Christian Liberty — Do I or Don’t I?

A Study of 1 Corinthians 8-10

Introduction: In our study through the book of 1 Corinthians, we’re coming tonight to chapters 9 and 10. These are fascinating chapters and there are some difficult verses in them, but I got so caught up in them that Katrina thought I was dead. I left her in the easy chair while I went to work on this passage, and became so absorbed in these verses that I forgot all about her. She shouted for me, but I couldn’t hear her, and she didn’t have her phone. When I came back upstairs from my study, she said, “I thought you had died!” Well, I didn’t die; I was just trying to work my way through chapters 8 – 10 and trace the flow of logic Paul used as he talked about the subject of Christian liberty.

This discussion occupies 1 Corinthians 8 through 10, and we’ve already looked at most of chapters 8 and 9. But for the sake of review and for the sake of getting a grasp on the entire discussion, let’s go back and review. And I’d like to review in this way. In this section of Scripture, I think I can isolate ten different steps in Paul’s discussion.

1. There are areas of belief and behavior where Christians can have valid differences of beliefs and behaviors (8:1). Much of the disunity in the Corinthian church came about because they were arguing and taking very strong positions on subjects that Christians could have valid disagreements.

2. We should be tolerant of each other in these areas (8:1-3).

3. We should take advantage of the freedom we have in Christ. We don’t need to live by a set of rules—especially those formulated by someone else. We don’t want to become legalists in the exercise of our Christianity (8:4-6).

4. But we cannot do just whatever we want or feel. We should forgo our Christian liberty if there’s a chance our example would cause someone to violate their own conscience (8:7-13).

That’s the essence of chapter 8. Now in chapter 9, Paul devotes the entire passage to expanding this discussion, to saying that as an apostle he has given up a lot of his rights and privileges and preferences and desires for the sake of spreading the Gospel. He has a right to get married and to receive support from the churches he is establishing, but he is giving those things up for the sake of winning as many as possible to Christ. We can um up chapter 9 this way:

5. We should forgo our Christian liberty for the sake of winning others to Christ (9:1-23).

Now, that brings us up-to-date. That’s where we left off last week. Now let’s forge ahead and look at the last paragraph of chapter 9. It’s about self-discipline and self-control. Here is Paul’s point.

6. We should forgo our Christian liberty if it leads to a lack of self-discipline or self-control in some areas of our lives (9:24 – 10:22).

Last year, Time Magazine ran an article under the title: “Self-Disciplined People are Happier (And Not as Deprived as You Think).” It began by saying, “It’s easy to think of the highly self-disciplined as being miserable misers or uptight Puritans, but it turns out that exerting self-control can make you happier not only in the long run, but also in the moment.” The article went on to report on a study published in the Journal of Personality that provided statistical data proving that people who practiced self-control and self-discipline were more joyful and more productive than those with less amounts of self-control. I’m glad the researchers made this discovery, but it’s not surprising to students of the Bible. There’s a lot in the Bible about self-control, self-denial, and self-discipline. We’re living in an age with very little self-discipline. People want to do whatever they feel like doing whenever they feel like doing it. (See Proverbs 16:32; Proverbs 25:28; Galatians 5:22-23; Titus 2:12). So let me ask us a question: In what area of your life could you use a little more self-control? What little step can you take in that area to be more self-controlled? Look at verse 24:

Verses 24: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? In the ancient world there were several great athletic competitions centered in Greece. There were the Olympics, of course, which were the most famous and were held in Olympia, which was also in southern Greece not all that far from Corinth; and then there were the Isthmian Games held in Corinth. The Isthmian Games occurred every two years in the springtime of the year. They were held in an area dominated by the temple to the god of the sea, Poseidon. These sites have been excavated in our lifetime, so we actually have an excellent understanding now of the layout of the Isthmian locations. One interesting fact is that no housing or lodging accommodations have been found from the first century, so it’s believed the thousands of spectators lived in tents. And we know from the New Testament that Paul worked at his tent making trade while in Corinth. So it’s tempting to picture him in a booth somewhere at the Isthmian Games helping people with repairs to their tents. He certainly seemed to have been familiar with the games and there are a number of references in his writings to athletic competitions. At the Isthmian games, the events included footraces, wrestling, boxing, throwing the javelin, the long jump, chariot racing, and even singing. It was open to both men and women. In this passage, Paul refers to two of the sports – running and boxing. There was one regular ritual at these games. Each of the athletes went to an area near the Temple of Poseidon and took an oath to follow the rules of the game. If the athlete violated the rules, he was disqualified, even if he were the fastest and most gifted athlete there.

Verses 24-27: Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

I don’t think Paul was talking about losing his salvation here; he was talking about losing his effectiveness, losing the reward for his work. He was explaining that it requires self-discipline if we’re going to be in the Lord’s service. We have to be self-disciplined because that’s the nature of Christian service. We have to keep our minds and bodies pure, and we have to stay as strong as possible. We have to display integrity or we undercut our message.

Now, remember that chapter divisions were not originally in the Bible, and so the line of thought goes unbroken to the next verse. In this passage, the apostle Paul is going to say that lack of self-discipline and self-control devastated the ancient Israelites.

10:1-2: For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

In other words, the Children of Israel had an experience with God that is akin to our salvation experience. They were enslaved in Egypt, but God brought them out. They were baptized, so to speak, in the Red Sea. That marked a new beginning for them just as baptism marks a new beginning for us. They were on their way. And they had access to the resources they needed.

Verses 3-4: They all at the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. They had a new beginning, were baptized in the Red Sea, and had bread and manna and living water and the presence of Jesus Christ with them – very much like a newly-saved person today. But they messed up because of lack of self-control.

Verses 5-6: Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Here we have a glimpse into why we have an Old Testament in our Bibles. The first 39 books of the Bible were given, not only to show us the past and the history and the unfolding of the plan of redemption for the world, but to teach us lessons. To give us examples. We can study the characters of the Old Testament and learn to avoid the mistakes some of them made.

Verse 7: Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”

This is referring to the time they lost total control at Mount Sinai. While Moses was up on the mountain, they lost their confidence in him, forced Aaron to make a golden calf, and engaged in a giant party where anything goes.

Verse 8: We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. This is referring to the incident described in Numbers 25, when the Israeli men began to indulge in sexual immorality with the women of Moabite and practiced idolatry with these women.

Verse 9: We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.

This occurred in Numbers 21, when the people complained to Moses and asked him, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the wildness. There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” There was an outbreak of venomous snakes and many people were bitten and died until Moses crafted a snake out of bronze, put it on a pole, and everyone who looked at it was healed. In John 3, Jesus said that the snake on the pole was a type of Himself on the cross. And here Paul said the people were actually testing or resisting Christ.

Verses 10-11: And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. That’s a wonderfully descriptive phrase for Christians. We are people on whom the culmination of the ages has come. Who is the culmination of the ages? It is Christ. Since, then, we have been saved and baptized; since we have heavenly food and drink; since we have a record of Old Testament examples as warnings; and since we have experienced Him who is the culmination of the ages, we must stand firm and make sure we don’t fall into sin. We must exercise self-control.

Verse 12: So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

And now we come to that wonderful promise that so many of us have memorized and depended on at one time or another:

Verse 13: No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Verse 14: Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.

That is, flee from everything that might try to push Jesus Christ off the throne of your life. Notice the word “flee.” That means to move away from. Are there some things in your life you need to flee from? To move away from? To distance yourself from? Are there some people? Some relationships?

Verse 15: I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.

This is common sense. This is biblical sense. Now, with all that as background, Paul is getting back to his subject of whether we should eat meat sacrificed to idols. At this point I have a little trouble following the logic of the verses as they unfold; but here is what I think. Paul is going to say: “When you partake of the Lord’s Supper, you are partaking of the body and blood of Christ. When you eat meat sacrificed to idols, you’re eating something neutral—there is no such thing as an idol. But, to look at it both ways, these false gods are demonic in nature. And that’s why some Christians are sensitive. So if you are in the presence of a believer or an unbeliever who is trying to put to you to the test or who can be influenced by your decision, than exercise self-discipline and self-control and abstain. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” Now, with that interpretation, let’s read the verses:

Verses 16-22: Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

I think what Paul was saying here is, to repeat, “While an idol is nothing and we can feel free to eat meat from the markets, I can understand how someone would feel that this was meat that was associated with demons. So if you feel that way, don’t go against your conscience; and if you don’t feel that way be sensitive to those who do. That leads to the next principle.

7. We should always act in a way that is best for others (10:23-25).

“I have the right to anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Sometimes whether to exercise our Christian liberty is a case-by-case matter. It depends on the circumstances and whom you are with. But don’t forget that you DO have freedom in Christ.

8. To repeat: There are lots of times when we can and should exercise our Christian liberty (10:25-26).

Verses 25-26: Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

9. But we should forgo our Christian liberty if it could damage our testimony before an unbeliever and harm the Gospel (10:27-30).

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered to a sacrifice,” then do not eat it both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

Now, I know that all this is a little complicated and not very easy to apply. Do we exercise our Christian liberty or do we not? Well, yes, but with all these things in mind. But now, Paul is going to sum it all up and make it easy for us. If you want all this summarized into one single principle, here it is in verse 31:

10. Whatever we do, let’s always do it for the glory of God (10:31-33). So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—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.

Conclusion

  1. There are areas of belief and behavior where Christians can have valid differences of opinions and behaviors (8:1).
  2. We should be tolerant of each other in these areas (8:1-3).
  3. We should take advantage of the freedom we have in Christ. We don’t need to live by a set of rules—especially those formulated by someone else. We don’t want to become legalists in the exercise of our Christianity (8:4-6).
  4. But we cannot just do whatever we want or feel. We should forgo our Christian liberty if there’s a chance our example would cause someone to violate their own conscience (8:7-13).
  5. We should forgo our Christian liberty for the sake of winning others to Christ (9:1-23).
  6. We should forgo our Christian liberty if it leads to a lack of self-discipline or self-control (9:24 – 10:22).
  7. We should always act in a way that is best for others (10:23-25).
  8. To repeat: There are lots of times when we should exercise our Christian liberty (10:25-26).
  9. But we should forgo our Christian liberty if it could damage our testimony before an unbeliever and might harm the Gospel (10:27-30).
  10. If you can’t figure all that out, then just use this very simple rule:

 So then whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

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