In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 7:17-40. In this essay we are studying 1 Cor. 8:1-13, in which Paul takes up the next issue in the Corinthians’ letter. It has to do with food that had been sacrificed to idols.
Pagans sacrificed regularly at their temples. Some of the meat was burned on the altar, some was eaten by the person or family making the sacrifice, and the rest was eaten or sold by the priests For the Christians, the issue of food sacrificed to idols boiled down to a matter of Christian liberty. And in verses 1-3 Paul set forth his operating principle regarding Christian liberty, namely, love is better than knowledge.
As at the beginning of chapter seven, Paul begins chapter eight by quoting the Corinthians’ letter, “all of us possess knowledge.” The larger context suggests that this is a rebellion against Paul’s command that they must not participate in the sacred meals at the pagan temples. We will learn later in this letter that Paul did not object to eating meat that had originated at the temples (10:14-33). His objection was the participation in pagan worship, which was idolatry. The people causing this problem were claiming that because of their “knowledge,” they had the liberty to eat at the temples. After all, they knew that the pagan gods did not exist. Therefore, since the pagan temples were the restaurants of the day, they believed that they could go out to enjoy a meal at the temples.
Paul’s response to those opposing him is seen in verse two, “knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.” Paul was declaring that the Corinthians who held that view had placed their ethical thinking on an incorrect foundation. Christian behavior is not to be based on knowledge, but on love. You may remember that in the famous love chapter, chapter 13, Paul specifically says that love “is not puffed up.” Rather, as he says here, “love builds up.”
Verses two and three tell us that those who claim to know certain things simply demonstrate that they do not have the knowledge that they ought to have. The knowledge they ought to have is knowledge of God that comes from a love relationship with God.
Scholars generally agree that in 8:4-6 Paul once again is quoting the letter from Corinth: “no idol in the world really exits,” and “there is no God but one.” Of course Paul would have agreed with both of those statements. The problem was not in the statements themselves, but in the way the Corinthians were using them. As we have seen, the Corinthians believed that “knowledge” enabled them to eat in the pagan temples. After all, the gods represented by the idols did not exist.
But Paul’s view was more nuanced than that. Paul agreed that there is only one God and that the idols did not represent real gods. But he also believed in demons. And as we shall see in chapter ten, verses 19-21 (when we get there), Paul believed that the pagans were worshipping demons with their sacrifices. Furthermore, the pagans believed that their “so-called gods” were real. Therefore to worship with them at their temples, and to eat the meat of their sacrifices, was not appropriate for Christians.
In verse six Paul says several things about the one God. First, he is our Father. That language came directly from Jesus. Second, he is the one from whom all things came. Third, he is the one for whom we exist (NIV “live’). And fourth, Paul implies that the Lord Jesus is God. Notice that Paul declares that Christ, like the Father, brought all things into existence. And we exist through Christ just as we exist through the Father.
In verses 8:7-13 we see Paul applying the principle of love that he spoke about in verses 1-3. As we discussed earlier, some of the Corinthians were focusing on “knowledge.” They knew that the idols did not represent real gods. Therefore they believed that they had the liberty to eat meals at the pagan temples. But Paul pointed out that Christian behavior must be based on love, not knowledge. And in verses 7-13 he shows how that principle works in practical Christian living.
In verse seven Paul points out that not all the believers at Corinth have the “knowledge” that some of the others have. That is to say, they have not been able to shake free completely from the conviction that the idols represent real gods. It is a fairly complicated matter. They may have come to that conviction mentally, but not emotionally. Thus, as Paul puts it, their consciences were weak; and if they ate food sacrificed to an idol, their weak consciences were defiled. And they were in danger of spiritual destruction. Therefore the controlling principle was to behave out of love rather than out of knowledge
Paul’s use of the term “conscience” here is a bit difficult. I agree with Gordon Fee that the best understanding of Paul’s meaning is “moral consciousness.” Thus it is their moral consciousness that would be defiled. When they ate food that had been sacrificed to idols, they were in danger of reverting to paganism, which would defile their relationship with Christ.
Most scholars are convinced that the beginning of verse eight is another quotation from the Corinthian’s letter: “Food will not bring us close to God.” Once again Paul would have agreed with the statement. The point is that food has nothing to do with our relationship to God. Unfortunately, it is a theoretical point. It is true that one gains nothing by eating it, and loses nothing by not eating it. But as verses 9-11 show by concrete example, there is a practical issue that must be dealt with.
The concrete example used by Paul is the person of weak conscience that he mentioned previously. While eating at the pagan temples may be an exercise in liberty for the strong, it can be a “stumbling block” for those who are weak. In effect, Paul was warning the strong that the exercise of their “authority” or “freedom” could influence the weak to participate, which could result in the spiritual destruction of the weak.
Thus in verse 12 the truth that Paul’s earlier teaching that love rather than knowledge must control our actions becomes clear. What the strong Corinthians were doing was a sin against their brothers and sisters. And by sinning against them, they were sinning against Christ. Therefore in verse 13 Paul, in order to drive home his point, declares that he would refrain from eating meat altogether rather than be the cause of the fall of a weaker Christian.