What does the Bible mean when it talks about eating meat sacrificed to idols? In addition, some skeptics suggest that the Bible contradicts itself by indicating in the book of Acts that it is wrong to eat such food (Acts 15:20), whereas Paul says that it is okay to eat pagan meat offerings in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. How can that perceived “contradiction” be reconciled?
Eating Food Sacrificed to Idols
The New Testament refers eating meat sacrificed to idols several times, and this soon became a point of contention and confusion within the early church. Pagans (non-believers) would sacrifice animals to various pagan gods, and then they would sell or donate the leftover meat in the meat markets. This sacrificed meat would have probably been cheaper since it was merely the leftover remains of a pagan worship service.
In the book of Acts, a book that gives an overview of the formation and struggles of the early church, we see that a conflict arose in the early church. Some were erroneously suggesting that the newly converted Gentiles should be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law, just as Jews had previously done. The apostles and elders convened on this issue, and they realized that Gentiles should not be placed under the Mosaic Law at all, just as the converted Jews were now freed from the law. Peter summarized his answer by declaring the following:
“But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they [the Gentiles]” (Acts 15:11).
In other words, they recognized that it was absolutely ridiculous to place the demands of the law on these Gentiles, especially considering that they have never kept the law perfectly themselves.
However, even though the Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or follow the Mosaic Law, the early church also realized that, coming from a deep-rooted pagan system, the Gentiles needed some basic guidance to prevent them from returning to the pagan system. They also needed a solution to keep the peace in the church by preventing the Jews from becoming offended with their fellow brethren. Therefore, they came up with a short “list” of things they felt Gentiles should avoid until the church matured, including abstaining from things “polluted” by idols:
Acts 15:20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
They sent letters to these new Gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, assuring them that there was no need to be circumcised, and they further suggested the short list they agreed on in Acts 15:20:
Acts 15:29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.
It’s important to note that this short list was not a requirement of salvation. Rather, it was just a short list that would help the Gentiles avoid the most pressing sins in that culture: idolatry and sexual perversion, while also maintaining unity in these new churches. This was repeated again in Acts 21:25.
Interestingly, the Corinthian church had additional questions about the eating of food sacrificed to idols, and the Apostle Paul clarifies the issue in his first letter:
As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.
Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.
But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.
1 Corinthians 8:4-13
Paul continues his teaching on this issue in chapter 10:
What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.
Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils. Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?
All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth.
Whatsoever is sold in the shambles [meat markets], that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast [non idolatrous feast], and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?
For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.
1 Corinthians 10:19-33
In other words, Paul says that physical idols are really nothing but carved pieces of wood or metal, not some “god” as the pagans believed, and there is really only one true God. Therefore, meat sacrificed to them and then resold is not in any way tainted with evil. Meat is meat, and we need food to live. Therefore, if a person strolls through a meat market, they shouldn’t stress about whether the meat had previously been used in some silly idol worship festival.
However, he also warns that it is wrong for the Christian to partake in the actual idol feasts, which was idolatry.
Furthermore, Paul warns us that we should never violate our conscience, nor should we encourage an activity that may cause another Christian to stumble. Although we do not sin by eating food or meat sacrificed to idols, if it makes a fellow believer more likely to engage in pagan festival feasts, or violate his or her conscience, it then becomes a sin.
Finally, in Revelation, God rebukes the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira for engaging in immorality:
Revelation 2:14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
Revelation 2:20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
In these passages, God warns of eating meat sacrificed to idols, but it is discussed in a different context than merely buying the meat in a market. Instead, these churches had members who were violating the very principle that Paul and the book of Acts warned against: they were actually engaging in pagan feasts themselves, which involved meat sacrifice and sexual orgies.
Interestingly, God references Balaam and Jezebel–names of individuals from the Old Testament who led Israelites into idolatry.
Conclusion: The Summary of Eating Meat Sacrificed to Idols
In summary, the book of Acts warns the newly converted Gentile Christians to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols (among other things), because the early church wanted to prevent them from engaging in the pagan feasts, and to restore harmony in the churches.
Paul clarifies in First Corinthians that there is nothing inherently sinful about eating meat that had previously been involved in a feast ceremony. However, Christians should be cautious to avoid participating in the feasts themselves. In addition, they should never eat meat if it caused another brother to become offended, defy his conscience, or stumble back into past pagan practices.
And finally, in Revelation, God rebukes two churches for engaging in these idolatrous feasts, which included indulging in the sacrificed meat and engaging in fornication.
Therefore, no contradiction exists whatsoever. God’s word stand firm, as always.
May God bless you.