“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 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 the fullness thereof.” 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. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
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 everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. – 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 ESV
Paul revisits an point he made back in chapter six. “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12 ESV). The Corinthians had made a big deal out of their liberties or freedoms in Christ. They were convinced that there were certain things that they were at liberty to do because of their newfound freedom in Christ. And Paul doesn’t contradict their conclusion. He simply argues with their motivation. They were only looking at things from self-centered perspective. They were motivated by their own rights and focused on their own selfish pleasures. Which is why Paul repeats their point of reference back to them again. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23 ESV). Yes, they had certain freedoms in Christ, but they were not to let those freedoms be driven by selfish desires or motivated by self-centeredness. They were to ask themselves whether those freedoms were helpful and edifying. Paul’s emphasis is on others. In the very next verse, he writes, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24 ESV). Paul was elevating compassion over lawfulness. He was promoting selflessness over selfishness.
Paul concedes that they were free to eat any meat offered for sale in the marketplace. “For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof’” (1 Corinthians 10:26 ESV). Even if they were invited to an unbeliever’s house, they were free to eat whatever was served. But should that friend acknowledge that the meat had been sacrificed to idols, the circumstances took on a different light. They were no longer “free” to eat what was served. Why? For the sake of conscience. Not their conscience, Paul asserts, but the conscience of their lost friend and anyone else who might be in attendance. The lost friend would not know of or understand the concept of freedom in Christ. In telling their Christian guests that the meat had been sacrificed to idols, they would be assuming Christians would not want to eat such meat because it would violate their faith. Should the Christian go ahead and eat the meat, the message conveyed to their pagan friend would be confusing. Should a less mature believer be in attendance at that same dinner and see the more mature believer eat meat sacrificed to idols, he or she might be caused to follow their lead, even though their conscience told them it was wrong.
Paul follows all of this with two logical questions that he knew the Corinthians would ask. “For why should my freedom be limited by what someone else thinks? If I can thank God for the food and enjoy it, why should I be condemned for eating it?” (1 Corinthians 10:29-30 NLT). In other words, why should a Christian let the conscience of a lost person dictate their behavior? Or why should a more mature believer allow the ignorance or a less mature believer determine their actions? Paul answers both questions with a single answer. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 NLT). We are to always ask the question: What would bring glory to God? Not, what would bring pleasure to me? The bottom line for Paul was God’s glory and man’s salvation. “I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:33 NLT). He was willing to give up his freedoms so that others might know what it means to be free in Christ. He was willing to die to his rights so that others might be made right with God. Later on, in chapter 13, the great “love chapter”, Paul says that love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5 ESV). Love cares about others. It focuses on building up and edifying others, even at the expense of self. Christ-like love focuses on the good of others and the glory of God. It is selfless, not selfish. It is sacrificial, not self-centered. Jesus gave Himself as the example to follow. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT). Jesus died so that we might live. All He is asking us to do is die to self. Love trumps liberty every time. Giving up our rights for the sake of others and for the glory of God is well worth any sacrifice we may have to make.