The congregation at Corinth struggled with the problem of meat offered to idols. Some, knowing rightly that idols are in fact nothing in themselves, felt that they could partake of this food in good conscience. Others, misinformed and therefore weak in their conscience, felt that it was a sin. Unfortunately, the stronger Christians disparaged their weaker brothers, indulging in that meat without regard to their welfare. Therefore, Paul clarifies that “food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). This is not a relativistic “go with what you feel,” as if, to use a contemporary example, one should drink alcohol in order to avoid appear to be a legalist. The stronger must bear with the failings of the genuinely weaker brother even by forsaking what is his by right so that his brother is built up and not torn down.
Paul then clarifies what he means throughout 1 Corinthians 9. He has the right in Christ to eat and drink. He has the right in Christ to marry a “believing wife.” He has the right in Christ to gain his whole living by the Gospel. The Lord does not prohibit him from doing any of these things. Yet he forsakes all of them, because he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12). We would do well as Christians to heed Paul’s words. Just because we have the right to do something does not mean that it is wise to do it. Freedom in the Lord can be easily abused, to the detriment of the body. Paul is not arguing for an unbridled license in all things. Such is not the way of Christ.
Paul uses imagery common to his own day. Because the ancients were fond of athletic competition, which frequently accompanied every major celebration, it provides an opportunity to explain what he means. In a race, all of the runners seek after the prize, but only one obtains it. He does not obtain it by doing whatever he pleases. The athlete who has no self-control is either lazy or he plays for the crowd rather than focusing on the task at hand. Such a man “runs aimlessly,” as if he was “boxing as one beating the air” (1 Corinthians 9:26). Yet the glory which worldly runners seek is a perishable wreath, the fading crown of an earthly glory. The one who exercises discipline in the heavenly race will receive a crow which will never fade away. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). Therefore, we are called to discipline our bodies, forsaking even what is ours by right, just as an athlete must give up his freedom in order to train for winning the race.
His transition into 1 Corinthians 10 seems disjointed unless one considers the wider context. For the sake of the weaker brother, Paul and every Christian must forsake his liberty. Those who run the race discipline their bodies and “keep it under control,” or more literally, “enslave it,” so that they would not be disqualified. Yet the sons of Israel were in fact disqualified from running because of their idolatry, the very same problem which the Corinthians now faced. All of them had the same blessings from God. God led them by the cloud and brought them through the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank from the same spiritual drink, which is Christ. The sons of Israel had all the same blessings which we now share, and yet because of their lack of discipline, they were overthrown. They thought they had freedom in the Lord, because they regarded themselves as stronger than Him. Partaking in something which causes us to look down upon our weaker brothers is not walking according to the Spirit. It is a dangerous occasion for idolatry. Nothing, however lawful it is in itself, is worth the cost of our brother’s soul.