In our last post on the Lord’s Supper, we explored the perplexing passage of 1 Corinthians 8-10, where Paul appears to be sending conflicting messages. On the one hand, Paul seems to permit the eating of idol-food in 8:1-13 and 10:23-11:1, whereas on the other hand, he appears to prohibit such eating in 10:14-22. Thus, Paul appears to legitimize and reject the eating of foods sacrificed to pagan gods.
We found that Paul was very concerned that the Strong, those for whom eating idol-food was acceptable, were in fact causing what he calls weaker brothers to eat idol-food against their conscience, thus causing them to stumble (1 Cor 8:7, 9-12).
In addressing this issue, Paul seems to be is in general agreement with the so-called “Strong,” citing a cosmological principle that would have been their basic justification for eating food sacrificed to idols: “We know that idols are of no consequence in this world … for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we in him, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him” (1 Cor 8:4-6). Paul agrees with the Strong: idols don’t mean anything in a cosmos created and sustained by the one true and living God (10:19).
But we found that Paul went even further. He believed that the actual act of pagan sacrifice effectively orients the world away from God and toward demons. Thus idolatry is not merely wrong; it perverts the cosmos.
Conversely, “communion with Christ” (1 Cor 10:16-17) accomplishes the opposite: for Paul, the communion meal means nothing less than the reorientation of the world back to God through Christ!
It is in light of this cosmic reorientation that Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 10:25-26 take on considerable significance. In verse 25, Paul tells the Corinthians that they can eat any foods sold in the market (and served at a home) “without judgment.” In grounding this instruction, Paul references Psalm 24:1: for “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” There was a Rabbinic precedent for interpreting Psalm 24:1 as justification for a mandatory table-thanksgiving that blesses God for the food: “One must not taste anything until he has [first] recited a benediction [over it], as Scripture states, The earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains (Ps. 24:1)” (t. Ber. 4:1). However, the Rabbinic tradition, with its strict adherence to food prescriptions, does not apply Psalm 24:1 to the food market in a manner comparable to Paul, who sees Psalm 24:1 as justification for eating all that is sold at the meat-market, not giving offense to either Jew or Gentile (1 Cor 10:32). It is therefore quite possible that Paul is reading the cosmology of Psalm 24:1 not merely in light of Christ, but in light of a specific act of Christ, namely, his own table-blessing at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23). As such, Paul would be interpreting Christ’s thanksgiving as having the effect of turning the world away from demons and returning the entire creation back to God.
The logical relationship between food and creation appears rooted in 1 Corinthians 10:30-31: whether Strong or Weak, members of the church, by receiving all things in thanksgiving (eucharisteō), glorify God and are therefore part of the new creation reconstituted toward the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ as embodied in the sharing of the communion meal (1 Cor 8:6; 9:19-23; 10:16-17, 28; 11:23-25; cf. Rom 14:6, 14, 20). For Paul, Christ returns the world back to the Father, thus restoring the cosmology of Psalm 24:1 (1 Cor 10:26, 28) as celebrated in thanksgiving to God for all foods and drink (10:30-31).
And yet, the Lord’s Supper reveals something else, something integral to Paul’s concern with the Strong and their treatment of the Weak: there is no true thanksgiving without self-giving. With the cup and bread revealing Christ’s blood and body given for the Corinthians, nothing short of self-giving love embodies the fact that God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ (cf. 11:1; 2 Cor 5:18). Love is the disposition of God embodied in Christ and therefore must be the disposition of those who are now participating in that cosmic reconciliation.
And so now we can step back and see the problem Paul has with the Strong.
If we recall, those who feel free to eat food sacrificed to idols justify such a practice on the basis of 1 Corinthians 8:4-6: idols mean nothing in a world that has been returned to God the Father through the finished work of Jesus Christ. An idolatrous cosmos has been overcome by Christ’s own thanksgiving to God, rendering all foods clean.
And yet, Paul is concerned that the Strong’s freedom to eat idol-food has become a stumbling block to the weaker brother by causing him to eat that for which he cannot give thanks and for which he thereby fails to glorify God (8:9-11, 13; 10:28-29, 30-31). By causing the weaker brother to eat that for which he cannot give thanks, the Strong are causing the weaker brother to recommit the very first sin of the Garden!
Moreover, in causing the weaker brother to perish, the Strong would as a consequence incur God’s judgment, having sinned against Christ (8:12), which in effect nullifies their own thanksgiving to God for such food.
And so, what do we have here?
By ignoring Christ’s example of self-giving, the Strong’s insistence on their “privilege” at the expense of the Weak’s “conscience” would in fact reproduce a cosmos devoid of thanksgiving to God, which is precisely the very idolatrous cosmos they claim to deny in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6! The eating practices of the Strong are doing nothing less than reflecting and reproducing a social order more constitutive of idolatry, a world that fails to honor God as creator, a world of thankless destruction (8:9-11, 13; 10:28-29). Both desiring one’s “privilege” at the expense of the Weak on the one hand and desiring food for which one cannot give thanks on the other embodies a cosmos devoid of self-giving and thanksgiving which is the very cosmology the Strong ironically claim to reject (8:4)! There is thus a significant gap between the Strong’s rhetoric and reality, and therefore their eating practices are in fact condemned.
So it is not Paul sending conflicting messages in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1; it’s the discrepancies and inconsistencies among the Strong that are addressed and reconciled by Paul.
As it turns out, for Paul, there is no true thanksgiving without self-giving. Knowledge and privilege divorced from self-emptying love logically lend themselves to the destruction of the church for which Christ died (cf. 8:11; 10:1-13). Thus Paul concludes that if eating causes anyone to fall, may he never eat meat again (8:13).
In calling the Strong to embody a disposition towards their weaker brothers marked by thanksgiving and self-giving, Paul calls them back to a shared lifeworld that manifests a cosmic space where all things have been returned back to God through Christ, such that in eating and drinking, indeed in whatever they do, they glorify God and thereby reveal the reconciliation of the world in the transformative death and resurrection of Christ (10:31; 11:1).
For more on the cosmic significance of the Lord’s Supper and the Apostle Paul’s vision of a sacramental society, see my book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, available here.
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