The Jerusalem Council: The Second Serious Error of the Apostles

The Biblical Treatment of Meat and Idols by the Apostle Paul in the first Corinthian Epistle

As I noted in this chapter, there is no OT prohibition against eating meats sacrificed to idols; the sin identified in Exo 34, Num 25, Deu 32 and Rev 2 is idolatry. The fact that an animal was offered to an idol did not change the nature of the meat into something intrinsically immoral. The people identified in the texts just cited were guilty because of their idolatry and not, per se, because they ate the meat of the sacrifice which had somehow, mysteriously been transformed into something sinister.

This had, however, become a “hot button issue” with the NT Jewish Christians, as evidenced in Gal 2.11-14.

[I presented detailed reasons here regarding why the event in Galatians chapter 2 just cited occurred after the Council rather than before.]

At the conclusion of the Council, Paul, Barnabas and others from Syrian Antioch were pleased with the decision concerning circumcision and brought its good news back home to their Gentile brethren. It would not be long, though, before the Jewish legalists “from James” (Gal 2.12) traveled to Syrian Antioch to ensure (apparently) that the Jews did not lose their national identity as represented by their dietary rules. And, since the Gentiles did not observe these rules, then fellowship with Gentile believers would have to be "limited". For them, Jewish culture must be maintained at any cost—it simply did not matter that the Lord Christ accepted the Gentiles in the same way as He had the Jewish believers.

The immediate result was that Paul condemned Peter (and the others with him) when they avoided meals with their Gentile brethren as an action contrary to free grace.

If they wished to return to Law, then they were “severed from Christ”; they had “fallen from grace” (Gal 5.4)! The Apostle Paul makes the single, strongest defense of free grace found in the NT; anything other than that “free grace gospel” was to be accursed.

However, the damage of the legalists did not stop there; their influence was very broad, as this chapter shows. And, as evidenced by chapters 8 and 10 of 1 Corinthians, the legalists had infected a city at the then current limit of the spread of Christianity west from Jerusalem, namely Corinth.

The opening of chapter 8 shows us clearly that this issue was forefront at Corinth, to an extent that the Corinthian believers thought it necessary to send a question to the Apostle Paul:

1 Cor 8.1a
Now concerning things sacrificed to idols …

Remember, the church in Corinth was primarily Gentile, not Jewish; Paul’s response gets to the foundation of the matter. He does not argue from Jewish culture or OT dietary regulations for three reasons:

  1. there are no OT regulations regarding meat sacrificed to idols,
  2. what OT dietary regulations wouldn’t apply to the Gentiles anyway, and
  3. there was a much better way to present and solve the issue.

Rather, he begins with the nature of the Lord in contrast to the nature of idols:

1 Cor 8.4
Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.

At its root level, and relative to the idol (and, by implication, meat sacrificed to it), the entire activity is moot. Idols have no substance; they can’t intrinsically do either good or evil. There has only ever been One True God; anything that claims to be a ‘god’ must be, by definition, false.

The prophet Jeremiah expressed the same truth regarding idols centuries earlier:

Jer. 10.4-5
They decorate it with silver and with gold;
they fasten it with nails and with hammers so that it will not totter.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field are they, and they cannot speak;
they must be carried, because they cannot walk!
Do not fear them, for they can do no harm, nor can they do any good.

This is the root of the matter: idols are impotent and harmless, and therefore anything that may have been associated with an idol is equally impotent and harmless. Sacrificial meat that finds its way into the marketplace as a commodity has in no way been transformed or morally defiled because the idol with which it may have been associated is nonsense and powerless.

But, Paul recognized a very real problem:

1 Cor 8.7
However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

Whether in Corinth or generally, there are always people who are of limited knowledge, and that “missing knowledge” comes with a price: it distorts the proper operation of their conscience. An activity that really is harmless or morally indifferent suddenly becomes immoral. Something that a person should have been able to enjoy without moral issue must now be avoided. An artificial constraint has been placed on a life for a reason that is neither moral nor valid.

At this point, the Apostle Paul gets to the heart of the matter:

1 Cor 8.8-9
But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Enjoying meat which may have been used in a sacrifice to a false god is an amoral action: it is neither right or wrong in itself. But, the knowledge of the mature believer carries with it a greater responsibility, namely, to protect those who, because of their limited knowledge are of weak conscience.

Paul recognizes that a knowledgeable believer may enjoy the sacrificial meat, but if the weak believer observes the stronger brother doing so, he might be encouraged to do so as well. The issue, though, that Paul implies here is that the weaker brother would do so contrary to his conscience:

1 Cor 8.11
For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died.

We might be inclined to think that Paul overstated the consequences here; however, the truth is that wounding the conscience of the weak brother is a very serious matter. It is something which the stronger brother must carefully consider in his relationship with those of weaker knowledge and conscience.

There is an interesting conclusion to the matter at the end of chapter 8:

1 Cor 8.13
Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

Remember that the Apostle Paul came to Corinth for the first time during his second missionary journey; it would have been some time after the Jerusalem Council and the confrontation with Peter and the other Jews at Syrian Antioch. What was the situation there?

The real question would be: "Who would have been the 'weaker brethren'?"

The answer would be: Jewish believers, not their Gentile brethren!

That is, the Gentile believers would have had no issues with eating the meat used in a sacrifice to a false god. It was a commodity to be purchased and consumed like any other commodity; end of story. To the Jewish believers, though, this was a very serious issue which they couldn’t skirt.

What is interesting is that when the Apostle penned verse 13, he didn’t say:

1 Cor 8.13
Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again (something I did while at Syrian Antioch years ago regarding my Jewish brethren), so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

This would have been the perfect place to make the point very strongly; it would have been a matter forefront in his memory. Instead, he leaves it in an expression that is “potential” rather than “actual”.

I want to be very clear here: I’m not tacitly mitigating the power of Paul’s statement. Rather, I seek to highlight something with is typically misunderstood by modern Christians: namely, what does it mean “to cause a brother to stumble”?

I handle this now.

The Apostle Paul is not yet finished with his instructions about meat and idols. But before he continues in chapter 10, he found it necessary to address the topic of Christian liberty in chapter 9.

The opening verses make it abundantly clear that the divine authority, commission and right to material support from those he served was under constant attack by Paul’s enemies:

1 Cor 9.1-7
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink? Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?

But, despite of these rights, the Apostle decided against any attempt to enforce them relative to his work with the Corinthians:

1 Cor 9.15
But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.

He then revealed the principle for doing so:

1 Cor 9.19-23
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.

While this was not always the case with other assemblies among whom he labored, the Apostle decided to make this the nature of his relationship with the Corinthians; he labored among and for them “without charge”.

The point of all this is that he established clearly that a Christian does have certain rights that can’t be taken away by another. But just as importantly, the Christian may voluntarily decide to suspend those rights when a “greater good” can be accomplished. This was the case in Corinth.

So, by this point in the Apostle’s reasoning, he has established:

  1. idols are powerless and nothing;
  2. meat sacrificed to idols has not been corrupted and may be enjoyed;
  3. there are weaker Christians who do not yet have a clear conscience regarding the consumption of sacrificial meat;
  4. Christians have rights which another Christian (or otherwise) can't arbitrarily take away;
  5. a Christian may decide to voluntarily decide to suspend the exercise of his/her rights if a greater good for the weaker brother can be accomplished.

It’s now time to handle a fundamental issue not yet broached: while it is true that idols are nothing, idolatry is very dangerous!

The OT is literally saturated with examples of the ancient Jews’ disposition to idolatry and the LORD’s constant pouring out of judgment upon them because of that sin.

Paul uses the metaphor of baptism to describe the ancient Jews as they came out of Egypt and passed through the sea and were protected by the “pillar of cloud” by day; from the very beginning, the LORD took care of his people. But, as was typically the case:

1 Cor 10.5
Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

Why? In a word, they were idolaters who “craved evil things”, and who were disposed to immorality and constantly complaining to the LORD!

There is only one way to avoid idolatry:

1 Cor 10.14
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

It was something to be avoided in all ways and at all costs; to be an idolater is to show contempt against the One who is the Sovereign of All.

After establishing that idols are nothing, the Apostle nonetheless needs to ensure that the Corinthians do not move too far in the “direction of liberty”. Yes, they had the freedom to eat the sacrificial meat, but they must avoid direct contact with idolatry:

1 Cor 10.18-21
Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

Paul refers to the fact that the priests of ancient Israel ate of the sacrificial meat, and in a strict sense, “shared in the altar”. Remember what he mentioned earlier:

1 Cor 8.10
For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple …

The point of 1 Cor 10.18-21 is that while the idol is nothing and the consumption of the sacrificial meat is not evil per se, that liberty does not apply to the idol’s temple! To purchase the sacrificial meat in the market and bring it home to cook is one thing (and harmless); to dine in the temple of the idol is quite another! There are actions and places to be avoided by obedient Christians because it is essentially impossible to separate the action or place from fundamental sin. The Corinthians, apparently, had not yet learned that lesson.

The Apostle continues by citing the reason for this constraint:

1 Cor 10.23-24
All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.

There are both private and public aspects to any person’s life; where a Christian’s life intersects with another Christian there are important recommendations of actions both to perform or, conversely, avoid. The disposition of the Christian is always to be concerned with how their behavior will affect a Christian brother or sister, especially when that action might have negative effects. Notice that Paul did not merely say: “Be careful to not offend …” (avoid the negative); rather, the injunction is “Seek the good of your neighbor” (perform the positive). Dining in the idol’s temple would definitely not be good for that believer’s neighbor since the message would easily be understood as “idolatry is OK after all”.

The closing paragraph of 1 Cor 10 is one easily misinterpreted:

1 Cor 10.25-30
Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

When the Apostle asks rhetorically “… for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?“ it seems that he contradicts himself. Paul presents the realistic scenario in which a Christian was invited to dine with an unbeliever; that Christian has the full liberty to enjoy the meat served—regardless of its origin.

The situation changes if the host then informed the Christian that the meat had been offered to an idol. While the idol and its meat is a matter completely indifferent to the Christian, the inference here is that that was likely not the case with the host. And if that was true, then the Christian has but one recourse: the meat must be refused.

The stunning reason for this is not because the meat, now known to have been used in the sacrifice to the idol, had somehow been changed (either for better or worse). Rather, for the Christian to consume the (actually) harmless meat would be tacitly approving its origin in the sight of someone who thought it important enough to mention. This must be avoided.

As Paul will state (likely a few years) later in Romans chapter 14, a person’s conscience is to be respected in all ways. If you were the host serving the meat, you are not subject to the conscience of another; you are subject only to your own. In the same way, then, the Apostle desires to respect the conscience of his host in the same way he would desire for others to respect his conscience:

“… for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?”

That was exactly the point: It was not to be judged by another. In refraining from eating the meat, that is what he did rather than the expected:

“But, host! The idol of your sacrifice is really nothing. The act of the sacrifice was altogether wrong and a grave sin against the God of heaven. How can you not see that? How can you believe that this meat is in any way insignificant when it was part of the sin of idolatry? It must therefore be avoided!”

Stated simply: the conscience of the host was to be left alone unless it was brought by circumstances into the forefront of the situation.

There is one more vital matter we need to consider: when Paul said:

1 Cor 8.11-13a
For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble

what, exactly, did he mean? And, in a related context, how does all this apply to what took place in Syrian Antioch when Paul confronted Peter and the other Jewish Christians who began to avoid contact with the Gentile believers?

Let’s handle the text first. In verse 11 the verb Paul chose is significant:

In the original:

ἀπόλλυται γὰρ ὁ ἀσθενῶν …
for he is destroyed, the weak one .,..

The main verb is ἀπόλλυμι [G622: to destroy, to ruin, to render useless]; it is a very strong term. Here are a few examples that demonstrate its force:

Mat 2.13
Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”

Mat 8.25
And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!”

Mat 22.7
But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.

Luk 4.34
“Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”

Joh 3.16
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Act 5.37
After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered.

1 Cor 1.19
For it is written,

Heb 1.11

The verb translated “wound” is τύπτω [G5180: to strike; to beat] and is also a strong term, as the following samples show:

Mar 15.19
They kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting on Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him.

Luk 12.45
But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk;

Act 18.17
And they all took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and began beating him in front of the judgment seat. But Gallio was not concerned about any of these things.

Act 23.2
The high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth.

Perhaps the NASB translators could have used word stronger than “wound”, perhaps something like  

“and crushing their conscience …”
“and battering their conscience …”
“and pummeling their conscience …”

These fit the context better than merely wounding: if a brother is destroyed (ἀπόλλυμι) by the action of his brother it is certain that the conscience of the former is more than merely wounded (τύπτω). And, notice that both of these implicitly combine to form Paul’s summary in v13:

“… so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.”

In our day, too frequently the idea of “stumble” is conflated with the very-overused “offend”. That is not the correct understanding of this critical NT verb.

The verb is σκανδαλίζω [G4624: to entice to sin; to cause to fall away; to be offended].

 It is used only 28 times in the NT, but the context of each shows how dramatic the verb is:

Mat 5.29
If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
[It is futile to think of “stumble” as merely “offend”; one does not pluck out one’s own eye simply because of an  offense.]

Mat 13.57
And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.”
[Those in the Lord’s hometown would not accept that one of their own could possibly teach with the authority and wisdom he demonstrated. As a result, the town (as a whole) remained in unbelief and ultimately perished.]

Mat 18.6
but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
[Such a punishment is fitting only in the context that “to cause to stumble” is better understood “to cause irreparable damage and loss”.]

Mat 26.31
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I WILL STRIKE DOWN THE SHEPHERD, AND THE SHEEP OF THE FLOCK SHALL BE SCATTERED.’
[Consider the context: the Lord Christ said this to His disciples, those who had been with Him throughout His ministry and had observed every one of His miracle and works of power. But, because they “stumbled”, they all deserted Him at the time when they could most have supported Him!]

The use of these verbs by the Apostle in 1 Corinthians chapter 8 should highlight the fact that Paul spoke of something that had powerful and damaging results in the conscience of the weak brother.

This was not merely the modern notion of “offend”! That term is much too weak!

I remember many years ago, as a student in a Bible college, that some well-meaning Christian offered the naive advice that one should avoid drinking soda from a can since at a distance this might look like that one was drinking beer! Such an action would certainly be offensive to the observing Christian (at least the one who made the comment)! There are probably a few thousand equally laughable scenarios, each based on the false and anemic notion of “offend”.

This is nothing of what the Apostle had in mind! To “cause a brother to stumble” was to entice that weak one to sin, to cause him/her to act contrary to his/her conscience with the result of grave, personal, moral damage. So, it is no surprise when the Apostle concludes chapter 8:

1 Cor 8.13
Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.

Paul was intent on protecting the weaker brother—at nearly any cost…

We are now ready to review the event in Syrian Antioch in Galatians 2.11.14:

Gal 2.11-14
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?

It is significant that this action was precipitated by the fact that Peter had been eating with the Gentiles. There is the very strong inference that the issue of meat which had been sacrificed to idols was a major part of the equation (though the Jews had for centuries avoided essentially direct contact of any kind with Gentiles).

The first question we need to ask is:

Were the Jews likely to stumble at this, that is, to suffer grave moral damage within the context of their conscience? The 'expected' answer is “Yes!”; the real answer is "No!".

Therefore, second question we need to ask is:

If this caused the Jews to "stumble" to sin, why then was Paul opposed to those who wanted no part of the Gentile dinners? Why instead did Paul not support Peter and the other Jews in their desired avoidance of consuming “tainted” meat? After all, weren’t the Gentile Christians the ones causing the stumbling and the one who should have sought to avoid “offending” their Jewish brethren?

We now come to the heart of the matter: the principle that the Apostle established in chapters 8 through 10 of 1 Corinthians, protecting the conscience of the weak and the fundamental liberty possessed by all Christians, is certainly valid and binding—valid and binding, that is, until it collides with and attempts to contradict truth! At that point, that principle of protecting the weaker brother regarding a “matter indifferent” must yield to the authority of truth when the two are in conflict!

The Jewish brethren (some of which were “false brethren”, Gal 2.4) were genuinely offended by the consumption of the sacrificial meat and/or the simple association with Gentiles. Where those genuine concerns collided with truth is nothing less than the fact that the Lord Christ saved Gentiles in exactly the same way as He did the Jews. The legalistic Jews effectively discounted the power and authority of free grace and sought to plunge the gospel back into the Law, something which held them bound and helpless for 1500+ years (at that point in time)!

Their so-called “liberty” to keep the Law was nothing of the sort: it was a return to bondage.

And that was something that the Apostle Paul would oppose in every possible way. The fact that those Jews “stumbled” was absolutely and easily overruled by free grace and, therefore, Paul was not obliged to bend to their conscience! They were the ones who must bend to grace! Their (willing?) ignorance of grace must be illuminated by the true knowledge of grace; they must not remain in the weakness of that type of (truly irresponsible) ignorance!

This is the reason that the epistle to the Galatians is structured the way it is. Free grace was under attack; there was only one possible response, and that response could not and would not be mitigated by any Christian’s liberty, conscience or weakness!

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