Dr. Ted Miller, SOR Faculty
When the Jerusalem Council declared that the Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised, they did more than merely free all believers from the bondage of earning merit by means of keeping God’s law perfectly.
The Gentiles were also in a real sense excluded from adopting key aspects of Jewish culture, as certain elements—particularly the Passover, the redeeming of a male child, and any worship in the temple proper—could be observed only by those who had been circumcised (Ex 12:34, 38, Lev 12:1-4).
Although the God-fearing Gentiles among the diaspora Jews would likely have adopted much of the practice from the synagogue for corporate worship, their cultural identity was not to be absorbed the religious and cultural features associated with national Israel.
And yet, the same Jerusalem council also forbad the Gentiles from eating meat offered to idols (Acts 15:20, 28-29, 21:25). Paul addresses this issue at length in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, where he acknowledges that the command is not due to any inherent contamination in the meat or that any other god actually exists to make the meat unclean (8:4-8).
Nevertheless, he commands the believers to walk in love—taking great care that their knowledge could inadvertently encourage a fellow believer to justify a return to idolatrous practices, which would result in his perishing (8:9-13). Such behavior was not innocuous, but had been forbidden by God—and judged severely in the Old Testament (Ex 34:14-15, Deut. 32:37-38). Paul details several examples where many of the people of Israel—only recently rescued from Egypt—had fallen into idolatry and fornication and were killed by God in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:1-10).
These stories, Paul tells us, are written for the believer’s admonition (1 Cor. 10:11). Apparently, even though the Gentiles were not constrained to observe the cultural features that had defined the community of God’s people for generations, God’s attitude about idolatry had not changed, nor had the cultural appeal of idolatry.
Paul even tells the believers who consider themselves strong enough to stand against such temptations not to be overconfident. Rather, Paul commands them to flee idolatry (10:14), as eating meat offered to idols inherently makes one a participant in fellowship with demons (10:16-21).
Paul then gives a key qualification to his command, building on the idea that the meat itself is in no way inherently contaminated (1 Cor. 8:4-8). As long as the meat’s immediate association is unknown to the believer (whether purchased at the meat market or served at an unbeliever’s home), he is free to eat it, because the earth is the Lord’s (10:26). However, as soon as the meat is identified as having been offered to an idol, the command reverses: he is not to eat it (10:28a).
There is some disagreement about whether the believer’s concern at this point is for a believer or a unbeliever’s conscience (10:28b), but by the time that Paul has finished his line of thought, he is urging the believers that every action bring attention and fame to God (10:31), to draw others to salvation (10:33), and to imitate Christ (11:1).
It appears that underlying Paul’s though are two principles: The two principles are “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1, cf. 1 Cor. 10:26), and the grave danger of idolatry, any practice of which provokes God to jealousy (1 Cor. 10:1-10, 10:14-22). I believe that these two principles provide a possible framework for communicating the gospel cross-culturally, and even in one’s own culture.
Paul certainly seems to believe that there are times when we can affirm (by our actions) God’s permanent ownership of everything, and other times when we should model (again, by our actions) God’s permanent hatred of idolatry.
(to be continued…)
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.