The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 28, 2018
I Corinthians 8:1-13
Temper Your Freedom with Love!
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God. So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us 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. But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (NIV1984)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
One of the things that set our country apart from so many others is the wonderful freedoms we enjoy— freedoms that many of our fellow Americans have fought and died to protect and preserve. Part and parcel with the freedoms we enjoy are the rights that we have as citizens of this great country. In fact, we even have a document entitled the Bill of Rights. As Americans we guard and protect these rights with all diligence. As Americans we have the freedom to exercise these rights and to invoke these rights as needed. At the same time, as Americans we don’t have the freedom to trample upon or infringe upon the rights of others. Now don’t misunderstand me. As Christians we know that “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29) As Christians we know that no one can claim as their “right” something that God has expressly forbidden in His Word. And yet, as Americans we strive to respect the rights of the people around us. I’d like you to keep that thought in mind as we study this portion of God’s holy Word.
Our sermon text for today focuses our attention on a dilemma which God’s children have been dealing with ever since Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification. On one hand, Scripture proclaims to us that because of what Jesus has done for us we are free! We are free from the requirements of the Old Testament Ceremonial Law. We are free to live our life in the light of faith. On the other hand, Scripture proclaims to us that because of what Jesus has done for us we are to live our lives as servants— servants of God who gladly and willingly serve each other as brothers and sisters in the faith. Since our old sinful nature sometimes has difficulty balancing our freedoms and our rights with our desire and our willingness to serve, God’s children have at times insisted on exercising their rights— even to the harm of their fellow believers.
That was one of the situations which were causing so much difficulty in the Christian congregation in Corinth. Since the difficulty that God’s people were experiencing in the Corinthian congregation could replicate itself in our lives and in our congregation today let’s study this portion of Holy Scripture under the theme: Temper Your Freedom with Love! Our goal for this morning is two-fold. First, let’s strive to understand what was going on in the lives of God’s people in Corinth. Then let’s strive to see how we can apply this portion of Scripture in our own lives today.
As Paul brings out in the opening portion of our text, the central issue that was causing so much trouble in the Corinthian congregation centered on food that was sacrificed to idols. The ancient city of Corinth was a very “religious” city. We’re told that there were at least twelve different temples devoted to a variety of different “gods.” Every single day people would bring offerings of meat to these pagan temples. Some of the meat would be burned on the altar. Some of the meat would be used for a cultic meal— a banquet where people would gather together and give homage to a particular idol as their “honored guest.” The rest of the meat was then sold to the public with the proceeds going into the treasury of that particular temple.
Many of the members of this congregation had actively participated in these pagan rituals. They had brought their offerings to the various temples. They had enjoyed these cultic meals with their families and friends. They had purchased the leftover meat at the markets. This was simply a regular accepted part of their life— before they were brought to faith in Christ as their Savior.
The issue now was this: While they would no longer even think of offering sacrifices to these pagan idols, could a child of God conscientiously continue to purchase the meat that was being sold at these pagan temples— knowing that it was offered to an idol, knowing that the proceeds from that sale were going into that pagan temple’s treasury? Or, did purchasing this meat from one of these pagan temples mean that God’s people were indirectly participating in idol worship?
How did God the Holy Spirit have the apostle Paul address this very serious concern? He had the apostle Paul lay down some guiding principles for God’s people to follow. First, look at verses 4-6 of our text. Paul starts by stating an objective undeniable fact: there is only one true God! He is the God who created all things. He is the God through whom we live— both physically as well as spiritually. All the so-called “gods” to whom people were bringing these sacrifices were nothing! They were simply figments of mortal man’s imagination. Therefore, the meat that was offered to these idols was no better and no worse than the meat that was still walking around out in the fields around Corinth. For the child of God who knows this, there was no problem buying the meat that was once offered as a sacrifice to an idol. The problem arose when some of the members of this congregation insisted that in their Christian freedom they had the right to continue purchasing their meat wherever they wanted no matter what anyone else might think or say.
Now look at verse seven of our text. Paul states yet another objective undeniable truth. He writes, “But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” There were people in this congregation who were so concerned about making a clean break from their pagan past that they couldn’t imagine purchasing and eating meat that had been offered to an idol. To them this meat was indeed “defiled.” To them eating this meat would make them “unholy” in the eyes of the one and only true God. To see a member of their own congregation purchasing this meat knowing it was once a part of a pagan ritual, to hear a member of their own congregation insist that in their Christian freedom they could eat whatever meat they wanted, well, that was deeply troubling to their soul.
What was the Holy Spirit’s solution to this problem? His solution is found in two key verses in this text. Look at verse nine and verse thirteen. Paul writes, “Be very careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak…Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” My understanding of what the Holy Spirit is teaching us here is what led me to our theme for today: Temper Your Freedom with Love!
Even if your faith in Christ gives you the freedom to do something, that doesn’t mean that you can insist on your “right” to do it! Even if your knowledge of Scripture leads you to understand that participating in some particular action is permissible in God’s eyes, that does not mean that you can insist on your “right” to participate! You need to temper your freedom with love— love for a weaker brother or sister in the faith, love for someone who doesn’t understand the freedom that Christ died to secure for us (Pointing to the cross), love for someone whose faith can be either harmed or perhaps even destroyed by your actions. That’s precisely what Paul was warning about when he said to the Corinthians, “For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be embolden to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” We do not want to take the chance that someone whose faith is weak will see us doing something that in their heart they think is “improper” for a child of God to do and then say to themselves, “Well, if they can do it, maybe I can do it too.” But in the end what was not dangerous for our faith turns out to be deadly for theirs.
I honestly do not think that we have an exact modern-day parallel to this meat that was being sacrificed to idols. Therefore, I honestly do not think that we can imagine what it was like to be a member of this congregation in this culture at this time. Does that mean that there is no way to apply this portion of Scripture to our hearts and to our lives today? Not at all! We would all do well to keep in mind those two key verses from this text.
Look once again at verse nine. Paul writes, “Be very careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” The Greek word that is translated here as “stumbling block” very literally refers to “something sticking up in the road that causes a person to stumble and fall.” What the Holy Spirit is telling us here is that even if we have the freedom to do something, if exercising our “rights” will cause someone “for whom Christ died” to trip, to stumble, to fall in their walk with the Lord then out of love for that person we will not exercise our “right.”
A similar principle is placed before us in verse thirteen of our text. Paul writes, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” The Greek word that is translated here as “cause to sin” is the Greek word “skandalizo.” This is where we get the English word “scandal.” Originally this Greek word referred to the piece of wood that held open a trap for animals. The picture here is both simple and graphic. Even if it is perfectly clear to us that Scripture gives us the freedom to do something (for Paul it was eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol) if our actions could result in someone “for whom Christ died” getting caught in a “trap of sin,” then out of love for that person we will not exercise our “right.”
I hesitate to try and give you a litany of specific concrete examples as to where you need to temper your freedom with love in your own personal life. Why? Because while these words of Scripture apply to each and every one of us, the specifics of how they apply will vary from one child of God to the next. I will, however, give you two examples from my own personal life. First, I have learned from experience that I need to be very careful when it comes to things like drinking. Scripture does not say that it is wrong to drink— as long as it is done in moderation. But, if I am in a situation where I don’t know the people very well but they may know me and what I do for a living, or if I am in a situation where I know that someone does indeed think it is wrong for a Christian to drink, or if I am in a situation where I know that someone has a problem with alcohol — I always opt for either pop or water. To me, that’s tempering my “freedom” with love— love for someone “for whom Christ died.” (Pointing to the cross)
Secondly, I have learned from personal experience that not every faithful child of God is thrilled with our traditional Lutheran liturgy. I have attended worship services that were very very different from the worship services I conduct as a pastor. Instead of an organ or a piano there was a Praise Band. The pastor did not wear a robe and a stole. He wore a nice suit. The congregation did not follow the church year (for example, today is the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany) and the pastor did not follow the lectionary, the three pre-selected Scripture readings for each Sunday. He “preached through” a particular book of the Bible. And yet, while many things were “different” from what I do, the message was the same Biblical message that I strive to share with God’s people. Is the traditional Lutheran liturgical service the “best” way to worship our Savior God? That depends on who you ask! Personally, I think it is. I love the depth and the richness and the beauty of our traditional Lutheran liturgical service. At the same time, however, can we say that the traditional Lutheran liturgical service is the only “correct” way to worship our Savior God? No we cannot! Since our Christian freedom includes our worship style we need to make sure that when necessary we temper our Christian “freedom” with love— love for someone “for whom Christ died.”
How you apply these inspired words in your own life, my friends, may be different from how I apply them in my life. The key to applying them correctly, however, is quite simple. First and foremost, we need to see everyone— especially our fellow Christians— as someone “for whom Christ died.” Once we have that perspective on people then we need to ask ourselves some very basic questions. Could my actions result in putting a “stumbling block” in someone’s walk with their Lord? Could my actions cause someone to get caught in a “trap of sin”? If that is the case, then out of love for Christ and out of love for that person “for whom Christ died” I will not insist on exercising my “rights.”
As Americans we do indeed enjoy freedoms that people in other countries can only dream about. Those freedoms do indeed give us certain inalienable “rights.” While we do indeed have the freedom to exercise those rights, we also understand that we do not have the freedom to insist on exercising our rights if it results in harming others.
As the children of God we have been given a freedom that this world cannot even begin to comprehend. This freedom— which Christ won for us on the cross (Pointing to the cross) — does indeed give us certain “rights”— rights that we do not deserve. May God grant that while we enjoy the freedom Christ won for us, we will always strive to temper our freedom with love!
To God be the glory!