Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 1 Corinthians 8:1
The apostle will get into the subject of food sacrificed to idols in verse 4. However, as he begins this chapter, he deals first with the subject of knowledge, which we might label as “false knowledge.” The Greeks were quite proud of their knowledge, and their philosophers at Athens spent a lot of time discussing the latest ideas (Acts 17:21). The statement, “we all possess knowledge” may well have been something the Corinthians were repeating among themselves.1 Paul is intent in letting some of the hot air out of their balloons.
The apostle makes clear that knowledge alone is never a safe thing. After all, it was knowledge that Eve was seeking in the Garden, and that brought about the fall of humanity (Gen. 3:2-7). Knowledge makes people proud and condescending toward others. It makes them hard and harsh in their dealings. It puffs people up and gets them all out of shape. Paul wants to make clear that knowledge must always be tempered by love. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Long ago Clement of Alexandria said: Love builds up. It moves in the realm of truth, not of opinion.” 2 Comfort says it simply, “Love outranks knowledge.” 3
The verb used for “builds up” is oikodomeō. The plain and simple meaning of this word is to build, or to build a house.4 It means to edify or to build up the household of Christ. It means to strengthen one another rather than to weaken and tear down.
“Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know” (8:2). The Corinthians should have known this. Their great philosopher Socrates had said it hundreds of years before, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” 5 Our knowledge is infinitesimally small when compared to the vast knowledge of God. When we realize this, we will no longer be proud, but will be brought down to the place of deepest humility.
“But whoever loves God is known by God” (8:3). The really important thing in true religion is not so much that we know God but that God knows us (Gal. 4:9; 2 Tim. 2:19).6 This can only happen if we know Jesus on a personal basis (Matt. 11:27). It is Jesus, the Son of God, who introduces us to the Father.
ABOUT FOOD SACRIFICED TO IDOLS
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 1 Corinthians. 8:4
As we look at this subject, we need to understand something about the background. Idols and idol temples were everywhere in the ancient world. Animal sacrifices were constantly being made to these idols. “In Corinth itself, there were no less than sixteen temples and shrines, some of which had dining rooms in them.” 7 So, we realize that there was always an abundant supply of meat available around the temples. There were public sacrifices and personal or private sacrifices. In the case of the private sacrifice, the animal was divided into three parts. A token part was burned on the altar; then the ministering priest got his share. Afterward, the worshipper received the rest of the meat. With his portion, the worshipper often gave a banquet for family and friends. These feasts could be in the temple itself or in the house of the worshipper. Barclay relates to us one of the ancient invitations to such an event. It reads: “Antonius, son of Ptolemaeus, invites you to dine with him at the table of our Lord Serapis [this was the name of the idol].” 8
Obviously, the priesthood of these idol temples received an excessive amount of quality meats, because people offered up their best animals to their gods. If the priest could not use all the meat he would send his portion to the nearby marketplace.9 Thus, the best and probably the cheapest meats were available in the markets around the pagan temples. Among the Christians, the obvious question arose as to whether or not it was permitted for them to buy such meat and further, if it was permissible for them to join in banquets given at the idol temples or in homes of pagan worshippers.
All this presented quite a social problem for the Christians. No doubt, many civic events, things like weddings, community gatherings, and banquets of all types happened at the idol temples. The pagan temples were thus like civic centers in ancient times. If Christians could not join in these events they were thereby cut off from most community activities. They might not even be able to attend some wedding receptions of family and friends. They might miss out on meetings of their trade guilds and so forth. Kretzmann sums it up saying, “the entire public and social life of the people of Corinth and of the citizens of all the large cities in those days was permeated with, and to some extent governed by, the worship of idols.” 10 To make matters worse, while the elite ate meat often, poorer people usually ate meat only when they attended a pagan festival.11
So, how could this serious social problem be resolved? Paul says, “An idol is nothing at all.” If we are trying to attain knowledge, this is one thing we can know for sure. The Jewish people well knew this and they repeated it daily in what is called the Shema. This is the passage from Deuteronomy 6:4, and it reads in Hebrew, “Sh’mah Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai echad” – “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The Jewish people knew that there was only one God. All other so-called gods were idols. They were simply “nothings.” There was no need whatever to fear them.
“For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (8:5-6). We see here that there were many so-called gods. It was reckoned by the Greek poet Hesiod that there were 30,000 of them.12 Paul concedes here that while these many idols were nothing, there was a spiritual power of evil that works in the world and in the idols (Eph. 6:12). Nevertheless, these spiritual powers are all subject and subordinate to the true God.13
This verse makes clear that the Father and Son are intricately related and are one (cf. Rom. 9:5; Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 2:5; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 2:10). Jesus was also the Father’s agent in the creation of the world and universe (cf. Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). Morris says here, “…clearly he is including the Lord Jesus within that one Godhead…” 14
OFFENDED BY FOODS
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 1 Corinthians 8:7
It is interesting that Paul refers to those who are offended with sacrificial food as “weak.” He does the same in the similar passage of Romans 14. In this Romans chapter Paul again identifies those who are offended as “weak,” and he places himself with the “strong,” or those who can eat anything. Paul says in this chapter, “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean” (Rom. 14:14). He also says: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” (Rom. 14:17). He also says in this chapter that just because we are strong we have no right to offend the weaker brother or sister (14:10, 19-21).
This is a serious matter for Paul and he actually continues this discussion off and on through the following chapters, all the way through 1 Corinthians 11:1. He teaches us that the individual conscience is very important and we must not offend the conscience of the weaker brother or sister. Coffman says, “When a man violates his conscience, he assaults the central monitor of his spiritual life; and regardless of whether or not the conscience is properly instructed, the violation of it is a spiritual disaster.” 15 In a sense, our great freedom ends precisely at the other person’s weak conscience (cf. 8:12-13).
“But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (8:8). Comfort says: “Food is neutral – neither good nor evil, regardless of whether or not it has been sacrificed in a pagan temple to an idol…food has nothing to do with one’s relationship with God.”16 Of course, this is a big change from the Old Covenant, where food was extremely important. Then, food was used for symbols, but today these symbols are fulfilled and have passed away into the reality of Jesus Christ.
It seems at first sight that Paul’s instructions here conflict with the decision of the Jerusalem Council, around AD 50. The instruction of this council regarding food sacrificed to idols is seen in Acts 15:29. The council had said simply, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols…” Guzik says: “Paul’s discussion of the issue here does not contradict what the Jerusalem Council decided in Acts 15. Instead, it shows that the Council’s decision was not intended to regulate all the church all the time; it was a temporary arrangement, meant to advance the cause of the gospel among the Jews of that day…” 17 Actually, there are many intricacies involved in the decision because of Jewish law and it is not likely that we can sort out all these today. It may be that James and the council had in mind eating only in the pagan temples. We may have to wait a while on this issue for our full understanding.
THE EXERCISE OF CHRISTIAN FREEDOM
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 1 Corinthians 8:9
Paul has made it crystal clear that idol meat is a nothing to the strong Christian. That one can eat it or not eat it, and is none the better or worse. The problem comes when the Christian brother or sister with a weak conscience observes that one eating such meat. The weaker person is then offended in his or her conscience.
Clearly, when we do such a thing we become a stumbling block (proskomma) to the other person. This word means to stumble or strike one’s foot.18 Barclay says, “What is safe for one man may be quite unsafe for another. It has been said, and it is blessedly true, that God has his own secret stairway into every heart; but it is equally true that the devil has his own secret and subtle stairway into every heart…Therefore, in considering whether we will or will not do anything, we must think not only of its effect on us, but of its effect on others as well.” 19
Today, we no longer have the problem of whether or not to eat meat offered to idols. However, we have a lot of other problems where we can easily offend the conscience of another believer. For instance, in the southern Bible Belt of the US, most Christians do not drink alcoholic beverages. It is absolute taboo to them. This is a local problem and Christians in many other parts of the world think nothing of drinking such beverages in moderation. In Israel, the Jewish people drink wine for many of their celebrations. They even give a taste of wine to their baby boys as they are being circumcised. We know from the Bible that Jesus drank wine (Mk. 14:25) and on one occasion even miraculously produced a very large supply of wine for a wedding celebration (Jn. 2:2-10).
Still, if I placed a bottle of wine on the table in the South, I would greatly offend most of those who saw it. Therefore, I will be cautious not to do such a thing. In another one of H.A. Ironside’s stories, he tells of a Christian picnic where some believer offered a Moslem convert a pork sandwich. He politely turned down the offer indicating that he could not eat pork. The believer chided the former Moslem, reminding him that he was now free in Christ from all these food restrictions. The convert assured the Christian that he was aware of his new freedom in Christ, but because of his family he did not eat pork. He knew that the first question his father would ask him was if the infidels had taught him to eat filthy hog meat. He would be able to say, “No, father, no pork has ever passed my lips.” In such a way this Moslem convert could retain admittance to his family circle and share with them the joy he had found in Christ.20
Jesus once spoke of the seriousness of offending a little one. “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble’” (Lk. 17:1-2). In Israel, there are some very large millstones. Some would weigh hundreds of pounds and would have to be turned by donkeys. We would not want to go swimming with one of those around our necks. This is how serious offences are in the eyes of God.
“For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? (8:10). Paul seems to be saying that we should tread softly and carefully regarding idol temples. Although it might be permitted for us to go to these places, still it would probably not be beneficial, especially so far as our witness is concerned. Some commentators feel that Christians should not visit the idol temples at all. Clarke asks, “Is it not strange that any professing the knowledge of the true God should even enter one of those temples? And is it not more surprising that any Christian should be found to feast there?” 21 Smith citing O’Connor says, “…Trying to discern whether temple meals were social or whether they involved worship introduces a dichotomy that is likely foreign to the ancient world, where the religious and social were intertwined.” 22
Along this same line, Macknight responds “Paul could not have meant that they had a right to eat of the sacrifices in the idol’s temple.” 23 Farrar adds: “To recline at a banquet in the temple of Poseidon or Aphrodite, especially in such a place as Corinth, was certainly an extravagant assertion of their right to Christian liberty.” 24 Morris says, “…Eating means ‘reclining at table; the man is taking his ease in a place dedicated to an idol.” 25
“So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. (8:11). The Greek word for destroyed is apollumi. Some commentators feel that this is not speaking of total and eternal punishment. Smith says, “Here Paul does not indicate that ultimate ruin will take place.” 26 Johnson is sure that it refers “to bodily perishing, not eternal perishing.” 27 Nevertheless, perishing bodily, mentally, and even physically is a very high price to pay for our so-called “liberty.” Chrysostom comments sadly, “That whereas Christ died for him, you cannot even lift a finger to help him in the slightest.” 28
SINNING AGAINST CHRIST
When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 1 Corinthians 8:12
Throughout this passage the apostle has been addressing stronger believers and urging them to be concerned about weaker believers. Coffman says, “Whatever is done to the church, even in the person of its weakest and most insignificant members (as men count insignificance), is done to Christ.” 29 After all, together we make up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). We cannot injure a member of the body without injuring the Lord himself.
“Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (8:13). Morris says, “The important thing is not his own rights, not his own comfort, but the well-being of the brotherhood…The principle laid down in this chapter is one of great practical importance.” 30 Paul is quite willing to go to extremes to protect others. He is willing to stop eating meat entirely if it is necessary.
Paul is by no means through with this subject. After the interlude of chapter 9 he will again take it up in the latter part of chapter 10. He will deal with the problem of buying meat in the open market, meat that may have been sacrificed to idols (10:25-26). He will also deal with the problem of being invited to a friend’s house and served meat that has been sacrificed to idols (10:27-28). Paul will give good, sound, and spiritual solutions to all these problems when he returns to them.