During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. This sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 8.
Words of Focus- “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” 1 Corinthians 8:1a
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we continue today with part 3 of a 4-part sermon series on 1 Corinthians, a letter that can cause some misunderstanding and confusion as to what in the world Paul is talking about, hence, the title of this series.
Let’s begin by reviewing the purpose of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was a church divided over many issues. Remember that they were all recent converts to the faith. Christianity had not been around for very long at all. Therefore, these Christians were wrestling with their new faith and the implications that it had for their everyday lives. 1 Corinthians reveals to us a people trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said that his followers should live “in the world, but not of the world.”
Throughout this letter, Paul encourages the church to greater unity with each other and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified- foolishness to the world, but to those who are being saved, the very power of God. For Paul, the cross changes everything. It changes how we think, how we act, how we talk, how we live. Paul uses the message of the cross to navigate through the many issues that the Corinthian Church was dealing with.
We see the implications of the cross in our reading for today from 1 Corinthians 8. The issue that Paul is dealing with in this chapter, and really, chapters 9 and 10 as well, is eating. In Chapter 7, Paul addresses concerns and questions about marriage and the single life. Now he is switching to another concern that the church had most likely written to him about. They wanted to know if they should eat food that had been offered to idols.
Now concerning food offered to idols… What exactly is going on in Corinth?
In the city of Corinth, there were many temples in which pagan ceremonies and sacrifices would take place. Many of the Christians in Corinth would have most likely participated in these ceremonies before they converted. Outside many of these temples, there were large courtyards and eating areas. The ceremonies and sacrifices would not take place in these areas. However, the food that had been offered as a sacrifice to the idols was served for people to eat.
Many of the Corinthian Christians, while not participating in the ceremonies and sacrifices, would have still been invited to these courtyards by their pagan friends for meals and even birthday or wedding celebrations. And apparently, many of the Corinthian Christians regularly participated in the social events in the temple courtyards, which would include eating the food served, food which had originally served the purpose of idol worship. Some Christians thought this was fine. They knew, they had “knowledge,” that the idols were false gods and figured that meat was meat. Eating that meat would not harm them. Others did not share that view. They thought that eating the food sacrificed to idols implied worshiping that idol. They were unable to separate the food from idol worship, and so when they participated or saw other Christians participating, it would cause their faith in the true God to be weakened or even destroyed.
The church was seeking Paul’s advice. How do we live in the world but not of it in this situation?
Right away, in verse 1, Paul lays the foundation for his response. “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. In other words, even though some of you Christians have more knowledge than others, your knowledge is causing you to be prideful and selfish to the detriment of the church. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. Paul is differentiating between selfish pride and sacrificial love. Love, in all cases, trumps knowledge, as Paul will make clear later in 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
What we see going on here in 1 Corinthians 8 is a discussion about Christian freedom. Because of Christ crucified, a Christian is free from the condemnation of the Law. The Law can no longer condemn them. But are there limits to Christian freedom? We know we are not free to sin, but what about those things that the Law does not forbid or demand? We see this discussion take place in several of Paul’s other letters, especially concerning circumcision. Was a Gentile Christian required to still be circumcised? Paul ruled “No.” A Christian is free to remain uncircumcised.
So many of the Gentiles in Corinth, those who had knowledge, argued that they were also free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. So keeping in mind this phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” let’s see what Paul had to say about this issue.
First, Paul affirms the “knowledge” of those who would eat the food sacrificed to idols. They argued that they could do so because they knew the idols were false gods. And Paul agrees with their knowledge. We know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
In other words, Paul does not have a problem with Christians eating food sacrificed to idols because those false gods do not exist and cannot exert and power. There is one God and one Lord. A Christian is indeed free to eat the idol-food on these grounds.
However, Paul continues, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. The “weaker” Christian is more easily offended by any participation in anything associated with paganism and idol worship. By eating the food, they would stumble in their faith and pick up their old pagan practices and beliefs.
Notice how Paul does not try to educate the weak so that they have all knowledge. “Come on! Quit being so weak, you big babies.” He knew that they were infants in the faith and needed to be treated as such. So he instead instructs all Christians, especially those who considered themselves wise or strong, to act in love, a love that builds up others in Christ.
Paul knows that “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Food or drink for those in Christ Jesus was a matter of no importance. But if a person’s faith was at stake, then Christians do not act according to freedom and knowledge, but rather, according to love. “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 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? Paul goes so far to say that a person who values his personal freedom more than his brother in Christ that he is sinning against him. He is being selfish and prideful. And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
Do you see how for Paul everything centers on unity in the faith, the body of Christ being built up? Paul then puts himself forward as an example. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. If Paul became aware that something as inconsequential as food was nevertheless ruining his brother, he would become a vegetarian for eternity. Why? “Because that’s my brother.” Without question, his brother’s eternal welfare is far more important than food.
Could you say the same? I already threw some of you off when I mentioned being a vegetarian. “Sorry, but if it comes down to my brother or sister in Christ or a bacon cheeseburger, I’m going with the cheeseburger.” But what can we learn from 1 Corinthians 8 since we obviously do not have the same issue regarding idol-food and pagan temples?
Well, I think we can go back to Paul’s foundational verse. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Rather than insisting on our own way out of selfish pride, perhaps a Christian’s first question before acting should not be “What am I going to get out of this?” but rather “How does this benefit my neighbor, especially my brother or sister in Christ?” Again, this is a radical change in thinking. This is foolishness to the world. Rather than seeking personal pleasure at all costs, a disciple of Jesus seeks the welfare of others at all costs, even if it means personal sacrifice on their part.
Martin Luther, writing on Christian freedom, put it this way. 1. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to all.” 2. “A Christian is a perfectly free dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Well which is it? It’s both. A Christian is not to take pride in their freedom or their knowledge and rub it in people’s face, but rather use that freedom and knowledge in love and service toward others.
Examples: A Christian is perfectly free to enjoy drinking alcohol; however, someone who works extensively with alcoholics would refrain from drinking in their presence, lest they cause their brother or sister to stumble. They would not throw their Christian freedom in their face. (I did make the point in my sermon that I would not apply the same principle to “teetotalers.” There is a huge difference between someone who wrongly interprets the Bible and an alcoholic.) You would not invite a gambling addict to accompany you to the casino.
This may sound just like common sense, so let me try this principle out. Just because you can do something, does not mean that you always should. And how do you determine whether you should or should not do something? Love for others is the guiding principle, not selfish satisfaction. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The Lord wants his church to be built up as a community, and that can only happen when its members display unselfish love for one another.
Such love will be patterned on the example of Christ who died for the weak. See here we are again, rounding back to Paul’s main theme: Christ crucified.
Paul doesn’t set out to prove his knowledge. “I decided to know nothing among you except Christ crucified,” he says. And “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ who provides the perfect example of one who is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. In the sight of God, there is no one who is more superior to anyone else. There is no one righteous, not even one. We are all deserving of God’s wrath and eternal punishment. All of us, in our original state of sin, had no knowledge of God. But he knew us. And he loved us, even though we are unlovable. God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Here’s the more amazing part: while we continue to sin and act selfishly and fight amongst ourselves, God still loves and forgives us through Jesus.
We are all in the same boat, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all sinners saved by nothing else but the amazing grace of God poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit through the death of Jesus. It is that knowledge, the knowledge of God’s unconditional love for you and for all people, the knowledge of Christ crucified for you, which inspires your loving attitude toward others. It’s all about Christ crucified. If Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for the weakest brother, shouldn’t you be willing to forgo certain luxuries out of loving consideration for your brothers and sisters?
That is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 8. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Let us pray: Lord God, once again we are challenged by your words for us today. We see that without your help and strength and your grace, we are nothing and can do nothing right. Send us Your Holy Spirit to encourage us and enable us to love sacrificially as you have loved us through Jesus. Keep us from selfish pride and build us up into a church known for its love. Amen.