The Gospel and Our Diet

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 10:31

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men 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.

1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1, rsv

Listen to these arresting words about eating and drinking. They’re from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, verse 31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Today I want to think with you about what this means, about the gospel and our diet. My question: what does the heart of the Christian faith have to say about our eating and drinking? What does the gospel have to do with gastronomy, the science of good cuisine?

Now this won’t be what some of you might expect. I’m not going to hold forth on the relative merits of various foods or present a formula for losing weight. This is not about calories and carbohydrates, nor is it a warning against the perils of high cholesterol. And it surely isn’t a lecture on Ben Franklin’s old adage that we should “eat to live” and not “live to eat.”

I’m not making light of those subjects or saying that they’re unimportant. They’re simply not the issues that the apostle Paul is addressing in these words to the Corinthians. He uses the matter of eating and drinking to share profound insights about how we are meant to live.

ALL THINGS ARE LAWFUL

The first word of the Christian faith about our diet is this: “All things are lawful” (1 Cor. 10:23). Now that for the apostle was a genuinely revolutionary claim. He was by birth and upbringing a Jew, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a member of the party called the “Pharisees.” Judaism had a well-known system of dietary restrictions. Some foods were clean or “kosher”; others were unclean and forbidden. How animals had been killed or how foods had been cooked could also make them unfit for table use. Even if you didn’t wash your hands or utensils properly before eating, you could become defiled in your eating. There were a myriad of ways in which food had become a religious issue for devout Jews.

With one stroke, the gospel sweeps all of that aside. Dietary restrictions are no more. Distinctions between clean and unclean meats are done away. No one is religiously defiled, says Jesus, because of what he or she may eat or drink.

Now obviously this does not mean that all foods are equal in nutritional value. It doesn’t deny that we might be better off partaking of some and avoiding others. Further, it doesn’t say anything about how much or how little we should eat. The gospel simply contends that food per se does not commend us to God. We aren’t more holy, more acceptable to Him either because we eat certain foods or because we abstain from certain others.

The gospel tells us these Old Testament ceremonial laws were temporary and provisional. In Christ they have been fulfilled and no longer have independent significance. People become right with God, acceptable in His sight, completely on the basis of what Christ has done in His death and resurrection, received by faith alone. The kinds of foods we eat or don’t eat have nothing whatever to do with that.

Remember when Simon Peter went up on the roof top to pray while he was staying with Simon the Tanner? Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Peter fell into a trance and saw the heaven open and something like a great sheet descending by four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air, and there came a voice to him saying, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter said, “No, Lord, for I’ve never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:13-15). In the saving work of God in Christ, dietary distinctions have been overcome. All foods are clean in God’s sight. You may choose to be a vegetarian or a carnivore. You may take solid food or liquids. You may dine frequently or seldom. And you may have good reasons for all your choices. But none of those options makes you superior to others or closer to God. In the matter of eating, all things are lawful.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that sound nutrition or careful hygiene are insignificant. It doesn’t mean that the findings of modern science about the effect of different foods upon the body should be disregarded. It simply sets people free to eat any sort of food with a clear conscience. For thankful, believing people, the blessing of God is upon everything edible.

NOT ALL THINGS ARE HELPFUL

But Paul has more to say. “All things are lawful,” he says, “but not all things build up . . . All things are lawful but not all things are helpful.” In other words, a Christian’s freedom has limitations. He or she may eat any kind of food without scruples of personal conscience, but no Christian is free to eat with disregard of others. It may be all right for me to eat or drink what I wish, but in some circumstances my consumption may have an adverse affect upon someone else.

The apostle gives an example of that from the way the Corinthians had sometimes observed the Lord’s Supper. When they came together for a common meal, some of the more affluent members of the congregation brought along plenty of food while the poor had little or none. Worse still, the well-endowed members would often gorge themselves before anyone else had begun to eat. Here the way in which they ate was inconsiderate, uncharitable, blatantly selfish.

But Paul has a different issue in view here in 1 Corinthians 10. Listen to his advice: “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 everything in it’” (vv. 25-26). In other words, God made all varieties of food. Enjoy them freely. Again, “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” (v. 27).

Now the meat in this case may have been purchased in a heathen temple. It may have been involved in pagan religious rites. But if you don’t know that and your host doesn’t say so, there’s no need to worry about it. But, Paul continues, “if someone says to you, `This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then out of consideration for the man who informed you, and for conscience’ sake – do not eat it” (vv. 28-29).

Do you see the point here? We need to be concerned, not only about our own consciences, but also about those of others. At this point, we are our brother’s keeper. If our partaking causes an onlooker to stumble, if it makes someone think we condone idol worship and thus makes it more difficult for him or her to believe in the true God, then out of consideration for others we should abstain. In private, around our own family tables, we have total freedom. But when we dine with those who have strong scruples about eating, the situation is changed. For Paul, for example, to flaunt his freedom to eat pork while at table with Jewish countrymen, to whom that was an abomination, would have been in poor taste, to say the least. Our freedom in eating and drinking is never a liberty needlessly to offend. All things may be lawful for me, but not all things show consideration and build relationships.

ALL FOR GOD’S GLORY

Here’s the great principle Paul proposes: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (v. 31). In matters of diet, as well as in every other part of life, the glory of God is to be our chief aim. That means evidently that we should recognize God’s goodness in all that He provides for us. It means surely the familiar practice of giving thanks at meals. But eating to the glory of God also involves inevitably the way in which we treat other people. Paul goes on: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (v. 32). In other words, don’t let your eating and drinking be an occasion of stumbling for Jews or Gentiles or any of your fellow Christians. Always be considerate of your table companions.

In Paul’s mind, you see, we cannot separate living for the glory of God from living for the good of other people. We cannot isolate the first great commandment to love God with all our hearts from the second which is like it, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Paul wants the Corinthians to adopt as their aim the goal that motivates him in all he does. Listen: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (vv. 32-33).

In some ways the apostle scorned the idea of pleasing all men. When it came to the heart of the Christian message, Paul was absolutely unyielding. He would not alter it in the slightest for anyone. He knew that he had received the gospel as a sacred trust. Nor would he ever compromise his conscience to make himself popular. He abhorred all underhandedness, all double dealing. But in matters where freedom was given him, in areas where faith and principle were not at stake, he was the most eager of men- pleasers. He wanted to accommodate to their tastes and feelings, their methods and practices, in every way he possibly could. He wasn’t seeking any personal gain by that, but the good of others, that they might be saved.

IMITATING CHRIST

Now for Paul’s last word on the subject: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Paul wants his friends in Corinth to follow the pattern set forth in his life, but only insofar as the model conforms to Christ. He doesn’t want to present himself as a paragon of virtue or pretend that he personally is worthy of imitation. He wants to point people beyond himself to his Savior. But he realizes at the same time that his example may be more available and observable for them than that of Jesus. So he says to them, “Try to follow me, even as I am trying to follow Christ.”

Here’s a beautiful example of the way in which the apostle Paul relates every point of doctrine and each ethical summons to the person of Jesus. Think of how the Lord Himself acted in matters of food and drink. He was not subject to the traditional laws of diet. When He was challenged about this, He told His hearers that no one is ever defiled by what he or she may ingest. Defilement for Him is not a matter of the menu but of the heart. He didn’t fast at the customary times, nor did His disciples. He said that the time would come when they would fast but that His present life among them was a time for celebration. He gladly sat down at table with those who were the most despised and held in contempt. He ate with many kinds of people in a myriad of situations because He loved them all.

But when He dined with friends, His thoughts were all of them. When His disciples were too proud at the Last Supper to wash one another’s feet, He took upon Himself that humble duty. He told them as He served them the bread and the cup, tokens of His body to be broken and His blood to be shed, “This is for you.” In everything His life was “for them” even to the bitter death of the cross. The salvation of His people was so much the burning concern of Jesus’ heart that for this He came into the world. For this He ate and drank. For this He taught, fed and healed. For this He toiled and suffered. For this He gave Himself up freely to die – all that we might be saved.

In this way Jesus lived to the glory of God. In this way He honored His heavenly Father. In this way He served the eternal purpose of the Lord – by doing and suffering everything for our good. More than any had ever done before, He brought together the love of God and the love of people, God’s glory and our good. With Him everything was for the sake of God’s name and everything for our salvation. And He, incarnate and crucified, risen and reigning, is the pattern for our lives, the One to whom Paul’s example and that of every other faithful Christian, points.

So that’s God’s Word about eating and drinking. That’s what the gospel has to do with your diet and mine. Eating and drinking are key functions in life, necessary, yes, pleasurable, yes, but also an arena in which God can be glorified and other people served. Your times at table are marvelous occasions to show love, to affirm persons, to build relationships. Prize them, those meal times with family and friends. Make the most of them. Yes, by gratefully seeking the good of those around your table, eat and drink today to God’s glory. The living and dying of Jesus is your pattern for that. His life-giving Spirit is your power. Now go to it! And the Lord be with you!