Study Notes for I Corinthians 8:1-13 (click here for Study Sheet)
As in any church, the Corinthians were at different stages of Christian maturity. They had all come out of paganism. The belief in one God was relatively new to all of them, but some of them had integrated their new understanding of truth more completely than had others.
Paul boldly declares that idols are nothing. "There is no God but one," he says. Yet he acknowledges that many Corinthians still react to idols because of their years of habit and worship. He cautions those who know the powerlessness of idols not to confuse or offend the weak consciences of those who still have a visceral need to avoid anything including food which might be connected to paganism.
Even though knowledge and understanding are essential when a person is leaving a false religion, Paul cautions the Corinthians against intellectual pride. "Knowledge," he says, "puffs up." Paul, a highly educated intellectual and a former Pharisee, knew how seductive knowledge and intellectual exercises could be. He knew from experience how arrogant people often become when they can convince and overwhelm others with their superior knowledge.
"The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know," Paul tells them. Knowledge by itself is incomplete. In fact, it is deceptive.
On the surface, knowledge appears to be the main key to a better life. Education, people say, is the secret to preventing drug abuse, STDs, crime, delinquency-in short, it's the solution to almost all social problems.
In reality, education alone does not solve these problems. Often it creates more sophisticated offenders. Knowledge by itself creates the illusion of enlightenment while binding people to pride and arrogance.
Love God, Be Known by God
"Knowledge," Paul has said, "puffs up, but love builds up." Both "puffing" and "building" suggest enlarging. "Puffing", on the one hand, connotes expanding with air. Something puffed up is big but insubstantial and fragile. "Building", on the other hand, suggests strength and solidity. Something built with strong materials has staying power.
People often think of knowledge as strong, solid, and fundamental; love, they often think, is soft, sentimental, and easily crushed. Paul turns this characterization on its head.
Love, Paul tells us, is the antidote to the puffy arrogance of pure knowledge. But there's a surprise twist in his declaration. "The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know," he says; "But the man who loves God is known by God."
Paul does not say that loving God will complete our knowledge. He says, rather, that if we love God, then God will know us! It is God's knowledge, not ours, that is powerful.
When we love God, we become open to him. Our love for God is a response to His love which draws us out of our pride and self-centeredness. As we allow God to break down the hard edges of our arrogance and shame, the secrets and wounds of our past become open to him, and he can heal them. As we open our minds and hearts to God, his love can embrace us more intimately. As we trust him and let our hearts love him, he can love us from the inside, not just from the outside.
The irony is that as we love God and allow him to know us, his love and intimacy gives back to us those places inside our hearts and memories that had split off from us. We become integrated. We no longer have to keep certain parts of our memories and emotions hidden. God's knowledge of us makes us whole.
As we love God, his Spirit in us awakens our spirits. We begin to discern spiritual truth, and gradually God's truth transforms and redeems our knowledge. Our knowledge will no longer be a source of pride and arrogance to us. Instead, it will become a framework on which to apply the spiritual insights God gives us.
Paul turns to a discussion of idols as opposed to God. "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earthyet for us there is but one God, the Father, from who all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live."
Idols have no power in themselves. Even considering the fact that pagans worship many gods represented by their idols, those gods are not God. They may be demons, but they are nothing next to God. We have one God.
Paul distinguishes between God the Father and Jesus Christ by saying all things came from God and we live for him, while all things came through Jesus and we live through him. All things, even Jesus' death and resurrection, came from God the Father. He planned and gave us our salvation.
On the other hand, all things came through Jesus. Salvation came through Jesus who actually died and rose again. Even creation, the first recorded event in the Bible, came through Jesus.
"Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men." (John 1:3)
While creation and life itself came from God the Father, they came through Jesus, even then. In the beginning humanity received life through Jesus. As the original source of life for humanity, it was Jesus Christ who had to come to earth to restore life to us. "In him was life, and that life was the light of men."
When we are reborn, Jesus bestows on us the original life in the image of God which he gave to Adam and Eve. He literally re-creates us and brings us from death to life. As living souls, bestowed with life by the breath of God as Adam was, we live through Jesus by the power of His Spirit in us. And we live for God, just as Jesus did.
When we realize that we have one God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-which gives us everything and sustains all life, we recognize every other power that claims deity to be an imposter.
Protect the Weak
But, Paul says, "Not everyone knows this." Many new Christians who have spent years worshiping idols and reverencing demonic powers as gods have skewed consciences. Even though they know they have but one God, they still have subconscious, visceral fears and responses to idols. Such people have to completely avoid places, ceremonies, and foods which remind them of pagan worship. Even though their knowledge may inform them that the old ceremonies were a deception, these people's emotions and thoughts have ingrained habits that cause them to respond to the old ceremonies and become re-entangled in them.
Paul is blunt when he says, "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ."
Many mature Christians, Paul is saying, can eat in an idol's temple and realize that the idol is nothing. But it would be a sin against a weaker brother to exercise one's spiritual freedom in front of the weaker brother and, by example, cause him to violate his own conscience. Christ died for the weak brother as well as for the mature brother, Paul says. When we sin against one of the weak by not respecting his conscience, we sin against Christ himself.
We all come to the Lord from different routes. We must be sensitive to each other's previous habits and practices, because for many of us those practices are things from which we must make a clean break. Even though others may be able to set Saturday aside as a day of worship, for example, we may not be able to do likewise with a clear conscience. Many times new Christ-followers must completely turn their backs on their old traditions in order to break the deeply ingrained habits and superstitions which drove their previous worship practices.
Paul concludes this section of his letter by saying, "Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall."
In this conclusion Paul fully illustrates his opening premise: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." He knows that the old pagan practices have no power and the old gods have no authority. He will not, however, act on the basis of his "superior" knowledge. Because of his love for Christ who died both for him and for the weaker brother, he will act on the basis of that love instead of on the authority of his knowledge.
Paul's knowledge is absolutely correct. But on its own, his knowledge would make him arrogant. It would cause him to put his understanding ahead of his brother's doubts, and his knowledge would lead him to sin against his brother's conscience and against Christ.
His love for God, however, will transform his knowledge. Against the backdrop of his knowledge, Paul will act in love. He will choose to avoid the things to which his brother is sensitive. His avoidance will not be coming from a place of spiritual immaturity as his brother's avoidance is. Instead, his avoidance will be emanating from an intellectual understanding of truth tempered by the truth of God's love.
Called To Truth
We are called to love God, to let him become intimate with us. We are called to extend that love for Christ to our brothers. We are to respect their weaknesses and not confuse them.
As Christ-followers we are called to lay all our old, misguided beliefs and practices before Jesus. We are to be willing to let him take our old traditions and suppositions and remake our understanding of him. We are to be willing to lay ourselves before him and let him reveal himself to us as he is, not as we expect him to be.
We are to love Christ with such commitment that we allow him to know our most deeply hidden secrets and wounds. We are to welcome him into our memories and hearts, and we are to embrace the healing and transformation that he brings us.
We are called to accept the breath of God and receive a living soul. We are called to live with knowledge tempered by God's love.
We are called to walk in truth.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised April 28, 2000.