1CORINTHIANS 8:1-13: QUESTIONS ABOUT MEAT OFFERED TO IDOLS
© Rosemary Bardsley 2015
In chapter 8 Paul addresses another question asked by the Corinthians: Is it right or wrong for Christians to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. His reply to this question extends over three chapters – from 8:1 to 11:1. The question involves two issues:
 Actual participation in feasts at which food was sacrificed to idols, then eaten. This was normal cultural practice – a social event. To separate oneself and not participate was to disrupt the accepted cultural and social norm, disturbing relationships within the community, creating division from neighbours and business associates. The question: should Christians participate in idol feasts?
 Some of the food sacrificed to idols was given to the pagan priests. What they could not use was sold in the markets. Anyone buying from the markets would have no idea which food had previously been offered to idols, and which had not. The question: should Christians eat this food?
It seems from what Paul says that the question the Corinthians asked him expressed a degree of arrogance based on the 'knowledge' some of them had, and that this arrogance was causing some of them to act without any loving consideration of their fellow Christians. The humility that should characterise those who believe in Jesus Christ was absent. A proud insistence on their 'rights' dominated their attitude. The fact that Paul's reply is so extensive indicates the seriousness with which he viewed their attitudes.
A. ABOUT 'KNOWLEDGE' – 8:1-3
It may be that the Corinthians' question to Paul included some reference to their 'knowledge'. Before he addresses the question about eating food offered to idols, he rebukes their attitude about their 'knowledge'.
'We know that we all possess knowledge' – verse 1. Every Christian knows many truths that unbelievers simply do not and cannot know.
Reflection: List some truths that Christians know that non-Christians do not know.
But this knowledge is a gift. It is just as much by grace as our salvation. Unless God had opened our eyes, and shone the light of his truth into our hearts and minds, we would not have this knowledge.
This knowledge ought never to be the basis of pride or arrogance; rather it should generate humility and compassion.
'Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up' – verse 1. Paul is not against knowledge. He has frequently, in this letter, reminded the Corinthians of what all Christians know, and how that knowledge should direct their lives. Paul also urgently prayed that believers would know the greatness of what God had done for them and how great was God's love and power active for them, and he revelled in his own knowledge of Christ and salvation. The Old Testament affirmed the importance of knowing God, and stated that knowing God was the only valid reason for human boasting.
But knowledge in itself can create arrogance. He has already in this letter rebuked them about their arrogance in relation to the teacher-based divisions in the church [4:6,18,19], and in relation to their tolerance of incest [5:2]. Their 'knowledge', or rather, the importance they placed upon their 'knowledge', has over-ridden the power and the meaning of the very truths they knew. The fact that they had knowledge was more important than the truth they believed.
Their arrogance about their knowledge destroyed the unity the truth created.
Their arrogance about their knowledge destroyed the purity the truth demanded.
Their arrogance about their knowledge was destroying the brother the truth required them to love.
Knowledge and love are not opposites. Knowledge of God's love is actually the source of the love God commands. But knowledge in itself, knowledge seen as a human achievement, knowledge perceived as a personal value, the fact that we know divorced from the truth content of our knowledge, is destructive. [Paul will mention this again in 13:2.]
The knowledge gained in the Gospel, rightly received, generates love for God and love for the neighbour. Wrongly applied, it generates an arrogant attitude – it puffs people up with their own importance and their own perceived rights. But love, the God-given purpose and result of knowledge, seeks to build up the Christian brother or sister.
Reflection: How should the knowledge of Christ and of your salvation in Christ motivate you to love your fellow believer?
'The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know' – verse 2. Again Paul's words affirm the necessity and value of knowing, while at the same time outlawing any arrogance about knowing. Paul uses two different words for 'know' in this verse. Firstly, he uses eido; then twice he uses ginosko. Vine points out that while ginosko suggests inception or progress in knowledge, eido (oida) suggests fullness of knowledge [Dictionary of New Testament Words, p298]. Paul, then, is saying 'The man who thinks he has complete knowledge, has not yet progressed in knowledge as he ought to have done'. The extent of his arrogance about his knowledge is actually parallel to the extent of his ignorance.
'But the man who loves God is known by God' – verse 3. The test of true knowledge of God is love for God. The presence of love for God is the important thing, not human boasting about how much they know. God does not look to see how much we know; he looks to see how much we love him, and that indicates how much we really know him. God knows, God had acknowledged [the verb is Perfect Tense, indicating a past action with still present effects] as belonging to him, those who love him.
Matthew 7:23; 25:12
B. ABOUT IDOLS – 8:4-8
Read 8:4-8. What does Paul teach about idols?
The question Paul now answers is 'What about food sacrificed to idols?' In answer to this question Paul states a number of truths that 'we' know [eido - verse 4] but 'not everyone knows' [literally 'has this knowledge' – gnosis - verse 7]:
 An idol is actually 'nothing at all in the world'. It has no real existence.
 There is only one God.
 There are many 'so-called gods'.
 For the Christian there is only one God, the Father, who is the source and goal of all that exists, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created and are sustained.
These truths rule out all reason for the fear or worship of idols. They are not gods. They did not create the universe. They do not sustain the universe.
But what all Christians have begun to know or are in the process of knowing, not all Christians have the full knowledge of that truth and its implications and applications. This inability to fully apply their knowledge about idols to their situations is due to their habitual mindset before they became Christians.
They were so accustomed to idols and the fear and worship of idols that to think any other way about idols required an extremely radical change of mindset. They had been brought up believing in the reality and the power of idols. They had lived their whole prior lives performing the appropriate sacrifices to their idols and engaging in the required rituals. All their social and business relationships had involved them in idolatrous practices. These values and perspectives had been their way of life. It was difficult to simply put it all aside.
Because they are still thinking in terms of the reality of the idols, their conscience is 'weak'. Their conscience has not yet been strengthened by the truth that only God is God. So when they eat the food that has been sacrificed to idols they experience guilt – they see themselves as having sinned by engaging in the worship of a false god.
In addition, hidden in Paul's statement about God as creator in verse 6 is a reference to the Gospel: 'there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom … we live'. While Paul's primary reference is to creation by God through Christ [which effectively rules out all idols], there is also in this 'through whom … we live' an acknowledgement that it is through Christ alone that we live – that we are raised from spiritual death to spiritual life, that we are by grace granted eternal life which replaces the condemnation and guilt of our sins. In succumbing to guilt when they ate food sacrificed to idols, the Corinthian brothers in question were failing to apply the Gospel of grace – that we are saved by grace, through the death of Christ, not by the correctness of our actions. This failure to apply knowledge rendered their consciences weak; they saw themselves as defiled by their actions, instead of seeing themselves clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
For this reason Paul makes his statement in verse 8 – not to validate or authorise anyone to eat food offered to idols, but to point out the wrongness of living with a conscience dictated by rules about food rather than by the Gospel, and the wrongness of making eating or not eating such food the basis for personal pride and divisions between believers.
C. THE MORE IMPORTANT QUESTION – 8:9-13
Far more important for Paul than the question 'Is is right or wrong to eat food sacrificed to idols?' is the question 'How will my action impact my fellow-believer?' Or, to put it another way: 'How can I best love my fellow believer?' The answer to this question determines the answer to the other question.
Read 8:9-13. How does Paul express his concern for the 'weak' believer, and why does such concern impact his decisions?
Paul has already raised the question of Christian freedom [6:12] and strongly taught that an arrogant attitude about Christian 'freedom' actually ends up with believers engaging in actions that are in conflict with their identity as members of Christ, the purchased possession of God, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit [6:15,16,19,20]. He now points out that such arrogance towards Christian 'freedom' ends up with believers causing harm to other Christians.
Paul defines this harm done to the weaker brother in three different ways:
 The strong believer's 'freedom' to eat food offered to idols becomes a 'stumbling block' to the weak [verse 9].
 Paul, describing this from the perspective of the weaker brother, teaches: the 'strong' brother, with his 'knowledge' of God and the Gospel, and his application of that to the question of food offered to idols, eats that food without any pangs of conscience or sense of having done wrong. The 'weak' brother, who has not yet applied his knowledge of God and the Gospel to this particular question, sees the strong brother eating the food, and also eats the food. But he, having done so, suffers great pangs of conscience. His sense of forgiveness is gone. His freedom from guilt has vanished. His peace with God is destroyed. All because the 'strong' brother with his 'knowledge' exercised his 'freedom' to eat the idols' food [verse 10,11]. From his personal perspective, this weaker brother has fallen into sin [verse 13] and, in his mind, is again trapped in sin's condemnation.
 The stronger brother has thus wounded the weaker brothers' conscience [verse 12].
Paul is extremely strong in his rebuke of the 'strong' Christians' expression of their so-called 'freedom' here. He calls it sinning against their weaker brother [verse 12], and he tells them that when they so wound their weaker brothers, for whom Christ died, they are sinning against Christ.
Christ died to set these weak brothers free from guilt and condemnation.
By exercising their perceived freedom the stronger brothers are putting the weaker brothers back under guilt and condemnation. They were, in terms of their impact on the weaker brothers' conscience, undoing the work of Christ.
They were, in their arrogance, not only despising their weaker brothers, but despising the work of grace Christ had done for these weaker brothers.
Paul's radical statement in verse 13 indicates the strength of his feelings on this matter: so intent is he to never cause a Christian brother to sin, that, he says, if what he ate caused his brother to sin, he would never eat meat again. [He will express similar sentiments over a very similar issue later in this letter.] Personal freedom ought never to be exercised if it harms a fellow believer.