Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
One day I was looking around the CNN website and saw an interesting article about famous folk who are apparently quite religious. Some of the stars were very surprising. One of them I would have never pegged to still be a believer considering her worldly views and lifestyle. However, she defended herself in the article by noting that how she dressed wouldn’t keep her out of heaven. This is actually a good point. As I thought on this, the Holy Spirit reminded me of the very first Biblical article I ever wrote (which I never typed up, nor do I intend to), the title of which is “God is Probably Ok with Pop Music.” The article drew from Paul writing on food sacrificed to idols and was scripturally accurate and actually made some good points. However, it was also horribly self-defensive (I like rock and roll). Finally, some years later, I feel compelled by the Holy Spirit to revisit the Scriptures that speak of the believer’s freedom.
1 Corinthians 8 is a short chapter about a very specific issue confronting the early Gentile church: the eating of food sacrificed to pagan idols. However, the lesson contained within the chapter can be applied broadly to many areas of our lives. Paul writes,
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we life; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do (1 Corinthians 8:4-8).
This is the believer’s freedom. By understanding that there is only one God, and that through Jesus’ sacrifice you have already been forgiven for your past and future sins, you are set free. The Bible reminds us, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). We were set free from sin and death in order that we may live free lives. As such, a believer needs not worry about the constraints of the Law (such as food restrictions, rules on cleanness, circumcision, etc). In fact, the New Testament outright challenges some parts of the Law. Like when Jesus repealed the food restrictions in Mark 7:18-19,
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)
That insert for clarification wasn’t added by me, by the way; it was put into Mark by its writer so that everyone would get the idea that the food laws were revoked. Or another example: Jesus felt that the Pharisees, who were following the regulations for cleanliness to the letter weren’t in the right, so he challenged their lawful living by stating,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, then the outside also will become clean (Matthew 23:25-26).
In this, Jesus explained that the Pharisees didn’t actually need to pay attention to the laws of cleanliness so closely, but rather to keep their hearts pure and in doing so they’ll naturally be clean. Even circumcision, the mark of being a part of God’s family for the Jews gets knocked down in the New Testament; “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Ephesians 6:15). This means that the letter of the Law isn’t important; it’s becoming a new person through salvation in Christ Jesus that makes all the difference. After all, you were freed in order to be free, right?
According to New Testament Scripture, the Law has no bearings on our lives. Paul actually got angry about those teaching the Law to new believers; so he wrote,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing- if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-5)
That particular Scripture makes it clear that blessings come not out of the Law but out of our faith in Christ and his grace to us. But let’s turn it up a notch and see that in fact the Law is a curse; for it is written,
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith” (Galatians 3:10-11).
Harsh stuff, but Paul turns the dial to eleven and actually tells us that the Law brings death:
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death (Romans 7:8-11).
Such Scriptures have created a “by faith” culture in the church. I once heard a believer call herself a “Gracist,” implying that she put Grace far above the Law. Such a notion isn’t wrong and is in fact Scriptural. For it is written, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:25). And, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18). So, between what we’ve read in 1 Corinthians 8 and varied other New Testament teachings we learn that how we live after coming to Christ isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Rock music, raunchy TV, smoking, drinking, sensual dress/ behavior and so on isn’t gonna land you in hell because you trust that Christ will lead you to heaven through his death on a cross.
…But that’s not the end of it. Returning to our main text in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul continues,
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brother in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall (1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
Oh boy, this Scripture just got a lot less hip. Although our hearts can be at peace if we engage in activities not considered kosher, we do so while being selfish and destructive. As a believer, you may do whatever you wish, that is your freedom in Christ Jesus; but keep in mind Paul’s words, “’Everything is permissible’- but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’- but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). Or the expanded version,
“Everything is permissible for me”- but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”- but I will not be mastered by anything. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food”- but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body (1 Corinthians 6:12-13).
Just because we can do anything we want, doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. The Bible, therefore, suggests that instead of pointing our freedom inwards towards our desires, we turn it outwards to help others. We read, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). Peter puts it like this, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). Our freedom isn’t to be used for indulgence, but instead to build up others in Christ. Scripture states,
Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:17-20).
And so we find that believer should act “Christian” and do their best to quell their sinful desires not only for themselves, but for those not yet saved.
“Ok, so how do I know what is sinful and therefore should be removed from my life?” you ask. The answer: the Law. Paul writes of the Law,
Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful (Romans 7:13).
And although the Law is trumped by faith and God’s grace, something which the early church was founded on; even those early leaders felt that the Law still held some good things to consider. We read in their letter to the Gentile believers,
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
Farewell (Acts 15:28-29).
Even the first church, which walked with Jesus while he was on earth, saw value in the Law. And notice the first thing on their list of laws to be kept: food sacrificed to idols. Although you are free, many are not; and exposure to your freedom may confuse them and cause them to forever be lost. Let me explain it like this: I like rock and roll. Now I am free to go to a rock concert, no matter how wild, crazy, sexy, or inebriated said concert may get. However, if a non-Christian friend saw me there, they may think that Christian stuff isn’t important and rock and roll is king. Therefore they decide to worship the rock gods rather than Christ because they confused my freedom for something else. Paul may have preached freedom from the Law for believers, but he also wrote, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19). He put the importance of getting people to heaven above all else in his life and denied himself because of his love for others.
Will dressing provocatively keep a believer from heaven? Nope. Will jamming out to rock music put a follower of Christ on the highway to hell? Nah. However, by encouraging a nonbeliever that there’s nothing wrong with their lives, you may have set them on the path to eternal damnation- way to go. Instead,
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).
Put others’ needs before your own, and the most important need for most people is that of salvation and beginning a positive relationship with their Savior, Jesus Christ. This should be your highest priority when you are out in the world. We are told, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). If that means you have to cut some habits, change your attire, or rethink your lifestyle; then so be it. You don’t need to be legalistic and to force others to live right (in fact, you shouldn’t); but you should live uprightly yourself, as a full-on follower of Christ and all the stuff that comes with it. For,
This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:3-5).
You come to love God through salvation by Jesus Christ. In that love you obey his commands and through that overcome the world and its ways. This is through Jesus, the author of your faith. So we see that faith is still the cornerstone, but the Law is not entirely ignored. And what are the greatest commands? Jesus answers that one in Matthew 22:37-40,
Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Love God- therefore obey his commands, and love people- so act in a way that will help them toward salvation. That is the believer’s freedom, and the believer’s burden. Consider today the things you might want to cut for the sake of others.