RPM, Volume 13, Number 36, September 4 to September 10, 2011

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Part Two
A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We return this morning to Paul's 1st Letter to the Corinthians, picking up with the second of a 2-part study of chapter 8. Last week we looked at a good bit of background information which helped us to make better sense of this portion of the letter, and then we concluded our time by having a brief look at the first 3 verses of the chapter.

In those 3 verses we saw how some within the Corinthian Church felt that they had superior knowledge and that this alone was a sufficient basis for guiding their behavior. Paul, on the other hand, took a different view. He challenged their perspective and approach, firstly by reminding them that people who think they are in the know only show how little they actually do know. And, secondly, Paul discounted any sort of application of knowledge that didn't consider other people, or that didn't actually build up anyone or anything other than the ego of the one who possessed it. In short, Paul's view was that the only knowledge that counts is the kind that demonstrates itself in love for God and a corresponding love and concern for others.

Now, the rest of chapter 8 is going to expand on those themes a little more and that will be the focus of our energies this morning. And, as we turn to these things we need to keep in mind the various contexts that help us to understand what we are reading:

1) The first context to remember is that the larger section in which the verses before us belongs - 8:1-11:1 - is itself part of an even larger section which starts at 7:1 and goes to the end of Corinthians - a section which seems to be entirely devoted to Paul's answering particular questions communicated to him by means of a letter which the congregation has sent.

2) The next context to remember is that this second half of the Corinthian letter is proceeded by six chapters which record Paul's response to reports he had heard of goings on within the congregation. And so, the overall structure of the letter is six chapters of responding to things he has heard about with the remaining chapters dealing with things they have directly asked him.

3) The most immediate context is that of chapter 8 itself, appearing as part of a larger section running from 8:1 through to 11:1. This section, on the whole, seems to be devoted to answering at least 2 questions, according to C.K. Barrett:

A) Could Christians enter into a pagan temple and eat food that had been sacrificed to the "god" of that temple?

B) Could Christians buy the sacrificed meat at some marketplace and eat the same meat at someone's home outside the temple?

Those are the various contexts that we need to keep in mind this morning. Let's pray and then we will read the passage together:
Gracious Father, you are the author of these words, written by your apostle, and first delivered to a congregation which existed almost 2000 years ago, and which has long since faded away into history. And yet, as we read these letters, they still seem so contemporary, so relevant. And so it is that we experience the timelessness of your truths yet again and we come to know the power and authority of your word in new ways. Father, as we interact with these texts, use them to reveal the very "Corinthian" nature of our own hearts. Please help us to see how much we are like them and therefore how greatly we need to be humbled and take to heart what our brother Paul has written. And we ask this for Christ's sake, Amen.
(Read passage) Now, during our time this morning, and in the course of expounding these verses, we are going to try and deal with 4 questions:
1) What IS this "knowledge" that Paul refers to here and which seems to only be encouraging the pride of some of the Corinthian congregation?

2) How are the Corinthians USING this knowledge that they are so proud of? What are they doing with it?

3) What is WRONG with the way the Corinthians are responding in this situation?

4) How can Paul's rebuke and instruction to this obscure, 1st century congregation properly be a guide for the church in our own day?

First, what IS this knowledge that the Corinthians are claiming and which Paul refers to in the chapter? What's he talking about? Well, as we saw last week, one of the things that Paul seems to be doing throughout this letter, and especially in the second half of Corinthians where he is responding to their questions - is to take phrases that they have written - to quote them, in other words - and respond to the substance of what they are saying in that manner.

Now, of course, this is a very natural thing to do, isn't it? You and I have all done these kinds of things many times I'm sure - either in conversation or in our own letter writing. It's quite natural when you are discussing or debating a topic with someone to make reference to what the other person is saying or has said. And this is what Paul seems to be doing here and in other places.

Of course, as we saw last week, determining when this is happening in the Greek language is sometimes a little tricky because there are no explicit provisions for quotation marks. You simply have to work it out by looking at the content and the context.

However, most scholars (at least most of the ones which I have interacted with in these studies - about 14) agree that, at the very least, in vs4 Paul is using some of the Corinthians' ideas if not their very words in responding to them.

Thus the quotation marks in the ESV translation around the phrase "an idol has no real existence" and "there is no God but one".

So, the "knowledge" that the Corinthians have, and which has been the basis of their actions is, again, that idols are not real and that there is only one real God. They are convinced of these truths and have acted accordingly. And, as far as that goes, Paul agrees with them, at least as far as the content of what they believe. "WE know" these things, says Paul, and then he quotes them. He agrees with them. And we can find evidence of that in things he says in other letters as well.

Yet, even as he is agreeing with them, Paul qualifies his remarks a little bit. He nuances his words to a certain degree, and in a way the the Corinthians almost certainly were not. Notice that he doesn't just echo the Corinthians' convictions about idols. He doesn't just say that the pagan idols do not exist. Rather, he refers to the pagan idols as "so-called" gods, even allowing that there are many such "gods" that aren't really gods. Now why does Paul speak in this manner? What's he doing?

Well, he speaks this way, for one thing, because even though he agrees with the Corinthians that there are no other truly divine "gods" out there competing with the one, true God (i.e., God has no rivals) nevertheless there are people who look to these idols and call them "god" and "lord". There are people who consider them real and consider them divine, even though they're not. This will become one of the main components of his argument in vs7-13 in a moment. And the pastoral reason that Paul is speaking this way is because, when you are dealing with people, you can't just deal with facts but you must always deal, at least to a certain degree, with perceptions. Paul gets this. The Corinthians, on the other hand, don't seem to understand this at all.

A further reason for his saying what he does in vs4-6 is because he is going to come back later on, in chapter 10, and point out that while the Corinthians may be factually correct in asserting that idols are not really "gods", they are NOT correct in concluding, therefore, that there is nothing to be feared in going to idol temples, that there is no danger there for Christians. And the reason this is so is because while the idol may not be real - in other words, there is no "god" named "Apollos" that actually exists - even though the idol is not real, the demons that use idol worship to enslave, corrupt, and destroy people are very real. This too is something that the Corinthians either do not understand, or have not considered.

This reality recalls the truth that we saw last week in vs2: that people who think they know everything about anything are just deluding themselves. Paul shows in chapter 10 an aspect of the problem that, apparently, had not occurred to the Corinthians - no matter how much they thought they knew.

So, again, the knowledge that the Corinthians had was that idols are not real and that God is one, which was true, as far as it went. But that was just the problem. Their knowledge was true, but it did not go far enough.

The next major question, then, is "How are the Corinthians using this knowledge they are so proud of? What are they doing with it? And the answer to that question is found in verses 7-12 and specifically by looking at vs10, and then comparing that to what Paul writes just a little bit further on in chapter 10, verses 25-27.

First, look at chapter 8. In vs10, of chapter 8, Paul describes the precise situation that was proving to be such a problem for a number of the people in the Corinthian church. "For if anyone sees you who have knowledge...." and in using that word "knowledge" here Paul is simply referring to them in the way that they refer to themselves - as knowledgeable ones: "....if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?.."

Now, THAT is the situation here: eating food offered to idols IN an idol temple. That is the matter being dealt with here, not eating meat sacrificed to idols and then sold in a market place. That is another matter and Paul is going to come to that issue soon enough. But here, the specific issue is eating idol meat in an idol temple.

The confirmation of this is found in chapter 10, verses 25-27 where, if you read carefully, you see that it clearly teaches that as long as there is no danger of harming the conscience of another believer, one may both buy and eat meat that has been offered to idols, and then sold in the marketplace. However, if a believer were to eat that same meat in an idol temple, then Paul has two problems with that behavior. One problem he makes clear in 10:19-21 - which we'll look at more closely in a few weeks. The other problem he has with it is addressed in the verses before us this morning.

So, this is what the Corinthians, at least the wealthier ones who could afford such things, were doing. This is how they were using their knowledge that "idols are nothing". They were freely, openly, going along and participating in the meals on offer in the various temples scattered around the city. And the question, then, which we've already begun to explore, is: "What's wrong with this? What's wrong the way they are applying their knowledge in this situation? " In response to which, Paul says a number of things.

One thing that was wrong with their application of their knowledge was that it was incomplete, as we've already seen. They didn't know as much as they thought and, in particular they either did not know, or they did not care, that there was actually a demonic presence and influence that was associated with the work of the various pagan temples. And so they were unwittingly exposing themselves to these things every time they went along.

That is one problem but, as we saw last week, Paul, remarkably, does not start with that fact. Instead he takes another approach to argue his point, to get them to the same conclusions.

Paul's argument in chapter 8 is that for them to do these things was reckless and un-loving . It was selfish for them to continue to engage in this particular activity that would damage the weaker Christians around them. 1 And precisely because there were so many of these "weaker" believers in Corinth, NOT leading them in harm's way was more important than any real or potential enjoyment that the Corinthians might experience at the temple meals. It was more important than the fellowship that these so-called "knowledgeable" Corinthians might miss out on. It was more important than the potential business contacts and networking they would lose. Paul wanted them to see that their freedom and their rights were not more important than the well-being of their brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Now, one might legitimately wonder, "How precisely is the behavior of these temple- eating Christians putting the weaker Christians in Corinth at risk? How exactly does that work out? And the answer to that lies in recalling, again, that the Corinthians were wrong in their assessment of peoples' understanding. As Paul points out in vs7, not everyone "knows" what these wealthy Corinthians are assuming that everyone knows about idols. Not everyone was in the same place on this thing. There were a number of people in the Corinthian congregation whose hearts had apparently not caught up to their heads. These people might theoretically understand that idols are not real, but since for many of them the worship of idols was fairly recent, they did not yet grasp this knowledge at an experiential level. Some of them hadn't quite finished making the shift from poly-theism to mono-theism. This is clearly what Paul is saying in vs7.

You can tell a 4 year old child that there is no such thing as the "boogie man" but if at any point in their life they have believed in the existence of such a thing, then no amount of rational explanation, no amount of turning on the lights and walking around in the closet to look behind every dress and shirt and pair of pants, none of these things will be enough to dispel the sneaking suspicion that somehow, when the lights are off and the parents leave the room, the thing that isn't real and couldn't be there suddenly appears, or at least might appear. The child has not yet come to know, on an experiential level, what his head - and what is parents - have told him is true.

So, returning to Corinth, we see that there were any number of Corinthians who only recently were idol worshipers and who, as a result, had not yet left all those things behind. It was still too fresh, too real for them. For these people who were still learning to disbelieve what they had formerly believed, the act of going into an idol temple would be an uncomfortable thing. It was something they were still troubled by and still quite unsure of and for the "knowledgeable" Corinthians to disregard these things and treat them as "nothing" was quite insensitive. Their temple attendance was an open, public act that encouraged their "weaker" brethren to go against their consciences.

That was the problem. And it is important to be clear about what the problem was, because if you are NOT then you will be led into all sorts of conclusions and applications that may seem to be analogous, but which actually aren't. But the problem, once again, was that these Corinthian Christians who still thought there was something real about these idols, were being encouraged to ignore their conscience on these things, and just go along with the others - perhaps because "everyone" was doing it, perhaps because they felt pressured - who knows?

The one thing we can say for sure is that they weren't doing it in faith, and with a good, clear, and un-troubled conscience. And that's a huge problem, isn't it? Is this not what any sinful behavior consists of: Having your conscience tell you one thing - and yet you ignore it and do as you please? That is not a good pattern of behavior for one believer to encourage in another. Indeed, it is a dangerous pattern, it is an unhealthy and un-wise precedent to set. And the "knowledgeable" Corinthians, by their encouraging some believers to ignore their scruples about temples and idols, are actually setting up their "weaker" brothers and sisters to ignore their conscience in other ways, and in other areas. Indeed, why stop with this issue? And in doing this, these "knowledgeable" Corinthians are not only sinning against their brothers and sisters, as Paul points out in verse 12, they are sinning against Christ, who died for them.

That was the issue here. That and NOT something else. This is not talking about a person being "put out" by another Christian's exercise of freedom on some issue, right? It does not have in view a situation where, say, a member of the Corinthian congregation came home one night and said to his wife, "You know, I saw Bob and Jane on the way home from the market place just now I saw them coming out of the Apollo temple and, apparently, they must have just finished up having dinner there. Can you believe it? It just really bothers me to see them there. I just don't think it's right. I mean, I know idols are nothing. I just think it's a terrible witness. I mean, I certainly would do that sort of thing. In fact, I think I'm going to see if I can't get in touch with the pastor to see if we can't come up with some kind of policy that rules this sort of thing out."

Now, I wouldn't be surprised if that sort of thing did happen in Corinth. But that is not the sort of thing this passage is talking about. As Gordon Fee says, "...the issue is not [merely] offending someone - it has to do with conduct that another person would emulate.." and, by so doing, they would ignore conscience. As Martin Luther said, "To go against conscience is neither right, nor safe."

Which leads us to the last of our four major questions, "How do these things apply to the church today?" And the answer, simply put, is that they apply in all of those situations where some Christians are encouraging other Christians, either by example or by invitation, or both, to take actions that violate their conscience, that go against their convictions on some issue - any place where Christians are urged to imitate behavior that they feel wrong about.

By the same token, it does NOT apply to those situations where it is merely dealing with personal preferences and there is really no danger of one believer being tempted to go against his/her conscience - or anything of the sort. It's simply a matter of someone having a different choice or preference on some matter. And, if the truth were known, this person would love to see their preference enforced in some sort of mandatory way upon the rest of the congregation.

Now this sort of situation is what other passages, like Romans 14, address more directly and more helpfully. To be sure, Paul talks in Romans 14 about the attitude of the "strong" or "knowledgeable" there as well. But he also talks about the "weaker" brother - the one who is more sensitive on some of these things.

In Romans 14 Paul has some words for the "weaker" Christians, to show them what sort of attitude and practices they ought to have toward their brethren - namely, a non-judgmental attitude and a reluctance to try and bind the conscience of another believer on matters about which the Scriptures are indifferent.

So, when you take a big step back to see the broader treatment of these things across the wider spectrum of the New Testament, what you see is that, within the local congregation both parties - whatever side of the issue they are on — have a responsibility in these sorts of matters.

The "stronger" believer - the one who feels more freedom in a matter - has a responsibility to not cause or tempt another believer to go against their conscience and engage in something which they believe to be sin. This is true whether the issue is alcohol, or dancing or music or how a person dresses, etc.

On the other hand, the "weaker" believer has the responsibility to make sure that he/she is not elevating a personal choice or preference on some issue to the level of a moral standard that is binding upon all, especially when the Scriptures themselves do not regard the matter in this way. As Fee says,

What would seem to be...illegitimate...is for those who feel "offended" [over some issue] to try to force all others to conform to their own idiosyncrasies of behavior. Paul makes it quite clear in Romans 14 that on matters of indifference people within any given community should learn to live in harmony with no group demanding their own behavior of others.
So, the ideal is that, within the local congregation, you will have both of these processes going on at once. Both the stronger and weaker believer, the scrupulous and less scrupulous believers — they should both be concerned to apply their knowledge in a loving fashion. They are both seeking the goal of building up, and not tearing down the Body of Christ. When you can get that sort of thing going on, you're in a win/win situation.

The problem is that this is rarely the case. Most of the time, we are far too busy claiming and protecting our rights to be concerned about the effect upon others. All too often we are more concerned to fashion people in our own image, than we are to see them conformed to Christ. Most of the time it is the case that we are so in bondage to our "freedoms" that we don't even see it, and thus we do not express the greatest freedom of all - the freedom to deny yourself, to relinquish your rights, the freedom to NOT claim your freedom - because you can, because you want to, and because your concern for showing love to God in this way far outweighs your need to hang on to your rights.

Indeed, is this not the picture of the Lord Jesus Christ's actions who, "...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross...."?

Let us then pray, and let us work, brothers and sisters, at taking these things to heart. May God be pleased to create within each one of us - no matter what our leanings and tendencies might be in these things - a heart that wants to build up the Body more than it wants to claim rights. May God increase our knowledge and understanding in these things and may He increase our desire to apply them lovingly. And while we are all waiting for each other to grow up, may God give us patience, and a kind spirit toward one another. And may He give us a renewed understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - which gives us all that we need - the desire and the ability - to put these things into practice.

Father we thank you for your Word and for these particular truths. Make them a part of who we are. Apply them in a lasting way so that they have a noticeable effect upon us, your people. In Jesus' name we ask it, Amen.


1. Please note: when Paul describes a Corinthian believer as "weak" he is not using that word in the same way that some might use it. In Paul's letter, the "weaker" brother is not the person with little or no conscience about things but is, in fact, a person with an extremely sensitive conscience about all kinds of things - a person with an overly sensitive conscience, with a conscience that was perhaps not as theologically and biblically grounded as it might be.

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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