RPM, Volume 13, Number 35, August 28 to September 3, 2011

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Part One

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, taking the first of what will be two looks at chapter 8, verses 1-13. These verses are part of a much larger section of the letter that extends from verse 1 of this chapter, all the way through to the 1st verse of chapter 11. However, even though this is a fairly substantial portion of the letter, you need to know that, while it does talk about a number of things, it is still really only aimed at sorting out one particular issue.

What is that issue? It would seem that the Corinthians have asked about the whole matter of how they, as Christians, should think about things like pagan temples, and even more specifically, the sacrificed meat that was associated with the worship that went on in those temples. That was the specific situation that gave rise to Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 8:1 and following.

Now, of course, the implications that flow from Paul's treatment of this issue certainly go far beyond the situation itself. However, all too often Christians have, I believe, rushed to the implications that they see as flowing from this passage before they have really taken the time to understand the passage itself properly. And that is significant because when you DO take the time to try and understand this passage properly, you discover that perhaps it ought not be applied in quite the way in which it has typically been applied.

And one of the reasons why people get tripped up so much with this passage is because they will try and understand it in isolation from other texts which have a direct bearing upon it - such as Acts 15:29, and 1 Cor 10:14-30, and Romans 14. Accordingly, my hope is to find an understanding of 1 Cor 8:1-13 that is consistent with, and that illuminates the meaning of, these other passages. I can't guarantee that we're going to do that, but that's the goal.

So, that sets the agenda for us this morning, and as well for next Sunday: taking the time to understand this passage in both its Corinthian and wider biblical context, so that we are in a better position to know what possible significance it might have for the church in our own day. By doing this we will, hopefully, avoid abusing and applying this passage in ways which do not accord with the purpose for which it was given. With that as an introduction then, let's pray together....

Part of making sense of these verses involves remembering the nature of the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian congregation. In short, it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, this is a church that was started by Paul and so, has some natural loyalty to him. At the same time, it is a church into which some false teachers have come and which, as a result, has begun to drift away from their founding pastor a little bit.

Further, from the tone that Paul takes with them here, it would seem likely that the issue being addressed in this text is one about which Paul has already spoken once before. And whereas they might have been more willing to listen to Paul earlier, now there seems to be some growing reluctance to do so and, along with that, a growing tendency to think independently of Paul.

Some of you may remember how as we looked at some of the earlier chapters in this letter we discovered that one of the big problems in Corinth was this crazy idea that they had fully "arrived" spiritually - that the fullness of what God was doing in them was theirs right now. As such they were behaving, at times, as if they were a law unto themselves and some evidently regarded themselves as more spiritually mature than Paul himself.

Well, that very same mentality, which appeared earlier in this letter, makes another appearance here. With this current issue some of the Corinthians, because they feel they have arrived and do know better than Paul, they now think they are free to reject Paul's teaching on this question of temples and meat sacrificed to idols. The Corinthians feel that they have "knowledge" as well as Paul and feel that this alone is all they need to validate their decisions and actions. Now Paul is going to challenge them on this in the opening verses of chapter 8, but for now I simply want you to keep in mind this fundamental and ongoing conflict between the Corinthian church and their founding apostle.

Another reality that you have to keep in mind is what things were like in the Corinth of that day. As we have already seen, this was a city that had plenty of religions to choose from and plenty of temples, virtually on every street corner. And typically, when one went into one of these temples, there would have been any number of ceremonies where sacrificial meat was provided by one of the temple's "worshipers", and then was sacrificed by one of the temple priests who would keep a portion of the meat for themselves but made the other portions available for other uses. Sometimes this meat was then used as part of a festival or feast and sometimes some of the meat was sold to people who came along to "have dinner" at the temple - very much like people do today in restaurants. And then sometimes the unused portions of the meat were sold in the marketplace. In addition to all that, in some ceremonies were dances and dancers that were obscene and suggestive, as well as other sexual activity, depending on the nature of the particular temple.

At any rate, the Corinthian people would have grown up in this sort of environment and would have, by the time they were adults, attended dozens and dozens of feasts, festivals, and ritual sacrifices in the various temples in the city. It was the thing to do. It was what everyone did. It would have been considered odd and unsociable NOT to take part in these things. So, if you looked on a "typical" well-to-do family calendar back in those days it might look something like this:

Tuesday: Go to Temple of Aphrodite with Bob and Jane and family for sacrifice and dinner afterward. Friday: Big festival at Shrine of Neptune - everyone will be there... Stop by Apollo's temple-market - two for one sale on lamb chops.
Obviously, I'm exercising a bit of license here - but you get the idea. Temple and sacrifice and participation in pagan rituals was just a part of life. And it would have been normal, ordinary practice for the Corinthian people up until the time of Paul's arrival, and their subsequent conversion. To be sure, it was more frequently a part of life for some than others, but it was never very far away from any of them.

But the activity in the temple was not just a part of the family/social fabric. In varying degrees, it was also part of the business and commercial fabric of society. In short, taking part in the various things on offer in the different temples would have been one of the primary means of "networking", if you were a business person. Just as in our own day where being in the "right place" at the "right time" and mixing with "certain people" can affect your business, being at the various temple events was a way to meet potential clients and nurture relationships that might become business opportunities down the road, at least for some.

All of which brings up another important bit of background information which informs our reading of this letter in general, and this passage in particular: the very real presence of socio-economic "class" distinctions in Corinthian society. It is evident from things that Paul says in other places, such as 1 Corinthians 1:26, that the majority of people in the Corinthian congregation were not among the powerful and well-to-do of that culture.

Nevertheless, it is also clear from what he says in other places - such as the passage before us now - that there was a certain component of the Corinthian congregation that was pretty well off. We know this because meat was much more expensive and a lot harder to come by in that day and age. So much so that the average wage-earner did not have it as a normal part of his/her diet but would only have it on infrequent occasions, usually in conjunction with some temple feast or festival. But for the rest of the time, it was back to the vegetables.

As a result, those who would be in the position of attending temples and purchasing meat or acquiring it from the local marketplace on a regular basis were generally people of some means. The fact that Paul takes the time to address this at some length in his letter must mean that there were enough people in the Corinthian congregation like this, for it to be a legitimate, community-affecting, sort of concern. Thus, behind the issues of temples and idolatry and all of that was also this underlying issue of the disparity between the haves and the have-nots that was present in the congregation. That reality always adds certain dynamics to the way that people relate within a church. It was true in Paul's day, and it's still true in ours.

And so, for Paul to address this issue of temples and rituals and meat used in pagan sacrifices, etc. was a big deal. All of the sudden this thing that for many people was as normal as breathing became a huge question mark. As such, it was something that could affect the Corinthian congregation in all sorts of ways - socially, inter-personally, and even professionally. And even though we have no direct parallels to this in our own situation, for them it was a very important matter.

With all of that in mind then, let's take the time that remains to think about the opening few verses of chapter 8, in the hopes of preparing the way for considering some of the more complicated aspects of this passage next week.

(Read 1 Corinthian 8:1-3)

In order to properly understand these verses, and indeed the whole of chapter 8, you have to keep in mind something that Paul is going to say a little further on, in chapter 10, verses 19- 22, where he writes:

What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Now, we'll go into what that passage means in greater detail when we come to it, but for now, all you need to know is this: Those verses in chapter 10 are talking about the same situation that Paul describes in chapter 8, verse 10. He is talking about believers taking part in a meal, drinking and eating meat sacrificed to idols, inside the very temples in which the sacrifice was made. Eating idol meat, right before the idol itself.

Paul says very clearly, in chapter 10, that to do this sort of thing is to be a "participant with demons". In other words, there are definite spiritual/theological reasons why this sort of activity was out of bounds for true believers. That's in chapter 10.

However, as we work through chapter 8, you will see that these things which Paul talks about in chapter 10 don't even get a mention in chapter 8. While Paul could have used the argument of chapter 10 in chapter 8, and thereby settled the matter straight away, he chooses not to do so. Why is that?

Because by handling it in that way, he would have missed an opportunity to address another issue - a more pastoral, interpersonal issue. An issue not related to knowledge but, instead, an issue related to love. As much as Paul is concerned about their contact with demons, he is equally concerned about a disturbing attitude and perspective that the Corinthians were exhibiting - one that he saw as being at least as damaging as their potential contact with demonic things. So, he takes the approach that he does, and uses this occasion to call them out on some underlying issues.

First, he calls them out on their exaltation of "knowledge". In verse 1, Paul says, "we know that all of us possess knowledge". Now, if you have an ESV translation then those words "all of us possess knowledge" will appear in quotation marks. However, if you have an NIV translation, they will not, although in the text notes of the NIV, they offer the quotation marks as a possibility.

The reason for the difference between the two translations is because in the ancient Greek there was no explicit provision for quotation marks. As a result, you determined whether something was a quotation by its context and content. Accordingly, the ESV team of translators felt that in 1 Corinthian 8:1 Paul was quoting something the Corinthians said in their letter to him while the NIV team was not as sure about it and so only included the possibility as a text note.

At any rate, the majority of scholars do feel that Paul is quoting back to the Corinthians something that they have said - a position they have taken in one of their letters to Paul - which he then proceeds to tear down in the next couple verses.

Apparently, the Corinthians felt that they understood what was going on with regard to the idols and temples - which we'll look at in greater detail next week. But the point is, they felt that their knowledge and understanding, their grasp of the "facts", as they saw them, was all they needed and entitled them to take the actions they had taken and to hold the positions they were holding. In short, for them knowledge was everything.

Over against this, Paul says that "this" sort of knowledge does not build up - it is not constructive knowledge, or at least it is not a constructive USE of knowledge. In fact, as he will show later on in verse 11, it is quite the opposite, it is destructive. The only thing that the Corinthian approach and use of knowledge "built up" was the Corinthians themselves - "puffing them up" with pride and inflating further their already enormous egos.

To be sure, the content of their knowledge, in this instance, was not the real issue. Paul will show in verses 4-6 that he actually agrees with what they are saying, in terms of its content. He has no arguments with that. But Paul has two problems with their exaltation of knowledge.

For one thing, as much as they would like to believe otherwise, the truth is, their knowledge was incomplete. "If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know", says Paul. The sure sign that a person doesn't know very much, is the fact that they think they do. Or, stated conversely, knowing that you don't know very much, is one of the most valuable and worthwhile things a person can know. The Corinthians' confidence in their own knowledge, and their willingness to reject Paul's teaching on the basis of it, were very telling.

However, the worst thing about their knowledge was that it was bare knowledge, mere knowledge, mere information, facts, details, and observations. It was not knowledge that was tempered by love, or being applied in a loving fashion. Such knowledge is not worth very much, according to Paul. And you can see in this, can't you, the anticipation of what Paul will develop more fully later on when he says, in chapter 13, that if a person has all knowledge...but has no love, then that person is nothing and has nothing.

As Gordon Fee points out, the Corinthians' problem is their attitude and perspective. They think that ethics and conduct are decided, simply and purely, on the basis of knowledge and information and that this in itself gives you all you need to know in order to act on any particular matter.

So, in this instance, the Corinthians are looking at the fact that idols are not really representing a real God and, on that basis, dismissed as irrelevant the issue of eating meat offered to idols inside an idol temple. "Idols are nothing" they would say, and therefore, there could be no problem with eating meat in an idol temple. Paul's response to this, as we've seen, is to say, as we've already seen, that 1) they don't know as much as they think they do and 2) knowledge is not the ultimate basis of Christian ethics and conduct. On the contrary, love is the ground of Christian ethics - or perhaps more precisely, knowledge expressing itself through love is the proper ground of Christian ethics - not bare knowledge on its own or un-informed love on its own.

So, you see, it is not enough for the Corinthians to ask themselves, "What are the facts, and what rights does this information secure for me or what does this allow me to do?" That is not enough. Paul is saying that they also have to ask whether their acting on what they know will have a constructive or destructive effect on other believers. If the net effect is destructive, then all the knowledge in the world does not give you the right or freedom to act in such a manner.

And it is interesting to see how Paul responds to this Corinthian exaltation of knowledge. As a follow up to vs2, which reads,

>If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know...

As a follow up to that, as Plummer points out, we expect Paul to say, either:

...if someone knows God, then God knows him... Or
...if someone loves God, then God loves him...
Or something like that. But what Paul says is, "...But if anyone LOVES God, he is KNOWN by God..." In other words, what Paul does is combine the two ideas of loving and knowing - on purpose. He does this because he wants to show that, in contrast to the Corinthian approach to knowledge, the only knowledge that is ultimately worth anything, and which shows itself in love, is the kind of knowledge that comes from first being known by God. As God takes the initiative in our hearts, this results in our hearts being transformed such that we do truly love God and value Him above all things. Love and knowledge work together and ought not be regarded separately.

And, of course, knowledge and truth in this scheme of things is and always will be important, but it is a relationally driven knowledge and a community applied knowledge. It is knowledge in search of loving expression, in grateful response to the love of God shining within our own hearts.

Well, that's really the essence of what is going on in these opening verses. There is a great deal more in this chapter to be highlighted, which I hope we can do next week. However, even these first few verses carry enormous implications for us with regard to the relationship between knowledge and love, don't they? And, while there isn't time to elaborate on it a great deal, let me offer a couple closing comments to help you think about this further:

1) As those who find ourselves in a denomination that has a strong teaching tradition - which is all fine and good - we especially need to pay attention to Paul's words to the Corinthians. As important as truth and knowledge is - and these things are deeply significant - but at the end of the day, they are meaningless if you don't actually love people, and if they do not lead you to loving action.

2) As it was true for the Corinthians, so it is still true for you and me today. And we'll see this more next week, but it is not enough for you to ask, "What does the Bible say about this issue?" and then feel that because you have considered the biblical data on a subject, you have now done all the considering you need to do in order to know how you ought to respond in a given situation.

But what I'm saying to you is - that's not enough. Because if you read the Bible carefully - including passages like this one - you will see that you must not only ask what you can know about a certain issue, but you must also ask what would love do in response to this issue? What would a loving application of this knowledge look like? Is my response in this situation going to build up, is it seeking the good of the body, or is it going to simply stroke my ego, and protect my rights and promote my own interests? As one commentator named Hays writes, "Every congregation will profit from looking at themselves in the mirror of 1 Cor 8 and asking whether there are ways in which they are using knowledge as a weapon rather than as an instrument of love."

3) Let me put that more concretely for you. You may feel that you have a great grasp of covenant theology and reformed theological doctrine. But if your supposed grasp of these things does not produce a loving response in you, and compassion and concern and deference toward those who don't know what you know - then the knowledge you claim to have is, at best, inadequate, and at worst, worthless.

4) And notice in all this, how the Gospel is central. Paul's emphasis here on being known by God is a crucial point of application. Because being satisfied with and in God are the keys to addressing the matters that arise in day to day life - matters which often reveal our essential idolatries. We get frustrated and angry over things that happen - or don't - because behind those events is often some idol - control, power, image, money - that we are bowing down to. But the person who places a premium on knowing and being known by God is freer from the idolatries and enslavements that complicate our day-to-day affairs. The person who places a premium on knowing and being known by God is less inclined to insist on rights and personal prerogative. That person is therefore freer to let go of non-essentials because the most essential thing is already his. In other words, that person is not in bondage to his own freedom, which is the most insidious bondage of all. Let me leave you with a quote by Gordon Fee, who has written one of the best commentaries on 1 Corinthians that is available today:

The tyranny of "knowledge" as the basis of Christian ethics has a long and unfortunate history in the church.....Once one's theology is properly in hand, it is especially tempting to use it as a club on others. And in this case, it happens on the theological right as well as from the left. This does not mean that knowledge is either irrelevant or unimportant, but it does mean that it cannot serve as the primary basis of Christian behavior. In Christian ethics "knowledge" must always lead to love. One should always beware of those teachers or systems that entice one by special "revelation" or "deeper insights". Such appeals are invariably to one's pride, not to one's becoming a more truly loving Christian....In the Christian faith "knowledge" or "insight" is never an end in itself; it is only a means to a greater end, the building up of others.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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