1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Corinth was an important and wealthy Greek city. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to two things: The first was a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). The second was issues raised by the Corinthian Christians in a letter that they wrote to Paul. In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
In chapters 1-6, Paul dealt with problems brought to his attention by people from Corinth. In chapter 7, he began to address “the things about which you wrote to me” (7:1)—issues about which the Corinthian Christians had written Paul.
The question that Paul addresses in 8:1 – 11:1 is whether it is permissible for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. In Corinth, much of the meat available for human consumption had been sacrificed to idols. Typically, part of the meat was burned on the altar, part was reserved for the priests, part was consumed by the people making the sacrifices, and the rest was available for sale. Of the meat available for purchase, some would be served, restaurant-style, in temples. The rest would be sold in meat markets throughout the city. While it was clear that meat served in temples had been sacrificed to idols, it would be more difficult—often impossible—to determine the origin of meat for sale in meat markets.
There were two dimensions to the problem for Christians. One was whether it was permissible to eat meat served within the temple precincts. The other was whether it was permissible to purchase meat that had been sacrificed to idols and to eat it at home. Eating meat within the temple precincts could be a particular problem, because neophyte Christians seeing more sophisticated Christians eating meat at a temple would almost certainly conclude that the sophisticated Christians were engaged in idol-worship (8:10). Eating meat at home, even thought it might have been sacrificed to idols, would be less liable to be interpreted in that way. However, if someone happens to interpret it that way, Paul says that the one eating the meat should cease and desist (8:13; 10:28-31).
Chapter 9 is sufficiently different that some scholars consider it to have been inserted after-the-fact. However, that is not the case. We might think of chapter 9 as a sermon illustration. In chapter 8, Paul states the principle that exercising love for one’s Christian brothers and sisters is more important than exercising the personal freedom that we have in Christ. In chapter 9, he tells how he has done that. He had the right to marry, but chose to forego that right to devote his full time to preaching the Gospel (9:5ff.). He had the right to require his congregation to provide for him financially, but chose to forego that right for their benefit (9:6ff.). So also, they should choose to forego their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols if someone might misunderstand their behavior and thus be injured.
In chapter 10, Paul returns to the subject of idols. In that chapter, he restates his principle of love as follows: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are profitable. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own, but each one his neighbor’s good” (10:23-24. See also 6:12).
Eating meat sacrificed to idols was a problem in Rome as well as in Corinth. Paul deals with this issue in his letter to the Romans (chapters 14-15). The presenting problem there was eating meat sacrificed to idols, and Paul’s response is similar to his response in 1 Corinthians. He emphasized that Christians should welcome each other and abstain from judging one another, even though they might have differing opinions (Romans 14:1-12). He also emphasized that “no man put a stumbling block in his brother’s way” (Romans 14:13). He said that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols, but admonished, “Don’t overthrow God’s work for food’s sake” (Romans 14:20)—the work of God being the faith of weaker Christians.
While the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols might seem irrelevant today, what Paul has to say about sensitivity to the feelings of Christian brothers and sisters is highly relevant. He calls those who are strong (in the case of the Corinthian Christians, those who understood that idols did not represent real gods, so meat that has been sacrificed to idols had no religious significance) to defer to those who are weak (in the case of the Corinthian Christians, those whose faith might be weakened by seeing Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols).
What are some real-life situations in which this principle might apply today? The one that seems most obvious to me has to do with alcohol and alcoholics. A person who is strong (isn’t likely to get drunk) could say, “I am free to drink whenever and wherever I choose, because I can handle it. I won’t get drunk. I won’t lose control. I won’t drive while impaired.”
While that might be true, in the presence of one who is weak (an alcoholic or someone who might be disposed to be an alcoholic), the stronger person needs to consider the potential consequences of his/her behavior on the weaker person. If he/she insists on drinking alcohol in the presence of an alcoholic, his/her behavior might tempt the alcoholic to “fall off the wagon”—to take one drink, which would lead to many drinks. In such a case, Paul would call the stronger person to consider the vulnerability of the weaker person and to defer to the weaker person’s sensibilities. The principle of love for the other person trumps the principle of the personal freedom that comes with faith in Christ.
Also, there are Christians who feel strongly that the consumption of any alcoholic beverages is inconsistent with Christian discipleship. If they were to see a Christian drinking alcohol, they would be likely to conclude either that the person drinking alcohol (1) is not a Christian or (2) is a Christian engaging in behavior forbidden to Christians—sinful behavior. That would likely nullify the witness of the person drinking alcohol to the abstinent Christian—and could have other harmful effects.
There are other situations where the principle would apply.
• Flirtatious behavior might be innocent, but could lose its innocence in the presence of a weaker Christian who would misunderstand it.
• Careless attitudes toward money might tempt a weaker Christian to do something dishonest.
• Careless words might create a breach in a relationship—or might cause other problems. While we might believe that freedom of speech permits us to say whatever we feel like saying, James says, “If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn’t bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
It is difficult to generalize, because the application of Paul’s principle of love for the weaker person is so dependent on the immediate situation—and who might be watching—and how our behavior might affect that person.
In any event, applying Paul’s principle of love requires that we be alert and sensitive to those who might be led astray by our behavior. I am reminded of the lengths to which my wife and I went to protect our children when they were young. We inserted plugs into electrical outlets to protect them from electrical shocks. We carefully tested the temperature of bath water before placing them into the bathtub. We made sure that they didn’t have access to small objects on which they might choke. We fenced our yard to give them a safe place to play. We kept sharp knives where they couldn’t reach them. Being a good parent meant being always on the alert.
Paul calls us to that same kind of sensitivity to other people, both children and adults—anyone who might misunderstand our actions or our language—anyone who might be tempted to emulate our behavior in ways that might do them harm—anyone whose faith might be damaged by seeing us do things that they might believe to be questionable morally.
1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-3. KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP, BUT LOVE BUILDS UP
1Now concerning things sacrificed to idols: We know that we all have knowledge (Greek: gnosis). Knowledge puffs up (physioi—inflates with pride), but love builds up. 2But if anyone thinks (dokeo) that he knows anything, he doesn’t yet know as he ought to know (egno oupo ginosko kathos deo ginosko—does not yet know it as he ought to know). 3But if anyone loves God, the same is known by him.
“Now concerning things sacrificed to idols“ (v. 1a). In chapter 7, Paul addressed questions that the Corinthian Christians had asked about marriage (7:1). Now he turns to another of their concerns, food that has been sacrificed to idols.
“We know that we all have knowledge“ (gnosis) (v. 1b). Paul quotes back to the Corinthian Christians something they apparently said in their letter to him—”we all have knowledge.” The implication is that they understand that idols are not real gods—so food sacrificed to idols has no religious significance—so they should be able to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols.
We must remember that Corinth is a Greek city, and the Greeks prize philosophy—a word that is derived from two Greek words, philos (love) and sophos (wisdom). The Greeks pride themselves on their wisdom—their knowledge—their sophistication. When they say that “we all have knowledge,” they aren’t talking about all people. They are talking about themselves.
Knowledge is a great gift, and these Corinthian Christians are more knowledgeable than most—but they have become prideful concerning their knowledge. Later in this letter, Paul will address their love of knowledge when he says, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing” (13:2). Knowledge without Christian love tends toward arrogance. Gifts (such as knowledge) need to be used in service to others. If these Corinthian Christians will do that, they will both give and receive a blessing. If they won’t, their knowledge is likely to do more harm than good.
“Knowledge puffs up (physioi—inflates with pride), but love builds up“ (v. 1c). This is Paul’s answer to the Corinthian statement, “we all have knowledge.” While knowledge in the service of others can be good, people who use their knowledge to establish their superiority over other people cannot expect to experience a good result. They are likely to get an inflated opinion of themselves that does nothing to help anyone.
This is the fifth time Paul has used this word physioi in this letter (4:6, 18, 19; 5:2). It is sometimes translated “puffed up” and sometimes translated “arrogant.” Paul obviously thinks that being puffed up—inflated with pride—is a problem for these Corinthian Christians.
But while knowledge puffs up, “love builds up”—edifies—blesses—blesses both the one who loves and the one who is loved. Given a choice between knowledge and love, we would do far better to choose love. If we are blessed with knowledge, we need to mix it liberally with love before putting it on display.
“But if anyone thinks (dokeo) that he knows anything, he doesn’t yet know as he ought to know“(egno oupo ginosko kathos deo ginosko—does not yet know it as he ought to know) (v. 2).
The word dokei is interesting. It can mean “think” or “seem” or “suppose”—so the first part of this verse could be translated, “Anyone who THINKS he knows something”—or “Anyone who SEEMS to know something”—or “Anyone who SUPPOSES to know something.”
What Paul is talking about here is presumptuous knowledge—arrogant knowledge—conceited knowledge. He is saying is that a person who presumes to have knowledge isn’t likely to have it—at least not to the extent that he needs it. His assumption that he knows the facts makes him unwilling to learn anything further. His bit of knowledge, therefore, becomes a barrier to true knowledge.
Our word sophomore is instructive at this point. Sophomore comes from two Greek words, sophos, which means wise, and moros, which means foolish. The word sophomore, then, literally means “wise fool.” It alludes to the fact that a sophomore is far enough along in the educational process (the second of four years) that he/she is likely to know just enough to be dangerous—and just enough not to want to learn more. As someone put it, “The best substitute for being wise is being sixteen.”
In his book, The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin pointed out that “the greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” People “knew” that the world was flat, and couldn’t abide those who said otherwise. Nothing can set back learning as much as the presumption of knowledge.
Paul clearly isn’t impressed with the knowledge of these Corinthian Christians. When he tells them that the pridefully knowledgeable person isn’t likely to be truly knowledgeable, he is setting the stage to say something important.
“But if anyone loves God, the same is known by him“ (v. 3). This seems like an odd verse. After saying that a person who thinks he knows everything probably doesn’t, we would expect Paul to say, “the truly wise person is the one who knows God”—or “the truly wise person is the one who loves God”—but that isn’t what he says. Instead, he says, “if anyone loves God, the same is known by him.”
In this short verse, Paul shifts the emphasis from knowing to loving. The key to the Christian life isn’t knowing all the answers. The key to the Christian life is loving God. Paul promises that the person who loves God will be known by God. It is ever so much more important to be known by God than to possess knowledge. Knowledge will come to an end (13:8), but God is eternal—and so is the one who is known by God.
1 CORINTHIANS 8:4-6. NO IDOL IS ANYTHING
4Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that no idol is anything in the world, and that there is no other God but one. 5For though there are things that are called “gods,” whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many “gods” and many “lords;” 6yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.
“Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that no idol is anything in the world, and that there is no other God but one“ (v. 4). In this verse, Paul quotes Corinthian Christians who have said, “no idol is anything in the world” and “there is no other God but one.” That last quotation alludes to the Shema, which says, “Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4—a literal translation). Jewish people recite the Shema in the morning and evening. It is graven on their hearts.
These two quotations imply that, if idols don’t really exist and Yahweh is the only God, then idols aren’t really gods. Therefore meat sacrificed to idols has no religious significance, so it must be permissible for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
In verses 5 and 6, Paul will agree that Yahweh is the only God and idols are not really gods. However, he also deals with the assumptions of these Corinthian Christians that idols aren’t really gods—and meat sacrificed to idols has no religious significance—so it must be permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Half-truths lurking in those assumptions are leading Corinthian Christians astray.
“For though there are things that are called ‘gods,’ whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords‘” (v. 5). While Paul agrees that the gods behind the idols are not real objectively, they seem real to those who worship them—and thus they have a subjective reality that the Christian must take into account.
Later in this letter, Paul will say, “What am I saying then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? But I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God, and I don’t desire that you would have fellowship with demons. You can’t both drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You can’t both partake of the table of the Lord, and of the table of demons” (10:19-21).
Paul thus says that there is a demonic reality behind idol worship, and he doesn’t want Christians involved with demons. Some scholars believe that, in chapter 10, Paul’s concern has to do only with Christians eating food sacrificed to idols within the temple precincts, where it would be especially easy for people to misinterpret their actions as idol-worship.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells those Christians that, before they became Christians, they had been “in bondage to those who by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8). While those idols might not have been gods objectively, they did possess a demonic power to enslave.
If we might be inclined to dismiss what Paul is saying here, we have only to consider some of the false religions of our times—the cults of Jim Jones, who led his followers to mass suicide in Guyana—and David Koresh, who led his followers to their deaths in Waco, Texas. Those men were not true prophets or true gods, but their power over the lives of their followers was powerful, demonic, and deadly. We must not assume that false religions are benign.
In a less dramatic vein, millions of people worship at the altars of materialism, celebrity, drugs, and various “isms” that demand their allegiance and enslave them to their powers. They might not think of these things as “gods” or “lords,” but their devotion often has a cult-like intensity.
“yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him“ (v. 6). While, for many Greeks, there might be many “gods” and “lords” (v. 5), for Christians there is only “one God, the Father” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ.” God the Father and Jesus Christ are not multiple gods, but are instead two faces—two manifestations—of the one God.
1 CORINTHIANS 8:7-8. NOT EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS THAT
7 However, that knowledge isn’t in all men. But some, with consciousness of the idol until now, eat as of a thing sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8But food will not commend us to God. For neither, if we don’t eat, are we the worse; nor, if we eat, are we the better.
“However, that knowledge isn’t in all men“ (v. 7a). This hearkens back to verse 1, where Paul quotes the Corinthian Christians as saying, “we all have knowledge.” The knowledge that they claimed was that there is no objective reality behind the idols to whom people are making sacrifices—and so there is no religious significance to meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Now Paul directly refutes their claim that “all of us possess knowledge. That is not true.
“But some, with consciousness of the idol until now, eat as of a thing sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled“ (v. 7b). Many people, even many neophyte Christians, think of idols as gods—and of meat that has been sacrificed to idols as sacred. While this might not be true, their beliefs color how they perceive the world.
• If they were to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, that would become, in their minds, a sacred meal—and would draw them toward idol-worship and away from Christ.
• If they saw Christian leaders eating meat sacrificed to idols—particularly within the temple precincts—they would see that as an endorsement of idol worship.
Sophisticated Christians need to take the sensibilities of these fledgling Christians into account.
“But food will not commend us to God. For neither, if we don’t eat, are we the worse; nor, if we eat, are we the better“ (v. 8). Paul once again quotes what the Corinthian Christians have said to him, “But food will not commend us to God”—and their conclusion, “For neither, if we don’t eat, are we the worse; not, if we eat, are we the better.”
If these sophisticated Christians were living in isolation, they would be correct—at least to a point. If there were no possibility of their actions being misinterpreted—if there were no possibility that their example might lead a weaker person astray—then, for the most part, there would be no problem with their eating meat sacrificed to idols.
However, I see a problem here that Paul doesn’t address. Christians eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols are subsidizing an idolatrous enterprise. That troubles me. Where possible, I want to avoid lending my financial support, however modest, to demonic activities.
1 CORINTHIANS 8:9-13. BE CAREFUL NOT TO BECOME A STUMBLING BLOCK
9But be careful that by no means does this liberty (Greek: exousia) of yours become a stumbling block (proskomma) to the weak. 10For if a man sees you who have knowledge sitting in an idol’s temple, won’t his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11And through your knowledge, he who is weak perishes, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12Thus, sinning against the brothers, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat forevermore, that I don’t cause my brother to stumble.
“But be careful that by no means does this liberty (exousia) of yours become a stumbling block (proskomma) to the weak“ (v. 9). Exousia is usually translated “power” or “authority.” It is translated “liberty” in this verse because of the context. These fledgling Corinthian Christians are enjoying the freedom in Christ that gives them the authority to manage their own lives (in keeping with principles that Christ has laid down) rather than having to follow detailed rules (such as the Jewish law).
However, with authority comes responsibility. Christians do not have authority to live in such a way that their example might endanger others—even though their actions might otherwise be legitimate. Paul calls Christians to take care not to allow their actions to become a stumbling block (Greek: proskomma) to the weak.
The idea of a stumbling block goes back to Jewish law. “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block (Hebrew: miskol) before the blind; but you shall fear your God. I am Yahweh” (Leviticus 19:14). While that verse requires Jewish people not to make sport of blind people by putting physical obstacles in their path, the word miskol is also used in the Old Testament to speak of spiritual obstacles (Isaiah 8:14; 57:14; Ezekiel 7:19; 14:3; 44:12; Jeremiah 6:21).
Paul establishes the principle that Christians have a responsibility to take into account the sensibilities of those who might otherwise be misled by their behavior.
“For if a man sees you who have knowledge sitting in an idol’s temple, won’t his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols?“ (v. 10). The problem that Paul identifies in this verse is that those who are weak (fledgling Christians), seeing Christians eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols—in particular, if they see them doing so in the temple precincts—might misinterpret that behavior and be injured spiritually thereby.
• One possibility is that they might decide that it is permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols—and might do so even though they think of the meat as having spiritual significance.
• Another possibility is that they might interpret the action of the Christian leaders as hypocritical and decide that they want nothing further to do with the church.
“And through your knowledge, he who is weak perishes, the brother for whose sake Christ died“(v. 11). A literal translation of this verse would read, “Then the weak person, the brother for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge.” It thereby establishes four things:
• First, there are weak Christians who might misunderstand if they saw Christians eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols.
• Second, these Christians are brothers (and sisters)—people whom we should love.
• Third, Christ died for these people.
• Fourth, our behavior has the potential to derail the faith of these weak Christians if they misunderstand what we are doing.
Earlier, Paul said that “knowledge puffs up” (v. 1). Now he says that knowledge has the power to destroy when deployed without consideration for the sensibilities of the other person.
“Thus, sinning against the brothers, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ“ (v. 12). Paul establishes a linkage between our sin and Christ. If we exercise our Christian freedom in ways that might endanger the faith of our Christian brothers and sisters, we sin against Christ.
“Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat forevermore, that I don’t cause my brother to stumble“ (v. 13). Paul concludes this chapter by stating the principle that he personally observes to insure that no one is injured by his actions. If someone could misinterpret his actions and be injured spiritually thereby, Paul will refrain from the action—even though he would otherwise be free to act. He doesn’t need a rule book to restrict him. He will take the responsibility to restrict his own freedom when exercising his freedom might injure another person.
He implies that these Corinthian Christians should follow his example.
In chapter 9, he will talk about ways that he voluntarily restricts his personal freedoms for the sake of Christ.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan