Contributor: Leye Olayiwola
Last week, we concluded the three part marriage series based on 1 Corinthians 7. Some of the highlights of last week’s teaching touched on the benefits of an unmarried life for a Christian, Paul’s advice on remaining in an unmarried state as a result of the distress prevalent during the time of writing the book of first Corinthians, and also his counsel to married women and widows amongst other things. Paul buttressed the importance of staying married which is very much in line with Jesus’s injunction in the epistles. Today, we will continue our study as we look very carefully on the topic of Taking Care with our Liberty as believers in Christ Jesus.
1. Relationship Between Love and Knowledge (vs 1-3)
Paul sets the stage for his teaching on meats offered to idols in verses 1-3. In these three verses, addressed to those who prided themselves for their higher knowledge and who indulged themselves in the name of liberty, Paul lays down four foundational truths which they need to grasp.
Truth 1: Christian knowledge is common knowledge, available to all. Paul writes, “Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge” (1 Corinthians 8:1a). Knowledge is not restricted to the few but is available to all. In the Book of Proverbs, error and deceptive knowledge is personified by “Madam Folly.” This woman is symbolized by the prostitute, who appeals not to the head but to the hormones; she appeals to fleshly pride and sensual desires. Her appeal is secret and sneaky. She lurks in the dark alleys, and she whispers her offer of illicit knowledge (Proverbs 7:6-27). Truth and wisdom is personified in Proverbs by a gracious and intelligent woman, Dame Wisdom. She publicly proclaims truth to all who will hear and learn, speaking openly in broad daylight and in the most public place (Proverbs 8:1-21). True knowledge is offered to all, while false wisdom is secretly and seductively presented to the naive.
Truth 2: Even true knowledge, which is wrongly interpreted or applied, can puff up the pride of the knower, while genuine love places others ahead of self and seeks to build them up. True love is not puffed up with pride, and it does not serve self-interest (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Knowledge is not opposed to love, but is to be closely associated with it, as we can see in the Scriptures (1 Cor.13:2; 2 Cor.8:7; 1 Tim.1:5)
Truth 3: Those who suppose themselves to fully know only reveal their true ignorance (verse 2). Our knowledge in this life is partial, and even that which has been revealed by God is never perfectly grasped (see 1 Corinthians 13:8-13). Those who speak arrogantly of what they know are ignorant and self-deceived, often deceiving others as well (Romans 1:28-32; 2:17-23; Galatians 1:8; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 1:7; 2 Peter 2:17-19). Over-confidence is often an indication of ignorance, while humility is the outgrowth of knowledge.
Truth 4: Christians are not to boast in knowing, but to rejoice in being known by God, and this is the result of loving God (verse 3). When Jesus sent His disciples out to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God, they returned, rejoicing over the mighty works God had accomplished through them. Jesus gently corrected them saying, “… do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Here, Paul tells Christians that they should not rejoice in knowing, but in being known by God. Salvation surpasses any sheepskin (diploma) we will ever obtain.
2. Transforming Truth into Error (vs 4-6)
• It comes as no surprise to hear that false teaching leads to various kinds of evil. But it is also possible to pervert the truth (see Rom.6:1-2; Jude 1:4;Matt.4:1-11). Paul supplies us with the doctrine—true doctrine—which the “stronger” Corinthians twisted in order to justify eating meat offered to idols. The doctrine which all Christians “know” is that there is but one God. This is one of the foundation stones of the Christian faith. It is emphatically laid down in Deut.5:6-10; 6:4-9).
• There is but one God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He is the One from whom all things come, and for whom all things exist (1 Corinthians 8:6). While there is but one God, He exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here, Paul speaks only of Father and Son as the one true God, but it is clear that while he distinguishes Father and Son, he also considers them as One.
• If there is but one God (and all Christians know this to be true), then there are no other “gods.” Idols are symbols or representations of these “no-gods.” These “no-gods” exist only in the minds of their heathen worshippers, and not in reality. Thus, since there are no other gods than God, idols really have no meaning or significance—they represent nothing.
• If idols are nothing, then the foods offered to them are of no significance either. Meats offered to gods which don’t exist are thereby assumed to have no negative or profane contamination by their use in false worship. If this is so, as some of the Corinthians have reasoned, then meats offered to idols are certainly free of moral contamination, and thus can be eaten without moral qualms. Those who fail to think on this high level are obviously weaker Christians. And if these “weaker Christians” follow the example of their “stronger brethren,” then they are so much the better for having done so, even though their consciences are pricked by eating this meat.
• Jeremiah said it well: “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9). Through twisted logic and compounded inferences, some Corinthians have turned the truth of God into a lie. They have made orthodox doctrine the basis for their sin. In verses 7-13, Paul will show these “stronger” brethren that they have become puffed up with knowledge, but they have failed to show love for their brothers.
3. Lacking In Love (verse 7-12)
• If the “knowledge” of some Corinthians was defective, so was their love. Having dealt with their “knowledge” in verses 4-6, Paul moves on to show the deficiency of their love in verses 7-13.
• The Corinthians were using their (defective) knowledge to the detriment of one who appeared to be a weaker brother. Paul will show them that one who loved his brother would surrender any right which would be detrimental to the weaker brother.
• While some saints with superior knowledge seem to have the right to eat idol-meat, there are others who have not come to this same knowledge. How, then, does the one with “knowledge” respond to the one without it?
• Paul now makes a very important point in verse 8. Meat is really a matter of indifference. Contrary to the thinking of the “stronger brother,” eating such meat doesn’t make him more spiritual. Conversely, if one were not to eat such idol-meat, it would not in any way diminish his standing before God. It is a sort of “Heads, I win; tails, you lose” proposition. I don’t gain anything by eating idol-meat, nor do I lose anything by refusing it. “Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings; for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, through which those who were thus occupied were not benefited” (Hebrews 13:9).
• While neither eating meat nor abstaining from it changes my spiritual status, what I do with this meat can have a great impact on my brother. If something is a true liberty, I can partake of it in good conscience, just as I can abstain from it in good conscience, for I am not doing what I believe to be wrong. If I am more spiritual by eating idol-meat, then my weaker brother assumes he will be more spiritual for following my example. But since his conscience is not clear with respect to idol-meat, eating of it will be a sin for him. When I insist on exercising my liberty, in spite of the fact that others do not have this liberty, I am encouraging my “weaker brother” to sin.
• In verse 10, Paul employs a very well-known term, which is translated “strengthened” in the NASB (“emboldened,” KJV, NIV, Berkeley; “encouraging,” J. B. Phillips). The word is seldom used in this negative sense by Paul, but is most often positively used with the meaning “edified” or “built up.” Eating idol-meat is reverse edification. It builds up or strengthens others, encouraging them to sin. True love, Paul has just said in verse 1 “edifies” (the same root word). Eating idol meat so as to encourage a weaker brother to sin is not walking in love! It is, instead, putting a stumbling block in his path (verse 9).
• In verses 11 and 12, Paul shows that eating idol-meat is not only a sin against a brother, it is a sin against our Lord. Here is how Paul’s argument plays out in these verses. Christ died for sinners, to save them from their sin and to sanctify them. Christ’s work on the cross of Calvary was to set men free from their sin, and to present them holy and blameless to the Father. Christ’s work on the sinner’s behalf was for their edification, for their spiritual birth, growth, and maturity. When a thoughtless, self-serving saint insists on eating idol-meat, he knows that his “weaker brother” will be encouraged to follow his example. But in so doing, the weaker brother is not edified; he is caused to stumble.
• Insisting on my right to eat idol meat may cause a fellow saint to stumble, falling into sin, and in causing this, I find myself working at cross purposes with Christ. I am therefore not only sinning against my weaker brother, I am sinning against my Lord. This is a most serious offense indeed.
CONCLUSION (verse 13)
In verse 13, Paul sets down a principle which establishes the relationship of love to knowledge and Christian liberties. No liberty should ever be exercised when it acts contrary to love. No liberty of mine should be a spiritual detriment or hindrance to my brother in Christ. If I love my brother, I will gladly forego any liberty which will cause my brother to stumble. If eating meat (any meat, or any act at all) would cause a weaker brother to stumble, then I should gladly be willing never to eat meat again. No right should be exercised which is contrary to love, and love always seeks to edify.