1 Corinthians 8
But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn't really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. – 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 NLT
Our society puts a high priority on knowledge. So did the one in Corinth in Paul's day. Then, as now, knowledge was held in high regard. Education was important. It was and still thought to be a cure-all for all kinds of problems. It is often believed that education can solve everything from poverty to violence. More knowledge can empty out prisons and prevent wars, cure diseases, eliminate starvation and bring out the best in just about anyone. We blame a lack of knowledge for most of the world's woes. But knowledge has a way of puffing us up, inflating our egos and causing us to become prideful and arrogant. There is nothing wrong with knowledge, but it is far from the answer to the world's problems. It can actually become divisive and destructive. Which is exactly what was taking place in the church in Corinth.
Once again, Paul responds to yet another question the congregation had sent him in a letter. This one had to do with meat sacrificed to idols. To most of us, this chapter makes little or no sense. We have no context to which to compare this issue. And unless we do some digging into the historical nature of what was going on, this passage will continue to make no sense and will remain of little help. But Paul took what was a contextual problem, unique to the Corinthians church, and gave it a universal application. He dealt with a specific issue going on in the church in Corinth and provided a timeless lesson for congregations around the world and throughout history. In Corinth, the problem revolved around whether it was permissible for the believers to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The Corinthian believers, who all, for the most part, had come out of pagan backgrounds, were under the impression that they were perfectly free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. This had been a common practice for them when they were pagans, and they saw no reason to stop now that they had become Christians. They based their conclusion on a "special knowledge" that they had. This knowledge or understanding gave them the freedom to do as they wished, in spite of Paul's admonitions to cease and desist. Their knowledge was fourfold. They argued that they all knew that idols weren't real and so eating meat that had been sacrificed to them made no difference. They also "knew" that what we ate or drank didn't really matter to God. "It's true that we can't win God's approval by what we eat" (1 Corinthians 8:8 NLT). According to chapter 10, they also seemed to believe that their participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper gave them some sort of magical protection or freedom to do as they wished. Their God was more powerful than any other potential god. Finally, they had reached the conclusion, that because Paul did not agree with them, he probably wasn't really qualified to be an apostle in the first place. He was obviously not as knowledgeable as they were.
Paul goes straight to the problem at the very beginning of this section. He tells them "while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church" (1 Corinthians 8:1b NLT). For Paul, this was all about love, not meat sacrificed to idols. This was all about arrogance and pride. It was about self-centeredness and selfishness. These people were going to do what they wanted to do, without any regard to how their actions or attitudes might affect those around them. Paul agreed with them, that there was only one God and only one Lord, Jesus Christ. He conceded that there were no such thing as other gods. They were a figment of man's fertile and fallen imagination. But Paul also stated that not all believers in Corinth knew this. Many were still operating under the knowledge that while God was the superior God, there were other less significant, but nonetheless, real gods. So when they ate meat sacrificed to these idols, they were, in essence, worshiping these false gods. So while the more "knowledgeable" believers were able to eat the meat sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience, they were confusing the other believers and causing them to stumble. Paul said, "Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so then they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated" (1 Corinthians 8:7 NLT). He goes on to say, "For if others see you – with your 'superior knowledge' – eating in the temple of an idol, won't they be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been offered to an idol?" (1 Corinthians 8:10 NLT).
Then Paul brings this whole matter to a powerful conclusion: "And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ" (1 Corninthians 8:12 NLT). Wow! That's a strong statement. Just because we know that something is permissible for us, doesn't mean we have the right to flaunt our rights in the face of others. We can't allow our knowledge to trump our love for others. We have a God-given responsibility to protect those around us who are less knowledgeable or who might lack in spiritual maturity. Paul is saying that we actually sin against God and that person when what we do causes them to stumble or violate their own conscience. Jesus Himself said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Then He said that there was a second and equally important commandment – to love others in the same way we love ourselves. Our love for God and others is to trump our love of knowledge. We can be right and be totally wrong at the same time. I can know that what I am doing is entirely permissible for me and do it with a clear conscience. But if what I do causes a fellow believer to sin against his own conscience by following my example – I have sinned against Christ. I have forsaken the great commandment. I have chosen to love myself more than my brother or sister in Christ. Paul said "So if what I eat causes another brother to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live – for I don't want to cause another believer to stumble" (1 Corinthians 8:13 NLT). Paul will drive this point home later on in his letter in what has come to be known as the great love chapter. "If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:2 NLT). Knowledge without love is nothing. It puffs up. It makes us proud. It is destructive. But love never fails.
Father, teach us to love. We love to learn and we can become so proud about what we know, but if we fail to love, we have missed the point. May we learn to live out the Great Commandment and love You and others more and more with each passing day. Amen.