There is more to the Christian life than knowledge. Though knowledge of the truth is necessary for growth in Christlikeness, so is love. As David Jackman cautions, “Real Christlikeness is seen in love—the full heart not the full head—for only love builds up…. If a head full of knowledge is not governed by a heart full of love, all you have is a swollen head!” What Paul counsels in the passage before us is that we focus on building up other rather than puffing up ourselves. Building up the eternal Christian character of a fellow church member is better than blowing up ourselves like a temporary balloon.
Recently, I wrote about “I” trouble. Though what I wrote would certainly apply to the church at Corinth, nevertheless they suffered from a three-fold “I” trouble of another kind: individualism, immorality, and idolatry. It is the latter “I” trouble that Paul begins to address here. As he does so, he will also address the other “I” problem(s).
In chapters 8–10, Paul addresses the issue of meat offered to idols and whether Christians should consume it. But relatedly, he also addresses whether Christians should accept invitations to functions and feasts held at various religious temples. He will conclude this section making very clear that Christians are to have nothing to do with idolatry, including participating in temple functions (10:2–22).
So why does he take three full chapters to come to this pretty simple and understandable conclusion? Because, as we have seen throughout our studies in 1 Corinthians, Paul had a pastor’s heart. Therefore, merely barking commandments was not his approach. He aimed to instruct his readers concerning the theological reasoning behind his counsel. Further, he was well aware that many of his readers did not think pastorally and hence they would be tempted to respond to this matter in such a way that some church members would be offended and some unbelievers would be confused about the gospel. It is for this reason that Paul so thoroughly deals with what was a very relevant issue in that day and culture. As we will see, this is equally relevant to a large section of the church in our day.
In the Corinthian culture, and in so much of the Greco-Roman culture of that day, idolatry was a fact of life. One could not escape its influence in so much of life.
Not only were temples to false gods ubiquitous in most major cities, but these temples loomed large both in the religious realm and the commercial world. In the book of Revelation, the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira were rebuked for entertaining idolatrous practices, including those connected to the trade guilds (Thyatira). In that region, every major trade was represented by a false god and an associated idolatrous temple. If one was to advance in their trade, they would need to attend the various idolatrous festivals and feasts held at these temples, including offering the required sacrifices. Further, idolatry was essential not only for commercial advancement; it was also essential for social relations. Since idolatrous temples were often also places that served as a kind of restaurant, if one was to have social interaction, these idol temples were the place to go. Especially if you wanted a good piece of fillet! Furthermore, if you wanted meat for a meal in Corinth, most likely the meat you purchased would have come from the leftover of a temple sacrifice. This, of course, posed a major challenge for Christians. And this brings us to our situation in Corinth.
What should the Corinthian Christian do? Should she buy, cook, and serve the meat that had perhaps, if not probably, been offered by an idolator? How should a Christian respond to invitations to eat a meal at an idolatrous temple? These were the questions asked by the Corinthians, which Paul addresses in chapters 8–10. “Paul is contrasting the negative effects knowledge is having on the Corinthians (in this particular case) with the positive effects that would be expected if love were being exercised” (Ciampa and Rosner).
The issues raised here are extremely relevant to many of our church members, whose families, friends, and culture do offer idolatrous sacrifices to ancestors. Many face the pressure to join them, particularly at important functions like weddings and funerals. So this passage, though of course very relevant to many of our brothers and sisters in Christ living in Asia, is also very relevant to many brothers and sisters in South Africa.
So, let’s begin, let’s learn, and let’s live out the principles the Lord has revealed in this portion of his word.
The Limits of Knowledge
Paul begins by addressing the limitations of human knowledge:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
(1 Corinthians 8:1–3)
In chapters 8–10, Paul answers questions related to two matters raised by the Corinthians: (1) Should Christians eat meat that has been offered to idols?, and (2) Should Christians attend feasts and other social functions that take place at religious (idolatrous) temples? It will prove helpful to try and reconstruct what lay behind these questions. As we do, we will better understand both Paul’s pastoral approach and principled answer.
The church was experiencing some interpersonal conflicts over the matter of the permissibility of eating meat that had been offered to idols and the permissibility of church members attending religious temples to participate with neighbours and business associates in various feasts and festivals. Many, realising that these idols did not really exist, had no problem attending these social function. After all, idolatrous worship was nothing more than an illusion. The hosts believed the gods were real but the church members knew better. It didn’t hurt their relationship with the Lord. In fact, their attendance lessened unnecessary offence and provided further opportunity for evangelistic witness. But, of course, there were some weaker church members who, in their spiritual insecurity and hyper-sensitivity, believed that neither they nor their stronger brothers and sisters should do so. So, they wrote to Paul in the hopes that he would clarify the confusion. They also hoped that he would provide an authoritative word that would silence those who are criticising their stronger spiritual siblings for eating meat that had been offered to idols. This was the world in which they lived and they could not make everything an issue. The weak needed to be made strong and join the strong in just getting on with life in a fallen world.
From what Paul writes in these three chapters, I believe this captures something of the historical context.
Paul’s primary pastoral concern was twofold: to build up the congregation (8:1–23; 14:4, 17), and to avoid idolatry (chapter 10:14ff). Both of these have everything to do with appropriate worship, a theme that encompasses everything in chapters 8–10. Ciampa and Rosner observe, “This section (1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1) ties together questions of conscience and debatable matters as well as Paul’s fundamental commitments to the spiritual health of others (both believers and unbelievers) and the avoidance of any association with idolatry.”
Therefore, as Paul begins to address their particular communicated concerns, he first addresses those who are potentially placing stumblingblocks in these areas. Specifically, there were those in the congregation whose theological knowledge was being misused in such a way that the church was not being built up in Christ. In fact, they were being potentially destroyed through the demonic forces behind idolatry. We see this in these opening three verses.
The Claim to Knowledge
As in chapter 7, it seems that Paul uses direct quotations from the Corinthians to form his response. The first of those claims is that “all of us have knowledge” (v. 1).
As suggested in the possible reconstruction of the Corinthian concern, and from what Paul writes in these opening three verses, it seems evident that an element in the church—perhaps a majority element—was quite smug about doctrinal and theological knowledge, including knowledge of the Shema and therefore knowledge that idols were absolutely powerless and meaningless. But though their knowledge was correct, their use of this knowledge was anything but honourable. In fact, their theological knowledge was being utilised to bludgeon rather than to build up; it was being used to destroy rather than to develop; it was producing ruin rather than redemption. I am sure that, when the Corinthian gathered on the first Lord’s Day after receiving this epistle, they were surprised and appropriately ashamed. Hopefully, they repented.
Perhaps tongue in check, Paul replies, “We are all aware of your great theological knowledge. Your theological acumen is well-known. You are quite clever. After all, you read good theology, you continually listen to great expositors, you have your study Bibles, you can debate the finest of theological points, you have the gift of scriptura insight, and you can answer objections to your positions. We all know this. In fact, from your letter, you have made your prominence in knowledge well known!”
Why would he respond like this? To set the stage for an important rebuke. To provide the background for both a pastoral rebuke and for a pastoral word concerning those in the congregation who were not so “clever.”
Though we will only deal with this matter in more detail in our next study, we should note that Paul’s contrast between the “weak” and those with “knowledge” (implying “strong”) is not one that he actually legitimatises. That is, it is most likely that the Corinthian “knowledgeable” were labelling as “weak” those who were had a problem with eating meat offered to idols and in accepting invitations to feasts held at temples. In fact, it might be helpful to insert inverted commas around “weak” whenever it appears. In other words, Paul is most likely simply quoting the assessment of those with “knowledge” while not necessarily agreeing with them. Regardless, it is clear from the contents of this chapter that Paul was more concerned about the attitude of the “knowledgeable” than he was with the supposed ignorance of the “weak.”
The Corrective to this Knowledge
Paul warns the knowledgeable elite that the kind of knowledge they were demonstrating puffs up rather than building up. They needed to pay heed to his inspired corrective. And so do we. “This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (vv. 1–2).
The words “puffs up” speak of that which is inflated and hence lacks substance. “Bloated” might be an accurate synonym. This was not the first time that Paul aimed this convicting balloon at the Corinthian church (4:6, 18, 19; 5:2) and it would not be the last (13:4). Spiritual arrogance was a problem in that church and people were being spiritually “beat up” rather than built up in Christ. The fundamental problem was a lack of love.
Paul is not contrasting “knowledge” with “love” but rather he is contrasting an unloving use of knowledge with a proper love-motivated use of knowledge. As David Jackman so helpfully explains, “Real Christlikeness is seen in love—the full heart not the full head—for only love builds up…. If a head full of knowledge is not governed by a heart full of love, all you have is a swollen head!” How we all need to grasp this!
It is clear that Paul wrote to churches with a passionate conviction concerning the glory of the people of God being the body and building of the Lord Jesus Christ (see chapters 3 and 6). The church, as the household and temple of God, loomed large in is theology. He therefore worked hard to build it up. He expected church members to share this conviction and the work of practical construction. Here, he clearly shows that, when church members are puffed up with knowledge, this works against the building up the local church. Again, knowledge is good. Biblical and theological knowledge should be pursued. We should work hard at growing in knowledge of the truth. We should overcome our ignorance of those things we should know. But the disposition behind our knowledgeable positions is equally important. As David Prior notes, “The spirit in which we say what is right is as much part of the truth as the knowledge we articulate. As Godet puts it, ‘knowledge devoid of love and of power to edify, when we look at it more [closely], is not even true knowledge.’”
It is for this reason that Paul goes on with a corrective word, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Paul is saying that those who have this kind of arrogant knowledge are actually not as knowledgeable as they claim to be. “If you behave insensitively (hence arrogantly) toward those whom you view to be less theologically sophisticated than you, you clearly are in the grips of spiritual ignorance and you need true knowledge.” As Rosner and Ciampa put it, “True theological understanding, and certainly true knowledge of God, does not lead one to act in a way which is insensitive to others and offensive to God.”
For example, consider some of the arrogant words and behaviour of those who had supposed “knowledge” as to the way all local churches should have responded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The criticisms of being “weak” [in conviction] was a classic example of Paul is saying here.
Or consider those in local churches who can never learn from their leaders and who refuse to be a team player because they are so well-instructed from their podcasts during the week. Such are not as spiritually knowledgeable as they assume they are.
In summary, Kay puts it so well: “Knowledge is proud that it has learnt so much. Wisdom is humble that it knows no more.” May God build us up by bringing us down in humility. And this will only happen when we have proper knowledge of the cross. (More on this in v. 3.)
Church member, remember that your biblical knowledge is for the purpose of building up your this local church. There is a stewardship of truth—stewardship of biblical and theological knowledge—for which we are responsible. This stewardship requires patience. After all, love is patient (13:4).
For example, consider the matter of ancestor worship, a serious error that abounds in our country, which poses a challenge for many of our church members. This is not a part of my heritage. In fact, in my heritage, “we all have knowledge” that our ancestors are dead and that they are not involved in our lives. Their bodies are dead and their spirits are either in heaven or in hell. They do not commune with us and they certainly have no power over us. Our memories of them may influence our decisions but they, as “spirits,” have no influence on us. However, not everyone has this knowledge.
New Christians often do not have this knowledge and therefore need to be biblically instructed. Both new and older Christians who do have this knowledge are often surrounded by family and friends who do not have this knowledge, and this raises numerous challenges for our brothers and sisters in Christ. How we respond to them, how we engage with them, how we come alongside them as they face such challenges must be informed and shaped by Christ-driven, cross-shaped love.
That is, we must guard against simplistic and insensitive chapter-and-versing them to their destruction (v. 11). Rather, we are to lovingly and hence patiently assist them.
Increasingly, our congregation finds itself facing this challenge. As young couples get engaged, ancestors often loom large before the couple as they wrestle with what their families expect in the marriage planning and what the couple is persuaded of from Scripture. They find themselves in a difficult situation and need the patient help of those who share the same biblical knowledge. It is all well and good to simply counsel, “Just tell your parents that this is the way it is going to be,” but it is quite another to try and understand their situation and to wisely help them as they navigate this stormy sea of familial relations that are intertwined with false religion. The same is true when it comes to rituals and funerals.
The point I am emphasising is the same one Paul is driving home: Make sure that when you communicate your knowledge that it is soaked in the love of God. Compromise is not the answer; compassionate conviction is the answer.
Make sure that your use of knowledge is holy and humble. As Tom Schreiner—a very knowledgeable man!—says, “Knowledge should not become an instrument to advance oneself, but [rather] should be a vehicle for helping others.”
The Caution about Knowledge
As Paul brings this warning about knowledge to a close, he drives home his concern for the welfare of the church—and I think his particular concern for the welfare of the so called “weak”—with a profound reminder of God’s love for his people. He writes, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by him” (v. 3).
One might expect the statement, “But if anyone loves God” to conclude with, “He is loved by God.” In fact, this is precisely what Paul is saying! And how important it is for the content of these chapters.
The knowledge that is most important is God’s knowledge of us. That is, his intimate, sovereign, foreknowledge of us in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world (2 Timothy 2:19; Galatians 4:9; see also Genesis 18:19; Amos 3:2; Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2). This is precisely Paul’s point. He wants the Corinthian sophisticates to remember that those they were treating with perhaps dismissive insensitivity belonged to the Lord and therefore to be careful how they treat them.
The rest of this chapter along, with the next two chapters, make clear how Christians are to treat one another in the body of Christ. We are to be sensitive to the consciences of one another, being careful to not trip up any brother or sister. Theological knowledge is important. It is essential for spiritual growth and yet it is to be coupled with theological love. As we love God, we will love others. This will go a long way towards protecting ourselves from pride and from protecting others from the collateral damage of our pride. Paul drives this point home in the next three verses.
The Lordship of Jesus Christ
Having provided a necessary pastoral caveat, now Paul begins to answer the questions raised, specifically, “as to the eating of food offered to idols” (v. 4). Yes, Paul agrees, “we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” This is a truism to the Christian. Paul highlights here the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
(1 Corinthians 8:4–6)
The old covenant Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) remains a part of new covenant orthodoxy. There is only one God, not only in priority, but also in actuality. For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ (v. 5), such religious claims are bogus. And many, if not most, Christians are aware of this reality. After all, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (v. 6).
This is essential knowledge for the Christian. We need to come to embrace the truth that there is only one God. All other religious claims for another god are lies. They do not exist. For the Christian, religious idolatry is offensive. Because we know the one true God, we love him, and we are continually seeking to love him with all our hearts, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5–6). We also are committed to teaching this to the next generation (Deuteronomy 6:7–9).
Paul is making the point that monotheism is the only legitimate theism and this knowledge will impact how we interact with a society that is hell-bent on idolatrous false religion. This conviction has everything to do with what Paul will unpack, not only in the rest of this chapter but also in chapter ten, and in the chapters that immediately follow.
At the same time, Paul acknowledges that not every Christian is so well grounded. Of course, neither are unbelievers that practice idolatry (v. 7). But before unpacking that, we need to see how Paul is not merely providing a lesson on monotheism. He does not merely affirm the orthodoxy of the “knowledgeable” but rather affirms of the deity of Jesus Christ. There is “one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Paul clearly affirms that the “one Lord” who exists is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God. Loyalty to the Lord God means loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. Why does he emphasise this?
He does so because Jesus Christ is the one who by whom the Christian is known (v. 3). This is not a mere academic point on which Christians agree; it is at the heart and soul of the Christian life. Think of it, contextually, in these terms.
If Jesus Christ, who is God, considers the value of even those Christians who are “not as knowledgeable as us,” such that he was willing to lay down his life for them—if the Creator the world, including human beings was willing to forego his rights for the benefit of others—how much more should we be?
There is only one God, and he graciously chose to “know,” sinners making them his own. There is only one God, and he took upon himself the form of a servant, taking on human flesh, becoming obedient to death, even the shameful death of the cross. And he did this for those whom he is willing to call “brother” and “sister.” If he did this—and he did do this!— we need to be careful how we treat one another with all of our knowledge. In other words, the Shema only move us to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This knowledge is also designed to lead us to love our neighbours as ourselves. And when we love them rightly, we will consider how to help them with our knowledge, rather than harming them.
We have lots to learn in future studies, but we must have the important pastoral foundation laid down in these opening verses. May the Lord use these chapters to make us a more lovingly knowledgeable people, for his glory, for the extension of his kingdom, as his will is faithfully and humbly carried out on earth as it is in heaven.