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Paul’s Argument in 1 Corinthians 8-10

I’ve been talking about how our world is really close to the world of 1 Corinthians but we don’t realize it—but I haven’t managed to show why I think that. To do that, I wanted to spend time thinking about interaction with idolatry  by examining 1 Corinthians 8-10, a passage which is often misread by looking at it through a Romans 14-15 filter. In the last post we noted, in passing, some similarities and differences between the two sections; but in this post I want to do a bird’s eye view of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 8-10.

Why limit the discussion to these chapters? Because Paul does. Note how he introduces this new discussion in 1 Cor 8:1 (separate from the question of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7) and begins a new discussion in 1 Cor 11:2 about men, women and the Lord’s Supper.

Note the ideas on eating things and foods offered and the matter of idols reflecting the main problem: 1 Cor 8:4, 8, 10, 13; 9:4, 13; 10: 3-4, 7, 18, 20, 25, 28. Note the solution of the Gospel allowing believers to curb liberty for the sake of love, also repeated through the three chapters: 1 Cor 8:9, 13; 9:15, 17, 19; 10:24, 28, 32-33. Note how Paul uses himself as an example: 1 Cor 8:13; 9; 10:32-11:1. Indeed, he couldn’t be any clearer when he recalls his established points of 1 Cor 9 in the summarizing points of the argument!

So, if I were to break down 1 Corinthians 8-10 in an outline form it would look something like this

  1. 1 Corinthians 8
    1. What Knowledge Knows
    2. Who We Need To Love
    3. How We’re to Carefully Love
  2. 1 Corinthians 9
    1. What The Apostles (Paul) Know
    2. Who Paul the Apostle Loves
    3. How Paul the Apostle is Carefully Loving
  3. 1 Corinthians 10 and 11:1
    1. What Israel Did While Knowing
    2. What You Do While Knowing
    3. The Gospel and Living in Careful Love

I made a point of not giving the chapters any headers up front because that would color a lot of the reading going forward.  But it’s necessary, for the sake of the tired eyes of the reader, that I give at least that breakdown up front.

If you read 1 Corinthians 8, you’ll notice how Paul’s thought flows.

Verses 1-7 deal directly with this matter of knowledge.

It’s not the first time that knowledge comes up in the letter. Paul says the Church at Corinth has “all knowledge (1 Cor 1:5) but then tells them that the way he proclaimed the Gospel of God was not on the basis of wisdom (1 Cor 1:19), or knowledge  (1 Cor 2:2) but relying on the foolishness of God (1 Cor 1:25), the Spirit and Power of God (1 Cor 2:4) evident in the preached Gospel—a spiritual wisdom that none of the wise of this age have (1 Cor 2:7-8) since it is revealed only by He Who Knows, which is God (1 Cor 2:12). Indeed, constantly, Paul makes a point of underscoring what they should know but apparently don’t know (1 Cor 3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 3, 9, 15, 19).

So here, in 1 Cor 8 he has a big segment on what we know but then pits this against love.

Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.

This sort of Knowledge shows that there is no such thing as an idol; that there is one God; that by that One God all things consist—but the important knowledge is being known by God and that is evidenced in Love. You don’t love, you might have some form of knowledge, but that patently shows that you aren’t known by God.

Paul quickly moves to those who don’t have knowledge but still are those that are loved by God. In their situation that knowledge-without-love winds up elevating liberty over love resulting in catastrophe.

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  (1 Co 8:9)

Because it’s one thing to have this knowledge, but quite another to ruin a brother because of that knowledge. For this reason, liberty is to be curbed for the sake of love; knowledge is set aside and love is used to lift up.

Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble. (1 Co 8:13).

Now, note Paul’s Apostolic Rights. He is free, he has seen Jesus, he does the work of the Lord, he has the Church at Corinth as his seal of apostleship: he has plenty of rights. The right to marry, the right to drink, the right to eat, the right to stop working, and the right to receive gifts of support. Indeed, this last right is closer to the rights of a salaried employee: he must be paid.

But Paul does something with those rights: he lays them aside voluntarily for the sake of the Gospel.

If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. (1 Co 9:12)

He makes himself a slave to all so that he may win more: he became weak for the weak so that he could lift them up and simultaneously not disqualify himself by reveling in his rights.

To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. (1 Co 9:22)

Now the pointed core of Paul’s argument is this:  The Israelites had many blessings, were baptized in Moses, drank from the Spiritual Rock, ate Spiritual food yet that entire first generation dropped dead in the wilderness because of what they thought they could do. They performed idolatry by worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through an image; they performed idolatry by lusting after their own ideas over God’s ideas; and they performed idolatry by actually joining themselves to Baal of Peor and eating foods with the heathens.

They, notes Paul, tested the Lord—and we shouldn’t fall into the same error. If such people had such spiritual blessing and they were still punished severely, what’s to make the Corinthians think that they’re Stronger? Are they Stronger than the Lord?

No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Co 10:20–21)

Indeed, the problem with what these people did (and what the Gentiles do) is not so much that they’re doing it to empty idols; it’s that they are actually performing these actions towards demons who take advantage of these things. It is not possible to openly do these things for the glory of God; but it is only possible if those things aren’t waved out front as belonging to idols, and thus demons.

So the Corinthian Christians should eat meat, but not at the local temple where everyone sees it’s being offered to an idol; they should eat meat at a Gentile’s home up until the Gentile says it was offered to an idol; they can buy meat at the market as long as the seller of wares doesn’t say “this meat was offered to an idol.” The Corinthian partaking in those things lends approval to them resulting in offense to everyone.

So we see that this is one argument with three over-arching points that now, at this end of the post, we can probably add headers to:

  1. 1 Corinthians 8: The Necessity of Limited Liberty when it Comes to Idols
  2. 1 Corinthians 9: The Example of Limited Liberty in the Apostolic Life
  3. 1 Corinthians 10: The Danger of, and Solution to, Unlimited Liberty when it Comes to Idols
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