Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sunday Paul: Ephesus 3

I decided to continue with the sequence I started a week ago. I've been trying to back fill the story a little this week too, but I think I'll do that on the side.

Ephesus 1
Ephesus 2

The second question in the letter had to do with eating food that had come from one of the surrounding temples. Paul knew well enough what stood behind the question. He had warned Erastus during his last visit that he would have to make a choice at some point between his ambitions in the politics of Corinth and his loyalty to Christ's kingdom.

It was not enough in Roman politics simply to fund public projects. You had to see and be seen, and many of the city's functions revolved around the local temples. For example, the temple of Asclepius had side rooms where you could eat the meat from your sacrifice. One room had become a common meeting place for leaders in the city. They would sacrifice in the evening and then eat the meat and drink wine long into the night with great revelry.

Erastus knew he needed to be at those meetings to get anywhere higher in the city's administration, even though they weren't official meetings. It wasn't that Erastus was from some noble family or something. Indeed, almost no one in Corinth was. The city had only been refounded by Julius Caesar less than a hundred years previous, settled by former soldiers. Someone like Erastus couldn't have gone anywhere in politics at Rome. But Corinth was one of those unusual places in the world where you could actually move up the social ladder. There was little inherited wealth.

True, Erastus no longer had any real allegiance to the gods of the Greeks and Romans. Apollos had thoroughly convinced him that these gods didn't exist. But Paul approached the issue a little differently than Apollos did. It was strange for Paul to be pegged as the conservative on the issue, when the Jerusalem church considered him a lawless antinomian, someone who had abandoned the Law altogether.

The Jerusalem church was unbending on the issue of anything that had been sacrificed or offered to an idol. Many of their surrogates outside Palestine went so far as to suggest that Jews, including Gentile believers in Christ, should become vegetarians rather than chance eating meat that had come from a nearby pagan temple. So many animals were slaughtered every day--and especially after a feast day--that the local temples and their priests could sell the excess in the marketplace to bolster their intake. The most scrupulous of Jews simply didn't buy meat at such places. He had heard that some in the Roman churches advocated this position.

But Paul saw no reason to abandon meat altogether. He respected those who did, but he was content to give the Corinthians a "don't ask" policy on the issue. He did not flagrantly ignore the purity rules of Leviticus. But he had stood his ground at Antioch on the issue six years ago, and he wasn't about to change his mind now. The unity of the church took precedence over almost all of the purity rules, that is, except the sexual ones.

For Paul, questions about these sorts of works of the Law had a tendency to divide Jew from Gentile believer in a way that undermined the very heart of the gospel message and the Gentile mission. And didn't all the animals belong to God anyway? As the Corinthians said in their letter, "We know that an idol is nothing in the world." And they reminded Paul of the Shema, the cornerstone of biblical faith, "There is no God but one."

Paul knew he was hearing Apollos' teaching being read back to him. Indeed, Apollos and Paul had debated these things in the school. Apollos still had Philo ringing in his ear from his days growing up in Alexandria. "There are no evil angels," he argued. "All the angels are ministering servants, sent to minister to those about to inherit salvation. These temples are empty and those who worry about them worry about empty space."

Paul, on the other hand, was more in tune with the thinking of Jesus and the Jerusalem church on this one. "The Satan and demons fill those temples," he would fire back. "Why would a believer in Jesus want to eat at the table of demons?" These were some of the issues they were working through at the school in the Hall of Tyrannus. And they were far from academic in a world where the temples of the Geniles and their impact were everywhere! Paul would eventually convince him that the Devil--as Apollos preferred to call the Satan--was at work in the temples.

On the other hand, most believers couldn't afford meat regularly anyway. In that sense, the question of whether or not to eat meat was primarily at issue for the few in the Corinthian church who were well off, people like Erastus and Gaius.

Paul decided to steer a middle course in his response. Yes, they are right; an idol is nothing. Yes, they are right, for us there is only one God despite all the other so-called gods, and Christ is our only Lord. Everything belongs to God. So they shouldn't worry about food in the marketplace. Food is neither clean nor unclean. It's rather a question of how you think about the food. If it is truly God's food for you, then it is clean for you. That was his concession to Apollos and the wealthy in the church.

On the other hand, demonic forces did exist in the world, and they filled the Gentile temples more than any other place. Eating at one of these temples was like eating at the table of a demon. Why would anyone want to be associated with such a thing? At a person's home, if they served meat, just don't ask where it came from and eat it with thankgiving. If a fellow believer tells you it came from a temple, don't eat it for their sake.

What Paul tried to bring out that following Christ was not just a matter of you as an individual. We followed Christ together, as a collective body of Christ. The Spirit of Christ was in us as a whole even more than in each one of us as an individual. We were God's possession, not our own to do as we saw fit. So when our knowledge and our freedom as an individual became harmful to others in the body, we needed to surrender them.

Paul truly believed that he had lived out this principle in his mission. Back in Tarsus he had it easy. His father had servants to do all the manual labor of leather working and tent making. And in Jerusalem he had run with the highest leaders of the Pharisees. Twenty years ago it would have been an insult for him to work with his hands, but he did it willingly for the good of the gospel.

Meanwhile, apostles like Peter and James travelled around with their wives and enjoyed the best meals and lodging that their hosts could afford. It was good enough for them, Paul thought. They didn't stay in one place long enough for the strings of patronage to become a major problem.

Not so for him. If he received patronage from wealthy Gentiles, they would have expectations of him. It might hinder him from being forthright with them. And he was now staying in urban centers for years on end. He might receive support from a church after he left, like Philippi, but it was his policy to support himself while he was situtated at a place. Barnabas felt exactly the same.

In the end, Paul felt very sure of what needed to happen at Corinth, indeed, he almost had an immediate sense of what needed to be done in any situation. It was his savant. Working out the reasons, the theory, on the other hand, was more difficult. To be sure, his years in Jerusalem had helped him immensely, listening to scribes and Pharisees debate the works of the Law back and forth. It was work, but Paul thanked God for his help in argument.

The Jerusalem church would not have been completely satisfied with his advice to the Corinthian church. They had made it clear in no uncertain terms that Christ followers must make sure that they do not eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol. They must be very careful not to eat things with the blood still in it or the meat of an animal that was strangled, with the blood left in the meat.

Meanwhile Paul found himself in a nebulous middle ground. He was happy to conform to the Jerusalem expectations when he was only around Jews. And he continued to see himself entirely as an Israelite, indeed, as the truest kind of Israelite. But the unity of the gospel required him to fudge some of the edges of the purity rules so that he could have full table fellowship with Gentile believers. Indeed, most Jews themselves--including the Jerusalem apostles--did not keep the kind of purity standards he knew you had to if you really wanted to keep the Law.

So he was not under the Law, even if he lived under the Law in its key respects, especially around Jews. To the Jew he became a Jew that he might win the Jews. But to the Gentiles, those without the Law, he became lawless, so that he might see them saved from the coming wrath of God too. To be sure, he was still under Christ's Law, the heart of the Law. It was all a fine line he was trying to walk so that he could bring as many people to confess Jesus as Lord as he could.

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