the city, and grabbing a bite to eat before boarding the bus home at the end of the day, I’ll never forget noticing a woman at a slot machine when we first entered. When we returned to the bus after eight hours, she was still sitting at the same machine hoping for a miracle. I think gambling is so addictive—and takes advantage of those who can least afford it—who most need that miracle of money that they spend what little money they have on that dream—that I won’t even buy a lottery ticket. Again, I’m not saying it’s a sin to do so but only suggesting that it’s incumbent upon us to consider how our actions may affect those around us.

Paul ends this chapter with a powerful admonition and reminder that true freedom in Christ is freedom to keep others—whether believers or not—from stumbling: “31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” And in the first verse of chapter 11, he even exhorts the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Do what I do to the degree that what I do is in keeping with Christ’s teaching and example.

Dear brothers and sisters, Paul reminds us that God can—and should—be glorified in everything a believer does. If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, then everything can be a means of glorifying God—of thanking God—of pointing to Him as the Giver of every good and perfect gift. As James also tells us “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”[7] And so we’re to enjoy our loving Father’s good gifts because we know that he has made us and all this earth to enjoy and care for.

But we need to balance this truth with knowing that if we have committed our lives to knowing, loving, and following Jesus Christ, we no longer belong only to ourselves but we now belong not only to Christ but also to each other. So in making decisions, we should always take into account whether and how what we are planning to do will affect each other.

And even beyond that, if we are followers of Christ, we are called to consider how our words and deed affect event those—or perhaps especially those—who don’t yet know him. Our lives are not our own. We have been bought with the precious price of the blood of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. And so should we live.

So whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, let us follow Paul’s admonition and do it all for the glory of God.

Let us not cause anyone to stumblewhether believer or unbeliever.

Let us seek not our own good but the good of many that many may be saved.

Let us pray.


[1] ESV Reformation Study Bible.

[2] Romans 2:14–15: 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)

[3] Acts 9:4.

[4] Though NIV translates δοῦλος as “servant,” a better translation is “slave.” Romans 1:1: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.” Titus 1:1: “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.” Philippians 1:1a: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,” Peter also exhorts believers in similar terms. See I Peter 2:16: Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.

[5] Psalm 24:1: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;

[6] Zondervan NIV Study Bible.

[7] James 1:17.

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