Recently, a friend of mine had a run in with people that followed the Old Testament Law. They brought substantial evidence to the table that stood to prove that we, as Gentiles should not eat unclean meat or any food that has been sacrificed to idols. He believed them for a short time, but felt compelled to read up on the subject in a lot more detail and discovered that he had been mislead.
First, let’s get some context… In the early church, some of the earliest Gentile converts began joining Jewish believers in local fellowships. One of the earliest issues among these fellowships was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. In Greco-Roman society idol worship was extremely popular and it was common for meat sold in the marketplace to have been sacrificed to a false god prior to its sale. Many Jews believed that partaking in the consumption of these meats would be some kind of “second-hand” idolatry. The conflict occurred when the Gentiles rejected the notion that such meat was tainted and many said that they could still eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry.
Paul helps us to understand how we should approach the issue.
1 Cor. 8:4-8
So, what about eating meat that has been offered to idols? Well, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God. There may be so-called gods both in heaven and on earth, and some people actually worship many gods and many lords. But for us,
There is one God, the Father, by whom all things were created, and for whom we live.
And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, and through whom we live.
However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated.
It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do.
Paul is saying that what we eat doesn’t bring us closer or push us further away from God, the food itself is amoral. He also states that idols are nothing at all, they are inanimate and hold no power.
Well, what does this mean? Does that mean that some people shouldn’t worry and others should? Well not quite. Paul goes on to warn us in verse 9 that we should be careful to avoid stumbling others with a weaker conscience.
1 Corinthians 8:9
But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble.
Believers with a background of idol worship, were still very sensitive concerning this issue at the time and many still considered it morally wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Under no circumstances, Paul says, should a believer encourage another believer to violate his conscience. Paul also clarifies this in Titus 1:15 by saying:
To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.
A ‘weaker brother’ is not one that chooses to abstain from certain practices, but one who is in danger of falling into sin. Your conscience helps to define what things are morally right/are not contradictory your restoration in Christ.
The article on gotquestions.org puts it perfectly:
To illustrate, let’s say there are two 1st-century Christians named Demetrius and Clement. Both are former idolaters, now saved by faith in Christ. Demetrius shuns everything to do with his old way of life, including the meat sold in the marketplace, because, for him, eating such meat would constitute a return to paganism. Clement avoids the temple and refuses to participate in the pagan festivals, but he has no problem eating the meat from the market. Clement understands (correctly) that an idol has no power to corrupt good meat, and, for him, eating such meat is a non-issue. Then one day, as both men are in the marketplace, Demetrius sees Clement eating meat that was sacrificed to idols. Demetrius is horrified, but Clement laughs it off and encourages Demetrius to eat some, too. When Demetrius hesitates, Clement cuts off a piece and hands it to him. Demetrius—emboldened by Clement’s confidence—eats the meat. Biblically, both believers have sinned. Clement sinned by violating the conscience of a fellow believer. Demetrius sinned in that he essentially returned to idolatry—at least, that’s what his conscience is telling him. More importantly, Demetrius is learning how to ignore his conscience—a very dangerous thing to learn.
The principle here is that the conscience of a weaker Christian is more important than individual freedom. Doing something “permitted” should never hinder the spiritual health of someone else.
It is a naturally health response to read about the laws in the Old Testament and want to follow them out of a love and appreciation for God’s grace. But this comes out of a misunderstanding for what Jesus came to do.
Jesus came to fulfill the law of the Old Testament and teaches us how to obey God in its regard.
Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.
You can read this in two ways - one assuming that we must follow every element of the Old Law until heaven and earth pass away.
Alternatively, you will keenly notice the words “to fulfill them” and the words “until all is accomplished”.
The first interpretation fails to see Jesus’ fulfillment and accomplishment of the Law. The prophets that God sent in the Old Testament were sent as a consummation to indicate the end of ceremonial laws. By this understanding, by choosing to follow the Old Testament laws, we are in effect, refusing to submit to God’s plan and fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.
It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.
Then Jesus went into a house to get away from the crowd, and his disciples asked him what he meant by the parable he had just used. “Don’t you understand either?” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.)
Jesus is saying that the prohibition of certain foods as unclean was only a temporary part of God’s way of making Israel distinct from the nations of the world. God wanted the Jews and new Christians to understand that we would become a global people from every tribe, language, ethnicity and race.
With that declaration, God brings into the fold all the nations of the world and their individual convictions about what to eat, when to eat, how to eat etc.
Hebrews also makes it clear to us that the Old Covenant was temporary and only in place until a new system could be established.
… the gifts and sacrifices that the priests offer are not able to cleanse the consciences of the people who bring them.For that old system deals only with food and drink and various cleansing ceremonies—physical regulations that were in effect only until a better system could be established.
Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.
So then, are we free to eat pork? Yes! That’s right! But Paul in Galatians 5:2 also tells what we are not to with pork, or any law of the Old Testament.
Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.
Paul is saying here that when we make an Old Testament Law, or a new law entirely, a necessity for justification before God, then we are cutting ourselves off from God’s grace.
Ultimately, if someone chooses not to eat a certain meat or partake in a certain practice because they believe it may draw them back into their sinful nature or it goes against their conscience, let them, and do not get in the way of their nature.
Do not let the new or old laws get become justification for salvation. The moment abstinence becomes intertwined with biblical authority as a path of salvation, a line is crossed that contradicts Jesus’ sacrifice and the Gospel He established.
I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.
So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.
If you have any questions or think I could have taken a better approach, let me know! Feel free to reach out in the comments below or reach out to me via email.