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Participation and Glory

June 4, 2023

Teacher: Philip Sasser
Scripture: 1 Cor. 10:14-31


This morning, we will hear God speak to us out of 1 Corinthians 10:14 through the first verse of chapter 11. What we just read is only the first part of our text.

Two great themes emerge in this section: participation in Christ and glorification of God. Along the way, we will touch on the Lord’s Supper, demons, Christian liberty, evangelism, the forfeiting of our Christian liberty, and the Christian’s place in the secular world.

It’s also a section where the flow of ideas isn’t always obvious.

Maybe some of you come from midwestern cities that were designed by sensible German immigrants. The cities, there, are laid out in grids and the streets have names like First Street.

Some of us come from Southern suburbs that are laid out in a more serpentine manner. I have lived in Cary since I was seven years old and I still don’t exactly understand how Maynard Road works.

One of the challenges of this passage is that it reads more like a Southern suburb than a midwestern town.

This sermon is organized in a way that attempts to impose midwestern logic on Southern sprawl.

We have three points centered around the central commands of the passage:

  1. We are called to spiritual loyalty (14-22)
  2. We are called to freely receive God’s varied gifts (23 - 31)
  3. We are called to surrender that freedom so that many might be saved (32 - 11:1)

Within each of those three points we will examine four steps that Paul takes in developing the argument supporting each command. For each one, he describes (a) the problem; (b) the command; (c) the basis for the command; and (d) the purpose of the command.

The passage and this sermon can be summarized this way:

Within the context of moral obedience and spiritual loyalty, all things are ours in Christ when received with thanksgiving and used so that many might be saved.

The purpose and end result of the Christian living out this principle is that God be glorified.

I. We are called to Spiritual Loyalty (vs 14-22)

If I were to stand here and tell you that the world is not a morally neutral place, I think everyone would agree with me. We are constantly confronted with moral choices at school and work and home and when we are alone. I think that’s obvious. I don’t even think that that is a particularly Christian insight. I think if this were a graduation speech at Holly Springs High School I could say what I just said, “the world is not a morally neutral place,” and everyone would nod along.

Where our passage begins, however, is with a different kind of assertion about the world. What it indicates is this: the world is not a spiritually neutral place. Of course, the moral commands of God are profoundly important, but beneath and above and within our moral struggles there is this other thing lurking and engaged in the battle with us. This spiritual thing. “The world” Isak Dinesen writes in Babette’s Feast “is not a moral, but a mystic concern.” In other words, not only an ethical field of battle, but a spiritual one. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

In verses fourteen through twenty-two, God not only calls us to be morally upright, he also calls us to be spiritually loyal. And while scripture gives us many reasons for why we should be spiritually loyal to God, our passage this morning goes all the way back to the First Commandment for its reason: he is a jealous God. He is stronger than you.

The Problem

So what was the problem? The narrow problem was idolatry. The broader problem was spiritual disloyalty.

Evidently, the Corinthians had renewed - or maybe had never completely given up - their involvement in the pagan temples of Corinth. Maybe they found it socially useful to be seen there; maybe they missed their old friends; maybe they had lingering doubts about the truth of Christianity and wanted to cover their bases; maybe they enjoyed scandalizing the more uptight Christians in their church; maybe they had a mistaken sense of their own invulnerability as Christians. Probably it was a mix of all of these.

I can relate to some of these motives. Maybe you can, too.

Paul identifies what they are, in fact, doing in the frankest term possible: it’s idolatry. This is basic, First Commandment stuff and they’re missing it. The Corinthians think they’re the Harlem Globetrotters of the Christian faith. They’ve got spiritual trick-shots and theological catch-phrases that they think can get them out of every scrape. But Paul calls them up short, here. Stop trying to make behind-the-back passes and learn to shoot a basic free-throw. That’s a reminder some of us could use, too. Yeah, I know your library’s big, but get back to basics. Flee idolatry.

Remember, too, from back in March when the first part of this chapter was preached, that Paul is weaving the story of the golden calf into his analysis of the Corinthians. Here’s a tip, when your pastor uses that story to explain his interpretation of your behavior, go ahead and start working on your apology letter. You’re never Moses in that story.

But of course there’s more here than just that. There’s this thing about demons.

As we consider this passage, I don’t want us to mistake what we’re talking about for superstition or conspiratorial explanations of the world.

What I do want us to do is to train our minds and hearts to think Biblically about the world. And it is simply the case that the Bible describes the world we inhabit as possessing an unseen, spiritual, dimension to it that affects our lives as Christians.

The General

Let’s get some basic definitions and terms in place and then take a quick survey of how the New Testament writers explain demonic and Satanic activity in the world.

To make all the former Presbyterians here comfortable, I’ll start by quoting the 16th century Second Helvetic Confession: “Concerning the devil, the Lord Jesus himself testifies: ‘He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). Consequently we teach that some angels persisted in obedience and were appointed for faithful service to God and men, but others fell of their own free will and were cast into destruction, becoming enemies of all good and of the faithful.”

Next, let's consider the way in which the New Testament epistles describe Satanic activity. Before diving in, I’ll summarize my findings this way: in the New Testament, demonic and Satanic activity is both more prevalent and less spooky, than we tend to imagine. Satanic activity is almost assumed. The writers don’t have to set the scene with references to horned heads or goat feet. They just describe normal Christian life as bumping up routinely against Satan. Here are a couple of examples:

Acts 5:3. Satan enters Ananias’ heart. (lying)

  • 1 Cor. 5:5. Deliver the unrepentant to Satan. (the seriousness of church discipline)
  • 1 Cor. 7. The risk to the abstaining married couple.
  • 2 Cor. 6:14-16. Christ with Belial.
  • 1 Tim. 4:1. Teachings of demons.

Context for Our Passage

Alright now we’re ready to dive into our specific passage. As we do so, don’t forget our summary: demons in the New Testament are more common and less spooky than we tend to think.

Reminder how in the first part of chapter 10 up through verse 22, Paul is using the Golden Calf incident to analyze the Corinthians. And even though idolatry is the big sin hanging over the Golden Calf incident, what is the actual sin that Paul describes? “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality.” (1 Cor. 10:7-8). He doesn’t say “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written “The people sat down to…pray to the devil.” No, it says they sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. The incident of the golden calf was the first and greatest sin Israel ever committed. It was the great spiritual adultery that all subsequent sins of that nation were variations on. And yet Paul, here, sees the actual golden calf as only a part of the idolatry of which the simple, yet terrible, desires of the flesh constituted the remainder.

Now let's look at Deuteronomy 32, which is the passage that Paul is actually quoting in chapter 10. What are the sins that Moses describes as having preceded their great sin? Let’s be like weathermen. We might not be able to precisely predict where the next tornado is going to be, but if we know what conditions cause tornadoes then we can warn people to be on the lookout for them.

Here’s the passage from Deuteronomy 32.

But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, to whom your fathers had never dreaded. You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot that God who gave you birth

Did any of that sound familiar? Paul sprinkles in little lines and phrases from this passage in his denunciation of how the Corinthians are participating with the culture around them.

The Israelites grew fat and sleek. That description reminds me of Paul’s description in chapter 4 of the Corinthians. “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in high honor, but we are disrepute.” Paul’s praise here of the Corinthians, of course, is dripping with sarcasm.

They became proud, decadent, and worldly. Then they forgot the God who gave them birth. And when they had forgotten the God that gave them birth, the idols came. These are good warnings for us. Where the corpse is, there the vultures gather.

The Present Manifestation

Ah, but we are not like them, we say. We’ve moved on. Our problem isn’t Satanism, we think, it’s humanism. Here’s what Calvin writes: “When men become so vain in their imaginations as to render divine honor to creatures [ie. to men], rather than to the one God, this punishment is in readiness for them - that they serve Satan. For they do not find that “middle place” that they are in search of, but Satan straightway presents himself to them, as an object of adoration, whenever they have turned their back upon the true God.”

We have become so used to thinking about modern life as one that worships humans and that elevates mankind above everything. We see the Tower of Babel as the archetypal project of our day. There were no demons or devils there, we think, just arrogant men trying to make a name for themselves. And there are no demons or devils in Silicon Valley or Washington or Hollywood, just arrogant men trying to make a name for themselves. Except it doesn’t work that way. We are always worshiping something. We have crawled out on top of the Tower of Babel and found there, not an empty place, nor even the statue of man, but Satan, straightway presenting himself as an object of adoration.

Scripture gives us no examples of that thing we claim to have in America: the spiritually neutral kingdom; a naked public square; an irreligious culture; a nation where church and state are truly separate. In fact, I consider Cary no less pagan than Corinth, and Johnston County not much better off than Jericho. And if there were more demons in Babylon than there are in Boston, it is not because the Enlightenment came once upon a time to Massachusetts, it’s because the Gospel came. Paganism isn’t a function of chronology but of geography. Where the Church advances, Satan recedes. And where the Church stumbles and loses ground, Satan’s revanchist fury pushes back into the vacuum again. Paganism is man’s natural state. Where there are idols in hearts, idols will come to the town square soon enough and tables will be spread where demons hover. Who among us can discern them? I don't have to prove to you that Satan is lurking in the stock rooms of Target in order to tell you that the LGBTQ project is primarily a religious one and that to bow to a single one of their demands is just that: bowing. When preaching this same text over a hundred years ago, JC Ryle said this: “We live in days when great principles are involved in little acts, and things in religion, which fifty years ago were utterly indifferent, are now by circumstances rendered indifferent no longer.”

In our passage, Paul is comparing the feast of pagans with the Lord’s Supper, but he could have just as validly compared the music of pagan worship and that of Christian worship, or compared the holy days of the pagans with the holy days of the Christian; or the confessions and catechisms of the pagans with the those of the Christian. “What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? What portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14). There is no yoking the two together. It is Christ and nothing else.

To speak frankly for a moment, this next section was the one I agonized the most over in preparing this sermon. I didn’t just want to leave us thinking that as long as we never participated in a pagan religious ceremony we were ok. I believe the commands here require more of us than that. I believe that we live in a time of increased spiritual darkness and that caution and wisdom is appropriate. At the same time, I am very afraid of standing behind this pulpit and saying anything speculative or that goes beyond what scripture warrants. Besides all the usual reading and conversations with Daniel and my dad, I would also like to acknowledge the help that Matthews and Sijy were to me in thinking through these issues. Their experience growing up in India and living out faithfully the specific, literal, commands of this passage was inspiring and instructive.

Here it goes:

In this present evil age, I submit the following cautions for your consideration. Beware of pseudo-churches: institutions where creeds are stated and loyalty oaths demanded; beware when new holy days (or months) are established and secular saints are venerated; beware when truth claims are made that brook no dissent and when people march behind flags of no nation; beware when new sins are minted and atonement is for sale. When you find yourself in a crowd, look for the idol. When you find yourself cheering for a political figure who has just taken the stage or singing at a concert or laughing with the studio audience or clicking on your computer along with a crowd, look for a table being set.

Beware, too, of spiritually thick places, places that by their very nature are religious, sacred, symbolic, ritualistic; places and things that are packed with meaning and mystery and the stuff of ultimate ends; spiritually thick instances where hidden things are probed irreverently; the occult; music and the arts; situations where dying and death and burial are involved. Be wise about products or practices where pagan or Eastern religions are gussied up for American consumption and yet still breathe the same prayers to the same strange gods that hold whole continents in bondage. Legal or not, there is, I believe, a spiritual dimension to hallucinogenic drugs that should be verboten for Christians. We should consider carefully the vows we say at our weddings and the weddings we choose to attend.

1 Cor. 6 tells us that matters of sex and the body are two such spiritually thick areas. How we conduct ourselves and treat our bodies is not just a moral concern, but a mystic one. Not just a moral field of battle, but a spiritual one.

And in a couple of weeks, in chapter 11, we’ll see that the Sunday gathering is a spiritually thick area and that how we dress and conduct ourselves in worship as men and women is not just a moral field of battle, but a spiritual one.

And here we have food, and we are told that, in certain situations, the words spoken over food matters, and that what we eat matters, and that the table where we sit matters, not just morally, but spiritually.

Creation is infused with a spiritual charge. We inhabit an enchanted land. The rooms where Christians gather and where the Holy Spirit meets them are enchanted places. The songs we sing cast spells. Tonight when we worship together outside we should imagine angels in the tree branches. That should both thrill us and frighten us

Think about lighting a match. When you do this, what are you mostly thinking about? Don’t burn your fingers, right? That is often how we think about navigating the moral choices of our life. Make good, godly, choices. Don’t burn your fingers.

But what a passage like ours teaches us is that there are certain contexts where there is a combustible gas in the room. And to light a match wrongly in such a place risks not just burning your fingers but incinerating you.

The combustible gas in the room represents the spiritual reality that surrounds and permeates certain areas of life and creation - those “thick” areas I just mentioned. As we study the world and culture in light of scripture, we should be attentive and obedient as we approach those spiritually charged subjects or places, the places with gas in the room. There is a seven story Hindu temple one mile from my house. It’s the largest Hindu temple in North America. I am neither afraid of it; nor do I hate those who worship there. But it is not a spiritually neutral place. I’ll leave it up to you whether it's the kind of place you take your kids for a field trip. But I will tell you this: there are demons there.

The Command

The narrow command is simple: flee idolatry! The broader command is to maintain spiritual loyalty to God. It is the first and simplest and hardest in the whole Bible: have no other gods before me. This command, both in its narrowest and broadest sense, is the great command of the entire Bible, from start to finish. Remember the final words of First John: “Little children, keep yourself from idols.” In this context, I can do better than read from the Heidelberg Catechism, questions 94 and 95.

“What doth God enjoin in the first commandment?” “That I, as sincerely as I desire the salvation of my own soul, avoid and flee from all idolatry, sorcery, soothsaying, superstition, invocation of saints, or any other creatures; and learn rightly to know the only true God; trust in him alone, with humility and patience submit to him; expect all good things from him only; love, fear, and glorify him with my whole heart; so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to his will.”

“What is idolatry? Idolatry is, instead of, or besides that one true God, who has manifested himself in his word, to contrive, or have any other object, in which men place their trust.”

But there is also, I believe, a subtle treason, a fledgling idolatry, in wishing for a slightly different God, one with a slightly different moral code. I’m sure you would never put it quite so bluntly, but this is, in effect, what your mind does when you get to certain parts of your Bible or when the elders preach on certain topics. You might not leave the church because of it, but in your heart you sort of wish there was an update or two that you could run on God’s software.

I want you to take in your mind everything you believe about God: everything the Bible has taught you and that parents and pastors and teachers and theologians have taught you over the years and I want you to lay it all out in front of you like a map. There are the places on that map where you live - God’s gracious acceptance of you in Christ, his love for you, his commands for you. And places where you like to visit and vacation, sunny attributes with white sand and blue water. There are attributes you hope to travel to some day - high mountains of knowledge and fellowship. But then there are the shadowing places. Places having to do with his judgment, maybe, or the suffering that happens in the world or his commands concerning sex or the created orderings of men and women. And these places you rarely visit. They are on your map because you sort of know they have to be. But you wish they weren’t. If you could, you would make a better map. One with no valleys or shadowing places. Be careful. The moment you wish a single thing about God’s character to be different from what it is, you have created an idol in your heart. There is no god such as the one you have invented. And the first opportunity you are given to worship that new god you will take it. Apostasy doesn’t begin with bad theology, it begins with an idolatrous wish that God was just a little different than he actually is.

The Basis for the Command

Verse 22 gives us the basis for the command that we must remain spiritually loyal to God: “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”

God’s response to spiritual disloyalty is the same across all times and places: righteous jealousy. “I the Lord your God am a jealous God,” is an Old Testament kind of term, we think. The kind of term we might associate with an era when avenging angels wiped out entire armies. But God’s character does not change. He remains a jealous God. He is jealous for your affections and heart and allegiances. He has purchased you from the power of sin and death and seated you at his banqueting table, not on a whim or out of a supply of grace that cost him nothing, but at the cost of his own Son. How could he not be fiercely jealous to keep what his own blood purchased. He will not easily lose what cost Him so much to obtain.

Why the emphasis on strength, here? “Are we stronger than he?” The supposed spiritual maturity and spiritual strength of the Corinthians was part of the reason they were dallying with idols, still. “Hey, we can handle it Paul, it’s not a big deal, we got this.” What Paul does here is remind them that their biggest problem, their biggest threat, is not from the demons. If it was, then the spiritual strength of the individual Christian might, in fact, give them license to be participants with demons. But no, the danger they face is from God! It is from that direction that the true danger lies and against him their supposed strength is meaningless.

The Purpose

We have identified the problem, the command, and the basis for the command; now, for the purpose and end toward which our spiritual loyalty is directed. The purpose is that, through spiritually loyal lives, we might deepen our participation in the blood and body of Christ and in the life of his people.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

Our Confession of Faith describes the sacrament, in part, like this: “The Lord’s Supper is a visible sign and seal of an invisible grace that comes from the Lord to the recipient of the sign.” (TCOF 30.3)

Here, Paul emphasizes our participation with Christ in taking the Lord’s Supper. It is only here in our Bibles that this dimension to the Lord’s Supper is highlighted. That participatory dimension, I believe, is similar to what occurs in baptism. Look at Romans 6:4. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. That same union, that same death and resurrection that we share with Christ once in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper is a regularly repeated sharing and participation with Christ. In baptism we disappear into Christ; in the Lord’s Supper, Christ disappears into us.

The Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal of that once-and-for all union with Christ. The Lord’s Supper also contains a commandment within the memorial: “be what you already are.” Be participants with Christ in deed and not just in word. Renew your vows.

And finally, the Lord’s Supper makes that present reality more true. The taking of the bread and the wine is a step further into that participation. Every time, when taken properly, through faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that participation deepens, and becomes stronger.

Here’s what John Piper says about this passage:

The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to receive from Christ the nourishment and strength and hope and joy that come from feasting our souls on all that he purchased for us on the cross, especially his own fellowship. We share in the body and the blood by sharing in the benefits that they bought, including our unity in the body of Christ...That’s what it means to share in the blood and body of Christ - to sit with Jesus at the banquet of the benefits of his death.

  • (“Idolatry, the Lord’s Supper, and the Body of Christ”)

Mysteriously, wonderfully, gloriously, soberingly, we are participants in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present governance over all things. Remember Ephesians 2:6, God “made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” That is not future tense, that is present tense. And that present participation, that present seating with him, we will see in a little bit, has profound consequences for how we live.

Lastly, this is a participation not only with Christ, but with one another. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” We are not atomized individuals participating in Christ by ourselves. We participate in Christ by ingesting the bread and the wine, and we participate with one another by eating and drinking the same thing, together. It’s a remarkable image. And again, there are the same three parts to this: sharing the common loaf and common cup reminds us of our once-and-for-all union with each other; it also operates as renewal of that union so that we might “act in the way that we already are”; and lastly it increases the truth and reality of our participation one with each other.

About two years ago, the Elders adjusted how we took the Lord’s Supper. For my entire life, I had celebrated the Lord’s Supper by remaining in my seat and passing the trays of bread and cups back and forth down the aisle. But then Elders decided to place the elements on tables at the front of the sanctuary and for the congregation to walk forward to receive the elements and then return to their seats. I love this. It reorients my attention away from what’s happening on the stage and toward one another (and toward Christ, at the table). I love walking slowly up the aisle, passing close beside those still at their seats, brushing against your shoulders, hearing your voices grow and then recede as I pass by, the music getting louder as I get near the musicians, then the procession back to my seats making eye contact and smiling at the dearest saints I know, seeing your mouths move and hearing you teach me and admonish me in wisdom. Taking the Lord’s Supper in such a manner is a profoundly one another moment. It is a profoundly “one loaf” moment that we should relish and remember.

II. We are called to Freely Receive God’s Varied Gifts

All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience - I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thanksgiving, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

As with the first point, in this section Paul presents a problem, a command, a reason, and a result. Here, the problem is a moralistic refusal to enjoy God’s good’s gifts; the command is to freely receive those good gifts with thanksgiving; the reason given is that, quoting Psalm 24, the earth is the Lord’s; and the result is the glory of God.

The Problem

The problem that Paul identifies in verses 25 -27 is that some Christians are refusing to accept good things for the sake of preserving a perceived ethical purity. What Paul criticizes here is moral scrupulosity in the face of God’s good gifts.

Remember the scenario that Paul is describing. The Christian is physically moving through a complicated maze of pagan temples and marketplace stalls and non-Christian associations. And every Christian in the church has his own history, personality, temptations, and convictions that are dictating exactly how that maze is being navigated.

Typically, when Paul addresses the issue of differing convictions within the church, he’s more concerned about maintaining unity than weighing in on the particular controversy. But here, Paul tips his hand. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the grounds of conscience.

This is an important reminder that our convictions should not be left unexamined. We aren’t to run roughshod over people’s consciences or despise the particular, unique, person that God made them to be, but neither are our natural proclivities to be preserved in amber and never questioned or probed again. Especially, like here, when a particular scrupulosity threatens to cast a shadow over an important truth about God.

The Command

The actual command that we see here might not seem particularly relevant or important, but let’s hear it again: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any questions on the grounds of conscience.”

To help round out this command, let’s bring in 1 Timothy 4 and Colossians 2 to help us understand this passage.

First, 1 Timothy 4

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teaching demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Now let’s look at Colossians 2:16.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath…Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in details about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations - ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) - according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

First of all, its remarkable that in both of these passages there is this same bundle of issues that we see in 1 Corinthians 10: (1) we have a concern about properly understanding and interacting with the supernatural, spirit-realm, just like in our passage, (2) there is the concern in Colossians about separating from Christ, our head, which is similar to the emphasis on participation in our passage; (3) we have a wrong teaching that says the Christian must abstain from certain food, just like in our passage, (4) we have the command to eat, and (5) in Colossians we have issues with those who are “puffed up without reason” like in Corinth.

How, then, should we understand the commands in 1 Corinthians 10, 1 Timothy 4, and Colossians 2? Taken together, I think we can understand God’s command like this: thankfully receive God’s varied gift. To broaden the definition to include where we’ve been and where we’re going in our passage, we can state it this way:

Within the context of moral obedience and spiritual loyalty, all things are ours in Christ when received with thanksgiving and used so that many might be saved.

One particular thing to note in this passage is that Paul doesn’t appear to make much of a distinction between the creational and civilizational gifts of God. As Christians, I think it’s relatively easy for us to give thanks to God for nature. But when we’re in the city, surrounded by man-made things, we can feel uneasy about seeing it all as a gift from God to be received with thanksgiving. But Paul makes no such distinction here. Paul imagines his audience in the middle of a bustling city, not a bubbling brook in sight, and says: this is God’s too. And if God’s, then yours. Let your arms swing free. Smile. Take and eat. It’s yours.

One of the great discoveries for me in the last few years has been William Gurnell’s book “The Christian in Complete Armour.” I’ll read a section now where he addresses the ascetic tendency among people. You can hear echoes of Colossians 2, here.

“Some of the heathens’ admired champions, to cure ‘the lust of the eyes’, have from a blind zeal plucked them out; to show the contempt of riches, have thrown their money into the sea; to conquer the world’s honor and applause, have sequestered themselves from all company in the world - a preposterous way that God never chalked. Shall we call it a victory or a frenzy? The world by this time perceives their folly. But faith enables for a nobler conquest. Indeed, when God calls for any of these enjoyments, faith can lay all at Christ’s feet. But while God allows them, faith’s skill and power is in sanctifying them. It corrects the windiness and flatulent nature of them so, that what on a naughty heart rots and corrupts, by faith turns to good nourishment in a gracious soul. If a house were on fire, which would count the wiser man - he that goes to quench the fire by pulling the house down, or he that by throwing good store of water on it, doth this as fully, also leaves the house standing for your use? The heathen and some superstitious Christians think to mortify by taking away what God gives us leave to use; but faith puts out the fire of lust in the heart, and leaves the creature to be improved for God’s glory and enjoyed to the Christian’s comfort.”

  • Gurnell, Vol. II, pg. 85.

The Basis for the Command

The basis for this freedom to enjoy all things is gloriously simple: The first verse of Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” What a refreshingly clarifying truth around which to orient our engagement with the world.

God created it, it is good.

It remains his, and he is sovereign over it.

These truths, though, in and of themselves, do us no good, unless we, ourselves, are somehow entitled to participate in God’s dominion over the earth. That word I just used, “participate” is not an accident. The participation we have in Christ that is represented and deepened by the Lord’s Supper continues to express itself in the world around us. Without this participation, Christ’s rulership over the marketplace would have nothing to do with us. But with this participation, Christ’s rulership is transferred to us. This is why, at the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes these astonishing words: “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

These “things sold in the marketplace” are not things that God grudgingly allows, but something that he has conquered, rules over, and grants to you as a gift. The nature of belonging to Christ is that you are united with the one who has conquered all and to whom all things belong and by whom all things were created. This transforms us from the “do not handle, do not touch” ascetics who appear Godly, but are not, into creational omnivores for the glory of God.

Our sacramental participation in both the suffering and exultation of our Lord overruns our little plastic communion cups to fill the entirety of our lives.

The Purpose

Let’s recall again the rule we established: Within the context of moral obedience and spiritual loyalty, all things are ours in Christ when received with thanksgiving and used so that many might be saved.

What is the purpose of our obedience to this command? It is the glory of God!

“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

“The glory of God.” It’s an easy and common phrase for us to use, isn’t it? But what does it mean? The glory of God is the display of his weightiness, dignity, perfection, power, and rulership over all things. It is the thing that will kill a man if he beholds and yet is the great end for which the world was created and toward which all lives are bent.

But here, it means something a little different; here, it’s a kind of worship. Look at Psalm 50:23. “Whoso offers praise, glorifies me.” To glorify God is to praise God. What Paul instructs us to do, here, is to worship God with the mundane, daily, activities of life.

The great commission’s call to go into all the world includes the reception, stewardship, and cultivation of God’s cultural and civilizational gifts. For the Christian to offer up a sincere prayer of thanksgiving and then tuck into one of Fred Wolfe’s steaks is to utter with your belly a cultural hallelujah that brings glory to God. To sit by the fire with a friend on a cold winter night and listen to Miles Davis is to utter with your ears a cultural hallelujah that brings glory to God. To watch your kids play in the sand, to walk with your wife down Fifth Avenue, to plant a garden, to bake a pie, to create a line of code, to mow a lawn, to plan a really great homeschool curriculum, to read books and watch films with intelligent discernment, to do all these things with moral obedience and spiritual fidelity, with thanksgiving, so that many might be saved, is to plant the flag of Christ’s kingship in one small plot of creational, cultural, civilizational ground and give him glory.

For all things are from him and to him and for him. And we are his and he is God’s. Amen.

III. We are called to sacrifice our freedom for the sake of others

Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

Again, we are faced with a problem, a command, a reason, and a result. The problem is how to show deference to an offended conscience. The command is for the free Christian to forfeit his freedom, the reason is so that many might be saved, and the result - again - is the glory of God.

The Problem

The problem, of course, is that we do not mosey through the marketplace alone. We don’t engage with the world only as individuals who are bound to nothing but God’s law and our own conscience. We walk through the marketplace shoulder-to-shoulder with those with whom we have shared the loaf of Christ’s body. We are not simply united to Christ by our participation in the Lord’s Supper. We are also united to one another. But unlike similar passages in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, this passage appears to bring into our consideration not only the consciences of fellow Christians, but also the consciences and sensitivities of non-Christians that we bump up against. So what do we do when our belly gives out a cultural hallelujah in the kitchen and the brother for whom Christ died recoils in horror? Or what do we do when our cultural hallelujah offends another - not because of the hallelujah part but because of the cultural part?

The Command

The commands are clear, and contained not just in the passage read a moment ago, but throughout our section:

  • All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful
  • All things are lawful, but not all things build up.
  • Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor
  • Give no offense
  • Try to please everyone in everything you do.
  • Do not seek your own advantage, but that of many.
  • Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ

Recall again our summary of Paul’s teaching here:

Within the context of moral obedience and spiritual loyalty, all things are ours in Christ when received with thanksgiving and used so that many might be saved.

Now we have arrived at the command that our freedom be used “so that many might be saved.” This is, of course, a very different thing than our freedom being constrained by another person’s mistaken understanding of truth, or reality, or themselves, or God. But here, the reason for forfeiting our freedom determines the boundaries of what loving forfeiture actually is.

The Basis for the Command

The basis for the command to constrain our freedom is the great commission, stated here simply as: “so that many might be saved.” This is, by the way, one reason why I believe this section addresses more than just our interactions with other believers. Other Christians don’t need to be “saved”.

This not only expands who Paul has in mind when he instructs us to constrain our liberty, it also limits what exactly it is we’re constraining. The why makes a difference. Our liberty is not to be determined by someone’s preferences for our behavior, our liberty is to be determined by whatever it takes to save someone. Remember how Paul describes himself in 1 Cor. 9: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” We are not to make ourselves a servant of all because Christians are called to be timid pushovers. We are not to make ourselves a servant of all because Christians are called efface themselves before the powers and principalities of our age. We are not to make ourselves a servant of all so that people are less likely to think we’re bigots. No, we are called to make ourselves a servant of all so that we might make them servants of Christ.

The Purpose

Remember, Paul is instructing us to imitate him as he imitates Christ. But what kind of imitation? No longer his exaltation and rulership of all things, but his humiliation and emptying himself of all things. From the glorious riches of our participation that we considered earlier, we now move to the image of the Christian life we see in Philippians chapter 2. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interest of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.”

A minute ago, I presented a long litany of examples of how we might speak cultural hallelujahs for the glory of God. Here is another litany. No less commanded. No less glorious. A bit more painful.

The great commission’s call to go into all the world includes the forfeiting, self-denying, rejection of God’s cultural and civilizational gifts. For the Christian to say no to Fred Wolfe’s steak for the sake of another soul is to offer yourself up as a living sacrifice, for the glory of God. To leave your fireside and turn off Miles Davis and go and sit with someone you have very little in common with and who has no fire in their hearth is to offer yourself up as a living sacrifice, for the glory of God. To say no to the beach, to say no to 5th Avenue, to say no to your garden, to your pie, to your line of code, to the lawn that needs cutting, to your perfect homeschool curriculum, to put down your book and turn off the movie, to forsake all these things so that many might be saved, is to plant the flag of Christ’s sacrificial ministry in one small life and give him glory.

Paul is the most free and the most bound of Christ’s apostles and we are instructed to imitate him: to be treated as imposters, and yet true; as dying, yet living; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. We are to live this way, because Paul lived this way, and Paul lived this way because Jesus lived this way. And Jesus lived this way for the sake of your soul’s salvation.

We glorify God by participating in Christ’s risen victory and we glorify God by participating in Christ’s dying sacrifice. Both follow our participation with him in the Lord’s Supper. That cup of participation runs over into all things.

“Do all things to the glory of God” is the saint’s answer to God’s gift to his children. He gives us all things and we receive and use all things in whatever manner gives God the most glory: sometimes that is in free, thankful, consumption - the feasting of the Christian life; the strolling the market, picking whatever strikes your fancy as an act of ownership, in Christ, of all things; sometimes it is in the limited, denying, fasting of the Christian life - so that many might be saved, but again, for the glory of God.


The next section of 1 Corinthians takes us out of the marketplace and into church, away from the pagan temples and into the formal worship of the true God. It would be easy to assume that it is there, in chapters 11, 12, 13, and 14, that Paul will teach us the most about worship. And while there is much to learn about worship in those pages, it is not only there. In these verses, it is as though we are standing with Paul at the door of the church, with all of Corinth stretched out behind us, the smoke rising from pagan altars and the shouts of merchants hawking their wares, and with his hand on the doorknob, Paul turns and gestures out toward all of it. And what he says to us, essentially, is this: this too belongs to Christ. This too was won at Calvary. This is the inheritance of nations. Turn it into praise.

I would like to conclude by addressing any non-Christians here.

To speak bluntly, you start off the passage in a pretty unflattering light, as one of those who are contentedly seated at the table of demons. And maybe you were thinking “isn’t that just how it always is. Christians vilifying non-Christians. Calling them all Satan worshipers.” I won’t argue with you. We do talk that way sometimes. We talk that way because sometimes the Bible talks that way.

But then you pop up a little later. Except this time you’re not at the table of demons, you’re at your own table, and there are Christians seated with you. The conversation is good. The food is good. But there’s a seriousness of purpose to your Christian friends. A soberness and also a lightness. Things that mean nothing to you, mean a lot to them. Things that mean a lot to you, mean nothing to them. Maybe you’re intrigued. Maybe annoyed. But at least, in this scene, you aren’t the villain. There you sit, with real questions and real concerns and real emotions tied up in the weighty things of life and existence.

In verse 33, though, something remarkable happens that I hope you see. I’ll read it again: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they be saved.”

You aren’t the villain at all in this picture. You aren't even just a non-Christian friend of Christians. You are our most honored guest. You are one for whom our Lord set aside everything and came seeking and saving the lost, and for whom, in tribute to and imitation of our king, we too set aside everything.

“What portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” Paul asks rhetorically in 2 Corinthians 6. To his question I would answer this way: No portion but this, the bread of Christ that was broken for us and which feeds his people still and which is offered here to you, also.

Jesus said: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.”

Are you hungry? Do you feel your soul’s emptiness and lack? Are there pangs there that no amount of worldly distractions can relieve? Then know today your soul’s salvation, Jesus Christ. Quick to forgive. Mighty to save. Confess him as Lord and savior. Come and dine.

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