First Corinthians 8--Meat sacrificed to idols, Part 1
Apr 28, 2017
Knowing the distinction between knowledge and love is the key to church unity. Matters of conscience tend to bring disunity, and love, rather than force, is the only godly path to maintain or restore unity.
Nonetheless, it is also important to realize that conscience cannot be used to violate the law of God. When clear Scripture commands us to behave in a certain way, we do not have the right to veto God’s command by appealing to conscience. We have already seen how Paul treated the man who was having relations with his mother or stepmother in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. His solution in this matter was “to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.” Paul did not allow such a man to follow whatever right of conscience he might have claimed.
One God and One Lord
But in chapter 8 Paul was dealing with a legitimate issue of conscience—meat sacrificed to idols. He begins by saying in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6,
4 Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.
In other words, men worship many gods, but there is only one God. All other gods are mere illusions, gods created in the image of men, often fashioned into idols by skilled craftsmen who do not know that God is love. Any false concept of God is a false god or a “graven image” that vainly attempts to set forth the nature of God by human knowledge and skill.
Hence, Paul says, “there is no such thing as an idol in the world.” Obviously, idols abounded in Corinth and around the world, but Paul means this in the same sense that “there is no God but one,” even though “there are many gods and many lords.” The world may recognize many gods, but “for us there is but one God, the Father.”
Paul’s introduction to meat sacrificed to idols raises another church controversy about the nature of Christ and the “Godhead.” Paul seems to exclude Jesus Christ from his definition of God. He says, “there is but one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” In other words, the Father is God, and Jesus is Lord. Does this indicate two Beings? Certainly so. Are there, then, two Gods, or even three if we add the Holy Spirit? How then does this support the idea of just one God?
The relationship between Jesus and God was probably the earliest church controversy, dating back to the first century. On one side was a faction of Jewish believers, called Ebionites, who believed in a very earthly Messiah. They believed that Jesus was a glorified man, rather than God or a part of the Godhead. These Ebionites formed a large part of the problem that Paul confronted with the so-called Judaizers in his epistles to the Galatians and Colossians.
A similar view was adopted in the third century by the followers of Arius, known as Arians, who ran headlong into the Trinitarians. The dispute dominated church history during the fourth century after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The Jehovah’s Witnesses today are the main proponents of the Ebionite and Arian view of Jesus, denying Him a place in the Trinity.
On the other side of the spectrum, some believe that Jesus was the only God and was to be equated to the Father. Today this belief is known as “Jesus Only.” This view denies the Trinity, but does not deny Jesus’ deity.
Trying to figure out how there can be just “one God,” while yet accepting the idea of God the Father and Jesus as Lord, has been a church problem since the first century. To me, it is one of the greatest issues that must be resolved by the Supreme Court of Heaven—not by Church Councils that rely upon soulish knowledge. Until we receive a clear ruling from heaven on this subject, I believe it should be classed as a matter of conscience, where love is the rule. Certainly, we ought not to burn people at the stake to force one view over another.
My personal view can be found in three weblogs entitled “Begotten, Not Made.”
This issue is too large to put into this study of First Corinthians. We must move on, lest we lose the flow of Paul’s teaching on meat sacrificed to idols.
Are Demons Behind Idols?
Not all men understand the principle of one God and one Lord. Some believers, in fact, see many gods competing for supremacy and treat all false gods as if they were real. Like Paul, these Christians believed in one God and one Lord, but, unlike Paul, they acknowledged the reality or existence of other gods and idols.
This brings up another controversy among the brethren, for some see demons behind idols, while others deny the existence of demons altogether. Paul does not address this question directly, but some infer from these verses that idols have absolutely no malevolent spiritual power behind them. That view, however, appears to be contradicted by Leviticus 17:7,
7 And they shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons [sa’iyr] with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.
The Hebrew term sa’iyr is the origin of the word “satyr,” which is pictured as a creature that is half man and half goat. Hence, the NASB renders it “goat demon.” It is probably meant to be another name for Azazel, to whom the second goat on the Day of Atonement was to be given in Leviticus 16:8-10. Rendered more literally, these verses read:
8 And Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats, one lot for Yahweh, and the other lot for Azazel. 9 Then Aaron shall offer the goat on which the lot for Yahweh fell, and make it a sin offering. 10 But the goat on which the lot for Azazel fell, shall be presented alive before Yahweh to make atonement upon it, to send it into the wilderness for Azazel.
When Jesus was baptized on the Day of Atonement shortly after His thirtieth birthday, He was presented to John as the first goat “for Yahweh.” He then was led by the Spirit into the wilderness “for Azazel” to be tempted for 40 days, so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Matthew 4:1 and Luke 4:1, 2 interpret “Azazel” for us, identifying him as “the devil” and “Satan” (Matthew 4:10).
So the law makes reference to a satyr as being a spiritual force behind idols. In that sense, idols really are something, although they are “nothing” to us as believers. We do not acknowledge idols as genuine deities, nor do we recognize demons, the devil, or Satan as having any jurisdiction over anything in God’s creation. Whatever authority they have is purely legal, based upon divine judgment. They are also used by God to tempt (or “test”) us, as we see in the example of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Recall also that in 1 Corinthians 5:5 Paul turned the unrepentant sinner over to Satan “for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved.”
Paul affirms the existence of demons in his conclusion in 1 Corinthians 10:19-21,
19 What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 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. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and table of demons.
Believers have liberty outside of the context of worship, but if someone believes that he is fellowshipping with idols or demons by eating food sacrificed to idols, they ought to refrain from eating such meat.
Many people brought sacrifices to the pagan temples in those days. Much was eaten on public holidays and festivals, but on other days they had more meat than they could consume, so much of it was sold in the marketplace. The question was whether purchasing and eating such meat constituted fellowship with idols. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:7, 8,
7 However, not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8 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.
In other words, the food itself does not bring us closer to God, nor does it draw us away from God.
My understanding of Paul’s writing is that there is indeed only one God, but men often recognize and worship many gods. Satan and demons rule men through their idolatry, and men ought not to sacrifice to demons. Believers should not participate in the worship of idols, which involved partaking of the sacrifices that were offered to those idols (or demons). God judged the Israelites for doing such things with the Moabites (Numbers 25:2). But purchasing food in the marketplace, without going to a pagan temple or worship center, does not constitute fellowship with idols or demons.
For this reason, Paul sees nothing inherently wrong with eating food sacrificed to idols, even if the food has been presented to demons. However, Paul continues this discussion later when he speaks of communion in the church. In 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul concludes his discussion of food sacrificed to idols, he forbids believers to participate in the worship of pagan idols.
This is part 35 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.