After giving an overview of 1 Cor 8-10, we can draw some conclusions about what’s going on in the Church of Corinth and what’s ultimately wrong with the practice of some.
There is a group of people, known as The Strong With Knowledge, who are visiting the local temples and eating food which has been offered to idols. The Strong With Knowledge have no problem buying meat from the market when it is specifically noted as being offered by idols. The Strong With Knowledge have been doing this activity (of shopping and eating) in front of their Christian Brethren and in front of the common man.
The Strong With Knowledge, therefore, are being addressed. Their practice needs correction on several levels.
On the first level, the practice has nothing in it worth doing. There is no value added:
But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat.
People read this as if Paul is saying that food does nothing at all but Paul phrases it in such a way that the practice has no reason to be embraced. Eating the food isn’t something that God particularly applauds: it doesn’t commend one to God. Avoiding the food does nothing to lower the standing of the Strong—so if it is avoided, all is well. Embracing the meal doesn’t do anything to make one better—so eating the idol’s meal is, at best, an empty thing (Paul argues otherwise as he progresses his points) whereas avoiding it does nothing to worsen. In other words, there is nothing positively being added by the practice and nothing is negated by avoiding the practice.
On the second level, there are some things positively added by avoiding the practice. By not-partaking the Strong are adorning their knowledge with love; in so doing, the other believers are edified (1 Cor 8:1). So the real value is actually found in avoiding the practice.
On the third level, the practice has negative value—by embracing it problems arise: (1) The fellow believers become “strengthened”—here Paul is playing with words because the heart of the people who have a real problem with the practice are now hardened to go do something which doesn’t add anything commend-worthy to them (1 Cor 8:10); (2) the practice applauds knowledge over love which only breeds arrogance (1 Cor 8:1); (3) it causes brothers to stumble (1 Cor 8:13); (4) it has the believer testing the Lord by partaking at the table of idols—this is what we’ll deal with in some detail below.
It is this third level the practice is tremendously dangerous. To show the problem, Paul recounts an Old Testament example of a special generation of people who:
- Were all under the cloud of the Lord’s presence
- All passed through the Red Sea unto Salvation
- Were ell were baptized into Moses via the cloud and the sea
- Were all eating the same heavenly food—the manna that came from above
- Were all drinking the same spiritual drink—the water that came from the rock.
In spite of all that, the people still managed—in their knowledge and arrogance—to fall in the wilderness by seeking after what they craved (1 Cor 10:6). To the Corinthians the message is clear: just because they crave something, doesn’t mean that God applauds their embracing their cravings. Indeed, the generation in the wilderness repeatedly embraced their cravings and died—despite what they knew and experienced of God’s grace, mercy and condescension.
They acted idolatrously at the foot of Sinai by rising up to play in front of a lump of calf-looking gold while knowing that they were covenanting with God that had rescued them from idols (Exo 32:6); knowing they were in covenant with God they rose up and joined themselves to the Baal of Peor and the women of Midian and God killed many (Num 25:1-3); and at yet another point they hungered after different food—earthly food—over and against the food God had provided and God sent poisonous snakes (Num 21:4-8).
It is in this context that Paul’s famous words come into the text (1 Cor 10:13):
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
Note this bit about cravings (1 Cor 10:6) which gives us our context. And though sexual cravings may be part of it (which is what this text is often used to address) the practice is eating the food of the idols just like any of the people around are doing. Paul says that there is a way provided to escape this temptation. What is the answer?
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
The practice does not add anything but indeed, it is fundamentally rebellious to God—run away from it, says St. Paul. He does this by pointing out the table that Christians do partake of as part of their being believers: the table of the Lord (1 Cor 10:21). They break the bread, they take the cup of blessing, they sit at the Lord’s Table in fellowship with the Father over the Son (as John puts it).
And yet, this doesn’t only speak of a practice they partake of at 9:30 A.M on Sundays. This speaks of their unique experience as partakers of the Lord’s Table by His complete provision. Just like the Israelites partook of the Lord’s “Table” for 40 years, the believer is partaking of the Lord’s Table by being spiritually provided for unto the uttermost.
A believer who partakes of idolatry because they are Strong and standing in the freedom that their knowledge provides, are now pitting their Strength against the Lord’s Strength…a dangerous game. (1 Cor 10:22)
Recall the trial of Jealousy from Numbers 5.
A husband suspects his wife of adultery. He doesn’t know it, but he is suspicious. But the text doesn’t phrase it that way. It says that the man has a spirit of jealousy for his wife (Num 5:14). It is not a wrong jealousy for a man to be jealous for his wife: it is his wife after all.
The woman then is brought to the tabernacle and she’s given a drink of water and some harmless dust from the ground, she loosens her hair (thus removing the mark of headship of her husband over her, cf. 1 Cor 11) and stands before the Lord. She swears an oath for the Lord to examine her and to curse her if she is lying and the Lord responds by either letting her go unharmed or causing her womb to drop, her stomach swell (mimicking pregnancy) and producing nothing—no children, no life, just emptiness.
When the Children of Israel tested the Lord with Baal of Peor we see a similar situation. The people were his, they had covenanted with Him, the camp was organized according to his mandates but they joined themselves to another God anyway. Numbers 25:11, the Lord describes Phinehas action as the man being jealous with His own jealousy. And it was that jealousy that killed 24,000 in one shot.
Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?
Now, Paul’s point: the Strong in Knowledge of Believers’ Freedom, partaker of the Lord’s table and confessing as being part of this New Community, would be insane to think that his firm position on his freedom is Stronger than the Lord and his position in Holiness, Perfection, and commitment to his people. No amount of freedom would ever make idolatrous practices praiseworthy. No amount of conviction makes an idolatrous practice, no matter what cultural milieu, justified and commend-worthy before the Lord. Demons stand behind idolatrous practices, no matter how inane or culturally accepted, and the Lord stands against them.
Therefore, not only does the practice not add anything commend worthy (on the first level); not only are there real benefits in avoiding the practice altogether(on the second level); the practice is in itself exceedingly dangerous, no matter what we know or the freedoms on which we stand because (1) there really are demons (1 Cor 10:21) that stand behind the practices and (2), more importantly, the Lord Himself (in His jealousy) stands against idolatrous practices—even if we know that an idol is nothing.