Having just shared another Thanksgiving meal with friends and family, it is perhaps well to remember why we give thanks as Christians–not just at Thanksgiving, but at every meal. In 1 Corinthians, Paul develops a theology of eating in response to a question regarding food sacrificed to idols. The ancient world was full of pagan temples where animals would be sacrificed to pagan deities. The meat from those sacrifices would then be sold in the meat markets. However, some people in the Corinthian congregation wondered whether they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without themselves being implicated in the idolatrous pagan sacrifice.
Paul’s answer, in 1 Corinthians 8, is that it depends on the one eating the food. Those with knowledge know that God is over all, and all things are from God, and so food can be received with reference to God regardless of whether it was sacrificed to an idol. However, those without this knowledge “with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7, NKJV).
For Paul, therefore, eating is a spiritual act. Eating is about more than food. Either we eat with faith toward God, or we eat in unbelief. Therefore, Paul could hypothetically eat at an idol’s temple (1 Cor. 8:10), without sinning against his conscience (although he relinquished that right, so as not to make his weaker brother stumble, a theme he expands in chapter 9). Yet it was equally possible for eating to lead to idolatry.
As Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 10, the Israelites in the wilderness ate spiritual food and drink, and yet committed idolatry, and died in the wilderness. We who eat the spiritual food of the Lord’s Supper must also beware lest we fall into idolatry. The issue is one of faith. It is by faith that we become partakers of the Lord’s Supper, as truly as those worshippers in the Old Testament became partakers of the altar. When we eat the bread and wine in faith, we partake of the table of the Lord and have fellowship with the body and blood of Christ. In a similar way, those who ate meat sacrificed to idols with “faith” in the idol became partakers of the table of demons and had fellowship with demons.
It is not a matter of food, but of faith. What mattered is not whether the food had been sacrificed to idols, but whether the one eating believed that they were somehow participating in the pagan sacrifice by eating the meat. Therefore, since it did not matter whether meat was offered to idols or not, Paul recommended not even asking. But if someone said that it was offered to idols, Paul said not to eat it, for the sake of the other person’s conscience. “For why,” asked Paul, “is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks?” (1 Cor. 10:29-30).
Thus, we come, at last, to our theme of giving thanks. If eating is a spiritual act, meant to be done in faith, then thanksgiving is the way we express our sincere faith in God for our food. Giving thanks to God shows that we are eating to the glory of God and not superstitiously. If we cannot in good conscience give thanks to God for what we are eating, we sin by eating. But if we are able to give thanks, we can eat with a clear conscience. And therefore, as Paul commands Timothy, “nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). Giving thanks, far from being a mindless ritual, is a significant spiritual act. That is why Christians in every age have always thanked God for their food, as Jesus himself set an example by giving thanks at the Last Supper (1 Cor. 11:24).
8 Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. 2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol isnothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. 7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. 9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. 22 Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?
23 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. 24 Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.
25 Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” 27 If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” 29 “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’sconscience? 30 But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? 31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33, NKJV)