The study of 1 Corinthians is a particularly interesting study in that there are so many sections that have been misunderstood. Chapters 8-10 of this letter are also a section of this book that is misunderstood. I think if asked for a summary of chapters 8-10 the general consensus would be that it is about meat sacrificed to idols. With that lens we would likely ignore this section of the scriptures because we do not have this issue today. We do not have to worry about meat sacrificed to idols. We do not have to worry where our meat came from. Our meat comes from the grocery store. But this is not really what this section of 1 Corinthians is about. If the message of this section was simply that idols are nothing and it is okay to eat meat, then why are there three chapters devoted to this topic? The point is that the teaching is much bigger than meat and idols. While I think we do not understand the problem in this text correctly, we also do not understand what the big spiritual principles are. But let me also caution that the big principle is not Romans 14. Often this text is read in light of Romans 14 and dealing with people who are weaker. But Paul does not give an answer like Romans 14. In fact, he gives a very different answer than in Romans 14. So as we start this study of these three chapters of 1 Corinthians, I want us to try to erase any preconceived ideas about this text and read it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.
The Principle (8:1-3)
The first three verses establish the problem and the principle as this section opens. Paul begins by quoting what the Corinthians are saying, which is noted in most translations. The justification that the Corinthians are offering for their behavior regarding meat sacrificed to idols is that they have knowledge. We have knowledge. We know what we are doing. Since we possess knowledge we are able to do what we are doing. But notice how Paul responds to their declaration of knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge itself causes pride and arrogance. This is an important principle for our consideration. Knowledge is not the only factor. Having knowledge about something does not mean that the issue is settled. Knowledge can cause us to think and do things that are arrogant and proud.
Paul wants to destroy this kind of thinking even further in verse 2. If you think you know something, then you really do not know anything at all. Pride says, “I know” and thinks that it has full understanding. The spiritually knowledgeable know that they do not know. Knowledge is not the pure goal. If you think you know, then you really do not know. Think about how true this is in your spiritual journey. As we grow in Christ we begin to realize how much we do not know. When we were younger and spiritually immature things were more black and white. Things were obvious and we just knew. But then as we learn more and have the love of Christ develop in us, we see the truth of what Paul is saying. Knowledge breeds arrogance. Love builds up. If you think you know something, then you really do not know anything about what God is trying to teach you. The attitude of knowledge is disastrous. When we have the attitude that “we know something” then we do not know as we ought to know.
Rather than boasting in knowledge, the goal is loving God. Look at verse 3. “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” Knowledge does not make you known by God. Having the love for God that we ought to have is how we are known by God. Loving God is the focus for our lives because only then are we known by God.
The Problem (8:4-7)
In verse 4 we now hear the argument that the Corinthians were making. They were saying that they know an idol has no real existence and that there is no God but one. What they are saying is that idols are nothing. What they are saying is that they know there is no God but the true and living God. Idols are nothing. You will notice in verses 5-6 that Paul agrees with their knowledge. They are correct. There are all kinds of so-called gods. Whether these so-called gods are considered to be in heaven or on earth, they do not have an actual existence. For us, we understand that there is one God, the Father, and it is from him that all things exist and for whom all things exist. There is one Lord, Jesus Christ, and all things exist through him and through him we also exist (8:6). It is not idols or so-called gods, but the Lord Jesus and the Father who are the true God.
But notice what Paul says next in verse 7: not everyone knows this. People do not know this. Not everyone understands that those Greco-Roman gods are nothing. Not everyone knows that there is nothing behind the idols that are being worshiped. Because of their former association with idols they think that eating this food as worshiping real gods and idols. They think the idol is truly a god and by their actions they are wrecking a person’s faith. Now we have not seen what they are doing yet. Paul is just making the point that just because they have knowledge does not mean what they are doing is acceptable. Other people do not have this knowledge and their faith is being destroyed.
Please see this point in verse 7. We live in a time right now where when we think about being offended or defiled means that we do not like it. This is a false definition for life and a false definition in the scriptures. Being offended does not mean you disagree with something. An offense in the scriptures means that you are causing a person to sin. An offense or a stumbling block or a defiled conscience means you are causing a person to break God’s law. So what Paul is talking about is very serious. These Christians are causing the spiritual shipwreck of some people. But before he addresses this further, Paul takes on another motto of these Corinthian Christians.
The Real Issue Explored (8:8-10)
There is disagreement over how to read verse 8. Some things that verse 8 is Paul’s belief and some think it is what the Corinthians were saying. I believe the right way to read verse 8 is as another slogan of the Corinthians. In this section Paul seems to quote or reflect the Corinthian way of thinking and then he will make a contrasting statement. Paul will even agree with their knowledge but disagree with what they are doing, as seen in verses 5-7. Yes, we know there is one God. Paul agrees with the Corinthians. But he disagrees with their application in verse 7. I think the same thing is happening in verse 8.
They are saying that food does not matter before God. It does not matter if we eat and it does not matter if we do not eat. It sounds like something they would say. But the motto seems to be a little stronger than the renderings of the ESV, NKJV, and NASB. The Greek word that is translated “commend” in these translations is a word used for legal or social standing. It is the word used in Romans 14:10 that we “stand before” the judgment seat of God. So they are saying that that eating or not eating does not bring us close to God’s judgment. Paul may very well agree with this idea. But at look at what Paul says in verse 9.
You must take caution that your right and your knowledge does not push another person into sin. In verse 10 we see what Paul means and we finally read what the issue is.
For 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? (1 Corinthians 8:10 ESV)
The Corinthians were eating in an idol’s temple the meals that were offered there. The issue is not if the food was okay or not, but where they are eating the food. The issue is not just about meat bought in the market. In fact, that is not the issue at this point. The point is that they are eating food sacrificed to idols in a public feast, in a temple dining room, as a participant in an actual sacrifice. There is archaeological evidence that several temples in Corinth had dining rooms where feasts were held on many occasions. Temples were the restaurants of antiquity, according to Witherington.
So now we can see what the Corinthians are saying. They know that an idol is nothing. They have knowledge. They know that is no God but one. They know that an idol has no real existence. They know that food does not bring us under judgment. So how will Paul answer this knowledge? Continue reading verse 10.
Destroying Faith (8:10-13)
Paul says in verse 10 by eating in the idol dining rooms you are encouraging other Christians who do not have this knowledge that you have to participate in the pagan worship that is occurring. Therefore, you are ruining another person’s faith just because you have knowledge. Your actions are causing others to think that worship to an idol is acceptable. He does not know what you are doing or what knowledge you have. By causing other people to sin, you are sinning against Christ (8:12). Therefore, Paul lays out a Christian principle: if there is something I would do that would cause a person to sin, I will not do that action (8:13).
Now it is important to understand the flow of these three chapters to understand what Paul is teaching because this is not the end of the story. Paul’s point is not that these Christians were right in what they were doing by their knowledge but should not do it because it causes others to sin. In chapter 10 Paul will teach that what they are doing eating in the dining rooms is idolatry and sin. But we do not have time to cover that now. Paul’s point in these three chapters is this: in chapter 8 you must not participate in eating in the temple dining rooms because you are causing others to sin. In chapter 9 you must not use the rights you think you have because being a Christian is about surrendering your rights. In chapter 10 you must not eat in the temple dining rooms because it is actually idolatry.
But notice that Paul starts with love. You cannot exercise your knowledge in the way you are because you are destroying the faith of another person. Your knowledge is causing another person to directly violate God’s law. This is not Romans 14. This is not a person thinks he or she is sinning. Rather, the person is sinning by what you are doing.
The Big Idea
We have seen some really important principles taught by the apostle Paul in this chapter. Paul has taught that knowledge is not the primary ground for Christian behavior. What we are doing for the faith of others is an important consideration. Love for God and for others is an important component of our faith and how we make our life decisions. We must realize that not everyone possesses the knowledge we have. Just because I know something does not mean I can impose that on another and cause their faith to be destroyed. I cannot tell you how often I have seen this happen on some issue that is believed to be very important but the faith of others is damaged. There has been destruction over head coverings, Sunday night Lord’s Supper offerings, multi-services, use of the church building, and on and on. Our knowledge cannot be the only ground for what we say and do. Love for others must be the ground for what we say and do, aware of the faith of others and what we are trying to impose could do to them.
But I want us to trace the real big idea that Paul teaches here. What you believe in your heart and what you show by your practice cannot be differentiated. These Corinthians could not say in their minds that, “Food is nothing” and then eat in the idol’s temple because others think you are worshiping the idol and will fall into idolatry themselves (cf. 10:29). A good example of this idea is presented in a few places in the scriptures. Think about Daniel’s three friends. Why don’t they just bow down to the statue when King Nebuchadnezzar has the music play? They could just think in their mind that the idol is nothing, right? They could say that this is just a large statue of metal and it means nothing. They would be right, just as Paul affirms about idols to the Corinthians. But why will the three friends not do this? The answer is that what we believe in our heart and what we show by our practice cannot be differentiated. I cannot believe one thing and do another. If the friends believed in their heart that this was not an idol and bowed down, what would have the rest of the crowd and the king thought? They would have thought that they were worshiping the idol. We cannot communicate something that would cause people to sin but in our mind say that we think it is okay. This is why we cannot deny Christ in a time of persecution but in our hearts say that we still believe in the Lord Jesus.
Faith cannot be separated from our behaviors. We cannot believe something different in our heart than what we show in our actions. Faith and works always go together. This is like saying that a man and woman can live in the same house but they are not “doing anything.” Maybe you have the knowledge that you are not doing anything, but it looks like you are saying living together and sexual immorality are acceptable. The actions must reflect the faith. There cannot be a hidden faith that makes what looks blatantly sinful not sinful just because of your personal knowledge. What we believe is what we must display. Anything else is truly hypocrisy. We must live to the glory of God and not give cause for someone to continue in sinful behavior simply because we have some sort of knowledge. We cannot perform sinful actions with righteous knowledge. We must love the faith and consciences of others so that we are not causes to sin. Remember what Jesus said as we close:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! (Matthew 18:5–7 ESV)