Holiness: The Fourth Mark of the Ideal Church (Revelation 2:18-29)

The fourth mark of the church is holiness (Rev. 2:18-29).

At the church of Thyatira, there was a woman whom Jesus refers to as “Jezebel.” The name is aptly chosen, for just as the Jezebel of the Old Testament had done (1 Kings 16:29–34), this woman led God’s people astray. Specifically, she convinced some of the Thyatiran Christians “to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”

We readily understand Jesus’ condemnation of sexual immorality. Although the Old Testament often uses the language of adultery as a catchword for idolatry (e.g., Hos. 9:1), in the church of Thyatira, the sexual immorality was real. For Christians, the marriage bed alone is undefiled (Heb. 13:4).

But what about the eating of food sacrificed to idols? In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul argues that a Christian may eat such food unless doing so violates another person’s weaker conscience. In 1 Corinthians 10, however, he seems to reverse course, laying down an absolute prohibition: “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (verse 21). The key to interpreting these two chapters correctly is the context of the eating. Is the food eaten at a pagan temple or a private home (8:10, 10:25–27)? And who else is at the table: a person with a weak conscience or a strong one (8:7, 9, 12–13; 10:28–30)?

At Thyatira, evidently, some Christians ate food sacrificed to idols at a pagan temple or in the context of a pagan feast. Thus, their eating was not a matter of Christian freedom but of religious infidelity. Their sexual immorality also was a matter of religious infidelity, for pagan idolatry typically included temple prostitution and other sexual rituals. No wonder, then, that Jesus refers to the prominent Thyatiran woman as Jezebel, for she influenced Israel to worship foreign gods (1 Kings 16:31–33).

Why would the Thyatiran Christians be tempted by such idolatry? Possibly for reasons of economic survival. According to Robert H. Mounce, “In a city whose economic life was dominated by trade guilds in which pagan religious practices had become the criteria for membership, Christian converts would be faced with the problems of compromising their stand at least enough to allow participation in a common meal dedicated to some pagan deity.”[i]

The antidote to religious compromise is holiness. We usually interpret holiness as a synonym of moral behavior, which it is, at least in a secondary sense. Its primary sense is “set apart,” however. In Leviticus 20:26, for example, God says to Israel: “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” Holiness means, first of all, that we are wholly the Lord’s and owe ultimate allegiance to him alone. Only then—as a consequence of such consecration—does holiness mean moral behavior.

Not all the Thyatirans had compromised themselves. Jesus speaks of their works, love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Such virtues are the fruit of setting ourselves apart for God.


[i] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 86.

Permissible, But Not Beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1)

The Daily Word will begin after the following book review blurb…


Alister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $22.00, 210 pages.

Recently, so-called “new atheists” have been making loud noises about how stupid and wicked religion is. Richard Dawkins thinks belief in God is a “delusion” to be replaced by scientific thinking. Daniel Dennett views religion as a “spell” that needs to be broken. Sam Harris longs for “the end of faith,” whose absolutism he thinks leads only to violence. And Christopher Hitchens argues that “religion poisons everything.”

Alister McGrath disagrees….

To read my complete review, go here. To receive my book reviews via email, subscribe here and make sure to reply to the confirmation email.


Permissible, But Not Beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1)

First Corinthians 10:23–11:1 concludes Paul’s argument about eating food sacrificed to idols. He prohibits eating such food at religious feasts in pagan temples, but he permits eating it at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis. First Corinthians 10:23–11:1 outlines his reasoning on the latter subject.

First, Paul argues that the responsibility to love others takes precedence over the rights that knowledge confers. Verses 23–24 read:

“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

He then argues that idol-food, in and of itself, raises no moral issues for Christians. Verses 25–26 read:

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).

But given the first and second points, he argues that believers should not eat idol-food if a person raises an issue about it. Verses 27–30 read:

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake—the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

Finally, he argues that believers should reflect God’s glory in all they do. 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 reads:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example as I, as I follow the example of Christ.

Two things strike me about 1 Corinthians 10:23–11:1—indeed about the entire argument of 8:1–11:1. The first is the robust knowledge that guides Paul’s thought process. Paul’s argument proceeds out of a deep commitment to truth and a deep rejection of superstition. But the second is that robust love that animates Paul’s commitment to people. He knows idols are nothing, but he loves people who continue to mistakenly believe they are something.

At the outset of my comments on 8:1–11:1, I noted that few modern Christians—at least in the West—deal with the problem of food sacrificed to idols. Our temptation, therefore, is to breeze through or ignore what Paul writes there. But now that we’ve revealed Paul’s thought process, we can see how applicable it is to modern times. Do we relate to others on the basis of the knowledge that confers rights, or do we relate to them on the basis of the Christ-like responsibility to love them?

Knowledge and love. Rights and responsibilities. These are very modern issues, aren’t they?

Participation in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14–16)

In 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, Paul writes:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Whenever you see the word therefore in Scripture, you should ask what it’s there for.

In verse 16, the word therefore signals the conclusion of the argument about eating food sacrificed to idols that Paul began in 8:1. In light of the relationship between theological knowledge and ethical love (8:1–13), between personal rights and spiritual responsibilities (9:1–27), and between idolatry and divine judgment (10:1–13), Paul prohibits the Corinthians to eat food sacrificed to idols at religious feasts in pagan temples (10:14–22), although he permits them to it at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis (10:23–11:1).

Like the Corinthians, Paul believes that idols are objectively unreal and idol-food is objectively insignificant (8:4–6). Unlike them, however, he takes into account the fact that idols and idol-food exercise a powerful hold on the “conscience” of some, whom he describes as “weak” (8:7–13). This is why he permits eating idol-food at dinner parties in private homes if—and only if—no one raises “questions of conscience” (10:25–30). The Christian duty to love fellow believers (8:9–13) and to evangelize unbelievers (9:19–23) trumps the Christian’s freedom to eat idol-food.

On this logic, though, the Corinthians might argue that eating idol-food at religious feasts in pagan temples is also permissible for Christians. After all, if idols are unreal, if idol-food is insignificant, and if idolaters have no scruples about the food they’re eating, why not eat alongside them? Christians are free to eat idol-food whenever and wherever they want.

Paul refutes the Corinthian application of their theology to their practice by reminding them what Christian communion is (10:14–17) and what pagan religious feasts are (10:18–22). Christian communion is “participation” in the “blood of Christ” and the “body of Christ.” By contrast, eating at pagan religious feasts makes the eaters “participants with demons.”

In the next two devotionals, I will comment further on the nature of Christian communion. I will also try to explain the paradox of how idols can be nothing but idolaters “participants with demons.” But in this devotional, I simply wanted to lay bare for you the logic of Paul’s overall argument and specific conclusions in 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1. I hope I have realized my intention.

Why Paul Repudiated His Rights (1 Corinthians 9:12b–18)

In 1 Corinthians 9:1–12a, Paul argues that he has a right to the financial support of the Corinthian church. This right derives from his status as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Having made the case for this right, however, he turns around and repudiates it in verses 12b–18:

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.

Notice several things about this passage.

First, preachers have a right to the support of their congregations. Paul uses the word right or rights six times in verses 1–18. Five of the six refer to the right of material support, one to the right of marital support. Jesus Christ himself established this right through a commandment that “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” Evidently, Paul has in mind Luke 10:7, “the worker deserves his wages.” Both 1 Corinthians 9:7–12a and 1 Timothy 5:17–18 quote Deuteronomy 25:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” The latter passage then quotes Luke 10:7, so it is reasonable to suppose that the former passage alludes to it as well.

Second, Paul’s calling to preach was internally motivated, not externally motivated. Paul writes, “I am compelled to preach.” Jesus Christ himself called Paul to do precisely that (Acts 9:1–19, 22:3–16, 26:9–18). Paul said of his preaching: “I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.” This internal motivation contrasts with an external motivation based on momentary fame (“boast”) or monetary fortune (“reward”). Paul tied boasting and reward to preaching the gospel “voluntarily,” not for money.

Third, Paul repudiates his right to financial support lest his motives be misinterpreted. If he demanded his right, some might think that he preached the gospel for money. Elsewhere, Paul warns against teachers “who think godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5).

Paul doesn’t critique those preachers who receive financial support from their congregations. (How could he? He just argued that it’s their right.) But in this age of televangelist financial scandals, it’s a good idea for we preachers to examine our motives and follow the spirit—if not the letter—of Paul’s example.

Apostolic Rights (1 Corinthians 9:3–12)

In 1 Corinthians 9:1–27, Paul defends his apostleship against Corinthian Christians who question it. This defense seems like a digression from his main argument about food sacrificed to idols in 8:1–11:1, but really it isn’t. The Corinthians disregard Paul’s instructions regarding idol food because they doubt his authority. And they doubt his authority because they question his apostleship.

So, Paul lays out his argument in several stages. Yesterday, we looked at the root and fruit of Paul’s apostleship (9:1–2). Today, we look at Paul’s apostolic rights as he outlines them in 9:3–12:

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

Paul mentions two specific rights here: (1) material support and (2) marital support. Apostles have a right to be paid for their ministry. And because their ministry takes them abroad for long periods of time, they have a right to take their wives with them on ministry trips.

(Two quick notes here: (a) Traditionally, commentators have applied the logic of this passage to support of ministers in general, not merely apostles. (b) The fact that apostles have wives in this passage puts paid to the Roman Catholic notion that all priests—including bishops—must be celibate, and to the Greek Orthodox notion that bishops must be celibate.)

Paul grounds the right to material support in the church’s customary treatment of apostles (vv. 4–6), in the common sense notion that workers deserve to be paid (v. 7), and in the commandments of the law (vv. 8–11) applied to this case. Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 here, which deals with the treatment of beasts of burden. The principle of justice underlying this specific commandment has broad application, however. (I wonder whether Paul cited this law because his workload combined with the Corinthians’ criticisms of him made him feel like a muzzled ox.)

If apostles have the right to material support based on custom, common sense, and commandment, then so does Paul, for he is an apostle. Paradoxically, though Paul defends his apostolic rights, he doesn’t make use of them at all.

More on that paradox tomorrow…

Apostolic Root and Fruit (1 Corinthians 9:1–3)

In the ancient world, people sacrificed animals to their gods. They consumed some of the meat at religious feasts in pagan temples. Priests sold whatever they didn’t use in the public market for consumption at dinner parties in private homes.

In 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1, Paul examines whether Christians can eat food sacrificed to idols in either pagan temples or private homes. In chapter 8, he outlines theological and ethical guidelines. In chapter 10 he applies those guidelines to specific cases.

In chapter 9

To be perfectly honest, the logic of Paul’s argument in this chapter is difficult to follow. Imagine that you are seated at the dinner table and your spouse answers the phone and carries on a discussion about issues at work. You can’t hear the person on the other end of the line, so you reconstruct what that person is saying by what your spouse is saying.

Reading 1 Corinthians 9:1–27 is a bit like that. We don’t have the letter the Corinthians wrote to Paul, so we have to reconstruct their questions on the basis of his answers. We know the issue is food sacrificed to idols (8:1). But if that’s the case, why does Paul devote chapter 9 to defending his apostleship?

Here’s how that defense begins:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord (9:1–2).

These are rhetorical questions. If we change the interrogatives to indicatives, here’s what Paul writes:

I am free. I am an apostle. I have seen Jesus our Lord. You are the result of my work in the Lord. Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

Why does Paul feel the need to say these things? Why did he stress his qualifications to be an apostle? The answer seems to be that the Corinthians disagreed with Paul’s teaching because they disputed his authority. If Paul was an apostle, then his teaching would settle the matter. If not, then not.

So, Paul offered two reasons why he was qualified to be an apostle: his relationship with Christ and his relationship with the Corinthians. According to Acts 9:1–19, after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to Paul and commissioned him to preach the gospel to Gentiles. Hence the rhetorical question in 1 Corinthians 9:1: “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” If being an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus is the root qualification of being an apostle, then making converts is the fruit qualification. Hence the indicative statements: “You are the result of my work in the Lord” and “you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.”

I hope this brief explanation makes the logic of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 9 a bit clearer.

Good Theology Rightly Applied (1 Corinthians 8:9–13)

In 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Paul answers the question of whether Christians can eat food sacrificed to idols. For modern American Christians, this question is not relevant, since our culture does not sacrifice to idols. The way Paul answers this question is relevant today, however, for it addresses how we educate people out of their ignorance. Paul identifies two crucial issues: what we know and how we use that knowledge.

For Paul, knowledge liberates. Idols are objectively unreal, so eating food sacrificed to idols is objectively insignificant. Knowledgeable Corinthian Christians therefore eat such food freely.

On the other hand, ignorance oppresses. Idols are subjectively real to some people, so eating food sacrificed to them violates their conscience. Ignorant Corinthian Christians refuse to eat what they are free to eat, or if they do eat, their “conscience” becomes “weak” and “defiled.”

Ironically, instead of criticizing the ignorant Corinthians for their bad theology and weak consciences, Paul criticizes the knowledgeable Corinthians. Consider what he writes in 1 Corinthians 8:9–13:

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 brothers 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.

The theology of the knowledgeable Corinthians is incomplete and therefore wrongly applied. Idols are objectively unreal. Eating food sacrificed to them is therefore objectively insignificant. This theology is two-thirds correct. The missing third is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the ignorant Corinthians. They were people “for whom Christ died.” When the knowledgeable Corinthians flaunt their freedom, they become a “stumbling block” to the ignorant Corinthians. Their knowledge “destroyed” them. Their actions “wound their weak conscience.” This “sin against your brothers” becomes a “sin against Christ.”

Paul accounted for Jesus Christ in his theology, so he applied his theology in a Christ-like way. Yes, idols are objectively unreal. Yes, food sacrificed to idols is objectively insignificant. But since Christ died for the weak, my goal as a Christian is to educate them out of their ignorance. If doing so requires that I subordinate my freedoms for their wellbeing, then so be it. Love compels me to observe their scruples as I move them from ignorance and weakness to knowledge, strength, and freedom. “[I]f what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin,” Paul writes, “I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”

Knowledge is power, the power of freedom and the power of love. As Christians, we sometimes subordinate our personal freedom in order to love others. This is good theology rightly applied.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss (1 Corinthians 8:7–8)

People say “Ignorance is bliss” and speak about “the burden of knowledge.” I know what they mean. My two-year-old son doesn’t know that I work to provide him food and clothing. He is happy, well-fed, and stylishly clothed nonetheless—thanks to my wife, his mother. On the other hand, I know that my livelihood provides for his needs, so I take care to remain gainfully employed. He is blissfully ignorant. I am burdened by knowledge.

But in another sense, ignorance makes us unhappy and oppresses us. Consider 1 Corinthians 8:7–8, where Paul writes:

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.

“[N]ot everyone knows this,” alludes to verse 4: “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” As I pointed out yesterday, what we know influences how we live. If we know that idols are objectively unreal, then we know that food sacrificed to them is objectively insignificant. “Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” How and what we eat may affect our physical health, but not our spiritual wellbeing. Knowledge liberates us from superstition about food, not to mention about everything else.

On the other hand, ignorance oppresses. Referring to people who converted to Christianity, Paul writes: “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.” To such people, idols are real and food is significant. This reality and significance is subjective rather than objective, however. Idols are real to them, and idol food is significant to their conscience. When they eat food sacrificed to idols, therefore, they feel “defiled,” even though they are not objectively defiled.

Knowledge liberates. Ignorance oppresses. If we want to liberate people from superstition, we must educate them out of their ignorance. Teaching the truth is a vital and necessary component of proper spiritual formation.

But how shall we teach? The Corinthians flaunted their freedom, and in the process of doing so, they offended “the weak” (verse 9). Paul, on the other hand, observed the scruples of the weak even as he patiently taught them why those scruples were superstitious (verse 13).

Our culture does not sacrifice food to idols. We engage in other forms of idolatry and are oppressed by other superstitions. We must educate our culture out of idolatry and into Christ, for “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). But we must do so in a Christ-like way.

More on that tomorrow.

What’s Food Got to Do with Anything? (1 Corinthians 8:1a)

Sometimes, I read the Bible, scratch my head, and wonder what it’s talking about. I scratched my head when I read 1 Corinthians 8:1a: “Now about food sacrificed to idols…” These words introduce a three-chapter argument Paul makes against the Corinthians in 8:1–11:1.

I haven’t seen any idols lately, let alone sacrificed food to them. So, I feel tempted to skip this portion of Scripture and move on to another that relates to my world. Perhaps you feel tempted to do the same.

Resist that temptation! The particular example Paul uses may not be relevant to people like us—because we don’t eat food sacrificed to idols—but the way he thinks about this example definitely is

In the ancient world, people sacrificed animals to the gods. They gave some of the meat to the priests, and they consumed some of the meat in a religious feast at the temple. The priests sold leftover meat in the public market, which was then consumed in private homes.

Today, our post-Christian society considers religion to be a private affair. Ancients interpreted religion differently. Religious duties, including religious feasts, were an integral part of a person’s civic responsibilities. Performing these duties and attending these feasts generated social and political benefits. Failing to do so generated social and political costs.

The first generation of Christians strove to avoid idolatry, which violated the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Living in cities where idolatry constituted the majority religion forced them to ask themselves three hard questions:

  1. Can we eat food sacrificed to idols as part of a religious feast at the temple?
  2. Can we eat food sacrificed to idols, sold in the public market, and consumed in private homes?
  3. Can we afford the social and political costs associated with answer “No” to the first two questions?

The Corinthians and Paul offered contrary answers. The Corinthians answered, “Yes,” “Yes,” and “No,” respectively. Paul answered, “No,” “Maybe,” and “Yes.” How they reasoned to these contrary answers explains why we shouldn’t skip 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1.

The Corinthians based their answers on knowledge. “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (8:4). Knowledge confers rights. If idols are nothing, then eating food sacrificed to them is also nothing. And if nothing, I have a right to eat food sacrificed to idols and to enjoy the social and political benefits my city confers.

Paul based his answers on love: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:2). Love confers responsibilities. If I love God, I avoid anti-God rituals. If I love people, I take their scruples into account as I choose how to act. If those loves conflict, I take responsibility for the costs my decision imposes.

Eating food sacrificed to idols may not be relevant to us today. But how we negotiate the tensions of decision-making—knowledge and love, rights and responsibilities—certainly is.

More on that in our next devotional.


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