Yesterday we studied Paul’s clarification concerning the nature of true Christian knowledge. Once Paul has made this important admonition, he plunges into the question itself. It is at this point that he begins to lay down some principles. The first is that an idol is nothing. The book of Isaiah uses the same words. In Isaiah God is challenging the idols of the heathen. Isaiah quotes God and says, “Look, here is a man who cuts down a tree. He uses half of it to build a fire and cook his food. The other half he dries out, carves an idol, then falls down and worships it” (Isa. 44:14-17, abridged). Have you ever heard anything as ridiculous as that? The man is worshiping a stick of wood. It is nothing. Challenge it to reveal the future and tell you of things to come. It cannot, and so God ridicules those who put their faith in idols. That is the point at which Paul begins.
Paul is not saying here that there are no such things as demons. In fact, he says there really is a spiritual battle between those who are who serving the Lord Jesus Christ and those who are serving the demons. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers…and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). He acknowledges this spiritual reality. But that is not what is involved here. What is involved is idolatry and eating food sacrificed to idols. He says the place to start is to recognize that idols are nothing at all. The reason they are nothing is that there is only one God and we know who that one God is.
The next principle he lays out – one that comes from the teaching of Jesus Christ – is that food does not bring us near to God. We are no worse if we do not eat, and we are no better if we do. I think what he had in mind was Jesus’ response to those who asked the same kind of questions about certain ritual forms of eating and the practice of keeping kosher. Jesus said quite openly, “It’s not what goes into the mouth of a man that defiles a man, but what comes out” (Matt. 15:11, abridged). You don’t have a corrupt heart because of what you eat but because of what you speak, and you speak what you speak because of your corrupt heart. So, Jesus said that whether you eat or don’t eat, all of that is a matter of utter indifference so far as the spiritual life is concerned. Paul lays down that principle again here as a good teacher and scholar.
If those two points are true – that an idol is nothing, and that eating or not eating has nothing to do with your spiritual life but is a matter of indifference – then what follows from that? Well, quite obviously, eating or not eating meat that has been offered to idols is likewise a matter of indifference. So the technical answer to their question is, if you want to eat, eat. If you don’t want to eat, don’t eat. It doesn’t matter.
I suppose those who had taken that position smiled rather smugly, looked down at those who had been fastidious, and said, “You see, Paul says we’re right.” And as a matter of fact, they were right–technically. But, they were wrong in spirit because they had not understood what it really is to know God’s will in a matter such as this. It is true that technically it does not matter whether you eat or don’t eat. But knowing this fact is not enough. There is still this matter of the situation in which it is taking place and knowing what you should do in that situation.
You may say, “You’ve described an idol as nothing, and eating or not eating food as an unimportant matter. Doesn’t that resolve the issue?” When you talk that way, you are betraying that you are thinking of knowledge only as an accumulation of data. You have forgotten your brothers and sisters, which means you are not loving them. What we do affects others. And so, part of knowing God’s will in a doubtful situation involves how your brothers and sisters in the Lord are going to take your activity.