We live in a country that at times makes a god out of freedom. ‘Being free” is the chief end of many. However, we easily forget that freedom, in and of itself, is neither good or bad. It is what you do with that freedom that determines whether freedom is a blessing or a curse.
You can use your freedom to engage in illegal activity. You can use your freedom to slander or physically harm others. You can use it to take advantage of people and use them as objects for your pleasure. You can use freedom to get high, get drunk, or just be lazy and demand that everyone else pay your way. You can use your freedom like many of the dictators of the world, and try to enslave others. These uses of freedom are not good.
On the other hand, freedom can be used to start a business, to speak out for the truth, to protect the weak and victimized in society, to explore new ideas, and to serve the Lord with energy. This is freedom at its finest.
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul began a discussion of the proper use of freedom as it specifically related to a question raised about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul has labored over this issue for three chapters. The time he takes on the issue should alert us to the fact that the principles Paul raises are significant well beyond the issue of meat that had been sacrificed to idols. At the end of chapter 10, in verses 14-33 the Apostle Paul brings his discussion to a close.
THE WRONG USE OF FREEDOM (14-22)
The greatest misuse of freedom is idolatry. Let’s follow Paul’s argument in these verses. Paul told the Corinthians to flee from idolatry. Idolatry is that sin that caused Israel to fall again and again. Instead of trusting the Lord, Israel looked to man-made gods; they took the advice of men rather than obey the instruction of the Lord; and they trusted their own wisdom over the explicit commands of God. All of these things are idolatry.
Whenever Israel fell into idolatry the result was frustration, disappointment, and alienation from God. Israel found itself defeated in war, frustrated in its economy, and having a system of justice that had become corrupt. Any time we drift from God, we necessarily move away from His blessing.
Paul applies this specifically to the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. The people had freedom to partake of all kinds of food. He pointed out that since an idol is nothing, the meat in question has been offered to nothing. It has been defiled by nothing. Therefore it cannot be defiled. However, Paul recognized that it would be easy to conclude that since the eating of meat sacrificed to idols is OK, it is also acceptable to attend and participate in pagan sacrifices. To do this is to participate in the worship of an idol which is the idolatry we are to flee from. He illustrates his point by using two analogies. He says,
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? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The first analogy is a Christian Communion service. Paul’s argument is this: when we celebrate communion we are in a very real way participating in the body and blood of Christ. When we gather around the table of the King, we, by our eating of the bread and drinking of the cup, are expressing our allegiance to the Lord. It is not just pretend, it is real. There is a fellowship with God in communion that is unique and special.
The second analogy is a Jewish sacrifice. Paul said, “Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?” (v.18) The same thing could be said about Jewish sacrifices. When they brought a sacrifice to the altar they were to put their hand on the animal to identify it as their substitute. Depending on the sacrifice, all or part of the animal would be sacrificed. Part of the remainder of the animal was given to the priest and part to the giver. As the family ate the meal from this meat, they participated in the sacrificial process (symbolizing the restored relationship with God).
Though an idol is nothing, idolatry is the domain of the demons. They are behind idolatry. Paul argues that to participate in the worship of and idol, we are, by our participation, getting involved with the demons who promote this idol. It is as foolish as standing up from your foxhole during a war and taunting the enemy by saying, “You can’t hit me!” It is a stupid, dangerous and destructive act.
Let’s apply this to our lives. We commonly think of idolatry as bowing before a statue, picture, or altar of a foreign god. That, of course, is idolatry. However any time we give someone or something influence over our life instead of the Lord we are also engaging in idolatry. We are giving some “object” or “person” an influence over our lives that belongs to God alone.
We know money, power, and success can become our idols. But there are many other things. Here are some example os some things that might be idols. (OBJECTS: Flag, TV, Mirror, computer, family picture, book, car, magazine, ball and glove, picture of the church)
None of these things are bad in and of themselves. The point is that anything can become an idol if we are not careful. We must constantly evaluate our lives to see if we are allowing the things of the world to influence us in a way that should be only reserved for the Lord. We always need to ask, “Why am I doing this?” If our involvement in any activity or group compromises our devotion to the Lord, we should eliminate that involvement from our lives because it is being used by Satan to trip us up and to hinder the work of God’s Kingdom.
HOW TO USE CHRISTIAN FREEDOM RESPONSIBLY (23-33)
Paul (as he so often does) balances a prohibition (flee from idolatry) with some positive principles. I see four ways to make sure that we are using our freedom responsibly.
First we should make sure that our freedom is directed toward that which is beneficial (v.23a). Paul quoted the popular saying (perhaps in the church) “Everything is permissible.” Today someone might say, “The Bible doesn’t prohibit what I am doing.” Paul’s response is: though something may be permissible, it may not be beneficial.
You are certainly free to stay up all night and watch television, but it is not beneficial, you need your sleep. You are free to be brutally honest with the people around you but sometimes such honesty hurts others and destroys relationships. You are free to eat junk food but it is harmful to eat too much. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Second, we should use our freedom constructively (23b). This is very similar to the first principle. There are lots of things we are free to do but, doing them accomplishes no good purpose. We can whine about problems but it is more constructive to focus our attention on solutions? We can give our kids everything they want but it is more constructive to teach them the value of money and hard work. Rather than catering to their every whim, it is more constructive to help them to learn how to be content.
Third, we should exercise our freedom for the good of others (24). Paul said, “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” This is such an important command. Whether we want to admit it or not, we tend to be very selfish people. We see things from our perspective and assume that it is the only perspective that is right or valid. I appreciate these words from Lange’s Commentary,
Since self-love has become so far corrupt as to lift us not only above our neighbor, but also above God, self-denial has come to be the first rule of Christianity, in order that our love may be properly balanced; since there is no danger of our ever absolutely forgetting self.
We need to work at seeing past ourselves so we can think about how our actions impact others.
Paul helps us understand how this principle applies in the situation of meat that has been offered to idols. He gives several guidelines:
- Enjoy what is sold in the markets. It all comes from the Lord and should be received gratefully. Where the meat was before the market is irrelevant.
- If you are invited to the home of an unbeliever, eat whatever is served to you. We don’t have to worry about where the meat came from. It is something that has ultimately come from the Lord and you can enjoy it without guilt.
- However, if someone raises a question about the food because it has been offered to an idol, you should refrain from eating. Why? Because since this is an issue to the other person, they may be harmed or led astray by the exercise of your freedom. Out of love for the other person we should in this situation give up our “rights” and restrict our freedom for the sake of our brother.
Let’s try to apply this in some contemporary settings,
- When we know that our attire will be offensive to some, we should change our clothes.
- When we know that certain music is offensive, we should choose other music.
- When we know certain slang is considered vulgar by someone, we should use different words.
- When we know that some action we take could be taken the wrong way (which we often don’t know until it is too late) we should refrain from that action.
Instead of trying to get our way or prove a point, we should show consideration and love.
Fourth, we should use our Freedom to Promote God’s Glory. This is the over-riding principle in any questionable situation: Will our actions cause God’s glory be advanced or diminished?
A student goes to a college campus and randomly shoots others students. His actions inevitably impact the reputation of his parents. Parents who perhaps used to be outstanding members of a community, are now known as the parents of the student who killed other. Children who misbehave in public make their parents look bad (even if there is nothing the parent can do). Parents are frequently blamed for the actions of their children.
If soldiers engage in acts of cruelty, it tarnishes the reputation of the United States. If players on a school team behave badly, it reflects poorly on the school they represent.
On the other hand, a child who reaches a milestone, a child who is known for their service and kindness, or a child that does some heroic act, will all reflect positively on their parents. It is true that when a child is honored, a parent is also honored. If you don’t believe me, look around at the parents at a Graduation or an awards ceremony.
Paul wants us to understand that our actions will honor or dishonor God. If we wear the name of Christian, everything we do will either bring glory TO God or rob Him of the glory He deserves. In any exercise of our freedom our first question should always be: will my actions help or hinder the cause of Christ? Will God’s reputation be enhanced or tarnished by my actions?
Paul concludes with a bit of personal testimony.
I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.
When we think of living to please everybody we think of the maddening attempt to keep everyone happy. That is as daunting a task as those jugglers who try to keep 10 different plates spinning on top of sticks. We will be worn out trying to keep everyone happy. It can’t be done.
That’s not what Paul is advocating. Paul is talking about an attitude. He is encouraging an attitude that desires to serve and to enrich every life he touched. This means different things in different circumstances. For some (like the religious leaders and false teachers) what was best was sometimes a confrontation. Because Paul truly cared about these people he couldn’t simply ignore the error in what they were doing. At other times Paul knew some people needed instruction, others needed acceptance and love. Still others simply needed a friend. Paul’s goal was to meet whatever need existed in the hope of bringing someone into a relationship with Christ.
Paul concludes with these words, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” If you are like me, you are eager to say, “Follow the example of Christ” but would never want to say, “Follow my example.” I know that I am all too often inconsistent. Too much of my life is wrapped up in my own little world.
However, the reality is that people DO look at your example and mine. They look to see if we live what we believe. If they see us dominated by selfishness, they conclude that we are no different from every other person they see during the course of the week. However, if they see consideration, love, understanding, forgiveness, and a servant mentality, most people recognize that there is something in us that is different from the rest of the world. They begin to see Jesus in us.
The stakes are high. People will always believe what they see before they believe what we say. So this week make an effort to notice other people,
- Take some time in a store and actually see other people. Sit down and look at the faces of the people who walk by. Notice the people who seem weighted down, angry, those who seem distant, and those who look wounded.
- Work at being considerate. Hold the door for someone. Help someone who is unloading a vehicle. Let someone who has just one or two items go ahead of you in the check-out line. Be considerate of the person behind you in a line, or the person waiting for your parking space, or the person walking behind you.
- Work to really understand what and why someone is telling you something.
- Decide every day that you are willing to be inconvenienced for someone else
- Ask God to make you alert to the needs of others
- Develop the habit of asking, “How might this decision impact others?”
In 2 Corinthians 5:20 Paul wrote, “we are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” We represent Him in the world. Christ has set us free from the shackles of sin. He has set us free to enjoy life to the fullest. And He has set us free to represent Him in a lost and lonely world. We must work tirelessly to make sure that we are using our freedom for good, rather than evil.